It is very likely the company can acquire some of the best VR developers in the world, and their products, just by offering a ridiculous amount of Facebook stock which can be sold after a few years of service to Mark Zuckerberg’s machine. I can probably count on one hand the number of successful VR development studios worldwide who would not take such a deal from Facebook.
So begins Zuckerberg’s second wave of investment in the VR market with the purchase of Beat Saber. They’ve spent five years since the acquisition of Oculus VR in 2014 building out hardware and research teams that are just now starting to churn out quality integrated products, like Oculus Quest, and surprising features, like hand tracking and Oculus Link, in advance of their goal of getting 1 billion people into VR. All that effort and money was just to buy Facebook a seat at the table alongside some of the biggest western platform-holding companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple. Now Facebook needs to try and win the next round and there is still much the company lacks with lots of weak spots in its position.
One of the biggest gaps for Facebook is it lacks meaningful adoption of any service necessary to VR developers or the people buying headsets. Facebook owning something like Unity or Unreal Engine, for instance, would give the ad-serving giant world-building tools that the creators who develop virtual worlds couldn’t ignore. And, by the way, we know Facebook tried to purchase the former at least once. The companies behind those world engines know how valuable they are and Facebook clearly hasn’t made them an offer too good to refuse yet. As an aside, I should note Insomniac also created a number of quality Oculus-exclusive VR games — and developed its own game-building tools — but was acquired quite recently by Sony.
I believe Facebook has a plan here to make itself a more necessary part of of VR and AR, and its realization is on the horizon.
At Facebook’s VR developers conference OC6 in September I tried an early version of the company’s unified social networking service Horizon.
I visited several worlds from a connecting “skyway” in Horizon. Wearing expressive avatars and interacting with people using intuitive hand gestures, Horizon is Facebook’s latest effort to get tech-enabled social connections right while extending them into virtual worlds. Two of the worlds I visited were made in VR while a third, more compelling one, was made in Unity.
After the demo I talked in the physical world with Facebook representatives including the former head of Altspace Eric Romo and Meaghan Fitzgerald, head of product marketing for AR/VR content at Facebook.
“You still will use your Oculus ID,” Fitzgerald told me. “Your name in Horizon is your Oculus identity, but we do require a linked Facebook account and that lets us do some great things around both safety – making sure it’s backed by a real person – but also for the people who want to invite more of their social network from their Facebook world into their VR environment. [With Facebook integration] they have better tools to do that – they can share out to groups and communities. But it is a Facebook product and we want to take advantage of the social features that Facebook has built as we’re thinking this through.”
Facebook says future Beat Saber updates will continue to come “at the same time to all currently supported VR platforms.” The company is planning a 360-degree mode for some tracks in December and we don’t know much about how the company’s forthcoming multiplayer mode will work. I put a few questions to Facebook in response to the acquisition announcement and the company confirmed Beat Games continues to develop a multiplayer version of the game.
In addition, I asked if there might connection between Beat Saber and Horizon, and Facebook hasn’t answered that question.
Imagine it is mid-2020 and the Beat Games developers finish the multiplayer version of their game and decide that — with Facebook now paying their bills — one of VR’s most popular games will become free to play instead of $30. At the same time, Beat Saber adds a great multiplayer mode with only one catch — it is connected to Facebook Horizon and to play it requires an Oculus ID backed by a Facebook account.
In this scenario (to be clear a complete hypothetical and nothing more than a thought experiment) Facebook would own one of the most popular games available through its main competitor’s storefront, Valve’s Steam, and going free-to-play would open its doors to many thousands (or millions) more players. Seemingly overnight, supporters of Valve and buyers of games only through Steam would feel compelled to set up an Oculus ID backed by their Facebook account to play this multiplayer version of the game with friends.
Take one look at the top downloaded apps on other storefronts like Google Play and Apple’s App Store and see the positions of Facebook-owned free products like Instagram and WhatsApp to see how effectively this strategy worked for the company in the past. Suddenly the addition of a tempting free-to-play destination like Beat Saber to Facebook’s Horizon network seems a lot more compelling. Beat Saber might be the perfect fit for this type of distribution, in fact, because its maps are fairly simplistic and might be loaded quickly. There’s even a game called Moon Rider available in your Web browser using WebVR that might offer a glimpse of how a Horizon-based distribution system for Beat Saber could work.
Half-Life: Alyx vs. Beat Saber
Imagine then the release of the $60 AAA single-player VR game Half-Life: Alyx from Valve alongside multiplayer free-to-play Beat Saber connected to Horizon from Facebook. Both products would top the charts for some time, both would deliver a ton of fun gameplay to players, and both would continue decades-long strategies employed by their respective companies.
While Alyx is expected to work fine on Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest via Link — continuing a multi-year strategy Valve’s employed in VR of cross-compatibility on PC via Steam — such a move by Facebook/Beat Saber would likely be just the first effort in a larger process of owning some of the most-downloaded VR games and integrating them with Facebook services. Such a process would begin to make both developers and players start to depend on Facebook services much more than they do today.
What do you think? Is Beat Saber destined for Facebook’s Horizon or do you have another thought about how Zuckerberg might use its new Prague-based VR game studio? Please share in the comments.