Last week at GDC, we got the chance to sit down and chat with HTC’s Vice President of Global VR Content Joel Breton. Breton formerly worked at 2K and Bethesda, and helped launch games like Payday 2, Brothers, Terraria, and The Elder Scrolls. As the Head of Vive Studios, HTC’s internal VR development team, Breton oversees the production of the company’s own VR content.
In our in-depth interview, Breton addresses the lack of AAA VR games, criticizes Oculus’ stance on platform exclusives, talks about Fallout VR, and more.
GameSpot: Where is VR’s killer app? A lot of people want to know where VR’s must-play AAA game is.
Joel Breton: So when you say killer app, I look at that actually pretty broad. And I think that Google Earth is a killer app in VR. It’s just incredible what you can do. I’ve been working in games for 22 years, and what I understand is that, to get a 150-hour game experience, it usually takes about a 100 people or more working from three to four years, right?
AAA games are definitely in development, they’re coming as fast as the companies can create them.
So we haven’t had the hardware out long enough for these teams to even be developing those kinds of experiences and bringing them to market. What we’ve got is a situation where it’s an early market, and so the sort of long, deep gameplay experiences that you would say, like an Uncharted 4, or one of these AAA games that are hitting consoles today, those will take a bit longer to make. So what’s happening instead is that games are being made within about a year with team sizes around 10 and 20 people. And then we’re already starting to see teams balloon up to like 40 and 50 people teams. That’s kind of the larger VR teams that I’ve seen.
I think [Oculus is] doing good work for the overall ecosystem in some areas. I disagree with their strategy a lot.
So the AAA games are definitely in development, they’re coming as fast as the companies can create them, but in the meantime, there’s something that’s really exciting for me, and that’s multiplayer. Because, for me, multiplayer represents infinite replayability. So let’s say ping pong and tennis are perfect examples of that. It’s a fun mechanic if you like that kind of game. Every time you play with a different human when you’re playing multiplayer, it’s a different game. It’s a different experience. So I think that is where the biggest depth of gameplay is available today, is in the fun experiences and games that you can play multiplayer…
You mentioned that most of the game developers that are working in VR right now are mostly indie studios…
Oh, just to correct that, those are the ones that have launched today. Every single large game company and publisher is working on VR right now.
We’re not using content as a weapon. We’re using content to help create and sustain the VR ecosystem.
Do you sense that big AAA studios with a lot on the line are hesitant to jump on the VR development bandwagon?
They’re certainly looking at it like, “Hey, we can afford to take our time with the new market. We’ve seen plenty of new markets appear.” I would say, with the exception of people like Ubisoft, who jumped in right away and was essentially the largest AAA publisher to support VR early. That’s been their history over time. They support new platforms right away when they come and they get a lead on their fellow publishers by doing so. We’re very happy for their support. They’re certainly putting good, large, experienced teams on VR. And they’ve already come out with some great content because of that. And then Bethesda, which is my alma mater, they announced some incredible VR games that they’re working on.
I think that’s another bridge to the original games that are going to take three or four years to make, is taking amazing 100-hour, 150-hour games that already have fan bases of millions and millions of rabid fans, and taking that content and figuring out how to adapt it to VR. Because you’ve already got all the assets, you’ve got all the worlds, you’ve got all the characters, you’ve got the story. You don’t have to recreate that from scratch. All you have to do is figure out, first of all, can this be adapted for VR? And I don’t like the word “port”. That’s why I use adapt, because port just assumes you recompile, put it out, and there it is. That’s not going to work for VR. You certainly have to go in and lovingly handcraft it.
But what I think is exciting is leveraging all the assets and time that’s already in there, in your 3D asset file, and then figuring out how to make that an awesome VR experience. There will be several of the big, large companies that figure that out, and then that’s going to open up, really, the floodgates for some incredible games to come to VR.
Speaking of developers, can you address the concern that some developers might have regarding the profitability of making games for VR? With the market being relatively small, there’s some concern that VR games won’t be profitable.
That’s right, so we actually, at Vive Studios, we’re platform agnostic, and we encourage developers to be the same. So what I mean by that is [developers should] develop for all VR platforms that make sense. So we create first party content, second party content, and support third party developers. And we encourage all of those, including our own internal studios, to put their content on all platforms because that gives them the best opportunity for two things which are critical. One, to make more money, to generate more revenue, but also to build a community, because beyond money, the most important thing for a developers is to build a community around the game. So by having their content only on one platform, say Vive, they’re going to be blocking out a bunch of the market. So if it’s possible to port your game [to other VR platforms]… then we encourage developers to do that.
We’ve actually done it with our own internal content because we want everyone to be able to enjoy what we create. So that’s probably the number one thing that developers can do now, is develop for all platforms, and then also to try to keep their budgets as efficient as possible in these early days of VR rollout… And that’ll give them definitely a much smaller hole that they have to dig out of.
Yes, so Arcade Saga, which is our first internal title we launched in December. We launched it on Vive on December 8th, and by December 15th or 17th, I believe, we had tested the Oculus version and we added support for Oculus on Steam. So we published it essentially supporting both platforms, and we are also talking to Sony about taking it to their platform next, and they’ve expressed a willingness to let us do that. So we’re doing it with our internal content. Our second party content, which is where we partner, invest, and support external developers that we don’t own and control… Knockout League, which is [essentially] Punchout in VR… so that was an external partner, but we’re their co-publisher. We published the Vive version and they put it out on Oculus on the same day with our support. We were their partner on this game. So we encouraged them, again, to just build the biggest audience possible, generate as much revenue for their bottom line as possible, and that meant going to all the platforms.
What do you gain by doing that? Is there a chance this strategy could hurt you in the end?
No. There’s two things that we gain that are absolutely at the floor of why Vive Studios was created. So Vive Studios was created to support the development ecosphere and ecosystem and make sure that the developers have a great chance to succeed as a business. So by going cross-platform, that gives them the best chance to do that. The second reason is because Vive Studios is set up to be a for-profit business, by expanding the number of headsets that we can sell to from a content standpoint, we have a better chance to succeed in our mission.
If Bethesda is able to solve the problems that obviously they’re going to have to face to bring that in, [Fallout VR] will be the largest game in VR when it launches.
Are you worried about it backfiring with people just buying those games on, say, the Rift?
No, because we just want to generate revenue for ourselves and our partners, so if someone on the Rift buys our content, we’re … Here’s the bottom line. We’re not using content as a weapon. We’re using content to help create and sustain the VR ecosystem.
What is a VR game that you’re really looking forward to?
Definitely Fallout. That’s one of the bigger ones. If Bethesda is able to solve the problems that obviously they’re going to have to face to bring that in, that will be the largest game in VR when it launches most likely because no one else can develop that much content from scratch. What Todd Howard has said very clearly is that they’re bringing the whole thing, all 125 hours plus all the add-on content. So nobody’s going to be able to beat that if they are able to bring it, so I can’t wait. I’ve already played Fallout VR using a mod… It definitely is not good. Because of the performance. It wasn’t designed for that, but what I could see is, “Wow, once Bethesda actually does this, and it actually works, and it’s got 90 frames a second, this is going to be phenomenal”. And also, their demo that they did at E3 last year kind of gives you that feeling of, “Wow. This is going to be phenomenal that I can go anywhere and do anything in this world.”
What do you think of what Oculus and Sony are doing right now?
I think they’re great. I think Sony has certainly inspired a lot of imagination in the marketplace. I certainly bought one on day one. Huge fan of what they’re doing over there. Oculus, I think they’re doing good work for the overall ecosystem in some areas. I disagree with their strategy a lot.
I’m guessing you’re referring to their approach on exclusives?
Yeah, I just feel that they’re essentially hampering developers’ ability to create large communities by blocking them out from other platforms.
From what they’ve told me, their argument is that some games wouldn’t have been made if Oculus didn’t fund them. What do you say to counter that?
Yeah, so what I say to that is that actually, it’s problematic for the developer’s long-term success, because by not developing relative to the market size, and sort of putting more cash in than the market can ever recoup, or the developer can ever recoup, they’re learning how to make content at that level, and then when they try to make their next game, they’re going to struggle because they’re not able to develop at the size and scope that the market is at.
Whereas someone like Owlchemy Labs, that made Job Simulator, they were scrappy, came together, had a passionate team that figured out, “Okay, this the sort of size and scope that we should do for a launch of a new platform”, and those guys came out and I was just talking to them today; I’m like, “Where are you guys going to put all of your awards?” They are certainly a success story in early VR of finding a good concept that they can develop within the scope and budgets that make sense for today’s market.