VR is in many ways awesome, but still in many ways lacking. Ease-of-use, especially when it comes to playing in VR with friends, is presently a huge pain point for the experience. Oculus’ solution to that pain point—announced more than seven months ago—launched on Gear VR where it was welcomed with open arms. Bizarrely, the same features remain painfully absent from Rift, Oculus’ high-end VR platform, especially in the face of major improvements to multiplayer VR gaming on SteamVR. Nate Mitchell, Head of Rift at Oculus, offers an update on the fate of Rooms and Parties on the Rift.
Rooms & Parties
Announced at the end of 2016, Oculus Rooms and Parties are a new app and a new feature designed to fix perhaps the most frustrating problem with multiplayer Rift gaming: finding your Oculus friends in VR. Once you actually get into the same game and match together, multiplayer on Rift is usually pretty great, but getting to that point is a frustrating challenge because once you don the headset you lose easy access to most of your usual digital communication tools like messaging and VOIP apps.
The Rooms app was designed as a universal pre-game lobby for Oculus where friends could find each other, discuss what they wanted to do in VR, and launch into that experience together. Importantly, it also gives players something to do while they wait for friends to arrive, instead of just sitting around with a headset and peeking out the corner to check their phone for messages from said friends.
Parties, meanwhile, are a feature of the underlying Oculus dashboard: global VOIP chat allowing friends to talk to each other no matter where they are in VR. That makes it way easier to sync up and play because you don’t have to take off your headset (or uncomfortably peek out) to use out-of-headset means of communication like messaging and VOIP apps, only to transition to in-headset VOIP once you get into the same place together. It also means players can play single-player games in VR but keep the conversation going.
Back at the time of the 2016 announcement, both Rooms and Parties launched on Gear VR and have been updated continuously. At the time, Oculus said that both would come to Rift in 2017, and naturally users were excited after putting up with a multiplayer experience that’s not up to par with what what they’d expect from a typical gaming platform.
Missing in Action on Rift
Now seven months into 2017, Rooms and Parties still haven’t come to Rift. Their absence is increasingly painful in the face of the launch of SteamVR Home Beta, a multiplayer pre-game lobby built into SteamVR which—combined with existing Steam voice call and chat features—provides essentially all the functions of Rooms and Parties. It isn’t perfect, but at least it’s there.
In ‘Rooms’ on Gear VR you can watch video until your friends arrive. | Image courtesy Oculus
For a platform that’s in many ways surprisingly mature for its age, Oculus Home for Rift is seriously lacking in multiplayer ease of use, and players are noticing. We’ve heard calls from the Rift community, both indirect and direct, asking us to reach out to Oculus for an update on when there will be improvements to the experience.
From the Horse’s Mouth
Fortunately, we had an opportunity last week to sit down with the perhaps the single best person to speak on the topic: Nate Mitchell, Head of Rift at Oculus, who filled us in on the fate of Rooms and Parties on Rift, first offering a quick recap of where Rooms is on Gear VR.
“We’ve got Rooms on Gear VR, we’re really happy with it. The Rooms team is moving super fast. They’re shipping releases—pretty major updates—more or less every month, adding new features we’re excited about; we’re seeing usage continue to tick up. So overall we’re really excited with where Rooms is at on the mobile side.”
Nate Mitchell has been with Oculus since the beginning. | Image courtesy Oculus
Then he addressed criticism he’s heard online from people saying that Roomsshould be a quick and easy port over to Rift on PC.
“[…] a couple of folks were like ‘Why would they [spend time expanding it on mobile] instead of bringing it over to PC?’. Well, realistically, with a limited team, they’re able to move much much faster on a bunch of features and get more value out to folks on the mobile side by focusing only on one platform rather than trying to bring everything over to PC simultaneously,” Mitchell said. “And that’s especially true just because Rooms is actually built in Unity, it’s using Android, and so there’s always gonna be features that they’re doing that are specific to Android (codecs and things, especially for video or audio) that don’t just come over whole cloth, ‘wham-bam’ to PC.”
Parties, Coming Soon to a Rift Near You
For people who want to ‘hang out’ in VR, certainly one function of Rooms, Mitchell says that Facebook Spaces fills that need and that it’s being actively worked updated and expanded. But Rift users have been looking to Rooms not as a place to hang out (there’s already many of those to choose from), but as a way to fix the high-friction experience of syncing up with Rift friends to play VR together. To that, Mitchell confirms that Parties—global group voice calls that span across apps—is on the way to fix one aspect of that friction.
“So people are asking, ‘So when is Rooms coming to PC?’. We have something coming to PC pretty soon which is Parties. So we are gonna have persistent VOIP calls coming to PC independent of Rooms, launching pretty soon. So you’re gonna be able to open up the Universal Menu, and you’re gonna be able to say ‘Hey I wanna chat with Nate’; I’ll get a notification, it’ll say ‘Hey do you wanna join a party with Ben?’; I’ll say ‘Absolutely, love Ben, can’t wait to chat with him again’; and then bam, we’ll have persistent voice across multiple titles.”
But what about Rooms as a pregame lobby for players to meet up and choose which games they want to launch into together? Mitchell anticipates that as my next question, but he’s choosing his words carefully.
“What does that mean for Rooms? [long pause…] We have some bigger sort of plans on the Rift side for the Rift community. There’s some things that our team has been working on for… a while now… that are really sort of the next evolution of where we think the Oculus platform on PC goes. And we can’t talk about too much of it today, but what I can say is that… we have a vision for the Oculus platform really being the epicenter for the VR community,” he said.
And then he drops the M word, elevating the discussion to something more ambitious than making multiplayer Rift gaming painless.
“[our vision is that] it really should feel like when you put on your Rift, you’re dropping straight into the metaverse. And we’re gonna continue to move forward the Oculus platform on PC toward that vision, and that starts on the social side with Parties, and things like Spaces, but it’s gonna get much much bigger, and we’ll have more to share later in the year.”
As enticing as it sounds, by this point we’ve veered away from the central topic of the discussion; I ask Mitchell if he’s referring to an expanded scope of Rooms on Rift, or if he’s talking about something different altogether. His answer suggests that the existence of Rooms for Rift is still largely hypothetical.
“So here’s the caveat. Rooms may still come… I am talking about different things [with regards to the vision for a metaverse-like experience on Oculus]. Rooms may still come to Rift—that’s not out of the question by any means—but I’m not sitting here today saying it’s coming in the next couple of months. So we haven’t ruled it out […].”
Promises of Things to Come
At least on the mobile side, Rooms is real and being actively developed, Mitchell says. On the Rift side, he says the community can trust him and Oculus to deliver an answer to the present issues with multiplayer gaming on the Rift.
“[…] what I can say is that the [Rooms] team is focused on the mobile community. So the mobile community—if you’re a Gear VR owner—you should be fired up that there’s a ton more great stuff coming to Rooms in the near future for you. If you’re a Rift owner you should—maybe you’re a little upset like ‘Wait that means Rooms isn’t coming to me?’—but I promise you—and [the Rift community] can trust me—that we’re going to be bringing some really great things to the Rift community very very soon, and then down the road Rooms still may come to PC, we’ll see.”
In ‘Rooms’ on Gear VR you can launch into other VR apps together, making sure your group stays together across apps. | Image courtesy Oculus
Mitchell, who admits that he personally relies on Discord’s voice and text chat to coordinate multiplayer Rift sessions with friends, says that he thinks in the near term global VOIP through Parties will answer a lot of the complaints Rift users have today. However, he acknowledges that one feature of Rooms anticipated by the Rift community is the ability to launch into Rift games together from the same place. Regardless of whether or not it comes in the form of Rooms, Mitchell says, he understands of the desire for the function.
“We’ll see when coordinated app launch makes it over to Rift, I mean we’re aware of all that stuff, we built all that stuff [on the mobile side], so it’s just a question of kind of when and what’s the timeline that makes the most sense.”
Looking more broadly at the Rift multiplayer experience, I told Mitchell that while Parties and coordinated app-launch sound great, still one of the key issues is communicating from within the headset to friends who aren’t in a headset. I asked him if he saw the need to be able to reach friends across VR and non-VR platforms without juggling a phone or a mouse while in a headset: a way to invite a friend from inside or VR and have it delivered to their phone or PC, with chat and VOIP reaching friends regardless of where they are in RL or VR.
To that, Mitchell smiled, and a cunning tone came over his voice.
“[I] Definitely see the need for it. It’s almost like you’re on the Rift team…”