VR is in many ways awesome, but still in many ways lacking. Ease-of-use, especially when it comes to playing in VR with friends, is presently a huge pain point for the experience. Oculus’ solution to that pain point—announced more than seven months ago—launched on Gear VR where it was welcomed with open arms. Bizarrely, the same features remain painfully absent from Rift, Oculus’ high-end VR platform, especially in the face of major improvements to multiplayer VR gaming on SteamVR. Nate Mitchell, Head of Rift at Oculus, offers an update on the fate of Rooms and Parties on the Rift.
Rooms & Parties
Announced at the end of 2016, Oculus Rooms and Parties are a new app and a new feature designed to fix perhaps the most frustrating problem with multiplayer Rift gaming: finding your Oculus friends in VR. Once you actually get into the same game and match together, multiplayer on Rift is usually pretty great, but getting to that point is a frustrating challenge because once you don the headset you lose easy access to most of your usual digital communication tools like messaging and VOIP apps.
The Rooms app was designed as a universal pre-game lobby for Oculus where friends could find each other, discuss what they wanted to do in VR, and launch into that experience together. Importantly, it also gives players something to do while they wait for friends to arrive, instead of just sitting around with a headset and peeking out the corner to check their phone for messages from said friends.
Parties, meanwhile, are a feature of the underlying Oculus dashboard: global VOIP chat allowing friends to talk to each other no matter where they are in VR. That makes it way easier to sync up and play because you don’t have to take off your headset (or uncomfortably peek out) to use out-of-headset means of communication like messaging and VOIP apps, only to transition to in-headset VOIP once you get into the same place together. It also means players can play single-player games in VR but keep the conversation going.
Back at the time of the 2016 announcement, both Rooms and Parties launched on Gear VR and have been updated continuously. At the time, Oculus said that both would come to Rift in 2017, and naturally users were excited after putting up with a multiplayer experience that’s not up to par with what what they’d expect from a typical gaming platform.
Missing in Action on Rift
Now seven months into 2017, Rooms and Parties still haven’t come to Rift. Their absence is increasingly painful in the face of the launch of SteamVR Home Beta, a multiplayer pre-game lobby built into SteamVR which—combined with existing Steam voice call and chat features—provides essentially all the functions of Rooms and Parties. It isn’t perfect, but at least it’s there.
For a platform that’s in many ways surprisingly mature for its age, Oculus Home for Rift is seriously lacking in multiplayer ease of use, and players are noticing. We’ve heard calls from the Rift community, both indirect and direct, asking us to reach out to Oculus for an update on when there will be improvements to the experience.
From the Horse’s Mouth
Fortunately, we had an opportunity last week to sit down with the perhaps the single best person to speak on the topic: Nate Mitchell, Head of Rift at Oculus, who filled us in on the fate of Rooms and Parties on Rift, first offering a quick recap of where Rooms is on Gear VR.
“We’ve got Rooms on Gear VR, we’re really happy with it. The Rooms team is moving super fast. They’re shipping releases—pretty major updates—more or less every month, adding new features we’re excited about; we’re seeing usage continue to tick up. So overall we’re really excited with where Rooms is at on the mobile side.”
Then he addressed criticism he’s heard online from people saying that Rooms should be a quick and easy port over to Rift on PC.
“[…] a couple of folks were like ‘Why would they [spend time expanding it on mobile] instead of bringing it over to PC?’. Well, realistically, with a limited team, they’re able to move much much faster on a bunch of features and get more value out to folks on the mobile side by focusing only on one platform rather than trying to bring everything over to PC simultaneously,” Mitchell said. “And that’s especially true just because Rooms is actually built in Unity, it’s using Android, and so there’s always gonna be features that they’re doing that are specific to Android (codecs and things, especially for video or audio) that don’t just come over whole cloth, ‘wham-bam’ to PC.”
Parties, Coming Soon to a Rift Near You
For people who want to ‘hang out’ in VR, certainly one function of Rooms, Mitchell says that Facebook Spaces fills that need and that it’s being actively worked updated and expanded. But Rift users have been looking to Rooms not as a place to hang out (there’s already many of those to choose from), but as a way to fix the high-friction experience of syncing up with Rift friends to play VR together. To that, Mitchell confirms that Parties—global group voice calls that span across apps—is on the way to fix one aspect of that friction.
“So people are asking, ‘So when is Rooms coming to PC?’. We have something coming to PC pretty soon which is Parties. So we are gonna have persistent VOIP calls coming to PC independent of Rooms, launching pretty soon. So you’re gonna be able to open up the Universal Menu, and you’re gonna be able to say ‘Hey I wanna chat with Nate’; I’ll get a notification, it’ll say ‘Hey do you wanna join a party with Ben?’; I’ll say ‘Absolutely, love Ben, can’t wait to chat with him again’; and then bam, we’ll have persistent voice across multiple titles.”