It's been an interesting week for virtual reality, and Oculus in particular. With the Rift getting a second major price reduction in just a few months while headset sales still trail HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, some industry pundits, including GamesIndustry.biz editors, are questioning if it's just another bad indicator for the overall health of the high-end VR market. For many, VR has simply taken too long to build up an installed base that can make it a mainstream proposition, but the critics who says it's a fad or that it's already dead in the water have got it all wrong, says inXile CEO Brian Fargo.
Fargo, who founded Interplay in the early '80s and has been recognized for some of the most influential games in the industry, has seen trends come and go in this business and he's convinced that VR is here to stay and will eventually become mainstream. It's why his studio has taken an equity and project funding investment from gumi VR worth $4.5 million. Along with Wasteland 3, his new open-world survival VR project could be his last hurrah before retirement.
"I think some of the criticism [of VR] is a little unfair," Fargo tells me. "Certainly people don't complain when Sony or Microsoft has a sale. I think the issue is that it's still an expensive proposition. So even at $399 - which is an incredible deal, so now is the time to buy - you've still got to have hardware that costs a good $1,000 to operate it. So you're looking at an all-in price point of $1,300. That is not mass market. Really, to me, when we start getting into the $500 price range, now you're talking mass market. So in the case of the PlayStation VR, there was already this huge install base of hardware. So when they came out with a $500 headset, it was like it was a $500 new thing, right? Everybody already had the hardware.
"I think there's a big education process on the critical review side on what these games can and cannot do"
"With PCs, until 90% of the hardware can play it - which is not the case, most people cannot - then you're not getting the benefit of a cheap piece of hardware to layer on top of it. So, to me, it's got to be [either] an all-in package for $500 or when 90% of the hardware that's already out there can run the headsets... So, yeah, I think people are being too impatient. How many technologies are mainstream at $1,300? There's not that many. Refrigerators, right? We're just not quite there in pricing. But, you know, pricing always comes down. And it always comes down fast, so we know we're getting there."
The other problem, besides a dearth of really appealing content, is that some of the better content on the market isn't quite getting a fair shake, Fargo believes. He's not trying to point fingers at the media per se, but the veteran designer shakes his head when he sees critics comparing a VR title to a traditional high-end PC title, which naturally has benefited from a much higher development budget.
"One of the things that we are all dealing with is that I find the sites that focus on VR really get what we're doing and what the trade offs are. And, oftentimes, these people who are not really VR sites, the reviewers are just shredding products because they're making comparisons to a PC experience. They don't really understand," he says. "Not even to pick my product... I've read some reviews of Arizona Sunshine that were horrible and I'm thinking, 'I play everything on VR. It has absolutely been one of the best fucking games out there and there's no way it should get a bad review.' But it is because they're not understanding what these trade-offs are of this stuff. And so I think there's a big education process on the critical review side on what these games can and cannot do."
"And sometimes they don't do it on purpose. It's like, if you're a PC game player, and you every once in a while throw on your VR headset and play a game and give it a review, you're probably going to have a different attitude than a guy that plays a lot of VR games. Because then you have a better spot to go from. That's just an education process that happens over time."
PC games in the AAA space can obviously cost tens of millions of dollars, whereas VR budgets on PC are in the single-digit millions at best. "I think budgets around the $5 million range seem to be towards the high end of the scale," Fargo informs me. "There's not a lot of those deals available, so certainly anyone who's been allowed to be financed at that level has been fortunate. On the PSVR though, I know budgets that are in excess of $10 million. So they're really stepping up on a whole other level on that side of the business. Again, not a lot of deals, but for the right ones, you can get in excess of $10 million."
So the budgets are lower, and to further complicate matters developers are having to relearn entire aspects of game development. In my numerous conversations with VR developers the common theme has always been to throw out what you thought you knew about game design. Fargo agrees.
"The lessons you learn with VR are not intuitive. You have to jump in and do it"
"That's why I feel fortunate that we were able to do Mage's Tale because we learned a lot," he says. "The lessons you learn with VR are not intuitive. You have to jump in and do it. So when we do our next project, we'll be that much further ahead, having done the second one. So I'm glad that I won't be, 3 or 4 or 5 years out from now, saying, 'Now I want to do a VR game' because these 4 or 5 years of experience will really pay off for what we want to do."
Locomotion and proper hand tracking continue to be vital components that VR developers are grappling with: "There's a whole conversation about teleport, versus smooth movement, and how are we going to line that up if you're moving different than me, and handling all the inverse kinetics of things. There's also, just the way the hands work. Right now, with Mage's Tale, just taking off your headset and seeing are my hands where they are in the virtual world? Are they matching up here? And [devs are] spending the time on that. Little things like aim assist, when you're throwing the fireballs. If we just literally let you throw it just like you think you throw a baseball, turns out people are pretty bad throwers. So we need to make it feel like you do have control over the thing, but it isn't completely free-form. So sort of dialing in those little motion and throwing aspects is something that you have to experiment with.
"The other part is, understanding that it's a new medium; it's very different in the fact that it's now looking out into the room at you. So that's something that we never dealt with before on a PC. So where is the player physically looking? Where are his arms? How are they twisted? Pretty soon it'll be, where are your fingers and where are your retinas at? So these are kind of a new palette that you have to make sure you're drawing upon. If you're not drawing on all of those things in your product, then you're not doing a proper VR game."
The next big challenge that Fargo specifically wants to tackle with his survival VR game is to bring dozens of players together in a server-based virtual world. And in this era of Twitch streaming, he's keen to make it inherently watchable for people, whether in VR or not.
Fargo explains, "The focus on [our new] game, it's not open-world like Skyrim, but more like emergent gameplay that I find so fascinating. So think more like Day Z and that genre where our big emphasis is on 'What are people going to be doing when they're running around in a virtual reality world hunting each other? What's that going to be like? What's that going to feel like?' You take a lot of the experiences and you watch them, whether they're playing Rust or 7 Days to Die. That whole category of throwing 30 or 40 people [into an environment] and watching things happen - it's one of the most fun things to watch on Twitch. I mean Playerunknown's Battlegrounds came from a DayZ mod and it had...a ridiculous amount of views because it was so fascinating to watch people play against each other and these emerging dynamics.
"I think about that in VR and that really becomes a whole other thing. If I'm hiding in the brush and I'm literally, maybe I'm in my living room laying on the ground, and I'm hearing people talking and looking for me in order to kill me, that's going to be terrifying as hell. So I think it's going to be incredibly powerful to open that up to let people run around as bands and do what they do when you give them a loose rule pattern. But then what we want to do is layer on top of it what we do well with storytelling to give them missions and things to do. One of the things I miss in those titles is any kind of sense of agency. They all just kind of start off, and they're like, 'You have a rock. Go.' I don't know where to go and why I should go. There's no direction whatsoever and I step in a trap and boom I'm dead. Restart. I don't even know what's going on. So I think, what I'd like to see is more that can be done for guys like me that would like to go do some things that are a little more tangible, but, hey, leave it open for the rest who just want to go off and do what they do in those open-world games."
With The Mage's Tale, inXile delivered one of the longest VR games to date, as the title weighs in at about 10 hours long. Based on feedback from the player community, Fargo is convinced that's a solid length to aim for, as opposed to the demo-like experiences or short two-hour VR titles that are so common at the moment. And of course, a multiplayer server-based title is bound to offer even more gameplay time.
"I play a lot of games in VR and I would have a good time for an hour and then it'd be over, or I'd play for 20 minutes and never want to return. It seemed like one of the two," he says. "There have been titles like Chronos, for example. I had a blast with Chronos. And that was a long game. I played it all the way - well almost to the very, very end and then I got stuck on a puzzle and I didn't want to fool around anymore. But then I played Arizona Sunshine all the way to the end. I loved that game. And so the feedback - we look in the Oculus forums - has been very much, 'Finally a real game. Finally a real 10-hour game experience.' So that feels like a good number of hours that people consider a [good experience]. I don't think they're necessarily looking for a 40 or 50-hour gameplay experience. I don't think that's required. Obviously there will be some conversion of Skyrim and Fallout that provide that. But certainly the 10 hour-ish mark seems like a really good one that people seem very happy with."
Going any longer is probably cost prohibitive at the moment anyway. Fargo is very happy with The Mage's Tale being a "#1 selling Oculus title" but he acknowledges, "I tell my guys to temper their excitement because it's probably a real active installed base of 100,000 people or so. If you could make a 20% tie ratio, that would be unbelievable. So to me, that feels like the high end of things. But when we start bringing Mage's Tale to other formats in the future, it'll eventually pay for itself. Plus, when you get money from Oculus or Facebook you have advances and you have to eat through your advances. So really, they gave us a seat at the table and it's been great. I know some people have made it controversial or complained about the exclusives [Oculus gets] but it's only for a short period of time, so it's extremely reasonable. They were just a wonderful outfit to do business with."
Perhaps it's fitting that someone who's preparing for retirement might be thinking about old age (although Fargo's only 54) but one of the reasons he's intrigued by VR tech is also for its non-gaming applications. "One of the great things that I tell people about VR is it makes the idea of growing old bearable," he says. "Even if you're 90 years old and having trouble getting around, you'll be able to strap on that headset and maybe you're on a live stream climbing Mt. Everest. It's going to open up a whole level of experiences that you wouldn't be able to do at that age anymore.
"The big thing in the future... people worry about fake news now but it's going to be fake reality. We're going to be asking, 'What is real?' Instead of wearing glasses, imagine if they find a way to beam it into our retinas from remote? Then you'll really never know which way is up. You won't be buying glasses to give you AR, you'll be buying glasses to give you actual reality!"
"Running a studio is all-encompassing. It's like you're in a chess match all the time. You don't get to go home and shut it off. You're thinking about it. You're reading stuff at night...You're trying to stay on top of trends on a worldwide basis"
The more you talk with Fargo, the more his genuine enthusiasm for VR shines through. As much as VR has struggled to gain rapid adoption, it's given developers a canvas to paint on like nothing before. If you're creative, how could you not be excited by that?
"I've been in this industry since the early '80s. So here we are, it's a little hobby business and now it's this incredibly huge multi-billion dollar industry that's running TV ads every day and we have esports. It's become the tail that wags the dog," he says. "Anybody who says they saw it coming is probably not telling the truth, but there was one thing about it - video games were incredibly fun to play and there was a lot of passion about playing them and making them. And so, in retrospect, you say, 'OK, there was all this passion. Should we have been surprised at where this industry has gone?' We really, in some ways, should've seen it coming. So I look at VR as a deja vu with that.
"When you play virtual reality games - and I play them all practically - it's some of the most fun I've had in years. So I'm taking my lessons from, 'OK, where there's passion, there's going to be an industry.' On the converse, you think about something like the Kinect, for example, which saw all this hype behind it, but it felt forced. You sort of play it and you're grimacing through it and you're trying to think, 'How could this apply to real games more than the casual rafting or playing with pets?' I never quite saw that. In that regard, we look at that and say, we shouldn't have been surprised it didn't work because there wasn't the kind of passion you'd like to see with a new piece of hardware and new medium. That's what VR has."
So does all this passion mean Fargo might rethink his retirement plans, or perhaps "un-retire" as some famous athletes have? "I don't know. I hate to speculate too much," he remarks. "The last time I left Interplay for 90 days and I went, 'OK, I've had enough.' Listen, I've been running at this pace, scrambling, since I was 19 years old. I mean, just nonstop, through every one of these different junctures of our industry, without a break - except for that whole 90 days. So, it's like, I look at all my [friends] - they're taking off early. They're playing golf. They're doing all kinds of things.
"My days are hectic. Running a studio is all-encompassing. It's like you're in a chess match all the time. You don't get to go home and shut it off. You're thinking about it. You're reading stuff at night. You're reading blogs. You're reading customer comments. You're trying to stay on top of trends on a worldwide basis. Because I think to be successful in the games business, there's this conversation that's going on all the time, right? With the press, with the gamer, with the customers, in terms of what's allowable, what's not allowable, what do people think about DRM, how should modders be treated, how should women be portrayed in games? There's all these landmines everywhere. Unless you're in that conversation 24/7, you could step on one. At least for me, I feel the need to be involved 24/7 basically. That's why, gosh, it'd be nice to shut that off for a while."