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Oculus VR is only a few weeks away from releasing the Rift headset. And while that kicks off high-end virtual reality on PC, it’s the end of an uncertain journey for developers building games for these devices.

One of the earliest games due out for the Rift this spring is a sci-fi explorer called Pollen from the newly formed developer Mindfield Games. Pollen looks like the kind of releases we’ve played for years on PC and consoles in terms of production values, genre, and style — and this gives it the aura that it is one of the most fully fleshed out experiences coming in the first months of the Rift. In a lecture at the Casual Connect Europe event in Amsterdam last week, Mindfield cofounder and project lead Olli Sinerma explained what led his team to create Pollen and why, in the end, he decided against making a VR-only game.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs predicts that virtual and augmented reality (which combines elements of VR with the real world) will grow into a $110 billion business by 2020. Another firm, tech adviser Digi-Capital, thinks the sector could reach $120 billion in the same time frame. Clearly, that’s the kind of money that will attract all kinds of publishers, developers, and more. But those numbers weren’t around in 2013 when Mindfield formed under the leadership of Sinerma. Instead, it was the excitement about the potential for VR that convinced him to leave his cozy job to take on this new venture.

“We began in a cafe,” said Sinerma. “We started there because it was pretty cheap. Two dollars for a coffee, and you could sit there all day. It was a bit of change because my previous employer was Unity, and I had a much better salary and benefits there. But this was more fun.”

Discovering VR

2013 was early for this latest VR movement. Most developers were only using Oculus’s crowdfunded development kit (DK1) to see what it was all about. Unlike the consumer version (CV1) that debuts in March, this unit could only tell when you were twisting your head. It also had a low-resolution screen and other quirks with its display that Oculus VR has since solved or improved upon.

But DK1 was a decent starting point, and Mindfield used it to understand the various aspects of VR.

“We did a lot of testing,” he said. “We did three months of preproduction where we tried to figure out things like: What is virtual reality? Can you develop games for it? Should you do something for mobile or PC? And what will the devices be in the future?”

Sinerma talked about one test where he drank a bunch of beer while driving around in Euro Truck Simulator 2 for eight hours.

“Pretty much what I learned is that I didn’t have any sickness, but when I took off the headset, the resolution of the real world was amazing,” he said.

Other tests, however, revealed a lot more about the nature of VR, and — more important — what Mindfield wanted to do with it.

For example, the studio found that horror games works too well.

“Doing horror in VR is really intimidating,” said Sinerma. “It’s not actually fun. So, no horror.”

Sinerma said that further research revealed that seated experiences work well in VR. He described a game like the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window, where the player uses binoculars to figure out who is the murderer by gazing through the windows of another building. And he talked about some of the other upcoming VR releases like Eve: Valkyrie, the space-combat sim that puts you into the seat of an X-wing-like starfighter.

“[We also] learned that we will not do a seated experience,” said Sinerma. “And we didn’t want to do a space shooter or racing simulator.”

Sinerma says that those kinds of games work right out of the box — especially something like a racing game. So if you have something like Forza Motorsport 6 (a racing game that’s only on the Xbox One), it would just take a few quick adjustments from the developer to add decent support for VR.

“As a five-person team, we’d be battling with bigger studios that have 400 developers and six years of legacy code,” he said. “It’s about choosing your battles, and this wasn’t one we wanted to fight.”

But this process of elimination helped Mindfield figure out the battle that it could feel good about sinking its resources into.

Making Pollen

So Mindfield was making a VR game that isn’t about sitting down in a cockpit or a horror game. That left the developer with a clear alternative.

“We wanted to do locomotion — moving with your feet,” he said. “And it’s the most difficult thing to do.”

The problem is that you head doesn’t like it when your eyes tell you that you’re moving and your body tells you that you’re stationary. You can get something like the Virtuix Omni treadmill, which is massive and enables players to walk in any direction. You could also get the HTC Vive, which has “room scale” VR — although, in that situation, the size of the room limits your scale.

But instead of waiting for those other, more expensive add-ons and alternatives, Mindfield decided to figure out how to make a game where you can move around in VR without getting sick.

And that’s why the studio settled on a slow exploration game in a derelict station with lots of stuff for you to look at.

“The most important thing about Pollen is that it is a slow-paced first-person game,” he said. “Because at a slow pace, you don’t get sick. You also have time to do whatever you’re doing, and you have the option to move as fast as you like. And you can explore the things you like.”

This didn’t fix all the problems. Sinerma noted that play testers have revealed that spiral staircases are a nightmare. Most people get queasy and can’t handle simultaneously moving up or down in 3D while spinning in a circle. But if you put in the right amount of head bob and make a standard staircase that has only one bend, most people are fine.

Making Pollen … for a standard PC

Early in the development of Pollen, Mindfield determined that it could not make a game that was only for VR.

“We also decided that we’d make it into a PC game,” he said. “We wanted to make it into a virtual reality game first, but we knew the market — whenever it comes — will be small. So if we want to stay alive, we need to make a game that is also fun on PC.”

That led to Mindfield putting the Pollen up on the indie-game submission program Greenlight on the Steam PC digital-distribution platform. This is where community members can vote on whether or not they want to see a game on the Steam store.

Pollen was approved in one day.

Now, Pollen has a proven marketplace where Mindfield can make a return on its investment. But this highlights one of the first stark truths of making a game for VR: Whatever the analysts are predicting, you can’t count on seeing a lot of money in this space anytime soon.

This is different from other paradigm shifts in gaming. When PC 3D accelerator cards started coming out in the mid-1990s, only a few games supported that expensive hardware. And the people who bought the graphics cards rushed like a herd to every new 3D game that hit the market.

But when GamesBeat asked Sinerma about this possibility happening for VR, he said that was his assumption early on. But it’s not how he sees the market today.

“At this point, there’s already something 400 virtual reality games available, so we can’t count on that,” he said.

To illustrate his point, check out the Google Play market for apps that are compatible with the Cardboard device that enables you to use VR by sticking your phone in a cheap box. Dozens of apps are already out, and most of this software will run on Rift as well.

“That’s why we are splitting development so that we are doing both the VR and PC version,” he said.

That way the game has a guaranteed audience. And if — by some chance — Pollen establishes itself as the must-have game for everyone with an Oculus Rift, then Mindfield is in a position where it can take full advantage of that.

Disclaimer: The Casual Connect organization paid for my trip to the event. Our coverage remains fair. 

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