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Not “Just A Mobile Game”

When Oculus was acquired by Facebook, I liked to joke that I was “making a Facebook game”. Since announcing that Darknet will be a launch title on Gear VR, I’ve been saying that I’m not only making a Facebook game, but it’s a “mobile game” too! It’s pretty much Candy Crush VR at this point.

I worry, though, that other people might not get the joke. The term “mobile game” has a lot of baggage; gamers seem to think of mobile games as short-form, unambitious, casual games that just can’t compete with the stuff you can get on consoles and PC. There’s some truth to that, but not so much when it comes to VR. Moreover, I really don’t want people to think of Darknet that way, since I’ve always intended for it to be a deeper strategic game (albeit still fairly small and focused).

The key point is this: the medium of “mobile VR” is much more about “VR” than “mobile”. Once you have the headset on, you don’t feel like you’re using a cell phone. You feel like you’re in virtual reality! Mobile VR does involve some real limitations (positional tracking, battery, performance), but these factors need to be evaluated in the context of individual games. How much is the game actually hurt by these limitations? In the case of Darknet (and plenty of other games): not much.

Unfortunately, it seems that people are indeed grouping Gear VR with “mobile games”. I was recently part of a roundtable discussion on Reverend Kyle’s podcast to discuss Gear VR, and the tone was mostly optimistic. His next episode was an excellent follow-up discussion, and the new guests introduced some healthy skepticism into the conversation. That said, I was bothered by the way that Kyle and his guests talked about the upcoming games for the device. They talked about how the point of mobile gaming was to kill a few minutes while you stood in line somewhere, which is naturally a bad context for VR. They talked about how the available game catalogue will be dominated by dozens of “face shooters”. They talked about how the device will probably be used for 5 minutes at a time, perhaps for non-interactive whiz-bang novelty content.

That’s not really fair for the bigger, deeper games that just happen to run well on a cell phone. It feels like the VR community is starting to accept a particular vision of the future, in which mobile VR is only good for viewing media, playing crappy shovelware games, and demoing VR to others. I want to interject: that doesn’t have to be the case! I imagine that I’ll be using my Gear VR primarily for deeper, long-form gaming content and that I’ll mostly be using it at home, where I can easily recharge it. The advantage of mobile VR, from my perspective, is primarily price and convenience, not mobility. It’s the entry-level option for consumer-grade VR.

Perhaps the underlying issue is that so few full VR games have been released. A lot of developers (myself included) have been waiting until a consumer headset is available before we release our games. So far, we’ve mostly only seen small games and short demos, but my hope is that the launch of Gear VR will open the floodgates. I’m looking forward to trying the finished versions of Dreadhalls, Land’s End, Lucky’s Tale, Omega Agent, Final Burn, and VR Quest. From what I can tell, these are not cheap, 5-minute shovelware games. Instead, they’re the first wave of real consumer-oriented VR titles.

At the very least, I can promise that Darknet will still be designed for depth, as it always has. I haven’t had to compromise to get the game working on Gear VR. A lot of people told me that they played Ciess for an hour or more, and I’m aiming to keep people having fun in Darknet for at least ten times longer than that.

I may have a serious communication challenge, however. For one thing, I won’t know whether the average Gear VR buyer will expect “mobile game” prices or “VR game” prices. My mind is made up on that matter, though: I’m building an ambitious game, and I plan to sell it for what I think it’s worth. I’m not going to charge $0.99 just because it’s technically running on a cell phone.

Beyond that, I have to figure out how to talk about the later PC release of Darknet. The mobile version of Darknet is a full game in its own right, but I plan to keep on expanding it for the eventual release on the consumer version of the Oculus Rift. Darknet was originally designed for PC, and I don’t want anyone to assume that the PC version is just a crappy port of a mobile game. I’m thinking about using a subtitle (e.g. “Darknet: Wireless Edition” on mobile) to make it clear that the PC version is the bigger, final version, but I’m not sure.

Still, for all my hand-wringing, I realize that this isn’t something I should worry about too much. Ultimately, everything will be decided by the games themselves. I don’t really know how many other developers are aiming to build deep gaming experiences, and I don’t know how many developers are just building short throwaway amusements. What I do know is this: once it’s all released, it will stand for itself, and the players will quickly figure out what mobile VR is really good for.

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