There's been plenty of interest in virtual reality (VR) since Oculus showed that the decades-long dream has become affordable - when you see a Time magazine cover for the technology, you know it's attracting wide attention. The focus so far has mostly been on VR hardware - when is it coming out, how much will it cost - and less on the content side of VR, despite plenty of demos and many a press release from companies thinking about VR games.
Now, though, we're starting to see major investments in VR content as some of the big players begin to put their money where the excitement is. VR game startup Resolution Games, based in Sweden and founded by veterans from King Digital and other companies, announced a $6 million Series A funding round today, which the company says is the single largest investment round for any game developer. The round was led by Google Ventures, and other backers include Creandum, Initial Capital, Bonnier Growth Media, and Partech Ventures.
"VR is the next big gaming platform," said Joe Kraus, general partner at Google Ventures. "The pace of development in VR will be very high over the next five years, with mobile VR at the forefront because anyone with a smartphone has the core of a VR experience already in their pocket. Tommy and his team have a proven track record of game development and successful entrepreneurship, and we're excited about what Resolution Games is going to do."
We spoke to co-founder and CEO Tommy Palm to get more insight into why Resolution Games is approaching VR differently than other developers. "We've seen a lot of great initiatives on the hardware side, but ultimately it's going to be the content that sells headsets," said Palm. "Our approach has been to try and focus on making very accessible games, games that can open this space for everyone, not just tech enthusiasts." That can be seen from the first game Resolution Games has created, Solitaire Jester, which takes the familiar card game and gives it a great deal of immersion and character.
"I try to stay away from the term 'casual games' because it instantly draws the mind to the casual games on smartphones and PC, which are quite different due to their platforms."
Don't use the term "casual game" when you're talking to Palm, though. He thinks it's giving people the wrong impression. "I try to stay away from the term 'casual games' because it instantly draws the mind to the casual games on smartphones and PC, which are quite different due to their platforms," Palm said. "I think there are definitely great lessons to be learned from those other platforms, but VR is a much more engaging games platform. We're definitely going to see VR being played not that much on public transit and waiting for meetings like we do with smartphones, but more in your home. It is going to be a different games platform than those others."
The important point that Palm likes to focus on is making VR games that can appeal to a broad audience. That's sensible, given that the market for VR games is going to be small for some time to come - and no one knows how long that time might be. Why narrow your market unnecessarily? "I like to talk about accessibility, and as long as games are easy to get into and not violent or need a lot of twitch movement, games can really fit all ages and target groups," Palm said. "We have already released one title with Solitaire, but that's not going to be a typical title coming out of our studio. The thing that is typical about it is that it's a rather calm experience. For us it was more that it showed how broad VR can be as a games platform. You can have all type of different experiences there. The Solitaire game is at the further end of casual for us."
There are plenty of challenges ahead for Resolution Games, and the type of game to create is the least of them. Most of the VR devices are still being finalized, and there's a great deal of variation in input modes. "I definitely think that there will be more standardized input going forward, and input is one of the interesting challenges right now," Palm acknowledged. "With Solitaire Jester you can play using only gaze. We found that worked really well, you don't even have to push a button to play the game - you just look at things. If you take such a simplistic approach the titles translate very well from different platforms."
"Last week I tried the touch controller from Oculus, and that was working really well and felt very natural and well-crafted. It's a super-interesting area."
"From our user testing the most natural way to control a VR experience is using your hands, because that's the first thing that comes up when people try VR," Palm continued. "If I would take a bet it would be that's probably going to be standard somewhere in the future. Last week I tried the touch controller from Oculus, and that was working really well and felt very natural and well-crafted. It's a super-interesting area. Even though input isn't standardized at this point there's still a lot of great game experience you can create with very simple input mechanics."
Palm understands there are plenty of other challenges to deal with in designing VR games, like the immediate isolation you get when you put on a headset. "A lot of times with a smartphone you are often doing something else as well and won't dedicate as much of your mental bandwidth to your gameplay," he noted. "With VR, when you put on the headset, you are really losing yourself to that world for a piece of time. As a studio we are very excited about the prospects for social and multiplayer experience in the VR world. Putting on a headset is very isolating in a way, it's kind of bad when you're with your family at home but there's also great potential for a really good social interaction within the game."
Virtual reality isn't the only the new kind of reality being crafted by hardware and software makers. Some analysts believe that Augmented Reality (AR), like Microsoft's HoloLens, Magic Leap and CastAR, will be an even bigger market than VR. That's something Palm agrees with. "I definitely believe strongly in AR, and I think that if you look at it as a total market potential (not only as games) AR is going to be bigger," Palm said. "One of the things that excites me about VR is that it's a gateway to AR as well. A lot of things we learn on VR are going to be applicable to AR when it comes to user interface and input methods. It looks to me that AR is a little bit further off in the future before it becomes as good technology so it's consumer worthy. Whereas I can already make incredible games and experiences with VR technology that is here now. I believe in three year's time VR is going to be really big, and maybe 3-5 year's time we're going to have proper AR in the market.
Palm is ready to put that $6 million investment to work. "We are thrilled to have the support of such high calibre thought leaders and VCs and to see they are confident in our team and strategy of making games everyone can enjoy," said Palm. "We're focused on VR for the long run with nimble, small teams creating lots of new concepts, establishing best practices and quickly landing on successful titles to add content for emerging VR devices. To date we've already created seven prototype games, released our first title and are working on our next release, which will be a fishing themed VR game to be released in early 2016."
One thing Palm already knows: You can't just take something from another platform and put it on VR and expect it to be successful. "No, you can't," agrees Palm with a laugh, "and that's why it's so rewarding to work on this platform."