“The True Starting Point of Modern VR”

Photo by Road to VR

Speaking to Unger, one question on my mind was whether or not the studio’s newfound success was largely the result of a short-lived Quest hype wave, or if there’s sustainable momentum behind VR’s growth. He believes it’s the latter, and thinks the momentum is so significant that it will draw other big headset makers into the market.

“I don’t feel [that this is just a Quest hype wave] because I know that the hardware is doing the right things for consumers. Not just the hardware, but how the hardware interacts with the software. And I can see this being a kind of prototypical example for other big corporations about how to approach VR as a market,” Unger said. “So I really believe that this is kind of the tipping point that will [cause consumer electronics companies] […] to go ‘oh shit, there’s actually money to be made here’. This really is kind of the true starting point of modern VR. So I think competitors are going to start entering this market. I also think that a number of AAA studios are eyeballing the market in a more serious way.”

As for game developers who have been glancing at VR, Unger says that now truly is the moment to jump in.

“[…] I’m putting my neck on the line here by saying this—having been in the industry as long as we have, I really believe we’ve crossed a threshold that makes it safe to start putting investments in VR. Like legitimately safe. You’re going to get a return, especially if you’re a studio that knows what you’re doing and you know you can put something relevant [onto the market],” Unger said. “Now is the time to start developing because you’d be at least a year out from product—and if you’re building anything more ambitious then you’re going to need at least two years, so you’re already running behind!”

As for Cloudhead, the studio is so confident in its current trajectory that it’s actively investing in its long-term future.

Pistol Whip has been a huge success. […] We’ve easily surpassed our initial investment, and we fully plan on having a couple more years of really strong [sales] performance. […] One of the things [Pistol Whip’s success means is] that we could start Cloudhead Labs which was something we’ve always wanted to do,” Unger said. “Basically it’s an R&D think tank where we experiment with new VR mechanics and games and ideas. We just throw everything at the wall. We couldn’t really do that before because it requires a dedicated small team always thinking about that stuff. So one of the things that the success of Pistol Whip did for us is that it allowed that for the first time. And we’ve always wanted to be a multi-title studio—we should always be working on the next thing.”

– – — – –

After going all in on VR and weathering a storm that brought the studio uncomfortably close to closure, one sign, perhaps more than any other, shows the wind now in Cloudhead’s sails—they’re hiring.

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • Rogue Transfer

    It’s worth noting that the article doesn’t [at time of writing this comment] provide any evidence to support its claim that 2018 was such a terrible year for developers.

    That is, Cloudhead games didn’t have any new game then and were essentially surviving on their titles from 2016 & 2017, until 2019 when they launched their next game. So, their revenue graph showing a gradual decline from 2017 to 2018 makes sense and doesn’t necessarily reflect the rest of the market back then.

    Though, there’s no doubt that the results of Pistol Whip show that it as a title was successful. That, combined with the limited Quest & Quest 2 library also no doubt helped it. As that market matures with more competitive titles, it’ll likely require more to stand out, than just stripping down the cognitive load and relying on primal reactions.

    Repetative games only appeal for a time, look at the Wii, most people eventually got bored without the cognitive depth, after a few years, the market was saturated with repetative reaction/party games. The same happened with VR with too many wave shooters killing(ironically) interest in similar indie titles.

    There is a silver lining and advantage though with the casual VR market having so much room to grow and people have yet to experience much of it. That means there should be continued success for a few years at least, but eventually the market will demand cognitively deep titles and the action/party games will struggle more, as people by then will be tired of simplified titles.

    • cleaverboy

      The types of games that people play on flat screens vs on VR will converge more and more, i would think. E.g. Fortnite -> Pop: One. The different VR inputs (i.e. movement) and output will hopefully create brand new genres of games. Just as different input types on PC allow for different types of games than on consoles.

      Pistol Whip is just scratching the surface with this, i think.

      • gamechanger

        Thrill of The Fight is an interesting example. Boxing games in general are super popular in VR and I can’t even recall the name of that flat screen boxing game from EA. I’d say boxing in VR is a brand new genre.

    • benz145

      I think most VR developers would agree that after the 2016/2017 launch hype, VR entered a period where it was struggling to achieve a stable launch trajectory. 2018 saw many studios and hardware makers biding their time or dropping out altogether.

      • As a consultant, I agree. I can’t say exactly the date, but from end of 2017 to all 2018 I had huge problems in finding customers, too, and I thought about changing my job, too. Now it’s much better

    • jimmy

      Shut up soy boy I was there in 2018 and it was awful for vr that when everyone started saying vr is dead

  • cleaverboy

    Very interesting article and a look into the design philosophy, especially in regards to locomotion! I’m glad the studio survived and hope that they create many more interesting games in the future!

  • Douglas Harrison

    Glad to hear they are doing well and seems like they get the issue with VR. I know most VR enthusiast are not looking for another “party game” or whatever you want to call them but for now that might be the best option. Pistol Whip is very similar to Beat Saber you can just jump in and play and it’s fun. I didn’t buy Beat Saber or Pistol Whip for a long time because the screen shots looked bad, it didn’t interest me. I thought I wanted zombie and other first person shooters. But I finally broke down just to see what all the chatter was about. The first time I played Beat Saber I played for two hours. I have never played VR more than 30 minutes at a time. It really blew me away that such a simple looking game could be so fun. Games like Pistol Whip and Beat Saber could only be fun in VR, if you played them on a console or PC they just wouldn’t work at all. I think for now studios should focus on what would be fun in VR and not fun on a console or PC. VR seems so focused on first person shooters, and I’m not sure that will ever completely work. Alyx was great, definitely the best FPS I’ve played in VR but I still only played it one time through and I never showed it off to friends or family. You can’t just jump in and play. My go to games to show off to friends and family is Beat Saber and The Blue even after all this time. I’m rooting for VR but I’m nervous it’s going down the path of Wii, Kinect, home 3D, etc.. I’m hopeful studios like Cloudhead get the dilemma and will help pave the way to get VR more mainstream.

  • wheeler

    These kinds of low friction games aren’t the sort of content I’m personally interested in–I can probably count on my fingers the number of times I’ve loaded up Beat Saber and Pistol Whip, but I’m glad to hear they are finally having success. They also ranked as a “platinum” Steam VR game.

    It’s disappointing though to hear this is the direction a good number of devs are headed in because what I was personally hoping for was more depth in VR games rather than less. Things like HLA are what keep me interested, and my interest in many existing titles has also begun to wane because for the past few years the focus of many devs has been porting existing content to much more limited hardware instead of expanding on and adding more depth to their games. However, that should create opportunities for other developers.

    • benz145

      There’s a reason that the gaming industry started with arcade games—nobody knew how to play (or make) modern games out of the gate.

      It took 14 years to go from Pong (1972) to The Legend of Zelda (1986). It wasn’t just that the technology needed to advance, it was also that the art of game design needed to advance. You can’t just go right from zero to Legend of Zelda.

      Even though it was significantly deeper than Pong, The Legend of Zelda is not a very deep game by modern standards, because since then the game industry has evolved and built on those concepts.

      VR is no different. It gets to lean on some of the ideas and lessons from the non-VR landscape, but so much of what it can do is brand new.

      The arcade games like Beat Saber, Pistol Whip, Superhot, and others are clearly working. Over time, game developers will start to internalize the lessons about why these games are working, and will expand and build on those ideas to bring us deeper and deeper games.

      • Jistuce

        Legend of Zelda also isn’t really viable as an arcade game. It requires a large time investment, and arcade games are very much dependent on the average run being quite brief. Can’t take in more quarters if everyone plays for a few hours.

        And excellent point on knowing how to play modern games being as important as how to make them.
        Atari made the Computer Space arcade before the Pong arcade. While it did well in college campuses where students were familiar with Space War on their school’s mainframe, it did miserably with the general public, because it was too complex. A few years later, a more complex version of the same game would become a massive sensation as Asteroids.

      • Amni3D

        I think the “iterative game design over time” sentiment could be brought up for arcades and console games, but not quite VR if you’re looking at a zoomed out sense. Game design is still game design, and VR isn’t *that* out there to say “we’re starting from the Atari days”. It’s more accurate to say most studios don’t have the resources to make console scale titles.

        Do note in terms of VR currently, “high budget” is less than how much money went into Street Fighter 3, and the kinds of games made will reflect that.

        As far as indie goes, 3D indies are rare, and VR indies are a subset of that market. So “small scale game design innovation” will happen less frequently than flatscreen. For studios, they usually don’t have the budget to make a game comparable in scale to a 90s PC game.

        There’s a bit more to this, but I think this is the true reason VR games are so rudimentary right now, not that “everything’s starting from zero”. No one is complaining that Doom 1 released with “mouse strafe”. It’s not like everyone needs everything to be utterly future proof to release, it’s just only certain games are being made due to the industry’s circumstance.

        • psuedonymous

          “and VR isn’t *that* out there to say “we’re starting from the Atari days”.”

          VR – specifically motion-controlled VR – really IS ‘that out there’ when it comes to game design.

          Take for example the standard two-ticks-plus-face-button control of every first and third person videogame: left stick controls avatar translation, right stick controls viewport look, shoulder buttons/triggers controls fire, face buttons and Dpad command ancillary operations (e.g. door open or object interaction) and modal selection (e.g. weapon/tool changing). It’s ubiquitous now, but didn’t become standard or even commonplace for YEARS after the Dual Analog controller was released Even into the PS2 era you could still find games that did not use this control scheme.

          VR is still in the same sort of fundamental how-do-we-interact-with-the-game phase. It’s very, very early days yet, and basic paradigms have not been nailed down. Not to mention the amount of trash ports (e.g. Skyrim) muddying things up.

          • Amni3D

            I think it’s worth noting Doom 1 shipped with mouse strafe, and the concept of a WASD control scheme didn’t even exist for its sequel, or their next IP. In addition, trash ports are bad because they’re bad ports.

            You can’t convince me that you can’t make a Fallout 3/ New Vegas scale experience with the framework of Walking Dead Saints and Sinners. It’s just not happening because no one’s making it.

            Also Alyx is a pretty good counter point to the sentiment that “you can’t make VR games large scale right now”. I mean, they’re clearly pulling a profit, and it’s clearly making the players happy.

        • benz145

          The concepts are there, but we don’t necessarily know how to execute them very well in VR yet.

          Even though we know that ‘inventory’ is usually an important and beneficial concept, few games have figured out how to have an inventory of the scale that we see in non-VR games. More importantly, we also have to ask—do we *need* and inventory that can hold hundreds of items in a VR game? Is collecting those hundreds of items even fun in VR?

          While HLA and Pavlov *work*, I think their design will look very dated in 5 years. In non-VR you can go back 5 years and games have hardly changed in design and mechanics. I sometimes play Battlefield 4 (2013) online and it feels like a modern shooter.

          • Amni3D

            True, but I think a lot of these can be answered with existing solutions in flatscreen (like the radial wheel taking off in VR games recently). Ultimately these solutions depend on the game, and will be naturally figured out per project, with time.

            My theory is that to play to VR’s strength, you need to play to at least one: the control scheme or the immersion factor. The small scale VR R&D will help you make use of the input, but classic flatscreen game design will drive the long form immersion. That’s my view anyway.

      • Lulu Vi Britannia

        Good point. I’ll also add that devs can’t make high budget games in a small market: you need return on investment if you want your business to be sustainable. Small budget games have a much quicker return on investment, therefore they’re the way to go for most devs.

  • Beautiful interview! It’s good to discover the process that lead them to success with Pistol Whip

  • Gonzax

    Personally I am more interested in games like The Gallery Ep. 2 than Pistol Whip, though I own and like both very much, but I am very glad for them and their success with the latter.
    Hopefully not everyone will go for the quick play style of Pistol Whip and make deeper games with more narrative. HL Alyx has proved it can be hugely successful too, otherwise everyone would be trying to clone Beat Saber and similar games which is not the type of VR that made me fall in love with the technology at all.
    It’s a growing market so I believe we’ll see lots of great things in very different genres coming out in the future.

  • I love the game, but I actually wish it had a bit more a traditional comic book or cartoon/illustration look to the visuals rather that what they went with that’s all kinds of neon disco or something. Maybe something similar to the look used/seen in Jurassic World Aftermath would have been right on the money: Styled such that is just works really well in VR, but not sooo stylized that it might put a lot of people off who might have been interested otherwise. Like I say, I actually really love the game, but that’s somewhat in spite of the aesthetic rather than because of it. Not that it’s ugly, but just that it’s not quite a look I find particularly appealing and I think they could have picked something a bit more universal in that regard (although, like I also said, that still works really well within the limitations of VR at present).

  • Lulu Vi Britannia

    Their comment about the buttons is pretty stupid. Buttons not only become instinctive after a while (people don’t think about them when playing any console and they’re used to it… it’s the same for VR), it’s also mandatory because you can’t do everything without them. Many games have their controls actually limited because they were thought for the Vive’s shitty controllers.

    It’s nice to see their success story though. It was an interesting in-depth analysis of their road!