Exclusive: Inside Meta’s Horizon Worlds reboot
Who's ready to rumble?
Welcome to Lowpass, a newsletter about the future of entertainment and the next big hardware platforms, including smart TVs, ambient computing and AR / VR.
This week’s newsletter is a day late, but for a good reason: I’ve got an exclusive story about Meta’s attempts to revive its Horizon Worlds VR platform, and a small scoop on Comcast’s latest retail partner for its Xumo TVs.
Next week’s newsletter will reach your inbox on Thursday again. It will also feature a story only available to paying subscribers. Upgrade now to not miss it.
Meta’s new Horizon Worlds shooter “Super Rumble” is part of a broader reboot
Earlier this week, I was hiding in a tree, dodging bullets, while frantically trying to score some last-second points in a free-for-all brawl. My opponents included none other than Meta’s metaverse VP Vishal Shah, and the game we were playing was “Super Rumble,” a new first-person shooter that’s launching on Meta’s social VR platform Horizon Worlds today.
But “Super Rumble” isn’t just another VR game. The title is the first produced by a new in-house studio called Ouro Interactive that’s all about making first-party titles for Horizon Worlds. It’s also the first Horizon game to make use of a bunch of technical advancements that allow for much better-looking and immersive experiences. On top of that, “Super Rumble” will be one of the first games that Meta will be beta-testing when the company brings Horizon Worlds to mobile soon.
In short, “Super Rumble” may be the most visible sign of a reboot for the troubled Horizon Worlds platform. A bigger focus on first-party titles, better technical tools for creators and a rewritten mobile app with cross-platform play is supposed to help grow Horizon’s audience, and keep players coming back for more.
“This is definitely more than just a new world,” Shah told me during an exclusive conversation in the game. “(It’s) the next generation of Horizon Worlds.”
Meta briefly beta-tested “Super Rumble” in May under the project name “Titanborne.” I was lucky enough to stumble across the beta weekend by chance, and everyone I played with seemed awestruck by the level of fidelity the game offered. Previous Horizon Worlds titles often looked bright-colored, bland and blockish, with a lack of details. (“There's no texture to these textures,” as one Redditor put it.) Compared to those worlds, “Super Rumble” looks like night and day.
That’s because “Super Rumble” has been built with imported objects, assets and textures, something that wasn’t previously possible with Horizon.
“Super Rumble” developers also relied on TypeScript as opposed to the in-world Code Blocks scripting used for prior worlds, making it possible to build a much more reactive environment.
Finally, “Super Rumble” is going a lot deeper than existing Horizon Worlds games by adding a variety of superpowers, some of which can only be unlocked once players reach a certain level, as well as quests and rewards – all things meant to increase replayability.
“We've really raised the ceiling on what can be built in Horizon in terms of visual complexity, interactivity and fun gameplay,” Shah said.
Horizon’s troubles are well documented. Horizon Worlds launched publicly in late 2021 as part of Meta’s metaverse push, and has been plagued by a lack of engagement since. In early 2022, Horizon had 300,000 monthly users; later that year, usage had fallen to a reported 200,000 MAUs. As someone who used to frequently play Horizon games, I can attest to the fact that things haven’t exactly gotten more lively since.
Shah himself had described lots of Horizon's problems in internal memos that subsequently leaked to The Verge, including the fact that Meta’s own staffers weren’t using the platform, writing: “If we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?”
“We've been heads down iterating on this over the last year,” Shah told me this week. Those efforts included building the infrastructure to support more complex games and worlds, as well as the ability to let developers import objects and assets built with third-party tools.
Those import capabilities won’t be available to anyone just yet; instead, Meta is relying on the newly-formed Ouro Interactive team and select partners to build marquee titles for Horizon that will debut on the platform over the next six months.
“As consumers come to Horizon, we want to make sure there's a bunch of compelling content that they can find on day one,” Shah told me. “We're going to seed the ecosystem, bootstrap it with stuff that we build both in-house, but also with some studios that we're working with.”
Eventually, object importing and other more advanced creator tools will be made more widely available, but the exact details of that rollout still have to be determined. “The long-term vision remains the same,” Shah said. “This is a UGC-powered ecosystem, built by creators.”
Next up: a mobile app. When Horizon first launched, Meta execs said that they were looking to launch a mobile app for it as well. That app has been MIA since, for a reason: Shah revealed during our chat that his team had actually built a working version of the app a year ago. “We ended up not shipping it,” he said. “It was a little bit too much of a VR game on mobile as opposed to a mobile-native experience.”
The Horizon team completely rebuilt the app, according to Shah. He didn’t tell me when the app will launch, but revealed that “Super Rumble” will be one of the first titles to be beta tested on mobile. With cross-platform play, mobile users will be able to battle VR users, he promised.
The mobile app launch could shape up to be an interesting inflection point for Horizon, with Shah telling me that he expects the majority of Horizon users to be on mobile for the time being.
At the same time, VR will still provide the most immersive experience, and the mobile app is meant to be an onramp for people who can’t afford a VR headset, or live in a market where Meta doesn’t sell devices yet.
“We're going from a world where we are VR only to a place where we're going to be VR first,” Shah said.
Also on the roadmap: generative AI and metaverse interoperability. If you believe the pundits, then the metaverse is yesterday’s news, and AI is the hot new thing. Unsurprisingly, a metaverse VP would disagree. “The metaverse is not dead,” Shah told me. “The metaverse hype is dead.” And also: Why not do both?
“We’re also investing in generative AI tools for creation,” Shah said. He didn’t want to reveal too many details, but suggested that creators who aren’t familiar with professional 3D tools could possibly one day rely on AI to bring their ideas for new worlds to life.
His team has also been trying to figure out ways to make metaverse platforms interoperable. Some examples for this could include letting users take their avatars and items from one platform to another, or making it easier to travel with friends to destinations outside of Horizon.
“There's quite a bit of service infrastructure that we're building,” Shah said.
Once again, he didn’t share a firm timeline for this, but it’s worth noting that Meta has begun to implement some early examples for this. “Super Rumble” players who get rewarded with a new avatar outfit in the game can don those new clothes on their next avatar-based Meta Messenger call, for instance. (Whether other metaverse platforms are willing to make use of Meta’s avatars is a different question.)
Mark Zuckerberg used Meta’s earnings call Wednesday to reiterate that Meta remained “fully committed to the metaverse vision.” Shah stressed during our conversation that this was a 10-year journey that had barely begun, but called the launch of “Super Rumble” and of the tech powering it “a meaningful step.”
“It's resetting the bar of what we think a great experience in Horizon can be,” he said.
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Xumo TVs are coming to Best Buy
Comcast and its joint venture partner Charter have been able to secure a new retail partner for their line of Xumo-branded smart TVs: Best Buy is starting to sell Xumo TVs made by Hisense, according to a listing that popped up on the retailer’s website this week.
Best Buy’s site currently only lists one SKU: A 55-inch 4K TV running Xumo’s smart TV operating system, which is an evolution of Comcast’s X1 platform.
The TV is listed with a retail price of $320, and includes support for Dolby Vision and HDR 10.
The TV is running Comcast’s own voice assistant, and also offers support for Apple’s AirPlay 2.
Hisense’s own website also just lists one single Xumo SKU, suggesting that the TV maker isn’t exactly all in on Xumo’s platform. Hisense also makes TVs running smart TV operating systems made by Amazon, Google and Roku, as well as its own Vidaa OS platform.
Hisense previously made two models of Comcast’s XClass TVs, which were exclusively available at Walmart.
Hisense isn’t Xumo’s only hardware partner: Element is also making a range of Xumo-powered smart TVs, which are currently available for sale at Midwest retailer Meijer as well as at rent-to-own retailer Aaron’s.
How porn comedy “Minx” survived the Max streaming cull. WarnerBros. Discovery wanted to kill “Minx” to save costs. Starz saved the show by buying season 2. (Phew, it’s a good show!)
Netflix is holding off on making a native Vision Pro app. The streaming service plans to instead bring its iPad app to Apple’s mixed reality headset.
Google abandons plans to transition its speakers to its Fuchsia OS. That’s according to code snippets, and perhaps a bad omen for Nest audio devices?
Comcast lost 543,000 pay TV subscribers in Q2. Cord cutting is getting worse: In Q2 of 2022, Comcast lost 521,000 subscribers.
Netflix is lowering ad prices, reworking Microsoft deal. The streamer is reportedly giving advertisers a bit of a break to jumpstart its ad business, and is looking to have companies other than Microsoft sell ads for it as well.
Roblox has arrived on Meta’s Quest VR headset. The metaverse gaming platform launched in beta on the Quest’s App Lab store.
How Sony built its PlayStation VR2 headset. Granted, this post on the official PlayStation blog is a little self-serving, but getting to see all those prototypes is still pretty cool.
Speaking of coffee habits: I’m the proud new owner of a metal mesh filter for my Aeropress, and I’m loving it. In fact, I can’t really stop talking about it, which has led to a bunch of other people telling me how they make their coffee. And, guess what: Italian-style stovetop espresso makers appear to be surprisingly popular. I always assumed they’re only used by Gauloises-smoking Europeans. Ignorant me. So, please enlighten me: What’s your coffee-making equipment of choice? Feel free to respond to this email, or respond in the comments below.
Thanks for reading, have a great weekend!