For virtual reality to become a mainstay in our homes and stores, it’s vital that it brings with it a cohort of games that players want to experience. So far, we’ve seen that from independent developers only with larger developing and publishing companies maintaining a radio silence on the matter. With Insomniac Games’s recent Oculus escapades, however, we are beginning to see a mainstream virtual reality following. So why are independent developers fueling this technological revolution? And how long will it be until we see AAA games developed from the ground up for VR?
The business model behind the Oculus Rift itself is largely responsible for this independent uptake. With its very beginnings being in the crowd sourcing arena, and with development kits and final products being shipped to independent developers everywhere since 2013, it’s not difficult to understand why. Not only that, but Oculus actively encourages its pool of independent developers, setting $10m aside to fund indie projects in 2015 and holding game jams since 2013 offering up to $50,000 in prize money. In doing so Oculus has both identified its target development teams, and helped make them their target development teams. However the ultimate success of virtual reality technology lies in the laps of the content creators themselves, and their ability to bring new experiences to the industry. The unique and insightful content that often comes from these developers’ minds is precisely the attention-grabbing material required to ensure people take notice.
Indie developers can take bigger risks with their content. They don’t devote the same budgets as AAA companies, they don’t devote the same man-power, and they don’t have a reputation to worry about upholding. Not only can they experiment in different thematic fields (we have indie games exploring the realms of sexuality, mental health, political issues such as the refugee crisis, and highly emotional personal stories), but they are also able to take the time and energy to develop around the control systems of virtual reality. Both this risk-taking content and focus on building experiences solely for this level of immersion makes each title more compelling in the marketplace. As a result, we are provided with a wealth of different genres and experiences at launch – there are far more independent developers than there are big companies, and where players want different types of games to fully test the limits of their hardware, developers want to create a vast range so as to get noticed. AAA companies simply cannot justify taking these risks just yet, and they aren’t about to churn out the personal material that indie devs can craft.
Not only can indies create the content VR needs to flourish, but they are given the market space to do this with the advent of a big industry shift. Big companies run the mainstream, so there’s a period of time when they aren’t actively pursuing new technologies, the time between the shadows of Kickstarter and the limelight of the AAA is the realm of the small company. We saw it with mobile, and we’re seeing it on a much more recognized level with virtual reality – small companies pounce while big companies are still making their mind up.
So indies have the content and the market space to bring virtual reality to the forefront of the tech market, now they need the tech itself. Supposing VR becomes as wildly successful as experts plan, in 5 or maybe even just a couple of years time we will look back at the headsets of today and consider them primitive. The fact is, the technology we have today is limited – especially graphically. The graphical quality of virtual reality today stands nowhere near as impressive as conventional gaming, yet this is something that indies can once again swing to their advantage. Indie developers, typically, cannot compete with mainstream companies in terms of graphics. AAAs focus an obscene amount of attention on making their games look flawless, because that’s how they sell them. However, the technical limitations of virtual reality provide a level playing field for indies and the mainstream, giving developers a chance to experiment with what they do best – intuitive and unique gameplay features and thematic breakthroughs. It’s why horror is such a successful genre in VR; you don’t need much to scare someone and to scare someone repeatedly. The big companies are far less likely to produce for a console that can’t show off their best features.
Sadly, this all comes down to profit. It’s widely estimated that for a AAA company to break even they’d need to shift 2 million units, 3 million to make a profit. There just isn’t that number of virtual reality devices in the homes of the people yet, bearing in mind that typically around 1/10 headset owners are going to buy your game. Indie developers are therefore leading the way, treading down the paths so that the AAA companies can steam straight through. Big names aren’t going to develop for a device that isn’t a staple in the market, indies make it a staple while the AAAs sit back and wait to pounce. They need to know what works and what doesn’t in terms of headsets, genres, gameplay, and whether virtual reality sticks at all.