No longer constrained to just dev kits, VR headsets are now a commercial reality. This is the time for developers to reap the rewards of early experiments in virtual reality, but experts say the hard part is only just beginning.
“The priority right now is simple enough: show consumers just how impressive VR is and how great it can be,” says Rebellion co-founder Jason Kingsley. “We’ve demoed to thousands of players and know you can convert even the mildly interested consumer into something of a true believer simply by giving them time with VR.”
Resolution Games CEO Tommy Palm agrees: “Anyone in the world can instantly understand VR because it mimics reality and the opportunities for applications and entertainment value are endless. Even though it is possible for VR to survive as a niche, it would be an enormous waste.
“Mobile VR has the greatest potential to be affordable and hence accessible to anyone, while also being on a fast track for constant improvement and advancements. This is where we will see the most interesting developments – in the short term, at least.”
UPPING YOUR GAMES
Pricing will be key. Oculus and Vive have courted criticism with their high price tags, raising the barrier for entry – especially when you consider the beefy PC required to run VR smoothly and minimise motion sickness.
“The initial uptake of hardware has “VR needs highly engaging, deep and been driven largely by the development fraternity, plus hardcore tech and game enthusiasts,” observes Tom Gillo, VP of development at NDreams. “Entry level hardware costs have to come down in order to address more price conscious mid-core and ultimately mainstream audiences.”
As we wait for those prices to be lowered, devs are given another responsibility: honing the language of what a VR game can be. To date, most virtual reality titles have been tech demos and short ‘experiences’, while ‘full’ games are most likely in Early Access. But this needs to improve if we want VR to appeal to more people.
“Content has now become the largest bottleneck,” explains Palm. VR needs highly engaging, deep and meaningful experiences that justify the investment for consumers. Yet, currently a lot of it is very short and demo-like – that needs to change.”
Gillo agrees: “We need to start providing games with more to offer than demos and hardware showcases. As developers, we need to focus on games with depth of progression and strong, repeatable mechanics that draw audiences back to their headsets time and again.
“None of us want VR headsets to become dust magnets in the back of the cupboard. As we better understand what mechanics work well in VR, we can create equally compelling and commercially successful games as we’ve seen on other platforms.”
But optimism surrounding VR has been stymied somewhat by reports that the momentum is faltering. A Steam survey showed that sales of both Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have slowed, indicating that most early adopters may already have a headset. The report claimed only 0.18 per cent of Steam owners have a Vive, while 0.1 per cent own a Rift.
STAY ON TARGET
Kingsley believes this will change as more affordable devices arrive: “It’s arguable those were always going to be more enthusiast-focused – partly because of their cost but also how they’re positioned in the market. The picture should look very different once PlayStation VR launches.”
It’s crucial to remember this is a new medium still finding its feet. While some claim VR could be a game-changer as big as the iPhone, others argue we can’t expect the same rapid growth.
“I’m not expecting there to be a flood in the same way smartphones quickly proliferated the phone market,” says Gillo. “More likely we’ll see a slow and steady increase over the next couple of years as the price trends down and the content and technology becomes increasingly compelling.”
When you're inside an industry, it's easy to forget most people have no idea what VR is. Tom Gillo, NDreams
Palm adds: “VR is similar to the internet in the way that it enables a lot of things that were very hard to imagine before we got used to it to actually become a reality. New applications and ideas are dreamed up for how to use VR to solve common issues daily. VCs and consumers want to see this turned into unique and engaging content. We as content creators can deliver this.”
Venture Capital firms and other investors have already poured billions into VR projects over the past few years, with games developers even attracting the attentions of big name brands from other sectors. Racing studio Eutechnyx, for example, was able to spin out an entire business – Zerolight – that works with car manufacturers on virtual reality showrooms.
“The VR content marketplace is growing and seeing a lot of potential investment for short-term, single-use commissions alongside more fruitful, scalable contracts,” says ZeroLight CEO Darren Jobling. “We frequently receive unrelated requests for branded VR experiences, from bars of chocolate to spacecraft. You just need to be focused on what you want to achieve.
“Unbelievably, VR investment hype in Europe is just building when compared to other international markets. However, there’s currently no consistent correlation between company valuations and the size of the ‘real’ VR market. Investors look for a specific ROI that justifies the amount of risk. If they can’t clearly identify their projected return, then they are unlikely to release funds for future projects.”
Gillo also doubts that investment in VR is in danger of drying up: “My grandfather always told me to invest in an expanding market. I think virtual reality will see more expansion in the next three years than we’ve seen so far. That said, investors will want to see positive results over the course of the next 18 months if they’re going to continue supporting VR.”
THE FUTURE OF VR
VR interest from other sectors presents great opportunities for devs. Since our industry is the driving force behind the tech, ours are the skills that will be most highly sought.
But Kingsley is more skeptical, describing 360-degree videos and movies as “VR lite” given the user’s lack of control: “It’s another way of showing high production value linear entertainment. ‘True’ VR requires a synthetic real-time generated environment to allow the user to move where they want to.”
Gillo argues that non-gaming ventures are actually more likely to be the much-needed ‘killer app’ for VR, adding that he doubts it will be a game that drives mainstream adoption.
Regardless of whether or not it proves to be the key to VR going mainstream, there’s no doubt that the games industry will be instrumental in it evolution. “Virtual reality has to continue to mature and innovate,” says Gillo. “Pupil tracking, biometric sensors, and haptic devices. Better social integration and functionality. Improved peripheral devices, such as 3D cameras that enable people to self-publish 3D content more easily. These are all areas that I imagine will mature quickly and provide devs with new areas for exploration.
“When you’re inside an industry, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of people actually have no idea what VR is. [Steven Spielberg’s] Ready Player One movie is exactly the kind of cultural touch-paper that can re-ignite VR and take it from being a technological curiosity to a full-on pop culture and social platform revolution. I can’t wait to see people’s reactions when they get to virtually hang out in the OASIS.”
Palm concludes: “Virtual reality is the reason we all got into games from the beginning. We saw that games would only get better and better until one day you would be the star of your own Hollywood blockbuster adventure – truly ‘living’ the game like never before. That day has never been closer than it is now.”