As an Oculus Quest owner, I should be thrilled that Facebook’s Oculus Connect 6 keynote yesterday was so heavily Quest-focused. After a series of major announcements, it’s clear that virtually all roads now lead to Quest in the long term. But I’m not thrilled with how Quest is looking in the short term, particularly as it heads into the critical holiday shopping season.
Let’s start with the good news. By year’s end, the standalone headset will play tethered Oculus Rift games if you have a PC and buy a new USB-C cable, as well as at least 50 Oculus Go tetherless titles. Early next year, you’ll be able to control some Quest apps with just your hands and fingers — controllers will be optional — thanks to a fully software-based implementation of Leap Motion-like hand tracking technology. In a brief nod toward the distant future, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged that current Quest software will be forward compatible with future Quest hardware.
Break those announcements down and it’s easy to see the Quest platform as a safe investment. Buy a $400 Quest headset and you don’t need a Rift S, Go, or any other accessories beyond what comes in the box. Spend money on Quest games or apps today and they’ll work on next-generation Quests. After experimenting with higher- and lower-end devices, Facebook seems to be cementing the mid-range platform as its “One Ring to rule them all” in the future.
There are two levels to the bad news. First, Oculus has all but yanked the rug out from under both the Rift S and Go, as the choice between Quest and Rift S is now only a hint more complicated than “do you also want to play standalone Quest games without your PC, or not?” Only the hardest-core VR hardware users would pick the modestly more PC-optimized Rift S instead, though hard-core VR users probably skipped Rift S in favor of Valve’s Index or HTC’s Vive Cosmos anyway. And apart from helping Walmart train employees on the cheap, the Go headset doesn’t seem to have much of a future, either.
A second issue concerns me more: Apart from promises of better things to come next year, I’m not sure what’s supposed to sustain or increase Quest sales in the short term. During the OC6 keynote, Mark Zuckerberg claimed — yet again, minus any actual numbers — that Facebook is still selling as many Quests as it can make, and that Quest users are remaining engaged with their headsets rather than letting them gather dust.
For the sake of the VR industry, and mostly its developers, I want this to be true but can’t just take it on faith. Facebook has a poor (and regrettably misleading) track record of estimating numbers, and even if its sales claim is true, it’s impossible to know whether it’s just making too few headsets, selling truckloads to enterprises rather than end consumers, or actually putting millions of units in individual customers’ hands. The rosiest scenarios could just be wishful thinking, and I don’t see Quest actually competing with Nintendo Switch on unit sales (especially now that there’s a $200 Switch Lite model).
Cherry-picked anecdotal examples of success don’t help. A handful of Quest titles are said to have quickly outpaced their Rift predecessors in sales, but that could have everything to do with reduced competition — too few Quest games to choose from — coupled with more aggressive promotion. As a paying customer, I’m still not willing to drop $20 to $30 on 99% of the software I see in the Oculus Store, and to the extent my Quest gets turned on these days, it’s largely for Beat Saber sessions and to await system updates.
As strong as the keynote was on future developments, it almost completely dropped the ball on generating excitement over upcoming software, and that’s what will ultimately make Quest relevant. To its credit, Facebook did announce a new Beat Saber music pack and unexpectedly quick release of Vader Immortal: Episode II on stage. But it did a huge disservice to other developers (and viewers) by jamming almost all of its other third-party software news into a less than minute-long sizzle reel, giving exactly none of them an opportunity to shine.
Potentially compelling new draws such as Space Channel 5 VR and The Room VR flashed on screen as quickly as previously announced titles Pistol Whip and Arizona Sunshine, which were padded with footage from already-released titles such as Red Matter and Half + Half. It was as if Facebook seriously believed that viewers would rather spend the entire keynote hearing executives talk than spend 15 solid minutes showing demos of what’s coming next from third-party developers.
Oddly, that strategy didn’t apply to its own reveals. It wasn’t afraid to burn time screening an extended (and unimpressive) video of a long-gestating Respawn Medal of Honor game that isn’t coming until 2020 — and is seemingly Rift-exclusive — or yet another social VR app, Facebook Horizon, which is also coming in 2020. Meanwhile, AAA-caliber Quest titles were entirely absent.
So what’s supposed to get people excited heading into the holidays? From my perspective, fixing the Oculus Store has the best chance of keeping people interested in the platform as it grows. Apple’s App Store gives developers the freedom to offer flash sales that will spur followers (and word of mouth) to drive purchases, and Sony coordinates deep weekly game specials across its PlayStation Store. Collectively, the strategies keep users coming back and buying tons of software, which means they’re constantly using their devices and interested in what’s next. In the Oculus Store, if you see something at the wrong price on day one, there’s basically no need to bother coming back to it.
Absent a change to that strategy, Facebook is going to need to have plenty of surprising new Quest software that’s worth buying at full price, or attract lots of PC users, to bring new customers in the door and keep them engaged. Having invested in a 128GB headset and a handful of games, I’m looking forward to the day when my Quest gets the sort of frequent use that Mark Zuckerberg talked about on stage. But after months of waiting, I’m beginning to wonder whether that will happen anytime soon. If it doesn’t, sales of used Quests — including mine — may start to alleviate Facebook’s apparent supply challenges.