With consumer versions of leading virtual reality headsets finally on the horizon, James Batchelor looks at the expectations and pressures VR devs face – and asks whether 2016 really is the year that virtual reality succeeds
2016, more so than any other year before, is quickly being positioned as the year of virtual reality.
With Samsung’s Gear VR already available and both HTC Vive VR and Oculus Rift – the device that single-handedly revived hopes of a virtual reality future – due on shelves over the next few months, expectations for the technology to finally prove itself are rising.
But the backlash to Oculus Rift’s £500 price tag has highlighted lingering division across the industry as to whether VR really is the be-all-and-end-all that countless tech demos and hefty investments have led us to believe.
Shahid Ahmad, indie developer and former head of strategic content at SCEE, believes it will be the launch titles for Oculus, Vive and PlayStation VR that give us the first true glimpse into the tech’s future.
“It’s essential that the first experiences in this new medium are positive and captivating,” he tells Develop. “Day one experiences need to be safe, but thrilling enough to persuade customers that VR is worth the investment.
“Every day one title is responsible for making a statement about what VR is. You want lots of developers to embrace the tech, but you only want to showcase those games that make VR look great.”
Expectations for VR are so high I fear nothing short of an Apple-sized success will assuage the accountants.
Philip Bak, Niine Games
Kjartan Emilsson, CEO of EverestVR creator Sólfar Studios, warns that devs need to hold themselves to a higher standard when it comes to creating early VR titles.
“If anything expectations aren’t high enough – at least, on the creative side,” he says. “As an industry, we run the risk of underestimating how radically VR will shift player perceptions if we get the initial conditions right in year one.”
NDreams CEO Patrick O’Luanaigh adds: “I’m convinced that VR is going to be successful, but it is going to take a while. It seems natural that VR will see primary adoption by gamers, but you can expect it to spread into education, training, and many other industries in relatively short order – certainly within the next few years.
“With so many huge companies and investors behind VR, and such a great reaction to it from the public when they experience quality VR first-hand, it can only be just the beginning of something very exciting.”
However, some devs believe hopes are a little too high, with Triangular Pixels’ creative director Katie Goode adding that consumers in particular seem to be “expecting the very best content straight away”.
“It’ll still take time for experiences to be created, for conventions to be developed and for large-scale VR games to be launched,” she predicts.
“On normal console launches, the consoles are not announced until they are basically final, and the games potentially only a few months before launch. With VR, the very early prototype devices have been public effectively the entire time they’ve been in development. It’s been an odd cycle for everyone involved.”
Niine Games programmer Philip Bak adds: “Expectations for VR are so high I fear nothing short of an Apple-sized success will assuage the accountants. A niche sector just isn’t going to sustain the industry ramping up around it. Even if it was free there is a good reason adoption would not take off.”
Every day one title is responsible for making a statement about what VR is.
Shahid Ahmad, developer
Other devs stress that the arrival of consumer devices is not as significant a moment for the VR sector as console launches. The games industry still needs time to find the best experiences that engage large audiences, as well as to gauge public opinion on the notion of even wearing
“I don’t think anybody working in the VR sector thinks 2016 is ‘the year’,” says Climax CEO Simon Gardner, whose studio built VR titles Bandit Six and Salvo. “We are all looking to 2017 and beyond. There should be an installed base to sell into and more content coming on tap that will prove the VR case.”
Stephanie Llamas, director for research and consumer insights at SuperData, adds that expectations for VR
titles are “exteremely high for small developers”.
“Their games need to be exceptional so that once the triple-A guys come in they will still be able to compete,” she explained. “Triple-A publishers will be able to throw millions into R&D and marketing in order to sell high quality VR games. Small developers have to gain a lot of industry trust early on in order to keep up with the big industry players.”
MORE THAN HYPE
The pressure is on early VR developers to provide what many agree the technology still sorely needs: a killer app, that must-have game that will sell both the concept and the appeal of virtual reality.
“It’s absolutely critical that the hardware features a selection of killer apps that demonstrate why VR is a new type of product that does a new type of thing, rather than an ‘impressive’ but ultimately shallow augmentation,” argues Stike Gamelabs’ design director Martin Darby.
“The danger is that you can see parallels to how 3D television and cinema was pushed but hasn’t taken off.”
Rebellion CEO Jason Kingsley adds: “The big issue for me is that all involved need to create experiences that go beyond ‘just a gimmick’, and into compelling player immersion for a longer period of time.”
As daunting as this might sound, Emilsson says this presents a great opportunity for VR studios: “As developers, we need to take the creative leap and craft the intense, surprising VR experiences that prove to ourselves and players that this is real, not hype.”
Their games need to be exceptional so that once the triple-A guys come in they will still be able to compete
Stephanie Llamas, SuperData Research
Goode stresses that developers need to keep exploring the possibilities of virtual reality, pushing new design techniques that go beyond everything that has been achieved on console, mobile and PC.
“Just because devices are being launched doesn’t mean we know everything there is to know,” she suggests. “There’s always new stuff to learn, especially with the devices actually in people’s hands.”
This means continuing to investigate the adverse side effects of virtual reality, such as the ever-present fear of causing motion sickness.
However, O’Luanaigh argues that much of this burden is on the shoulder of VR platform holders such as Oculus and PlayStation.
“They need to make sure that they clearly warn consumers about horror, vertigo and other extreme emotions which become much more powerful in VR,” he explains, “It’s crucial that platform holders conduct roadshows so that as many people as possible can try VR first-hand for themselves – trying the tech is the most sure-fire way of convincing new users about the merits of this new medium.”
THE PRICE IS RIGHT?
The biggest cause for concern about virtual reality’s future is price. While mobile devices like Gear VR and Google Cardboard are affordable, high-end tech like Oculus has proved to be more expensive than many were hoping. The £500 revelation sparked much speculation as to whether VR could ever be a mass-market proposition, but Ahmad believes these fears are unfounded.
“Eventually, this tech will be available at lower price points, but there is always going to be appetite for the best experience,” he said.
Simon Dean, project lead at Games Foundry, retorts: “The affordability expectation has already been dashed, and the propensity for nausea is likely to dash the expectation of greater immersion. If players can’t spend several hours in VR, headsets will soon be on shelves collecting dust.”
Virtual Reality doesn’t need to be mass market in the early days – it just needs to be good.
Neil Young, N3twork
But the majority of developers seem to be confident that virtual reality is in no danger of losing momentum in 2016.
“It’s very clear that VR has tremendous potential,” enthuses N3twork CEO Neil Young, “but it seems unlikely that it’ll become much more than a core audience phenomenon initially.
“However, it doesn’t need to be mass market in the early days – it just needs to be good.”
Llamas agrees, adding: “The first year will mostly be a loss-leader and that will be something to keep in mind in terms of funding. However, the developers and platforms that successfully access the largest audience in the beginning will be able to get in front of the industry once it is better poised for profits.”
Ahmad concludes: “2016 will be about whetting appetites and delivering glimmers of a future that is very much about VR as the pinnacle of gaming experience. Consumers are smart enough to understand that this is just the start.”