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No half-measures in VR

Namazu studio head Patrick Twohig says studio's decision to make Nebulous work with and without VR hurt both versions of the game

Last year, San Diego-based Namazu Studios released Nebulous, a multiplatform physics-based puzzle game that works with standard screens as well as virtual reality headsets. Speaking with last month, Namazu studio head Patrick Twohig said the game hasn't performed as hoped, at least commercially.

"It's done OK," Twohig said. "It's not moved as many copies as we wanted, but it's gotten pretty good reviews. People who play it seem to like it."

Without getting into a full postmortem on the game, Twohig readily identifies the early decision to make the game for both VR and standard platforms as a mistake.

"If you're going to do VR, you really need to be committed to the principles and committed to the concept"

"When we started early on, the feedback we immediately got when we would show the game to publishers was they would say, 'It's great but we don't know how VR is going to do, if it's going to be a flop.' A lot of people were saying, 'Can you support both?' And in a way, that sort of guided our creative decisions," Twohig said. "We came to the realization later that you really need to stick to your guns creatively. You need to stick to the vision. We were given what felt like a lot of conventional wisdom. 'Try and hedge your bets because the platform may flop and then you've got nothing.' But I feel if you're going to do VR, you really need to be committed to the principles and committed to the concept.""

He added, "VR is a totally different animal. In a lot of ways, it's its own platform. You have to treat it like it's a different console or a completely different modality of play."

Twohig described the result of trying to do both modes of play as "coding to the lowest common denominator." When the ordinary problems of development would pop up, Namazu often found solutions that would work well for traditional gameplay, but fell apart in VR, or vice-versa. For example, the game takes place on a series of playfields arranged around the player's viewpoint. In VR, it's simple enough for the player to switch playfields by looking in the appropriate direction, but there were some issues for those using keyboards or controllers. The developers settled on a requirement to manually switch between the playfields, but it wasn't as elegant a solution and felt more jarring to players.

In some cases, the decision to make Nebulous work with or without VR wound up hurting both versions of the game. Twohig pointed to the game's visuals, saying the developers needed to create two different art sets: one that would run at 60 frames per second in VR to minimize discomfort, and one with a bit more flash and sizzle for standard players. If the studio had focused on just one version or the other, Twohig believes it could have produced a more impressive version of the game for standard platforms, or a better tuned experience for VR gamers.

Twohig likened it to the way developers initially treated mobile games.

"There might be some crossover between web and mobile, certainly," Twohig said. "And there might be some crossover between console and mobile. But if you're trying to make a console game on mobile or vice-versa, you're fundamentally making different games. There will be a lot of work that goes into adapting that, and sometimes things don't translate well. I think VR is very much the same way. Taking away from one experience to try and cater to both is where I think the stumbling is."

His experience with Nebulous aside, Twohig said he's still a big fan of VR, and would be willing to make another game using the tech. Just don't expect it to appear on non-VR platforms as well.

"It could be possible to release a dual-mode game, but certainly not on what an indie studio can afford to do, and afford to do well," Twohig said. "I'm sure there's a game out there that could work, but as far as indie studios go, your best bet is to pick the platform and the modality of the game you want, then go forward with that."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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