Studio co-founder Paul Colls reflects on the team's first two years of VR development

The big gamble: Why Fierce Kaiju risked it all on virtual reality

Back in 2014, Develop covered the arrival of Fierce Kaiju, the new studio founded by experienced developers Dan Roberts and myself with a clear aim to embrace the upcoming wave of commercial VR technology. For Develop’s VR Month, it seems apt to catch up and see where our approach and ambitions have got us as we approach our two-year anniversary. 

We’re often asked whether it’s a gamble for a small Indie studio to focus on virtual reality development, and whether it paid off for us to get involved at an early stage. At this point, we believe we can definitively answer that for ourselves, and hope we can share some insight as to how and why we came to that conclusion.

First off, what was important to us as a team? We’ve previously discussed how, historically, our team members have flourished working on disruptive technology. With a strong sense of innovation to the fore, we enjoyed forging ahead with what was generally not expected of the hardware, with the path of least-resistance seeming like the least interesting. The emergence of VR was definitely something we were interested in getting down and dirty with, and the rulebook was (and is) still being written – just our kind of thing. So, when we were granted the opportunity to develop a game for the launch of what would become Gear VR, we jumped at it.

First experiences were really exciting. We loved the space, the immediate impact. We embraced the challenge of the necessity to both keep things simple – especially on the one-button Gear – and the complexity of how to present everything to the player. There were so many problems to be solved, but being part of a wider community of developers all working at full pelt to solve them was reassuring. It was very much on-the-job learning, which provides a momentum all of its own. Unmistakeably, there was a development buzz we hadn’t felt in a long time, and we fed off it.

At the same time, we also did a lot of research into the potential marketplace for VR, in order to build up our company profile. That, too, was really exciting. Once commercial VR landed, we could see the numbers were definitely going to be there. With the potential for specific investment in VR start-ups, and platform holders gagging for content, as far as we could see the field made business sense.

Within only a few months of officially forming the company, we had released the first version of Viral and arrived, feeling like key players, on the scene that we felt was going to end up huge. We knew all along that Viral itself wasn’t going to sell bucketloads at first -– the Innovator edition of the Gear was still very much a niche product – but the achievement we felt at getting it out, and the game being very well received was reward in of itself.

Whatever idea you have is essentially worthless if you can’t implement it in an innovative, immersive and especially comfortable manner.

So, here we were, a new VR studio, madly waving the banner for ourselves and for the tech in general. What were our next steps to be? We had huge amounts to learn, but we also had to survive as a studio. It was going to be an interesting time.

Like anyone with a passion for games and a new toy to play with, we had concepts buzzing round our heads like flies. We only had to start talking and very quickly another killer idea would drop. There was so much we could do with VR. Importantly though we felt that, although open to the idea of experiences and simulations, games is where we wanted to be – it’s where our heart and our design experience lay.

But then, a concept is all well and good. That’s the easy part. To prove ourselves, we knew the value of a great demo. We quickly came to understand the complexity of VR, and that whatever idea you have is essentially worthless if you can’t implement it in an innovative, immersive and especially comfortable manner. Prototypes would have to function on multiple levels: they would be a vital part of a pitch to a publisher or investor and something really cool to parade at shows, but they would crucially need to be a testbed that would help to expand our knowledge and experience, always learning and hoping for the day where we would intuitively know what would work and what wouldn’t. It’s doubtful that day will ever come.

Even when the comfort is nailed, and the immersion is just right, and the interactions are natural, a huge amount of content is still likely to head to the bin, because there always seems to be a better idea of how to pull a feature off. It’s the nature of the VR beast – it probably will never sit still.

For us it was, and very much still is, all about the prototype. But of course, the problem with a prototype that fulfils this function is they tend to cost quite a bit of time and money, something that indie start-up companies don’t tend to have a huge amount of. So for us, it was about working cleverly with flexible testbeds, and deciding on an approach of two umbrella prototypes, each very different and covering as many bases as possible:

The first would be along the lines of Viral: a one-button “mobile” centred arcade game. Pick up and play with instant gratification, but crucially with the innovation of using the HMD very much at its core, importantly removing any comfort issues in the middle of frantic gameplay. It would also be our testbed for networking and multiplayer, and nailing the fun factor of screaming obscenities at your opponent whilst wearing a headset. We wanted a giggle in VR.

When you’ve taken the plunge into VR and find yourself with a whole new approach to design and development to learn, you then have to turn these lessons into a commercially viable product and able to sustain a studio.

The second prototype was more ambitious, built around a slower paced first-person adventure, with several core components that we felt were vital for VR. First, making movement natural and completely comfortable, we wanted to freely explore an environment without fake and frustrating restrictions. After that, we wanted interactions with NPCs where you feel a direct emotional connection to them, we concentrated a lot on the simple impact of looking someone direct in the eye and recognising a feeling – a very powerful sensation.

It’s fun playing with the player’s sense of what’s ‘real’: as VR developers we have full control over the ‘world’, we are in control of its laws, and if we can warp and bend it to our will without breaking the sense of immersion or comfort, then there’s few limits to what we can present. Also very important are intuitive manipulations of the environment and crucially presence, presence, presence, we really want to feel connected to the world, and not like a floating camera. At the time of writing, we’re currently on the third very distinct evolution of this prototype, and believe it has allowed us to develop some killer experiences. 

Of course though, prototypes don’t pay the bills – almost literally the opposite in fact. And here’s been one of our greatest challenges as a small dev team: when you’ve taken the plunge into VR and find yourself with a whole new approach to design and development to learn, you then have to turn these lessons into a commercially viable product and able to sustain a studio. Especially in the field of VR, which is very much a young and difficult marketplace, with many of the big publishers still reluctant to take an early plunge, and the various commercial outlets for self-publishing only just emerging, it’s definitely tricky.

And yes, it’s been hard. Resources stretched thin, pressure and frustration often building, comfort zones being something you get to visit only once in a while. Highs and lows, build-ups and knock-backs. But, as we know, that’s par for the course for a start-up. It’s the learning that’s been so valuable. We come into 2016 stronger, more experienced, with a huge amount of new pitfalls that we’re now aware of and can more easily dodge.

So, to answer the original question, it was indeed a gamble. Are we dripping in new cars and yachts? No. Have we learned an enormous amount and arrived at the dawn of mainstream commercial VR – with all its huge potential – well positioned as much better and more confident developers than when we first dipped a toe in? Absolutely. And that’s fine by us. The future looks fun. 

Develop is currently running a month-long VR Special. Check out more virtual reality content here.

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