562 adapts to VR growing at a Snailiens' pace
How a studio run by three brothers pivoted when VR was both too successful and not successful enough for their original strategy
When Preston, Will, and Ray Weiler started their development studio 562 Interactive in 2014, the three brothers had a plan for riding the rising wave of virtual reality. They built VR visualization projects for architecture studios to pay the bills and support some work on their own VR games on the side. Unfortunately, VR proved to be simultaneously too successful and not successful enough for that plan to work out over the long term.
"We don't do any architectural visualization because quite frankly, the money there has gotten a lot more competitive," Preston told GamesIndustry.biz recently. "Before we were novel and cool and able to provide them with something they'd never seen before. Nowadays, architecture firms are catching up and going, 'We need somebody that's going to be inside the studio to do this every single time.' And that makes us less competitive from a contractor perspective."
As for the studio's VR game ambitions, they poured those into their debut title, the VR tower defense game Snaliens, which launched into Steam Early Access in February of 2017.
"It's important to remember where we were at the time," Will said. "This was the early onset of VR, and we were also new game developers. So VR was tantalizing. This was a brand new platform that needed content, and the content being made wasn't necessarily very good. It was bite-sized.
"It was small enough that the big guys couldn't come in and roll over on us. We could in theory create a niche. So we looked at the landscape of VR and saw everyone keeps complaining that everything's so short, that there are no 'game-y' games. There's nothing substantial on this platform, or very little. So what we initially thought was we can make a full game. We'll spend a full year or a year and a half, and we'll make a 20-hour game with unlocks and bosses and lots of levels. You could sit in there for 20 minutes or four hours and still have more game to go."
"We had a learning curve of trying to train people [to understand] that the tutorial of our game was not the whole game"Will Weiler
Unfortunately, current VR technology isn't a good match for that sort of longer play session.
"At the end of the day, regardless of platform or performance, you can only sit in VR for so long before you get motion sick," Ray said. "It varies person to person, but even in a perfect experience, 90 fps with no hitching, you will still eventually get motion sick."
The brothers believe the VR audience has also been trained to expect those shorter experiences, which became a communication issue.
"We had a learning curve of trying to train people [to understand] that the tutorial of our game was not the whole game," Will explained.
The original version of the game's tutorial was three levels long and took about 30 minutes to play, although some people struggled with it for an hour and a half.
"A tremendous amount of people thought that was the whole game," Ray said. "We had probably 98% more game. That was a 2% slice of what the game was, but people were like 'Oh, that was really cool' and then they just stopped playing."
That was problematic for a number of reasons, Preston explained. People who finished a half-hour tutorial and believed they'd experienced the whole game would be more likely to refund the title. Of course, given that Snaliens was their first commercial product, the brothers recognize there were things they could have done better.
"We had never actually built a game and focus-tested a game, so there was a lot of education on our side of how to manage expectations, how to keep people in the experience and moving forward," Will said. "We rewrote the tutorial level [multiple] times, and we've gone back since it's gone live on Steam and just gutted it because the onboarding was just too slow, too tedious, or cumbersome for a consumer just coming in."
In its current form, the Snaliens tutorial takes about six minutes to finish, or upwards of 15 minutes at most.
Snaliens is still in Early Access, and the brothers plan to do some bug-fixing before they properly launch it, but they've already all but written it off as a commercial failure. But that's not to say they regret making the game.
"It's the cornerstone of our entire company," Preston explained.
Ray echoed the sentiment, calling it "the single most important project we've ever done," while Will simply remarked, "It's amazing how much you can learn in an entire year making a game."
As Ray said, "It was the whole thing in its totality, learning tools and pipelines and understand the marketing side of things, how to build out a following across multiple platforms. How to design for VR or AR. It was not only our first VR experience, it was our first game experience. It was the first big game we ever made, so it had all that learning that a normal studio has, plus all the learning of VR best practices."
"There were multiple times where we had a deal moving forward with a studio, and then overnight, that studio's entire VR department got fired because their priorities shifted"Preston Weiler
Preston added, "What's cool is that in following the best practices of VR, we figured out how to make everything amazingly efficient. From an art perspective, from a programming perspective, if something was a little bit wrong, we could have gotten away with it in a typical PC game, and we wouldn't have learned how to adjust for that problem. But because it was VR and we had to make it work on a GTX 970, there was no room to hide inefficiency. We had to make sure everything was as performatively perfect as possible. It was a trial by fire for the studio, going from having done nothing to one of the most restrictive design environments you can have."
And while it may not have brought in much revenue directly, Snailiens did wind up boosting 562's financial fortunes as well. In June of 2017 it was named as a finalist for the Indie Prize USA competition, which brought the studio to the attention of someone in the augmented reality smart toy industry. The brothers aren't yet able to talk about that contact, but it has resulted in a pivot for the studio to making AR smart toys, where it has "found way more success with than we ever thought was possible," Preston said.
In light of 562's stubborn perseverance, Ray has joked about adopting the cockroach as the studio's mascot. Or as Will put it, "It's been important not tying your wagon too hard to any individual thing, especially as small as we are. When you diversify the projects you're doing, you're diversifying risk."
In some ways the brothers' experience has made them a bit more jaded about working in VR.
"We've become a lot more cautious about who we're willing to work with because it moves so quickly," Preston said. "We don't want to be part of a project for somebody else that's definitely just going to be cancelled... It's weird for a studio our size to look at some huge companies that we would dream of working with, and saying, 'We're not sure that project is ever going to actually happen, so we can't commit many man-hours to making sure we'd be part of it. There are just so many ideas happening and so little execution from big studios in VR... There were multiple times where we had a deal moving forward with a studio, and then overnight, that studio's entire VR department got fired because their priorities shifted."
In other ways, they're just as excited about it as ever. Even with the financial failure of Snailiens behind them and a bright future in AR smart toys ahead of them, the brothers are tooling around with new game ideas for VR, and aren't about to write the sector off just yet.
"We're always trying to get back into desktop-facing games," Preston said. "We're always trying to get back into headset VR games. We look at projections today for the future of desktop VR, and it's actually looking pretty good. The prices of headsets are getting to a point now that it could be reasonable for us to get back into it."