We had a chance to speak with Oculus VP of Content Jason Rubin at Oculus Connect 4 last week. Rubin co-founded Naughty Dog and has been a videogame pioneer starting from the original PlayStation era.
In our in-depth interview, Rubin remains highly optimistic about the future of VR. Setting grounded expectations, he compares it to when the videogame industry gradually transitioned from 2D gaming to 3D in the mid 90s.
The Oculus executive also says that he’s confident more AAA publishers will get on board, discusses privacy concerns, and offers criticism against the competition.
GameSpot: We’re roughly 18 months into the release of the Oculus Rift. What would you say is the current state of VR?
Jason Rubin: The thing that this reminds me of is when we launched PlayStation, which was effectively taking 2D gaming and turning it into 3D gaming. Some things were pretty easy. For example, virtual racers…Other things were completely untested. I said this today in my keynote. For example, bringing a character action game into 3D. People think, “Oh, you just take your character action game like Mario, or Sonic, or Donkey Kong Country and you make it into 3D. What’s so hard?” It’s actually really tough. On a scale of one to VR, it’s a four. It was hard to make things go 3D. VR is so different from everything that came before. It’s a huge challenge.
Name a title that came out before Crash Bandicoot. It came out at the same time as Tomb Raider. It came out at the same time as Gran Turismo. That first year, there wasn’t that much great stuff that came out of PlayStation because people were trying to figure out how to get it to work.
Again, I think that was a lot easier challenge than the move into something utterly different like VR. We’re not even a year from Touch launch. We’re not even at that Crash Bandicoot moment, yet look at what we have. We have Lone Echo, we have Robo Recall, we have Wilson’s Heart, we have a lot of really quality titles. We’ve learned a lot about the business. We also have 300 titles that are Touch-only in the [Oculus] store in less than a year. Go back and count the PlayStation titles. I don’t know that they got there that quick. We have a lot going on really fast with this platform. It took a while for PlayStation to finally take off, and for people to say, “Okay, 2D gaming is kind of over. We’re into 3D gaming.”
Again, this is a much bigger sea change. Prices are different. Everything is just different about this. If you compare those two, I think we’re doing really well on our transition. As I said in the keynote, I wouldn’t have signed up to achieve what we’ve achieved in the first two years of VR, in the first 18 months of Rift, and the first year of Touch. I would have said there’s no way I can deliver what we’ve achieved. If someone said, “That’s your benchmark. You get a bonus if you hit it.” I wouldn’t have thought I would get the bonus.
Looking back, you’re saying that you think you’ve come farther than you thought you could be now?
Absolutely. I can tell you why I think we’re ahead, too. …Most transitions are consumer lead. You make a mobile phone, make an iPhone, a year later you have an app store, there’s a bunch of people on it. Developers are like, “There’s got to be a way to make money there.” Developers come after the consumer.
Facebook, at the time that they launched their game apps. They had like 800,000,000 users. Someone [at Facebook] said, “Hey, here’s a way to put your app [on our platform].” Zynga was like, “There’s got to be a way to make money here.” Right? This is the opposite. It’s very unique for being the opposite. You have developers, you have Insomniac, Ready at Dawn. Big publishers, Ubisoft, ZeniMax, Bethesda all of them saying, “This is what I want to do. This is clearly the future. I don’t care that right now the market is growing. I’m not going to wait. I’m going to have one foot in the future and one foot in the present. It’s just going to happen.” This is what they want to do. It’s been amazing because they’re not really asking, “How many users are there on the device?” They’re not asking the questions that journalists are asking. What they’re asking is, “How do I make this financially make sense for my company right now?” Which, obviously is a consideration. “Even if you can tell me how I can break even, I want part of this. This is why I got into the business.”
That’s why I think we’re ahead of where we are. I thought the hardest part of my job, and my team’s hardest part, was going to developers and trying to convince them to get into VR. That wasn’t the hardest part of the job. We just gave them dev kits and they said, “We’re in. Tell us how to make this work.” Then time will take care of itself.
Isn’t the goal of every company to be profitable? Isn’t it a tough pill to swallow if an optimal outcome is to just break even?
It is and it isn’t. If you look at VR and you say, “This is never going to be profitable.” You’re 100% right. Nobody gets in that business, but if you look at history, there were amazing 2D character action game makers. Then there was Naughty Dog, which was Andy [Gavin] and I at the time making Way of the Warrior, which was a pretty half decent at best, fighting game. We said, “Wait a minute. Here’s a new platform. Nobody’s making a character action game for it. Maybe we’ll make money, maybe we won’t make money, but it’s a market that we believe in.”
While the 2D guys were all stuck iterating on what they knew how to do, we learned how to do 3D before them. [Crash Bandicoot] became a 3D character action game. One of the new ones, and they were too late to the market.
Take a look at mobile. Big publishers were like, “I don’t know. There’s not that many people on mobile. How do you make these games? Zynga, Playdum, PlayFish and all of these early movers into mobile were like, “There may or may not be a way to make money here, but we believe in it if we get in early. It’s not the first title, it’s not the second title, we’ll do it at some point.” To that point, Rovio’s 50th title, I’ve heard 50 or 51, we’re gonna call it 50. Their 50th title was Angry Birds. The other 49 failed. They looked at the mobile phone and they said, “At some point, we can make money here.” They became a billion-dollar business.
The developers believe that this VR headset is the future. They’re not focused on, “Am I going to make money on this specific game?” They can’t lose a lot of money, because it’s a rough business in developing. If they can break even and learn, they have the opportunity to be the Zynga of VR, or the Naughty Dog of VR.
There’s this inflection point that happens every now and then, where the big established company doesn’t move, because they’re making billion-dollar games. The people that get in early, they don’t make money on the first one, but they get ahead. When the money comes, they’re the big winners.
Are you saying that you’re confident that the big game publishers will eventually get on board with VR?
Absolutely. I said that on stage. Every time I have this conversation with a journalist. There’s less and less big publishers that are holding on. As I said, Ubisoft is showing titles on our floor, right? When will they make an Assassin’s Creed? That’s a multi-hundred-million dollar title. They can’t lose that much money, but they know that they have to be involved in this.
You have Bethesda, you have Rockstar, they’ve announced that LA Noire is coming out, right? If you look at VR as a whole, who isn’t in it at this point? I guess EA, although of course they did the Star Wars game for Sony. I guess EA, Activision, Blizzard, there are some to be sure, but less and less, every time we have this conversation. It seems to me that the bar keeps getting moved. It’s like, “Okay, you got Respawn, but you don’t have this one. Okay, we’ve got that one. Sure. But you don’t have…” There’s not that many that aren’t involved. That doesn’t mean that tomorrow Battlefield is coming out… because the scale isn’t right. It does mean that it gets harder and harder for them to ignore the business.
As a VR user, on a pragmatic level, I think one of the bigger challenges is handling movement in virtual reality. How do you move around in VR? There’s artificial locomotion, which allows you to move around with a joystick, but it can cause motion sickness with people. Is that something that you feel is a big concern? Is Oculus working to address that?
Yeah. That’s a complex question to answer, so let me try. On stage today, I said, “Effectively, I was wrong. Oculus was to a certain extent wrong.” We thought nobody would want to play with standard locomotion. A single individual went out and proved that is actually a market. [Developer] Dante with Onward, right?
There are people that are totally fine with the situation as it is. To get to a billion people, which is Mark [Zuckerberg’s] desire, I think that we do need to keep pushing forward. We do need to keep expanding upon the locomotion issue. Having said that, when we started, we thought, “You’re either in place and it’s okay.” In place meaning you can move your own head, but you can’t use [joystick] locomotion. Well, Lone Echo, because of the fact that you’re pulling along [your environment] and The Climb, because of the fact that you’re pulling along, totally changed the game.
When all we had was a gamepad, it was pretty binary. You were either using the gamepad, and that made a lot of people feel uncomfortable, or you were standing in place. As soon as we got your hands in there, there’s something about you moving your body at the speed of your hands that connects and works. Precious few people feel uncomfortable in Lone Echo. Not 100 percent, but it’s better locomotion than we had before.
I think we’re going to keep chewing away at the edges of that. There’s plenty of things we can do. We can make better lenses, we can start to get focal depth by tracking your eye, and allow you to focus on close things or far away things, which doesn’t happen right now in our VR headsets. There’s the way the lens curves around. How much field of view you have. There are all these little nuances that will make it better, and better, and better. Fundamentally, when your inner ear doesn’t feel something and your eyes believe it, there’s a disconnect. It’s no different than being on a boat. On a boat, your inner ear feels movement, your eyes don’t if you’re under. That makes you feel sick. If you’re in the back of a car, you’re reading a book, your inner ear feels the movement, your eyes think the book isn’t moving. That creates, for some people, discomfort. It’s exactly the same thing.
People still use boats, people still ride in the backseat of cars. Even though some people don’t like riding in the back seat of cars, it did not stop people from going out on boats. It will not stop people from doing VR. Overtime, we will get better and better at it. We will figure out how to lessen it.
You mentioned that you are impressed with where you guys have come so far. Some companies that have invested in the VR industry might not agree. We’re seeing some VR companies starting to shutter. What do you have to say to companies that are thinking about investing in VR?
Yeah. I don’t want to address any specific company that’s shut down. In general, over the last two weeks, I’ve gotten multiple emails from companies that are not working in VR that have shut down or had layoffs. They’re now looking to get into VR, because the 2D business wasn’t working for them. There was just an article today, about the middle tier developer is having a hard time. Prices are pushing up. It’s very hard for middle tier developers in 2D to make things happen. There is constant thrash and movement. In many cases, the company that isn’t making it attributes their failure to some external thing. For example, VR isn’t developing fast enough. Instead of looking at themselves and saying, ” What are we doing wrong? Why are there companies that are thriving and are happy?” If you’re looking for a story, it’s easy to find a company that is failing anywhere in the business. There’s companies that are coming up and companies that are coming down all the time.
Oculus just announced Dash, which is a way that allows users to use their desktop applications within the VR headset. There are some people that are concerned that Facebook might use this data to mine additional info from Rift users. And on the subject of privacy, some users are concerned that the Rift sensors can be used as cameras to spy on them. With privacy being such a concern now, can you speak to these issues?
Well let’s start with the cameras. Let’s go in reverse order. Any device that has inside-out tracking with cameras, regardless of which brand has created it, is using cameras. As far as I know, putting aside for a minute the non-positionally tracked stuff. …Vive has a camera on it, all of the Microsoft things have cameras on it, [PlayStation] Move has a camera on it, Rift has cameras on it. The cameras are the sensors that are being documented. All of those can be used as cameras. It is the underlying technology. I don’t think it’s unique to Rift. The answer is, we’re all doing what we’re doing because it works. Nobody wants user camera information for anything. None of those companies are. With regards to privacy and data. I would probably focus privacy and data questions towards Facebook, but that is not our goal….I’m a content guy, so when it comes to specific privacy… I can tell you that is not why we’re doing Dash. We’re doing Dash because it’s awesome. You get in Elite Dangerous, you’re flying across the galaxy, it takes forever so you put on Spotify, throw up your music, throw some emails in. It’s the future.
What do you think of what HTC, Valve, and Sony are doing in the VR space right now?
I don’t want to address any of those in particular. I think, at Oculus, we have a game plan that we’ve been following from the beginning. We’ve been questioned often on that game plan. We have been very consistent with what we’re doing. Specifically, we believe that the right way to launch a piece of hardware into an ecosystem that doesn’t exist is to support it with as much software as possible, so that the consumer gets the best possible experience.
Facebook and Oculus have invested more in the content ecosystem than any other hardware manufacturer. I would guess, more than all other hardware manufacturers combined. We believe that as a result of that investment, that our ecosystem should get the benefit out of it. Sony agrees. Google agrees. There is one player that doesn’t agree with that. They are the outlier there. We disagree with what they’re doing. We don’t believe that keeping the price high, adding on random bells and whistles, and never getting to a point where there’s a large ecosystem of content, is valuable. We have continually defended our position that our investment is worthwhile. I think, if you look on Reddit, you look at the response of the community, it’s gone from, “Everything should be for everybody.” To “Oh my God, look at how awesome Oculus’ catalog is. Why isn’t everybody else doing this?”
We would like for everybody else to do that, because every time a developer discovers something new, regardless of who pays for it. Regardless of what store it comes out in. Regardless on whether it’s on our hardware or not. That pushes VR forward. We’ve been very consistent with that message. We’ve consistently also been driving the price down. We’ve heard other hardware manufacturers say, “Now is not the time for a price drop.” Well, guess what, they’re following us.
What upcoming VR games should GameSpot, our audience, keep an eye on?
Yeah. It’s hard for me to pick favorites. It’s like picking a favorite child. I think From Other Suns is going to kill it. I have a great amount of fun playing Arktika, which just came out yesterday. Reviews have been good for that one. I’ve never been a massive strategy game player, but Brass Tactics is really pretty neat when you’re moving yourself across the table, watching your army move in a real time strategy game. We have a ton of great stuff coming out. Coco’s going to be amazing.
…It’s pretty interesting that one year ago, roughly this week, we had another keynote, and we stood on stage. We said, we’re going to deliver the following three titles: Robo Recall, promise kept. Lone Echo, promise kept. Echo Arena was a surprise, actually at that point. We didn’t mention it last year at all. Arktika, shipped yesterday. Three titles, three delivered titles, all of them people are reacting very well to.
We’ve now said, “Here is a bunch of additional titles that are coming out on top of From Other Suns every day. The Marvel title. All of these that we’re going to launch.” We announce, and we launch, and we keep our promises. We’re kind of alone in that space right now.
If I can just piggyback off of that. A while back you said that Oculus isn’t going to be in the long term business of making games. Can you elaborate on the situation there?
Mark [Zuckerberg] says we’re going to get to a billion units [sold]. That’s our goal. My goal on the content ecosystem, as we get to a billion units, is to make the ecosystem self-sustaining. At that point, Facebook’s desire is not to be in the game business. Not to be in the content business…
Are you going to be out of a job? *laughs*
Maybe, *laughs* but just like a billion units isn’t happening tomorrow, it’s gonna take a while for us to get there. This is not something that anyone should read as, “This is imminent.” This is something that is in the same timeline as getting to a billion units. If we hit 100,000,000 units, there’s a world in which we don’t need to be funding content, because there’s enough hardware out there that people are building content making a lot of money.
Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo still makes games.
Even though they make hardware as well.
That’s absolutely right. There is a world in which we do still make titles. I’m not sure that’s the world we’ll be in at that time. The most important thing to Facebook is connectivity. The most important thing to Facebook is bringing people together in the social realm. It’s not game. It’s not film. Again, this is way down the road, I should have made that clear. There is a world way down the road where VR is so successful that Oculus doesn’t have to be in that business.
As you say, it may never happen. For other reasons, we may need to be in the business longer. I like to target getting to the point where we don’t have to be. I don’t think Sony has to be doing it for the PlayStation 4 to be a healthy business. I think there are other reasons why they make their own titles. I think you can make a very large title for PlayStation and Xbox as a publisher without any money from Sony of Microsoft. You can put it out there and make a very sizeable profit. Look at Grand Theft Auto. Look at Call of Duty. Look at Battlefield. These titles exist on their own. That’s the world we need to build.
What do you have to say to our GameSpot readers who run the gamut from somewhat interested in VR to not interested in it at all?
Two different answers. If you’re interested, go play a demo somewhere. We’re about to launch a demo in November for Marvel Powers United. Best Buy has demos in various places, find a friend who has it, go look at it.
If you haven’t any interest in it, the key here is, don’t dismiss it until you try it. I read so many people who are like, “I have no interest in VR whatsoever.” You haven’t tried, you shouldn’t be saying that. You may not have an interest in buying something today. You may not have an interest in changing what you do because you love it, but don’t knock it until you try it.