French publisher Ubisoft has always been an early supporter of new consoles and platforms, and virtual reality is no different. While other publishers have begun dipping their toes in the still somewhat murky VR waters, Ubisoft has dived headfirst, having already released Werewolves Within, Eagle Flight and, soon, Star Trek: Bridge Crew. Beyond that, the company is also targeting Google Daydream with Virtual Rabbids: The Big Plan. Ubisoft's early VR push isn't reaping rewards just yet, but that's to be expected with such low installed bases in the market. Chris Early, Ubisoft's vice president of digital who's now also acting as the primary spokesman for the publisher's VR efforts, is not discouraged in the slightest.
"It's fair to say that we're not at break-even yet," he tells me during a GDC event at this year's show. "But we're also putting polish and effort into these games like regular games... we're putting out games that we'd be happy to put out normally on a platform. That's the beauty of being Ubisoft, as opposed to just a couple of guys; we can afford to put those games out there and realize that our investment is going to pay back over time.
"We expect the installed base to continue to grow, we look at each new quarter as a launch phase for the hundreds of thousands of people buying headsets during that time. And hopefully our titles will be the things that you want to get for sure on that platform. Eagle Flight's already gotten there; it's being described as 'if you want to get a great experience of flying be sure you get this game.'"
For Ubisoft, not making money on VR at this point in time is not the end of the world because the investments being made are enabling the company to learn what actually works well in virtual worlds. Early made an analogy to motion games, and how its first-mover advantage allowed Ubisoft to build a huge success in Just Dance.
"Whether it's learning the language of VR and what works and what's fun in that space, I think that's going to position us exceptionally well in the long run. I think VR is going to be a medium of the future for entertainment... I'll equate it to some of the work we did around Kinect. We started working with PrimeSense almost a year before Microsoft bought them, not because we knew about that but because we thought there was something with motion gaming... By the time Microsoft bought them and they became the basis for the Kinect system and Kinect launched, we were in an amazing position because of the language we knew about motion gaming already," Early explains.
"And so when we came out in the beginning with Just Dance and Shape Up, we had full body sensing when everyone else was working with skeletal systems; we had clothing recognition where it was recognizing the type of clothing you had on and displaying that in the game. Nobody else had that kind of stuff.
"And that came from the fact that we were making that kind of investment early on when there was no market at all but it was still us learning about motion gaming. Just Dance has done pretty well for us, and it's sold the most of any motion game ever. So it's a decent investment. Hopefully the VR investment goes the same way... To us, it's not about break-even today, it's about the investment we're making to learn how to do it well."
In his presentation during Ubisoft's GDC event, Early discussed some of the things that the company had assumed or thought it knew about VR - that it was anti-social, that locomotion had to make people feel ill and that people didn't want to play for more than 10 minutes. As it turns out, none of those things is really true now.
"At the start we thought we knew more. I think we're more humble now," he tells me. "We realize there's a lot that we don't know. Sometimes the things that we're certain are going to work don't work out at all. And other times things are much better than we thought. If anything, we're now at a place where we're more open to question everything about what we're doing in the VR space and that's leading to better advancements and more interesting things."
In order to find its "Just Dance" of the VR world, Ubisoft is giving its talented studios a lot of freedom to experiment and pitch ideas. That's something that the company has always encouraged, even before VR became a factor, Early says.
"Studios have a budget of experimentation that they get to work with and as they go through experimentation and they find something good they can turn that into a product pitch, and then that goes or doesn't go internally. And that's not different with VR from anything else we do with regular games. We're a very studio and creative driven company and that's part of the reason why you get products like Far Cry... and then the guy [Patrick Plourde] turns around and he makes Child of Light. Same guy, two radically different games but because there's a passion and pitch for both of those we can make both. VR is no different - it's only different in that we don't know a lot of what makes a pitch good yet," Early confesses.