Facebook may one day have no need for Oculus
Oculus head of content Jason Rubin explains, "Facebook would be perfectly happy if games organically came to the platform"
How weird it must be to know that if you do everything right and help your company succeed that the ultimate result could actually mean your job is redundant. That's exactly the feeling that Oculus head of content Jason Rubin and his team at the virtual reality firm must be encountering. Why? Because, as we all know, Facebook is a platform, and if the end-state within VR for Facebook is to become a fully functional social VR world, content generation won't be a primary goal anymore.
"I don't think that's cynical," Rubin tells me at last month's Game Developers Conference. "In fact, I would say that, assuming there was a healthy ecosystem and developers were making money and enjoying what they're doing and continuing to pump back content into the system that Facebook would potentially say, 'Jason, thank you. You're done. Now that the ecosystem is set up, let independent developers, let small developers, large developers, publishers like EA, that's their business, let them do it.'
"[Content generation] may not be a business that long-term Facebook wants to be in. Facebook wants VR to work, Facebook wants VR to be huge. And absolutely Facebook's long-term drive in that is to make a more social world to connect people," he continues.
How many years away a fully functioning VR world is, one that transforms Facebook at its core, is anybody's guess. For the here and now, however, games are critical to drawing attention to VR technology as a whole.
"Facebook's not a media company. So there may be a day where Facebook says we're going to head towards our core competency"
"Everyone believes eventually there will be large groupings of people interacting in real time in VR together and we're all in various ways pushing towards that... There is motion in that direction but the user base needs to grow to get to the point where it becomes a pastime for people," Rubin says.
"We understand right now my job is incredibly important. It brings these titles to fruition. And how long between where we are today and where we can say, 'Great ecosystem, you're working on your own', kind of like iOS - Apple doesn't fund a lot of titles because it is a self-sufficient ecosystem - I don't know how long it's going to take to get there... Facebook's not a media company. So there may be a day where Facebook says we're going to head towards our core competency."
He adds, "That's why I don't have internal teams. I have exactly one group of three people besides Story Studios because that didn't exist outside. I have one group of three people that are working on what ended up being Dead and Buried and needed Gunfire, an external team, to do the heavy lifting on that title because we just didn't have the bandwidth to make it as fully fleshed as we can. That's why we're going to third parties; to get them educated, to set them up to succeed on their own, we want the development community to be the ones driving what happens in the future."
Even if Oculus is one day dismantled, it will have done its job in making sure games thrive in VR. "Games will always be important. Facebook itself would be perfectly happy if those games organically came to the platform in the same way that games are the number one dollar revenue source for Apple. But Apple doesn't spend money getting games made for iOS because it's a standalone ecosystem," Rubin says.
In the meantime, Oculus is confident that the Rift installed base will be growing significantly. My GDC interview took place just a couple days before the company slashed prices on its headset and Touch controllers. Perhaps if I had listened more carefully I would have picked up on the hints Rubin was dropping.
"Putting content aside for a moment, which we believe is the most important driver of getting consumers to get into VR, the question is what else is extremely important, and based on our Best Buy demos and other demos - we've done hundreds of thousands of them - what they tell us is they want the price to change, they want the price to be reduced," notes Rubin.
"We have absolutely full confidence that we're going to sell a lot of units just like [Sony has with PSVR] as we approach that price"
"They're extremely excited by the potential of the VR system we show them today. They're not saying, 'Yeah I'm interested in this if it had...' They are very happy with what we offer but they would like that offering to be at a lower price. PC prices have come down, which is great but over the long run our price needs to come down as well. Adding features is not something there's a very high demand on. And if those features add price I think we're moving in the opposite direction," he says before talking about the competition.
"For example, we really believed in on-device headphones. We thought it's clunky, it's too many wires. Yes, you could have your favorite pair of headphones and we totally get that and you can do that with Rift if you want to take them off, but we wanted to give people the opportunity to have on-ear headphones. We fit that into our current pricing. It wasn't in Vive's current pricing. And they've just announced that that's an extra hundred dollars to get that extra functionality - that to us is moving in the wrong direction, because you're saying for what we believe is the right headset you have to pay not $799 but $899 to get into VR.
"Adding other features, higher resolution screens, cordlessness - these are all things that are inevitable to VR but if they drive up the price today our research has shown us that this is exactly the opposite of what the consumer wants. The consumer wants this VR at a better price. And in the long run, of course all those [other] things happen. In the immediate future, price is the most important thing."
Sony's PlayStation VR headset, which sells for $399 ($499 for the Move bundle), is proof that price really does make a difference, Rubin believes. Sony said it almost surprised itself with the fact that nearly one million units had been sold.
"I think it's more than there's a lot of PS4s out there - I think they reacted to that price point... And we have absolutely full confidence that we're going to sell a lot of units just like they have as we approach that price... I'm really happy Sony sold that many units; it's good for VR," Rubin says.
As more and more people buy Rifts they're going to be looking for solid games to justify their investment. While some developers scrambled to get titles out on time for Oculus' consumer launch or shortly thereafter - with only a year of time using dev kits - Rubin is emboldened by the fact that developers have real experience in the VR trenches and have learned what to do and not to do.
"Some of the titles you're now starting to see are actually second generation or more titles - so for example, if you look at From Other Suns, that title is being done by Gunfire. They did Hero Bound for Gear VR and they then did Chronos, one of our best selling titles on Rift. Then on the back-end they did most of the heavy lifting for Dead and Buried, which is our number one title by time spent on Rift. And now they're launching their kind of 'this is what VR should be' game, which is very different from the types of titles people race to get out at or around the launches of our platform," Rubin says.
"Developers are simply getting better at what they do. It's inevitable that we get Skyrim, GTA, Call of Duty scale games"
"So I think with over 100 Touch titles alone in our PC store, 1000 titles in the Oculus ecosystem, we do have good software... What it takes to get to great software is time, experimentation, experience and budget. So we're focusing now on expanding the size of our user base, which means more sales, which means developers can spend more money. And also developers are simply getting better at what they do. It's inevitable that we get Skyrim, GTA, Call of Duty scale games. But those games take a long time to make. And they also are generally sequels of titles, which are sequels of titles and they've built up a knowledge of what they should be making. It's going to take a little while for us to get there but we are headed in the right direction and I think this generation of software and the Wilson's Hearts and Lone Echos and other stuff we have coming out are absolutely big quantum leaps towards that full ecosystem."
As a developer, if Oculus is funding your project, the financial concern is lifted. Facebook has already pumped $250 million into the ecosystem and has pledged another $250 million - in fact, Rubin notes that it'll be "at least that much." But surviving without funding from Oculus requires careful planning at this stage in the VR market.
"There are developers we are working with who are all-in on VR that have really good business models. They've worked out how long it's going to take for the user base to grow, what they believe they're going to spend, what they believe they're going to make and they've done a good job of planning for the growth of VR," Rubin explains.
"There are other developers that are saying mobile's not a great place to be. 'Mobile's a place where I can't cut into the market. King and Supercell, they own the top of the chart, I can't make any money here, I'm too small to go console, uhhh... VR!' and they jump into the market without much of a thought. And really more than jumping into VR they are abandoning other things that aren't working for them. And some of those developers who haven't really thought it through or don't have the ability to think it through, they will have a little bit of a hard time," Rubin warns.
"But I do believe if you have a way to get involved in VR this is the next gold rush for developers. And I believe that developers understand that because there was a GDC survey that went around recently that was talking about who was working on what and [a good number] were planning to bring out titles for VR... Developers get it - it's just a question of not jumping in too quickly. Any business change has that risk."
As head of content, Rubin spends much of his time looking at non-gaming experiences too. While we're all laser-focused on games, many people, especially on mobile VR, are concentrating on other VR experiences.
"My team already spends about 50% of its time when it looks at mobile on experiences - non-games... In the long run, we absolutely believe that VR is far beyond games - experiences and other entertainment come first but then general social usage and other things like utilities outside [games] becomes big," Rubin affirms.
"We're absolutely going to work on discoverability and search and we have a lot of ideas. Facebook is a company that's really good at getting people the things that they want in front of them"
"It's a big part of our business going forward. Virtual basketball games, going to the theater, and I would also add we are currently changing the way movies are made," he adds. "There was just an article about using VR to make the next Star Wars, but I know a lot of directors - and they've called me because I know them from living in LA - who are actively predetermining shots for scenes by modeling the sets in VR. Then they are walking around or moving around to see what things look like and say, 'Ok I want to use this shot but you see that pillar that we were going to build? That's got to move and we have to change this...' So VR is literally changing the way we make movies right now in Hollywood but it's also going to change on the output side and people will absolutely be focused on VR filmmaking as we move forward."
As my 35 minutes with Rubin neared an end, I asked Rubin about something critical to many developers livelihoods: discoverability. I'd agree with Rubin that 2017's crop of titles is noticeably better than 2016's, but if the games get buried in the store, that won't help the market.
"We're attacking that from two ends. The first thing we're doing is curating. The long tail of stuff that people download and they go, 'Oh that was terrible', we're trying to not have that in our store. And that's not the case on everybody's store - our store is far more concise to the high end of the quality spectrum than other stores and we think that makes it easier for the consumer," he notes.
"Over the long run, we're absolutely going to work on discoverability and search and we have a lot of ideas. Facebook is a company that's really good at getting people the things that they want in front of them. So we will absolutely be working on making discoverability better and addressing the problem you're talking about, but right now our strategy has been not letting bad things into the store because that starts the process of happy consumers. And then surfacing from the good stuff what a specific consumer wants is step two and we're absolutely looking to do that in the future," Rubin adds, perhaps hinting at a suggestion algorithm akin to what Amazon or Netflix utilize.
For Oculus, Rubin says quality is stressed even in its less important storefront sections. "We have a high bar for our Early Access [section of the store] and we vet the teams with human beings as opposed to just letting them get in the store by either paying or just having it in there, and we trust that the developers are going to finish the products they're working on... We cut that tail of Early Access and The Gallery a lot higher than some other stores out there. So even when you go in The Gallery or you go in Early Access you're more likely to find something good."