At the 2017 DICE Summit in Las Vegas today Oculus head of content Jason Rubin had an open conversation on stage with industry veteran Ted Price, CEO of Insomniac, which has built several early games in VR. There's no denying that the first year of virtual reality didn't quite live up to the high expectations some pundits set for the market, but Rubin remains "unwavering" in his belief that VR is here to stay and that it's going to ramp up soon.
When asked by Price about that gap between the market and expectations, Rubin asserted that, "You have to separate the promise of VR and year-one sales... I don't remember anyone going out and saying it would be massive year-one. We're now in that reality part of the curve and that's going to last for a couple years as we look to get everything right, and then we'll hit that [growth] curve."
Price followed up by asking what would be necessary to drive the VR market growth, to which Rubin had several responses. In summary, the physicality of the devices has to change (less weight, more comfort, better lens quality), the content has to improve, and importantly, the price has to come down. The prices of VR-compatible PCs are already coming down, but Rubin acknowledged that Rift needs to see lower prices as well.
On the mobile side with Gear VR, the price is less of a barrier, but features like refresh rate, battery life and the need for positional tracking are all factors. Eventually, Rubin said he sees both the high-end VR and mobile VR converging to reach the same point on the mass market adoption curve, finding the right balance of pricing, features and content. That being said, while some in the industry are pushing for integrating new features like eye tracking, for example, Rubin doesn't believe that's the right approach because it effectively means price will have to reflect the new technology, which in turn moves the device in the wrong direction on the mass market graph.
Speaking on behalf of developers, Price asked Rubin about the problems with the market that have led to the unfortunate demise of some studios. Rubin replied, "Anytime a dev goes out of business, that's a bad thing for the industry. Going all-in on VR right now, unless you have a good business plan, is not a very good thing to do."
Indeed, Price confirmed that VR investment is only receiving a minority of Insomniac's resources "because we do understand that it's a nascent business." He continued, "It's important for us to be in early, however, because we believe it's here to stay. We've kept one foot planted in VR to learn lessons and we're very fortunate to have multiple teams. If I were a new developer, I'd limit my scope so I don't bet the farm."
Price and Rubin also discussed the challenge of making something unique that truly leverages VR. Insomniac's first two titles were third-person games, and that was a lesson for his studio. "There was a challenge of building third-person and to wrestle with tough camera challenges. We learned as soon as you take camera controls away from the player you create instant discomfort. We realized we hadn't asked the most important question, 'Why VR?' and that's where Unspoken came in because you can't play this game any other way. It's you in this VR space playing against others," he said.
Rubin agreed that especially for right now, early adopters bought into VR to play things they can't experience anywhere else. He still thinks VR games built for gamepad controls will have their place, though, because as VR becomes more popular some people will still want a more sedentary experience to sit down with after a long day at work.
The biggest lesson Rubin had for developers is to experiment a lot more with concepts. "Test, do a lot of small throwaways," he said. Then, apologizing to Price, he added, "We didn't do that with Edge of Nowhere and we should have been doing more research and trial and error. A perfect example is Superhot - that developer got it right, absolutely right for this moment of VR. We should have done that with you. The dev behind Tiltbrush did a lot of experimenting."
Rubin added that figuring out pricing on titles can be tough too, because as a studio you put all this money into a project and you want to recoup, but you need to price the game appropriately for the market. "Our launch price on Feral Rites was inappropriate," he admitted, putting on his publisher hat. "Thanks to Insomniac, we got there."
Price also acknowledged that as a veteran studio, it's not so easy to change your way of thinking about game development. Aside from answering the fundamental "Why VR?" question, one of the hardest parts of making a VR game is "making sure your team gets it and what the medium brings to games," he said. "It's easy to fall back on traditional expertise and then when the game is done you realize it's not different enough from what we made five years ago."
Another important topic that came up is just how open the platforms in the VR market should be. Noting his support for the Chronos initiative, Rubin commented, "It's not that we don't support openness; it's that right now it's not the right time in our belief system. When that standard exists we're committed to join it."
Rubin talked about how he's recently played Oculus Touch game Dead and Buried with Vive users and how Oculus has not discouraged the game being playable on Vive, but Rubin knew they were on Vive because the hack causes the mic to malfunction. He continued, "When there is an open platform, we would be all over it... We want to get to an open standard with all that implies."
In the end, both Rubin and Price are hugely excited not just about the future of VR but what it means for the entire game industry and the impact that game developers can now have on the entire world. "After watching 30 years of the game industry, this is our moment where we just take over the world. What do developers want? That's the tone at Facebook," said Rubin.
Price added, "Outside of the game industry, everyone is now looking at us to figure out how to solve these challenges."