David Ranyard warned us that this might happen.
The former Sony VR expert, who has today unveiled his new independent studio - Dream Reality Interactive - spoke about the "VR anti-climax" throughout 2016.
He told attendees at various conferences and within articles he'd penned, that once Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR were officially released and in people's homes, then concerns would be raised about VR's viability. Some investors would get nervous, analysts would rein in their lofty predictions and a few studios might even scale back their activity.
"I'm not surprised by the numbers," the former SingStar, Wonderbook and VR Worlds maker tells GamesIndustry.biz from within his new London studio. "I did say last year that there would be an anti-climax after Christmas, and I think that is what is happening. The high-end stuff seems to be doing ok, but I think it is all to play for on mobile to create that killer app. It hasn't happened on mobile yet, but I can see it happening in the next 12 months."
Ranyard's belief in VR hasn't wavered ever since he and his team at Sony's London Studio began working on a string of tech demos for what was called "Project Morpheus" at the time. He left his role at the studio last year to form what we now know as Dream Reality Interactive, which also includes a group of his former colleagues and friends, including Richard Bates, Artemis Tsouflidou, Albert Bentall and John Foster (all of whom had worked on VR Worlds in roles such as technical director, gameplay designer, programmer and principal designer.).
After spending the best part of two decades at PlayStation, it was always going to be difficult to leave. Ranyard had not only walked away from the company, but he did it before PlayStation VR was on shelves.
He admits that it was a hard decision to make, but he wanted to begin building his new outfit while there was still plenty of investment to be found.
"Today, a lot of investors have already invested," he observes. "That was one of my big decision points last year. I debated if I should wait until PlayStation VR has launched and then do something - which was a preference on a personal level because I wanted to be there for that. But actually, on a practical level, it made sense to leave before that. That was a tough decision because I wanted to finish VR Worlds with the team.
"There are people investing now, but 2017 will be a bit of a re-balancing year. Last year was all 'Yay, it's here, everyone get involved,' and there wasn't... I am not saying there wasn't any due diligence and thought, but it was a lot more 'let's go for it'. Whereas now people are starting to ask: 'Actually, how long is it going to take?'
"My summary on that is: 2016 was the year it went from 'if' to 'when' and 2017 is where it goes from 'when' to 'how'. It's a case of how is it going to manifest itself? Like with smartphones, we've been looking at it in terms of how people were playing games on consoles or PCs. We did that with smartphones, but vey quickly those experiences changed; the business model changed and evolved into something quite different."
"Today, a lot of the investors have already invested in VR"
When Ranyard left Sony, he knew he wanted to open his own VR studio but he didn't exactly have a plan. He wanted to take time (without the stresses of running an in-house first-party studio) to work out exactly what he wanted to do. He visited conferences and spoke to those trying similar things; he traveled to China, Japan, America four times, Italy, Ireland, Lisbon and Helsinki. That was all before he hired his first employee.
Today, Dream Reality is working on a series of prototypes and demos - Ranyard even showed us a selection under the condition we wouldn't tell anyone about them. The firm is talking with publishers and platform holders in an effort to get some of these ideas signed, but the long-term vision is decidedly more ambitious.
"Our plan is to build IP from the ground up within VR," he tells us. "To begin with, we are going to do something relatively small - perhaps mobile VR or a digital console game. And then we will build and build and build to bigger IP. But we are also looking at other kinds of tech things that might be interesting as well."
What sort of things?
"Well, things like how we might use VR to interact with AI. That could manifest itself nicely in a game context. So instead of having a mission briefing where you just sit and listen, perhaps you can ask questions. But that sort of thing will also be interesting outside of games, perhaps in areas such as training.
"We are talking to some people about 360 volumetric capture of people. That could be interesting, and you can have an interactive experience with people in VR."
Dream Reality's first office is shared with another company, and when he turned up on his first day - along with his first recruit Artemis Tsouflidou - it dawned on him he might have forgotten a few things.
"The look on her face," he laughs. "We'd come into the office and we had no seats, no wiring... we did have PCs, because I had bought one from home. But we didn't have anywhere to sit. We had nothing. A proper start-up. By Day 3, we had something to sit on and a desk. John [Foster] has also been pretty handy to have around; he's been drilling holes in tables and putting in hooks. We've made it work."
Ranyard is secretly proud that Tsouflidou - a female coder - was his first hire at Dream Reality. Diversity is a key part to his vision for the studio, and he says it's one of the key benefits to being based in London.
"I think good diversity helps you make better games, as well as it being the right thing to do," he says. "Getting lots of different viewpoints from different backgrounds, that's important. London is a great place for that, because you can meet people from anywhere in the world. Any Tube carriage has probably got countless nationalities on it, which is a wonderful thing about being here."
Dream Reality is a small outfit for now, which is understandable when you consider the size of the VR industry and its addressable audience. Although there's something to be said about getting in early on new technology, you still have to be careful about how you approach it.
"I wanted to be making VR games at this early point, because if we waited any longer it would be too late"
"VR will happen," he explains. "Some people think 2018, some say 2019 and others 2020. So for me setting up this company, I wanted to be there at this point, because if we waited any longer it would be too late. But if people have expanded too quickly, then it might be hard to feed all those mouths as a business. If you keep small, pick the right projects, then you can learn and grow. That's our aim."
He continues: "Our course direction is about making IP, whether that's a gaming IP or a technology IP. I also want to learn a bit more about 'how' we do that, and I have a few ideas. I am hoping to get two projects signed this year, and then learning through those on how people are going to accept the market.
"There are other players out there doing some interesting things. King is hiring some VR developers, so they're taking mobile VR seriously. But when they'll enter the market, I don't know. Will they enter when the market is nascent, or when it reaches that tipping point? Is it 2018, 2019, 2020? But it is interesting that there are some players out there that are not just watching the market, but getting ready."
Despite his history with the console business - and the fact that most VR successes right now are happening on PC and PS4 - Ranyard believes the real area to watch for virtual reality is in the smartphone space - although that's not the only reason he's currently considering mobile as the platform for his first release.
"Doing a small title in the first year makes sense, because we get a game out and we have a calling card to show people," he explains. "It also means we can gel as a team. It's not just blue sky all the time, we have a deadline and have to get through QA and all that. Mobile is very convenient for that, as you can do a smaller title.
"I don't want to say 100% certain, but I think mobile VR is the thing that blows up. I really like the Daydream and the ease of getting it on and off. It is soft and comfortable and light, and it feels like it can become part of people's lives. The high end stuff is amazing, but if I have to pick one platform that will become dominant for VR, I think I would have to go mobile. But I'm keeping my options open. We do need to have a clear direction, but we need to be able to react to how things change as well."
"You can totally imagine that inside Pixar there are people that want to make a VR movie"
The trick to mobile VR success will be finding an experience that will encourage people to keep coming back and using it.
"I don't think we've cracked that yet," Ranyard adds. "On the gaming side, sure, a lot of the games aren't that different to traditional PC and console titles in terms of how they're set up. But perhaps on mobile there will be something... what is the Snapchat of VR? It is those kind of services that someone will come up with that is the killer app that will keep people coming back.
"My daughter is 11 and every night she is on her phone, on video chat, with her friend who moved to Ireland. They spend every evening together with phones. You've seen some of the Oculus stuff about sharing a space... if that was available to them on their phone, then they might do that instead. It could be something like that that makes VR blow up.
"There is that Trip to the Moon film (Le Voyage dans la Lune, 1902 silent movie that lasts 18 minutes), and as a medium VR has not got really much past that point. In general, we've had 10 to 20 minutes of engagement. People are currently most focused on the experience, and not the repeatability or stickiness of it. Traditional gaming is one thing, but I think there will be cross-over with Facebook and social interaction - and whether that is gamified or not, I don't know."
One of the other demos that Ranyard showed us that we're not allowed to talk about was a project he believes would work well in arcades, akin to the sort of initiative HTC is rolling out with its Viveport Arcade concept, or GAME with its Belong chain of stores.
He continues: "I used to go to arcades because I could do things I couldn't do at home. We have that same imbalance, because most people can't afford the space or the equipment for VR. So going out and hanging around the arcade to do it, that makes sense. It is in-line with a lot of trends going on with the under 30s, which is more about experience and less about ownership. If you look at how we consume music and movies now, it's a lot more about the experience. So I think there is a pretty good chance that the VR arcades will do something for a couple of years - maybe longer.
"IMAX has done a deal where they will have VR in their venues. I also think that someone like Dreamworks or Pixar will make a VR-only movie - and we'll see a cinema have a VR screening for it. I was shocked at how much Hollywood got behind VR. I thought they would be quite dismissive. You can totally imagine that inside Pixar there are people that want to make a VR movie. It's that type of company. And people will want to see that because it would be a new experience. The question is whether it's a tangible way to tell stories forever, or if it's just a bit gimmicky."
We could speak to Ranyard for hours on the potential for VR, and - actually - we did. Yet despite his experience and a head brimming with thoughts, predictions and insight, he doesn't really see himself as an ideas man.
In fact, although Dream Reality was very much his dream, Ranyard anticipates the company's breakthrough success will come from anyone on the team that isn't him.
"Our CFO Kumar Jacob said to me that, while I was at Sony I created the environment for people to do their best work. That's what I did so well," he concludes. "I am not the guy who decides 'this is the game'. But I'm the guy who talks to people about it and brings the ideas out of them. If I can now do that at my own business, then that would be a great thing."