With vast sums of money being poured into VR around the world, the virtual reality development scene has never been healthier. In a recent GDC survey, for instance, there were more developers making games for VR (24 per cent) than there were for the Xbox One and Project Scorpio (22 per cent), showing a growth of 50 per cent compared to the GDC’s 2015 survey.
It’s a trend that’s set to continue as well, with 23 per cent saying their next game will come to VR headsets, versus 22 per cent for Xbox One and Scorpio. Among them are UK studios nDreams and Climax, who now have multiple VR games under their belt with more to come over the next year.
“We’re confident and committed as a studio in the future of VR,” nDreams’ CEO and founder Patrick O’Luanaigh (pictured above, left) tells MCV.
“Any emerging technology could be perceived as risky. However with major companies investing in the hardware and so many studios developing high-quality titles, I’m certain it’s here to stay. But like almost every other new technology, it’ll take several years before it makes a huge mass-market impact.”
The same goes for Climax Studios, whose most recent title, Lola and the Giant, marks its tenth VR venture: “As a studio, we want to make sure that we futureproof ourselves as much as possible, which is why we have a good mixed portfolio currently in development which focuses on VR, AR, PC/console and port/support work,” says Climax’s CEO Simon Gardner (pictured above, right).
“We are using these early days of the multiple VR platforms to learn and help grow our IP which means we look at all platforms and will be releasing on new stores and headsets in the future.”
Of course, in the console space, it’s common to judge a platform by the strength of its exclusives. For Gardner and O’Luanaigh, however, having multiple headsets available has proven to be quite beneficial.
“We enjoy developing for different platforms, as this gives us the opportunity to try out different game styles and genres which play to the strength of each platform,” says O’Luanaigh. “We’ve had a great experience with all of them.”
Gardner agrees: “Our most successful VR titles, Bandit Six and Hunters Gate, are established gaming genres which the audience has responded to. Mobile users want immediacy and, possibly, limited interactions. This is something we’re experimenting with now with a title from our Auckland studio, so it will be interesting to see how they perform when they launch later this year.”
Climax has also used this time to experiment with different pricing structures: “We recently updated Bandit Six: Salvo to ‘free to try’, which allows you to play the first three missions before hitting the paywall. It’s led to a massive increase in downloads, and conversions are as expected for the mobile market.
"We have other titles in development, which will allow the base game to be free but DLC will be available – along with the more traditional premium titles. For us, it is all about experiment, experiment, experiment.”
As the VR scene matures, O’Luanaigh expects mobile VR to become much more sophisticated, with Gardner predicting it will eventually match its PC counterparts.
“Now that the first wave of VR headsets has been released, we’ll see a wide range of experiences available across all platforms, including mobile VR, over time,” O’Luanaigh explains.
“Both VR experiences will continue to complement each other and grow together. The technology will become smaller, more affordable, more powerful and with more advanced functionality across the board. I think it’s perfectly okay for mobile VR to be largely populated by shorter experiences at the moment, as it’s an accessible introduction to VR and well-suited to a shorter length.”
Gardner concurs: “I think they’ll all meet somewhere in the middle in a few years. Control schemes are currently holding mobile VR back, but when that’s been nailed it will become an ecosystem where one game can live on every headset. Since we launched Bandit Six, mobile hardware has moved on so much. With the Daydream controller and the new Gear VR controller, this gives us more functionality, which leads to more creative games. For VR to succeed in the next five years, we need to hit a mass market price point, and mobile VR feels like it has the biggest opportunity to do that.”
Gardner and O’Luanaigh are also confident about the current state of each headset’s user base: “We’re at the beginning of its success,” says O’Luanaigh.
“Hardware sales have hit our expectation and wider recognition continues to grow within the mainstream media which is great. We’ve also seen the number of companies working in VR increase, and this bodes well for the next few crucial years. With [millions of headsets already sold], plus price drops that are making high-end VR more affordable, we’re confident of significant VR growth this year.”
Gardner adds: “We’re in year four of VR and the market goes from strength to strength. We’re launching our first PS VR title in May, which we’re very excited about as they have such a great platform. The recent price drop for the Rift is a great step, and the content pipeline for all platforms looks promising.”
That said, both studio heads think there’s still some way to go before the higher-end headsets reach mass market appeal. “I don’t think those iterations of headsets were ever meant to be mass market,” says Gardner, and O’Luanaigh agrees:
“PS VR was unique in the sense that all a consumer needed to do was buy a headset and plug it into their PS4. The same applies for mobile VR – everyone has a smartphone, and mobile VR headsets are very affordable. That meant these headsets would naturally have a lead to start off with, but it doesn’t mean that other platforms will be prevented from gaining mass market adoption over the next few years. Something we’re confident will happen.”
When we asked what hurdles VR needs to overcome in the next year, Gardner was straight to the point: “Price and content. Easy, really.” For O’Luanaigh, however, it’s a bit more complicated:
“Mobile VR is still imperfect – headsets currently lack features like hand and positional tracking, which are key to great VR in my view,” he says. “So I think you’ll see the technology behind mobile VR accelerate very fast as these elements are addressed. VR is very much a ‘try me’ technology, so hardware companies need to accelerate the opportunities for people to try high quality VR.”
As for whether more could be done to help entice developers into VR, there are already plenty of trailblazers out there, but adverse publishing conditions certainly aren’t helping.
“It will happen in time,” says Gardner. “We’re starting to see it on PS VR with Batman and Resident Evil 7 and Ubisoft’s efforts. As the market gets bigger, it will be able to sustain larger projects. The user base is currently small and publishers aren’t interested outside of a few bets. Even 12m Wii Us wasn’t enough for the majority of publishers so that’s the market we currently work in.”
O’Luanaigh, meanwhile, is more optimistic: “We’re already seeing developers and publishers becoming more involved in making and producing VR titles. You just have to look at the success of Resident Evil 7 and the hotly-anticipated Star Trek: Bridge Crew to see there’s a huge appetite for high-quality triple-A experiences. At the same, the success of indie games such as Job Simulator and Arizona Sunshine are showing everyone the way to success. I’m sure that more will follow – we just haven’t heard about them yet.”
STAR WARS IN THEIR EYES
At a recent BAFTA Crew Games Masterclass event, Criterion gave developers an in-depth look at how it made its new Star Wars Battlefront Rogue One: X-Wing VR Mission. MCV sat down with producer James Svensson to talk about how VR differs to regular game development:
“VR has definitely got developers excited and that was no different in our studio,” Svensson tells us. “It was through having this exclusive piece, a reward for our PlayStation players, [that we could] really figure out what VR’s about and try and set a bar for what a triple-A experience would be.
“But it really crystallised when we started making Battlefront VR that actually it’s very different. That’s something we’ve had to be very clear on when we’re talking with publishing parts of the company and outside of the company.
“It’s as different as mobile games are to console games. When mobile games first came around, a lot of people tried virtual controls and they hadn’t really got the one-finger simplicity quite down yet. They also hadn’t figured out the different ways that people played. VR’s like another new leg of the gaming market. I definitely don’t think it’s going to replace [consoles], because they’re quite different propositions for what your play session is going to be.
“One [of the open questions we face] is how long people are comfortable with in VR. We’ve seen players play the mission four times back to back, so they’re in for two hours back to back. It tends to be very hours-based, whereas actually, I’d love to see a VR market that can be around these almost feature-length experiences that are quite filmic, because they lend themselves to much more led and tailored experiences and emotional immersion.
“I can’t imagine people being happy with regularly paying £15 for something that’s two hours long. I don’t think you’d build up a library that way, or not yet anyway. That’s the thing; it’s like working out what those steps are. I think it would start off with some smaller experiences that are either free or very cheap and then getting longer and longer.
“That’s not to say that’s the direction it will go in, but I think that could be a leg that it finds itself going towards. There will definitely be a core set of players that will be very happy to get full-length experiences in their VR.
“However, the number of headsets in the world is the biggest [hurdle] for something on a modern triple-A budget. So having a lot more headsets out there would definitely be a good thing.”
SVRVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
Taking the time to experiment with VR is fine if you’ve got a triple-A budget behind you, but for smaller teams such as the 12-strong studio Svrvive, balancing the books and managing artistic ambition proved problematic, as game designer and programmer Daniel Kihlgren Kallander found out during the six month development cycle of Svrvive: The Deus Helix:
“We secured investment in June 2016, but we only had a finite amount of money to sustain us, and if we didn’t get it out before all the triple-A releases in November, we would have had to wait until February to get a decent market for it,” he says.
“What we wanted was about ten missions and seven hours of gameplay, but we did the math to see what was realistic. It ended up as five missions with about five hours of gameplay. It’s going pretty well, but it could be better.
“Assuming we have around 200,000 Vives in the wild, then if everyone buys the game, great. Except you then need to cover all the costs, so making VR games for just one platform isn’t really recommended right now. It’s doing well, but it’s not enough to recuperate anything for a company our size.
"We need to go multiplatform in the future. These spaces are so small these days, even with the Vive and Oculus, that’s about half a million headsets, add in PS VR, that’s another million, then we can actually do something with it. But until then, that’s a problem. The next game we’re doing is for Vive, Rift and PS VR, just to get it out on more platforms.”
Also in MCV's VR special this week: