Oculus Rift February 26, 2016 by Ben Pateman
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Why are many upcoming VR games exclusive to the Oculus Rift?

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Nintendo vs Sega.  PlayStation vs Xbox.  Vive vs Rift.  The competition between VR headsets really does feel like another console war:  subsidized manufacturing and platform-exclusivity is the name of the game.  Except when it comes to exclusive titles, Oculus are the only ones playing.  Of the many big VR-ready games coming this year, a surprising number will only run on the Oculus Rift.  And it’s surprising because, at the end of the day, these are all PC games we’re talking about.  PC gamers aren’t used to this kind of divide:  If it runs on Windows, and your hardware meets the requirements, you’re good to go – right?  Wrong.  Until VR technology is standardized, you’ll need to be careful you pick the hardware that supports the games you’re looking to play.

Right now, the situation is simple.  If you want access to the widest range of VR games this year, get an Oculus Rift.  Many of the big flagship VR titles of 2016 will only launch through the Oculus Store, Oculus’ answer to Steam as a digital distribution platform.  More importantly, these have been developed exclusively with the OculusSDK.  In other words, it’s not just that they’ll only launch through the Oculus Store, they’ll only work with Oculus headsets.

Eve: ValkyrieThe Climb, and Lucky’s Tale are just a few of the highly-praised VR games that don’t officially run on the Vive.  “Officially” being the key word here:  clever hackers have already built workarounds – ReVive being the most popular – but these offer a far from perfect experience.  And more worryingly, could potentially stop working as a result of any given Oculus update, tearing you away from the Oculus Home games you paid good money for.

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So, why has Oculus opted to make exclusivity deals with game developers, while Valve is seemingly nonchalant about the idea?   Surely the whole concept is anti-consumer, harkening back to the old console wars?  Well, the major difference is that VR – as a universal platform – is entirely new, and needs content.  If there was no content, why would anyone be willing to spend so much money on an expensive headset?  But then, why develop content for something that has yet to be fully adopted?  Eggs and chickens.

Without a de facto VR standard, they’ve both created their own (Oculus SDK and OpenVR respectively).  Both of these frameworks, despite their names, are closed technologies, and at this stage neither manufacturer has a reason to believe that the other’s provides the best support for their own headset.  For example, Oculus have spent a lot of time and money developing a comfort-enhancing technology called Asynchronous Time-Warp (ATW), which isn’t utilized by OpenVR.

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With that in mind, why is it only Oculus who have made exclusivity deals with their developers?  Well, first of all, Oculus actually have games developers – a studio (Oculus Studio), in fact.  In comparison, Valve have been hands-off, trusting the development community to populate Steam with Vive-compatable games.  Indeed, all they really care about is selling games via Steam – the HTC Vive helps them with this, but if people with Rifts are buying VR games through Steam, Valve are still sitting pretty.  Oculus simply doesn’t have this luxury:  They need a reason for people to buy from their store, or they miss out on a huge chunk of distribution revenue.  Not an attractive option considering how much they’ve invested in Oculus Studios and third-party developers.

Oculus want their store to be as big to VR as Steam is to general gaming, and so naturally it won’t purely distribute their own exclusives.  They’re hoping the vast majority of VR apps will end up on their store, opening up the potential for them to grab the lion’s share of distribution revenue for VR gaming at large.  The question is, will this work out for Oculus, or will they eventually succumb to the giant that is Steam and give up on exclusivity, like so many before them?

A quick look at the major competitors to Steam when it comes to general PC gaming suggests it could go either way.  UbiSoft’s uPlay, for example, started out pushing exclusive titles that weren’t available on Steam, but eventually caved.  EA’s Origin, on the other hand, has thus-far kept its hands Steam-clean, with a good number of successful games that can only be purchased on their platform.

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Steam, and Valve behind it, has accomplished a rare thing:  Dominating their market so thoroughly, while retaining the loyalty and trust of their customers.  For this reason, among many others, Oculus will have an uphill struggle when it comes to launching their own platform.   Of course, neither Valve nor Oculus will budge until they’re forced to, and so in the end it’s going to come down to which framework future non-Valve/Oculus VR headsets decide to pick up.  Because let’s not forget:  If VR kicks off like we all expect it to, in a few years time Vive and Oculus will be just two names in a sea of many.  But it’s likely that only one of them will have gotten their way.

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