An Audience With...
Jason Rubin, head of game development at Oculus, on what 2017 holds for virtual reality
Between Oculus Rift’s astonishing Kickstarter success in 2012 and its official launch last March, the VR conversation was almost entirely technical – one of screen resolutions, framerates and latency; of optimal control systems; of the design and manufacturing of headsets, and of the processing power required to run them. Yet with the first year of consumer VR coming to a close, those problems have been solved, and the question now is how this remarkable technology can best be harnessed by games. Enter Jason Rubin, Naughty Dog co-founder, former THQ president and, today, head of content at Oculus, where he is charged with defining the software strategy for the company that brought VR back from the grave – and for the VR industry in general. Here, Rubin reflects on the first year of VR, looks ahead to its second, and attempts to chart a course to VR’s holodeck endgame.
The first year of consumer VR is behind us now – how do you think it’s been, both for Oculus and the VR sector in general?
I think it’s going very well. We’ve been very clear since the beginning that we believed it was going to take a bit of time for VR to become massmarket, but in the last 12 months we’ve made huge strides where it comes to awareness and to demoing software inside major retailers all over the world, and have launched some unique and interesting software that didn’t exist a year ago. If you look at the intention metrics for purchase, when price point and content get to a certain level, they’re extremely high for VR. We’ve established a very good beachhead in the first year of consumer VR. That was an answer to your question for the industry, not Oculus in general. But I think Oculus has driven a lot of that.
That’s in part due to the fact you were first out of the gate – but Touch wasn’t. As the head of Oculus’s software division, how frustrating was it not having the optimal control method available to you when Rift launched?
I don’t think it was a negative at all. The devkits that we had for Rift were sent out less than two years ago, and the average large console or PC title takes longer than that to make. So from the standpoint of developers, even though there’s been eight months between these two launches, there still hasn’t been enough time, really [for it to matter]. In the eight-month window that we’re looking at right now, it looks like a launch that didn’t happen simultaneously. But as we look back in time, even a few years from now, this was the year VR launched, and from developers’ perspective it all happened basically at the same time.
I think the most important thing for us was not getting Touch out day and date, it was getting it right. It took a little extra time to get the controllers to a point where we felt they were ready for the consumer, and for the software to get to the point where we have, now, over 50 titles available at launch. So the consumer gets not only really fantastic, best-in-the-business experiences with the hand controllers, but also a significant amount of the highest-quality software to back that up. I think we rolled it out in the right way, and I feel that even more now that I’ve seen the launch lineup and know what’s coming to the store.
When we visited Oculus for E292’ s cover story, you told us Oculus Studios hadn’t had much input into the design of the Rift hardware. Were things different in the making of Touch?
Generally speaking the company was much less software focused when the Rift was in development. We now have a larger, more robust software development group, and we all speak to each other internally, so I’d like to believe that we had an impact! Certainly our software engineers were giving feedback from the developers directly to the hardware team, and there were changes made. We certainly didn’t drive the design, but I would like to believe that we did have some input. I think the controller spec that we were first handed was so good that there wasn’t that much to add. Really it was just figuring out how to use it that has been our bigger focus.
Touch isn’t the only VR motion controller on the market – in fact, Rift is the last of the big three VR players to support motion control. What do you think sets it apart from its competitors?
Touch is very different than anything else that’s out there. Ergonomically, it feels better, it’s lighter – all of the things you’d want as a consumer. But additionally it delivers hand presence: the ability to point a finger at something, the ability to do a thumbs-up. The ability to make a fist, and do so naturally in a way that, in a few minutes, you’re very used to using it, to making shapes
and gestures with your hands that would be arbitrary on any other system… You could certainly adopt the buttons on another controller to make a fist; you could do it with a gamepad, but it wouldn’t feel like you were creating a fist. It’d feel like you were hitting a button that generates a fist from your character. There’s a hand presence that is only available through Touch that is incredibly compelling to the user, and that developers have started to use to do natural motions within games.
For example, in Wilson’s Heart, you turn on the lights by pointing a finger and hitting a switch. It doesn’t sound like genius, because you do it in everyday life, but it’s something you’ve never been able to do in a game so naturally before. To map a button to create a pointy finger and then hit a switch will always feel like a disjointed, kind of hacked-together version of reality. Touch provides the real reality of just pointing your finger and clicking the switch. From that flows improvement to every interaction that we do with Touch over other hand controllers that are out there.
So is it an essential component of the Rift experience or simply an extension of it?
It’s actually both! But I think the vast majority of Rift users will acquire Touch going forward. It will be a key part of the experience.
Touch comes with a second sensor, meaning it also enables you to offer room-scale VR. Do you think that’s the ultimate goal of VR, or just one path?
It’s one possible path. We also support a three-camera setup, which is an even bigger space. There’s also a four-camera setup that developers have access to which makes the space even larger. But there’s a logical limit to how large a space a human being can donate to VR in their day-to-day lives. I’ve been very successful in life and am lucky to have quite a large home, but I don’t have a VR room – and I’m in the business. I think the number of people that will have a large room to dedicate to VR, at least in the foreseeable future, is relatively small. So I believe a two-metre-by-two-metre or three-metre-by-three-metre space – maybe clear a coffee table or push back from your desk – is probably the most likely play space for VR in the near future.
We showcased inside-out tracking technology at Oculus Connect 3. That, theoretically, will allow you to have an arena-sized VR experience. Clearly the vast majority of people cannot afford to have an arena-sized VR experience! And there are challenges with coffee tables, and I have dogs that run in front of me when I’m playing VR; I have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. It is possible for VR to become world- scale. I think in the long run that’s not the likely outcome because there’s a lot of us on the planet, we live in cities and pay expensive rent and don’t have a lot of room to dedicate to VR, but VR does need a little freedom to move around, and we provide that freedom now with our various setups.
From technical concerns of latency and sickness, to logistical issues with manufacturing and shipping, to questions of input prior to Touch’s belated release, it feels like there’s always been some kind of hurdle in Oculus’s way. Are those days over now?
I divide the answer to that into two halves. The first half is things that are not directly related to VR, like shipping. Oculus is a four-year-old company that started as a startup funded through Kickstarter. The fact that a few years later we put thousands of units of never-beforeseen technology into people’s hands and had a monthlong delay on shipping, I think, is understandable. And those are challenges that are faced by almost every company. I think the vast majority of those problems are behind us. Not only have we become more rigorous as a company, but we have Facebook’s backing now, and Facebook is a very rigorous company. Those issues are not part of our future.
With regards to the challenges of VR, the reason I’m in this business is the joy of overcoming these challenges. We’ve all envisioned the holodeck, OK? We all imagine being able to step out into a virtual world, completely unencumbered, and being able to walk for miles and interact with artificially created beings. We have hand tracking today, but we don’t know where your waist is, we don’t know where your legs are. We can’t trick your inner ear yet. We don’t have smell, we don’t have taste, we don’t have haptic feedback in your hand. If you get punched by a virtual alien, you don’t feel it in your face.
You could call those challenges, and make them a negative. I look at them as an opportunity. I think the whole company’s excited that we’re slowly surmounting these things. Who, a few years ago, would have thought that we could put something on your head and make you believe that you’re at the edge of a building and you can’t step off it? Who would have thought we could trick your eyes? Anyone who says, you know, “There’s a screen-door effect – I can tell that it’s a screen” – it’s as if these people have not watched the last couple of decades of technology. These things will be overcome. We will achieve better and better visual fidelity, better and better input fidelity. That is the joy of being on this journey. If you look at what’s happened over just the past few years, I think we’ve been cutting away at those challenges pretty darn quickly.
But it’s on you, as head of Oculus Studios, to map out the order in which these things are tackled. If we say the endgame is stepping out onto a holodeck and getting tangibly punched in the face by an alien, how
do you chart that course? How do you break this infinite possibility space down into a series of strategically manageable steps?
One step at a time! I started developing videogames in 1985. We didn’t have the colour yellow on the Apple II, which I started working on. So we had to fake yellow by doing a line of red and a line of green – don’t ask me why this works, but red-green-red-green makes a really ugly yellow – and that’s what our deserts were drawn with. How are you going to make the game you want to make? I don’t know, but I’m going to take a step forward. Then we kept stepping forward, and eventually there was 3D. They said, “You can’t make a character action game in 3D! It’s not real 3D, it’s a 3D polygon on a 2D screen – people won’t be able to judge how far they’re jumping”. Well, guess what, we made Crash Bandicoot, and Miyamoto made Mario 64, and somebody else solved some other problem, and somebody else solved some other problem.
Developers just do. Every time a developer solves a problem, every other developer says, “Good on you – I’m gonna steal that from you and put it in my next game”. It’s not just games – this is technology in general: we keep taking steps forward. Somebody creates something, and somebody else takes a step on top of that person’s shoulders, and one step at a time, things keep getting better. Without the cellphone, we wouldn’t have the screens for the Rift. Without the cellphone, we wouldn’t have the chips that do rotational tracking. Without 3D printing, we wouldn’t have been able to do the design of the Rift so quickly. Without the industrial processes that people have created, we wouldn’t have been able to make the headset as we did. By stepping on very small steps of slowly improving technology, suddenly the Rift exists. Stepping on little bits of technological invention from developers, the software just keeps getting better. I don’t have to worry about how we solve the holodeck. I just have to worry about how we’re going to put the next bunch of games out, and then once they’re out, I’ll look at everything that’s been done by all these brilliant developers and we’ll say, “Great, let’s combine that and take another step”. We’ll get there.
Sony has persuaded larger publishers to at least dip a toe in VR. In doing so it has big names on board –
Star Wars, Batman, Tomb Raider and so on. Oculus, however, has been more reliant on indie developers. Do you want, or need, the support of big studios?
Brands have a huge role in consumer commerce and making people happy. One of the most successful projects that my team financed for the Gear VR is Jurassic World, which uses ILM’s incredible dinosaurs. We have Ubisoft supporting Rift, and we have a bunch of other big publishers doing so. I would love to have, as a personal favourite, a Star Wars game on Rift, or a Batman game, or an Avengers game, or a Bond game. There are people who aren’t interested in games who would still want to see brands on the platform.
But it’s still early going, and I think indies are good, because there’s a lot of them – and remember, the more steps that are being taken at the same time, the faster we get to places. Plus, they tend not to have ingrained theories and beliefs built up over the years. They tend to be a little more experimental, and they tend to reach in random directions. It’s hard to strap brands to some of that extrapolation, because you never know which one’s going to be good, and many more fail than succeed. But I think indies are a vital part of our future, and brands are a vital part of our future, and I’m absolutely convinced over time that the two will both show up in Oculus. Big publishers, small publishers, brands, non-brands – it’ll all just work itself out.
I do fear, as a funder of content, that when you strap a beloved brand to a product, sometimes it falls short of expectations because there’s such a pent-up love of, and expectation of, the brand. If you put an indie title out there without a brand on it and people fall in love with it, you could take the exact same title and throw a brand on it and it wouldn’t meet people’s expectations. There’s a careful balance that we have to consider as we talk
“IF YOU LOOK AT JUST THE PAST FEW YEARS, WE’VE BEEN CUTTING AWAY AT THOSE CHALLENGES PRETTY DARN QUICKLY”
“I THINK THAT MOMENT COMES FOR VR SOME TIME IN 2017 OR 2018. THAT’S THE MOMENT AT WHICH THINGS CLICK”
about brands, but they will absolutely be a big part of VR, as will indies, in the long run. I sure hope indies will be there for the long run because they’re very creative.
Does the knowledge that players are becoming more accustomed to VR – gaining their ‘VR legs’, as some people put it – mean that you can change the kind of games you make?
First of all, there’s a debate about whether ‘VR legs’ even exists. I think it does and it doesn’t. I think there are people who can train themselves to feel better over time, in the same way you could go out on fishing boats every day and probably get used to the motion. There are other people, I believe, who for whatever reason are not going to change the way they feel. The most important thing from Oculus’s perspective is that we’ve created a bunch of titles on Rift in which 99.9 per cent of the population are completely and utterly comfortable. There’s a huge range of things we can do. It’s not a restrictive subset: we can create a massive amount of content, both interactive and non-interactive, that takes advantage of that.
When it comes to the titles that do have the potential to make people feel uncomfortable, from Oculus’s standpoint that’s a subset of the total market. We tend to focus on comfort, but we have also become very aware that there are people that actively seek out the more aggressive experiences. Our metrics tell us that ‘rollercoaster’ is one of the most searched-for terms when it comes to VR simulations. People are pretty aware that rollercoasters, on average, are going to be the wrong thing to do if you have discomfort. But they do like experimenting. They like playing with it. We’re open to a wide range of content, but Oculus itself is focused on the broadest possible marketplace, so we tend to focus our efforts on the more comfortable end of the spectrum.
We’ve reflected on the year just gone, and we’ve done some holodeck-style future gazing, but what are your immediate hopes for 2017, the second year of consumer VR?
There are a few developers that are now releasing their second generation of titles. And those tend to be some of the best titles, because they’ve already learned not only what to do, but what not to do. They’re starting to get the feeling of what works in VR, and they will continue, as they go forward, to get a better and better feeling of that. It takes a while with a new developer who’s never worked in VR, either for them to bumble through making that discovery, or for us to sit down with them and have long conversations about what we know. We don’t know enough to really give them a clear guide; we kind of talk around what we’ve found works and doesn’t work. But the second-generation developers are now becoming third-gen developers. Those are the developers that are really pushing the limits, saying, “Halfway through the first title I did, I realised that I was missing something. I couldn’t change the game design halfway through, but now that I’m done, I’m going to do what I should have done in the first place”. As we move forward, I think those developers are going to start teaching us, really, where the possibilities lie in VR. That second-gen software is really going to be what sets the tone for what you’ll see in the future.
Historically, this has precedent. PlayStation, N64 and Saturn were the first systems that allowed you to do 3D at scale, except for a few arcade games that had come before. The first generation of games that came out for launch? They were great games, and I spent a lot of time on them. But they weren’t as polished and as nuanced as the second generation, which came a year after the launch of PlayStation. If you ask someone who had a PlayStation what games they played, they’ll remember Crash
Bandicoot, which I worked on. They’ll remember Tomb Raider, which I worked on. They’ll remember Gran
Turismo. These are the games that defined 3D gaming, and they were all second-generation titles.
So I think that moment comes for VR some time in 2017 or 2018. That’s the moment at which things click. That’s not to say we don’t have an amazing launch lineup, that people won’t have an incredible time. I was a day-one PlayStation owner and played the hell out of it before any of those games came out. But that moment when those games came out, that was when everything clicked. 3D gaming just ran. I think we’re going to have a similar moment [with VR] in the near future.
Wilson’s Heart, a Rift exclusive from Twisted Pixel, is an exemplar of what Touch’s hand presence can offer