For all the talk of the advanced technology behind upcoming virtual reality devices, there’s one video game truism that remains constant: Without good software, the hardware will never sell.
But because the hardware is still so new—and VR’s historical track record isn’t a great one—most major publishers, like Activision and Take-Two Interactive Software, are taking a wait and see approach to the technology. And that’s opening the doors for smaller game makers.
Leading the charge is Iceland’s CCP Games, whose currently-under-development EVE Valkyrie is considered a standard-bearer for VR games. The title, which is being made for the Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus, is a deep space dogfighting game designed from day one as a VR experience. (Also in the works is Gunjack, a similar, if graphically less impressive, title made for the Samsung Gear VR device.)
But even with anticipation for these games as high as it is, CCP says it’s not rushing to embrace VR development.
“We’re taking a cautionary view for the first three years,” says Hilmar Pétursson, CEO of CCP Games. “When you’re early to a market like this, it’s extremely common to overestimate what happens in the first 10 years and underestimate what happens in the next 10. … It’s hard to wind back the clock, but it’s much easier to fast forward.”
Put another way: The first three years after VR devices hit shelves are going to be the Wild West, he predicts. After that, the hype should begin to settle down, the technology will be better streamlined and developers will have a better grasp of how to create games for the systems. So, despite that fact that CCP has 40 people in three studios working on VR projects, it’s not ready to bet the farm just yet.
The 17-year-old company has ridden a few hype waves since its foundation. And it’s learned a lot about the economics of gaming. EVE Online, the company’s biggest hit to date, is a space-based massively multiplayer game that has grown to the point that CCP has an economist in-house who monitors the virtual world, working to curb inflation or introducing new types of technology to absorb currency. (In real world terms, that economist and his team are a virtual Federal Reserve, selling bonds to shrink the money supply.)
With that sort of economic thinking an everyday occurrence at the company, Pétursson says CCP has been studying different models as it decides how to sell its games, especially Valkyrie. While a final decision is still a little ways away, Pétursson says it’s a safe bet that the game will use some form of recurring revenue—but whether that’s utilizing downloadable content (like Call of Duty or many console games) or a monthly fee remains to be seen.
However, he says, many competing games will likely choose a different path.
“There will be lots of ‘pay once’ experiences, but those experiences will not be the key ones,” says Pétursson. “There’s only so much you can do under that business model. We generally want to build games as services that you enjoy for years.”
It’s also noteworthy that rather than focusing solely on the higher-end Oculus Rift, which lets the company flex its graphical muscles, CCP is also developing for the lower resolution Gear VR when many other VR developers are sticking with just one platform.
While the Rift has received more mainstream attention, the Gear VR will be the first with mainstream distribution. (It’s expected to be widely available by this holiday.) And at least one senior executive at Oculus says he thinks the mobile version of the technology could ultimately be much more lucrative and influential in the virtual reality movement.
“In the long run, mobile tech is going to be the dominant platform,” said John Carmack, CTO of Oculus, earlier this year at the Game Developers Conference. “The VR headset of our dreams doesn’t have wires. It’s probably going to be built more out of mobile tech. … We’re going to be surprised about how many people we don’t think would care about VR that pick it up.”
That raises the question: Who will those people be? Almost certainly, early adopters for VR will be the same general mold of customer who is an early adopter for any major technological advance. But beyond that, it remains a mystery.
And for CCP, that’s not a problem. Pétursson says it’s a fool’s mission at this point to make games with a specific customer in mind. Instead, he says, smart developers are focusing solely on the tech.
“What’s most important is to focus on the individual platform and its strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “We’re doing that rather than trying to guess who the audience is going to be. Because, right now, no one really knows what the VR audience is going to be.“
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