Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook wants to reach a goal of getting a billion people into virtual reality. Speaking at the fourth annual Oculus Connect event, he said that Facebook is moving VR in that direction with new models such as the $200 standalone VR headset Oculus Go and the upcoming wireless version of the Rift, dubbed Project Santa Cruz. VR’s fate likes in these new devices, as the industry fluctuates between optimism and despair.
Jason Rubin, head of studios at Oculus, believes that games will be as necessary as new hardware to enticing new people into VR. That’s why Oculus is working with Titanfall maker Respawn Entertainment to create a major VR game coming in 2019. Rubin said that Respawn’s interest in VR shows that the most successful game developers are getting excited about making VR content. Oculus is funding Respawn’s game, and Rubin says it will be a huge effort.
I sat down with Rubin at Oculus Connect. We talked about the Respawn deal, the new hardware, the pivoting that some game developers are doing to avoid being too dependent on VR, and the audience that Oculus is going after with the Rift VR headset.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I already made the mistake of assuming Titanfall was going to be a VR game.
Jason Rubin: Right. They referenced Titanfall, but it’s not a Titanfall property.
GamesBeat: It’s a new IP – not Star Wars, not Titanfall. What made you guys decide to match up with them?
Rubin: Personally, I’m a big fan. A lot of the studio is. I love all developers. I said that about Dante today and I meant it. But there is this feeling that a certain scale of developer isn’t in the business. Generally speaking, that’s because the biggest developers and publishers have billion-dollar franchises that they’re constantly laid on trying to get out. You know how the business works. It’s not lack of interest.
We’ve been talking to Respawn for a long time. The interest has always been there. They just needed the opportunity. The opportunity came together. We can’t be happier about working with them. They are highly motivated, as you heard in the video, to make the best possible VR experience. This is what they got in the business for, just as I got in the business – to put people in worlds.
Beyond that, we need to wait, or you should talk to Respawn. Unfortunately it’s one of those announcements where we can announce the partnership, but we’ve decided it’s too early to get too specific about what they’re making. I will say, it is a major partnership. This is not a side project for them. It’s not a minor 15-people-on-the-side thing. They’re really excited about VR.
GamesBeat: And you’re publishing whatever it will be?
Rubin: Yeah. It’ll be similar to our Lone Echo, Robo Recall, that kind of relationship.
GamesBeat: How did the conversation you? Were they already interested, or did you talk them into it in some way?
Rubin: I haven’t had to talk a single developer into developing for the platform. My team has simply had to create a financial framework and other frameworks that work for developers. I’ve been saying this for years. I wanted to make movies when I was seven years old. I saw Star Wars and I wanted to make movies. I asked my father for a video camera, but at that time it was like $10,000 and it fit on your shoulder. There was a spiral cord that fit in a full DVR that you strapped across your shoulders. He was like, “You’re a kid. There’s no way I’m getting you this.” Eventually I got him to get me a computer.
My goal was always to create worlds like Star Wars. I wanted to be like George Lucas. He created this fantasy universe that was so amazing. You could like him or Tolkien or whoever, but the idea was, create this alternate universe. The problem was, you were never really putting people in the universe. You could tell a fantastic story. You could give them great challenges. But it was through a window.
All of us – Hollywood, game industry – want to put you in our work. VR allows that. I don’t have to convince developers to do it. They’re always on projects, though, especially the biggest ones. They’re always behind deadline. That’s just the way it works. You have to find the right opportunity. There was no time where we tried to apply leverage or otherwise—it just had to be the right time.
GamesBeat: It’s going to take until 2019. Does that tell us that’s a triple-A project?
Rubin: It’ll be one of our largest productions, if not our largest. These things take time, as you know, especially at the quality level that a studio like that insists upon.
GamesBeat: Are there some good things you can assume about the market by that time? There’s going to be a lot of headsets in place? Maybe better hardware tech than there is today?
Rubin: If anything, this is an indication of our dedication to the Rift. This is a Rift product. We believe the market for a $399 full-time headset, with PCs coming down in price continually—the marketplace will be very different in that time scale, yes. Will we get to Mark’s billion units? Not by 2019. But we’ll be in a very different place than we are now.
Keep in mind, depending on when in 2019 it is – again, there is only so much I can say – that could be farther from today than Rift has been in public existence. That’s how far away that is, depending on when it is.
GamesBeat: Do you want a bunch of projects like this?
Rubin: Of course. We have not announced everything at this show. You can never do that. You never want to do that. We have, as you know, a constant stream of trade shows and other events where we want to make sure we’re announcing something new. There’s plenty more coming.
GamesBeat: Announcing this one, though, has meaning because it can spur more of these kinds of things?
Rubin: Absolutely. Although I will say, at some point you run out of developers. People keep saying, when are the biggest developers coming along? Who haven’t we hit? It’s getting down to one hand, right?
GamesBeat: You have Bethesda entering the VR market.
Rubin: Well, Bethesda is in the—they are working on stuff on other platforms. One thing is how many things are coming to the Oculus platform. That obviously matters. The second thing is, how many developers are coming to VR? In some ways that’s really the more important question. There are going to be relationships between hardware manufacturers and developers. Getting the developer interested, getting the publisher interested in VR, is in some ways a bigger win than getting it for you.
Ubisoft, clearly in the market. Zenimax and Bethesda, clearly in the market. Rockstar has announced LA Noire. That’s Take-Two putting one of their bigger projects in there. EA has done stuff. Nothing huge announced that I know of now. You may know more than I do. Activision. But again, you’re getting to the point where there are fleetingly few to hold up and say, “See, they’re not all in.” Six months ago, sure. But it’s getting harder to find developers and publishers that aren’t in this marketplace.
The other thing is, once they do it, as you saw with the announcements we made today with Ready at Dawn, they tend to stick with it. Once you catch the bug, you’re infected.
GamesBeat: Are we in a certain stage of the oft-quoted “trough”?
Rubin: It’s hard to say. What I will say about VR that, to me, is extremely interesting—a lot of other revolutions have been driven by the consumer adoption. When the iPhone was launched, there was no App Store. By the time the App Store launched a year later, a lot of people had the hardware, so it made sense. You look at Facebook’s gaming division. A huge number of people were on Facebook, so they opened up the game division. The audience was there, so the development community came.
In some ways VR is the opposite. The development community is so excited by the potential of the hardware and the potential of the systems that they’re saying, “I am going to lead the customer into this marketplace. What’s important to me is my art. What’s important to me is the future. I’m willing to put aside the naysaying. The trough is not important. I believe, as a developer, that we’ll pull out of that.” I think this is going to be a developer/publisher-led revolution. Mainly developers.
GamesBeat: Is it good for you guys that some are figuring out how to do things like—Playful is taking Lucky over to Xbox One. They could probably sell more units there. It makes them more viable as a company.
Rubin: Absolutely. I would never begrudge a developer a business. Whatever makes sense for them makes sense for us.
GamesBeat: It’s good to have development happen on VR and have that content go elsewhere?
Rubin: Developers will go back and forth. In some ways it’s like TV and film for a director. It’s different mediums, different restrictions and relationships, but they’re both interesting. It’s quite possible that it will continue that way even if VR becomes a very large market. We come out of the trough and see everything we’re predicting, but there’s still a world where 2D games make a lot of sense for a lot of people. They’re not going anywhere any time soon. There will be developers that go across both platforms, just like there are developers that love mobile, but also love consoles and PC, and they work in both.
GamesBeat: How do you look at your strata of products now? Gear VR and Go and Santa Cruz and then Rift. Is there a way of describing what kind of content is going to go where?
Rubin: Different sections of the company would answer that question differently depending on what they’re focused on. I’m focused on the consumer, what the consumer gets, and what developers will consider. To me, the question revolves around, fundamentally, what are the degrees of freedom in the input device on the platform?
Oculus Go and Gear VR are very similar to each other in some ways. They’re similar in that they’re both three degrees of freedom headsets and they have similar input devices. The type of experience you build will be similar across the two of them. Oculus Go has a lot of advantages, but from a software standpoint, similar software.
Regardless of whether there’s mobile hardware in the Santa Cruz prototype, I find it closer to Rift than other two. Because it has the six degrees of freedom, because it has the six degrees of freedom headset, the experiences will tend to be a lot more like Rift. It opens up a Rift-like world. Even though the hardware may have a different chipset–certainly it won’t be a Windows device when you’re talking about the Santa Cruz prototype. But that, to me, is less relevant than the fact that Dead and Buried works on both. Dead and Buried is a very different game when you’re playing it on Gear VR. There is a Dead and Buried on Gear VR, but it’s not the same Dead and Buried. You can make an extremely similar Dead and Buried on the Santa Cruz prototype compared to Rift.
That’s mentally how I classify it. Other people would talk about things like portable or not portable. There are many ways of slicing it. But from my perspective as a content creator, that’s how I look at the world.
GamesBeat: Intel showed off their WiGig demo, the wireless headset getting images from a PC. That seems like another way to do it.
Rubin: To me that’s a tweak like higher-resolution screens. It’s nice. It has a price. You might want that or you might not want that. A $399 price point is pretty compelling. If you want to spend a little extra money to get rid of the cable, why not?
GamesBeat: There isn’t yet something that’s emerging as the ideal platform, do you think? There’s still a lot of experimentation and testing of what consumers are going to go for.
Rubin: I think that’s a fair statement. That will probably continue for a while. When I said there’s infinite potential in VR — and it’s been compared to a lot of things, by the nature of what I said, don’t have infinite potential – I’ll give you an example. I continually read 3D TV comparisons. Is it going the way of 3D TV? To me that’s like saying this is an orange, so Ferraris won’t work. It’s such an unbelievable difference that the comparison makes no sense.
When you look at a 3D TV in a store, you can say, “I get this.” You wear glasses or you don’t. It takes the shows you’re well aware of. It won’t change the shows at all. It’ll put them in some sort of stereo. That’s it. I can make a decision at that point. Do I or do I not believe that seeing the same show I already watch in stereo is worthwhile? The decision the consumer made was no.
When you look at a VR device, and then you look at my four-year-old daughter and what she will experience at your age from a VR device, there is no binary, “Do I like or not like this?” They may look like your glasses by the time you’re that age. Who knows? The infinite potential is that the technology is so early, but the amount of movement forward–Lighter? Smaller? Can we get the inner ear to believe it’s moving? Can we have hand tracking? Can we track feet? The amount of future in that is so infinite that it’s like looking at the first tablet — I don’t know what that would be. It would be before the Newton. You probably covered it – and saying, “Nobody’s going to use these touch screen things.”
GamesBeat: Are you tackling the hardcore gamer first, or the casual gamer?
Rubin: It really depends on the platform. We like to put out a large breadth of content wherever we are. That doesn’t only mean games. That means a lot of non-games. If you look at the announcements today, Coco is not a hardcore game. It’s not a game, really. It’s a social experience. There’s already, even on PC, a breadth of experiences.
If you look at the underlying technology, they tend to come with a type of customer. People who have 970-equivalent graphics cards right now tend to be hardcore gamers, if they have them in their homes as opposed to using them at work. Therefore, the type of content you make for that market is different. You’re going to tend to focus on the people who are most likely to buy your headset, for now. But remember, those price points are coming down continually. A 970-equivalent graphics card in five years, that could be anyone who walks into Best Buy.
When you talk about something like Gear VR, it’s a much more diverse crowd. We spend more than 50 percent of our time and energy on that marketplace, outside of games. Then, generally speaking, far more casual for whatever we’re doing.