Virtual reality hunts killer gaming app

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Virtual reality in search for killer gaming app Tim Bradshaw in San Francisco Comments Industry still needs ‘system seller’ to help convince mainstream consumers to buy headsets
Mark Zuckerberg has already invested billions of dollars to bring virtual reality to the masses . But the night before Oculus Connect, a crucial showcase in Hollywood this week for the company’s Oculus Rift headset, something vital was missing from the line-up: a killer gaming app with global appeal.
Since the first Oculus prototypes were sent to developers two and a half years ago, hundreds of games have been created for the pioneering VR device by a passionate community of enthusiasts. More Crowdsource data group Premise gets $50m
But while a few are extensions of familiar franchises, such as the space-fighter game Eve: Valkyrie , most of the biggest companies in the gaming sector such as Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard are absent.
And while Oculus’s prototypes were the first to popularise a new generation of VR headsets, competition is looming from Sony’s PlayStation VR and Vive, a collaboration between smartphone maker HTC and games publisher Valve, to low-cost alternatives such as Google Cardboard and Microsoft’s forthcoming Hololens .
Yet the entire VR industry is still searching for a so-called “system seller”, a product that will convince mainstream consumers to strap ungainly headsets to their faces.
While Google Cardboard has provided a taste of the technology to an estimated 2m users, Oculus’s Rift and its high-end competitors will offer much more sophisticated experiences thanks to more powerful graphics and motion-tracking capabilities.
Oculus Connect, the company’s annual developer event, is Facebook’s last opportunity to rally app makers and games creators before the Rift is released to consumers early next year.
Early last year, Oculus executives identified one hugely popular title that would work particularly well in VR: Minecraft , the expansive world-building game that has sold more than 70m copies.
“ Minecraft was something I was desperate to get into virtual reality because I thought it would be critically important,” John Carmack, Oculus’s chief technology officer, told 1,500 Connect attendees on Thursday. “It’s the single most important application that we can have to ensure we have an army of fanatic, passionate supporters that will advocate why VR is great. It’s part of this infinite playability that our current ecosystem is missing.”
But when Facebook acquired Oculus in March 2014 for $2bn, Minecraft creator Markus Persson pulled out of talks to bring the game to the system. “Facebook creeps me out,” he said.
After Mojang, Minecraft ’s parent company, was acquired by Microsoft for $2.5bn in September last year, Mr Carmack was given access to the game’s software code and began to adapt the software to VR.
But despite months of work and “pestering” by Mr Carmack, it took an eleventh-hour meeting between Mr Zuckerberg and Satya Nadella, Microsoft chief executive, for the deal to be completed. It was finally signed late on Wednesday night, mere hours ahead of Oculus’s big event.
The Minecraft partnership was announced by Oculus founder Palmer Luckey on Thursday morning. New apps were also unveiled to allow users to watch Netflix and Hulu videos in a virtual screening room and a cheaper version of Samsung’s smartphone-based headset, Gear VR, costing $99, about half the price of the original device.
Even with household names such as Minecraft and Netflix on board, Oculus’s success is far from assured.
Mr Zuckerberg opened the event by telling attendees that VR was the “next great technology platform” but he also warned that initial sales of headsets would grow “slowly”.
Yet that did little to dent the enthusiasm of the games developers, Silicon Valley investors and Hollywood executives who have bought into the promise of VR.
“We are in a once-in-a-century opportunity with VR,” says Martin Kenwright, a gaming industry veteran behind PlayStation games such as Motorstorm . Jaunt's live action 'cinematic virtual reality'
Starship, Mr Kenwright’s new digital studio, has created a VR social networking app called vTime that allows users to connect online wherever they are in the real world. Users of the app can have their avatars meet within the technology to chat on virtual speedboats, planes and art galleries which have photos from users’ phones hanging on the walls. “We are in it for the long run,” he says.
This week saw one of the largest funding rounds for a VR start-up , as Walt Disney and Evolution Media Partners led a $65m investment in Jaunt, a maker of live-action “cinematic VR” technology.
Rick Hess, founder of Evolution, a joint venture between talent agency CAA, investment firm TPG Growth and Hollywood producer Participant Media, says he invested after watching a Grateful Dead concert that had been filmed by the company.
“The experience of being at a live event was mind-blowing,” he says. “It’s so immersive because it’s 360-degree, and you get to control what you look at.” Oculus Touch uses two wireless controllers
Facebook added the ability to view such 360-degree videos to its news feed this week.
Mr Hess believes that the implications for live sports, television news and cinema are far-reaching.
“I think this has the same resonance and impact on film that sound did,” he says. ”It will force a reinvention of storytelling.”
But even some who are convinced by VR’s potential are taking a more cautious approach until they see how consumers respond to Oculus.
“We’re really intrigued by VR, but we are investigating in an experimental way rather than betting huge resources on it,” says Michael Acton Smith, founder and chairman of Mind Candy, creator of online children’s game Moshi Monsters . Minecraft game
While Mr Acton Smith says the technology will “disrupt multiple industries”, he predicts making money from VR games will be “challenging” in the short term.
Anjney Midha, a partner in the early-stage Edge fund at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, believes that the lower price Gear VR will help bring the technology to a mass audience of smartphone owners. But he cautions that too many developers are focusing on the wrong areas and likens the VR market to the early days of the iPhone’s App Store.
“There was a first wave of app developers who went after the most intuitive and logical problems. Either they were too early or the [mobile] platforms ended up building many of those apps themselves,” he says. “There was a second wave of companies that ended up building more mature apps. In VR, I worry sometimes that we are in the first wave right now.” The experience of being at a live event was mind-blowing. It’s so immersive because it’s 360-degree, and you get to control what you look at
- Rick Hess, founder of Evolution
Demonstrations of games at Oculus Connect ranged from Bullet Train , a first-person shooting game inspired by science-fiction movie The Matrix that allows the player to slow down time and catch bullets, to Job Simulator , which puts the player in an office cubicle in an imagined future when computers have made human employees unnecessary.
Oculus also unveiled Medium, an artistic program that uses motion-sensing controllers to sculpt 3D “digital clay”.
Brendan Iribe, Oculus chief executive, says the company’s approach to finding the Rift’s “killer app” is more like Apple or Microsoft, which rely on external developers to invent new uses for their platforms, than Nintendo, whose in-house games such as Super Mario and Pokemon keep fans coming back to buy its consoles. Microsoft Hololens
“We are focusing mostly on the platform but we make a few core services,” Mr Iribe says, including Medium and Oculus Video. “A lot of that is to inspire other developers.”
While Minecraft is an important win for Oculus, Mr Iribe predicts that the hit games of the VR world will make a clear break from what has existed previously. “For the most part, the really big ‘system sellers’ are going to be made-for-VR experiences, something brand new,” he says. Monument Valley app creators look to VR
Ustwo, the studio behind hit mobile game Monument Valley , this week unveiled its first foray into virtual reality called Land's End .
The game is a gentler experience than most of the shoot-‘em-ups and space flight simulators on show at Oculus Connect. It requires no handheld controller or complex tutorial. Instead, the player floats around a stylised landscape and unlocks puzzles simply by staring at particular spots.
“This opportunity to shape a medium doesn’t come along very often,” says Peter Pashley, technical director at Ustwo.
Ustwo has offices in London, New York, Malmo and Sydney. Monument Valley , an MC Escher-inspired puzzler, won several awards from Apple and Bafta for its geometric design and original gameplay.
“It took a long time for the major game companies to figure out how to make iPhone games,” said Ken Wong, lead designer at Ustwo. “Here we are again with VR where the rules haven’t been set.”
Mr Pashley warns of a “huge spike in the learning curve” when developing for VR. Much of the software for the Oculus devices created so far is of uneven quality, raising questions about whether consumers will want to buy them.
“I don’t think they are going to sell 20m units just through the content we are seeing today,” he says.
Land's End runs on the Gear VR, a $99 headset created in collaboration between Oculus and Samsung that uses Galaxy smartphones as its screen. It is much cheaper and more portable than the PC-based Oculus Rift but lacks sophisticated head-tracking.
The Land's End experience was designed to avoid the nausea which can sometimes be caused by action-packed VR games. For example, most of the 3D virtual environment — from mountains and rolling oceans to strange standing stones — is seen from a distance, because putting objects too close to the viewer can cause queasiness.
“Some people choose to put you in something fast-moving and dizzying,” Mr Wong says. “We want to take care of you and give you a good time.” Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.