Last week, Sony announced that its PlayStation VR headset had hit 3 million units sold, making it far and away the most successful of the high-end VR headsets after two years on the market. It's a respectable number, but it's not quite in line with what some analysts had originally expected, either for PSVR specifically or the VR market as a whole.
While that slower-than-expected growth has cooled some of the excitement around VR, it suits Danny Bulla just fine. Bulla is co-founder and design director of Polyarc, the VR development studio behind the critically acclaimed Moss. Even though Bulla and his fellow co-founders placed a considerably large bet on VR when they jumped from Bungie to form the studio in 2015, he told GamesIndustry.biz at E3 this year that he's not overly concerned with how it's shaping up.
"It's developed much like other markets, if you pay attention to it closely," Bulla said of the VR market. "I think a lot of people had high expectations up front, and I don't think those were necessarily rooted in anything particular other than excitement for a new medium."
Bulla said the market's entering a particularly interesting phase right now as it's been about two years since developers could treat tracked controllers as standard equipment for users of high-end VR headsets. That sort of interaction fundamentally changes the experience, and since it can take a couple of years to make a game, Bulla believes we're only now starting to see what happens when developers come to grips with how different VR can be from a traditional game experience.
"Developers are kind of getting their legs with VR," Bulla said. "They're understanding the mechanics that make the medium different from traditional gaming. They're understanding the things that are required to make it more like traditional gaming, the things that players expect. So I'm excited because we're seeing games like Beat Saber, Sprint Vector, and Moss now, too, this second wave of games that are coming out that we're hoping will encourage people to take the VR headsets that are tucked away in closets right now and bring them back and check it out. Because I think the content is getting better.
"We didn't have Fruit Ninja right away when the iPhone came out. That came years later as people understood the medium. If you take that and look at VR, I think that's the trajectory where we're at right now"
"And that's sort of how it has to work, right? When mobile came out, people had to figure out how to make games on a mobile phone. Touch-and-swipe was a new input mechanism, and we didn't have that before. So we didn't have Fruit Ninja right away when the iPhone came out. That came years later as people understood the medium. If you take that and look at VR, I think that's the trajectory where we're at right now."
It's not surprising the games Bulla held up as examples of the new generation of VR games are all from independent developers. Aside from Bethesda and Sony, most of the traditional AAA game publishers have done little more than dabble in VR, leaving it to indies to do the heavy lifting of providing a content base that would justify adoption of a pricey VR headset. Bulla suggested the bigger players have been somewhat hamstrung because their brands and reputations carry certain expectations of scale and polish, expectations that are technically difficult and fiscally risky to attempt fulfilling in VR at the present.
"For us as independent developers, we have the flexibility of scoping down our game to fit the market size," Bulla said. "I think that's why you're seeing a lot more independent developers because you can get a brand out there, create a game, introduce yourself to a community of players on a smaller budget with a more constrained game design, and really have that kind of dialogue you may not have if you're trying to operate in a bigger budget market. So in a way, the smaller size of the VR market allows developers like us to reach players we may not have in a bigger market."
Still, there have been suggestions that there is a chicken-and-egg problem. For VR to grow into a market big enough to justify those budgets, it first needs the support of all those big players, who can't support VR until the market is big enough to justify those budgets, and so on. Bulla rejects that idea.
"In my opinion, the only thing that's required is good content," he said. "And that can come from independent developers. We've seen that plenty of times. All the big developers at one point were small developers. They've just been around for a long time and have larger budgets... I absolutely think we as independent developers can continue to push it forward. And if Oculus does things with Insomniac and other companies and Sony is pushing out VR too, as long as they're supporting their hardware and supporting us as independent developers--which they have been--then I think we'll get there. But it's going to take time, and it's going to take everybody contributing in that way."
After all, that was more or less the plan when the Polyarc team went indie in the first place.
"From the start, we knew this was going to be a long road," Bulla said. "We didn't start Polyarc or begin production of Moss thinking that once we came out with our first game that the market would be full and ready to go. What we said was, 'Hey let's grow with this market. Let's create a character and an IP that can grow with the medium.' ... We do think Moss is a VR game first, and your relationship with [the game's protagonist] Quill is only as strong because it's in VR. We all believe that really strongly, so we're going to continue telling more stories with Quill, and we're going to continue doing it in VR."