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Why this third-party game publisher is investing in virtual reality

Steven Spielberg plays Rabbids VR Ride at the Ubisoft booth at E3 2015Steven Spielberg plays Rabbids VR Ride at the Ubisoft booth at E3 2015
Steven Spielberg plays Rabbids VR Ride at the Ubisoft booth at E3 2015Casey Rodgers Invision for Ubisoft

While Sony and Oculus VR are investing heavily in virtual reality video games, both companies have VR hardware to support. The only major third-party game publisher committing to VR video games is Ubisoft.

Tony Key, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Ubisoft, says having a major third-party publisher putting resources behind these new platforms will help grow the market.

“We’re a creative company and we have resources to invest in VR and take advantage of it,” Key says. “We plowed into the Wii first and supported Microsoft Kinect. These are all different ways to make games.”

Ubisoft had multiple VR games playable at E3 2015, including a VR racing game based on its rollercoaster-style racing game franchise, Trackmania Turbo, as well as a Raving Rabbids theme park ride VR simulator. Key believes one advantage Ubisoft has, in addition to its clear head start on the competition, is its huge gaming brands that have sold hundreds of millions of copies globally.

“It’s easier to market brands because of familiarity with them and VR gives us an opportunity to create new experiences with them,” Key says. “I can definitely see us exploring some of our bigger brands with this technology like Assassin’s Creed or Tom Clancy that we can capitalize on.”

Ubisoft has three studios working on VR across the globe and sharing information as they experiment in this new medium. Nadeo, which is based in Paris, is developing the Trackmania title and the Raving Rabbids ride. Ubisoft Montreal is working on several prototypes focusing on control within VR and character interaction. And Red Storm Entertainment, located in Raleigh, N.C., has spent the past two years developing social VR experiences.

David Votypka, senior creative director at Red Storm Entertainment, has been working in VR since he was 19. His team is focused on exploring how multiple players in VR can interact and “play” within a virtual environment with voice and body movement.

“The hardware guys like Sony, Oculus, and Valve are bringing great VR technology to market for the first time ever and now the onus is on the software developers to build killer VR experiences that will have a strong uptake with consumers,” Votypka says. “We need to take a player’s physical senses and build unique gameplay experiences around them within virtual worlds.”

Key believes there are opportunities for Ubisoft in VR beyond gaming. He explains how players could explore a virtual Notre Dame Cathedral from 300 years ago, which developers spent hundreds of thousands of hours building for Assassin’s Creed Unity, as tourists in VR. Gaming assets could be coupled with “social presence” for non-gaming VR applications.

“We’re trying to not think about today’s game genres in VR because we’re going to see new genres created due to the way the platform works,” Key says. “We’re going to see completely new experiences, rather than just enhancements to genres players already know. The VR killer app will be something completely different.”

Key says early VR games like CCP Games’ space shooter EVE: Valkyrie and Ubisoft’s Trackmania Turbo work because players can look around and see spaceships coming from all directions or check on the position of upcoming cars on the track. But Red Storm is experimenting with brand new game genres that are being built around the movement of players’ torsos and arms within the virtual space.

Votypka believes the future of VR looks bright, as PC and headset prices will continue to go down while technology improves, and today’s early experiments evolve into new gaming and interactive experiences for a new generation of gamers. And right now, Ubisoft is at the forefront of this evolution.