If you've played a number of different virtual reality experiences, you've no doubt come away impressed but thinking, "there has to be more than this." Many VR titles are not much more than immersive demos, but a group of ex-Starbreeze developers led by Hess Barber, former creative producer at Starbreeze Los Angeles, are aiming to change the VR gaming landscape.
"The first VR titles included some fantastic experiences, but the full potential of the platform for interactive entertainment is nowhere near being realized," said Barber, co-founder of VR startup First Contact Entertainment. "Keeping a close eye on how gamers are reacting to these early games, we believe VR's next wave will be defined by native gameplay driven by immersive story and inventive mechanics, with photo-realistic visuals that compete with today's top console titles."
He continued, "For now, we are just witnessing the tip of the iceberg for experiences and games that can take you to different worlds within your own home. We're currently seeing a lot of experimentation with cool mechanics but not a lot of full games. As developers get better at immersing players into the gaming experience with higher quality products and multiple player avatars within the same world, VR platforms will become more and more like what we always dreamed of from holodecks, where the only boundaries are our imaginations. And that is not far away when you consider the scope of how much progress we've made getting here. It's a very exciting time!"
"Reaching AAA quality in VR is particularly challenging due to the necessity to maintain high frame rates at all times"
Barber has 22 years of experience in the business, and he's joined at First Contact by other veterans of Starbreeze, Robotoki, Blizzard, Treyarch, Infinity Ward, SCEA and Spark. There are 20 people on the team currently, but Barber aims to grow that to 30 by the end of the year. The Santa Monica, CA-based studio claims to have "sizeable" funding already lined up but would not disclose how much and who's invested in the company.
Regardless, the money will be crucial as building AAA games, VR or not, requires a significant budget. Barber said that his team's experience and knowledge should allow it to build games more efficiently and mitigate the risk at least a little.
"Our high AAA standards come from many years of experience working for major game studios on high-profile games, and we pride ourselves in maintaining that quality through all of our products," he noted. "Reaching AAA quality in VR is particularly challenging due to the necessity to maintain high frame rates at all times. Thankfully, this is something our team has a lot of experience in, specifically building custom tools and pipelines. Our experience and techniques help us keep our team small and costs low."
With installed bases not climbing dramatically in VR's first year, Barber understands that revenues may take some time, but he sees a big opportunity in the space that he thinks other VR studios have not capitalized on yet.
"We feel that AAA companies haven't truly committed to VR yet, and so our experience and talent make us unique. We know that VR's install base is too low currently to see reasonable sales figures, but we've timed our development schedule so that by the time our first games are ready for release, we should see VR HMDs more commonly adopted by households, especially with the coming release of PlayStation VR and the growing momentum of other popular platforms already available," he said.
Barber added that the recent mania surrounding Pokemon Go has helped build awareness around technologies like VR and AR, "which is promising for the VR industry as a whole." And as people get on board the VR train, he fully believes people will be "hungry for AAA experiences."
First Contact isn't ready to share what project(s) it's working on just yet, but the team is looking to leverage its previous experience building high-end VR games at Starbreeze. The goal is to build original IP and games using "prominent" licenses. And while First Contact will target all the VR headsets on the market, the company is also intrigued by the mass market possibilities of VR on mobile.
"I think VR and AR will get much bigger over the next five years as the tech improves to make them more accessible"
"[We] want our games to reach as many players as possible. Certainly we are...very much looking forward to mobile technology catching up in the future, allowing freedom from cords and making VR available to a wider audience," Barber said.
It'll be interesting to see what licenses First Contact signs, but Barber is confident that, unlike some studios, his team can make great licensed content. "We've found it's crucial to maintain a very good relationship with your partners, especially the IP holders. It makes all the difference when everyone understands and respects the development process and vision, especially with new technology such as VR," he stressed.
Ultimately, it's early days for VR, and while some investors and publishers are afraid to make any serious investments in the space, Barber sees VR as having "the potential to be much bigger than traditional console and PC gaming, and by that I mean appeal to a larger market in general."
"As we've seen with Pokemon Go, the mass market appeal of virtual technologies can be rather surprising. I think VR and AR will get much bigger over the next five years as the tech improves to make them more accessible. Especially when we reach the point you don't need to be tethered to a PC or console, that's when the clear breakaway will happen," he concluded.
In photo, from left to right: Josh Ochoa (VP) / Hess Barber (President) / Wei Qiao (CTO)