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How to succeed in mobile VR

Oculus executive producer Rade Stojsavljevic offers advice to developers who want to enter the mobile VR ecosystem

Virtual reality is all the talk at GDC this year once again, but with 2016 in the rear-view mirror and many studios interested in VR but faced with the economic reality of the marketplace, the tone at this GDC is somewhat different. Now, developers want to know - can I make money in VR? When it comes to mobile VR like Samsung Gear or Google Daydream, the answer is, "Yes, if you're smart about it," according to Rade Stojsavljevic, executive producer at Oculus.

Stojsavljevic gave a talk at GDC today, presenting the room full of developers with insights into what makes a mobile VR game actually succeed. He began by offering an overview of the audience on mobile and what types of content they're seeking typically on the storefront. While games are a big part of the equation, surprisingly there are many non-interactive VR apps that get lots of attention from users. In fact, almost half (47%) of the audience Oculus has observed has wanted to use only non-interactive apps like video players, 360 images, travel-related apps or learning experiences like museum apps. "That's not something we can ignore as developers," Stojsavljevic said. "I think we'll see more people favoring interactive experiences as we do cooler things. The new controller for Gear should help as well."

On the interactive side of the mobile VR market, he said that aside from games a lot of users are drawn to social destination experiences, interactive educational things that, for example, could help a high school student learn about a period in history, or in-between experiences with minimal interactivity, like Face Your Fears or Ocean Rift.

So how can a mobile VR developer actually get ahead? To begin with, Stojsavljevic said it's important to understand when people are most frequently playing. As it turns out, time spent in VR is much higher Friday through Sunday, with the absolute peak usage occurring around 7PM local time on Saturday night. Generally, between 5PM and 8PM local time is when players are in VR the most, and so if you're doing events around your apps, you should time it around those days and times. As for how time is spent in Gear VR versus Oculus Rift, it's actually fairly even, Stojsavljevic said.

Once you've decided to get into the mobile VR ecosystem you need to focus on engagement and retention. Mobile VR users are typically in sessions about twice a week, but issues limiting session time or frequency need to be addressed. For example, if you're waiting for an app to update and you're staring at a progress bar in VR that's frustrating, or if your battery is draining too fast or your phone is overheating because VR can tax a mobile CPU and GPU, that's also a problem. As the technology continues to improve, these points will be dealt with, but it's something to be aware of.

It's also important for developers to understand how VR is being used. Many consumers want to show off VR for their friends and family, so making something that's easy to share and easy to spectate can make a big difference. Citing Face Your Fears from Turtle Rock Studios as an example, Stojsavljevic talked about how horror is the most popular genre for the medium, and by offering short content (3-5 minutes), high quality graphics, making it fun for spectators, and putting the game on the store for free (with in-app purchases for more scenes), the game became the fastest growing app for adoption and engagement. There were 1.1 million users in two months, and time spent per user was nearly 40 minutes.

While giving away the game for free seemed to help - and it's a trend for Oculus as the company is now giving away Robo Recall too - Stojsavljevic acknowledged that it may not be ideal for the average developer even if it's fine for a platform holder like Oculus. That being said, reducing the friction around downloads, in-app purchases, getting into the gameplay quickly can all be enormously helpful for retention. Oculus uses a 28-day metric, he said, so if you see a user coming back to your game 28 days after having downloaded it, that's a sign of health.

Multiplayer is another area that can lead to too much friction in the experience. If you're waiting in a queue just to get into a game, while the matchmaking algorithm searches for users, that can be a point where you lose a player. It's better to be aggressive and quick with matchmaking, he noted. Oculus recommends two-player synchronous, as opposed to something like a 16-player title. Asynchronous multiplayer can be a good solution as well.

Developers should also leverage what Stojsavljevic called "spectacle VR," meaning doing something highly engaging right off the bat to get players involved in the game. Another interesting find was around audio - they actually found that many players did not use headphones, and so they had to tweak the audio in Face Your Fears to better use the phone's speakers. As it turns out, that made the experience more interesting as well for any spectators watching a person playing mobile VR.

Stojsavljevic also pointed out that using push notifications wisely, sending them out on Friday for example while not spamming people much, can be very helpful. Spamming, he said, not only will hurt your game but it can hurt a number of apps and turn people away from the ecosystem as a whole. He also recommended listening and responding to the community. Just because you didn't engage players properly in the beginning doesn't mean those users are lost forever; if you look to fix your problems in your game you can get some of those users back. Community feedback can also be useful in dealing with price sensitivity and determining how to appropriately price your app. First time user experiences are very, very important, however, so by listening to players and observing the mobile VR market, you can hopefully get things right from the start.

Other helpful tidbits:

  • Through your descriptions, key art and video, what your game is should be easily understandable
  • Tournaments and events can provide a nice lift, and with mobile VR being untethered, competitive LAN gameplay is attractive
  • Offer bite-sized chunks with good difficulty progression
  • Make sure your game is immersive and creatively using VR; players don't want ports of 2D games, to be made nauseous, to read a lot of text, or things that don't utilize VR fully
  • You can leverage search terms in the storefront - some of the most searched for terms were Samsung, roller, coaster, video, free, Facebook, horror, and haunted

Ultimately, Stojsavljevic is optimistic about the state of mobile VR right now, noting that it reminds him of the earlier phases of iOS development before the 99-cent and F2P movement took over - when small, agile teams were fairly successful. If you plan appropriately, you can absolutely sustain a 2-3 person team in mobile VR now, he said. He also doesn't see mobile VR taking the freemium path because it generally doesn't fit the usage mechanics of VR.

As for what's next, he commented that eye-tracking technology in mobile VR could be a game changer because it would enable foveated rendering, and that in turn would allow game developers to do much, much more because the mobile CPU and GPU would be less burdened. It's hard to say, however, when that technology will get implemented on mobile devices.

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James Brightman avatar
James Brightman: James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.
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