Getting into game development as an indie developer is a challenge in and of itself. And that’s just when it comes to an established gaming industry. But as we all know, the VR industry is in its early stages right now. Which means that there’s high risk and relatively low reward in the form of money back in developers’ pockets.
However, that hasn’t stopped them from going at it full force. Many make use of self-funding, Kickstarter, or investors. These investors can include VR companies like Oculus and Valve, or outside investors looking for the next big thing to push money into. But there have also been quite a lot of talk about backroom politics, special treatment and investors pulling out because they think the VR industry is going to tank. And who gets the short straw in this equation? The indie developers who are, at the moment, the heart of this industry.
Early Access is another key tool, used by many – if not most – VR developers to help fund and build their games. But the market is so small that this option means there isn’t a high return on investment for developers right now. In fact, some say that it’s actually very unprofitable. Which in turn leads to some abandoning their games to die in early development, or the developers have day jobs and work on VR as a side-project. But the thing is, even though we still get a gem here or there through indie devs working on VR projects on the side – great games take time and a team of dedicated people.
However, it seems that even though VR development is in its very early stages, developers say that they have found a lot of people complaining about the current state of VR games. According to popular opinion on Reddit, many developers feel that people have unreasonable expectations when it comes to VR titles and that they want high-quality games at low prices. I believe it’s because people have become used to high-quality games and VR isn’t quite on par with AAA games in the graphics department yet. But the developers also feel that people simply fail to take into account that indie developers need to set reasonable price points so they can make a living. And since the market is so small, they know they won’t be able to sell thousands of copies of their game, either.
Investing In Virtual Reality Content Development
So investment from outside companies are a great way for some developers to get their games out there. But when it comes to business, things don’t always work out the way you want them to.
Let’s look at one such case, where a company (Anon.) invested in the development of a VR game called Don’t look back, which is now available on Steam. However, the game remains unfinished, having unfortunately been abandoned. The reason behind this, as was recently made clear by the developer behind the game on social media, was that the investors suddenly pulled their funding. According to the developer, the investors were made to believe that the VR industry is failing and that they should pull out now, since it’s going to be an unprofitable venture.
We got in contact with the developer and asked him about what happened:
Can you tell me a bit about how the investors first contacted you?
One of the investors is my friend. I was a lead programmer for a game company. I bought an Oculus DK2 back then because I just wanted to try out VR. Then I started making a rhythm VR game. We were in a social group together and after I finished the demo version, I showed the people in the group. My friend said that he and his friends want to invest on VR games, so he asked me if we can work together. I agreed. So we started a studio.
Did they specify why they decided to invest in your game?
They wanted to go IPO (Initial Public Offering). Everyone wanted to invest in the VR industry back then. I know someone who invested $1.5 million in VR. But after one year of development, they were running out of money. As far as I know, most VR companies or studios that started up around me recently, are either dead or dying. Investors think that the VR industry will explode. But they don’t really care about how to make good games. Once you’ve made a game, they’ll start to find more investment, then eventually go IPO.
But this doesn’t just happen in the VR industry, it’s happened before in the smartphone explosion era: a company makes shitty smartphone games, then finally made IPO. So they want to apply this pattern to the VR industry: make shitty games, attract more investments, and then finally go IPO. That’s why there are so many shitty games in China.
Do you know what motivated them to pull their investment?
In the beginning, they wanted me to make a VR game, as fast as possible, meanwhile, they’re talking to an investment company to attract more investments. But the company wants to see the final release version of the game. So the investors wanted me to rush. They also made me a 20% shareholder, so I quit my job, to work with them.Then after about 3 months of development, they started becoming impatient and urged me to work harder.
I’ve been working 24/7 since the project started. By the time I got the game is almost finished, the company said that they had changed their investment direction and that the VR industry is no longer on their list. Then they blamed me for developing too slow.
Do you think this is a common problem amongst VR developers?
It depends on the which country are you in. In my country (China), this is a very common problem – not only for VR content developers but also VR hardware developers. Like I said before, most of the VR studios or companies around me are dying or dead. There was a time when VR advertisements were everywhere and everybody was talking about VR. But suddenly, they’ve all disappeared. I think it’s because of the new bubble of the VR industry has broken. Now, when you talk about VR, they’re all like, nah, VR is dead, it’s still not popular, etc.
How would you describe the VR industry environment?
For now, I’ll say that VR is not popular enough for gamers. But since the PSVR release and the big new titles that’s in development for VR, it’s growing. Currently, you can’t count on VR if your plan is to make profits from it, especially for indies. Personally, I think if you want to make a VR game, make a regular game first, then add support for VR devices. Dedicated VR games are risky.
Do you think that you will continue developing content for the VR industry?
I won’t develop dedicated VR games, I’ll probably just keep at it as a hobby. Maybe one day, I’ll start a big project, then add support for VR.
The developer also wanted to share a final thought, “Don’t give up on VR. But stay away from the Chinese game industry. There is nothing original here, since most of the game companies just copy other games. But the Chinese hard-core gamers, unlike regular gamers, are awesome and very supportive of original games. Even if your game sucks – if it’s original, they’d like to try, because you know, they really need some fresh air. And I am very proud to be one of them.”
Let’s Have The Exclusives Talk
So like you probably know, the concept of VR exclusives is highly debated right now. And there are many strong opinions on the subject. Which makes this a sort of double-edged blade of a topic.
On the one hand, people (and companies – I’m looking at you HTC) are harsh on exclusives, because they further segment a market that’s already small. And certainly, there are downsides to the industry as a whole when companies do this. A popular opinion is that the industry should be agnostic – at least until the VR market is a stable and thriving industry. And of course, the greedy wolf in this scenario is Oculus. To an extent, that’s understandable. But the thing is, they do benefit developers by helping them to actually get funding to develop and finish their games.
When it comes to high-end devices in the virtual PC-market there are basically two choices – HTC or Oculus. And they have two very different strategies when it comes to how they approach content development and consumers. Oculus has invested $250 million and plans on “at least” another $250 million in content. But the thing is – when they invest in a project, they expect an exclusive for their platform. Which does help developers get their titles out there, but it also has the downside of limiting their player-base. And that’s where HTC comes in. They have been very vocal about keeping content open and cross-platform for the sake of growing the industry.
Back in December last year, Dean Hall, who owns the VR studio called Rocketwerkz, became very vocal about developing within the VR industry. His studio released the VR game Out of Ammo for the HTC Vive last year. In a Reddit post on the r/Vive subreddit he spoke about “The hard truth about Virtual Reality development” and had a very honest discussion about why his company probably won’t be developing for VR again. Dean made a strong case for exclusives, but as with anything, there will always be two sides to a story. And so the exclusives debate will surely not die anytime soon.
So after that mouthful, I guess what I’m saying is, that there are many obstacles to developing a successful game. And if we want to help them create an environment where virtual reality can thrive, then support is what indie developers need right now.