Oculus talks standalone VR, Vive hacks, and why subscriptions don’t make sense

Nate Mitchell and Jason Rubin on Rift’s second phase
Oculus talks Rift Phase 2

We're entering Oculus Phase 2, but if you're expecting a shiny new headset then you're living in the wrong reality. Rather, the Facebook-owned company believes VR now has enough games and a low enough price point to pull the next wave of would-be VR fans into the Rift. After announcing it was bringing the price of the headset and Touch controllers down to $399 for a six-week summer sale, Oculus then revealed it would continue to bundle the two together for $499 going forward.

Considering that the headset alone cost $599 at launch, that's a big step-down.

But Oculus insists this isn't a reaction to anything other than ongoing feedback that VR has been prohibitively expensive. "There's been a lot of speculation," said Oculus VP of content Jason Rubin in a roundtable discussion. "Is this clearing Rifts to go to new hardware? Is this somehow them getting out of the business? Absolutely none of those things are true. We plan to stand by this product for a long time. Someone who buys a Rift today has years of enjoyment in front of them... We are already working on titles for 2019 and beyond."

Oculus is trying to "bring the next set of folks into the Rift ecosystem", said Rubin. There are now over 500 titles for the Rift alone, and around 1,400 in total are playable on the system, he told us. Among these, we're seeing more killer titles emerge. Echo Arena, the multiplayer component of Lone Echo, in which players propel themselves through zero gravity and chuck glowing disks in goals, may be the best multiplayer VR game we've played yet.

Meanwhile the just-announced Marvel Powers United proves the bigger properties are getting onboard with fully fleshed-out games, not just passive experiences. "It was a major IP for them to give to a relatively small install base and everything else," Rubin revealed to Wareable. "We basically worked on them for years."

Oculus talks standalone VR, Vive hacks, and why subscriptions don't make sense

Yet the VR game economy is still being thought through. Right now VR games take longer to make, but does that mean a 20-minute short is as valuable as an all-out (non-VR) console game? HTC recently launched its Viveport store, a Netflix-style subscription service for VR games, as partly an answer to the problem. But Rubin told Wareable that unlike other entertainment mediums, Oculus doesn't see the same model working itself.

"If you look at music, music is a great bundle-able thing, and a great subscription thing, because they're short pieces, they're all roughly the same length - something like 3 to 10 minutes - and you tend to not do them over and over again. There are people I'm sure who listen to Paradise City 15 times in a row but that's not a large part of the audience."

"Games are very different. They'll buy Call of Duty and get hundreds of hours out of it. They'll buy Skyrim and get hundreds of hours out of it. At the same time, games have very different utility functions. For example, I can play a single player game and say that was worth ten bucks, but a multiplayer game I might have to play for fifty hours before I say it was worth it."

Rubin says it's harder to get publishers on board too: "They all believe their games are best, they all believe that they're the ones people are going to use endlessly. None of them are going to say no, no, no, I think it should be even with all these other titles. While in the music business, your song is 4 minutes long, you know people are going to move on. Paying people by usage makes a lot less sense in the game space."

Santa Cruz, Vive hacks and next-gen headsets

Oculus talks standalone VR, Vive hacks, and why subscriptions don't make sense

Last year, at Oculus's annual Connect event, we were treated to a demo of a new Rift headset codenamed Santa Cruz. The prototype was for a standalone Rift that can positionally track from the inside out, perform totally independent of wires and, unlike the Gear VR, has a built-in display. While impressive in its own right, Santa Cruz clearly wasn't performing at a high-end level, nor should we have expected it to. The tech may be getting more efficient, but according to Oculus, any standalone headset it puts out in at least the next two years, maybe more, won't have the power of today's Rift.

"The idea that someone can make a standalone headset that has anywhere near the power of Rift, that's a long, long way away," Rubin told Wareable. "Think of a GTX 970 card, think of those fans, think of the power that it draws, the kind of battery you would have to have - you'd need a car battery strapped to you. It's going to be a long time before anything of the quality of Rift comes to standalone. And therefore any fear that you're going to somehow buy a Rift and six, eight months from now or two years from now someone is going to announce standalone that you're going to want to buy for the same quality of content, it's just not happening anytime soon.

Rubin and co-founder/head of Rift Nate Mitchell also said we should lower expectations for an Oculus Rift 2 any time soon, despite much speculation that an upgrade might be on the cards. "Console generations tend to switch when it starts to get stale," said Rubin. "You've played at that level of compute for long enough that it starts to get stale. In the case of VR we're still in a software exploration mode. It's not getting stale. We have so much expansion to do just learning what we can do in software."

"On PC we see this first generation Rift having long legs, long lifespan, and we're investing in content for 2018, 2019, and that's all going to be playable on Rift," added Mitchell.

And as the recent price cut shows, cost is perhaps the biggest concern right now; a new headset would mean pushing up the price again. "We know 799 is an expensive price, we know 399 is a much better price," said Rubin. "So for us to suddenly say here's a lot more bells and whistles, we're back to 800 dollars, I'm not sure that's the right thing right now." Earlier this year we argued that Touch was quickly becoming a central tenet of Rift and the decision to sell the headset without it was making less and less sense. "For the most part developers are targeting Touch now," said Rubin when we asked if Touch was now considered as core as the headset itself. "The exception would be that some games just work better with gamepads. And there are developers out there that want to make games for gamepads. That's totally cool, we completely back that."

Among this library is a growing number of exclusive games - something HTC recently told us it's still against - which means games that Vive users are missing out. Naturally, people have found ways around this, and recently we heard that Oculus founder Palmer Luckey had donated to a hack called Revive, which lets users transfer Oculus exclusives to the competing system. Oculus dumped its DRM checking last year, and Rubin said the company has no plans to fight back against apps like Revive, regardless of what Palmer is up to. "We're absolutely not actively fighting that," he said. "Anyone with double thumbs up is on a Vive - because they can't put their thumbs down."

Oculus still won't reveal how many headsets it has sold, and it also wouldn't tell us how much of a loss it may or may not be making with the revised price strategy, but it may be more glad than ever that Facebook swooped in and bought it back in 2014. "We don't talk about profitability but we've never tried to make money on the hardware," said Mitchell. "Our goal long term is to build an ecosystem."


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