NYCC: Comics For Oculus And Gear VR Add A New Dimension To Storytelling
Comics make the leap into virtual reality. Image via Madefire.
The floor of New York Comic Con has no shortage of cool and spectacular attractions, but some of the biggest crowds of the first few days could be found at the booth of Madefire, a Bay Area company debuting its platform for presenting comics in virtual reality. Fans lined up to don Oculus and Samsung Gear VR headsets and plunge headlong into the worlds of Batman, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and more, experiencing the stories and art in a completely new dimension.
The combination of comics, the world’s hottest content at the moment, and VR, the new technology kid on the block starving for good content, seems almost over-determined from a commercial standpoint. But does it actually work from a user experience perspective, and can it succeed commercially? Madefire’s approach provides one good answer to those questions.
Taking the Plunge.
Madefire has been producing “motion books” – digital comics with overlays, panorama, limited animation and sound effects – for mobile devices and tablets since 2012, and launched on AppleTV last fall. The company developed its own technology platform to simplify the creation of rich multimedia comics using layered effects, and uses this same basic approach to bring comics into the VR environment.
In Madefire’s VR world, the flat comics panels appear on a 3D “soundstage,” as if you were viewing them in an IMAX theatre. Dialogue and some story elements are layered on, within the main field of view. Occasionally, full-page panels expand to fill the entire screen, or wrap around in 360-degree panoramas, to provide a full immersive experience. Some titles feature ambient sound effects and music stings. Readers control the page flow using the controller button on the side of the head-mounted display.
The demos at NYCC offered a glimpse of the storytelling potential of the platform. In DC’s “Injustice: Gods Among Us,” we perch with Batman overlooking Gotham City as the Dark Knight laments how his world has been usurped by a fascist-minded Superman. Panels and dialogue layer across the screen in a smooth, intuitive story flow.
In the adventure story “Mono,” an original piece by Madefire co-founders Ben Wolstenholme and Liam Sharp, the panels build to a reveal of a panoramic establishing shot in full 360-degree 3D. The high resolution artwork fills the field of view, allowing readers to savor the details that Wolstenholme drew into the scene before moving on to the next sequence.
Madefire CEO Ben Wolstenholme and artist Dave Gibbons (Watchmen) at the company’s booth at NYCC. Photo: Rob Salkowitz
Is it comics? Is it VR?
Madefire’s motion books, which recapitulate earlier efforts to add various digital effects to comics from decades’ past, has been controversial within the creative community. Purists insist that the static nature and page composition elements of comics are fundamental to the medium, and “augmenting” them with technology distracts from the simplicity that makes comics appealing.
You’d think that adding yet another layer of technology – VR – to the experience would exacerbate these problems, but Madefire’s approach actually clarifies the issue. The high-definition presentation in the virtual world focuses the reader’s attention on the hand-drawn artwork, and maintains the critical ability of readers to control the pacing. The layering of panels and selective, rather than ubiquitous, use of full-screen immersion effects, recreates the artist’s ability to use page composition, panel shape and panel placement as storytelling devices in the context of the digital world.
With VR, sometimes less is more.
Madefire also made a shrewd choice in how it uses – and does not use – the capabilities of VR to present the story. Rather than making every aspect of the comic an open-ended opportunity to explore a 3D environment, which would quickly prove to be a wearying gimmick as well as a prohibitive production cost, it makes the reading experience vivid but mostly passive. The occasional opportunities for motion and depth represent artistic and story choices.
I think this kind of semi-immersive media experience, where the VR environment provides a venue for viewing “flat” comics, video, music and other kinds of content, will be the most common use-case scenario if and when VR becomes mainstream consumer technology. There simply isn’t the capacity or revenue model to produce high quality 3D interactive content at scale anytime soon, and even if there were, it would be too intense for anyone who doesn’t want to live inside a videogame. Most people will use their VR headsets or smartphones to access ordinary content in larger-than-life HD format, providing the illusion of space in cramped quarters like airplanes or tiny apartments.
Taking this approach allows Madefire to access casual VR users and rapidly bring a library of over 25,000 digital comics (2500 in enhanced motion format) to customers by the holiday season, according to Madefire CEO Ben Wolstenholme.
A Medium in Search of a Market?
The big question for companies like Madefire is whether the emerging consumer VR market is robust enough to provide enough revenue on an ongoing basis. Madefire offers their app and some content free via the Oculus store, but sells most of its comics for anywhere from 99 cents to $3.99 each through its platform. It is unclear whether VR users will pay $1-$4 for individual content experiences that can be consumed in 15-20 minutes (e.g., VR comics) when richer content is available through subscription services that will invariably find their way into the VR world sooner rather than later.
This is, strictly speaking, a question for comics publishers, not the distributors, but to the extent that comics is trying to find new readers in the digital world where audiences have nearly unlimited entertainment options, comics’ traditional pricing model could be a barrier to adoption.
Madefire has struggled with adoption barriers even in the more mainstream arena of digital comics for mobile devices. In four years, the company has not made much of a dent in the market share of the leader, Amazon’s comiXology, although it has done well for at least some of the publishers apps that it serves as the white-label technology provider. At the moment, comiXology has made no announcements in the VR space, which leaves the path clear of major competitors – assuming that there is a path at all.
Last week, Madefire closed a $6.5 million Series B financing round to give it some more runway. The investors who wrote those checks are making three big bets: one on the market prospects for VR as consumer technology; one on the opportunity to sell those consumers comics within the VR world; and a third on the ability of Madefire to execute.
Madefire has held up its end, at least in terms of its creative and technology approach. Its VR platform combines the essence of comics storytelling with the vividness of immersive VR, and makes it possible to bring lots of content online quickly, at reasonable cost. Whether the VR market, and the comics market potential within that audience, mature quickly enough for this to be viable, remains to be seen.