Matthew Magee ponders virtual reality’s potential impact on game development culture and how immersive technology may encourage a renaissance in independent, disruptive bedroom coders a.k.a the Pyjama People.
Guest Article by Matthew Magee
A twenty year career as a Software Engineer started in the UK defence industry, working on the Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft, before he co-founded a mobile games development company that worked with publishers such as THQ and EA. After that Matthew developed a number of mobile products with Samsung and HTC, but eventually found himself in Shanghai working with a language education company.
In 2012, while still in China, he backed the Rift Kickstarter. It was a device that spoke to childhood dreams of futuristic technology and a new way to experience games, but also showed great potential for education and beyond. Now back in the UK, he is presently co-founding a new startup to explore these possibilities.
Thirty years ago a person working from their bedroom in their pyjamas could
make a game for a home computer with relative ease. Ten years ago, a
person working from their bedroom in their pyjamas could make a game for
mobile with relative ease. In both cases nascent games industries came
screaming to life, bringing with them brand new experiences for new and
In the coming decade, a person working from their bedroom in their pyjamas
could build something inside VR that nobody has seen before, and that
nobody will see coming. This is the power and promise of a beginning: being on the ground floor of something new and having a chance to shape the
future path that it will take.
Tapping into the big three: home console, home computer, and mobile affords VR an immense potential reach. We live in a time where the development
tools and engines targeting all of these platforms can be used free of charge.
A library’s worth of tutorials can be found with no more effort than typing a few
keywords into a search engine. Anyone with a computer and a little know-how
can make something and release it to the whole world at the touch of a
button. Collaboration with people anywhere on the planet has never been
We are, once again, on the cusp of an era where the Pyjama People can work
their magic. This is rare, this is wonderful, and we have a real opportunity to
nurture these creations.
Right now the only people really able to experience VR are early adopters,
people that have parted with significant sums of cash for a Vive or Rift, or
more affordable avenues like GearVR and Google Cardboard. If you’re visiting
Road to VR you’re most likely one of them. Before too many fixed templates
for VR experiences start to appear; before consumer expectations are so set
in stone that they can’t be easily moved; and before the marketplace is so
intimidating that the little guys can’t ever see themselves competing; we have
the power to help grassroots developers find a safe haven to experiment, and
ensure that enough people will see their work.
A healthy indie development community – accepting that the specific definition
of “indie” nowadays is already fairly complex – offers a refreshing and
complementary experience alongside the more mainstream offerings, and
often a more inclusive one. For every ‘Elder Scrolls‘ there’s a ‘Papers, Please’,
for every ‘Battlefield‘ a ‘Niddhogg’, for every ‘Uncharted‘ a ‘Her Story‘. For
every dozen games with a white male lead, there’s a ‘Broken Age’, for every
hundred games with a straight lead, a ‘Gone Home‘. And if you ever need to
have a bloody good cry, there’s something like ‘That Dragon, Cancer‘ to
remind you that things could always get a lot, lot worse.
A couple of those examples are chosen for very specific reasons, with a nod
to the sensory and emotional potential of VR. Try to imagine the impact of
‘Papers, Please‘ if it existed as a VR game. Imagine a person on the outside
of that booth looking into your eyes as you make a life or death decision. Your
brain – in that wonderful way that VR cons our senses – would dutifully record
your actions as though you actually lived the moment. Potentially very
powerful stuff, and that’s a fictional experience.
I wonder at the genuine empathy the average person could feel if someone
took the larger events of the time, one of which across Europe right now is
economic migration, and built a VR experience to highlight the human
realities. There’s a human story hiding behind the scaremongering headlines
of immigrants sneaking across the border to steal jobs and social benefits,
and there will always be someone that wants to tell it. This isn’t something that
a large company is likely to do, but the Pyjama People? Nothing is impossible
for them. This could feed into genuine change in the real world. This could
galvanise people in a way that the written word and traditional video seem
increasingly less able to do.
Not to suggest that VR should only be a vehicle for meaningful social
commentary, of course. There’s a massive appetite and great potential for
good old fashioned gaming too. As they have for many years with traditional
gaming, indie developers will create new ways to play in VR if given the
Not everything they build will be perfect of course, and we must accept that.
There will be misfires, there will be chaff amongst the wheat. It’s rare for
anything new to work first time. “Fail fast, fail often” is a great way to discover
what doesn’t work, and can point the way to something that would. For all the
chaff, and all the misfires, somewhere out there is a small team with an idea
that will surprise and delight, or inform and move, or perhaps all of these
things and more.
Check out wearvr.com, Steam Early Access and browse the submissions at
an Oculus VR Jam for a glimpse at what some of these developers are doing.
Check out the articles on this very site and the comments below this article,
too, because there are bound to be more suggestions for games, experiences
and communities worth exploring.
These experiences need an audience, they need champions, and they need
to be given a chance. That’s where you come in. There are big names
releasing big games on VR, and many of us will naturally flock to see the
latest and greatest, but please take a little time out every now and then for the little guys. In the gaps between big releases don’t let the headset gather dust or get stored away, instead look for an experience off the beaten track. I’d be willing to bet there’s something out there that will surprise you.
But why stop there? Why not become one of the Pyjama People yourself?
We’ve all been armchair game critics at some point, so why not take a shot at
making something? If that seems too daunting to attempt alone, you could
see if there’s anyone else out there that wants to team up and make that
something with you. I promise you there’s nothing more rewarding than
having an idea, plugging away at it, and finally sliding on the headset and
actually experiencing it. I should know, I quit my job a few months ago and
now I’m a Pyjama Person too.