What It's Like Inside An Indie VR Game Studio

What It's Like Inside An Indie VR Game Studio
January 20, 2017

Virtual reality is going to be huge. Eventually, some form of the medium will change and probably dominate the way we consume media.


At present, however, the technology is in its infancy, and a lot of the fine tuning has yet to be figured out. How do you move in the virtual world? How are sounds incorporated into a virtual experience? What happens to those sounds when you turn your head? How do you interact with objects that are virtual? 


The people at NYC-based DreamSail Games, an indie VR game studio, are on the cutting edge of virtual reality technology. They spend their days answering those questions and building virtual worlds. We caught up with Justin Sanders, Founder and Artist at DreamSail Games (pictured above) to see just what it's like to play Old Testament God to a virtual world. 


So, this is an indie VR game studio. What exactly is it that you guys do here? 


I'd like to put it this way. Some wise, white-bearded magician presents an arcane blindfold to you and then ties it around your eyes. He whispers that it will allow you to see and experience anything you can describe... What do you ask for first?


That is the situation we find ourselves in when we walk into the studio every morning and flip on our dev-kits. There are so many potential ideas you can visit. All you can do is prepare your list of ideas and hope that you'll have the time to visit them all!

With so many ideas, how do you decide what to focus on creating?


The promise of VR is fascinating to everyone, but we know that making a product that tries to please them all is a fool's errand. Instead, we're designing games with 'indulgence' at the forefront of our decision making and then allowing practicality to guide us to the launch date. We source our wildest dreams, enjoy the process of making them real, and then bring them to market for people to experience.


I think the majority of our initial products end up being 'fish-out-of-water' adventures. It's a story term that applies very naturally to VR and yields premises such as, "You and Godzilla just had a body swap, how do you reckon with Neo-Tokyo's mechanized police?" Or, "You discover that you've become a levitating superhero who must save a non-terrestrial world from extinction."

What sorts of backgrounds and skills does it take to build a game in VR? 


It may make sense to talk about game development in general first. Making a digital game is a multi-disciplinary endeavor that usually boils down to four major roles: there's programming, art, audio and game design. Of course, beyond development, there are other specialties needed to make a functional business. You need marketing, project management, and HR to name a few. Some indie-teams try to get by without that framework in place, but life has chaos and you need to be prepared to manage it.


Is VR creating any new job roles? Certainly someone has to design neo-Tokyo's mechanized police force. 


Those four main development roles I mentioned are really just general categories that all branch into specialties that companies hire for. To name a few examples of specific jobs in this industry, "Environment artists" spend their time building 3D worlds; "technical artists" act as a bridge between art and programming; "AI programmers" develop the rules by which Non-Player Characters behave and "systems designers" applies to a kind of game designer that focuses on perfecting the math for an economy of interaction that could take place within a game.

What do you look for in a VR developer?


I would say that in addition to the mentioned skills and backgrounds, a VR developer needs to understand how to make logical choices for a brand new medium. You have to maintain the discipline to sacrifice what you think should work for what is proven to work. People have a hard time emotionally detaching themselves from the ideas that excite them.


Sometimes you have to deal with a team of people who disagree with your direction, and you need to be able to compromise. It comes down to the quality of your judgment, and it's the biggest trait I hire for. Great judgment is kind of the king of all traits — and is exceptionally difficult to train people in.

What language do you code in?


The bread and butter languages for game development right now are C++ and C#. We used C# to develop Blade Ballet (our first title) and that was because we were using the Unity game engine. We have since switched to Unreal for VR development and our staff has transitioned to writing in C++. For the majority of them, it was a fairly new language, but I think leveraging the quality of Unreal's highly manicured toolset is worth the effort. 

VR technology is in its infancy. What are some of the things you are trying to overcome? 


Yeah, VR's a baby right now. The biggest hurdle for VR currently is avoiding experiences that incite motion sickness during gameplay. It's really the python that's constricting the entire medium right now. All developers can do is create game experiences that revolve around actions and circumstances that are nauseating. Hardware developers of headsets will be scratching their heads over this one for awhile.


We may find out that hardware innovations can't prevent that natural cause-and-effect, and that some VR experiences may naturally trigger nausea in the human brain. To solve this problem is to figure out how to trick the brain into no longer feeling sick when we actually should. 


Another challenge is about defining what 'good taste' is for a brand new interactive medium. VR is so new that the world doesn't yet have a consensus as to how athletic games should be, how long games should be and what kinds of game experiences it is best suited for.


To develop in VR is to be a taste-maker right now. Everything you do is a report on what worked and what didn't. Over time, the collective effort of VR developers and consumers will write the bible on what works for the medium. DreamSail will have to make some judgments as to what fun in VR is. We'll have to embrace the tried and true method of iterative prototyping to determine that, but at some point we're going to stumble across mechanics that are unprecedented. It's up to us whether we should take the risk to see if those jive with people browsing the app stores. Contending with the unknown is a scary thing. 

Any recommendations for people who want to get into VR game creation? 


My best advice to anyone who decides that they want to develop video games is to figure out what job pipelines exist for Indie and AAA (large) studios and where you fall into that pipeline. You need to be as specific as you can about this. 


If you're worried about being lost in a crowd of people who have similar ambitions, don't sweat it. Go for it anyway, and try your best to stand out. There will be jobs similar to the one you are trying to get that will lead you in the right direction as your career and portfolio matures.


There are a lot of ways to break into VR game development. Once you have developed a skill set that you think would be useful to a development team, go online and try to find indie developers who need help. Register on the Unreal or Unity engine forums and introduce yourself. Find VR developer communities and forums; they are everywhere. You'll find someone the moment you start looking and your adventure will begin, I promise!

What's with the horse head?


It is one of the many office toys we have around DreamSail! In the case of the head specifically, its just a gag one of our programmers, Neil Sveri, brought in.


The funny story with it now is that it has become a mythical entity to the people who watch our live streams. The other day he wore it on to one of our streams and stayed silent [in the background] the entire time. So our viewer community went wild over it, trying to figure out who or what 'Horseman' was."

What are you excited for in the future?


You wanna talk about the future, my man? Well listen, the future may as well be now! DreamSail employees are lucky enough to be living at the zenith of a real-world cyberpunk adventure narrative where the story is about a bunch of young creatives who dared to fathom actual alternate worlds of interaction for people to explore. We are living in what was science fiction.


I know how our story ends too! Driven by our internal lust for adventure, we gritted our teeth and made as many games as we possibly could here. Some titles financially flopped, while others held our ship aloft just as we thought they would. We'll learn from the mistakes and celebrate the victories until we've grown weary of exploring development. 

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