"There are a lot of ways you can mess up VR really easily"
nDreams' Patrick O'Luanaigh on his studio's switch to virtual reality
Whether you think it's a fad or the next big thing, there's no denying that the return of virtual reality, this time backed up by competent technology and plausible price-points, has caught the imagination of developers and their customers alike. Projects for Sony's Morpheus and the Oculus Rift are popping up everywhere, from the modest to the monumental.
As of yet, though, none of the major publishers have publicly committed much to the new platforms, leaving it to smaller studios to test the waters of what could potentially form an entirely new frontier for games. Many of those smaller studios are changing their models and work-methods entirely to focus on the new technology, preparing to hit the ground running once consumers are finally able to get their hands on the headsets.
One of those studios is Patrick O'Luanaigh's nDreams. A studio which has always enjoyed a broad remit, nDreams now has "around five [VR] projects on the go", including forthcoming title The Assembly: a 3D VR adventure game which will see players investigating a ground-breaking scientific organisation which has started to push some ethical boundaries.
"We decided that an adventure game would make sense because we don't have the budget to draw tons of environments that you run through at top speed," Patrick tells me. "Adventure games work well because we've found that, when people play with VR, they want to really look around and explore. They want to examine the walls, everything, in a way you might not in a FPS.
"[W]e've found that, when people play with VR, they want to really look around and explore"
"The game is split into sections of about 10-15 minutes long, which we thought makes sense for VR. We still don't know what the final consumer versions will be like, but 10-15 minutes seems sensible. People can either do a chapter then take a break, or they can play through the entire game.
"We spent around six months prototyping lots of experiments with VR. What happens when your avatar wears glasses? What would it be like if it's cold and you have frosty breath? What about different sized characters? That tested really nicely - Madeline is 5'1" and Joel is 6 foot and you really notice that. You notice the breathing, the speed they walk at, the perspective. It's all very different. You feel like you're playing those roles.
"We've also got lots of specific things for VR, microscopes, binoculars, night vision goggles, things like that. They work really well. We've also got plenty of puzzles and other bits like vertigo and fear sections that we think are great for VR, so it's a real medley."
The Assembly is a definite step up for the developer in terms of scope and ambition, so I ask O'Luanaigh if the resource costs were pushed up even further by the technology they're working with. In short, is making a VR game more expensive?
"I don't know, honestly," he admits. "It's probably slightly more for VR, but there's not a lot of difference. We've kind of picked our battle here and chosen a game we think would be great for VR, but one that we can also afford to make. This seemed like the right genre and approach. We're taking influence from games like Gone Home and Dear Esther - with more puzzles, but still about exploring a great environment. I guess if we'd just done it as a Steam game it might have been a bit cheaper, but not a big difference.
"It's more about the design, doing things the right way. There are a lot of ways you can mess up VR really easily. We've figured out what works and what doesn't and designed the game with that in mind. It's working really nicely."
The Assembly is due for release on both the Oculus Rift and Sony's Morpheus headset, currently the two mindshare leaders of virtual reality tech. Whilst neither is likely to admit it, each has a vested interest in the success of the other - a reason which was floated to explain Valve passing on some of its own VR research to Oculus last year: if the tech is to succeed it needs to attract developers. To do that, a rough 'gold standard' needs to be established, giving developers a technological target to aim at for cross-platform games. Having used both the Oculus and Morpheus and found them to be roughly equivalent, I'm interested to know if O'Luanaigh sees parity in the two visors.
"They are very, very similar, technology-wise," he confirms. "Obviously with Oculus being on PC it's a lot more open, there's more freedom to mess around, but it's also easier for people to just stick stuff out, to make bad VR. That's one of the big risks - it's very easy make people feel ill. You have to have good software as well as hardware. I think it's easier for Sony to control that, because it's a closed platform. They can say, do this, do that; to make sure people don't do stupid stuff. I suspect that Oculus will do something similar, but obviously it's open, so people can put what they want up online.
That's one of the big risks - it's very easy make people feel ill. You have to have good software as well as hardware"
"In terms of specs, though, they're really very similar. We're creating this game for both and there's not a big difference. There are a few little things involved in supporting the PS4: the Dualshock and some of the ways that PSN works, but by and large they're very similar."
Moving away from comfortable ground is an essential part of growing almost any company, but when you're relying on a third party, such as a platform holder, for your success, there's an additional risk. nDreams must be confident about the future of virtual reality to put such stake in it, so I ask Patrick if there's a sales point when they'll breathe a little more easily.
"We've kind of come at it the other way," he counters. "We believe it will work. We've got financial models and projections but it's all a bit finger-in-the-air, it's very hard to know. We're committed to doing it though, we've got a lot of launch titles and we're going to be pushing and growing those. We're lucky in that we're financially secure enough to do that without too much stress.
"We've been looking at things like previous install bases of hardware on consoles. If you look at the Kinect install base, which was amazing, really - something like 35-40 per cent on the 360 - we've made projections on a conservative install base over time. I actually think that it's going to be better than that, given the excitement around VR and the customer reaction when they see it, but we're being fairly conservative. With Oculus they've spoken about trying to sell a million, by a set point. We've been working along those lines. Again, we think it's going to do really well.
"There's going to be other headsets out there as well, that haven't been announced, we think those are going to be very exciting. There's not going to just be two headsets"
"There's going to be other headsets out there as well, that haven't been announced, we think those are going to be very exciting. There's not going to just be two headsets, there'll be a number of things over the next few years. We're going to try and work out as best we can what we think they can sell, but we want to be there at launch with products so we can build and learn what people like and don't like.
"It's definitely going to be more of a core audience at launch, but I think Facebook's acquisition of Oculus means that it's going to be a bit cheaper than it would have been. I think they can afford to give it away at cost, which is brilliant. But it's really hard to put a finger on how much that market is going to be worth. We think it's going to be a couple of billion within two years, but we'll see. We may be massively over-egging, or hugely under-estimating it. What's clear is that there's massive potential here, it could really explode. When you get a great VR experience it's really special.
"I was at E3 playing Alien Isolation on Oculus and, although I'm slightly embarrassed to admit it, when it came to the end I ripped my headset off because I was so scared. You really feel like the Alien is there and actually attacking you. I've never done that with Dead Space or Resident Evil or anything. It really heightens your emotions."
I can attest to just how absorbing that experience can be, having lost myself in the Morpheus demo at GDC in March. Even surrounded by other gawking journalists and nervous PR, dropping that helmet on was, in many sense, completely akin to teleportation. That demonstration wasn't exactly a road-test, though. These were first-party, highly polished demonstrations designed to show off the potential for the new technology in a short, well-controlled session. Had my first experience been a shoddy, half-finished or poorly-executed demo instead, I might never have been interested at all. For O'Luanaigh, the responsibility for audience growth is firmly on the shoulders of developers.
"For me, it's really important," he tells me when I ask whether VR needs to get it right this time around. "I'm utterly convinced that VR is now a technology that's caught up to an amazing idea and can make it work. The only thing that can ruin that is dreadful games. It's easy to make a rubbish VR game with a bad framerate that takes control of the camera and does stupid things. That's the worst thing that could happen, and I think that both Oculus and Sony get that. I think everyone entering the VR space gets it, but we just need to keep an eye on it.
"At least one or two of the projects we're working on are non-traditional games, it's definitely quite different. You'll see VR spread into different areas over the next few years"
"I hope that the press plays its part as well and makes sure that, if there's one rogue VR game that's snuck out and it's dreadful, that they won't use that to argue that VR is awful."
Good games might be the things that get people queuing in the shops, or, more likely, clicking online, but there are clear possibilities for virtual reality which fall well outside our sphere, particularly for Oculus' Rift. Will nDreams being dipping a toe in those waters?
"At least one or two of the projects we're working on are non-traditional games, it's definitely quite different. You'll see VR spread into different areas over the next few years, although it'll definitely start with games. Oculus aren't showing off Facebook social pop-up sims, they're showing off great games.
"I don't think Facebook has changed that but I think you'll notice them start to add stuff in over the next few years. You might see spaces where people can hang out with their friends, stuff like that. If you've ever read Snowcrash, I think that sort of thing is why Facebook bought Oculus. They've got more money now, but it's the same people with the same values. It's very cool to be rude about Facebook, but I think a lot of the people who were being rude about Facebook when it bought Oculus were doing it on Facebook, which is pretty ironic."