VR Check-In: Where we are now

VR Check-In: Where we are now
Jem Alexander

By Jem Alexander

April 13th 2017 at 12:00PM

Jem Alexander investigates how developers feel about the reception of VR and where they are right now with the technology.

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As with any highly anticpated product, whether hardware or software, it's easy to feel like it's eventual release is something of an anticlimax. With almost five years of hype, VR has been ‘the next big thing’ for longer than we’ve owned our PlayStation 4s. So now, six months after the PlayStation VR and Oculus Rift have shipped to actual, real gamers in the honest-to- goodness marketplace, it’s not surprising that some feel the temperature has cooled on the tech throughout the industry.

At least, that’s the perception. Though many developers I spoke to are still very excited about virtual reality from both a creative and commercial perspective.

“2016 was the year of virtual hype whereas 2017 is the year of actual realities, in terms of what is achievable from a business sense related to market size, opportunities and potential revenues,” says Sam Watts, director of immersive technologies at Make Real. “Should developers or publishers get involved now? Absolutely but with an intelligent approach and realistic expectations of what these early days sales returns could be.”

Owen O’Brien, CCP Newcastle’s Executive Producer on EVE: Valkyrie, is in agreement. “VR is still attractive, as long as you go into it with your eyes open, a clear strategy and set your budget accordingly,” he says. “It definitely continues to be attractive for CCP – we made a deliberate decision to get in on the ground floor with VR, making sure we were there with strong, genre-defining titles at each headset launch. We now have a raft of experience in all types of VR with teams able to develop games for mobile, seated and standing VR. We feel very well positioned to adapt as the market continues to grow.”

This desire to ‘get in on the ground floor’ is echoed by many other developers, who see developing skills in VR game creation as a long-term investment rather than a short term money spinner. One of the benefits is that there is relatively little competition, and a userbase that is hungry for more content.

“The VR market still feels relatively new,” says Stephanie Bazeley, a programmer at Scottish indie developer Team Junkfish. “This makes it quite an attractive area for development, especially for indies. The level of competition there is currently low, so it’s easier for a developer to get their game seen; this is particularly appealing to small and start-up companies who might otherwise struggle with marketing.” 

VR is still attractive, as long as you go into it with your eyes open

Owen O’Brien, executive producer CCP Newcastle 

THE VR DREAM

Low competition is certainly a boon for indies, but it’s also possible that some had been sold a false dream of ballooning markets. James Svensson, producer at Criterion on the X-Wing Tie Fighter VR Mission for Star Wars Battlefront, explains it better: “I do get the impression that there’s a lot of independents who had this great promise of the VR market exploding and we saw all these different predictions of the future that show all these huge exponential graphs,” he says. “So if you’ve poured a lot of your personal money and time into it and you’re making an independent studio go bankrupt for it, that’s a really harsh thing. That might be a bit of a reality check for some of that first wave. But I don’t think it’s waned, just maybe a bit more cautious from a financial point of view. The passion for making VR games is still there.”

The perception of waning interest seems to stem, at least in part, from the fact that VR tech, particularly PlayStation VR, is still pretty hard to get hold of. “Sony went really big and had a lot of content available from the start,” Svensson says. “However, we still see a steady stream of new players, and they're playing our mission 5, 10, 20 times. Our biggest complaint from players is that they just want more.” 

THE GAMES ARE COMING

A lack of new content since that launch glut may also appear concerning, but Epic’s technical director for VR/AR, Nick Whiting, explains that this is simply down to late started development cycles. “I think what’s worth noting is Oculus, Sony and HTC all waited a long time before they announced their price points and release dates,” he says. “That made a lot of the traditional publishing or funding vehicles very hesitant to actually start committing money to it. So the traditional AAA funding pipeline, it usually takes two years to build a product from when you actually get the funding to actually delivering the product. Those guys got a very late start compared to a new console cycle, where there’s set projections. So I still think we have six months to a year before all the traditionally funded vehicles for applications start coming out and seeing the light of day. That’s why this year and next year are going to be the big application cycles, particularly in the consumer entertainment division.”

CEO of Epic, Tim Sweeney, agrees. “You’ll see some killer apps start to come out and that will see hardware sales go up exponentially.” 

Thanks to the number of VR headsets available, these hardware sales will continue to fragment the market, though the developers I spoke to believe this can be a good thing for VR development. “I’m optimistic that VR has proven itself viable enough to attract enough developers into the space to maintain its momentum,” says Rebellion’s lead designer on Battlezone VR. “PlayStation reports being very happy with PSVR’s performance so far and as a multi- format studio there’s opportunity for us to bring our PSVR launch game Battlezone to other headsets as well. That must be appealing to other game studios too.”

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Simon Barratt, owner of Cooperative Innovations, believes fragmentation benefits developers. “We are going to experience a bit of fragmentation in terms of the available headsets and controllers on PC,” he says. “But this is a positive thing for us to quickly iterate as an industry, in my opinion, and developers can work to provide the best experience for each. Fragmentation is critical for the market in terms of allowing the hardware to iterate and to see what does and doesn’t resonate with the user base and development community. I don’t think it’s a major problem for game developers generally, we’ve been used to working with multiple platforms and different input schemes or optimisation methods for a long time.”

“With EVE: Valkyrie, we did not see it as fragmentation as much as more potential platforms and customers,” says O’Brien. “That is why we pioneered cross-platform play between all the major VR headsets. We’d designed the game to be platform-agnostic from the get-go, as we wanted to ensure we had as many players in our matches as possible. That’s a tall order for a multiplayer game in a completely new medium, so we took every opportunity to widen our reach.” 

Freelance games developer Lukas Roper sees competition between hardware manufacturers as a boon for gamers and devs alike. “It’s great to have competition and it encourages each headset manufacturer to innovate and improve VR,” he says. “Which ultimately improves the medium as a whole. As a developer, trying to work out who to sell to however, you have to focus on those with the largest install base and any headsets that have ‘momentum’.

“However, as much as engine developers and headset manufacturers present supporting a headset as a simple task, it isn’t, and for each platform you support, you have separate issues to consider.”

It’s a problem now, during the early part of the tech’s life cycle, but ultimately for someone playing VR games, this fragmentation will eventually be as inconsequential as picking a brand of TV. “We’ll actually see a distinguishing point,” says John Riccitiello, CEO of Unity. “It’ll be a little bit like, you know, I’ve got a Sony TV and you’ve got a Samsung TV. Do you really care about the underlying technology? I guess I sort of care if it’s a steam oven. But ultimately I care if the food tastes good.” 

It's great to have competition and it encourages each headset manufacturer to innovate and improve VR 

Lukas Roper Freelance developer 

SEATED VS ROOM SCALE

The biggest difference at the moment between headsets is their input methods and whether they can support room scale experiences or not. This has created a rift in the dev community between those creating seated, pad-based VR games and those creating fully bespoke room scale VR experiences.

“Right now, if you want maximum commercial viability, your design would ideally suit a sat down experience such as Elite Dangerous,” says Lukas Roper. “Where you can hone an excellent experience for both platforms and reap the benefits.”

Seated experiences are both more accessible and more comfortable. Resident Evil VII has set the bar pretty high when it comes to virtual reality gaming, but at the end of the day it’s a port of a ‘traditional’ game. Is that the best we can hope for when it comes to at-home virtual reality?

“On Vive through Steam and maybe a lesser extent Oculus, there’s a wealth of content from a whole range of different backgrounds, so that’s still a very active market for people to seek out the types of content they enjoy,” says Criterion’s Svensson. “Whereas yeah, maybe to some extent you’re right with Sony, in that Resi has set this bar of saying ‘you can have this full console experience available in VR’. From the seated console perspective, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.”

Freelance designer Tom Sandford believes there’s plenty of room for both. “The purpose of the experience is key,” he says. “If it’s relatively passive, seated is fine, but if immersion is a priority, nothing beats room scale.”

CCP’s O’Brien also expects both to coexist simultaneously: “I don’t think large audience size and bespoke VR experience have to be mutually exclusive. Not everyone has enough space for room scale of course, but equally you can create a bespoke VR experience that is seated. It totally depends on the market you are going after. At CCP we are pushing forward on both fronts, with EVE: Valkyrie being the seated experience and Sparc our standing experience.“

O’Brien touches on an important point. Most people don’t have the space to accommodate room scale in their homes. This is a potentially huge issue for the technology. If people aren’t willing or able to set up dedicated VR spaces, where do we go from here?

Kickstarting VR development

Epic has a history of releasing games that actively help and promote development within the Unreal Engine. This continues with the launch of Robo Recall, a free virtual reality game that aims to give developers a level of best- practice for the medium on which they can then build.

“We make the engine and we make the games on top of it,” says Epic’s technical director for VR/AR, Nick Whiting. “These things feedback into each other. Robo Recall’s great because we had a practical testbed to see what are the important things that we need to surmount in order to make a compelling VR app. What are the kind of budgets we can work with? It’s one of the first games that feels like a real, proper shooter.

“It was built to push the market forward and we used it as a test bed to make the engine better for other people who are trying to bootstrap games on top of it. And with the release of the modding support, give modders a nice convenient entry point. Because VR development is really hard.

You have to not only make frame rate, but there’s all these design considerations that we just haven’t had to deal with in games. So with modding you can start tweaking little bits and pieces of it and it’s a safe test bed to toe dip into the water and hopefully give people the skills to rip it apart. “We released the source code and we released the assets, people can see exactly how the sausage is made. So hopefully it’s a very educational component to bootstrap the market a little bit.“ 

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