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Halo and Destiny composer Marty O’Donnell on VR: ‘No one really knows what’s going to work’

Highwire Games founder and ex-Bungie composer Marty O'Donnell speaks at Power of Play in Bellevue on Friday.
Highwire Games founder and ex-Bungie composer Marty O’Donnell speaks at Power of Play in Bellevue on Friday.

Marty O’Donnell’s new video game development studio is making a virtual reality game, but he’s still not totally convinced that VR is the “next big thing.”

O’Donnell, the ex-Bungie composer who created music for epic games like Halo and Destiny, spoke on a panel during Friday’s Power of Play conference in Bellevue, Wash.

A CES attendee tries on Sony's personal virtual reality headset.
A CES attendee tries on Sony’s personal virtual reality headset in 2014.

The hour-long discussion centered around the future of virtual reality games and entertainment. O’Donnell, who had a somewhat dramatic departure from Bungie in 2014, now runs a Seattle-based studio called Highwire Games that is developing a Playstation VR-exclusive game called Golem.

But O’Donnell cautioned that “there’s no market for VR” yet, which makes it difficult for developers to invest time and money into building VR games when nobody knows who’s actually going to buy those games.

“No one really knows yet what works in VR and what’s going to be the big hit,” he explained. “We hope VR is, as a platform or a genre or whatever, the next big thing. But I’m not 100 percent convinced yet.”

O’Donnell said that VR hardware companies like Oculus and Sony need to “make really good deals” and “make it attractive for developers to make stuff and potentially fail.”

“We ended up going with Sony because Sony gave us a deal,” he said, in reference to Highwire’s Golem. “We can’t afford to just be eating ramen noodles in our parents basement, trying to be excited about new technology and hope that something works out at some point.”

From left to right: VREAL founder Todd Hooper; Highwire Games founder Marty O'Donnell; Carbon Games co-founder; Oculus Head of Developer Anna Sweet.
From left to right: VREAL founder Todd Hooper; Highwire Games founder Marty O’Donnell; Carbon Games co-founder James Green; and Oculus Head of Developer Strategy Anna Sweet.

James Green, co-founder of Seattle-based Carbon Games, responded by noting that developers should take a “mobile approach” when developing for virtual reality platforms by controlling costs and iterating quickly.

Carbon Games co-founder James Green.
Carbon Games co-founder James Green.

“You don’t want to slave away on one game for three years, then take a chance of it succeeding or not,” he said. “… That iterative type of exploration is critical right now. If you can get a few games out in a short amount of time, you’ll be much better positioned in a couple of years when the market is big enough where you could make enough money.”

O’Donnell countered and asked Green how his studio is currently funding its time and money toward VR development.

“Oculus was kind enough to offer us funding because we showed them something,” Green said, later adding that “nobody is funding ideas — they want to make sure you can actually do something.”

Oculus, which last year earmarked $10 million to fund independent game developers, says it is “doing what it can” to help developers take the VR leap. Anna Sweet, head of developer strategy at Oculus, also spoke on the panel and agreed with Green. She noted that “we want to see what your vision is,” and “you learn the most from shipping.”

Oculus Head of Developer Strategy Anna Sweet.
Oculus Head of Developer Strategy Anna Sweet.

Sweet, who spoke earlier in the day about encouraging developers to start building for VR, added that it’s a great time for independent developers to start experimenting with VR — and not just for games, either.

“We all love games and are thinking about what games to make, but virtual reality has the ability to change every industry,” she noted. “It’s hard to think of an industry that doesn’t have a cool application for virtual reality. The developers who have skills to build things with engines like Unity and Unreal will be needed by companies across all industries to build those immersive and interactive experiences. There is a ton of opportunity in this market.”

Despite the uncertainty around the future of VR, Green noted that “if you like to fail a lot, then VR is a good place to experiment.”

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve had a feeling of being a new developer again.”

Todd Hooper, founder of Seattle-based VR startup VREAL, moderated the panel and asked what the “black swan” moment for virtual reality will be. Here were the answers:

Gear VR

O’Donnell: “I will just make it easy — it will be something nobody expects. It will be a black swan, and if you can predict what it is, it’s probably not really a black swan. What’s for fun for us is that we want to be there and contribute to whatever that thing is. Maybe we get to be the ones who stumble in on what it is.

The hardware will only get better because people buy the hardware, and people are only going to buy the hardware because there’s content that is compelling enough to buy it. That’s just the way it is. You just can’t have cool hardware that is compelling for a 30-second demo, and have people say, ‘yeah, I really want to invest it in it.’ There has to be content that most people play and I don’t think we know what that is yet. But there are a bunch of us trying.”

Green: “I actually think there is probably a good answer to the black swan moment. I see it as a convergence of a few different things that are all heading toward a trajectory right now. It’s going to be a VR headset that doesn’t have wires so you’re not constrained to anything. You also won’t put your phone in it. Whoever has a completely self-contained VR headset that has tracking on it — that’s one of the big components, so nobody has to worry about which phone do they have, does it have good tracking, do they have a good PC, are they attached to something, etc. Anybody should be able to put it on and have a good time. That is one component.

The newest HTC Vive, spotted at CES in Las Vegas.
The newest HTC Vive, spotted at CES in Las Vegas.

The other thing is you’ll have a few years of developers making really cool games. You’ll have some mature, multi-million dollar projects that are coming to fruition. When they hear this hardware is coming, they’ll hold back a few of them and then, boom, you’ll get hit with this hardware and they’ll come in at a semi-affordable price point, and you’ll be able to go into a store, put it on, be blown away, and walk out with that device for maybe $500, all in. That’s going to be that moment when it’ll just be, how many can you make? I already think VR is incredibly compelling. Give me two minutes and a Rift and somebody who has never tried VR and I can turn them into a VR convert instantly, and if they have $800 they’ll spend it right there.”

Sweet: “I think it’s a combination. We build hardware and we’re always trying to push the boundaries of what that hardware can do. Having a setup in Best Buy, for instance, is awesome because the minute you put the headset on you’re blown away. But you won’t keep them there without the amazing content. Both pieces are really important.

I do think that ultimately, virtual reality is about more than games. Gaming in virtual reality is amazing and gamers are going to be so excited and want to do it. But for your Mom or my Mom, there are all these other amazing verticals that we are just only at beginning of how to explore. Travel, social experiences, how do you shop in VR — there are just so many things to explore. It’s yet to be seen what it is that everyone is going to want to do when they put on the headset.”

Source: Geekwire Games

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