Wobbly Duck Studios founder Eric Nevala (@slayemin is his profile here on GameDev.net) has been documenting the development and Steam release of Spellbound through his devblog here on at slayemin's Journal.
We caught up with Eric to discuss his background, challenges as an indie developer in the emerging Virtual Reality market, and thoughts on the future of VR. Read on for the interview, loaded with interesting design thoughts, tips, and more.
Who are you?
I've been programming for 17 years now, which is hard for me to believe. In the fall of 2000, I went to community college to take more programming courses and eventually get a CS degree. I was also running a small side business building webpages for companies, so I taught myself HTML, PHP, MySQL, etc.
About six months into college, I joined the US Marines as a reservist and entered into bootcamp in June 2001. I graduated bootcamp on Sept 21st, 2001, exactly ten days after 9/11/2001. Our country declared war on Afghanistan right as I was getting out. In 2003, America declared war on Iraq as well. The question of whether I'd go to war or not became a question of "when?".
I decided that if I'm going to go to war, I'd do it under my own conditions, so I volunteered to join the 3rd Civil Affairs group and be their webmaster in Fallujah, Iraq. I used my programming and website background to build a web based application which managed a little over a billion dollars in reconstruction projects in Al Anbar province. I felt pressured to work hard and fast because I sincerely believed that every wasted day was another day without peace and more people die the longer I take. It took me 3 months of working 7 days a week, roughly 16 hours a day. I got it done. It was 20,000 lines of code. At the time, that was a lifetime accomplishment. It was my first time working as a "professional" developer, and the software development experience put into perspective the lessons I had learned in classes.
For the next few years, I bounced between going to war and returning to the classroom. I kept on forgetting my pre-calculus and calculus maths, so I had to keep retaking those classes. It took me eight years to get a four year degree. After I got my degree in computer science, I became a contractor working for the US Military. I went to Afghanistan as a Sr. Software Developer working out of the Army headquarters in Bagram. I spent 18 months there and saved all of the money I had made.
What is your background in game development?
After my tour ended, I decided it was finally time to change focus and make games. Finally! I had spent years going to school, getting experience, and trying and failing to make games on my own. I really loved XNA at the time, so I decided I would make a game which combined Magic: the Gathering with Total War.
I already knew the scope was ambitious, so I had to take it in small chunks. XNA is just a thin abstraction layer on top of DirectX9, so there wasn't much in terms of a useful library. I got carried away and ended up creating my own game engine from scratch. This was a mistake and I knew it, but I was having fun.
I spent the next year working on my game engine, until I realized that my engine was too shoddy to be used to ship a commercial product. It was severely lacking in capabilities, so if I wanted to add a new capability such as rendering text in 3D space, I'd have to write my own text rendering engine. That would take weeks, compared to spending two minutes just reading up the documentation within an existing engine. Thus, it was decided: I would use a third party game engine.
I decided to port my magic game from XNA to Unreal Engine 4, and I made some pretty rapid progress. I really loved Unreal Engine 4 because the source code to the engine was available for me to read and modify as I saw fit, so if there was any questions on what was happening underneath the hood, I could just step through the source code line by line and see for myself. Writing my own engine turned out to be enormously helpful in being comfortable and understanding the low level code within Unreal Engine.
What project(s) have you been working on?
So, the magic game project was going well for a year, and then I started hearing about Virtual Reality. There was this little company called Oculus which had been working on a really rough prototype of a VR head mounted display. I initially disregarded it because it seemed like a tinkerers project rather than anything commercially viable. And then, Facebook bought out Oculus for $2 billion. That got my attention. Nobody spends $2 billion on a tinkerers project and lets it die, they are going to make sure that their investment succeeds. I immediately bought the Oculus DK2 (developer kit 2) and a Leap Motion device. This eventually turned into my first commercially released game, Spellbound.
How did you become interested in game development?
I became interested in game development about 20 years ago. I was playing Commander Keen 1, and one summer afternoon it dawned on me that someone had actually made this game and designed this cute little green alien. Someone had taken the time to design this game and all of the fun things I loved about it. I wondered if I could eventually create a game as well.
What would it take? Whatever it took, I would try. If I have to take the same math class over and over again until I get it, I will. If I have to go to war and get shot at, I will. If I have to work long, hard hours and sacrifice everything, I will. I gradually discovered that I would have to become a programmer to be able to create games, so that became my life mission. I spent my high school years taking as many programming classes as I could so that I could learn how to make games, and between classes and over summer vacation, I had my own side projects to make games.
Honestly, nothing makes me happier than drinking coffee, turning up the music, and working hard on a good coding problem which comes attached with a higher purpose.
What resources have you used to learn, connect, and become a better developer?
I started learning game development in the mid 1990's and started visiting GameDev.net when I was in high school. Being in the presence of professionals helped mature my thinking. Most of my learning has come from working on my own programming projects and trying to figure out how to solve my problems.
In terms of connecting with other developers, I usually go to a few meetups here in Seattle and have become friends with other indie developers, and we have each given lectures and workshops to each other on gamedev best practices.
I think one of the best ways I have gradually gotten better as a developer is to periodically take a half hour and critically think about what I did and how I could have done things better. Constructive critical self reflection is necessary to personal growth.
What tools do you use in development?
- Visual Studio 2015 community edition
- Unreal Engine 4
- Adobe Photoshop
- Maya 2015
- Oculus Rift + Oculus Touch
- HTC Vive
- Leap Motion
- A small dry erase white board
- A notebook and pen for scribbling
What was your inspiration for Spellbound?
I had originally been working on a "Total War + Magic the Gathering" game for traditional PC gaming. It was going to be a bunch of epic magic battles between mages, competing for control over the world. I had the game designed and the prototype worked great, and the game was interesting.
Then, Oculus got bought out by Facebook. I went to a meetup and tried out VR for the first time, and it was a really short demo of Technolust, where you basically stand in a space ship room and a future punk character sits in a chair, following you with her head. I thought to myself, "This demo is terrible but this VR stuff is amazing -- I bet I could do way better." I took that bet.
A week later, I ordered an Oculus Rift DK2 and a Leap Motion for $500. I had read about someone who spent a weekend creating a project where he used the leap motion and VR to throw fireballs at crates and barrels. I couldn't find it online, so I said, "Hey, if this guy can make this in a weekend, then so can I!" So, I did.
And then what happened?
One of the problems with this game design is that throwing fireballs at crates and barrels is inherently boring. I needed something more exciting, something that progressively punished you for missing. What is scary, moves slowly, and becomes an increasing threat as it gets closer to you? The only answer I could come up with was "Zombies". So, within a weekend, I had taken some of the assets from my other magic game and made a game where you used your hands to throw fireballs at zombies.
It was kind of cool. A really solid, first prototype for a VR game. The following Monday, I showed my artist the game and he said that he wished I would have included him on the project because it was fun and cool. I said that it wasn't too late. We could spend the next two weeks polishing it up and then releasing it online for free in order to collect feedback and learn from customers. I reasoned that if it took me a weekend to build, then two weeks of hard work should be more than sufficient, right?
Wrong. Polish is hard, especially if you want to do it right. Polishing a prototype means you really have to redo everything. Two weeks turned into two months. Two months turned into six months. Six months turned into two years. But it always felt like the end was just around the corner. I had some tough narrative design problems to resolve:
- Who is the red wizard?
- Why are there zombies trying to eat the red wizard?
- What happened?
- Where did the zombies come from?
- What happens to the red wizard after he kills all of the zombies?
- What happens if the zombies get the wizard?
- Are there other types of wizards?
- What about other types of monsters?
- Are there other types of spells?
- What are they, and how do they work?
Were your problems limited to design? Were there technical challenges?
On the technical side, we had some problems with Leap Motion hand tracking and artificial locomotion as well. When people throw stuff, they bring their hands back behind their head and that causes a loss of hand tracking.
A little while later, Valve announced the HTC Vive. Only the exclusive club of VR developers could work with one, and sadly, I wasn't in that club. So, I had to sit and wait for 9 months.
Finally in December 2014, Valve was kind enough to send me a Vive Pre, so I switched my game from a seated VR experience to a room scale experience. That compounded all of my VR design problems. Suddenly, the player could walk around in the room and the wizard character would match their movements.
What happens if the player walks through a solid object in game? What happens if the player walks through the wall at the top of the wizards tower? The wizard clips through the geometry and falls, and the falling causes motion sickness. Obviously, this is very bad and had to be solved.
The other major design problem was artificial locomotion. A player may have a 2.5mx2.5m play area, but the game world may be kilometers in size. How does the player move from one end of the level to the other without leaving their physical play area?
I also had a game where the threat of being surrounded by zombies needed to be a very real threat, so the common industry standard of teleporting out of danger was a lazy, terrible, immersion breaking solution. I just couldn't do it and needed something better. But what would work?
I was walking to work, thinking hard about the locomotion problem, and then I realized that my arms move side to side when I walk. What if, I could use something like this as the means for locomotion within VR? It would feel natural and wouldn't break immersion. A month later, I had invented my own unique locomotion system and then went public with it (to avoid letting patent trolls take it). I called it "walk-a-motion", but later, people called it "arm swing" locomotion.
What can you say about Spellbound's story?
Spellbound borrows a bit from the previous magic game I had been working on. I was a huge fan of M:tG, so I decided to roughly theme my magic systems off of it. I was also a fan of Magicka, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Skyrim, and a few other games with magic, so I borrowed some ideas and themes from them. I was also a fan of the Harry Potter universe, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and many Disney stories.
What common thread makes those stories work? Why are they so compelling? My hunch is that the stories in each universe hint at greater, amazing secrets, just begging to be discovered by the protagonist, and if only the audience waits just a little more, the protagonist might find this amazing thing, whatever it is, and it'll be amazing.
The essential ingredient shared between all of these great stories is narrative curiosity. So, the goal with creating the narrative for Spellbound is to evoke those same feelings of awe and mystery, and create that sense of narrative curiosity, sprinkled with danger and reward. At the same time, I don't want to just entertain players, I want to educate them and make them into better human beings, so the stories will all contain moral components which let people explore moral choices safely and learn about consequences and how they affect other people.
Lastly, I aim for heart warming tales of passion. If at the end of Spellbound you didn't feel a single emotion, either I failed to do my job or you're dead.
In terms of narrative structure and story telling, I felt that the only way I could get away with an immersive VR story is to have a meta layer. I was heavily inspired by "The Princess Bride" and the narrative mechanic they used for introducing the story. I decided I would go roughly the same route.
So, the audience starts off in a dusty library in some castle with a bunch of books on a shelf. They pick a book, and the book magically floats down and opens, and the narrator starts reading the story. This is sort of like an establishing shot in film, where we introduce the narrator, the character, the setting, and most importantly, the context for the experience. You enter into the story universe, and find yourself controlling the protagonist. Now, you are directing the story.
Since the narrator was introduced earlier, it doesn't seem weird to hear his voice telling the story as you go along. The player can still get eaten by zombies or die in some gruesome way, so when that happens, we have to restore from a checkpoint.
But for that to make narrative sense, the narrator says, "And the wizard was devoured by zombies! ... But that's not what really happened ... let's turn back a few pages!", so we maintain narrative continuity and immersion by briefly returning to a meta layer without interrupting the VR experience of immersion. This is the format I'm going to use for all of the VR stories I use, and later on when I introduce multiplayer elements to the game, the multiplayer match making will happen within the castle auditorium outside of the library.
As an indie in VR, what business challenges have you faced with Spellbound?
Spellbound has had TONS of challenges, both on the business side and on the technical side.
The biggest business challenge is the lack of funding. I spent all of my personal savings to develop the game, ran out of money, had to lay off my artist, and somehow continue production and find a way to pay bills without any income. I tried pitching to investors, and failed miserably.
When you stop and think about it, it makes no sense to an investor: I'm an independent developer. I have no team. I have no experience shipping games. It's a game, which generally has a high rate of failure. Not only that, but it's also a virtual reality game. Most investors don't even know what virtual reality is. I barely know how to pitch or how to play the investment game. So, there is no investor money.
Kickstarter is also a waste of time, especially in 2017. You have to spend 3 months preparing your copy, creating media and art, coming up with backer rewards, etc. Then during the campaign, you spend a month of full time work just running the campaign, trying to get press and media attention, spamming social media, answering backer questions, etc. Kickstarter is also an all-or-nothing campaign, so if you're a dollar short, you get nothing and you wasted four months. If you're cursed with success, then you are now committed to weekly or monthly updates to your backers, and you have to fulfill backer rewards, which eat into the raised funds.
On top of that, the expectations from the gaming community on what it costs to actually produce a game are wildly off from reality. If you think it costs $60,000 to produce a video game, you should consider multiplying that number by ten or a hundred.
I released Spellbound on Steam in Early Access exactly a year ago. I didn't do any marketing (couldn't afford it), so the only customers I have, happened to just stumble on it. It's an early access title, so it's certainly incomplete, but I tried polishing the existing game play as much as possible so that people would get a clear idea on what to expect with the rest of the game play. As a result of these conditions, sales were terrible but reviews and feedback was highly favorable.
Just to set the expectation here, in 2017 almost nobody in the VR industry can sustainably live off of sales revenue alone. I expect sales to be weak for the next three years, so in order for me (and anyone else) to continue working and throwing money at the VR industry, we need to have faith and believe in a brighter future.
I couldn't do what I'm doing right now without the financial and moral support of my girlfriend and our side businesses. We were both renting out our apartments on AirBnB, often having to sleep at a friends house, and also watching dogs from Rover. We once had something like 25 dogs in our apartment during a major holiday.
We gradually increased the number of accommodations we rented out on AirBnB, upgraded to a 60 acre farm next to a river that floods, and then upgraded to a 240 acre ranch near a national park. That means we're also in the tourism and hospitality business, so our revenues from that business is very feast and famine, depending on the time of year. I have only had to worry about paying for office rent and buying lunch, so the revenue from game sales has barely been enough to pay for that.
In the most recent months, I've been doing contract and freelance work, creating VR products for various small and large companies. This means that game development mostly gets put on hold until I wrap up those projects. In the long term, my goal is to get Spellbound to become a financially self sustaining project. I want to bring more content to the game, bring my vision to life, and distribute it on as many distribution platforms as possible and support lots of hardware platforms to create the next level of immersive VR gaming.
Eventually, the hope is that the game content is compelling enough that it sells itself and that it is widely discoverable, so the amount of money spent on marketing is lowered. Ultimately, the current lack of funding and sales severely slows down the pace of game development since I can't hire helpers or commit full time to the development of the game.
I think that the funding problem is a temporary problem however, and given enough time and effort on my part, it will take care of itself. I hope that my sales will at least grow proportionately with the growth of the VR industry and that I'll still be around five years from now, still creating VR content. I am convinced that virtual reality will become the predominate media format for entertainment in 2020-2030, and I want to be a part of making it happen.
Any technical challenges with Spellbound?
On the technical and design side, Spellbound has also been really hard. I'm an overly principled designer with a vision for how things should be, and I have a strong vision on what VR is meant to look and feel like.
Out of most of the VR content out there, I am relatively unimpressed by most of it because I feel most VR developers don't accurately understand or capture the essence of virtual reality and how it's different from traditional media. Broadly speaking, VR enables you to be someone else, somewhere else, and do completely different things. It is meant to capture every way we sense reality and override it with new sensory inputs in order to create a new reality.
VR is not the hardware, it is not the content, it is an experience of being someone else (think of the movie Being John Malkovich). When I initially started working on Spellbound, I believed that we absolutely needed to bring our hands with us into VR. It's our most familiar way of interacting with our surrounding environments, and if we fail to bring that into VR, then it greatly weakens the overall VR experience.
So, I bought the Leap Motion to bring in hand interactions. That presented its own technical challenges.
Then, I added roomscale support for the HTC Vive. This created a lot of new design problems.
- How do you prevent players from walking through solid objects?
- How do you let players walk around their room and let them keep going once they get to the edge of their room?
- How do you account for differences in player height?
- How do you prevent players from getting motion sick?
- How do you figure out what direction the players body is facing, based off of three data points?
- How do you figure out where the elbows should be positioned?
- How do you train players on how to play your game without directly giving instructions?
- How do you design a user interface without a single graphical user interface widget?
- How do you make that UI intuitive and non-immersion breaking?
- How do you design your game and levels so that you constantly hit 90 frames per second throughout your entire game play experience?
- How do you tell a story in VR? How does VR change the nature of story telling?
- How do you involve the player as the center of the story being told?
Keep in mind, VR is an entirely new industry and there are no answers, so you can't just google your questions to get answers -- you have to invent the answers yourself and then google will eventually tell other people whatever you came up with. To do this well, you need both the mind of an engineer and a creative mindset... and a lot of perseverance and patience for mistakes.
Overall, I think the whole process of creating a VR game in a tough business climate is like trying to navigate through a maze blindfolded. I'm still in that maze, discovering dead ends and new paths.
What marketing strategies have you tried for Spellbound?
I have had booths at various local VR conventions and given people demos at local meetups. In terms of social media, I created a few Facebook posts, created a reddit post, and did a reddit AMA. Overall, all of my marketing efforts have been utterly ineffective.
I have a Google Analytics page tied to my Steam Store page and I can track the number of daily viewers. I have established a baseline of approximately 100 visitors a day, and after any promotional activity, I look at whether my visitor count moved the needle from the baseline. If the needle doesn't move, the promotional effort was ineffective.
I have believed that creating great content would help and hoped it would be good enough that people would talk about the game without my prodding, but I suspect that my early access game just isn't there yet. It's good, but not great. I've also had an assumption that if I push out content updates, sales would increase. That turned out to be a wrong assumption as well.
The reality is that people only discover Spellbound in the list of available VR games on Steam. The last I checked, it was on page 6, so a customer would have to wade through quite a few higher ranked titles before they found Spellbound. The only customers who would be interested in the game would already have an existing VR headset, so already my total addressable market is quite small.
As time goes on and sales dwindle and newer releases hit Steam, Spellbound gets pushed further and further down the list, making it increasingly more difficult for people to discover and purchase the game. This turns into a vicious cycle. My only chance is to make Spellbound more discoverable across multiple store channels. If I'm on page six across three major channels, that's three times better.
The other strategy is to create the best content I can, tell a great story, inspire the imagination of the player, and make the content something which hardware vendors want to support. There are lots of cool VR hardware companies out there who have neat hardware, but there is very little content for that hardware.
If people purchase the hardware, the next thing they'll want to do is purchase content which is compatible with that hardware. If my game is one of the few games available and it's awesome content, then it will do awesome in a very niche market. Gradually, as the markets grow and mature, I'll hopefully be able to survive. That's the long term plan.
What does the future hold for Spellbound?
Currently, you can only play the "prelude" version of the game. I have designed the content to be broken up into a series of books. Each book will be about an hours worth of content, and each series of books will be centered around a particular wizard and theme. The themes are roughly inspired by Magic: the Gathering, though I'm modifying them significantly.
The red wizard is an elemental wizard who can control fire, earth, wind, water, and arcane elements. He accidentally triggers a demonic invasion, so he has to save the world from what he unleashed.
The white wizard series (Sorceress of Light) will be a pacifist who seeks to create peace through dialogue and uses magic to heal animals and bring happiness, possibly with romance. The theme for this series will be a radical departure from blowing up zombies and general aggressive game play, making the game more appealing to a wider audience and also exploring other areas for storytelling in VR.
The black wizard will be a story about a male character who faces the tragic loss of his wife and spends years looking for a way to bring her back, and he discovers necromancy. The intent here is to show that "evil" is a gradual descent rather than a sudden switch of nature, and the path towards evil can always be rationalized away. The story gets dark, but the goal is to show that human nature itself is dark and necromancy is a correlation rather than a causation of evil.
The green wizard will be a story about elves who practice nature magic and have lots of hedonistic parties in the forests because they're somewhat immortal, but I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about their game play or narrative yet, other than that it is focused on ecological preservation.
The last story of wizardry will center on the blue wizards, who are masters of deception, illusion magic, and mentalists. The blue wizards, being masters of illusion, have formed a sort of secret religious cult and recognize that their world is a virtual reality, so the cultists are trying their best to escape from the virtual reality and into our reality. They have discovered that on occasion, some of them become "possessed" by another being, marked by a period of blacking out and appearing in a totally different part of the land, hours or days later.
This story is sort of a matrix mindf#%k story, where the player is left wondering about the nature of our reality and how they can trust their senses. I borrow a lot of inspiration from Rene Decartes and metaphysical philosophy and hope to introduce some of the critical thinking strategies to players.
Any plans for multiplayer wizard battles?
I'd eventually like to support multiplayer as well. I'd like to let players join each other in a lobby and go on a cooperative quest together and get rewards, and I'd like to have a wizard training battleground, where players can choose between various wizards and have combat against each other. I have no idea how that will look yet, but it's so far down the pipeline, that it's not worth expending effort on it until I have more content and a bigger player base.
The VR market is tough with recent announcements that some entrants are backing out or at least slowing down their investment. As an early VR developer, what do you see happening in the VR market in the next year?
Yeah, I knew the VR market would be tough. I believe the indie gaming market is even tougher. Have you seen how many games were released on Steam last year? How can an indie stand out amongst that deluge of releases and be financially self sustaining and make a reasonable living? I don't think it's possible.
I think VR is the only chance for a new indie in 2017 -- it's easier to be a big fish in a little pond than it is to be a little fish in an ocean filled with big fish. I chose VR as a necessity for survival in the current environment. Where is the VR market now, and where is it going to go? My sense is that we're very early into this new form of media. VR is currently owned by enthusiastic early adopters and the general mass market is slowly getting consumer awareness of VR and what it is.
As a historic comparison, it's 1950 and the neighbor just down the street got a small black and white television set, and if you jiggle the antenna a bit, you can get a picture. Everyone in the neighborhood is stopping by to take a look at it and seeing the earliest forms of television programming. Nobody has any idea on what television will become in the next few decades, or how the programming will change, and how the media format will change consumerism.
This is roughly the stage where VR is at right now. Us content creators are barely starting to understand how to take advantage of this new medium and the unique story telling opportunities it creates -- we're taking what we know about traditional gaming and trying to apply them to VR -- similar to taking a popular radio program and running it on television. Being a radio heavyweight doesn't automatically mean you're an expert at television production, and the same applies to traditional gaming and VR development.
A lot of the AAA game studios are watching the VR market carefully and slowly starting to dip their toes into the water with smaller projects. We have to realize that the AAA companies are going to be very focused on the financial viability of whatever IP they create, so if they are going to sink $75 million to produce an original IP for VR, they are going to want to be sure that they're going to see a return on their investment.
With the current size of the VR market right now, it's just not financially feasible for AAA companies to create a major IP for VR. That's not going to be forever though: It's a tricky matter of timing. If you consider that the average title for traditional gaming takes between 3-5 years to produce, if a AAA company starts production on a VR title today, the business landscape could be very different 3-5 years from now. So, for the AAA gaming companies, it's going to be a matter of timing the market such that the release of their AAA VR content coincides with a market which has grown to the point where the company could see a reasonable return on investment.
I think the smart move for AAA companies right now is to let the indie VR developers spend their money and sweat to innovate the tech and create the best practices, acquire the successful VR companies so that they can have the engineering talent in-house, and use that as a launching point for smaller and mid sized IP brands. For us indies, this leaves a narrow window of opportunity to produce our games, get proficient with the technology, and try to define the industry before we are overwhelmed by an overabundance of AAA VR content, leaving us on page 60 instead of page 6.
What do you think will happen with VR in the next 5 years?
There will be a lot of news in the next 2-5 years about VR companies going out of business. It's already happening.
The reason these companies will go out of business is because they took on early venture capital funding, scaled up their headcount and increased their overhead costs, and couldn't get enough revenue to sustain their operating expenses. It doesn't matter what kind of product they create or how popular it is, because the companies are outpacing the growth of the VR market and it's financially unsustainable, and eventually, their bottom line will catch up to them and the venture capitalists will grow impatient and stop funding the company.
Again, it has nothing to do with product viability, but everything to do with market timing, growth, and room temperature business plans. It's already happening, and every time it does, the press gobbles it up and every naysayer gets to shout "I told you so!", but slowly, the VR industry marches forward and the survivors plod onwards, one hard fought sale at a time.
Five years from now, people will look back in hindsight and say, "Well, of course VR was always going to work. Startups have a historically have a high rate of failure, that's all!".
Your predictions for the next 10 years?
In the next 5 to 10 years, we're going to see the releases of second generation VR hardware.
Video card manufacturers will have adjusted their hardware rendering pipelines to support stereoscopic displays, and the performance limitations we're seeing in content production today will gradually vanish. Hardware specs will rise across the market, and the average gamer with a VR capable PC / console will become the norm.
Gradually, the current financial barrier for entry into the VR entertainment market will lower, making it increasingly accessible for more and more gamers. We'll see a lot of new names being made famous.
E-sports will integrate VR, and E-sports gamers will become much more athletic in order to remain competitive with the physical demands of VR gaming. We'll also be seeing a gradual adoption of VR outside of gaming, and this will really mainstream it when it happens. Gaming has always been the tip of the spear in terms of technological innovation, but corporations all benefit from the windfalls of the technological advancement.
I would expect to see VR having significant influences in training, medical imaging, travel, sales and advertising, simulations, pornography, and cinema. I also think there's going to be a huge disruption in education and online learning with VR. However, all of these other technological applications historically tend to be about 3-5 years behind the curve, so don't expect to see them immediately or being heavily developed in parallel to the gaming industry.
Any interest in Spellbound AR?
I'm extremely skeptical on the viability of AR. I have only seen the Hololens and spent a weekend working with it, but it was enough to lose interest in AR completely. I imagine that if I was invited to see whatever tech Magic Leap is working on, I would leave quite unimpressed. If AR is going to be viable in the future, I wouldn't expect to see anything practically useful for another 10-15 years.
There are a lot of major problems with AR:
- It requires a lot of computational power
- It's an overlay of the real world, and the real world is messy, boring, and very dynamic.
- The range of colors you can display on AR is limited. Black is transparent.
- The glasses look stupid and the wearer looks creepy when walking around with a camera on their head.
- Every promotional bit of marketing material you see for AR is fake smoke and mirrors. NDA's prevent people from calling AR companies out on it.
- If AR is around the corner, then AR hardware companies would be releasing their dev kits to third party developers to create a content ecosystem. That's not happening. The best we have is a $3000 dev kit from Microsoft, with a price tag which pretty much makes the hardware unavailable to indies, which pretty much makes the platform dead on arrival.
I could adapt Spellbound for AR, but that would be a radical departure from the strengths of VR. Within VR, you get to be someone else entirely and experience a new world from their eyes. Within AR, you are still yourself, experiencing you own world, with a few augmentations to it and the remaining physical limitations. Within VR, I could let the player ride a horse into battle or ride high above a town on a magical carpet, but within AR? You're just a weird guy running around a park flailing your arms wildly and shouting at invisible friends.
If I rub my crystal ball extra hard and try to look 20 years into the future, I think there won't be a hardware distinction between VR and AR. You'll wear the same HMD, but the difference between AR and VR will just be the amount of sensory information from the physical world being overridden by the hardware. You'd be able to blend reality by integrating it into your VR environment, so if you are in the park and walking by a tree, you'd see a virtual representation of that same tree in VR, and the tactile sensation of touching or bumping into the tree would match expectations.
Today though, I think VR development is much easier than AR development, and the market is established and a lot more healthy to make it financially viable.
You've gone through some tough times with funding. What advice would you give to someone thinking about trying to make a career as an independent game developer?
- Don't hire employees until your revenues can support it. If you have custom assets which need to be created, contract it out. Use online market places as a way to jumpstart your asset production work, but never consider online assets to be everything you need.
- Avoid spending your own money if you can. It's always better to spend someone else's money (investors, publishers, etc)
- Don't bet with your production budget. Investing in stocks is betting. Don't invest what you can't afford to lose.
- Don't expect to make lots of money as an indie developer. You'll probably be poor and barely break even.
- Earmark at least 30% of your budget for marketing.
- Pay very close attention to the scope of your project, your timeline and your budget. Scope creep doesn't just eat time, it also eats money.
- Have enough money to be able to afford to live without income for a few years. You may have to.
- If you aren't testing your game with potential customers at every step in the development cycle, you risk creating a product nobody wants to buy.
This was great, Eric. Thank you for your time and sharing your thoughts with others on the challenge of being an indie and developing for the VR market.
The last bit of parting advice I can give to anyone thinking about starting this journey, is to buy a bunch of books on entrepreneurship and project management. Read them from cover to cover, absorb the knowledge. This will cost you 2-4 weeks of time and maybe $200, but just think about how much time you'll save by avoiding rookie mistakes which cost months of time and tens of thousands of dollars worth of work!
The following are books I recommend:
- Code Complete, 2nd Edition (Microsoft Press)
- Lean Startup, by Eric Ries
- Project Management for Dummies
- Any book on marketing and sales
Don't just read the books, try to find ways to apply their teachings to your project (otherwise you're wasting your time). Even if you aren't an indie developer, the lessons are broadly applicable and will jump start your project and career.
Also, don't be afraid to publicly show your game. Forget about NDA's and people stealing your idea, that is the least of your worries. Focus on production, creating great content, and marketing.
At the end of the day, making and shipping games is the easy part -- marketing and sales is the hard part, so always think about how you're going to market and sell your game and get product-market fit, right from the beginning of the project. At every step of the way, always be thinking about marketing and creating the best value for your customer.
Good luck, work hard, and be persistent and consistent!
Interview conducted by Kevin Hawkins (@khawk) of .
You can learn more about Spellbound on Steam at http://store.steampowered.com/app/463400/Spellbound/.