Virtual Reality Bites
Tammeka's Sam Watts on dealing with the delays and uncertainty of VR development
There's a lot of good will and optimism around VR at the moment, tempered by a few voices of caution. To many, it's still a 'magic' technology, a thing of science fiction, a palpable jump in hardware which will create entirely new experiences. These are the early adopters, the Kickstarter backers, the evangelists. These are the believers.
But it's one thing to pay a few hundred dollars upfront for an untested dev kit, quite another to dedicate a development budget to it. Head mounted displays have certainly captured the imagination of gamers and developers alike, but we're yet to see a big studio commit and take the plunge - so far, it's the smaller, more agile outfits which are backing the Rift and Morpheus - and with every delay to the technology's commercial release, that job gets a little more difficult.
Tammeka is one such studio. A Brighton-based team of five, Tammeka is currently working on Radial-G Racing Revolved, a futuristic racer which draws on the developer's previous experience in VR to create an immediate and fast-paced experience without any accompanying disorientation or dizziness.
Radial-G has been through Kickstarter and Early Access. Tammeka has been on board with Rift since 2013, is "now negotiating to get our PS4 Morpheus dev kit" and has just signed up with Razer's OSVR platform standards. It's formed of developers who left big studios and other industries, looking for something different, something more interesting. If you wanted a case study in the effects of the funding, publishing and tech evolutions which the industry has experienced over the last few years, there are a lot of worse places to start looking.
"I used to work at NCSoft," producer Sam Watts explains to me as he introduces his team. "Geoff used to work at Black Rock, so he's got the racing pedigree to bring to the design and the track layouts, scenery knowledge etc. The rest of the team has been working with military simulation VR tech for around 20 plus years, combined. One of the ways that we've managed to make something that's so buttery smooth and doesn't make people feel ill is by having people working on it who are used to making products for the pickiest of clients - the Ministry of Defence.
"We operate as an indie studio - Tammeka is purely for VR gaming," Watts explains. "It was set up last year as a start-up VR gaming company, then by Steam Greenlight, Kickstarter and low-level investment we've got to this stage. Sales and our own enthusiasm will see us through to the end. We've always been very open with our community about what we can and can't afford to do - we have plans A,B,C,D,E and F in place to make sure the game gets made."
Sales have been good via Early Access, Watts tells me - Radial-G is building an engaged and enthusiastic community of early adopters. Nonetheless, he's itching to get it in front of the masses.
"There's a fair bit of bad will around Steam Early Access," he says with a little sadness. "Rust is now not going to be ready until at least 2016, Day-Z is on/off broken. We don't want to be on Early Access for too long. We want to continue to build up a fanbase and then have the finished product ready to go as a launch title when commercial VR is released."
"They were much more open last year, before they got bought by Facebook. They've obviously got their own studios now and they're concentrating on their own content and demos for Crescent Bay"
And there's the rub - the commercial release. When you're tied to a platform like this, one which has seen multiple delays and false starts, there must be a little frustration. After all, early adopters are a great start, but just don't provide the market to run a fully-fledged studio.
"We work quite closely with Oculus - they send us preview SDKs and stuff like that," says Watts. "They were much more open last year, before they got bought by Facebook. They've obviously got their own studios now and they're concentrating on their own content and demos for Crescent Bay.
"We got DK1s in the first batch from Kickstarter and we knew immediately that we could do something with it in simulation and more serious uses, but at the same time we saw how it could change gaming. Bear in mind that this is the back end of 2013 when we were formulating the ideas. At that point we were expecting the commercial release of Oculus by the end of last year. As our development has pressed on, that release date has become less and less certain.
"But...We had to make that choice. To make the game work properly in VR we had to design it from the ground up, we didn't want to build something then just tack it on at the end."
to be fair, it's always a risk, spearheading a new tech as potentially disruptive as VR. Small addressable markets, customer uncertainty, investor wariness. But with HMDs, there's an entirely different issue - it's almost impossible to communicate the experience to someone who's never tried it. It's the perfume problem - how do you market something which falls outside the realms of easily transferable experience? For Tammeka, a company set up specifically to develop for virtual reality platforms, it meant going back to tried and tested channels.
"It's been quite hard," admits Watts. "We realised quite quickly that when people see the dual channel screenshots of Oculus content, if they're not interested in VR and don't have a headset, they sort of switch off straight away, you've lost their attention. That's why we're trying to concentrate more on the 2D side for now, so we can get something out and on PSN & XBL. All of our current development is about improving the 2D experience and getting that finished - the VR stuff is just bubbling along. Then once we have a definitive date from Sony or Oculus, the goalposts will be set and we can get on with it.
"All of our marketing and PR is now just concentrating on standard screenshots - we've nailed the VR side, we have that community behind us so we don't need to push that much more at the moment - we just need to build up our reach with the 'normal' gamers that are just looking for an arcade sci-fi racer."
As a pioneer, backing a new platform and helping to populate its catalogue for launch, you might expect a bit of support. Perhaps some help with marketing, or a push towards the existing install base, however small. Watts says he yet to see much of that sort of backing.
"Palmer made it slightly awkward because he described it as 'totally sick'," he says with a smile. "He meant cool, in a young Californian way, but we were trying to get away from the motion sickness thing"
"We've had various discussions with Oculus," he tells me. "At the moment they're not being overly helpful. When we launched on Early Access, they told us they'd give us one retweet, whereas Unity are very happy to help us, they do it every Friday with Made With Unity. We've connected with Palmer - he checks in every couple of months to see how things are going. Both he and Shuhei backed and promoted us during the Kickstarter.
"Palmer made it slightly awkward because he described it as 'totally sick'," he says with a smile. "He meant cool, in a young Californian way, but we were trying to get away from the motion sickness thing...Indie is a very large and indescribable sector that can mean many things. People say we're AAA VR developers, but we're indie. Our setup, pedigree and background and the amount of time and effort and money we can put into it is more AA. We're applying AAA processes but without the politics and bullshit, but also without all the money to spend on PR and marketing."
The delays are understandable. Last time VR tried to break into the consumer market, it wasn't ready and it took 25 years to try again. The tech has to be good enough, cheap enough, fresh enough yet still comfortably familiar. These are not small companies playing with toys - Facebook has $2bn riding on the sector gaining traction. It has to be right. Even still, every delay in getting to market, even if it means that market is in a better state when you get there, costs a small team dear. Does Watts think that the slipping street date is causing damage?
"In the short-term, the delays are hurting the early-adopter developers," he tells me. "Although 100,000+ Oculus DK2 HMDs have been sold, the majority of these have been to developers rather than any form of gaming, mass market user - it is a dev kit after all. This means that whilst the potential market for sales of games is growing, the percentage of devs actually buying games is still very small in comparison. There are a couple of AAA games that have done well with DK2 support, like Elite: Dangerous, but these are designed with "normal" standard monitor users in mind first and foremost with VR as an alternative option. Plus of course, they have much larger teams and budgets available to see them through until a commercial VR product launch.
"The near month-long delay to the release of the DK2 shipping meant that we didn't get the numbers needed to hit our funding target. This, coupled with much lower initial shipping numbers than expected, really hurt us"
"We have seen the impact directly on Radial-G Racing Revolved and our own successes; with the Kickstarter, we planned the dates around the known release dates of the Oculus DK2 in order to boost and maximum our chances of having users with kits available to try out the demo before backing. The near month-long delay to the release of the DK2 shipping (which was expected early-July, ended up being end of July, a week before the end of our Kickstarter) meant that we didn't get the numbers needed and the faces in the races to hit our funding target. This, coupled with much lower initial shipping numbers than expected, really hurt us. However, it all worked out better for us after the Kickstarter when we passed Steam Greenlight and managed to secure a small amount of funding to allow us to get onto and beyond Steam Early Access release.
"Realistically though, mirroring the words of Palmer Luckey and Oculus VR, it would be far more damaging to rush to release a product that wasn't ready and cause another failed attempt to launch VR into the mainstream. So for this very reason, we have to be zen and Valve-like and accept it will be ready when it's ready. We are fortunate in that we have our "NOculus" mode, i.e. the game can be played without a VR headset and is just as much fun to appeal to the core arcade gamers and build up our playerbase that way until VR is ready to go commercial."
Patience is a very healthy attitude for anyone in Watts' position, and Tammeka's agility and experience has given it the wherewithal to pivot and find a new outlet when delays and other unexpected obstacles have arrived. Pioneering has always been better suited to smaller teams, but it's also inherently more risky for them. Sam's team has been able to accommodate the changes of pace and direction so far, but a collapse of the sector would be disastrous. Is there a feeling that gaming's big players are letting the little guys bear the brunt of the risk, or does that just present a wider opportunity? Again, Watts is philosophical.
"it would be far more damaging to rush to release a product that wasn't ready and cause another failed attempt to launch VR into the mainstream"
"We are aware of a few AAA publishers seemingly trying to out-do each other over the number of millions of units that have to be sold before they will jump aboard the VR train...but I would be very surprised if they don't have a small team internally somewhere carrying out some R&D into the technology - what works and what doesn't. If they aren't, then they need to be, because VR game development turns a lot of what you already know on its head in terms of creating comfortable, enjoyable experiences. They won't be able to just shoehorn VR support into existing genres and titles without severe repercussions, backlash and ridicule from the experienced VR development community and pro-VR press. If they do, this will further hurt the mass market adoption rate and chances of overall success for VR in gaming."
"The VR development community is currently very open and friendly, with lots of knowledge sharing, support and assistance on projects. Indie developers are in the key position to make the largest VR land grab because they have spent the last two years - or longer in our case - refining the experiences, learning what to avoid, optimising games and demos as each new SDK becomes available. Tied into that, indies are more willing to take the risk with a new IP or genres or game mechanics, all of which VR needs to succeed, whereas the AAA developers and publishers are typically completely the opposite to that, looking to rehash and release the same old tired tropes every year. The indies are ready but can only succeed with the hardware in public hands and homes. Over to you Oculus, Sony, Razer et al."