It was a big moment for virtual reality this week when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the Oculus Quest, a standalone, wireless VR headset that will debut for $400 in the spring of 2019. The Quest raises the question for game developers about whether it will be the form of VR that takes off in the mass market.
Zuckerberg joked that the company is 1 percent of the way to last year’s goal of getting a billion people into VR. The question is whether the Quest will be Facebook’s biggest chance to hit that goal. Clearly, the $200 Oculus Go has sold well, but it falls short as a gaming device. The Go is a standalone, wireless VR headset, but it only has a single weak remote control, with three degrees of freedom (3DoF). It probably won’t be the device that gets Zuckerberg to his goal.
I believe the Quest, previously code-named Santa Cruz, has a lot more potential. I played four games on the Quest this week, and I think it has a shot. It fills a position between the low-end Oculus Go and the high-end PC-based Oculus Rift VR headsets.
So far, Oculus showed off Quest game experiences like Dead & Buried Arena, Project Tennis Scramble, Face Your Fears 2, and Superhot VR. They weren’t high-end Triple-A experiences, but I enjoyed all of them.
The Quest has its own computing built into it, and so it gets rid of the market-limiting notion that you have to buy a $1,000 gaming laptop or desktop to play high-quality games in VR. The Quest has two high-quality (six degrees of freedom, or 6DoF) hand controls. On top of that, the Quest is wireless, and it doesn’t have bad delays or latency. It has inside-out tracking for a much larger play space. And it will have curated titles, including some of the best from the Oculus Rift on the PC.
Oculus chief technology officer John Carmack said the Quest isn’t a high-end gaming device, precisely because it lacks the PC’s processor and graphics power. But it may be a real competitor to the Nintendo Switch, which doesn’t do VR. Like the Switch, the Quest is a highly portable device. The Switch has sold 20 million units in its first 15 months of sales, making it one of Nintendo’s biggest console successes. But the Switch costs only $300, it has huge game icons like Mario and Zelda, and now a swarm of indie game developers are targeting it as a viable game platform.
The Quest is overpriced, compared to the game consoles, but not so much in comparison to other VR products. I think of the Quest as “the Switch of VR.” And that’s an idea that may have legs.
Developer reactions are good
Ru Weerasuriya, CEO of Ready At Dawn Studios, said in an interview that he agrees with that notion, and that’s why his company continues to make VR games. Ready At Dawn’s Lone Echo II is coming on an Oculus Rift platform in 2019, and the company has already been lauded for its previous Rift titles Lone Echo, Echo Arena, and the upcoming Echo Combat.
“Oculus is only three years in the market, and already it has three platforms,” Weerasuriya said.
Of course, this has a downside. Facebook’s VR devices haven’t sold that well. Sony launches a console once every five years or so because the machines sell in the tens of millions of units, and the stable platform gives developers a good target.
VR has been slow to take off, at least compared to expectations, since modern headsets starting arriving in 2015 and 2016. During a slow time, launching new headsets more often is less risky. Virtual reality and augmented reality headsets will grow this year, IDC projects, with 2018 sales expected to hit 12.4 million units, versus 8 million in 2017. By 2022 IDC expects sales of 68.9 million VR and AR headsets.
As always, VR has its optimists.
“I believe that [the Quest] is definitely along the lines of the Switch in terms of viability,” said Anshel Sag, analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, in an email. “I have always considered Santa Cruz/Quest to be Facebook’s target device and form factor. It gives them the performance and control of the user experience that the Rift cannot because of Windows and PC makers. That’s why I think they are able to squeeze so much performance out of the 835, they have been optimizing for that chip for years. They want this to be what developers target first and foremost.”
It’s not a given that Ready At Dawn’s PC-based VR games can be adapted to run on the Quest. The Quest has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, a 2017-era chip which is weaker in performance that other Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 845 processors. A PC-based machine is always going to have big performance advantages over something like the Quest.
“Oculus has a good, better, best strategy for its platforms,” said Clifton Dawson, CEO of Greenlight Insights, in an interview. “It does pose complications for curating games for the medium. There’s a small universe of content creators in VR now. But the benefit of that is that the investment of time and resources are being funneled to a smaller universe of developers. Guiding them through the choices becomes critical. Developers may have to choose Rift or Quest. The partners will have to work together at an earlier stage. The challenges for indie developers will remain in the near term.”
Some developers love taking such risks. Robin Hunicke, CEO of Funomena, said in an interview, “Look at the Nintendo Wii. Did people care that it didn’t have the processing power of the Xbox or PlayStation? No. Nintendo never has this problem. They make great games. They are family friendly. They have fantastic franchises and they build stuff that works. It’s not that hard to put together, and it’s fun to play with.”
Funomena’s artful game Luna debuted in VR on the Rift and HTC Vive in 2017, and it has been ported across a number of platforms, including the PSVR this fall. Hunicke likes to work with platform owners on emerging platforms like the Rift.
“We have seen VR pigeon-holed as a hardcore market because of the hardware factor, where you need a big PC to run it,” she said. “That’s no longer the case. It will be really interesting to see if the marketing folks — who are pressing the next set of advertisements and commercials over the next couple of years with this next set of headsets — will continue to lean on that crutch.”
The Quest, then, might well succeed as an accessible mass market device, particularly if it is targeted at the larger gaming audience, Hunicke said.
“I would love it if there were the equivalent of Animal Crossing and Mario Kart on this new headset,” she said.
Alexis Macklin, analyst at Greenlight Insights, agreed. She said she believes that players will care more about experiences, rather than processing power or pretty graphics. Pulling at heart strings or delivering a Star Wars experience may matter more than watching grass sway in VR, she said.
Betting on Star Wars fans
Already, the Quest will have a big title coming from Disney and Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB, which will create a new original Star Wars VR story dubbed Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series. The first of three episodes — which are part of the same effort that created The Void’s Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire VR experience — will debut in the spring with the Quest’s launch. This is one of a total of 50 titles will be available at launch, Zuckerberg said.
Mohen Leo, ILMxLAB director of immersive content, said in an interview, “The second we got our hands on Quest and tried it out — you immediately understand that it changes the way you experience VR. One of the things about this experience, you do get to wield a lightsaber. Just knowing that you don’t have to worry about, as you turn around, wrapping yourself up in a cable and tripping over, that changes things. It allows you to dive deeper into the experience.”
David Goyer, executive producer of Vader Immortal, and Colum Slevin, director of Oculus experiences, also said the prime attraction of the Quest is that it will enable players to spin around in 360 degrees while wielding a lightsaber. And so, who cares if it won’t be the highest graphics quality?
Of course, the Quest has some potential dangers to face. Its higher price is one problem. The Quest also runs at 72 frames per second, slower than the 90 frames per second of the Rift. That’s going to be an odd target for developers. The art assets will also have to be different. The Void’s Star Wars title, which requires you to carry a backpack around with a computer in it on your back, won’t run on the Quest.
Such differences made the Nintendo Wii difficult to develop for at a time when rival systems, the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, were very different animals when it came to game development. At one point, after the Wii started its decline, it lost developers because it was so unique.
Sean Liu, head of hardware management at Oculus VR, said in an interview with GamesBeat that developers will have to choose carefully what kind of experience they want to deliver. If they want high-end graphics with super-realistic imagery, then the Rift on the PC (or perhaps its successor) will be the right choice. But if 6DoF and mobility matter more, then the Quest may be the right choice.
Developers can make their games in Unity or Unreal, the most popular game engines for VR, and port them from the Rift to Quest, or vice versa, without too much difficulty, Liu said. Liu also noted that Quest will be able to access all the processing power of the available processor, as it is not a phone or a PC, and so it does not have other tasks to do.
Carmack said in our brief conversation that there are “no Triple-A games in VR now,” and no one is spending $100 million to develop such games. There are, however, Double-A or Single-A games. And if the Quest sells twice as many units as the Rift does, then it will become the platform of choice for developers, Carmack said. That, in turn, will attract bigger budget games and more marquee developers.
He said the Quest is being targeted at “very serious gaming, but it’s unclear if we have the content line-up to back that up.” He said that Triple-A games take years to develop, and developers have not been making games for the Quest for that long yet.
“The saving grace is that we will be able to bring over a lot of good Rift stuff,” Carmack said.
Carmack, as is his habit as one of the game industry’s legends, is more frank than he ought to be. But I think that he and others are correctly seeing the opportunity. Making the Switch of VR is a viable strategy.