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How to get to 'WOW!': The challenging road to marketing VR

Insomniac senior community developer Tim Salvitti talks about what the studio learned (and unlearned) when it came to pushing VR games

The following article is the third in a mini-series on developer-supported games marketing by Insomniac Games' in-house marketing and community team. The entire series is collected here.

There is always an unforgettable "WOW!" moment with virtual reality. Whether it is the first time you put on a headset or the first time you see a truly remarkable experience. Everyone has it.

I know. I've seen it many times serving as Insomniac's studio representative on the road at several VR marketing and PR events supporting our titles for Oculus Rift. It never gets old watching someone pull off that headset, astonished after their first VR moment.

At Insomniac we have been lucky enough to enjoy multiple "WOW!" moments ourselves. I remember the first time we saw an Oculus VR development kit in our studio here in Durham. The optics, resolution, graphics and performance were not near the quality they are with the current Rift, but the "WOW!" factor was there. Fast forward to the reveal of the Oculus Touch and the Toy Box demo. It was a whole new version of "WOW!" and you couldn't help but think, "THIS is what VR is all about". So much so, that it inspired us to finally create a game we had been wanting to make for years: The Unspoken.

"After so much time spent working with console games, we may have taken a bit longer to see certain truths about VR games marketing"

When Insomniac decided to develop VR games, we did so knowing as much as any developer at the time -- which is to say not very much. Yes, we have been developing video games for nearly 25 years, though we didn't realize that might have been a detriment at the onset. That's because, at first, we were looking at the challenges and possibilities for understanding a new medium through our past console games perspective. But along with such a paradigm-changing platform came a new challenge: How to market a VR game. The same "newness" issue arose; we had been creating content and helping market more traditional console games for a long time. After so much time spent working with console games, we may have taken a bit longer to see certain truths about VR games marketing.

This is the story of how we at Insomniac experienced our own "WOW!" moments learning to help market VR games.

Since 2016 we released three VR games on Oculus Rift: Edge of Nowhere, Feral Rites, and The Unspoken -- each to varying degrees of critical and commercial success. These are three very different VR games. Each had its owns challenges in design and marketing. But we have learned quite a bit over the past few years partnering with Oculus to market the game, and we wanted to share our experiences to help push the medium forward.

Platform First

VR is still very young. Everyone from developers to publishers, agencies and influencers are still in the early stages of trying to master conveying the potential of VR to early adopters and the broader consumer base. There hasn't been a silver-bullet solution -- at least one that we have seen.

That meant we needed to take a step back from marketing our games -- which was very counterintuitive. Everyone understands what console video games are and how they play. We didn't immediately grasp that the same couldn't be said for VR. But we learned pretty early on when promoting our first VR games on social media. Our community of fans didn't understand why we were working in VR or why we were making games custom-tailored for VR instead of just porting our older games to VR. We needed to educate them on a lot more than just the game itself.

Changing What You See

How do we encourage people to engage with VR? Well for one, we needed to show how amazing it feels to be in this world. We needed to show that it's not a gimmick. For us, that started with how best to display gameplay on videos.

We wanted to avoid the traditional two-lens approach that had been more commonplace at that time, where the desktop would display both the left and right eyes as they are rendered in the headset, which made it hard to watch. We quickly implemented "presentation mode" for viewing and capturing the game, which only renders one eye, but does so at a more standard 16x9 HD resolution. This was certainly a change from our past titles and something that jump-started the shift to thinking about VR games differently than we had been.

Rethinking Asset Creation

No matter where you show your game -- whether online or at an in-store kiosk -- you need assets to support the marketing campaign. But VR assets pose a special challenge. Here's how we've tried to confront the issue.

Starting with screenshots and trailers, you can't just look at them like you would console or PC games. VR assets need to give the viewer a sense of what it feels like to wear the headset and be in the world. That's a tall order for flat images. First-person shots can literally be shaky in VR due to the precision of the 1:1 headtracking. That tracking is amazing when experiencing the game in VR, but not as good for someone watching on a screen. When moving a camera with a thumbstick, you know how to slow it down and look around within constraints. VR allows for much more movement and your head is now the camera, so you have to take that into account.

Screenshots can be challenging due to the Touch being two devices instead of one. You now have to use more hands to capture them properly. 360 screenshots and videos can sometimes be more powerful than traditional flat images.

While we have not solved all the challenges, we have done things like create marketing-specific, first-person views that smooth out head movement. We have added the ability to capture 360 video and images via our own proprietary engine. We have also learned that sometimes, you need more than one person to get the right screenshot -- one person to pose and one to capture.

Beyond that, we have experimented in multiple mixed reality (compositing the real world player into the game) and spectator cameras as well, all with the intent to change how we think about marketing a VR title and making the viewer really feel what it is like to put that headset on.

Marketing VR In-Game…

We all know now that it's not only important to make your game fun to play, but also fun to watch. Streaming is obviously one of the best ways to market your game. But VR streaming is still in its early days. Convincing top influencers to play your game could work, but can also be seen as disingenuous. Top streamers have got to where they are by playing the games they love and that their community loves.

Insomniac provided custom-built VR PCs for some hand-picked community members to get into streaming.

Insomniac provided custom-built VR PCs for some hand-picked community members to get into streaming.

We need to find VR streamers who love playing VR and have a passionate community, and we need to help them with better streaming options within our titles. One of the first things we did with The Unspoken was add an auto spectator camera to the desktop view of the game for better streaming. We then added options like turning the HUD on and off, all with the intent to make it easier for people to stream the game. We have even recently taken things a step further and built custom PCs and sent them to hand-picked community members, along with a streaming box. We want to empower these emerging content creators to grow their channels.

Non-traditional Tactics for a Non-traditional Medium

At Insomniac, we have always tried to be "community-first" in our thinking. As an independent developer, cultivating our community is a top priority. That means being everywhere game players are, or as much as what's realistic for a game developer. Our library of Full Moon Show podcasts, R&D website resources for engine developers, and active forum presence have been evidence of that mindset for several years now.

More recently, we have started a daily streaming show on Twitch using custom-built production sets, Insomniac Live. We play through not only our games on the stream, but games from other developers too. We try to show off the best and newest VR titles and discuss why we enjoy them. Again, this goes back to showcasing the VR platform even ahead of focusing on our own games.

But that alone hasn't been enough to attract new followers for our VR games.

"We've found that our VR fans are different from our console game fans... So creating new approaches to reach this emergent audience became essential so as not to alienate existing fans"

In some instances, we've had to go beyond using our social channels to leverage our new live stream to generate attention for our VR titles. We're always trying to be scrappy in how we create new opportunities or support existing initiatives to market our games. To increase live stream viewership and interest in VR live streaming in general, we decided to build three custom, high-end PCs for VR gaming that we could give away via an online contest. With help from friends at Nvidia, Intel, ThermalTake and CORSAIR, we ran a month-long giveaway. The giveaway was a success with around 33 percent of everyone viewing the contest engaging with it. That's either by visiting our new social channels, joining our Community through Discord or reddit, sharing the contest with friends or following and/or subscribing to our Twitch and YouTube. The goal was to gain a larger "VR-centric" audience on our channels to help spread the love that we share for the platform.

This is a critical point. We've found that our VR fans are different from our console game fans. When we shared VR content on our studio-wide social media channels, the response was less than we anticipated. So creating new approaches to reach this emergent audience became essential so as not to alienate existing fans.

Esports became a valuable entry point for us to have that relationship with VR fans. We have been heavily involved in the birth of VR esports, including the VR Challenger League. Thanks to partners like Oculus, Intel and ESL, we have been able create a spectating experience around The Unspoken. We've taken our game to esports events all over the world and championed the concept at events like CES.

Showing people the game and VR's potential is one thing. Getting them to buy is a different but equally important challenge. Luckily we have had a great partner in Oculus, and we have worked to bring our titles to retail stores across the country (Best Buy, Microsoft Store), IMAX theaters and, more recently, VR arcades. On top of that, we have been on the road at not only esports events (IEM, DreamHack) but also shows like E3, PAX, and GDC. You can't enable that "WOW!" moment without getting the hardware in people's hands.

So...Is Our Approach Working?

We believe we have made a mark introducing new people to VR, while getting them to try our games. One specific example came when we demoed The Unspoken at DreamHack Austin. We had a particular individual play in a daily game tournament. He had tried The Unspoken the first day (his first ever VR experience) and then came back the next to compete. He won the tourney that day and his prize was a Rift+Touch bundle.

Fast forward to our Microsoft Store Tournament where we had eight regional finalists fly to New York City to compete in The Unspoken. Guess who was in NYC with his father competing after only a few weeks of owning a Rift?!

Fast forward further to the VR Challenger League start and now his father was competing side-by-side with his son after purchasing a second Rift+Touch for their house. This is just a tiny example, but it shows that when you can give the person that "WOW!" moment, you gain them as a champion to help spread the word on VR to the next person. It pays itself forward when creating the right feeling.

So what can YOU do as a developer to give your audience their own "WOW!" moment? There are still plenty of challenges to solve. How can we push for better spectator views in VR? What does the future of VR streaming look like? How can content creators better interact with their community while playing with a headset on? How can we get MORE people to try VR in general?

There isn't a blueprint to marketing a VR game. We hope that you can take our experiences and ideas and make them better. Challenge yourself and experiment. Failing is part of learning and will only help to strengthen VR in the future. Don't be afraid to try new things -- we actively try to fail forward, and as fast as possible to improve that much faster. Try to make new types of marketing assets.

Above all, try to answer that question of "Why VR?" in everything you create, along with "Why is my game only possible in VR?" Then, SHOW people. We are just getting started on this journey, and we are excited by the possibilities that VR is bringing to gaming and spectating.

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