Monday, 4 Mar 2024

Oculus Quest anniversary interview – ‘people don't really want short tech demos'

GameCentral talks to the man behind Oculus Quest’s games and how he thinks VR will continue to evolve and improve over the coming years.

It’s now exactly a year since the Oculus Quest VR headset first came out and there’s one simple way to tell that it’s been a success: it’s currently out of stock almost everywhere, even though it costs £399.

Nothing to do with VR is ever cheap but Oculus Quest is especially desirable because it’s the only dedicated headset that doesn’t require connecting to a PC or console and so doesn’t have any wires or cables to get in the way.

Technically that’s the same for things like Google Cardboard or Nintendo Labo, where you’re essentially just holding a mobile device in front of your eyes, but Oculus Quest is a proper VR headset with highly quality graphics, roomscale tracking, and dedicated controllers.

We were very impressed with the Oculus Quest when we first got to review it and its games last year and evidently so too were customers and developers.

‘We’ve cleared over a hundred million dollars in revenue generated by the store for our third party developers’, Oculus director of content Chris Pruett told us. ‘That’s a result of our customers coming in and buying video games that were built by developers exclusively for the Quest.’

In total, more than 20 games have now passed more than $1 million (£820,000) in revenues and more than 10 have passed the $2 million (£1.65m) mark, including Moss, Superhot VR, and Pistol Whip. That’s a lot of money but what’s most interesting is that it’s almost exclusively indie developers which are driving the VR market, on both Oculus Quest and other formats.

At first this seems surprising, since you’d assume that a small indie studio looking to pay the rent would not want to limit themselves to a format with such a relatively small audience. So why have so many indie developers stuck with VR for so many years?

‘There are people who once I’ve put the headset on them that one time, they have a sort of epiphany. It’s something that’s so dramatically interesting to them that they immediately want to be working in that space. We’ve seen over four or five years, since we started shipping our first consumer VR headsets, we’ve seen that sort of enthusiasm remain really strong’, says Pruett.

‘For our creators, it’s a really fun environment to work in. But beyond that, I think the real draw for independent developers is that small teams can move really quickly when it comes to innovative new ideas. And because VR is very different in terms of game design grammar, there’s a lot of rules that haven’t been written yet. So an independent developer who shows up early and builds something that’s compelling actually has the opportunity to influence the future game design of VR.’

While it didn’t become a mass market business overnight, VR also hasn’t proven the fad that some seem keen to paint it as, and in terms of games in particular there’s been clear signs of a second wave of longer and more complex titles starting to emerge.

‘That’s a fair assessment’, says Pruett. ‘We’ve had Asgard’s Wrath, we’re shipping Medal Of Honor: Above And Beyond later this year, and I would even reference Half-Life: Alyx from our friends at Valve. These are AAA style, very high-end games. But if you play them, the grammar of how you interact with the world was already largely defined by independent developers. So there’s still a huge opportunity for indie developers to have a huge impact, by building things quickly and being innovative.’

It’s a good job indies are willing to make that effort though, as major publishers have done almost nothing in terms of VR lately, after a spate of small experimental titles four or so years ago, that were usually included free as part of a larger title. Now they don’t even do that and it’s not clear if they ever will again.

‘I can give you my take’, offers Pruett. ‘First of all, I don’t think all of them just dropped out. I think if you look at Ubisoft in particular, it’s never stopped and they’ve been putting out some high quality games ever since. But I would say the thing that we learned, and I assume our publishing partners learned, is that people don’t really want short tech demos or supplementary content to the main game. Even if it’s really cool, they don’t want something that ends in 10 or 15 minutes.

‘What they’re looking for is a game they can play for a number of hours and it’s not just a sort of sidecar to some other title. We found that to be true just generally, that meatier content does much better than short form or experimental content. So I think if you look at the development cycle that is normal for AAA games, it’s counted in years. So I wouldn’t take the silence as necessarily a lack of interest. I think actually what you’ll see is some pretty big titles in the next couple of years coming from some of those big publishers.’

To celebrate the Oculus Quest’s first anniversary, there’s a sale starting on its app store on Thursday, 21 May, as well as new updates that will allow you to customise your play area better when using roomscale tracking, and productivity apps for remote working (apparently the lockdown has only further increased demand for the Oculus Quest).

Perhaps the biggest update though will be for hand-tracking, with the first third party games to use the tech becoming available from 2 June. But from Tuesday, 19 May there’ll be a number of Oculus-published titles using the technology – namely Elixir, The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets, and Waltz Of The Wizard – that will demonstrate the concept.

It’s one that Pruett thinks will be particularly important in the next few years, as VR hardware and software continues to evolve.

‘It’s very clear to us that the wireless all-in-one form factor device is the future of VR. And that’s where we continue to put a lot of effort in our R&D. Yes, It’s wireless. Yes, it can track your hands and your head. And yes, you can walk around a very large space or you can play sitting down. But then on top of that, I would expect that, in the future, we see some new technologies that change what the software can do.

‘The first of those for us was hand-tracking. Late last year we rolled out an experimental feature for hand-tracking where you don’t need the controllers, you can just see your hands and they’re fully articulated. Then you can start to manipulate the 3D environment just by reaching out and grabbing it. And I think it’s technologies like that that will continue to, fairly dramatically, add to our concept of what VR can be in the next couple of years.’

Of course, the main problem for most people is just how expensive VR is and as good as the Oculus Quest may be the cheaper 64GB model is £399 and the 128GB version is £499. But for the moment at least Pruett doesn’t really see that as an issue.

‘I think that’s a problem for us to worry about when we can manage to keep the headsets in stock long enough’, he laughs.

VR may still not be mainstream, but the hardware and games continue to improve anyway. And while virtual reality has long been touted as the future of video games, that’s no longer really true: it’s now clearly part of the present.

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