It's a busy holiday season for Fast Travel Games. Last month the VR-focused studio released The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets, and it's following that up next week with Budget Cuts 2: Mission Insolvency, a sequel co-developed with the original game's creators at Neat Corporation.
In the middle of what must be a hectic span, Fast Travel Games CEO Oskar Burman is still willing to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of the VR market, recognizing the significant progress it has made in recent years, as well as the places it still needs to improve.
"Looking at PSVR, it went from 2 million to a little over 4 million in a little over a year, so that's fast growth," Burman tells GamesIndustry.biz. "It's basically doubling in a little over a year and it's hard to find other parts of the games industry where you see that kind of growth. But at the same time, obviously that's from very low volume. And you have the Quest now doing really well."
Burman notes that Fast Travel's debut title, Apex Construct, debuted on PS4 in February of 2018. It was a launch title for Oculus Quest as well, and within four months the Quest release had become the best-selling version of the game.
"It's selling way faster than previous platforms, and I think that's promising," Burman says. "But we need to see continuation of that growth. We need to see more normal gamers, not just early adopters or people with very fat wallets. We need to see more gamers of all kinds in that space. Today I would bet that the majority is between 30 and 40 years old and they're male. It would be fantastic to see growth into different segments there."
"There haven't been that many compelling experiences [in VR], and very few big brands that people recognize"
Burman points to three big factors keeping VR limited to the early adopter audience. Two of them are price and ease-of-use, but both of those have been improving over time with the $399, all-in-one Quest representing a significant step forward for each.
"From a consumer point of view, you will feel like there are a lot of improvements being made," Burman says. "Like the way you're setting up an Oculus Quest now, it's so smooth the way you see the world in an AR-like view and you paint the area you want to play in on the floor. It's almost magical in a way. Comparing that to the way you'd usually set up your HTC Vives back in the day, it's such a change."
The third factor Burman points to is a bit trickier, as it's the games themselves.
"There haven't been that many compelling experiences, and very few big brands that people recognize," Burman says. "There have been some indie games that have taken off, but not that many brands people will recognize from the traditional game space."
There's some reason to believe the brands issue is changing, considering recent announcements by Valve and Electronic Arts that they are working on VR installments of Half-Life and Medal of Honor, respectively. Fast Travel doesn't have a Half-Life at its disposal, but it can still help tackle the compelling experiences part of the equation with its own games.
The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets is particularly interesting as it's also looking to push beyond the early adopters and into more family friendly territory than typical VR projects to date. Burman says the game was pitched internally as "Machinarium meets Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker in VR," a puzzle game where the player spins a diorama-like environment around to poke and prod at its various interactive bits and solve a mystery.
"[The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets] is a test for us to see if that [casual VR] audience is building up"
It's the kind of family friendly game that might not proliferate on consoles until late in their lifespan, when they've hit mass market price points and perhaps a new market of young players have received them as hand-me-downs from older siblings more interested in the latest and greatest tech. Considering the limited installed base of any kind of VR, Burman acknowledges it's "a valid concern" that there may not be a particularly large audience just yet for a title like The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets.
"This is a test for us to see if that audience is building up," Burman says. "One good thing with this is there are very few games like this available in VR, and we're hoping to catch adult players who like this graphical style... Our hope is that families will play this together, one in VR and the others watching a screen trying to help solve the puzzles together, basically."
In addition to Burman's three main challenges facing VR, there are a number of other wrinkles the industry still needs to tackle. For example, one of the ways VR has addressed those challenges is through new hardware releases that offer better VR experiences and simpler set-ups at a more reasonable price. That's great, but it does create fragmentation problems for developers looking to support a multitude of platforms and specs with their VR titles.
"It's a challenge, particularly for even smaller developers than us," Burman says. "We're 17 people here so at least we have the base foundation of a company. But if you're an indie with one or two people, it's hard with the fragmented platforms you have out there. Unity and Unreal make it easier to get out to many platforms, but you still need to adapt your games to support different controllers and specifications."
At the moment, Fast Travel's strategy is to build its games for Oculus Quest first, and then to adapt it for other headsets and controllers after the fact.
"We think stand-alone headsets are going to be the future, at least for the next 1-2 years," Burman says. "We think that's where we're going to see the most growth, so that's where we start. And then we make sure the game will scale up to the high-end PCs, adding graphical fidelity for those platforms. But from a controller perspective, it's harder. We build for the Quest controllers, and that means it's harder to adapt it for an Index because they have features that take more time for us to really use them in the best possible way."
"A lot of people picked up a cheap, weird thing you put your phone into, tried a pretty bad experience, and said, 'OK, this is VR and it's not for me.' ...that's something we as a VR industry are still fighting with"
Burman says the current refresh rate for VR hardware is about every second year, which he expects to continue for a few more years. It's also about as quick a pace as he's comfortable with.
"You really need to build games and master the platform before you see the best experiences for it," Burman says. "So I think the refresh rate is quite good as it is right now, but I can understand the challenge if you're a smaller developer. We spend quite a lot of time making sure games run really well on the different platforms, and even then we're not building for the three degrees of freedom [3DOF] mobile headsets."
Unfortunately, those 3DOF mobile headsets and other older options are what a lot of consumers associate with VR thanks to what Burman calls "the hype train that was 2016 and 2017."
"A lot of people picked up a cheap, weird thing you put your phone into, tried a pretty bad experience, and said, 'OK, this is VR and it's not for me,'" Burman says. "I think that's something we as a VR industry are still fighting with. It's a challenge to get people to re-evaluate and see what has happened in the space over those years."
That's compounded when people visit their local gaming stores and don't see a space carved out for VR.
"[VR] is pretty invisible in the local places where you buy games," Burman says. "You usually don't see it much there. I don't know if it's because they don't have the production ready to fill stores and are selling out on digital channels or what's going on, but at least here in Europe, it's very invisible."
Even so, Burman is optimistic about VR's prospects, and sees the bright side of the situation.
"Coming from a PC/mobile space myself, it's a challenge with a smaller market. But it's also nice because it's a niche with a very, very passionate audience actively looking for content and ready to spend on the right game. And there's not much competition. In a normal week in Steam land or mobile phone land, it's crazy how many games are launched. And when we launch Curious Tale, there are maybe two or three other VR games launching, but no more than that.
"It's a much bluer ocean in that sense, which is really refreshing in a way."