Eric Johnson

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Why a Cozy Relationship Between Valve and Oculus VR Makes Perfect Sense

Team Fortress 2’s Soldier, Pyro and Heavy
try the Oculus Rift.

One factoid from Oculus VR’s $75 million funding round last week merits a bit more contemplation: The virtual reality startup might not have scored that mega round if the more established games company Valve had not come to its aid.

According to Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, Valve’s R&D department, led by longtime virtual reality proponent Michael Abrash, helped the younger company reach a hardware breakthrough that dramatically cut down on its Rift headset’s tendency to induce motion sickness. That’s a big deal, since Oculus has enough of a competitive uphill slog ahead of it without having to deal with half its users losing their lunches.

To industry watchers, this may seem a bit odd. After all, isn’t Valve supposed to be working on its own virtual reality headset, to be unveiled in January? Obvious counterpoint: Valve wants to encourage more developer interest in the ecosystem now, since making games comfortable in VR can be time-consuming.

But the relationship goes much deeper than that. Nearly a year ago, Valve became the first major developer to pledge that it would port some of its own software to the Rift, starting with its popular multiplayer battle game Team Fortress 2. And remember, the Rift still isn’t expected for a consumer release until sometime next year; the only units in the wild right now are inelegant “kits” intended for developers.

Currently, the Rift’s nascent games store is a mixed bag — well-known properties like Team Fortress 2 and an unofficial modified-for-VR version of Minecraft called Minecrift mingle with tech demos and indie experiments. But a different store, Valve’s dominant PC games network Steam, today added the ability to search specifically for games with “VR Support.”

Oculus VR CTO John Carmack

Still not enough? Fine, then consider the two companies’ histories: Valve burst onto the gaming scene in the late ’90s with the groundbreaking first-person shooter game Half-Life and the first Team Fortress game, Team Fortress Classic. TFC was a throwback to a mod of Id Software’s 1996 shooter Quake, and Half-Life was built on top of a licensed version of the Quake engine, granted by Id co-founder John Carmack thanks to the lobbying of Id programmer Michael Abrash.

Hey, that name rings a bell … oh, right, Abrash is the guy now at Valve R&D who helped Oculus with its latest prototype. At Id in the mid-’90s, he and Carmack delved deep into virtual reality and built their own headset prototype, Iribe said, but found that latency was a big issue.

And where’s Carmack now? The game pioneer and insta-credibility-creator has exited Id and is instead CTO at Oculus.

We’ll know better whether this incestuous history and chummy diplomacy will lead to anything bigger in 2014 — an acquisition, perhaps, or just a more formalized partnership — once Valve lays out the rest of its virtual reality cards in January. But with Valve’s own underdog experimental consoles, the Linux-based Steam Machines, already in the pipeline, the two companies are on the same road: Parlaying new hardware and hype/enthusiasm from both gamers and developers to try to shake up gaming in the home.

Here’s what Valve has: A secure foothold in the gaming community, high-quality content, good relationships with hundreds of developers and a path to growing a mainstream gamer audience while staying independent.

Here’s what Oculus needs: All of the above.

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There’s a lot of attention and PR around Marissa, but their product lineup just kind of blows.

— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google