There are some studios that cause videogame fans to froth at the mouth when thinking about what they could do in virtual reality (VR). Seeing Naughty Dog bring its flawless brand of storytelling to the technology, or getting to experience one of Bethesda’s celebrated open worlds in VR is what some enthusiasts have been dreaming about ever since they first heard the term ‘Oculus Rift’. But, over the 3 years of painstaking patience and eager anticipation, it’s become clear that these AAA studios aren’t what will truly drive VR going forward, at least not for its first few years of consumer availability. It’s not the 100-man teams that will prove VR’s worth but instead the groups of 1 – 10 passionate developers that form the increasingly important indie scene.
The indie revolution couldn’t have come at a better time. Around a year before Palmer Luckey began to tinker with what would become the Oculus Rift, the first true indie success stories were popping up. Limbo and Super Meat Boy both became much-talked about Xbox 360 digital releases. Fast forward a few years on and the scene is thriving, with new releases week-in, week-out across PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U and PC. The best part? It means that indies have been with VR from the word go. As soon as the first development kits for the Oculus Rift became available the scene was there to support it.
Some 3 years on from that kit’s release and the benefits are clear. Indies are creating some of the most unique, immersive and inventive content for VR. Whether it’s through engaging stories that are innovatively told, refining classic mechanics to fit the technology or inventing entirely new ones, this is a scene that’s already ensuring that VR won’t see a content drought and will have something for just about everyone.
Examples of this are everywhere. New VR experiences are popping up through fan sites, community channels and more every day. Touring the halls of Gamescom earlier this month revealed a HMD around practically every corner with something new to show. In the space of just one day VRFocus travelled with alien dinosaurs, climbed on the backs of real ones, explored the desolate remains of a real mental asylum, and even performed some musical neck-strengthening exercises. The creativity and passion from this corner of the industry is seemingly endless.
The negative (and ridiculous) connotations surrounding indie development are also quickly dissolving. Epic Games and Unity Technologies have both made strides to make their respective middleware, Unreal Engine 4 and the Unity Engine, affordable to developers of any shape and size, allowing anyone to benefit from an advanced set of tools. Endnight Games’ The Forest, for example, is one of the most visually striking titles of the past few years and it’s running on Unity and due to support VR in the future. The same goes for XING: The Land Beyond, created by a team of 3 at White Lotus Interactive on Unreal Engine 4. These are full, 3D experiences that are among the most promising projects out there right now, even stacked up next to some larger studio’s such as Insomniac Games’ offerings.
These teams aren’t being restricted by the uncertain future of VR that’s currently holding larger publishers back. EA announced at E3 2015 that, perhaps someday, it would support VR. Surely the company is already working on some prototypes but the reality is that it’s already being beaten to the punch. Battlefield Heroes in VR? That’d be World War Toons. Using the Star Wars IP? There are some pretty excellent space sims already available and on the horizon. Indies are, quite frankly, showing some larger companies up by getting on at the ground floor with VR.
There are some excellent test beds for developers to experiment with too. Samsung’s Gear VR mobile HMD is currently in a fascinating position in that it’s consumer-available, but really not. The released Innovator Editions for the kit are allowing creators such as E McNeill and Fireproof Games to release their titles to a selective audience at a premium, with the promise of a wider install base coming along with a true consumer launch later on. The result is a platform with a diverse set of experiences from developers that aren’t afraid to take risks both in terms of mechanics and platforms.
Even over on PlayStation 4, where indies are now starting to thrive, many of the most promising upcoming projects come from smaller studios. MixedBag is bringing its Futuridium series to Project Morpheus with some surprising results while ideas such as KO-OP’s GNOG are promising VR experiences unlike anything else. Indies are deservingly dominating this technology right now, and that’s set to pay off in a big way over the course of the next few years.
Without the support of independent developers, VR could be in a far more worrying position right now. This is the scene that has the power to resurrect entire platforms, saving systems such as the PlayStation Vita from content droughts and providing the innovation that many of us crave. Now VR is set to bring indies into the spotlight in a big way, and that couldn’t be more exciting.