Indies and virtual reality

Indies and virtual reality

By Edward McNeill

April 9th 2014 at 1:00PM

Edward McNeill explains why VR can be a great platform for indie game developers

[This article was written by Darknet developer Edward McNeill.]

VR is starting to look like it could be a big deal.

As an indie developer, I find that incredibly exciting. Partially that’s just because VR is a cool technology, but it’s also because big industry shifts tend to spell out opportunity for smaller teams. The rise of mobile and the advent of digital distribution were great for indies, and I think VR could be just as good.

I’m currently developing a VR-exclusive game, and I’ve been working on virtual reality games since Oculus and IndieCade teamed up for the VR Jam last year. I’m here to deliver a message to other indies: The water’s fine! Jump on in!

VR excites me from an artistic perspective, and I see a lot of untapped potential there. I’ve spoken to a lot of indies who agree on that point, but many of them seem to be worried about the practical risks of developing for a new platform. I can imagine why. But there are some powerful reasons why it might be a good idea:

1) The big VR companies are explicitly pro-indie

Oculus has been talking about their love for indie developers ever since their Kickstarter, and the VR Jam was a good concrete example of how they’ve been reaching out. The developer relations team at Oculus has been great in my own experience, but it was very small for a while and didn’t have the time to speak to everyone who was interested.

That may be changing soon. After the Facebook deal, Palmer Luckey suggested that they would be putting more resources into supporting indies: “Indie developers are the ones driving this VR revolution more than anyone else, and one of my personal goals has been to support them in a much stronger way".

The other big player right now is Sony, who has been impressing the indie community with its outspoken support in the last few years. So far, I’d say the environment is extremely indie-friendly.

2) Design is what matters most

Most indies can’t compete with big studios when it comes to producing large amounts of detailed content or solving major technical challenges. Luckily, we don’t have to. The technical requirements of VR mean that the first generation of games won’t be as graphically advanced as the current state of the art titles, and I feel like that takes some of the pressure off.

Further, VR discourages a lot of the tried-and-true genre conventions that dominate the triple-A space (e.g. FPS games seem like a poor fit so far). Instead, virtual reality is crying out for innovation, and that’s where indies shine.

The big challenge of VR is figuring out how best to take advantage of the new medium. That’s a design challenge, and it’s just as easy for a solo developer to find a solution as a big studio. We can take creative risks, try out crazy ideas, and discover the best uses of VR before anyone else. This is a chance to make a mark at the foundation of a new medium.

3) The potential is enormous

I’ve touched on this point a few times already, but it deserves its own attention: VR is going to make a big splash. I don’t know whether it will eventually wither away, like motion controls did, or whether it will become an enormous new gaming environment like smartphones and tablets. But there’s an incredible amount of hype around virtual reality, and the first generation of devices are going to find a lot of pent-up demand waiting for them.

Those players are going to want games! Indies are in a constant battle with obscurity, and developing for VR may be a great way to get noticed.

These shouldn’t be anyone’s foremost reasons for developing VR games; you should start a virtual reality project if and only if you’re excited by the new design possibilities and want to make a great game. But if you’re holding yourself back for external reasons, I hope you’ll reconsider!

Want to get involved in our VR special all this week? Have something to say about virtual reality and what it means for developers? Email James.Batchelor@intentmedia.co.uk to find out how you can take part.