The current VR market is desperate for content. Provided you can download a copy of Unreal Engine or Unity and write script that can run at about 60, 90 or 120 frames per second, you can probably sell a barely adequate tech demo for the price of a 6 month old triple-A title.
But please, don’t.
VR is at a critical time in its development – we need more content, but that content needs to be amazing. If the VR ecosystem is going to continue to grow, we need high-quality game which takes us out of our humdrum existences to awesome worlds where we perform superhuman feats of epicness.
Now, let’s assume you want to make a good VR game that will make you a decent return on investment and entertain people. What should your focus be as a developer?
1. Gamer comfort is your number one priority
Having now played hundreds of hours of VR, I can tell you that games that give the player a fixed point of reference or gentle motion are the games that are the most comfortable to play. Put your player in a cockpit, or a driver seat, or a roller coaster. Eagle Flight achieves this by giving the player a beak. This trick helps the player orientate themselves in 3D space.
Avoid walking, it just leads to VR sickness – Here They Lie is a great example of a game ruined by walking. You should instead find a way to swap between an isometric view for navigation tasks and a first-person view for game tasks (like solving puzzles or shooting villains in the face).
Some players have invested a lot of money in their omni-treadmill. Players with this equipment are a vanishingly small proportion of the VR market as it currently stands. Focus on the mainstream and you will be able to sell more units.
2. You need to have a game, not an idea
What is the game I’m playing? Single player Eagle Flight is basically the running around and the capturing flag mode that was in Assassin Creed multiplayer. Which, sure, is fun enough for an occasional mission, but becomes utterly repetitive if that’s your only trick.
The old rules of level design still matter:
- You are not the player – You are not the audience, so you need to build the level around them, and assume that they only know what they see. Each level should focus on one of three things: teaching the player something, driving the story forward, or providing the player enjoyment.
- Your level is too hard – Knock 50% off of the difficulty.
- Do not teach with death – Players need to be able to make mistakes to learn how to play your game. Death is not a useful way of teaching them about your level. Players need to understand why they’re in jeopardy before you kill them.
- Do not to put the player on rails, unless you’ve literally put them on rails – You’re better off encouraging the player to move forward, rather than forcing them – unless you’re making some kind of crazy coaster like Rush of Blood, which is more like a demented LEGO Land ride (in a good way).
- Make the player feel smart – Remember, this experience is about them feeling good about life and forgetting their troubles – they need a sense of achievement.
- Be original – Don’t just steal ideas from other games; steal them and then improve upon them. What can you add to the level to make it more interesting? What can you take away from the level to make it more fun?
- If it isn’t fun, it has no place in your game – Looking at you RPG devs – seriously, why do I need 17 red bandanas from the pirates guild? And why does this quest giver want 17? Why do only 1 in 3 pirates drop a red bandana? Am I really this desperate for 3 gold? Really?
- Think about challenges – Give your player an enemy, organically make the challenges harder or easier, make waves of enemies come in groups of three, then give the player a rest, etc.
3. Keep levels relatively short
Your average player should achieve a mission in 15 to 30 minutes (at least at the beginning of your game). As the developer you need to assume that your player is new to VR and that they’re still building up their tolerance. VR sickness is real for your players, even if you as a VR developer probably left it behind a while ago.
4. Give your player a 3d model of their controller
The VR Worlds demo disk does this really well – there is a 3d version of the controller in virtual space that tracks the physical controller in the player’s hands. It helps orientate your player in the virtual world.
As an added bonus, if they’re not a hardcore gamer, they can look down and see what the buttons are. Consider adding call outs to the controller so that they can see what actions each button performs. If you’re using the Move controllers as guns, add a laser sight – make the controls get out of your players way. If you’re making a cockpit style fighter jet game, then check out the Call of Duty Jackal mission for a fabulous missile lock gameplay mechanic.
5. Your player has left their body behind – your job is to keep it safe
Consider using fade to black as a non-invasive way of keeping them in the play area.
6. A low price and a cross platform release is the only way to go
You need to play the numbers – according to Super Data Research, as of December 2016, there were 450,000 HTC Vive headsets, 355,000 Occulus Rift headsets and about 750,000 Sony PSVR Headsets sold. We also know that Microsoft is planning to produce a cheap consumer VR headset in the next year or so.
Now, analyst reports are best guesses, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume your game is going to go gangbusters and get about 1% of the VR market. That means you’d be looking at about 15,000 sales. Locking yourself into an exclusive on Vive would ship, at best, 4500 units. Unless you’re able to get a payment from that platform, it isn’t a viable way to make money. And let’s be honest, most of those payments ran dry over a year ago.
Anything you do to limit your market will significantly reduce the potential sales for your game. As of the today, there are a little over 1.5 million VR headsets in the wild, and nearly 14 million Wii U’s. VR is nothing but potential, and I believe it is the most exciting space to play in, but reality is reality and everything else is bullshit.
Incidentally, given the current state of the VR market, you need your multiplayer to also be cross-platform – locking yourself into one platform will make it much harder for your game to reach the critical mass a good multiplayer environment needs.
It’s okay to make a game that teaches you how to develop for VR, but be realistic about its commercial value. Gamers want good games for a fair price. If you want my hard-earned money, then be reasonable. Aim to produce a good, engaging, comfortable game at a $20 price point that will run well on Sony PSVR, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. Sure, that may not make you a millionaire, but consider it an investment in learning the technology.
Like Indie Gamer Chick says – gamers won’t grade you on a curve. There are no points for trying. And, be honest with yourself – have you created a game, or a tech demo?
We already have Goat Simulator for VR – it’s called Eagle Flight.
James Newburrie is old enough to remember when playing video games involved hassling his parents for change and a lift to the arcade. He has owned consoles from every generation (when they were new), and his pile of shame (see: Backlog) is taller than him, and may possibly have grown sentient. He still isn’t sure about the analogue control stick. These days, he is only really interested in VR games as they are the only reliable escape from his dull, comfortably middle-class corporate life. James blogs at difficultnerd.com