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Oculus head of content Jason Rubin on righting Rift’s troubled launch, and the holy grail of first-person shooters in VR

Jason Rubin VR Gamescom 2016 interview

Jason Rubin, like Oculus colleague John Carmack, has had a significant say in how the games industry progressed over the last twenty years. When Carmack was enjoying the success of Doom, Rubin spent the nineties with his studio Naughty Dog pushing 3D platformers forward, one colourful protagonist at a time. He headed THQ for a bit too, but we don’t mention that when we sit down with him to talk about the future of VR. It’s a broad topic, after all, that hardly bears diversions to UDraw. So, what comes first: the massive IPs launching on Oculus, or the massive user base to entice that massive IP’s developer? And will the European launch go smoother for the Facebook-owned VR platform than its earlier US launch? Rubin is here to give a state of the union on virtual reality.

Already bought into the world of expensive goggles? Try PCGamesN’s favourite VR games

PCGN: How do you perceive the success of Oculus, and VR in general, since launch?

Jason Rubin: Well it hasn’t even been – what, six months? So we’re not even at a year yet. I think we’ve had a very successful launch. We certainly had a hiccup around shipping that I think we did a good job of making up for with the free shipping. I think that is now behind us. But our reviews, as far as consumers are concerned, have been really, really good. If you go on Amazon, you go on Best Buy, the people who buy the device are reviewing it very well. And I think the overall feeling in the industry is that VR is real, it’s here to stay, and that was our other goal, was to launch with something very solid.

We are moving now into Europe. We have our European retail launch coming September 20th, we’re going to start demoing Touch in October. We are going to launch Touch by the end of this year, we’re still on track to do that. At that point we will have a fully functional Battlestar, if you will. We will have all the pieces we need to go into 2017 and have an incredibly successful year of hand-tracked, head-tracked launch. So I think we’re in a really good position. I also think we have some of the best software in our store and on our platform, I’m extremely excited about Wilson’s Heart. There’s things we haven’t shown yet, which are really awesome, that we’ll be showing shortly. I feel good about the software, I feel good about the hardware, I think we’re in a great position going forward. On top of that, [Samsung] Gear VR is at a million monthly active users, doing incredibly well. Gear VR 2.0 is about to come out, it’s an improvement on the headset, it’s 99 bucks, [with] a great library of software. We have entry-level VR covered, I think we have high-end VR covered, I think Oculus is in a good position.

Oculus Rift

As a member of the press, there’s a sense that VR exists in kind of two separate channels. We come to the trade shows and we get the demos and everyone’s blown away by it. Then there’s a different reality for the consumers, because they don’t get the Touch controllers we’ve played with and had around for ages. Do you feel like there might be a disconnect between how it’s reported on and the user experience?

Well, consumers do have the headset, and that’s what they’re reviewing on Amazon and Best Buy and those reviews are very good. I do believe that yes, saying we’re victorious in Touch would be premature because that hasn’t been reviewed by the consumers. But I’m confident come the month or two after launch that you’re going to see [that] online reviews, and Reddit, and everyone else will be extremely excited about how well Touch has delivered on the promise of ‘getting hands’. So we are rolling out, but I think again going into 2017 we’ll be fully functional and there won’t be any reason to say that there’s a disconnect between what the consumer gets and what the press gets, it’ll all be out there online. And today you can [buy an Oculus Rift] in two to four days online, or you can walk out of a store in the United States with a kit that day from Best Buy. So we are fully purchasable. We are real.

The shipping issues – the anger seems to have only just died down for some people. Are you confident that the European launch will go smoother?

Yes. We’ve learned a lot, we’re going to deliver. One of the reasons we waited until now is because we wanted to make sure that our European launch was extremely strong. That when we do demos in the stores, we have kits to deliver to people if they want them coming out of those demos.

I’ve played quite a lot of VR over the last couple of years and a lot of it has really impressed me. But I still wonder about the possibility of immersing yourself in VR for hours and hours at a time as people do with video games in general. And I know that some people do it but it strikes me that it’s probably not for everyone. How do you think about that at Oculus?

Well, it really depends on the title. The best example I can give is a Fruit Ninja game in VR. It’s not on the Oculus platform right now but it is out there, and you’re slicing fruit. And you would think ‘Okay, I got my touch controllers, I’m slicing fruit, how hard can this be?’ but fifteen minutes in you’re sweating up a storm, because not all of us are ninjas, right? And Dead and Buried, which is a game we’re showing on the floor in our other booth, is a shooting game and half an hour into that, man, you’re sweating, because you’re jumping down and shooting, it’s intense. Games like that are going to be far more intense than the average game you can play sitting back with a beer on your stomach on the sofa.

Having said that, there are games in VR that we’re shipping right now that you can play in that fashion. Elite: Dangerous is a perfect example of a game that you can play for a huge amount of time. [American/European] Truck Simulator, another game you can play for a huge amount of time. Chronos, we’re seeing very long play sessions in Chronos. Defense Grid too, massive play sessions. Above an hour on average when people go into Defense Grid is what we’re seeing. So will people be playing for multiple hours? As the games get deeper, I am confident there will be games they will be playing for multiple hours. Will they be playing highly athletic games for multiple hours? I hope so – but I just don’t think that we’re in the shape to do it as a species. Maybe we will get in shape, and maybe that’s a good thing that comes out of VR, but there are just going to be some things that are short and intense, and that’s fine. No one plays Dance Dance Revolution for six hours in a row but it’s still a good game.

Oculus Rift

The concern is that it feels like there’s a cycle that somewhere needs to start. The headsets need to be successful enough for the biggest game makers to make games for them, but for the biggest game makers to make games for them, they need to be successful enough. Where does that start?

That starts with Oculus funding higher and higher budget titles. That is why Oculus funds the titles you see in front of us. If you look at the PC, the PC has taken 35-40 years to mature to the state that it’s in today. I was making Apple 2 games before there was a PC and shipping them in ziplock bags- this is literally true- to consumers. There was a small consumer base, it was very geeky to own an Apple 2, but I was making games that people would buy, and that made more people interested, and they bought more computers, and slowly but surely you get bigger games and bigger games and bigger games and now Grand Theft Auto’s a $250 million game, comes out across multiple 2D platforms, does incredibly well. The ecosystem is there. That has taken decades. Crash Bandicoot cost $2 million, Jack and Daxter cost £14 million. I’m not at liberty to say what the Uncharted titles cost, but they cost a hell of a lot more. And Naughty Dog, the company I founded, over the years, [produced] bigger and bigger titles because we had that bigger and bigger audience.

Now we could wait decades for that to happen in the VR industry, or Oculus, backed by Facebook, could make bets on games that can’t really be profitable with the install base we have right now, but can drive people to say, marginally, ‘I’m gonna buy this kit, because they have the game I want to play’. Which means that the developers can then say – generally indies but bigger and bigger developers – ‘Now there’s a big enough market there, I’m going to make the idea I have’ then people say ‘The idea that they had, is something I want to buy’, and will kickstart that process of growing the industry to the point where the bigger players can get in. Now having said that, Ubisoft is shipping – I think I’ve announced three projects now in VR – between Star Trek, Eagle Flight and Werewolves Within. So Ubisoft, one of the biggest five players, six players, is in the business. And they’re dabbling their feet in because they see how intense we are in supporting our ecosystem and over time, I think you’ll see the EAs, the Activisions, the other big players coming in. On the developer side, to attract a Ready at Dawn, an Insomniac, these bigger developers, Crytek, that requires Oculus and other publishers, or other hardware manufacturers to see the marketplace. That’s why you’re seeing Sony do it, that’s why you’re seeing Oculus do it. We welcome other players who are in the business to do the same. We think that’s the way that you break the chicken and egg cycle problem that you just outlined.

Do you think that in that case it’s a positive to have the perceived competition from Vive and Sony? Do you think that will help to ultimately bring those people to the table?

We think it’s fantastic, every time Sony goes out and spends big money to make – or fund or however else they work – a big title. We think that’s a positive for two reasons, one, people are going to go ‘I wanna play that’ and they’re going to get into VR, and in the long run we believe in our ability to make a competitive VR system that they’ll eventually want to play on. If they buy a PlayStation today, someday down the road we think we’ll capture them because we think we’re going to be competitive. They think the same thing, that’s great, that’s positive competition. The other reason we like when they spend the money is that somebody working for them is going to come up with a fantastic idea. In fact, every developer, given an opportunity, has the possibility of coming up with a fantastic idea. Some of them come up with fantastic ideas in miserable games, but you can grab that fantastic idea, and we climb on each other’s shoulders in that industry. There’s no question that Crash Bandicoot grabbed from Miyamoto, Naka-San with Sonic, many, many games. In fact, actually Donkey Kong Country was the one we really grabbed from. There’s no question that the games that came after Crash, like Ratchet and Clank, grabbed from Crash Bandicoot. That’s the way we are, and we all welcome that as game developers. So the more work that’s being done out there by people who are putting money into the ecosystem, the more great ideas get made, [a higher volume of] better games get made. And again that jumpstarts because maybe somebody says ‘You made a lot of money, you put a lot of money into games, I don’t like your games’. But this independent saw that you were putting money into games, saw that the audience was going to be there and took some good ideas from both of you, they made the thing I want. And that’s out on every platform, and that’s good for everybody.

Oculus Rift delays

In terms of price as a barrier to entry, how do you see that? Obviously you’ve got the cost of the headset, but if you’re starting from scratch you’ve also got the cost of the hardware on which to run the headset.

Absolutely. Well the good news is in the six months that we’ve been out, the price of hardware has already drastically reduced itself between the nine series cards that we launched with and the current ten seriescards from Nvidia. And I think what you’re going to see from AMD and Nvidia is now a real race to get VR quality- what our rec spec is- down in price. And at the same time CPUs come down in price, because it’s just time, right? Memory comes down in price, because it’s just time. So that PC that was what we considered the minimum to get Oculus quality, high-end VR is just going to keep shrinking in price. It was a thousand dollars minimum to get one of our Oculus-ready PCs six months ago, [and now] for thirteen hundred bucks – I’ve heard – you’re going to be able to get a laptop that can do it. Which is a whole additional level of sexy, because it’s portable. When that becomes an $800 stack and then a $600 stack PC the price of VR continues to come down, and the price of these headsets will, over time, come down. We’re not ready yet, because there’s a lot of hardware and a lot of R&D that goes into these, but over time they will come down in price. So I think in the long run there’s going to be a very reasonably priced VR entry price of the quality of Oculus. At the same time, Gear VR is $99. So we’re giving everyone an opportunity to jump into VR at a reasonable price right now.

Speaking of everyone jumping in, do you think there’s a perception of this as appealing to the more hardcore/enthusiast end of the market and that casual players are shying away? Or do you see that changing?

Casual players are not usually the first ones that come onto a market. I think that probably the exception to that rule was mobile. Because the mobile marketplace everyone had the device because they needed a phone and a calendar and everything else that was going on, and the hardcore gamers were like ‘This doesn’t scratch my itch, but the casual players were like ‘I got it, is there anything interesting to do here?’ Yes there is. I think this kind of marketplace, absolutely a more hardcore player, at the high end, on the PC is your first audience, but over time I think we’ll become a much more casual device. And I think in the long run it’s going to be as much a social device as it is a gaming device, and there’ll be a lot of things to do that are not gaming on it. As far as the GearVR goes, it’s already not a hardcore device. You’re already seeing a very casual use case. The highest use case for GearVR right now is watching 360 [degree] videos. That is what they’re spending your time doing. Also a lot of gaming, let’s be clear, but they’re spending a lot of their time watching 360 degree videos. They’re loving it.

If you could have one dream developer come to you and say ‘I’m going to make an Oculus exclusive’ –

Oh I can’t pick a favourite, come on.

A couple?

So here’s what I would love to see, I would love to see an open-world third-person/first-person RPG come out, and there are many good instances of that in the business right now, so you can put a developer on that. I would also like to see the quality level of one of the marquee first-person shooters come into VR, but to do that properly we have to solve a locomotion issue that we have not yet solved. So we’re working on the locomotion issue, and I’m pretty confident that once we’ve gotten to a good place there that they’ll bring in the quality and reality that they’re so good at making for their very, very large budgets. At the same time, I think that there’s a massive open space for new experiences that people have not yet dreamed of, and so I’m not sure it’s going to be one of those giant developers that have billion dollar franchises to push forward that’s going to come up with it. I think it’ll be a smaller developer- it’ll be either an indie that grows quickly, a Riot Games for example, or it’ll be something along the lines of an Insomniac or a High Voltage or a Crytek, a non-publisher-owned large developer that gets in early on VR and figures it out. Which is why they’re so interested with Oculus, they see that opportunity.

Eagle Flight

With the locomotion issue, how do you think things stand at the moment and how are you moving it forward?

JR: So at the end of the month we’re going to launch Damage Core, which is our first shot at a first-person shooter that we’ve released. It’s gamepad [controlled]. The next generation VR shooters will probably come out sometime towards the end of the year when we release Touch. There’s a difference between the two, they have positives and negatives, but touch definitely pushes forward. The next generation first-person shooter after that, will come out about four or five months into 2017. I know the game, it hasn’t been announced yet, [but] you’ll be able to see some of the previews of it shortly. The game after that, I know it, it’s being worked on, it’s not being shown any time soon, but it’s pushing the genre forward. It’s probably going to take us another six months to a year until we marginally get to the point where we have the idea of how locomotion works to get one of the bigger players to say ‘I can see how I can strap my IP to that’. In the meanwhile, these are all going to be really fun games. And so, here we are sitting today, I already know four generations ahead what we’re going to launch, but it’s not what you’re thinking of in your head. The other thing I would say, is solving it will not look like getting Call of Duty to work, or getting Battlefield to work. When the first first-person shooters game out, Doom being one of them – I remember when that came out. And there were lots of BBS posts, because we didn’t even have real internet, forget Reddit- there were a lot of BBS posts about people were uncomfortable playing it, because they’d just never experienced anything like that before. Will this genre even exist? How will this work? It’s so cool but it may never work, right?

Here we are today, you’re in a helicopter, punch the guy, see your fist, get punched, fly out of the helicopter, land on your back, the guy jumps down and just shakes you – just shakes you – it all just works. Your hands, your legs, all coming into screen, and you just accept it, and it just works, and it makes no sense physically. You should ask if you ever get a developer that makes one of these games to look at what’s happening from outside, you’ll see the camera falling and it’s like hands and legs on sticks, they make no physical sense, you could never wrap a body around it. And the whole thing, like sometimes there’s three hands. It’s amazing what they’ve come up with, but it works. We will likewise follow some path of first-person thing that looks nothing like Call of Duty but in its own VR language, fully works, and fully immerses you, and makes you believe in the same way that you’re that player. And what exactly that looks like, I don’t know. I know that probably it involves some clipping on the periphery as you’re moving and Eagle Flight has some of this going on right now from Ubisoft. If you go closer to something and it brings in a shadow on the side, when your brain doesn’t feel motion that’s one of the things that causes discomfort. It’s going to be a combination of all these little things that developers come up with that leads us towards what is the eventual first person shooter and how that works. And will it work? Yes, it will work. What will it look like? I don’t know.

It’s really interesting because I suffer badly, but there have been a couple of titles – like I played Star Trek with the Touch and I thought it was brilliant. But then there are titles where I’m moving too much I feel really sick. Actually Eagle Flight was the first one I’ve played where I’m moving quickly forward but I felt totally fine.

And if you go back to GDC this year, when I first had seen that title and they first were showing it, because I had seen it three or four months earlier, I was singing the praises of that title because that little piece of R&D was absolute genius. And that is the beginning of a solution.

Are you convinced about the long-term future of VR? Where do you see it in ten years? Let us know these, and any other musings, in the comments below.