Dear Oculus

Blog Posts ,Oculus ,Random Musings
June 14, 2016

No company got me as excited as you did for virtual reality. In 2014, I watched Ally of Pixelwhipt talk about the second iteration of your developer kit, and I was immediately sold. I decided to change my entire career to focus around these groundbreaking advancements in immersive technologies, and I’ve been working as a VR developer and evangelist for the past two years as I’ve seen the industry grow – far faster than I anticipated, and with much more passion than I had seen in any other facet of the tech world. You were at the core of all of that – I waited in line for hours to try the Crescent Bay prototype at the SVVR holiday party, I traveled around the world toting my DK 2 and telling everyone that you were the company to look to in innovation.

I stayed optimistic with the Facebook acquisition, and I think that at its core, many of the decisions that have been made since then have helped push VR forward even more. As a developer, I can understand the decisions around wanting your SDK to be tightly integrated into your headsets. As a consumer, I understand that your studios want to focus on the best possible experiences for your hardware, and why exclusive titles are something to be expected of the game industry – while I may not like it, personally, I at least understand the motivation.

It started off when I couldn’t use my Cardboard applications on my Samsung S6 if I installed Oculus Home on it. I had to install a package disabler to use my Gear VR headset with Cardboard applications – something that worked flawlessly, I’ll add. I didn’t like that I was, in a sense, being told what content I could or could not consume based on the headset I owned.

I was awake ten minutes before the Rift went up for pre-sale. I felt an adrenaline rush that was unprecedented when I confirmed that my Rift was ordered. When March 28th rolled around, I wasted no time at all upgrading the runtime and testing out Lucky’s Tale on my DK 2 – the headset that had been my go-to for everything.

I’ve been teaching VR development for two years, both in the US and in Europe. I develop applications that don’t ship to app stores, they’re open source and available on GitHub for anyone to poke around with. I help new developers build for VR, and I loved being able to take my DK 2, then my Rift, to show off the advancements in a technology that had taken over my world. I skipped lunch at Oculus Connect 2 in order to get a front-row seat to John Carmack’s keynote in the Dolby Theatre. I am a part of the Oculus Launchpad initial class, an initiative designed to help foster diversity in the industry from underrepresented makers.

I was lucky. My Rift shipped only three weeks late, not months like some others. I played more of Lucky’s Tale and Eve: Valkyrie, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy through the Oculus Home store. There was no refund option, and I had already received my Vive and purchased quite a few games through Steam. I waited and found myself spending a lot more time in my Vive, though I would occasionally pick up the Rift to watch a few of the shorts (Invasion was beautifully done, and I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Henry). I had an amazing time at the kickoff Launchpad bootcamp, but couldn’t shake off the fact that no one would answer my questions around whether or not we had to use the SDK, or if we’d have to have an exclusive release agreement, or if we could only distribute through the official store, to be eligible for support.

Over the last few months, I’ve been working on my own game. It’s something that I’m really excited to bring to life, because there’s nothing quite like it. I excitedly chatted with Palmer about some of the elements behind it, which got me excited all over again. It needs hands, though – and I don’t have Touch. Requests for it have gone ignored.

I’ve been developing now with the SteamVR plugin, because I’d been limited to their platform by hardware restrictions. With yesterday’s announcements at E3, though, that is now an explicit choice. I feel validated that I made the right decision to purchase most of my VR games through Steam, when presented with a store choice. My heart goes out to the developers who have been working to bring their VR applications to life, who are getting torn apart online for the fact that a higher-up at their studio made the decision to do a timed exclusive. I feel for the developers who have been hit financially after you decided to DRM lock Oculus titles, resulting in a surge of VR application piracy. These are developers who have dedicated years of their lives to building your platform up.

Frankly – it’s almost hard to say that consumers deserve better. The sense of entitlement of quite a few vocal Vive owners, and the vitriol spewed towards developers or people affiliated with titles in the exclusive Touch launch, is personal and it’s harmful. These are people with careers built around a passion for a once in a lifetime opportunity to have a huge impact on a new technology -people who have been doing more for the industry than can be valued by lost sales over years of development, evangelism, sharing knowledge, encouraging new creators, and so much more.

Maybe this event speaks to a part of the industry that overall represents a positive place – that momentum is so great, it has reached a point where major companies are battling for market share. Perhaps it’s the dawn of the PS 2 v. Xbox of the VR industry, ushering in an era of new innovation. A far more sinister worry, though, is that Facebook is looking to achieve the “Facebook-status” of VR: not to a be a first-in-class experience, but to be only-in-class. The VR industry is still small. There is a developer shortage. Systems are expensive and innovation needs to be encouraged, not purchased and cut off retroactively.

I understand that at a company, things change. Priorities change, leadership changes, business models change, and competitor platforms may threaten the 2016 slice of the pie – but you aren’t really the ones struggling here. Not yet. It’s the consumers, the ones who were passionate enough to shell out thousands of dollars to see dreams come to life. It’s the developers, who need to find a way to pay bills, often in extremely expensive cities, be taken seriously, and also feel like they are able to create the next-generation of computing experiences in an ethical and non-exclusive way. I didn’t share the hatred that came out when the price wasn’t actually in the $350 range for the Rift. I own two generations of Oculus technology – but if something doesn’t change, I will be much more cautious in the future of what hardware I purchase and support. I will turn to open platforms that do not exclude certain hardware devices in applications which are very capable of running on many.

You can change these things. You once represented everything that was right with the new age of VR technology, but you’ve strayed. I have faith in you that you can listen to the industry you’ve helped build, and do what is right by the consumers and the developers who made you what you are. Please reconsider your commitment to your walled garden, there’s a lot outside that is still growing.

[ ]-)

Liv

Update: 

I wanted to share an update as I’ve spent a lot of time today talking to developers, reading more information as it’s been made available, and while I want to keep this post as it stands for transparency, I also have to say that the more I talk to people who are directly involved, the more that my issue has clarified into a specific aspect of all of the discussion: the fact that there is no way to run applications purchased through the Oculus store on different headsets.

Take, for example, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. I absolutely love this application. It’s gorgeous – and it supports both headsets, and is available on Steam and through Oculus Home. I will chose to purchase it on Steam, because I want to be able to play it on both headsets – if I purchased through Oculus Home, I cannot do that, which is where my issue lies. I still overall do not really like the idea of exclusive titles without hardware-specific reasons, but it’s become a lot more clear to me that the industry has reached a time where it’s probably to be aware that it will happen, and I think that this post as originally written neglected to address both sides of the issue fairly.

A big thank you and hugs to everyone that I’ve talked to today about this. Much love to all of you. [ ]-)

4 thoughts on “Dear Oculus”

  1. Yaong says:

    Hello Liv,

    Thank you for this post. I value what you do for the community. Please do not take this feedback personally, I’m addressing something I often see in the VR world.

    I think your mixing of two different things really doesn’t help the clarity of your analysis here. The first part is Oculus’ behavior towards small developers. Like the fact they haven’t bothered even replying to you about Touch. Now, I’m sure they don’t have too many of those to go around, that’s why there’s no release date yet. But not even replying to you at all (if that’s indeed how it went down) is just rude and a lack of consideration.

    Then there’s the part where you talk as a consumer, as someone buying apps. Now, the whole “Facebook is evil and pulling the Oculus strings” routine is very common I feel but also completely overdone as far as I’m concerned. And that’s coming from a guy who’s never had a Facebook account. What NO ONE ever mentions though, is the fact Steam has a stranglehold on PC gaming.

    When you say you’re happy all your VR games are on Steam, it’s not far from saying you’re happy all your social networking is on Facebook. It’s the biggest player, the most convenient one, the most powerful one. Buying from several shops is such a bother, right? Here all your games are in one library. How convenient. And every PC game is on there too, except for the ones the biggest publishers keep to themselves in a desperate attempt to avoid paying the Steam tax. But an indie game that’s not on Steam. It’s dead. As a small dev, if your game is turned down on Steam, you might as well close your studio.

    And that’s Valve’s strength, and that’s why Oculus has no choices but to fund exclusives and to fight tooth and nails to carve a space for its ecosystem. Because in the world of games, Oculus is a dwarf and Steam a giant. A lot of the people complaining about this walled garden affair are being hypocrites. The truth is they have 200 games on Steam and they don’t want another app. They don’t want Origin, they don’t want GOG, they don’t want the Xbox platform. They’re entrenched. That made the choice to go with Steam all the easier, because hey, it’s Steam right? It’ll get the games eventually, right? And when things don’t go like they want, the veneer of principled nobility instantly fades to reveal the same kind of toxic puerility that plagues the console market with its “wars” and such.

    So let’s not forget here through some sort of cognitive bias that Steam wields influence the like of which Oculus does not quite reach. Let’s also not be naive: when Steam doesn’t bother with exclusives, it’s because it doesn’t need to. First, it cleverly undercut Oculus by releasing motion controllers with the Vive (thanks to HTC’s OEM expertise) and planning for the most impressive room scale experiences right out of the gate instead of keeping them down the lane for 2017 or who knows when. So sure, it has no exclusives, but it has games only the Vive can play. And if you think that’s a mere coincidence, you need to think again. Remember that when Steam first launched, people didn’t care. When Half-Life 2 and Portal REQUIRED Steam, then every came. And stayed.

    Second, Steam’s status alone is enough to get it ANY game that isn’t an exclusive. Meanwhile, who would bother with any other store so long as all headsets can use Steam? This touches upon another topic: where the value is derived in an ecosystem. Oculus makes no money selling its HMD. It probably loses money. HTC is half-dead from its downfall in the smartphone market, and it sees the Vive as its escape route. No doubt Valve gave them all the engineering help they needed, but at the end of the day, HTC is fighting for survival here and I don’t think they make a lot of money off the Vive.

    But Valve takes its 30% from all games sold on Steam, same as usual. Valve doesn’t care if you use a Rift to play games, so long as you’ve bought them from Steam. This really needs to be understood by people when they try to see the big picture here. Valve doesn’t care if HTC’s dead in 3 years. Because by then there’ll probably be more HMDs from other OEMs. But there will still be a single all-powerful shop to buy your games from.

    Meanwhile, Oculus does not want to be a hardware seller. It does not want to be a footnote in the history of VR. And if it’s just a hardware seller, that’s what it’ll be. Hardware manufacturers are a dime a dozen. It starts with the premium guys like HTC, Asus, Acer… Or LG, Samsung, Huawei… Then goes on to the lower tier Chinese companies, and so on. Look at the smartphone market. Look at the Android model. Google made enormous amounts of money. Meanwhile, the OEMs are all suffering. Only Samsung made money as an Android OEM in 2015. All others lost money. You know who laughed all the way to the bank though? Google, with its obligatory Play Store on top of the “free” and “open” Android OS.

    Oculus does not way to be an OEM. It wants to be Apple. It wants to be the defining player in the field, the one that leads while the others follow. It wants to take the 30% for itself. And why not? But for that it needs to control its ecosystem, and it needs to make sure it has staying power. So yeah, sure, the Oculus Store isn’t perfect. I agree. It’s light on features. Oculus really is still pretty young and immature in many ways. But you mention refunds though and that’s hilarious, because Steam didn’t have refunds for over a decade, those are super recent. So again, let’s not mistake Oculus for its parent-company while pretending Valve is David fighting Goliath out of the kindness of its heart.

    Because Valve did collaborate with Oculus early on, remember? When did they stop? Oh that’s right. Of course. When the Oculus Store was released on Gear VR. Because yeah, a store. Another store. A rival. It’s just like what happened with Windows 8. Remember that? Gabe Newell went nuclear telling everyone this meant the end of computing, the end of everything. Windows 8 was going to KILL the PC industry. All the while surfing on the fact people didn’t like the new start screen. But he wasn’t referring to the start screen, he meant the Windows Store. A store directly in the OS meant a THREAT to Steam, and that’s the ONE thing Valve won’t allow. They actually developed an entire OS (well not really but they skinned a Linux distro) and got some hardware partners to build pseudo-consoles (so much for the PC ideal) simply because of that. So much for the open source ideal with SteamOS too, by the way, but don’t go say that out loud, because everyone knows the real bad guy here is Microsoft, always has been, always will be.

    Of course, Steam Machines are a huge failure, and those hardware partners must have eaten a good deal of losses. Valve itself though? No risk taken, no harm done, not a care in the world. Can do it again with the VR market, no problem. That’s maybe a last thing I’d object to in your post. You talk about poor devs being the victims of greedy higher ups who cut a juicy deal with mega tycoon Oculus for an exclusivity. How about instead, you think maybe Oculus went out to some known studios and told them they’d finance AAA VR games with their Facebook money. “I know it’s a risky market with no guaranteed ROI, but we’ll pay for everything so that the risk is minimal for you. Meanwhile you can take part in this awesome adventure.” How about that? I don’t know how it went down, and I won’t pretend I do. But Oculus is supporting developers with money. Actually paying them money to create games. HTC has opened a VR start-up accelerator for 100 million dollars. What is Valve doing? It’s providing the Steam platform and taking its cut.

    Now I know this is a long rant and it may appear pro-Oculus and anti-Valve, but that’s only to provide a counterpoint to what you’re saying. I actually like Valve a lot and I definitely like Steam (and have sunk untold amounts of money in it), but I don’t mind buying on the Oculus Store for the same reason I buy my games on GOG.com whenever I can: because there is a quasi-monopoly in place and that makes me uncomfortable. I also think it’s completely unfair to depict Oculus as the bad guy and Steam as the righteous white knight when at the end of the day it’s two companies vying for control of a market (so for the biggest share of it, basically). Sony’s doing the exact same thing with PSVR, too. As will Google, with Daydream. Replace Steam with Android, and it’s the same business model.

    Gamers and tech enthusiasts tend to react emotionally and get into turf wars because most of the time they buy into an ecosystem and therefore want their ecosystem to have all the best stuff. That’s normal. But it’s also normal for companies to want to be successful. People saying they’ll get a platform without exclusives because they’re against exclusives on principle shouldn’t start hurling insults and harass game developers when -guess what- they release exclusives for the platform who said it would get exclusives. Maybe they just expected Oculus to roll over and die? To come to its senses and because Steam’s second hardware “partner”? That is not a reasonable expectation for a company that views itself as the pioneer of the field, and that sold itself to a tech giant specifically so it’d have the means of its ambitions.

    One thing I didn’t address: Palmer Luckey’s broken promises. Oculus has suffered several times from Luckey’s thoughtless public speaking. Keep in mind he is still very young. I don’t blame anyone giving him shit for promising things that didn’t come to be, but I’ve personally dissociated him from Oculus, and I don’t say that to mean the evil corporation twisted the vision of the noble founder. I mean that he ran his mouth when he shouldn’t have and is guilty of false advertisement and of damaging his firm’s public image.

    Alright I’m done. One more thing though: I think there’s a lot of pent up frustration with how Oculus deals with devs, the behind the scene thing like what you said about not responding to you. I really think you should separate that from the “consumer” aspect and write a lengthy post about it. Maybe even gather other devs’ feedback about it. If they’re being shitty, then give them shit. For real. But if you mix it with “Store Wars” stuff, the key message gets shoved aside because that’s what 99% of people care about and relate to.

    1. misslivirose says:

      I really like this response because it covers a side of this complex case. There are a few things that I’d add:

      – As much as I’d like to approach a lot of different issues in a more nuanced way, I simply have to consolidate posts down sometimes. I speak from a consumer point and from a developer point, really, only from my own perspective, so that’s how I phrase some of my thoughts around it. My experience is a mixed, one, and so I approach these issues with matters from both sides.

      – When I mentioned that I chose to purchase my VR games from Steam, it was simply because I wanted to be able to run them on multiple headsets. I have had hardware issues with both my Vive and my Rift, and I chose to purchase apps from a store that will let me play the majority of my content on both devices. You mention that Oculus isn’t trying to be a hardware company, but for the time being, I cannot play games purchased through their store on my Vive, and they’ve even said that the DK 2 may not even be supported after the first year. I like to play with a lot of different hardware, and I don’t want to be left with a library that I can’t use if something happens to one or the other. I actually do make a point to also buy games through the publisher’s own sites when offered, too – it’s the specific restrictions around Oculus Home as it stands on this very day that I hesitate with.

      – Absolutely agree that for some studios, the timed exclusive model makes a lot of sense and may be the best option. It’s really their business – it disappoints me, because I do think that it starts the idea of a “console war” earlier on, especially since it’s all PC-applications and at least one of the applications already had Vive support which has since been removed, but it’s still a bit of a disappointment to Vive consumers who had purchased it and it does shake a bit of trust in purchasing applications in advance. In a perfect world, people are more understanding, but you make a lot of valid points around how Oculus’ funding does work in several studio’s favors.

      – To say that all Valve is doing is “Opening up Steam and taking a cut” I think does a pretty big disservice to OpenVR, SteamVR, and the experiences that Valve is working on with Destinations and The Lab. I think they’ve shown that they’ve been working really closely with HTC for the Vive and the software underlying it, so saying that they’re not doing anything other than selling isn’t entirely accurate.

      I think the larger problem with the locked in Oculus Home model is that the underlying considerations is the idea of the PC being a more open ecosystem than that. When FOVE is released, will Oculus apps work there? What about OSVR headsets?

      I can understand why Oculus doesn’t want people to have bad experiences with apps that they purchase in the store, but I feel like even that could be mitigated with a “Hey, we see you’re not using an Oculus headset, be aware your experience may not be the same”, similar to how they current model around the DK 2.

      But, to be fair around all of it – my gaming picked up quite a lot after I started playing VR games. Previously, I played a few games on Steam, but I also played a lot of Blizzard’s games, which had a different portal too. So, thank you so much for taking the time to read and write up such a good response – I am definitely learning more from different opinions, and I definitely don’t think that it’s as simple as a David/Goliath, a Good/Bad. I think I’m just staying naively optimistic that right now, we’re still at a pro-VR stance all up. I want to love all of the platforms. <3

      1. Yaong says:

        @lauravr You’re welcome, I’m glad you appreciate my input.
        @liv Thank you! You make very valid points.

        1) I completely understand why you’d consolidate the post, for the sake of brevity and also because it reflects your actual state of mind. But I really do think another, more focused post about the developer / publisher relation would be very valuable. Up to you of course. And if you’re not willing to put yourself forward too much on that issue (completely understandable) but can point me to people willing to talk about it, I could maybe write about it myself. If you feel like it, you can contact me through the email address listed for my comment. If not, no worries at all.

        2) Totally understandable you’d want to use your games on any HMD you possess. I also agree that Oculus could and should probably allow for Vive owners to play Oculus Store games through a disclaimer, and say they won’t provide any support if it stops working one day. I think they might have done that if they felt more confident, but their manufacturing woes and the vocal endorsing of the Vive has probably shaken their confidence a good deal (if it hasn’t then they’re not as clever as they think). I’m actually very very curious to know how many Rifts they’ve sold/shipped so far, but that’s another discussion.

        To stick to the point, what they’re trying to do is lock the customers into their ecosystem. Make sure that you get a Rift, then get your games from the Oculus Store, then next generation it’s all the more difficult to jump ship to another company. It’s the Apple way, where the offer is both the hardware and the software, the apps, etc. They sell you an experience. Again you make a valid point, but they can’t compete with Steam on the store front (very proud of that one) alone because literally every gamer out there is already invested in Steam. And competing on hardware alone is a proven losing strategy that any analyst, any investor and any Silicon Valley person would scoff at.

        Point is, their choices are much more limited than people think. Then of course there’s the question of whether the Apple way, the walled garden, is the right way. From a purely ideological perspective, I’m averse to it. I’m actually not a big fan of Apple for that and other reasons. But from a financial perspective, Apple has triumphantly won the smartphone market, so emulating their method is something a CEO’s almost obligated to do, else he be called incompetent.

        One last thing to keep in mind is that people like you (enthusiasts who get all the HMDs) are an exception, and the strategy isn’t crafted with those guys in mind. Oculus’ goal is to penetrate the mass market, so they cater to the lowest common denominator. It’s also why they’re reticent to go for the full room scale experience, because despite how cool it is, how many people worldwide will dedicate a room to VR? Not very many. I’m sure they’ll get to room scale eventually (Touch is a good start), but they planned it for later because they want to get the public progressively acquainted. Of course, Valve and HTC took advantage of that to get a cooler, fuller product out and garner all the praise, nullifying the Rift’s ergonomic advantage and other little touches. That’s what Oculus gets for waiting too long. 😉

        3) Regarding exclusives… A studio that had let people buy a game for the Vive and then switched to an Oculus exclusive is really bad form, I’ll give you that. More generally however, exclusives are a key part of the videogame industry and while I agree it’s frustrating to see it come to the PC world, we better get used to the idea. I also think that if you listen to a lot of the rhetoric around VR, those companies see the PC as a necessary evil for now, a stepping stone until the day the VR devices will be able to be standalone. So they probably think of it more as an analog to the “smartphone war” than as one for the “console wars”. But really, again, it’s all about getting people into your ecosystem in the end. And to be honest, even on the PC, 90% of games are only available on Windows, and then a sizable amount of those are only available on Steam, or on publisher stores like Origin. Like you, I buy directly from the devs when I can, but it sure isn’t the way the industry is going. People like us are anomalous in the grand scheme of things.

        4) Yeah, you’re right I took an unfortunate shortcut in reducing Valve’s role to its store, although I did mention all the engineering they contributed to HTC, and I think everyone understands (even though it’s not really out publicly) that the Vive exists in large part thanks to Valve’s engineers (Alan Yates would say the Oculus Rift itself only exists thanks to him, but that’s another story). But yes, what they’ve done with The Lab & Destinations is super cool, and I’m sure they’ve got more awesome stuff in the works (and I can’t wait to experience them). But to be fair, I think Oculus has invested itself more in that regard, despite starting from zero whereas Valve was originally a software developer. I guess I wish Valve took on a more active role here, but knowing their tendencies (still waiting for HL2 Ep 3 here!), I probably shouldn’t get my hopes up.

        As for OpenVR/SteamVR, I’m more ambivalent here because I believe they’re doing the classic “open source that isn’t really all that open” thing that Google pioneered with Android, where sure, large parts of the software are open, but that’s only because the actor at the core of the project completely dominates the venue for purchasing apps released with it, and so the entire business model rests with them. I view this kind of thing as being 100% marketing and no different from proprietary software, except you get devs from the community contributing to your technology for free. Which is not to say what they’re doing isn’t valuable; it is and very much so, but it serves the specific purpose of making sure the store is fed. At the end of the day, Valve is a business, same as Oculus or any other company, and we’re their clients, not their friends.

        5) Final point (sorry for rambling), what about FOVE or other HMDs? I think those are also the reason Oculus has decided to lock its store. It can’t compete against 15 different actors on the hardware front while facing Steam, Sony, Google and Xbox (Holiday 2017!!!) on the software/store front. Well, no, it can compete and will do so, but in order to maximize its strength against all those rivals, offering a consolidated experience that includes everything is the best strategy.

        Especially since the VR market is so young, too. Everything can change still. Oculus could die next year, its relevance could fade instantly in the face of the historical VG industry. The margin for error is very slim here. But more than that, the VR market itself can still fail. One interesting thing to consider is that, what if VR fizzles? Steam will keep going, Valve won’t lose money over it. Sony will take a hit but no more than it did with the PS Vita. Google won’t care at all, Android will still rule the smartphone market. Scorpio’s not even out yet, but it’s aimed at 4K gaming and not just VR, so Microsoft isn’t taking any risks. HTC will keep doing smartphones and sell Vives to professionals for CAO purposes or demos at events. But Oculus? They’re purely a VR company. If VR fails, they’re dead. They can’t just sell a handful of Rifts to business users, they can’t stick to traditional gaming, no they’re obligated to make it big in the consumer VR market, or they’re finished.

        I think that also explains why they’re aggressive in selling their brand/content/product. Oculus isn’t just fighting for a juicy slice of the VR cake to complement the meal it’s already had, it’s fighting for survival and relevance. Maybe Palmer really believed his VR-for-all utopia when he said such things, but he was young and with Facebook’s backing he probably thought himself invincible. I bet the last few months have been reaaaaal sobering to him. Having money and passion is one thing, but it’s not enough. You need to be merciless to win, especially against such formidable opponents. I’m with you Liv, I want to love all of the platforms, I want everyone to succeed. But that’s a comfort reserved for folks like us. Companies vying for a new market, even big ones like Facebook or Google or Microsoft, need stone cold strategies and emotionless decision-making. Magnanimous generosity is something only the biggest, most powerful leader of a field can ever display, and even then it’s typically part of a strategy to undermine the competition. I know this sounds bleak, but remember: VR is a _business_ now, and that changes _everything_.

  2. lauravr says:

    Wow, thank you Yaong! I really appreciate your intelligent commentary! 100%!

Leave a Reply