Virtual Reality is terra incognita for both developers and players, but what can we do to give our first steps in developing VR games?

By 2025, the VR games market will top $45 billion. It’s considerably less than the Augmented Reality gaming forecasts ($284 billion in five years), but still, a lot to convince aspiring VR appreneurs the game (no pun intended!) is actually worth the candle. If you’ve read this amazing post by matthewh8, you probably think Virtual Reality game app development is like a walk through a grocery store: you simply download Unity, copy-paste some code, choose free characters, apply textures to hype up your game’s look – and voila, you’ve got an app store-ready product!

The reality is quite different

The success of a VR game is directly proportional to the amount and quality of 3D content you create. There’s no VR game dev Bible you can relate to; in fact, you’ll have to write it on your own – and keep editing it on a daily basis. The majority of VR apps on the market deliver the notorious “rail shooter” experience, thus depriving users of an opportunity to walk around virtual objects or punch zombies in the face with their own fists. Virtual Reality is terra incognita for both developers and players – and that’s why you as a newbie shouldn’t get your hopes up about your first VR effort.

We’re not trying to talk you into giving up your idea; it’s just that you should be prepared to work on it longer than expected to make a game users really want to see. And yes, VR developers believe 2018 is where things will finally start to look good, so you’re on the right track.

So, how to create a Virtual Reality game?

Insight into VR game development: types of Virtual Reality & market analysis

Let us start with the definition and types of Virtual Reality

In a nutshell, Virtual Reality is a combination of sounds and computer-generated images that transform real-world environment and allow users to interact with objects that do not exists. Its concept has been around since early 50s, but it’s only recently that dedicated VR headsets capable of creating truly immersive experiences have appeared on the market.

There are seven types of Virtual Reality:

  • Immersive first-person (or VR as we imagine it; such experience is created with the help of a quality HDM, sensor gloves and position tracking devices, as well as 3D audio systems);
  • Through-the-window (or desktop VR; a player is able to interact with virtual objects using a controller device);
  • Mirror-world (instead of placing a user inside an image, mirror-world VR creates the second-person experience by enabling users to interact with graphics displayed on a large screen);
  • Waldo world (a player uses some kind of body armor enhanced with motion sensors to control animated objects);
  • Chamber world (which is basically a small 3D theater where users can view computer-generated images through headsets);
  • Cab simulator environment (the VR effect is achieved by displaying objects larger than a person’s field of you; the technology is most often used in training);
  • Cyberspace (the type of VR which can be witnessed by many people at the same time; it is the kind of reality created in popular multiplayer VR games like Rec Room and the Unspoken).

According to Pavel Shylenok, CTO at R-Style Lab, it is the first-person immersive and multiplayer types of Virtual Reality that hold the most promise. However, there are several cool mobile VR games like Chair in a Room and Cardboard Camera that prove mobile app development is not a dead end for Virtual Reality entrepreneurs (although its future most likely lies in non-interactive entertainment).

If you consider developing games for VR, you should conduct a proper market research to define your target audience and platform(s).

The global VR market is expected to reach $7 billion by the end of this year; although 65% of the sum will come from headset sales, the market is dominated by only a handful of brands including PlayStation VR (over 1 million units sold in the past 12 months), Samsung Gear VR (which is designed for high-end Android smartphones; over 5 million units sold in two years), Google Cardboard (the $15 mobile VR headset that has moved over 10 million units in three years) and Oculus Rift and HTC (which have sold less than 500 thousand units each).

VR software (that is, all kinds of gaming, shopping and edutainment apps), meanwhile, makes up just 12% ($840 million) of the total sum. It’s nothing compared to the $70 billion mobile app industry. According to Tristan Parrish Moore of Broken Windows Studios who conducted a thorough research and found out 88% of VR games available on Steam get less than 25 thousand downloads (with almost 50% of apps priced at $ 20-10).

How come?

As Kevin Krewell, the author of the incredible “State of the Virtual Reality Business” article, has put it, “I have yet to see one person on an airplane or train…using a VR headset”. Unlike Augmented Reality which basically has no barrier to entry, the immersive VR requires dedicated gear – and that’s why your first VR app won’t probably bring you riches. The good news is, there aren’t many quality VR games out there; if you pour your heart and soul into the project, you’ll most likely get tons of free promo and save on marketing.

Insight into Virtual Reality game development: tech stack & game design

Before you choose tech stack for your VR project, you should understand that Virtual Reality is not a technology as such; it’s just a new way to present information and interact with graphic content.

To put it simply, we add another camera and replace joysticks with motion tracking sensors – and that’s what makes VR apps different from popular mobile and PC games.

Current VR interfaces and controls do not allow users to engage with other players in real time or manage multiple game assets simultaneously, so you can’t really build a full-fledged strategy or multiplayer game for VR headsets. Also, you should make do with the available resources and take into account the limitations of modern VR gear (that is, players can’t pace the room without hitting their head on the wall – or turn their heads 360 degrees with a Virtual Reality HDM on without getting caught in the wire).

What you CAN do is a PC/console action game with the first-person vision capabilities. Here are your options:

  • According to Pavel Shylenok, choosing OpenVR is a win-win solution for most Virtual Reality developers since the SDK supports multiple headsets including HTC and Oculus and is used by popular game dev engines (Unity, Unreal Engine);
  • The choice of the engine depends on your game’s genre, features, the amount of graphic content and your monetization strategy. Unity is fine for simple rail shooter games where characters move along the assigned path, while Unreal Engine is most suitable for AAA games like Resident Evil 7. However, you’ll have to purchase the Unity Pro license (100% upfront payment, $125/month per developer) which may be expensive for a startup or pay a 5% royalty off your game revenue to Unreal Engine.

Although the VR software market will top $800 million by the end of this year, there aren’t many quality Virtual Reality games out there. If you want to stand out from the competition, you should either bet on dynamics to keep users engaged (and busy) or create atmospheric VR surroundings and maintain suspense throughout the game (do not resort to cheap tricks like sudden loud noises or bodiless hands appearing out of nowhere though).

Since you’re working on a single-player game, the back-end server will only keep track of game statistics (compared to complex event modeling enabled in mobile games like Clash of Clans).

Just like in the case of mobile games, it is concept development and graphic design that will consume up to 70% of the project timeline. Actually, the only thing that makes VR games profoundly different from mobile gaming applications is the heavy focus on the background music. While developing quality games for VR, you should draw inspiration from Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy whose creators start the development process with composing unique tunes for each character, thus building each imaginary being’s personality early on and setting players up for an exciting journey.

Cost of building VR games

  • According to Pavel, a simple rail shooter will cost you $30 thousand[1] per game level (plus $30 thousand spent on concept development);
  • Non-interactive entertainment games (including mobile VR) cost around $ 15-20 thousand;
  • A high-profile game like Resident Evil (a great script, well-developed characters, original soundtrack, and prototyping – a lot of prototyping!) costs anything between $1 million and $15 million; the final price depends on how much you’re willing to spend.

The question is, does it make sense to invest huge money into VR game development when the average Steam title gets 25 thousand downloads over a lifetime?

Back in February Capcom, the Resident Evil’s developer and publisher revealed the spooky game had already recouped its development costs. At the time, Resident shipped 3 million units. Now multiply 3 million by $30 (which is the game’s average market price); $90 million is a huge budget even for an AAA VR game, so it’s safe to say the sum covers marketing expenses, too.

As of October 2017, the game has reportedly sold 4 million copies, thus making Capcom $30 million richer. The company has shared plans to move up to $10 million copies of Resident Evil 7 over its lifetime – and these plans do not seem unrealistic. Quality always wins, and the rule applies to VR game dev, too.

So, are you ready to create your first VR game?

[1] The estimates are based on the median Eastern European developer hourly rates which range from $30 to $35