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For six years, Facebook's Oculus division has been trying to turn virtual reality from an esoteric hobby for tech nerds into an accessible new form of mass entertainment. After trying different strategies, Facebook now appears to believe that the best way to accomplish that is to provide a serious menu of top-end VR video games.
Even as Facebook revealed a new wireless VR headset, the Quest 2, the company also announced deals Wednesday to bring some of the world's most popular game franchises to the platform, led by Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell, Universal's Jurassic World Aftermath, the foundational independent game Myst and Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000.
Wednesday's broad slate of gaming announcements appeared to solidify the company's commitment to supporting so-called AAA games in VR. While other types of content like virtual tourism, fitness and work collaboration may prove important, gaming has emerged as the key driver for consumer VR.
"Games came first, they are well-established and will be a huge business for a really long time," Mike Verdu, vice president for content at Facebook Reality Labs, said in an interview Monday. "Gaming is the main driver of user engagement and spending. It's the place where it's evolved enough to where developers are seeing numerical success and have reached a self-sustaining state in VR."
"We're now moving from a simple to a more emotional experience," Verdu added. "The early experiences were like a thrill ride in an amusement park: They're short, they're intense, they elicit a very sharp reaction, and then you're done and ready to move on. Fast forward a few years, and the experiences are becoming rich and deep and complex. So the flywheel in gaming has taken off, and we really see that as a key pillar for VR."
Rand Miller, co-creator (with his brother Robyn) of 1993's iconic game Myst, said in an interview that he had wanted to create a VR version of the game for years, but did not move forward in earnest until he discovered the original Quest headset last year. The value of the Quest's easy setup (no computer required) and cordless freedom became clear to him once his non-techie wife took over the headset, he said. Miller added that lower prices for the new models were also important to make VR available to a broader audience. (The new Quest 2 will start at $299.)
"We really do feel obligated to our fans, and we didn't want Myst in VR to feel like it was elitist, that it was only available if you had a lot of money to get into it," he said. He said the new Myst for Oculus would be available later this year and would essentially be a completely rebuilt version of the original.
Ubisoft, on the other hand, is planning to build totally new games in the Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell franchises exclusively for Oculus, not remakes of earlier titles. Elizabeth Loverso, vice president for product development at Ubisoft's Red Storm Entertainment unit, said Oculus' advancing technology convinced Ubisoft to move beyond some early tests and bring two of its most valuable franchises to VR.
"We think VR really has an opportunity to give core gamers a different immersive experience while also appealing to a wider audience that does not necessarily play these games on a PC or console," she said.
Brian Gomez, executive producer for Jurassic World games at Universal Games and Digital Platforms, said that the coming Jurassic World Aftermath, announced Wednesday, would be the first Jurassic game for home VR. "Jurassic is one of our most gameable franchises, for sure," he said. "If you look at the game verbs that emerge from placing humans and dinosaurs in a tight space, a lot of gaming emerges pretty naturally."
Facebook had previously said that Electronic Arts was bringing the Medal of Honor series to the wired Rift headset. On Wednesday, the company said it was discontinuing the Rift line to focus closely on the Quest 2. The Medal of Honor game, scheduled for December, will be playable on existing Rifts and also the two Quest models when they are plugged into a PC.
In addition to the game franchise announcements, Facebook said that more than 35 VR titles have now generated more than $1 million in revenue each on Oculus. The company also announced a new game called The Climb 2 from Crytek and a Beat Saber music pack powered by the K-pop megagroup BTS.
Facebook's Verdu said that in addition to various technical improvements for the actual headset, Oculus is working on another major innovation for the Quest 2.
"And we'll do our best to make sure it's not out of stock all the time," he said, "which is another breakthrough."
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Seth Schiesel ( @SethSchiesel) is a contributing editor for Protocol focused on the business of video games and adjacent industries. He is a former editorial writer for The Boston Globe, entrepreneur and business reporter, technology writer and video game critic for The New York Times.