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As Rift leads the charge, Oculus hopes competitors don't mess up VR Exclusive
As Rift leads the charge, Oculus hopes competitors don't mess up VR
August 18, 2014 | By Mike Rose

August 18, 2014 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

For a company that was recently bought up by the behemoth that is Facebook, Oculus' guys at the top are surprisingly chatty.

It's not uncommon to receive reams of marketing spiel from top executives at expensive game companies, but when I sat down with Nate Mitchell and Palmer Luckey at Oculus during Gamescom last week, it quickly began apparent that the Facebook buyout hasn't stopped these guys from speaking their minds, and letting the passion they have for VR spill all over the place.

Whether it's discussing the issues with bad VR implementation, their focus on video games as the Rift's core ideal, or what competition like Sony has cooking up, Mitchell and Luckey never show signs of dodging around a question or presenting me with stock PR-prepped statements.

As you might expect, it's really rather refreshing, and does much to quell any minor worries I might have following the Facebook acquisition -- as do the Superhot and Lucky's Tale demos, the latter of which left me speechless (a rarity, as those who know me will attest.) Here, you'll find my conversation with the pair.

So I was trying Morpheus last month...

Nate Mitchell: Morpheus? What's that? [laughs] I actually haven't tried it yet.

Well, I was playing a demo where I was in a cage underwater and being attacked by a shark. Looking around felt great and there was a gorgeous sense of actually being there, but when the shark began to attack me, that really destroyed the immersion for me, because I couldn't feel the shark battering the cage. My brain had been tricked, and then when the shark started attacking and I couldn't feel it, my brain remembered that I wasn't actually there. Is that going to be an immersion issue for VR as a whole? Will we need haptics going on as well for the full experience?

Palmer Luckey: Yes. VR is a lot more than just vision - it's all the different components working together. That's one of the reasons we do so much R&D around it. Game developers have to make content that doesn't break presence - it doesn't break that feeling of being in a virtual place.

"When VR content is poorly designed, it's very easy to break the illusion and the spell. You pull one card out, and the whole thing collapses."
Mitchell: I think that's what I really want to emphasize - I haven't tried the demo you're talking about, but it's very hard to create presence, and it's very easy to break the illusion, right? It's like this house of cards where, when everything is perfectly in its place, the illusion is totally there. A big part of it is our hardware, a big part is our software, and a massive part of it is the content. The content needs to be carefully designed for VR to really create presence. It's not something where it's like, it has to be hyper realistic. It just has to be designed with all this stuff in mind.

So when content is poorly designed, it's very easy to break the illusion and the spell. You pull one card out, and the whole thing collapses. And you think, this doesn't feel that cool anymore. So it sounds like, with that demo, it's largely due to bad design, and I bet if we sat down and brainstormed it for a while, we could come up with ways to make it way more excited.

I guess a larger issue resulting from this is that it's very detrimental for you guys if lots of bad demos come out, right? Because people won't say "this game sucks," they'll say "Oculus sucks."

Mitchell: It's two things there. Honestly, it's also the hardware side. Part of that house of cards is the hardware that's enabling the experience. So it's not only the games and content that's coming out - it's also the hardware devices that are coming out too.

We really can't control the hardware devices, which is one of the things that we're most worried about. If people ask us, 'What do you think of Morpheus?,' on the one hand it's amazing to see Sony come into the market, because it means more funding for developers...

Luckey: If they actually invest in it, of course.

Mitchell: Yeah, Morpheus isn't a product. That's true, and it's an important point - they haven't even said they are going to invest yet.

Luckey: It's not like they've said, "Yes, there will be more VR content that we're publishing."

Mitchell: But yeah, we're excited about that. But if the hardware isn't good enough, and it gives a bad experience and can't deliver presence - and actually one of the limited factors for them may end up being the PS4, for example - that's a major problem. That's kinda beyond our control, and that's really frustrating.

On the content side, there's a lot of things you can do - there was someone asking earlier whether we're going to have a "Nintendo approved" style, like an "Oculus approved" seal for games. We're not at that stage yet. We don't know what we're going to do. We're still just trying to get the hardware out there, and let developers achieve presence before we worry about enforcing them to have it.

"If [Morpheus] isn't good enough, and it gives a bad experience and can't deliver presence, that's a major problem. That's kinda beyond our control, and that's really frustrating."
There's a lot of different ways you can drive a high quality bar, and we really do want there to be lots of high-quality experiences on the platform, and not just have this sea of bad experiences. We really can't control the whole ecosystem and VR industry, and that is what it is. We just hope that everyone who gets into it is serious about really delivering a super high quality bar. And if everyone does that, it really should help the entire industry. Any time they ship something bad, it hurts the whole industry.

When you picture the full consumer release and you forecast the sorts of people who are going to buy a Rift, what sort of audience do you think you're going to have?

Mitchell: If you only ship Call of Duty VR, then it's only going to be mainstream gamers. But if you have something like Minecraft VR, then there's this other, younger audience that's there. My dad is most excited for the utility stuff like Oculus cinema, or being able to walk around virtual tourism. So different things for different people. I think for us, it's really about creating an awesome platform and an awesome device that developers can build anything they want on. Obviously our focus is games...

How important is the other stuff besides games? You guys say you have this big focus on games, but it seems like Oculus has much bigger potential, and it seems like putting your biggest focus on games doesn't seem like the best idea? That seems weird coming from me, I know!

Luckey: I think the difference is that gaming is one of the most demanding applications that there could possibly be. It'd be like if you said, there's all these different types of TV - if you can make a TV work well for sports, which are running at a high frame rate, high contrast, all these things - certainly people are going to watch soap operas on it too.

That's kinda where we are at VR - if we can make this thing work for hardcore gamers, running the most technically demanding applications, for things like architecture or video playback, it's going to be totally fine.

Everyone keeps saying "What if it's just a fad?" and it seems to me that the way to make sure it's not a fad is to make sure the applications are widespread. So in a weird sense, I really like reading about the non-game stuff for it.

Mitchell: I think it's twofold. What Palmer says is accurate - we're trying to do the hardest possible thing, and if we can nail that, everything else just works. And with games, because for real-time 3D graphics most of the expertise is in the games industry right now - those are the people who are going to really push the medium forward.

We are gamers, so we're passionate about gaming, so we want to revolutionize gaming, which is part of the reason we are starting with games. Gamers also have disposable income, and are willing to strap a crazy device to their heads.

It's kinda like we're at the beginning of computers. Let's go past the mainframe computers to personal computers - if you think of the DK2 as one of the first personal computers, there's tons of people everywhere who are like, "Pfft, no-one's ever going to ever want that." But there's geeks out there who were like, "this is going to change the world" and look where we are right now.

"If we can make the consumer version of the Rift as successful as the Apple 2, or something like that, it'll be a massive success. But you've got to start small and grow from there."
So when you're building something, especially something as game-changing as virtual reality, you don't want to try to boil the ocean right at the beginning, and just go for everything that actually eliminates focus and sort of spreads you too thin.

It's still early days. If we can make the V1 consumer version of the Rift as successful as the Apple II, or something like that, it'll be a massive success. But you've got to start small and grow from there. If we really nail it, everything else will fall out of it. We'd rather pour all our passion into games and knock that out of the park. I think everything else will fall behind it.

You were talking about getting games being an information factor for the platform. How cagey do you have to be now when you talk to developers? At this moment in time you're building the Oculus, and you also want to get loads of developers onboard - but of course, the problem is that you're still building it, and there's always going to be certain things you can't tell everybody, and then when you can tell them, it's going to have implications for what they're doing. How do you find that balance between saying, "Hey, everybody get onboard!" and then adding, "Oh, but this is happening now, and this is happening later"?

Mitchell: It's a major challenge. It's something that everyone who is developing a product that other people are building other products on top of deals with. You just strike the best balance you can. You can't give out all the details, all the time, but we also trust our developers with a huge amount of information.

Luckey: We lean towards being open, and one of the reasons that we don't say things - it's not because we wanna keep it secret, it's because we don't wanna say something that we're not sure about.

The only thing worse than not giving developers guidance on a certain date or feature is telling them that it will be something, and then changing it later. It's not that we're trying to keep secrets a lot of the time, it's just we don't want to tell people things that are not for certain.

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James Coote
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Must admit, I too am more excited for the non-gaming applications. I spoke to a person from an engineering company the other day, and he said they were doing all sorts of things with the Rift, like using it to lay out factory floor plans. Virtually walk through the proposed plan and check there was enough space between pieces of machinery for example, or use it to train people in what all those machines look like under the panels.

Marc Schaerer
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We've been doing similar things regarding visualisation of installations and architectural setupss. Its really great and of much more use than 3D projector / tv setups for example as you can really experience multimedia installations that way and verify that the content works.

It is probably one of the best possible uses as I am not sure that it will really 'hammer it' for games without 'full body force feedback' devices to prevent the break of immersion as games depent so much on additional things beside vision and audio only.

Andreas Ahlborn
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The more I read about OR the less I am convinced that it will ever turn out to be a real "product" for consumers.

Reading between all the lines of rhetorical PR-gaga (especially from Mitchell) I get this: even if all the technical and physiological (cybersickness) problems of VR are solved and even if the resulting product would be mainstream enough to allow for a reasonable price, the magical ingredient "presence" is enormously fickle.

So forget about "porting" over your game to the Rift or enhancing it with VR. If its not designed from the ground up with the Rift as its Main device in mind, its gonna spectacularly fail...

Good luck with getting studios behind you that will take that risk.

Ben Sly
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It already is surprisingly effective in a number of different locations where the factors that lead to "presence" are relatively easier to mimic, like spaceship cockpits. It's entirely possible that it will never quite be able to achieve that with consumer-grade tools (so your pessimism is warranted), but it's also quite possible that additional innovations with gradually expand the number of simulated environments in which "presence" is practical. Honestly, I don't think that anyone really knows how it will turn out.

And even if it turns out that achieving "presence" is impractical in most situations, using the Oculus Rift's head tracking to simulate responsive movement is still a step above mouselook and a monitor in terms of immersion. The lack of "presence" may be what prevents John Q. Consumer from buying it and the Rift from recouping the considerable amount that was invested in it, but I do still think that there's enough of a market out there in hardcore gamers and other people interested in VR to make for a decent market.

James Coote
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Eventually, game developers will learn to work within the constraints of the system, and it may be that the fragile nature of "presence" is one of those. Equally, it may be we have to settle for shorter experiences (due to motion sickness). In the same way experiences on mobile are typically shorter, to fit in with how people realistically use those devices.

Then again, people are still making games with virtual d-pads for mobile, so maybe you are right. It seems like on the surface, games like the shark cage one are perfect match for VR, but fall down somewhat once implemented.

George Menhal III
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I hate Facebook and I think it's a big, narcissistic waste of time, but I got over the Oculus / Facebook buyout rather quickly. The bottom line is that I'm excited for the final product and eager to embrace VR technology as both a consumer and developer. My goal is to offer a cool VR experience for the consumer release on day one. Not saying it will be anything amazing, but just to have a voice within such a new community will be enough. I will go on record to say that I think Oculus is the most interesting thing happening in games right now.

Gary Groy
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Palmer seems like a solid guy, a shame that creepy perma-grinned salesman Nate Mitchell has to be attached like a barnacle.

Benjamin Quintero
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I remain cautiously optimistic about the whole VR revitalization. I haven't used a Rift before but all other 3D technology has just given me headaches and double vision. The separate displays may be an answer to that problem, but I'm not sure how fatigue will factor into strapping a shoebox to my face. The need for things like re-calibrating between users may also cut back on it's user friendliness. I guess the market will decide, as long as something else doesn't come around and steal this thunder. Rift a long way from finished. That's a lot of time for disruption...

Duong Nguyen
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I wouldn't worry about Morpheus being "good enough", I would worry more about Oculus Rift overselling VR and leading to false impressions. The other component to the Oculus VR system is the PC ( unless they are selling their own branded PC ?) , if that's not capable to push the resolution and frame rates , that will produce a far worse impression of VR after they've spent upwards of 300$ on the VR device or so..

Thomas Henshell
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All I care about is being able to sit in my 'Mech and be able to see all the way around. Then VR will have arrived. :-)

Chris Book
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I like your style, friend

Bernardo Del Castillo
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So, I'm really excited about VR, I have one of each DKs and we're currently developing something with that in mind. And I get that this is what they have to say, because they are the precursors of the technology, but I smell a bit of false condescension.
It is them who have to prove their ability to actually produce a finished high quality consumer product. At least in the hardware manufacture aspect, Sony is one of the most reliable actors today. So, doubting their potential seems like a backhanded insult. I have little doubt that they will provide a very competitive product, worry more about delivering the best possible experience.. and not about how your (indirect) competition may affect the audiences perception of your product.

If anything they should be aiming to positively differentiate themselves if it Sony's solution happened to fail. After all VR consumers are likely to be pretty informed, and they can probably distance themselves sufficiently just by virtue of their product being only for PC.

CE Sullivan
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I have one of the original dev kits with the screen door effect, and every experience I've had with it has actually been pretty cool, including some demos that were done by amateurs. And as for porting your game being impossible, I'm not really a big fan of FPS games, but I thought Half Life on the Oculus was awesome because it provided a totally different experience from just playing it on a monitor (although kind of scary--just walking up to NPCs in virtual reality feels kind of weird at first because it's like the uncanny valley effect x 100).

Personally, I don't think it's the technology itself that's going to be a problem, it's just going to be convincing people that the technology IS there. I think it's pretty telling that the people who are most skeptical seem to be those who haven't tried it.

I do think there needs to be more of a focus on relaxed, exploration oriented games like Minecraft, because VR first person shooters or horror games, as thrilling as they are, may be too intense to have wide appeal. I think there also needs to be less of a focus on *realistic* looking virtual reality, because of that whole uncanny valley thing I mentioned earlier. That might sound counter intuitive, but I think the potential that VR has is in letting us experience immersive fantasy environments, not necessarily realistic environments. I think it would be cool to be inside a really cartoonish, stylistically drawn world, for example. After all, if you want to experience a completely realistic environment, all you have to do is look around you.