The Quest Effect: Accelerating VR Game Development

Image Credit: Oculus / Oculus Quest

*Disclaimer: This is an MRTV community article. The opinions, representations and statements made within the article are those of the author and not necessarily those of MRTV.*

For a PCVR gamer, E3 2018 was heart-breaking. Instead of creating excitement and showing us a glimpse of all the VR titles in production – there was a deafening silence from all but two major game publishers. Insomniac Games announced the only new full PCVR game – Stormland. And Ready at Dawn revealed Echo Combat, a multiplayer-only expansion to Lone Echo that costs $10. Not to dismiss the value of these titles, but this year’s E3 did not exactly set the PCVR world on fire.

Every other VR game shown was either small VR DLC content for non-VR PC games, or a PSVR title.

So what’s going on here? Ubisoft, Activision, Electronic Arts, Take-Two – all billion-dollar game publishers and all unable or unwilling to commit to even a new VR game – not even one, two or three years out? As far was E3 2018 was concerned, don’t expect PCVR to really take off in 2019, or even 2020. Indy developers are going to make up the brunt of PCVR games as we roll into the
next decade.

Just business, nothing personal.

If the numbers just don’t add up, this situation is not going to change. For a large publisher to even consider beginning production of a major new VR game, there has to be some assurance of substantial profit. The CEO of CCP Games (Eve: Valyrie) Hilmar Veigar Pétursson spoke last month about why the company was now taking a leave-of-absence from making VR games:

“The important thing is we need to see the metrics for active users of VR. A lot of people bought headsets just to try it out. How many of those people are active? We found that in terms of our data, a lot of users weren’t.”

There is now the well-repeated mantra; PCVR is just too expensive to get into, and too cumbersome (tethered) to truly realise the full potential of VR gaming. Change is happening, headsets are improving in quality and coming down in price – but it’s not happening at a fast enough pace to get the attention of big publishers.

Committing to PCVR game production at this time carries too much risk and not enough reward. But Pétursson continues that this scenario can be changed, describing the upcoming Oculus Quest as “a potential savior [of VR gaming] in multiple ways.”

Quest: The power of a VR Games Console

Long in development as the ‘Santa Cruz’ prototype. Oculus Quest was finally given a name, price and tentative release date – at this year’s Oculus Connect 5. While the price-tag was less than what many thought possible, the claim made during the same keynote – that the modest on-board computer could deliver ‘Rift [PCVR] like experiences’ – was met with audible disbelief from the audience. The promised launch titles Robo Recall and The Climb certainly added weight to this outlandish claim, with the later title demanding – even on capable gaming pc. Despite this, the claims that Quest will be able to run little more than the VR equivalent of ‘phone games’ are met with laughing dismissal. Looking at specifications on paper, in black and white – it’s just not technically possible.

But there is something else. There are hints, suggestions – that there is more to this story and that the OC5 claims are not completely baseless.

A new reality for Mobile VR development

During the keynote at the Unity Unite conference in Los Angeles last month, mere weeks after the reveal of Quest – a demonstration was shown of a new way of creating games from the ground up. This new system so dramatically better, that the demo also included a showcase of it’s impact for games running on mobile hardware – with a graphical fidelity and complexity not previously possible. Almost 80% of all mobile VR game development is based on Unity in some form.

Additionally, John Carmack (Oculus CTO) has spoken in his Oculus Connect Keynote presentations about working closely with chipset manufacturer Qualcomm. He has demonstrated an ability to push mobile hardware above and beyond what any phone OEM would consider necessary. Handset manufactures are the opposite, they do not need to optimize and milk every last drop of performance out of a mobile SoC (System on Chip) – they want a smooth and stable user experience capable of handling a variety of tasks with a multitude of invisible background services.

These OEMs are not making a dedicated gaming device – focused on a singular task. This is where Oculus are in a very different position. Quest is a gaming machine first and foremost, and it’s operating system can be honed and optimized for just that task. And this is why the impossible claims of OC5 may just become a reality.

Vulkan graphics support on mobile hardware also continues to mature, but perhaps now with at an accelerated pace – with more intense focus by Oculus in getting more from mobile hardware, than anything we have seen previously. It could be wise to hold judgement rather than assuming current games on Oculus Go represent what to expect. The playing field is changing, and the tools of VR game development are getting better.

And then there is the obvious fact that Facebook has a lot of money at itsdisposal; the kind of money that can move mountains.

Fixed hardware, big profit

It goes without saying that developing a PC game is very challenging. The myriad of CPUs, GPUs, and motherboards available, make optimizing your game absurdly complicated. This is why game consoles are so appealing to game publishers – the hardware is not an unknown quantity – it is fixed – and this means that they can optimize and push the hardware, bringing to market games that where not only easier and less costly to develop, but also run better with higher quality graphics. Combine this with the lower cost of console hardware (verses a Gaming PC) and the potential for a large user base – it is understandably a more desirable platform.

Oculus Quest is being marketed as a games console. It costs at least half the price of a Gaming PC (not including a VR headset) and is an all-in-one contained device. No television is required. No PC is needed. It’s portable and stand-alone. By being completely untethered and featuring 6DoF – Quest can offer an entirely new way to experience video games. Oculus want people to think of it as the next stage in the evolution of games consoles. If they can convince people of this with genuinely impressive launch titles and through a significant marketing campaign – Quest sales could really take off.

It should be noted that upon the arrival of the Nintendo Switch – large game publishers expressed caution – with many stating a ‘wait and see’ approach. The Switch has since become unexpectedly and massively successful, and as a result the console has amassed a healthy catalogue of games and many more are in production from all the big developers.

When will we know if the Oculus Quest really is the second coming, the VR gaming saviour? Maybe E3 2020, with multiple large publishers announcing new VR games for PC, as well as mobile – due to the Quest’s incredible year one sales.

Have your say!

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3 Comments

  1. I believe Vulkan api is the future for VR gaming performance, both mobile and PC based, well i was a little upset by Oculus Quest not being a PC VR hardware, but ater all it’s a very good thing indeed for the future of VR games development and variety, this is a very interesting article, thanks for posting .

    Reply
  2. Any exposure for VR is good. I like PC VR because it’s capable of more, but I’m still happy quest is here. Seems like it will be a lot of fun for games and friends, but it’s ashame there’s little power.

    I may or may not get one, too early to tell.

    Reply
  3. Interesting article. It sounds almost as if you should buy a Quest no matter what, and especially if you care about PCVR.

    Reply

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