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VR early mover advantage already fading?

Brian Fetter on how Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes blew up and the inevitability of VR suffering the same problems as mobile app stores

It's hard to conceive of a game released in 2015 enjoying an early mover advantage on Steam, but Steel Crate Games did just that with its debut title, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. Speaking with recently, Steel Crate's Brian Fetter explained that while the game debuted on Gear VR in July last year, it was the VR-free follow-up release on Valve's platform that paid off.

"People have really responded positively to the non-VR version, but I think if we'd released a non-VR version first, I don't know if it would have gotten anywhere near the same traction," Fetter said. "A lot of the reason it got noticed so much was because of the VR aspect to it. It was an easy story for journalists to write, essentially, versus writing about every sort of neat concept that comes out of a game jam."

"It wasn't like a great media strategy that panned out. It was mostly just that we posted the video."

The jam Fetter referred to was the January 2014 Global Game Jam, where teams had 48 hours to cobble together a game inspired by the phrase, "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." Fetter and his teammates (fellow Steel Crate devs Ben Kane and Allen Pestaluky, as well as composer Liam Sauvé) had an Oculus Rift dev kit they wanted to use, and came up with a clever premise for a multiplayer game that would only require one user to have a VR headset. In Keep Talking, the player wearing the headset is in a room with a bomb. That poor soul then describes the bomb to the other players (who have an assortment of bomb defusal instructions at hand). Confusion usually follows, and players must keep their heads and communicate clearly if they want to keep the bomb from blowing up. After the game jam was over, Fetter posted a video to YouTube and to the Oculus forum on Reddit.

"We didn't really go engaging very many of the sites ourselves," Fetter said. "It wasn't like a great media strategy that panned out. It was mostly just that we posted the video."

The team was surprised and thrilled when the video reached 1,000 views. It was even more surprised a couple days after that when the clip topped 100,000. In retrospect, Fetter said they could have maybe pushed the video harder, but their promotional efforts weren't exactly sophisticated. As far as publicity goes, most of the team's efforts just revolved around taking the game to conferences and showing it off wherever they could.

"Early on I wasn't 100 percent sure that it was worth it," Fetter said of the costs associated with taking the game on the road. "But I think we all could see a lot of people excited about our game, so we'd just ride this wave. And because we went to those conferences, a lot of different opportunities presented themselves that wouldn't have otherwise."

For example, when the game was shown at PAX Prime, one attendee in particular spent a good chunk of the show just playing it as much as he could. He gave the team lots of beta feedback, but the real payoff came after the game had launched on Steam, when a video made by that diehard fan hit the front page of Reddit.

"[I]n terms of the dollar amount, it wasn't like we could just survive on [Gear VR sales] for that time frame."

"That video ended up generating far more traffic than most of our other efforts, and that's just one thing that came from going to a conference," Fetter said. "If you could sit down, look at the numbers and say, 'Well if I go to this conference and it will get us a video with million and a half views that will go to the top of Reddit,' then obviously the conference is worthwhile. But in a lot of cases, if you don't do any of these things, you can be pretty sure you're not going to succeed. But doing them doesn't necessarily guarantee anything, either."

Steel Crate's odds of getting attention were no doubt improved by virtue of the game's VR hook. Fetter said it was much easier to get visibility for the game (both during development and upon release) because there just weren't many other VR games fighting for people's attention. Unfortunately, that particular factor cuts both ways, as the game's sales figures on Gear VR showed.

"We always knew that the number of Gear VRs out there at that time was not going to be massive," Fetter said. "So as far as the actual number of people that picked it up out of [the installed base], it was pretty good. But in terms of the dollar amount, it wasn't like we could just survive on that for that time frame."

The Steam release of the non-VR version of the game no doubt helped, as will launches on the next wave of VR headsets arriving this year. Fetter's optimistic that the early mover advantage in VR remains.

"Fortunately it's still a situation where there aren't so many launch titles that things are going to get lost too easily," Fetter said. "There's a lot of great demo content, and a lot of cool content whipped together, but as far as fully released games, that's still pretty early days. There's a lot of visibility just being one of the games that's fully released when the headsets come out."

That said, the advantage is becoming less pronounced.

"There's always been a discoverability problem as [a new platform] moves beyond the niche or early movers. I think it's natural."

"In the Gear VR store, there's far more content than can fit on a single page," Fetter said. "So you're already starting to see an erosion of that really nice early mover advantage where there was no discoverability problem, where if someone goes onto the Oculus Store or Gear VR or something, your game shows up because every game shows up. Now we're a little past that, but not to the point where you're on the iOS App Store competing with hundreds of thousands of other apps and a tiny amount of visibility can be the difference between being successful and being unsuccessful."

Fetter isn't afraid of VR storefronts looking more like their mobile counterparts so much as he's resigned to it.

"In general, I think there's no real way to stop that," Fetter said. "We've seen that with every platform so far. There's always been a discoverability problem as it moves beyond the niche or early movers. I think it's natural. I do hope that as these communities get larger and the technology matures, the marketplace gets larger, that we see not only in the VR space but in all these content marketplaces, that better tools for discoverability keep coming up.

"There's going to be a period I think where VR app stores are going to suffer some of the same problems the mobile app stores do. There will be a lot of content, and it's going to be difficult to really promote it and get people who really want to see your content seeing it and knowing it's worth playing."

While the market is undoubtedly going to get tougher and the studio might have to work a little harder on promotion in the future, Fetter thinks Steel Crate is likely to keep plugging away on VR games in the future. After all, there's still one major early mover advantage working in their favor.

"I think there are a lot of great ideas we could do without VR, but it's much more difficult to find new, innovative things now that there are so many people exploring that space," Fetter said. "VR is still sort of untapped in that respect. If you can come up with an idea, you can be pretty sure no one else has done it before."

(Earlier this week, Steel Crate Games was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Debut Game. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is also a finalist for three categories at next week's IGF Awards, including the Seumas McNally Grand Prize.)

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.