Will indie developers dominate VR?

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor

Small teams with big dreams are gambling on the new medium while laying down the foundation of VR development for everyone.

There was less than 24 hours to go, and Australian app developer Scott Vandonkelaar was facing a minor existential crisis. For the past six months, he had sacrificed nearly every free hour to making his dream of killing zombies in VR a reality.

Now facing the final day of his crowd-funding campaign, Zero Latency was in danger of fizzling out.

Vandonkelaar had built a room-scale VR system in his study (and later in his garage) on no budget, dissecting Nerf guns and raiding an old game console for parts to cobble together a controller with his Samsung Galaxy Nexus attached. The online crowd-funding support had dwindled over time and on the very last day of the campaign, he was still a few thousand dollars shy of his funding goal. The clock was ticking. He couldn’t concentrate at his day job.

“It wasn’t just the time and effort. I was extremely emotionally invested,” he said.

Zero Latency VR gear, courtesy Zero Latency
Zero Latency VR gear, courtesy Zero Latency

Beginning with the Oculus Rift headset, which raised over 2.4 million US dollars on Kickstarter before getting snapped up by Facebook, indie developers like Vandonkelaar play an important role in defining the early days of VR.

While many people working in the space scrape by, the young medium presents garage developers and indie game designers with an opportunity to make the leap from rags to riches. The risk of course, is falling flat instead.

Zero Latency is one of VR’s earliest success stories. On July 13th, 2014, when the experience was funded for 29 thousand Australian dollars, Vandonkelaar was developing content delivery apps by day and working on his pet project after hours. Two years on, he is now Chief Technology Officer at Zero Latency, where he oversees a Hardware team, a Content Development team, and a Core Systems team—around 17 people in all.

His company specialises in room-scale, free-roaming, multiplayer VR experiences. In one, groups of players strap on portable VR gear to roam around a demolished city shooting virtual zombies. The experience takes place inside a 4,000 foot warehouse and draws inspiration from zombie video games and laser tag.

“The main difference is instead of seeing the real world, we can put you in whatever virtual environment we like,” he explained.

Zero Latency VR gear, courtesy Zero Latency
Zero Latency VR gear, courtesy Zero Latency

Zero Latency has since expanded beyond its home base in Melbourne. In November, a new venue was launched inside a multi-floor bowling alley in Orlando, Florida. There is also a location in Madrid, and in Tokyo at Sega’s Joypolis indoor amusement park, where it’s played by around a thousand people a week. With many more installations in the works for 2017, Vandonkelaar plans to open up his system to other studios who can develop their own experiences: not bad for a piece of tech that started out as a bunch of Nerf gun parts.

Similar to the early days of mobile apps, VR is such a new medium that norms and conventions have not been established yet. This newness creates a lucrative climate for indie devs, both financially and creatively. The door is wide open for young talent to rise up to the top.

“It feels like anyone has the potential to make that first breakout hit,” said Josh Bancroft, a developer community manager at Intel. “There is a vibe that anyone could win the lottery and make an app that gets a million downloads.”

Accounting, courtesy Crows, Crows, Crows and Squanchtendo
Accounting, courtesy Crows, Crows, Crows and Squanchtendo

Bancroft believes creative individuals working alone or in small groups will make significant contributions that define how people ultimately use VR. At least that’s how things have gone in the past.

In 2008 for instance, when Loren Brichter was developing the popular Twitter app Tweetie, he invented the now universal “pull-to-refresh” gesture, where the user swipes downward to conveniently update the app. Twitter came along, acquired his patents, and hired him on the spot. In 2010, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger kept their development team to a mere 4 employees, even as their new photo-sharing service, Instagram, skyrocketed to compete with monoliths like Facebook.

Likewise, indies are currently in the trenches of VR development, with innovations that could very well become established norms. But they also face a tough economy. William Pugh of Crows, Crows, Crows, for example, knew it would be impossible to turn a profit on his studio’s first VR game. So he self-funded Accounting, positioning the humorous office simulator as a publicity stunt.

“There’s no market right now for software in VR,” Pugh said, explaining how a significant portion of the small number of people who own VR systems are actually other developers like him. “If you want to make ends meet in VR, you need to be able to develop something incredibly cheaply.”

That said, Pugh still thinks that going indie has its merits, as it gives his studio the luxury of trial and error. “We essentially answer to no one,” he said. “This allows us to release a very free, open-ended collection of experiments.”

Accounting, courtesy Crows, Crows, Crows and Squanchtendo
Accounting, courtesy Crows, Crows, Crows and Squanchtendo

There is hope, though. Large tech institutions are wising up to the importance of staking an early claim on VR.

Lately, there have been a slew of programs to sponsor indies. Oculus has thrown $10 million dollars into a fund to promote content creators around the world, particularly those working in education.

Intel is working alongside small studios to support innovation in the VR software space as well. This year’s IDF, for example, invited the company’s small studio partner, Chronosapien, to demo their VR music creation project Shapesong.

“A small team like ours would not be as successful as we have been without their support,” said developer Justin Link, who is reaping the benefits. The experience recently won the award for The Most Innovative Use of AR/VR at the Orlando iX conference.

The chances of success as an indie in VR are mixed, as is the case with all lotteries. But with a little ingenuity, indie devs appear on the path to triumph yet again.

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