It’s been a year since the PlayStation VR took virtual reality to the mainstream and Ssince sales of PC and mobile VR really began to grow. Sean Cleaver speaks to studio heads and recruitment specialists to find out what their thoughts are on the virtual reality job market one year on
Virtual reality is nothing new and when you look at the requirements to develop for the medium, very little changes between VR and normal development. However, in the last year, the games industry has earned something that it didn’t have previously when it comes to VR development – experience.
Things can change once we better know what we’re doing. That’s no different to developers who are recruiting. One year can make a whole lot of difference. “We have many more developers with VR experience under their belt, which makes it a richer field of play,” says Brynley Gibson, head of studio for South London based work-
for-hire studio Kuju. “However, I would argue there are still more roles open than there are people with that experience.”
We’re still waiting for that ‘system selling’ game for VR but ports will give early adopters enough quality content
Ian Goodall, managing director, Aardvark Swift
“Over the past 12 months we’ve witnessed a much higher demand across the board for hires into VR projects,” says Stig Strand of recruitment specialist Amiqus. “This time last year we only had a handful of vacancies, but today a good portion of our client base has a need for skills in VR, from start-up phase right through to mature businesses delivering large-scale VR experiences.”
“Team sizes are much smaller for VR, AR and MR so we tend now to look for developers with a multi-faceted skill set,” says Stu Godfrey, recruitment manager for Climax Studios. “For example, we look at artists with some visual effects skills and a good technical background.”
“The VR industry is growing steadily,” believes Aardvark Swift managing director, Ian Goodall. “Right now, the vast majority of studios developing games for VR are small indies, but there are a small handful of bigger studios who have thrown their hat into the ring. nDreams and Force Field VR have emerged and are recruiting sizable teams. In terms of changing needs, however, the industry is still young and experimental, and we haven’t seen much change on the recruitment side.”
DOUBLING DOWN ON SKILLS
A year on from the release of the PSVR and a good two years since Oculus Rift and HTC Vive became the PC benchmarks for VR, the industry definitely has a better idea of the skills needed in order to develop for virtual reality. For the most part, it’s C++ that’s the most in-demand skill.
“C++ appears to be the most desirable language sought after by VR studios, with C# also rather common,” says Goodall. “More often than not, studios will be looking for developers with Unreal Engine experience, but we do also see a number of Unity-based roles for VR.”
“Most of the traditional skillsets are still applicable to VR,” says Climax’s Stu Godfrey. “We use the same game engines, but it requires us to do things in a slightly different way sometimes. A great skill to have for VR is the willingness to adapt to new challenges. We now have to look at developers with a multi-faceted skillset but as it’s such a new and exciting format, it is a much easier draw for talent.”
“Demand for C++ and C# coding plus Physical Based Rendering on the art side is strong,” says Amiqus’ Stig Strand. “For VR especially we see a lot of hirers needing game engine knowledge – UE4 in particular. It’s not that VR needs a whole new skillset, but hirers want VR experience now that it’s become more established, and they need people to hit the ground running quicker.”
Regardless of required coding knowledge, it’s still that all important experience that is most in demand. "Experience is what employers need, rather than any specific skills," says Kuju's Brynley Gibson. "However from a creative point of view, as VR does destroy some rules, it is good to have open-minded developers who are willing to try things out."
FEELING THE BUZZ
Any new technology will always cause a creative stir among developers. The excitement of what could be achieved normally powers through into a finished product. As such, studios need to adapt and change in order to focus on the new medium, especially when there are multiple development options to take like MR and AR.
“There is always a good buzz around new technology such as VR, AR and MR and people are always excited to be involved in the bleeding edge of technology,” says Stu Godfrey. “Team sizes are smaller and processes differ, but as always it is a case of adaption.”
“We are still seeing some businesses focusing on immersive tech, whilst others are just experimenting and keeping it a lean investment,” says Brynley Gibson. “I don’t think we have seen any radical shifts but are likely to see some bigger titles come to market late next year – the ‘generation two’ games.”
"Output wise, studios are diversifying their output to keep themselves funded until VR games become more profitable," says Ian Goodall. "There are plenty of other industries that are experimenting with VR. These are prime clients for these studios to outsource their skills to."
"We've mainly been asked to focus on VR," says Stig Strand, "but it's the same skills foundation even though the considerations are different for each. These specialisms could develop over time as the market matures.”
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
New mediums always bring new challenges, but just like any creative endeavour, there’s always room to be surprised. So looking back, how did the industry expect the job market to react to the new technology?
“From a hiring perspective I think the demand was expected," says Stig Strand. "It's been steady. I think a possible surprise is that it's not been a crazy rush but it feels like a very solid base with some tremendously exciting projects underway."
"VR is a surprisingly physically demanding technology to use and play with," admits Stu Godfrey. "We've had to do a lot of work to fight against motion sickness and we've had to ensure a play session doesn't tire people out. Vigorously waving your arms for long periods of time is exhausting! Also, traditional user interfaces and heads up displays don’t work, as there is no flat screen to put them on.”
“News has massively calmed around VR,” warns Brynley Gibson. “Some people worry this is part of a general cooling off around the technology, and that without the ‘hype train’ it won’t succeed. But I see this as a positive thing. Now we can get on with building a sustaining industry around this medium. Seeing Oculus Story Studio close and Altspace struggle is a worry that investment may be being pulled out too early though.”
It’s a sentiment that Ian Goodall also shares. “Many people seemed disappointed with the uptake of VR hardware and software,” he says. “We shone a spotlight on this technology and put it on a pedestal while it was still teething. The result was that the public vastly overrated the impact this technology would have the moment it hit the shelves.
"We work in an industry where a game will be in production for a number of years, yet makes the vast majority of its money in the first few weeks and months post-launch. People placed the same expectations on VR and were disappointed by the result. VR is certainly more of a long-term investment, which relies on enticing more and more adopters of the technology at this stage."
THE LONG GAME
Amidst the worry that investment might be pulled from the medium too early, the skills and experience gained from VR development will benefit anyone working in any game design roles. But VR is still here and everyone is just as excited to see what the second generation of the technology will bring. So where will we be in another year’s time and what do our interviewees expect to see?
“Steady growth in sales especially on the mobile platforms,” Brynley Gibson hopes. “Better games and experiences with some truly unique genres emerging from the medium.”
“The hardware devs will be planning on major console-shifting titles in the run-up to Christmas,” predicts Stig Strand. “After this, we expect Sony may release version two of PSVR and other console manufacturers will surely follow suit. “Provided the sales go as anticipated, this time next year we can expect to see increasingly more ambitious projects and a continued demand for the skills & experience relevant to VR.”
The commercial success Brynley Gibson wants and the next generation of technology Stig Strand expects will have to be content driven for gaming to take that charge. That could be in the form of a standout title or experience-driven content like interactive movies. But for now, it may be showing off what we already know in a new light.
“Triple-A studios are still testing the water with VR,” believes Ian Goodall. “We’ve already seen announcements of VR ports of successful games including Skyrim and Fallout 4.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn of more successful titles retrofitted with the technology. It’s a safe introduction for these guys, and honestly, it’s a pretty smart move. We’re still waiting for that ‘system selling’ game for VR, but in the meantime, these ports will give early adopters enough quality content to sink their teeth into.”
One of the biggest discussions around virtual reality at present is the demand for the technology away from gaming and game development. “There’s also massive interest in VR outside of games. We’re seeing it being trialled in everything from sales to medicine, the arts and training. There is no doubt that we’ll see this continue into next year. With everything VR, everyone’s still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. While we’ll undoubtedly find out that VR doesn’t quite fit into some industries, for others it’ll take off in a massive way and become an integral piece of technology going forward.”