Jason Rubin is the head of content for Oculus and, as the co-founder of Naughty Dog and a creator of three decades’ experience, has the kind of industry pedigree that demands respect. With the launch of the new Touch controller the Oculus Rift is moving from a piece of developer equipment to a consumer proposition, accompanied by a new store and a slew of Oculus-funded software. I sat down with Rubin to discuss where he sees VR and Oculus now, and where it’s going.
Beforehand I’d browsed the VR titles currently available on Steam and found a very mixed bag - judging by the reviews, early users weren’t happy either. Is this just a teething period for the tech, and is Oculus prepared for a similar reaction to its own software?
“Well Steam has a different policy than we do,” says Rubin. “In our store we focus on comfort and we focus on quality, and so we accept a lot less. And I think additionally, as Mark Zuckerberg said at our OC3 conference, we’ve spent over $250 million on software so far. So when it comes to something closer to a full-size game - I’m not saying it’s Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto yet, but when you’re talking about something closer to AAA, most of those titles are on the Oculus platform because my content team at Oculus has spent millions and millions of dollars funding those titles.”
“So I don’t think you can get an accurate read of what’s in our store from someone else’s store. Very different strategies, very different ways of operating, very different types of software. There are many things out there that we rejected in our store that show up in other stores, flat-out rejected.”
Fair enough, but one similarity is the general concept behind many of these titles. From a strategic point of view the Facebook acquisition has given Oculus an enormous war chest to build VR experiences - and so I’m surprised to see a lot of traditional genres being ‘ported’ to VR. Are first-person shooters with Touch really the future of VR games, or just a temporary hangover from where we are with the mainstream non-VR industry?
“The answer is yes and no,” says Rubin. “When I started my job I was told, ‘Listen, you have three months to bring out Gear VR titles for Innovator Edition. You have less than a year to get fully functional Gear VR titles out for the full consumer launch. And you have about a year and a couple of months to get ready for the launch of Rift,’ and it turned out about, you know, almost two years to get ready for Touch launch. But this all happened sequentially. If you look at the average console title, the average console title takes over two years now, often three or more years. So even if I had started day one on a title I could not have built the scale of a console title, regardless of how much money I had, because you just can’t do it, right?”
“So on top of that you have the challenge, ‘What am I going to build?’, and the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘I’d love to do something like a first-person shooter. I know first-person shooters work, I know we’ll have Touch controllers, or even if we don’t, Damaged Core, which was one of our highest rated games, [shows] people like first-person shooters. I only have a year to make these games. I can envision most of what a first-person shooter would be like. Still a large learning curve, a third, a half the time we’d have for a console game, but at least we know fundamentally what a first-person shooter should look like. Let’s go.”
So what we’re seeing in the first wave of VR is (largely) what developers and Oculus knew was currently realistic. But there’s another issue here, as expressed by Day Z developer Dean Hall in a recent Reddit post called The Hard Truth About Virtual Reality Development. Many developers are financially unable to participate in this ecosystem - because, as Hall says, “there is no money in it. I don’t mean ‘money to go buy a Ferrari.’ I mean ‘money to make payroll.’”
I spoke to Rubin before Hall’s comments were made, but I did ask about the current reality of VR development and what Oculus is doing to enable developers to create that breakthrough title. Beyond even this, what does Facebook’s involvement mean for Oculus beyond it being an enormous source of capital?
“Developers will say, ‘You know what we really should be doing? We should be doing something that nobody has ever seen or heard of before,’ and many of them will fail, just like many games fail, but some of them will become the next first-person shooter. When 3D gaming started twenty-some odd years ago, John Carmack [...] made Doom, and he kept going, and that was the spark of genius that created a genre that before that didn’t exist.”
“And I think that exact same thing is going to happen in VR. Mark Zuckerberg from the beginning has said, ‘This is the next computing platform, but it’s not the next computing platform next year, it’s not the next computing platform in three years. It’s going to take time for us to bring it there.’ We all believe in it fundamentally. We still believe in it. And we’ve taken massive steps since the day that, you know, Palmer Luckey first put cellphones on his face, to the DK1, to the DK2, to the CV1, Rift, to Touch controllers. Think of what’s happened in, like, two-and-a-half, three years. The next three years you’re going to see quantum leaps in software, and the questions you’re asking will answer themselves.
“Take The Climb, a mountain-climbing game, I do think that’s something totally different. Is that the end state? Absolutely not. But that was a step to do something that had never been done before, that touches a lot of people in a way that they had never been touched before in games. It’s one of our most popular games, one of our most demoed and replayed games. We get the analytics back. There’s going to be more and more of that. And 15 years from now, what’s it going to be like?”
Our own Julian Benson thinks The Climb is the best argument for VR yet. And I have found more experiental implementations to have a bigger impact than traditionally game-y VR titles - the shift in perspective with things like Google Earth VR is incredible. And what’s most interesting about this is that the lower-end VR devices can handle these kinds of things quite nicely, while the Oculus and Vive are currently much more gamer-oriented.
“Well everybody’s different,” laughs Rubin. “And if you look at the platforms we’re working on, when you talk about Rift generally speaking the person who owns a Rift is a gamer. You know, it’s an expensive PC with a very high-end graphics card in it.
“If you look at the Gear VR, if you already have the cellphone, a lot of people get them free. There we’re seeing an utterly different use case. There the Google Earths of the world are far more compelling to people. They’re watching a lot more video. They’re doing things like short horror experiences, putting the headset on their friends and videotaping them jump when something happens. One of our most successful titles is Face Your Fears, people are just eating it up.
“They’re different worlds because they’re at different price points. In the long run, both of those markets merge into one device at some point. When Mark Zuckerberg talks about the next computing platform, he doesn’t mean gaming platform. He means computing platform, like your cellphone. Some people game on their cellphone. Some people don’t game on their cellphone. Some people use it for calendar, some use it for Uber… whatever it is, it all works out and the hardware creates the possibility for all those things to exist. VR is going there.”
This is a great pitch for the future, but in the present there’s a question about whether VR’s hitting at a bad time for consumers. As AAA retail has been demonstrating, people just don’t have much spare cash at the moment - and if this first generation of VR ‘fails’, it may not be because the audience isn’t ready, but just that they can’t afford it.
“In Silicon Valley I’ve heard people say the same thing many times and attribute the saying to various people, someone very smart said ‘You can either pick a trend or you can pick timing. You cannot pick both.’ And I believe that we’re picking the trend. We believe VR is going to be the next computing platform. But it’s very hard for us to know, is it three years, is it five years, is it seven years. I don’t know that.
“I have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. I’m absolutely positive that part of her education by the time she’s in high school will be VR. I am absolutely positive that she will be speaking to her friends socially in VR. I am absolutely positive that VR will be a big part of her life, whether she cares about games or not. Early indications are she got it from her dad, yes, but who knows what’s going to happen in the long run. I can pick that because she’s got a lot of life left in her. Can I pick next year, the year after, the year after that? I don’t know. But the hockey stick [a sharp uptick in growth as viewed on a graph] will happen, just like it did with mobile phones, just like it did with 3D and CD-ROM.”
This will happen, presumably, when all the factors that Rubin is discussing - the magic software, the form factor, and the pricepoint - converge and make the technology’s upsides and utility irresistible. This is the value in being owned by Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg has extremely deep pockets, and this investment is a long-term one. How much runway does Oculus have?
“The answer to that question is Facebook plans to make this work,” says Rubin. “Mark didn’t believe it was going to happen this year in any way. Nobody at Oculus believes it’s going to happen now. Trends come, trends go. I don’t even know if 2D console gaming is down, but I do know I sold Naughty Dog and left because I was doing the same thing over and over again. VR is an utterly different developing experience, which is why it’s been so easy for us to attract big developers, and it’s an utterly different gaming experience.”
“Right now price point is high. It’s going to be something that core gamers are doing. Three, four, five years from now, who knows what’s going to happen, but it’s a new experience they haven’t done before. It’s not Whatever Your Favourite Game Is 7. It’s new things. And I think it’ll do just fine. I can tell you this. I will sit here and bet any amount of money that gaming is not going away, and that new experiences are not going away, and that technology will bring the price point down.”
Meantime we have Oculus as it is - an incredible piece of technology, that offers unique experiences, but with a hefty price tag. For Jason Rubin, it’s also worth one big and bold ending statement.
“The beauty of VR, and [Oculus Chief Scientist] Michael Abrash does a much better job of explaining this than I do, is it really is the ultimate platform. There is no platform after it. AR and VR I kind of wrap together. It’s either you have blackness or not. But in a perfect world of VR, the Holodeck, anything that you desire could be created so there’s nothing beyond that. So as VR gets better, it opens up the world of opportunity. And so that’s where we all believe it’s going. Again, not this Christmas, not next Christmas, but it’s coming.”