Edge of Innovation

Indie Game Designers Crack Open the Future of VR

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor
Future of VR

Ana Ribeiro Olympic torch bearer to run wearing a virtual reality headset, showing that passion is as important as innovation in the future of VR.

On a balmy Sunday in São Luís, during the 2016 Olympic festivities, Ana Ribeiro was holding an unlit torch. She also happened to be wearing a virtual reality headset.

At any moment she would be passed the Olympic flame and tromp down a 200-meter stretch of beach, a headset perched above her hairline. But then, at the last second, something went wrong. A security officer pointed at her and said, “What is that thing on your head? You can’t run with this!”

Ana Ribeiro

The security guard was following protocol. Those who carry the flame must agree to adhere to the Olympics’ dress code: they can’t wear a mask or any item that obscures the face; they can’t wear cameras; everything except the Olympic shirt must be plain, without branding.

This made matters difficult for Ribeiro, who hoped to carry the torch wearing a Gear VR headset. After all, she had been selected as a torchbearer for her role as a pioneer of VR game development.

“He took the headset from my head,” Ribeiro said. “I was like, ‘It’s authorized! It’s authorized!’ I was trying to put it back on. Then, I started screaming, ‘Virtual reality!’ Then everyone started screaming, ‘For virtual reality!’”

Ana Ribeiro

A reporter who had just been interviewing Ribeiro a few minutes earlier emerged from the press bus, shouting that Ribeiro was indeed authorized to wear the headset.

“I managed to keep the headset,” she said. “I ran with the headset. I fought for virtual reality.”

As one of the first indie developers to make the leap to VR, Ribeiro has fought for it in places beyond the world’s most anticipated sporting event. While the fledgling medium has attracted flocks of investors and startups in Silicon Valley, many major game studios are taking a wait-and-see approach to actually producing VR content.

Thus it has fallen upon small studios to pick up the slack and craft new experiences. At this early, pivotal junction in the medium, the success of VR in the public’s eye weighs on the shoulders of small studios taking on enormous challenges.

Ana Ribeiro

Right now, most of Ribeiro’s late nights are dedicated to debugging Pixel Ripped, her first VR project. In the game, the player is a student trying to sneak in a few minutes with a Game Boy during class. When the game is released for PlayStation VR in January, she will find out if her bet on VR pays off.

In 2014, Ribeiro gave up a stable job processing divorces for the Brazilian government in order to pursue a career in game development. She moved to England, then Canada, where she formed her studio. By the time she returned home for the Olympic festivities in 2016, she was being recognized as a pioneer of VR.

Though Ribeiro’s story appears triumphant, it’s not time to celebrate yet. Ribeiro says it would have been practically impossible for her to become a VR developer if she had remained in Brazil. It is still very much in question whether or not VR will catch on worldwide, let alone nationwide.

“All the Brazilian devs complain about how hard it is to get a dev kit from Oculus,” she said of the Facebook-owned company. “There’s no connection. They don’t have a bridge between publisher and developer.”

The lack of a bridge is partly due to sky-high tariffs on electronics that routinely top 50 percent. If the general public can’t justify the cost of the equipment, neither can indie devs, many of whom work on shoestring budgets.

“The VR indie scene in Brazil is pretty small right now, but it’s growing,” said Ribeiro. Currently, 156 people have joined the Facebook page for Brazilian indies that she started.

Even in more plugged-in parts the world, VR indie devs face a tough economy, and often make games strictly out of love. William Pugh of the UK-based indie collective Crows, Crows, Crows, for instance, knew that his studio would not be able to turn a profit on Accounting, despite it being a widely celebrated game.

“If you want to make ends meet in VR, you need to be able to develop something cheaply,” he said, explaining that, despite the hype, relatively few people own VR systems.

Instead of developing an inferior product and trying to earn a pound, Pugh paid for everything out of pocket and gave the game away for free. Usually, these devs aren’t in it for the money. They’re excited by VR’s artistic prospects.

“It’s pretty rare that a new medium comes into existence during your lifetime,” he explained. “There are a lot of problems with VR, but it’s still new and it’s still exciting.”

Even when Pugh got hit by a car and broke his leg right before development began, he was undeterred, hopping around on one foot to test the room-scale game.

“These people at indie studios put their life savings and all of their time and effort into VR development,” said Josh Bancroft, the community manager for Intel’s game and VR development program. “It’s not a 9 to 5 job. Maybe it’s in their DNA.”

While life at the forefront of VR can be nerve-wracking, there are opportunities for these passionate innovators. Corporate institutions with a vested interest in VR are wising up to the importance of a creative community with diverse do-it-yourselfers.

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

Intel is also working alongside small studios to support innovation in the VR software space. In August 2016, the company invited indie studio Chronosapien to demo their VR music 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 based in Orlando.

For now, indies are carrying the torch for VR, but it is a heavy torch. The challenge that lies ahead is not only in advocating, but in using the technology to its fullest potential.

According to Ribeiro, “In my hometown [of São Luís], VR is still a legend.”

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