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Dean Hall on VR: "There is no money in it"

RocketWerkz CEO says medium currently relies on subsidies from platforms

Dean Hall, CEO of RocketWerkz and previously lead designer of DayZ, has spoken openly on Reddit about the harsh financial realities of VR development, explaining that without the subsidies provided by platform exclusives and other mechanisms, the medium would currently be largely unviable.

In an extended post which has garnered over 200 comments, Hall proclaimed that there was simply "no money" in VR game development, explaining that even though his VR title Out of Ammo had sold better than expected, it remained unprofitable.

Hall believes that many consumer expectations from the mature and well-supported PC market have carried over to VR, with customers not fully comprehending the challenges involved with producing content for such a small install base.

"There is no money in it. I don't mean 'money to go buy a Ferrari'. I mean 'money to make payroll'"

Dean Hall, Rocketwerkz

"From our standpoint, Out of Ammo has exceeded our sales predictions and achieved our internal objectives," Hall explained. "However, it has been very unprofitable. It is extremely unlikely that it will ever be profitable. We are comfortable with this, and approached it as such. We expected to lose money and we had the funding internally to handle this. Consider then that Out of Ammo has sold unusually well compared to many other VR games."

Pointing out that making cross-platform VR to ameliorate that small install base is not as simple as cross platform console development, Hall went on to talk about the realities of funding VR games, and what that meant for the studios involved.

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"Where do you get money to develop your games? How do you keep paying people? The only people who might be profitable will be microteams of one or two people with very popular games. The traditional approach has been to partner with platform developers for several reasons:

  • Reducing your platforms reduces the cost/risk of your project, as you are supporting only one SKU (one build) and one featureset.
  • Allows the platform owner to offset your risk and cost with their funds.

"The most common examples of this are the consoles. At launch, they actually have very few customers and the initial games release for them, if not bundled and/or with (timed or otherwise) exclusivity deals - the console would not have the games it does. Developers have relied on this funding in order to make games.

"How are the people who are against timed exclusives proposing that development studios pay for the development of the games?

"Prediction: Without the subsidies of exclusives/subsidies less studios will make VR games

"There is no money in it. I don't mean 'money to go buy a Ferrari'. I mean 'money to make payroll'. People talk about developers who have taken Oculus/Facebook/Intel money like they've sold out and gone off to buy an island somewhere. The reality is these developers made these deals because it is the only way their games could come out.

"Our staff who work on VR games all want to rotate off after their work is done. Privately, developers have been talking about this but nobody seems to feel comfortable talking about it publicly"

Dean Hall, Rocketwerkz

"Here is an example. We considered doing some timed exclusivity for Out of Ammo, because it was uneconomical to continue development. We decided not to because the money available would just help cover costs. The amount of money was not going to make anyone wealthy. Frankly, I applaud Oculus for fronting up and giving real money out with really very little expectations in return other than some timed-exclusivity. Without this subsidization there is no way a studio can break even, let alone make a profit.

"Some will point to GabeN's email about fronting costs for developers, however I've yet to know anyone who's got that, has been told about it, or knows how to apply for this. It also means you need to get to a point you can access this. Additionally, HTC's "accelerator" requires you to set up your studio in specific places - and these specific places are incredibly expensive areas to live and run a studio. I think Valve/HTC's no subsidy/exclusive approach is good for the consumer in the short term - but terrible for studios.

"As I result I think we will see more and more microprojects, and then more and more criticism that there are not more games with more content."

In addition to the financial burdens, Hall says that there are other pressures too. For example, in his experience VR development burns people out very quickly indeed, with the enthusiasm of most, including himself, waning after a single project.

"I laugh now when people say or tweet me things like 'I can't wait to see what your next VR game will be!' Honestly, I don't think I want to make any more VR games. Our staff who work on VR games all want to rotate off after their work is done. Privately, developers have been talking about this but nobody seems to feel comfortable talking about it publicly - which I think will ultimately be bad."

"For us it became clear that the rise of VR would be gradual rather than explosive when in 2015, it was revealed that the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive would be released in 2016 and that the gold rush would be on hold"

Sam Watts, Make Real

It's not a universal opinion among VR developers, however: there was opposition to Hall's points both within and beyond the thread. Sam Watts, Operations Lead at Make Real had the following to say.

"I think the reality of that thread is a direct result of a perceived gold rush by developers of all sizes to a degree, since analyst predictions around sales volumes of units were far higher than the reality towards the end of the year. There have been waves of gold rush perceptions with VR over the past few years, mostly around each release of new hardware expecting the next boom to take the technology into the mainstream, which has mostly failed to materialise.

"For us it became clear that the rise of VR would be gradual rather than explosive when in 2015, it was revealed that the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive would be released in 2016 and that the gold rush would be on hold."

Watts also sees a healthier VR ecosystem on the way, one where big publishers might be more willing to invest in the sort of budgets which console games are used to.

"Whilst typical AAA budgets aren't yet being spent on VR (to our knowledge) it doesn't mean AAA isn't dipping their toe in the water. The main leader being Ubisoft who created a small VR R&D team that eventually became the Eagle Flight devs. They have avoided what many early VR developers were worried about AAA approach to VR by prototyping, iterating on design, making mistakes, learning from them and working out what does and doesn't work in VR, even creating a now widely popular comfort option of the reduced peripheral vision black tunnel effect. They didn't just storm in late to the party, throwing AAA megabucks around at the problem, assuming money would make great games.

"I know Oculus, Steam, Sony and Razer are still funding games titles for development in 2017, I would hope to see this continue beyond to ensure the continued steady adoption and rise of VR as a new gaming platform moving forwards. This will help continue to improve the quality of content offering on the platforms to ensure full gaming experiences that gamers want to buy and return to, rather than just a series of short tech demos, are available, helping establish the medium and widen the net."

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