It's Unlikely Your Vive Will Play Oculus Games

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It's Unlikely Your Vive Will Play Oculus Games
December 10, 2016
Image above: Ben Kuchera/Polygon
 

It’s common knowledge that the HTC Vive is an open platform and the Oculus Rift is closed, with Facebook simmering in the background as a malevolent force in virtual reality. At least according to the common narrative that’s repeated endlessly in article comments and virtual reality subreddits.

 

The reality is that each system is open in some ways and closed in others. There’s no easy “good” or “bad” guy in this situation, but players would clearly benefit if you could use both stores on both headsets. It’s just not a situation where Valve is saying yes but Oculus is saying no, at least not entirely.

 

It’s much more complicated, in fact. This is how cold wars begin.

 

THE HARDWARE DOESN’T MATTER

 

We have to change how we’re thinking of the current VR ecosystem. It’s not a question of competing hardware, it’s a question of competing stores. Once you shift how you look at VR as it exists today, everything comes into focus.

 

The two largest competing products right now aren’t the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Those are just the hardware we use to access the real products for both Facebook and Valve: the storefronts. The products that are competing are Oculus Home and Steam, and right now Rift hardware is compatible with both, while the Vive hardware is not.

 

So how does the Rift and Touch controllers work with your SteamVR games?

“OpenVR,” Valve’s Joe Ludwig told Polygon. “In addition to the interface for VR applications, OpenVR also offers a driver interface that allows hardware vendors to add support for their own devices. This driver interface is part of the public OpenVR SDK and is completely open to anyone who wants to add support for a device. Valve has used that driver interface to bridge the gap between OpenVR and the Oculus SDK, which allows all Oculus devices to work with OpenVR.”

 

There’s a big catch in there, but it’s kind of subtle at first. The issue is that, for SteamVR games to work on the Rift, Valve has to use Oculus’ software.

 

“Oculus Home installs the Oculus SDK runtime libraries,” Ludwig said. “The OpenVR adapter drivers for Rift call into the Oculus’ public runtime libraries to interact with Rift and Touch hardware. Users who purchase a Rift and install Home will have the Oculus SDK runtime libraries and they will be kept up-to-date by Oculus.”

 

You can test this by uninstalling Oculus Home from your system and trying to run a SteamVR game using your Rift. It won’t work. It’s not that OpenVR is built to support Rift hardware on its own, it would be more accurate to say Valve wrote a wrapper that bridged the gap between Steam and the Rift’s software.

 

So the argument that Oculus is “closed” or doesn’t believe in compatibility falls a bit flat. Valve itself is using Oculus software to enable the sales of Steam games through the Rift, and it’s very likely that Oculus could shut down that compatibility by changing the terms of service on that software. It’s also possible that Oculus could enable a software check so that only games purchased via Oculus Home will play on the Rift.

 

So far, it has done neither. That seems pretty friendly to me.

 

WHO BENEFITS?

 

The bigger question is who “wins” with the current situation.

 

At first it may seem as if the ability to play SteamVR games on the Rift benefits Oculus and Facebook. If you can only afford one VR platform — and that’s a group of people that includes basically everyone — why wouldn’t you buy the one that can play both game libraries? Oculus wins!

 

Except, as we said above, the hardware isn’t the product. Neither company likely cares which piece of hardware you buy, although HTC — apart from Valve — would probably prefer you buy a Vive, since that purchase is profitable for HTC.

Valve’s goal is to keep you in Steam, where it makes a reported 30 percent from every game sold. Compatibility allows them to keep you as a Steam customer; SteamVR actually performs a hardware check so developers can optimize their game for the Rift and Touch controllers and give the player the best version of the game for their hardware.

 

This means, in many cases, you don’t have to buy your VR games from Oculus Home at all once you’ve installed the software to enable SteamVR compatibility. Oculus loses!

 

Consider the strange case of Arcade Saga, the first game from HTC’s first-party studio. VR enthusiasts are overjoyed that, although HTC funded the game, it’s playable on both the Vive and the Rift, so it’s not an exclusive. But they’re missing the bigger picture: It’s absolutely an exclusive, because whichever hardware you’ll use to play it, you’re going to use Steam to buy it. And that’s what Valve cares about.

 

Oculus, or, more accurately, Facebook, is investing so heavily in exclusives because it wants you to use its platform to buy and play games. Oculus’ profitability is secondary at this point, which is why the company is funding some amazing VR games that wouldn’t exist otherwise. The important thing is that players use the software platform itself.

 

Which is likely why Oculus doesn’t care that much about SteamVR’s compatibility, even though on the surface it looks as if Valve is trying to keep players inside of Steam no matter what hardware they use. Once you have a Rift with Touch controllers, you have access to Oculus Home, and you’re likely going to play the free games and even buy some of the best exclusives. This expands Facebook’s reach in VR, while giving the player the option of where to buy their games. Oculus wins!

 

So let’s maybe calm down a bit about claiming Oculus and Facebook are completely closed systems that are hostile to the VR ecosystem. Let’s maybe, just maybe, give Oculus a bit of credit for its part in allowing SteamVR games to be played on the Rift.

 

This, of course, begs the question ...

 

WHAT ABOUT OCULUS HOME ON THE VIVE?

 

“We want to natively support all hardware through the Oculus SDK, including optimizations like asynchronous timewarp,” Oculus founder Palmer Luckey wrote eight months ago on Reddit when asked about Vive compatibility. “That is the only way we can ensure an always-functional, high performance, high quality experience across our entire software stack, including Home, our own content, and all third party content. We can't do that for any headset without cooperation from the manufacturer. We already support the first two high-quality VR headsets to hit the market (Gear VR and Rift), that list will continue to expand as time goes on.”

 

We asked Valve’s Joe Ludwig about Oculus’ insistence on using its SDK natively on other headsets, such as the Vive. Would Valve ever consider opening the Vive up to run that SDK natively?

“We are doing everything we can to remove such requirements,” Ludwig answered. “To that end, the Khronos group just announced that Valve, Oculus, and other leaders in the VR industry are working on a more broadly supported standard for access to VR hardware, moving further in the direction than we’ve taken with OpenVR. Right now, getting support for all hardware onto all platforms is challenging because everything has to be customized for each combination of platform and hardware device. One thing we hope to accomplish with this new standard is to allow easy compatibility with all hardware devices regardless of who built them or where they are sold.”

 

Our take on that answer? The biggest VR companies are jockeying for position when it comes to their storefronts, not their hardware sales. Whatever happens with the Khronos group, it’s in Valve’s best interest to make sure SteamVR is compatible everywhere, while it’s in Oculus’ best interest to make sure the only place you can buy Oculus exclusives is Oculus Home.

 

The strategies are very different, but it all makes sense once you think about things in terms of storefronts. It’s in both Valve and Oculus’ best interests to keep the Rift open enough to play SteamVR games, because that’s a selling point for the Rift hardware, which allows Oculus to expand the use of Oculus Home to sell you exclusives. It’s also a way for Valve to keep you inside Steam, even if you’re using what seems to be their competitor’s hardware to access it.

 

Everyone wins, including the player.

 

Oculus would likely love for the Vive to run the Oculus SDK natively, which would allow the company to bring even more people onto Oculus Home while selling more of its exclusives. But it’s not in Valve’s best interest to allow a competitor to bring in its own storefront to entice players with exclusives it can’t match.

 

Valve, on the other hand, is likely perfectly happy with compatibility only moving in one direction.

 

And the reality is the Oculus exclusives are good enough to bring what’s likely to be a significant percentage of Vive’s players to Oculus Home were it available, even if it didn’t become the primary place those players bought their VR games.

 

During that same Reddit question and answer session, Luckey responded to someone who said they would buy many of their VR games on Oculus Home, were it available on the Vive. The fan also said they found that situation unlikely.

 

“You are right on both counts, unfortunately,” Luckey wrote. “Lots of losers, only one clear winner.”

 

That winner? Valve. Oculus has no reason to keep its store from the Vive, and many reasons to make it happen. Valve, on the other hand, is likely perfectly happy with compatibility only moving in one direction. Valve isn’t going disinterested in exclusives because it thinks exclusives are bad for VR, the company isn’t investing in exclusives as heavily as Oculus because in the current ecosystem, it doesn’t have to. If Oculus Home, with its better curation and exclusives, worked on the Vive? That situation could change.

 

Both Vive and Rift owners would probably like both stores to work on both headsets, and so would Oculus, but Valve and HTC are the two companies with something to lose if that were to happen.

 

My advice? I dunno. Buy a PlayStation VR. This is some Game of Thrones shit on the PC side, and VR exclusives aren’t going away any time soon.

The Rift hardware can play OpenVR games you buy on Steam due to Oculus’ public runtime libraries. The entire compatibility issue depends on Oculus keeping both its hardware and software open enough to allow OpenVR games to access both.

 

Your Rift can’t run VR games purchased on Steam without Oculus’ software. If you have a Rift and some Steam games, uninstall Oculus Home, and try to launch your Steam games in VR. See what happens.

 

I wouldn’t call anything in terms of cross-platform compatibility “simple,” but in this case Valve wrote a wrapper for the Oculus software to get the Rift talking to OpenVR, and that’s a very different situation than the assumed reality of OpenVR being compatible with the Rift on its own.

 

My guess is that Oculus has a mechanism to shut this compatibility down by changing the terms of service on the software that OpenVR depends on to run. It would also likely be possible to add a hardware check to keep Steam out. Oculus has not done either. That seems pretty friendly to me, and runs counter to the common narrative that Oculus is hostile to compatibility.

 

So could we maybe take a break from “Valve is being open, but Oculus isn’t?” It’s not an accurate representation of what’s going on, which brings me to my next point.

 

THE VIVE ISN’T AS OPEN AS YOU THINK

 

HTC is spinning up its own first-party development studio to invest in VR, and some people are pointing out that the first game released from those efforts, Arcade Saga, supports both the Rift and Vive. So it’s not an exclusive!

 

It’s an exclusive, but to see that fact you have to stop thinking in terms of hardware. The HTC Vive is a joint project between Valve and HTC, and both companies make money when you buy a game via Steam or Viveport. Arcade Saga will cease to be an exclusive when they begin selling it on Oculus Home, and you can play it natively on your Rift. Remember what we said above; the Vive isn’t the product, the storefronts are.

Companies fund games because they have something to gain from the existence of those games, and in this HTC doesn’t care if you use a Rift or Vive to play Arcade Saga, as long as you buy it through their store.

 

So the reality is that, in terms of exclusives, Valve’s use of Oculus’ software and OpenVR gives you a way to buy Arcade Saga through Steam by using a Rift, but there isn’t a way to buy The Unspoken on the Vive through Oculus Home.

 

Which platform seems more exclusive when viewed through that lens?

 

“We want to natively support all hardware through the Oculus SDK, including optimizations like asynchronous timewarp,” Oculus founder Palmer Luckey wrote eight months ago on Reddit when asked about Vive compatibility. “That is the only way we can ensure an always-functional, high performance, high quality experience across our entire software stack, including Home, our own content, and all third party content. We can't do that for any headset without cooperation from the manufacturer. We already support the first two high-quality VR headsets to hit the market (Gear VR and Rift), that list will continue to expand as time goes on.”

 

HTC itself can't seem to get around steam before selling you games, and they're manufacturing the hardware!

 

Valve benefits from its use of Oculus’ software to sell and run SteamVR games on the Rift, and I’m sure Oculus would love if the favor was returned and they could sell games to Vive owners through Oculus Home.

 

I asked if Valve would be open to allowing the Oculus SDK on the Vive, so Vive owners could buy Oculus games.

 

“We are doing everything we can to remove such requirements,” Ludwig answered. “To that end, the Khronos group just announced that Valve, Oculus, and other leaders in the VR industry are working on a more broadly supported standard for access to VR hardware, moving further in the direction than we’ve taken with OpenVR. Right now, getting support for all hardware onto all platforms is challenging because everything has to be customized for each combination of platform and hardware device. One thing we hope to accomplish with this new standard is to allow easy compatibility with all hardware devices regardless of who built them or where they are sold.”

 

Valve may be trying to “remove” Oculus’ requirement that games built for Oculus Home use the Oculus SDK natively on compatible hardware, but it’s also relying on that software to sell games to Rift owners.

 

"Our top priority has always been pushing the state of VR forward,” Oculus told Polygon when we asked about compatibility. “We’ve been focused on doing so by making Rift and Touch the best possible experience on PC, requiring tremendous engineering and native integration between our SDK and VR hardware. A wide and growing range of games and experiences rely on critical software features like Asynchronous Space Warp, Asynchronous Time Warp, and the hand presence functionality provided by Touch. You may see support for other hardware devices in the future, but maintaining the highest possible quality for all Oculus users is our primary focus.”

 

Oculus wants compatible hardware to run its SDK natively. Valve could allow the Vive to do so, and already actively uses Oculus software to run SteamVR games on the Rift. There’s no reason Valve couldn’t allow Oculus software on the Vive as well, so owners of that hardware could buy Oculus Games the way Rift owners already use OpenVR’s compatibility with Oculus software to buy Steam games.

 

Don’t get mad at Oculus for funding the creation of great VR games, and stop giving Valve all the credit for Rift compatibility. If you want Vive owners to buy and play games like Robo Recall, it’s time to stop calling for Oculus to cease being closed and start calling for Valve to start being a bit more open.

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