nDreams busting out

After busting out VR games for almost a decade and in a year in which it received more than £28 million in investment and opened its new remote studio, Elevation, nDreams recently announced Ghostbusters VR for Meta Quest and PlayStation VR2. A first-person co-op shooter full of iconic spooks and gadgets, it’s not a game nDreams has revealed too much of or spoken much on, but in the mind’s eye it seems such an obvious fit for VR that the rest of the industry should consider giving itself a collective slap to the forehead for not thinking of it sooner. Even if it ends up some way distant of the Left 4 Dead meets Luigi’s Mansion we imagine one day playing, we’ll still take it.

“It’s a great game, and we’re very excited about it,” says O’Luanaigh. “The nice thing about it is you mention Ghostbusters in VR to people and they just get it instantly like, ‘Yeah, you don’t have to say any more, I can imagine what it’s going to be like’, so, yeah, I think it’s certainly got a real chance.”

Given how long nDreams has been supporting VR, on PC, PlayStation and more recently on Meta (not to mention free roam VR with its easily overlooked Far Cry game), a hit game is long overdue.

“We’ve had lots of nice sellers that have made money. Phantom: Covert Ops has done really well for us. Little Cities has massively exceeded our expectations. But we haven’t had a big hit for sure.” admits O’Luanaigh, who’s quick to point out Ghostbusters VR is just one game that nDreams has in development. “One of the things we’d love to do, if we look back in 12 or 24 months, is to go ‘You know what, we’ve actually had our first big hits’. We haven’t had that yet. But we’re getting closer all the time. We’re working really hard. The quality of the team is getting better all the time. With third party publishing, now we’re out there looking at brilliant indie VR devs, finding some amazing games, supporting them, funding them, marketing them and publishing them. Hopefully that increases our chances of finding something magical, even if we don’t make it ourselves.”

As the UK’s most persistent VR game studio, nDreams has come a long way during its 15-plus years, having started out creating content in support of Sony’s PlayStation Home project, which despite being quietly shuttered in 2015, is increasingly considered way ahead of its time.

“We’ve always wanted to do stuff at the cutting edge,” recalls O’Luanaigh. “PlayStation Home was brand new when we started and we were learning new stuff. VR is pretty similar and there’s definitely lots of social similarities as well. We learnt in Home how people liked to interact together, what they wanted to do, how people formed friendship groups and what they liked to spend money on online. We know what they liked to do and what they didn’t like to do. That was really useful and, I think, as our VR games get bigger and more elaborate, there’s a lot more multiplayer stuff going on. I think some of the lessons from Home will kind of come back around now, actually.”

Referencing his involvement at at panel discussion at this year’s Develop conference, where it was argued that PlayStation Home had laid the the foundation for the modern day metaverse, O’Luanaigh’s regard for Sony’s virtual world experiment and the opportunities it lead to does not necessarily translate into a desire to repeat it in VR anytime soon.

“It’s certainly possible [but] we haven’t kicked off building our own because it’s a huge enterprise” says O’Luanaigh, who estimates that it would cost £100 million and require all of nDreams’ resources and then some. “You’ve got to really go for it, but it’s an area that I think we could do really well and we’re really interested in, so we’ll see what happens. I wouldn’t rule it out. It’s certainly an area that we’re quite passionate about, and we love, but at the moment we’re focused on making the very best VR games we can and we think we’re getting better and better at that all the time.”

When you consider how long it’s taken for VR to take hold and become a mainstream platform, with an estimated 15 million Meta Quest headsets in circulation (putting VR as a whole in the same ballpark as the PlayStation 5), it’s remarkable that nDreams has managed to stay the course for close to ten years. After all, Meta only launched the Quest 2 in October 2020, up to which point the VR hardware leader was Sony, at less that five millions units sold. That’s firmly in N-Gage territory.

O’Luanaigh puts success down to three things, getting in early, not getting carried away by analysts claiming VR was going to be bigger than anything else in gaming, and, most important of all, being tenacious. “You know, the reality, just like a lot of new technologies, is it takes quite a while. Hilmar (Pétursson) at CCP spoke about that early on and said, ‘We’re gonna get through the desert of VR’. That’s a metaphor that is very appropriate. We’ve just stuck at it. The nDreams founder also credits investors that have been generous and patient, combined with an ability of teams to scale efforts in line with revenues. In short, that the company hasn’t rushed so far ahead of itself that it’s tripped itself up.

“We made a big bet on VR. It was risky, because if VR had collapsed horribly, we would have had to do something else. But we really believed in it. I always knew it wasn’t just a gimmick. We’re now in a position where we can find some great games, fund them, publish them and make money. It’s been a long time getting to that point.”

Last but least, O’Luanaigh also credits the organisation formerly known as Oculus and Facebook. “They’ve done more than anybody else in this space, and they get a lot of stick from people. But you know what? The headset is great. They’ve sold some brilliant numbers, and they’re really pushing it forward very hard. We’re big fans of theirs.

“There’ve been times when it’s been difficult as a studio. In the early days of VR, sometimes you’re like, where’s our next project going to come from? How are we going to keep everybody going? But now we’re in this reverse situation where we’ve got more work than we can handle and we’re turning projects down, which is why we’re growing and expanding so fast.”

As of this year nDreams comprises three studios, the main hub in Farnborough that O’Luanaigh calls a “sort-of headquarters” which is now run to a hybrid model, with staff encouraged to come in two or three days a week, and two fully remote studios called Orbital and Elevation. “Because those studios were started with remote working in mind, everything has been built up around that. They’ve come up with some really clever ways of fostering the culture and getting people playing together and talking. Lots of systems, software and methods to try and foster that teamwork that you’d maybe miss a little bit sometimes when you’re remote.”

Despite establishing remote working early, one wonders how nDreams is affected by the omnipresent skills shortage, given that most would expect development skills specific to VR are perhaps in even shorter supply.

“It’s not been too bad, actually,” says O’Luanaigh. “I think we hired 21 new people in May. A record month. I think it helps that VR’s quite sexy. You talk about working on PlayStation VR2 and Ghostbusters and that’s quite attractive.

“We’re also doing a really nice thing with the nDreams Academy, a scheme that is primarily aimed at bringing in new talent and training them up to get them ready for the game team. We do quite a lot of work with training people up to help with some of those hard to find skills, because there are some roles where it’s just really hard to find the right people. But we’re quite lucky and I think we’ve got a really nice culture and quite a good reputation for being a really nice place to work.”

The stars may be aligning for nDreams, but of course they never remain static in the firmament for long, with a successor to the Quest 2, rumoured to be called the Quest Pro, being readied for the autumn. Then next year, of course, Sony will launch the PSVR2. O’Luanaigh is excited by the possibilities, from the ultra thin lenses that Meta has been teasing, to eyetracking, and the inevitable increases in processing power allied to reductions in weight and form factor that will inevitably come with each new generation.

“You may see them running off the cloud at some point as well,” he says of future XR devices, “where you don’t have to have processing and GPUs on the headset, it’s all just being done in the cloud. I think that ultimately might be the end destination, but that’s going to be a little way off, I think.”

What about the games? Curiously O’Luanaigh is not a fan of the capable fan-created mods that are currently resourced through Patreon, such as those for GTA V, Elden Ring and the most recent Resident Evil games, many of which are doing as good a job selling the promise of VR as any of the popular native games. “I’m never a fan of people that take your game and try and port over. You can build a game on a well known IP, but it’s got to be designed for VR controllers and how VR is played right from the very beginning.

“I think you’ll see games getting bigger and bigger. What people want I think are things like GTA, but in VR, they want massive, great games that last 20 hours, just like they get on consoles. I think those kinds of things will come as the market gets bigger, but they will be designed for VR, specifically. You won’t be porting games. That sucks in my view.”

As focused as nDreams appears to be on core games like Ghostbusters, it’s Orbital studio is quietly beavering away on casual and free-to-play VR titles, an area that’s not been as deeply mined across VR as it has across other platforms. For O’Luanaigh, it’s not all about trying to appeal to hardcore gamers and casual gamers, but to find anything that’s different or interesting that can find an audience.

“With the publishing stuff we’re doing, we’re just out there looking for really cool games that we fall in love with. If we play a little demo, a prototype and we go ‘Wow, this is just so much fun in VR’, then we’ll sign it up. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an ultra hardcore game, a casual game, or whether it’s an experience of some kind. If we love it, we’ll try and publish it.

“You know, there is something properly special about VR when it’s done well.” enthuses O’Luanaigh. “That feeling of immersion you get just makes emotions so powerful. Fear and awe and excitement and all those great emotions you get from the best games. When you’re in there in first person VR and you really feel like you’ve teleported into this magical world, it’s just so good.”

Or, as Ray Parker Jr. might say, ‘VR makes you feel good.’ Cue music.

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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