How Resolution & Limbic Tackle Mobile Virtual Reality
When mobile virtual reality first appeared in the form of Google Cardboard in 2014, the gaming world was already afire with speculation on how VR — or augmented reality (AR), a similar technology — could take over. The Oculus Rift had the backing of Facebook and a partnership with Samsung, and by all appearances, a decades-long dream was ready to be realized.
In some respects, nothing has changed in the four years since. VR technology is still exciting — each new headset is better than the last, and the overall technology has a clear roadmap to mass adoption. But the tipping point has yet to come, and the excitement has reduced from a roar to an ongoing murmur. VR and AR games sell on multiple platforms, but no fortunes have been made. Many consumers have tried — then given up on — VR headsets, especially in mobile, where a phone-based headset can cost well under $100.
In mobile, most developers go where millions of dollars are being made — and that just isn’t the case yet with either VR or AR. Nevertheless, some independent-minded developers are still striving to get a headstart on the VR/AR market, including Resolution Games, a startup founded by King alumni, and Limbic, most famous for the non-VR title Zombie Gunship but also a creator of AR games. We chatted with these two studios about their progress.
Resolution Games: Patiently working on VR
Tommy Palm has always been ahead of the curve — sometimes further ahead than other developers would consider wise. In the late 1990s, Palm started creating mobile games. Some 15 years later, he was finally able to claim credit by helping bring King’s Candy Crush Saga to mobile.
“I don’t see it taking 15 years to be successful in VR, as it took us at King with Candy Crush Saga. But it’s one of those times when you need to have persistence and make strategic decisions so you don’t burn out all your gunpowder because you’re excited about the market,” says Palm, who co-founded Resolution and serves as CEO. “If you want to invest in games, you should always calculate with the figure zero as the outcome of an upcoming title. In a success case, what you get is good data that indicates you can invest more money to get to a hit.”
For Resolution, the data has shown both promises and pitfalls. Bait, released three years ago, has brought in 2.4 million downloads to date. “With Bait, we tried to do this very relaxing experience that people could use to calm down. That seems to be working really well. We have people contacting us, saying they really love that aspect,” says Palm.
VR creates experiences that feel more real and immediate. . “There’s no coincidence that Oculus has bet a lot on Minecraft. Minecraft wasn’t made for VR originally, but I think sandbox games have a lot to offer in virtual worlds,” Palm says. “And characters, they’re slightly magical in VR. Your brain reacts more to a character in VR than a character on a 2D screen.”
On the other hand, Resolution has also found that mobile VR doesn’t yet perform as well as they’d hoped. Play times are short; Bait’s session times are just above 20 minutes, high for mobile but low for the kind of immersive experience that Resolution wants to create. Retention is also low, which may become a common design problem for early VR games. “When we launched our last game, Narrows, we focused on making a game that’s very appealing to play over and over again. I think that’s something you have to look at,” says Palm.
The headsets themselves also contribute to low retention — bulky, hot, and reliant on whatever mobile processor is available. But Palm predicts better days ahead: “There’s a lot of optimization that can be done to make VR-ready smartphones that we weren’t doing in 2016. Until now, it’s been just slotting in capable phones, but we are seeing hardware coming out that’s dedicated, like Oculus Go.”
Limbic: Betting on more than one reality
At first glance, augmented reality is a world away from VR. In most AR games, the user holds up their phone and the camera captures the world as the user sees it. The processor adds an overlay — in the case of Zombie Gunship Revenant, a grainy picture with shambling undead — what Arash Keshmirian, CEO of Limbic, calls “a window into another world.”
Therein lies the intersection between VR and AR: immersion. Both rely on creating a lifelike and convincing world. For Revenant, developers created a heavy purple overlay to transform a potentially cheerful scene — your living room, for instance — into a post-apocalyptic battlefield.
Yet despite turning a profit and bringing in an estimate 12% of all downloads of games using Apple’s ARKit, Keshmirian says Revenant has problems similar to VR games. One is physical exhaustion; you can only hold up a phone or tablet so long before something starts to ache, and that issue may discourage future sessions. “It’s a neat space to play in, but there are a lot of big challenges. The session times are lower with AR because it is a very physical experience,” Keshmirian says. “I’d challenge any other developer to show great day-30 retention on an AR game.”
Another challenge is pivoting away from the cornerstone of most successful mobile games — the freemium model. “A lot of AR games would work better on a premium model, rather than the freemium that a lot of people, including us, went with. For developers to build the experiences that would shine on AR, they need to get away from microtransactions,” says Keshmirian.
Yet with all these barriers, Limbic still plans to continue working on both AR and VR. When devices improve, and a larger market develops, these studios will be ahead of the competition. Keshmirian notes that working on both fields isn’t contradictory. “As mobile devices get faster or they bring more power into the headsets themselves, I think they’ll go in a better direction,” he says. “As you build great AR devices, the only thing separating them from VR is a black screen. We may get to the point that they’re hybrid.”