The first wave of consumer-ready VR headsets have been out for nearly two months now, and while sales seem to be doing well (as much as expected for such expensive and demanding hardware, at least) there is little doubt that the VR industry is still very much in its infancy.
In its current state, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about what the future of VR will look like in terms of popularity with consumers, which platforms will rise above the rest, and what kind of software will benefit most from the unique opportunities that VR headsets present. One thing was made clear from the start, though: both Oculus and Valve, the creators of the Rift and the Vive respectively, have a vested interest in ensuring that VR technology as a whole succeeds and eventually becomes a household product (or at least one that captures more than the relatively small enthusiast market). In earlier days, while Oculus was still an independent startup and Valve had yet to officially announce that it planned to enter the VR market, the two companies actually worked together. As one of Valve’s engineers recently pointed out, Valve lent out some early technology that solved technical problems Oculus creator/founder Palmer Luckey and co. had yet to figure out.
In the months building up to Oculus and the Vive’s launch, it seemed like this kind of cooperation was going to continue into the future. As recently as 5 months ago, Luckey stated on Reddit (where he has actively been answering questions about the Rift for the last 3 years) that as far as he’s concerned, attempting to sabotage the competition by locking software to the Rift headset doesn’t help anyone.
“If customers buy a game from us, I don’t care if they mod it to run on whatever they want. As I have said a million times…our goal is not to profit by locking people to only our hardware—if it was, why in the world would we be supporting GearVR and talking with other headset makers? The software we create through Oculus Studios…are exclusive to the Oculus platform, not the Rift itself.”
This statement, along with many others over the course of the Rift’s development containing similar sentiments, eased a lot of fears that potential VR consumers (myself included) had about choosing which headset to purchase. In its current state, VR tech is an unfortunate combination of prohibitively expensive and difficult to demonstrate, so to enthusiastic early adopters who want to see the technology succeed as a whole, the stance Oculus seemed to be taking was desirable. Giving consumers access to as much software as possible—no matter what headset they’re using—would keep Valve and Oculus out of competition and strengthen VR as a whole.
The events of the last week, however, have proven this not to be the case.
When the Vive launched, it was immediately clear that the headset was entirely incompatible with Oculus Home—Facebook’s official marketplace for Oculus games and experiences. This wasn’t surprising, but it was disappointing that Vive owners wanting to get their hands on the likes of charming 3D platformer Lucky’s Tale or Crytek’s gorgeous mountaineering simulator The Climb were out of luck. Or were they?
In a matter of days, Reddit user LibreVR released the first version of ReVive, a hack that allows Vive owners to play whatever Oculus games they desire (although performance/head tracking issues still plague a number of titles, since they’re calibrated for the Oculus display instead of the Vive). ReVive made it extremely clear that all Oculus-exclusive titles, even those produced and published by Oculus, were perfectly capable of running on the Vive (with some minor tweaking), and that the only barrier between the two platforms was an artificial one. On top of that, the hack seemed to be a victimless crime—Vive owners still had to purchase games in order to play them, giving Oculus its regular share of software profits.
Then the Oculus app updated to version 1.4, and everything changed.
Vive owners who had purchased Oculus software suddenly found themselves locked out of it, as Oculus implemented a hardware detection system into the platform. Now in order to launch Oculus software, players had to have an Oculus Rift plugged into their PC to bypass a verification system. This sparked a good amount of internet outrage, as any action in the gaming industry deemed anti-consumer is wont to do. Skimming through the thousands of comments on stories about the update, there’s an overwhelming sentiment that this kind of behavior is unacceptable on the PC, with some calling to boycott Oculus, and countless others publicly stating that they will be buying Vives or other SteamVR-enabled headsets instead because they know they can trust Valve not to enforce DRM. Only time will tell whether or not this really has an effect on hardware sales, but it definitely isn’t a good look for Oculus.
Here’s the real kicker, though: the update made pirating Oculus’ games easier than ever. LibreVR quickly turned around after the Oculus update and released a new version of ReVive, but with a significant revision—in order to bypass the hardware check, it also bypasses the existing software ownership check. Now if you launch a game on Oculus using ReVive, the app no longer looks to make sure that you actually own it. In the Reddit post that went along with the update, LibreVR explained that he “didn’t want to go down [this] path”, and begs users not to download pirated copies of games, but the comments below make it pretty clear that most people have no intention of giving any more money to a company that they know could once again shut them out of the platform with an update. I can’t exactly blame them. As a new Vive owner, I can’t help but feel a bit glum that Oculus have chosen to lock me out of their platform, and while I don’t condone piracy of their games, I can’t recommend in good conscience that anybody spend money on software they could be locked out of either. Vive owners are probably best off sitting tight and either waiting for timed exclusivity to end on the (non-first party) Oculus titles they want, or praying that Oculus opens up their platform in the face of the backlash they’ve been receiving.
Taken on its own, it might seem like the moves Oculus has made up to this point shouldn’t have surprised anyone. The console market has functioned this way for decades, with big publishers paying large sums of cash or outright purchasing studios with the intent of getting them to release titles exclusively (or earlier) on a specific platform. The problem is that this policy goes against everything Palmer, and the rest of Oculus to some extent, had said they were going to do for years. A number of people were concerned about corporate influence after Facebook’s multi-billion dollar acquisition of the company, and for better or for worse it seems that their fears have been justified.
It also isn’t helping them that their main competition, Valve, is doing the exact opposite and making sure that gamers recognize them for it. In a statement to Digital Trends, Valve co-founder Gabe Newell reinforced what the company has been saying from the start (and hasn’t taken back):
“Steam is not tied to the Vive HMD…We think exclusivity is a bad idea for customers, for developers, and for the long term. Developers can ship their VR apps on Steam regardless of whether or not they support Vive. We think customers should buy their VR apps on whatever store they prefer.”
Not only is Valve’s approach more consumer-friendly (both Vive and Oculus games are available on Steam, and they are not paying developers for exclusivity), but it’s also a lot more reassuring to those hoping to see VR take off as a whole. Critics of Oculus have pointed out that by enforcing timed exclusivity or developing Oculus-only software, the already small market is being divided in two for completely arbitrary reasons.
The severity of this in the minds of VR enthusiasts can’t be understated. VR is currently only available on PC, and to the PC community, the idea of any kind of division is a nasty one. A big part of why the platform appeals to players is precisely because we don’t want to have to worry about exclusives, something that console owners must contend with regularly. Despite EA’s recent attempt to break away from the platform with Origin (which is free to download anyway), virtually everything that comes out on PC is available via Steam, and has been for the better part of a decade.
All of this brings us to the obvious question: where does Oculus go from here? This series of events has been a PR nightmare, and as of this writing, anybody with a Vive can download the ReVive hack and do whatever they like with Oculus’ software free of charge. There is undoubtedly a patch in the works to combat ReVive once again, but even if Oculus can successfully lock out people not using the Rift, the cat’s out of the bag. They’ve been caught red-handed doing the polar opposite of what they told consumers they were going to do (in writing, no less). Combined with the knowledge that Oculus exclusives are entirely artificial and Valve’s firm stance that they will allow software for any headset to be sold on their storefront, Oculus has work to do if they want to win back the favor of consumers. This fiasco, along with the insane shipping schedule for Rifts, lack of RoomScale VR or motion controllers to compete with the Vive, and lackluster launch titles make the Oculus nearly impossible to recommend, particularly against the competition who offer all of the things the Oculus is missing and a better library of games to boot for only $200 more- an increase that doesn’t seem so bad when you consider what VR already costs.
Only time will tell how all of this will shake out, but in the meantime one thing is certain: Oculus has a rocky road ahead.