Taking the Bait: How to survive the VR market
Tommy Palm shares takeaways from possibly the most popular VR game ever, and how retention can help VR studios endure the market's growing pains
Resolution Games believes it has the most popular VR game of all time in Bait. The free-to-play fishing game for Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream recently passed 2 million players, and in the absence of other developers touting larger numbers, the studio seems content to consider it the early holder of that title.
But speaking with GamesIndustry.biz recently, Resolution co-founder and CEO Tommy Palm wasn't touting that "most popular VR game" designation as something worthy of a victory lap. Indeed, some of Resolution's big takeaways from Bait involve not making future games the same way.
Palm left King in January of 2015 to form Resolution Games. He knew there would be a big need for content to show off Gear VR (which launched that November) in the device's early days, so he targeted a first quarter of 2016 release window for the studio's first big game.
"One of the early learnings we had as a company was that it was very tough for the team," Palm said. "They got recruited into the company at the same time we were building the title, and we had a pretty tight deadline."
"I definitely see very similar trends to what happened in mobile games, where people need to hunker down. As a business owner, you need good strategies in order to live long enough for the market to take off."
The problems of hiring a team as the game was being built were compounded by the game's format. It was difficult to properly iterate on the various parts of the game because they were all interdependent.
"After working professionally with games for about 20 years, the bigger the game gets, it just becomes exponentially more complex because you have so many parameters that are all tied together," Palm said. "So if you need to change something, the smaller the game is, the much easier it is to do that."
That lesson shaped the team's next major game, Wonderglade, which is a virtual theme park with a collection of minigames for players to enjoy. As a collection of smaller games, Palm said it was possible for the team to make smaller, quicker iterations and gain the crucial experience they needed working with VR while also producing a game in a short amount of time.
Another takeaway has come from the evolution of the hardware. The original Gear VR had no controller, just a button on the side of the headset that players would use to cast their rod. When the game came to Daydream with its three-degrees-of-freedom controller (and when Samsung released a similar controller for Gear VR), Palm said the game benefitted immeasurably. It underscored for him just how crucial developments in interface will be for mobile VR in the future. And as the owner of a mobile VR studio, there's only so much he can do to hasten that progress on the hardware front.
"I definitely see very similar trends to what happened in mobile games, where people need to hunker down," Palm said. "As a business owner, you need good strategies in order to live long enough for the market to take off. And I think it's a very good idea to be frugal with costs. There's always a balance between growing the team so you can make really high-quality games and at the same time being few enough that costs don't runaway and make it impossible for you to last long enough.
"I still don't know exactly when we'll have a viable consumer business place for games in VR, and the only way to get there is to continue releasing great product while keeping the costs low and being innovative on how to work with partners, surviving the stretch until then. I definitely think we will see some companies running out of venture capital, even really great companies that just didn't have the luck or the timing to sign deals and stay in business until the hardware is good enough to support a big enough consumer group."
Palm knows that VR hardware isn't where it needs to be yet. Besides falling short of some perhaps unrealistic forecasts last year, the high-end headsets are still too bulky and tethered, while the mobile ones could benefit from better interfaces, longer battery life, and less heat output. Eventually he believes the two forms will converge, but until then, he has a studio to keep viable without the benefit of perfect hardware.
"It's already hard to get players to put on their headset and play, and it doesn't become any easier getting them to enter a PIN code or make a purchase decision inside the game"
"On our end, Resolution is trying to invest in the software issue," Palm said. "A lot of our focus is to look at retention numbers and to make products that have a lot of stickiness to them."
All great games have great retention regardless of their business model, Palm said, but he admitted it's particularly tricky to pull off with a free-to-play game in the early days of mobile VR.
"It's already hard to get players to put on their headset and play, and it doesn't become any easier getting them to enter a PIN code or make a purchase decision inside the game," Palm said. "So it's been good for us to experiment with that."
One thing he can't do is look at Bait's retention numbers using the standards of success from traditional free-to-play mobile games.
"They are two very different platforms," Palm said. "With your mobile, you have it with you all the time and there are so many opportunities to play it just a little bit. So the retention numbers on mobile have the potential to be much higher. VR is played much more like a console game. The long-term retention is still very good, but the first-day retention is never going to be as high as a device you have in your pocket all the time."
So how is Resolution planning to improve retention? Making great games is obviously part of it, but in addition to that, the studio is putting an emphasis on social VR. That can be difficult in these early days when the audience isn't massive and there may be platform differences, but Palm is convinced it's the way forward. The studio has even taken some small steps in that direction already, like adding pass-and-play multiplayer to Wonderglade. As modest as that may sound, this strategy could be the key that ensures Resolution is still around when the rest of the pieces come together and mobile VR is ready for the big time; it's clearly giving Palm reason for optimism.
"When you enter a virtual world, it feels like you are really there, so being there with somebody else is an extremely powerful experience," Palm said. "All our prototypes and experiments really point to the conclusion that VR lives up to its full potential when you're there with friends, people you care about."