Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sandals, Palmer Luckey seems supremely calm, even happy, as journalists play the launch titles for his invention, the Oculus Rift.
Releasing on March 28, it’s the games and various other experiences that will make Rift a must-have piece of tech for consumers – or not.
I played a handful of the launch titles at GDC 2016 and was blown away by their quality and the utter enjoyment I felt experiencing them. One thing developers I spoke with kept coming back to was how good Oculus is to work with, and I think it shows in their creations.
I wanted to pick Palmer’s brain as to why Oculus is prioritizing developers to the point that they own their own IP, as well as ask him the nagging tether question, plus a whole lot more.
Techradar (TR): In speaking with the developers here, they all say, “Oculus is a great partner, is very supportive and awesome to work with.” Why is it important for Oculus to prioritize developers?
Palmer Luckey (PL): Well, I agree with them, we are great. (laughs)
We really prioritize working with external developers over trying to build everything internally. We are building some things internally, but we’re not trying to be a Nintendo where we’re doing the majority of development internally, and that’s for a few reasons.
One is that we want there to be a successful third-party ecosystem of developers who are succeeding outside of Oculus. Because if they can succeed, it means that they’re more likely to go on and make VR games in the future. If we can help them make a VR game now, they’re more likely to make one in the future, even if they aren’t working directly for us, and that’s a net win for us.
Another thing we do is, when we work with Crytek, for example, all of the code that we mise in CryENGINE for The Climb, they own all of that code, all the license, and that goes right back into their game engine, which means that it helps them make future VR games and it helps anyone who’s using CryENGINE make VR games.
Another thing we do is all the developers we’re working with, we’re not taking any of their IP. All of them are retaining full ownership of their IP, even a lot of the games that we’re fully funding. That makes it more likely, again, that they’re going to go out and make more VR games.
So, our goal here is not just make a bunch of games ourselves – it’s to make a bunch of stuff using our resources that ensure a long-term ecosystem. That kind of kickstarts a virtual reality ecosystem that’s healthy for everybody.
TR: Was that the plan from the beginning, or did it evolve over time?
PL: We always knew we were going to work with developers. Originally, when we were thinking about funding titles and building things, we were mostly thinking about doing it ourselves. But, as time passed, we realized it makes more sense to help that external ecosystem and to work with teams that are already built, already established, already working together, rather than trying to pull together your own crack team to make good stuff.
And that’s really paid off. That’s really the only reason we’re showing 41 games here [at GDC] – it’s because we’ve taken that strategy. We never would have been able to do that on our own no matter how much money we put into it.
TR: Is there one type of game or content that you’re personally most excited to see the development of and see where it’s going?
PL: No one thing in particular, but Lucky’s Tale and EVE Valkyrie are particularly close because those games have been in development since the very early days. Paul Bettner [CEO of Playful] and I started talking about VR before we even launched our Kickstarter. We were both interested in VR, and he knew I was doing some work on the side, so he’s been into VR for a very long time. So it’s very cool to see how far they’ve come over four years to where they are today.
TR: VR used to be thought of in a more rigid, traditional sense, and Oculus Rift is transforming how we think about virtual reality. What are you’re thoughts on that?
PL: We’re trying to make it cool and mainstream and something everybody wants to use. Now, what we have today isn’t that, but it’s a good step on the path.
Eventually we want virtual reality to be used by hundreds of millions or billions of people. What we have today is never going to be used by that number, but as the cost goes down, as the performance goes up, as it becomes something that’s light, comfy and easy to wear every day, I think virtual reality will get to the point where it doesn’t have this stigma of being this crazy, cyberpunk, science-fiction technology, and it actually becomes something that people use everyday.
Time to cut the cord?
TR: I know you’ve been asked this before, but all the games I’m playing today, I can’t help but note that Oculus Rift is tethered to a PC. Do you think it encumbers things at all?
PL: Of course. By necessity, with the tether, you have to design around the strengths and limitations of the headset. There’s a few strengths: you have plenty of render horsepower, you can make really great games.
But that tether is a real thing that needs to be designed around right now. Game designers can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist because that’s when people end up tripping over themselves and falling. You have to acknowledge that it’s there for your game design.
Over time though, I think that’s going to change. But, in the long run, virtual reality is primarily going to be headsets with built-in render horsepower. Now, that’s not necessarily going to happen today because the fidelity is so much lower than what you can do with PC.
Gear VR is a great mobile device, but it isn’t the same fidelity of what you can get on a PC. It’s going to be a few years before we’re able to get something that feels close to what we’re showing today on a fully mobile device.
TR: Looking outside of gaming, what are you most excited to see when it comes to VR content or experiences?
PL: I’m really excited about virtual reality telepresence and social communication applications.
The thing to remember is that this perception of VR as a gaming technology is very recent. If you look at science fiction, gaming is usually either a tiny part of it or not part of it at all. Virtual reality is about building these parallel digital worlds that exist alongside our own, and living in them, working in them, playing in them, doing all kinds of things in them, games are just one part of that.
The reason we’ve seen this heavy focus on gaming is because, one, the only people who have the tools and the talent to make photorealistic, 3D real-time worlds are people in the games industry, so they were able to jump into this faster than anyone else. Hollywood and business you’re starting to see catch up, though.
The other reason is people with high-end PCs capable of running high-end VR are mostly gamers right now, which means the people who can run the hardware are the people who want to buy game software.
That’s going to change over time. I think you’re going to see VR games continue to grow. It’s going to continue to be a bigger and bigger industry. It’s not going to shrink. But the other parts of VR are going to grow much more rapidly than games, to the point you start to see the balance that you see in science fiction films and books. You’ll see people using it for business, basically replacing business travel, being able to put people from all over the world in the same room without burning jet fuel, without sticking them in different time zones. That’s going to be a big deal.
TR: That sounds very Facebook-esque. Is Facebook influencing where you guys are going in any way?
PL: When Facebook acquired us, they agreed with our vision. Our vision has never been to just be a gaming company. The start is going to be very focused on gaming, but I’ve been a virtual reality enthusiast my whole life. I’ve always been really intrigued by the idea of virtual reality.
When we first started talking with Facebook, it wasn’t about an acquisition. It was about ways that we could work together. It became clear that we both had very similar visions for virtual reality. We believe that this was going to be the next major computing platform, maybe the last major computing platform because once you have perfect VR, it’s hard to imagine what other technology you need to perfect in terms of communication, content and experiences.
They’re taking a long-term approach in this. Mark [Zuckerberg] has talked about Oculus being a 5-10 year investment, and we’re doing everything we can to support that, making the right decisions for the long run rather than the short term.
TR: Looking at where Oculus started and where it is today, has everything gone to plan? Are you still on the same path you wanted to go?
PL: No, it’s been much faster. We’re basically on the same path, I just didn’t know that we were going to be able to move this quickly. I didn’t know there were going to be nearly this many developers involved. I didn’t know there’d be this many consumers interested, and I certainly didn’t expect to see so many other large companies jumping into the VR space as a result of what we’re doing. All of those have been a surprise. Path? We’re pretty much doing exactly what we wanted to do.