Given how much free-to-play games depend on a small portion of players to provide the bulk of revenues, the business model practically requires truly massive player bases. And given how new hardware is building those bases from scratch, the free-to-play business model doesn't seem like a natural fit for early adopter technologies.
Despite that, Resolution Games' first two virtual reality projects--last year's Solitaire Jester and last month's fishing game Bait!--have been free and free-to-play, respectively. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at the Game Developers Conference last month, company CEO Tommy Palm acknowledged the studio's dedication to free-to-play on Gear VR doesn't make much sense for the market that exists today.
"Right now I think people can do premium sales. They can sell something for $9.99 and get away with it."
"The install base is not at the point yet where you could sustain yourself as a developer on that model unless you had a very hardcore audience and could monetize that very heavily. That's not what we're trying to do right now," Palm said, adding, "We have investors behind us that believe in VR as a long-term thing. We want to get in early and start learning about this market, to come in while it's kind of a blank page but have opportunities to home in on our target."
Palm added, "[Free-to-play VR] will probably become more common later on. Right now I think people can do premium sales. They can sell something for $9.99 and get away with it. And it's much simpler from a development point of view, so I definitely see why a lot of developers would do that instead."
Resolution clearly isn't the only company expecting great things from the future of VR. Coming as it did just weeks before the launch of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets, GDC was awash in virtual reality hype, with talks at the dedicated VRDC track crammed so full that organizers moved them to a larger auditorium for the show's second day. Even amidst all that buzz, Palm was bracing for a potential backlash.
"I would say we're going to see a lot of negative press [about VR] in 2016 and probably early 2017 as well."
"I think that very often happens," Palm said. "You have this classical curve where this year, everybody thinks that VR will happen very quickly. Then we're going to see the numbers and they'll be rather modest in the beginning. Then the media's probably going to go, 'Ah, VR didn't happen this time, either.' But at this point, I'm very convinced we have the hardware there already to make great games experiences, so it's just a matter of time before we start to see the user numbers and the monetization behind it. But yeah, I would say we're going to see a lot of negative press in 2016 and probably early 2017 as well.
"I mean, we have a lot of hardcore gamers such as myself waiting and dreaming about this moment happening ever since the '80s. We've seen movies like Tron and The Matrix and what have you. The VR games we can do at this point don't look like that. We're going to get there, but it's going to take a while."
It's also going to take good games. Palm has already gone on record saying that VR needs great content to sell the headsets, so what does he think of the VR games already out there?
"I've seen more space shooters and more traditional game titles so far. But for me, working in mobile games, one of the big insights that was so refreshing to see, that everybody can enjoy games once they're made to be more inclusive and not excluding a large part of the Earth's population. And that's often due to rather small choices. It's very common that you only have a male character you can play, for instance."
He added, "I would love to see something like Wii Sports. That was a great door opener. When we look at our selection, we want to make sure if somebody has a headset at home and want to show their friends and family what VR is, we want them to think about our games. And that's something Nintendo has been fantastic at doing with their stuff."
"In order to go into a VR session, you're going to have to sit down and be prepared to do this for a while. In that sense, it's more similar to the console game experience..."
Bait! offers a few examples of how Resolution is following that approach. Palm noted that it's non-violent, and it's a very low risk for motion sickness because the player is stationary and the camera doesn't really move around. On top of that, its one-button controls were designed to be easy to learn. But even though that sounds like the sort of mass appeal approach that served Palm very well when he was at Candy Crush maker King, he knows that mobile VR may have more in common with console and PC games than traditional mobile titles.
"With VR, I think it's slightly different because with your mobile phone, it's something you're very casual about," Palm said. "You take it out, want to play something quickly and you don't put tons of time into researching what you're going to play next. With VR, there is more activation energy required. In order to go into a VR session, you're going to have to sit down and be prepared to do this for a while. In that sense, it's more similar to the console game experience, and that might also indicate that people are going to play fewer games, but be more engaged."
That said, mobile VR will benefit greatly from at least one commonality with traditional mobile games: utterly indispensable hardware.
"The strongest thing for mobile VR is the fact that you have made an investment in your quite expensive phone for another reason, and gaming is just an extension of that," Palm said. "If your phone breaks, you go and have it fixed immediately because it's a multi-purpose device. If you have hardware dedicated to gaming, you have to be a hardcore gamer in order to do that."