Life oftentimes is all about perspective. That's literally clear to me as I'm walking with Hilmar Pétursson, CEO of CCP Games, down a hallway to get to a hotel suite during GDC where we can talk about his company's brand-new IP, Sparc, among other things. Pétursson is a hulking giant of a man compared to my 5'9" stature, so when he speaks, I listen. I also listen carefully when he speaks on the subject of VR, because CCP is one of a handful of game studios that have been working in the medium from the very beginning and can now be considered veterans of the field.
The VR market, Pétursson explains to me, is best considered with some perspective. He asks me how many high-end VR units I think are on the market, while teasing me that he knows the real figure. I tell him it looks like the number is under two million, given that PlayStation VR is at nearly one million, and Rift and Vive combined (according to analyst estimates) are short of that.
"That's a lot of units! You can make a game for that. I've seen worse. We made EVE Online for modems - people are like, 'Download the game over a modem?' Maybe it's small if you have some grand expectations of something bigger, but close to two million that's a lot," he tells me.
"We are kind of break-even on what we have done. Obviously we have thought it through enormously to get to that place. And it's a lot of, 'How much do you invest, where do you put the price, how do you go to market?' And we haven't done this alone, we've worked with everyone in the VR ecosystem to get as far as we have gotten, but over a million is a lot. Have you seen a million people? It's a huge number of people! I come from Iceland where the entirety of the population is 300,000. We're talking at least triple that, so that's a lot. I would call the installed base huge for an Icelander. It's triple my home country. And people make all sorts of products for Icelanders. We have three TV stations in Icelandic for 300,000 people but we have a million VR players; that's amazing."
"[VR is] very different than everything else... Think like it's your first game and you don't know anything"
Pétursson notes that CCP now has a "few hundred people at CCP that have worked in VR, developing it, marketing it, managing communities, communicating around it, so there's a lot of organizational tissue that's been built up through that." Sparc, in development at CCP's Atlanta studio, will already be the company's fourth VR title on the market. Succeeding in VR is no easy task, concedes Pétursson.
"You have to just do it; you can't just read a book about VR, you have to develop VR games. [And] it's very different than everything else, so don't think of applying too much knowledge from other games you've made to VR. Think like it's your first game and you don't know anything," he says.
"Also, shipping and releasing and getting feedback is super important, so don't take too long, get your stuff out there and respond and get that loop going. Valkyrie is a fantastic example of that. We've released a lot of updates to Valkyrie - I think we're up to three or four now. It keeps getting better, we keep seeing what the players are doing, and we obviously apply a lot of lessons from EVE Online where we've done this a lot with EVE."
CCP is so adamant about incorporating player feedback into their titles that they won't even consider implementing new features into Sparc until they've gotten enough information from playtesting. Sparc is a futuristic dodgeball-like full-body VR sport, but it's easy to imagine CCP expanding the scope of the gameplay with other sports elements.
"Obviously, we have general thoughts and ideas about what's next but we really need to get the field data, so we are also just making sure we're not overthinking it," Pétursson says. "I have ideas but I don't want to share them right now because they are most likely wrong. We will just see something else happen. That was the thing with EVE, we had ideas and dreams and aspirations. But something much grander than what we were ever thinking happened."
For CCP not only to dive into a title outside the EVE universe but one that's a sports offering comes as somewhat of a surprise, but Pétursson jokes with me to "expect the unexpected" from his company. In truth, he tells me that CCP had originally been planning the original concept for the motion-based sports game on Kinect.
"It started with our team in Atlanta and there had been members of that team that had been dabbling in VR even before the Oculus Kickstarter," he explains. "Somebody had like a cave system in their basement made out of a projector and bed sheet. So we had some hardcore enthusiasts for VR. So when we started to get involved in VR, quickly we started to realize that even if people start to focus a lot on the output, like the [headset] you have on your face, then it's actually the input which is way more important than the output. The magic is in the interaction of you with the world and then the world interacting back to you though the virtual reality goggles."
"You could almost argue the point that all VR is in a way AR, until we just sit and plug into the Matrix and all our reality is the virtual reality"
Pétursson continues, noting that CCP basically made market predictions about the VR space and what kinds of input would be necessary. They felt that traditional controllers would always have a role, which is why they made Valkyrie, but they also knew that body tracking or controller tracking of some kind would likely become necessary for true VR immersion.
"The Atlanta guys were exploring standing up and waving your hands using Microsoft's Kinect to track your body and out of that they made like a workshop, or experimental kitchen, where you could throw a fireball, play music with your hands, and then one of the experiences was like almost a kind of sport," he says.
"Then we started exploring this and experimenting and then the tracked controllers started coming [from Vive and Oculus]... and then we say, 'OK we have a stable commercial basis to make a product around.' We were hoping the Kinect would have a resurgence in VR but that hasn't happened, so the tracked controllers really fit what the guys were doing. Then when we looked at everything they had explored, and this sports game they had come up with seemed like the best fit to take to market."
Being in the sports genre, Sparc might be a good fit for an expansion with the Vive Tracker, for example, if CCP decided to use Trackers on a player's feet or for real-world objects like rackets. It's an interesting idea, Pétursson says, but he does not believe many developers will put much effort into supporting the Vive Tracker until it's widely adopted.
"We're going forward going across all three major tethered platforms so we really have to develop for the commonality," he explains. "So these kind of experimental things, they are nice to explore but the installed bases of VR are not the biggest and so then if you start to make it even smaller by optimizing for these kinds of niche input methods, you just end up with a very small marketplace.
"Currently VR is [here] and AR is a little further off. Maybe it's going to be bigger, I don't know and I almost don't care"
"Until there is a meaningful installed base for the Vive Tracker I think it's going to be difficult to make a viable market out of that. But it's great that they are doing that and experimenting. That might lead to something new and exciting, but it's too early for us to factor in."
Experimentation is all well and good, and Pétursson makes it clear that all the headset makers send his team the latest technologies, but he's very much a practical man, and it suits his business well.
"What I know is there are over a million headsets that we make products for, and that's what we're focusing on. If something greater and grander comes out, well we'll take a look at that. Currently VR is [here] and AR is a little further off. Maybe it's going to be bigger, I don't know and I almost don't care. If that happens, I'm pretty sure we'll be the first to know."
As we prepare to wrap up, Pétursson brings it all back into perspective, discussing the problems with VR, AR and how all its associated jargon has gotten too confusing.
"People are always making this distinction between AR and VR. You could almost argue the reverse point. It's a bit academic but bear with me. When you're in virtual reality, it's still happening in reality. When you're playing Sparc, just because you don't see through [to the real world], you're still in reality. So it's, in a way, an alternate reality. You don't see the environment," he says.
"You could almost argue the point that all VR is in a way AR, until we just sit and plug into the Matrix and all our reality is the virtual reality. You're still sitting on a sofa, you're still in your house, you're still somewhere. So I try to not to be religious about 'What is VR? What is AR? What is MR (mixed reality)? What is XR (extended reality)?'"