Another World: How We Opened 50 VR Arenas, Survived the Pandemic, and Reached a $50,000 Monthly Turnover Rate
Two years ago, I told how we opened our first 13 virtual reality arenas in 9 countries. This article continues the story: 100 contracts, 50 open arenas, transition to Oculus Quest, the pandemic, new games, and first investments.
Devices Evolution: Optitrack, HTC Vive, and Oculus Quest
Before 2019, VR arenas operated on Optitrack. Ultra-fast cameras are installed around the entire playing area to determine the trackers’ position on the players’ hands, feet, and heads. Then everyone switched to the HTC headsets and the HTC tracking system, which covers a much smaller area but costs $600 (Optitrack prices start at $20,000).
In the autumn of 2019, Oculus changed the VR arena market with the release of the Oculus Quest VR headset. Now the headset can itself determine its own and joysticks’ position in space by data from the built-in cameras. At the end of 2020, the company improved its design and released the second Oculus headset version with an increased resolution and a more powerful processor.
Oculus allows you not to limit the gaming area, not to carry a computer behind your back, and involve any number of users. A complete set of equipment for one player with Oculus costs eight times less than a similarly functional set with HTC Vive: ~$500 for Oculus and ~$4000 for HTC (most of it is a gaming PC in a backpack case with the batteries).
However, not everything is so rosy: Oculus Quest is still an android phone inside VR headset. It means that its efficiency is several times less than that of a full-fledged computer, and it is more difficult to develop games on it.
Despite the difficulty, our arenas completely switched to Standalone VR headsets at the end of 2019. In three months we managed to:
• Rework the device manager monitoring the status of all equipment. Our games started to run on Oculus (unfortunately, without fog or dynamic light).
• Get rid of the 4-player limit. Now it was possible to play with a group of up to 15 people at the same time! The team-to-team game began to resemble the good old Quake Deathmatch.
Things were going great: we increased the throughput, simplified logistics, purchased high-quality equipment at reasonable prices, and opened new points in Spain, Australia, Romania, and dozens of the Eastern European cities. However, everything changed when it came…
Our team faced a complete halt in sales in all countries and closing of almost all arenas.
We cut everything we could: we switched development to support mode, reduced teams in all areas along with advertising budgets, and enlisted the support of partners ourselves. At the peak of the crisis, only one employee remained in the company along with the founders.
Partnership with Another World
Even before the pandemic, at a 2019 Orlando conference, we met the main Another World investor. The guys worked on Optitrack, they had one game for HTC with a throughput of up to 12 people per session and one brand store. The location was promoted, its turnover reached $60,000 per month and $85,000 at the peak.
The Another World product was in the premium segment, where the cost per arena starts at half a million dollars. They competed with SandboxVR and The Void (which closed permanently during the pandemic). There were about 20 people at the AW development, while we had 4.
When the pandemic hit, Another World closed its only point, and the premium segment sales became out of reach. After the conference in Orlando, we kept in touch, shared news, played each other’s games, and discussed the latest updates and bugs in HTC and Oculus.
During the pandemic, we discussed how we can get through this crisis by bringing companies together. After many days of negotiation, our 40 closed partners, two games, and shared ambitions got an initial valuation of $1 million. Before that, we developed the entire project entirely with our own money.
We shook hands, giving 20% of the company. We assembled the entire key team and expanded the development department with the money raised. Apart from money, we received the expensive Another World brand: the guys invested in marketing and promotional materials, beautiful 3D models with animations for their future game, which was not destined to be released (spoiler: at that moment).
After a few months of the pandemic, the governments began to ease up on restrictions. In some countries, partners gradually opened in a limited operating mode. People began to show interest in the product again, which was facilitated by a more attractive brand, and only 4 months after the pandemic started — in the early summer of 2021 — we had our first sale.
It took us about 9 months to restore the company to its previous turnover. In the second half of 2021, the company reached the previous level of sales, attendance, and turnover. We opened 4 new points every month, while the monthly turnover was about $50,000. 10 arenas did not survive the pandemic and were permanently closed.
Development: New Modes and Additional Maps
Currently, we have three PvP games (where the players compete against each other) and three PvE games (the players compete against the computer). The first PvP game showed high popularity among partners: a large throughput of up to 14 people opened the doors for corporate parties and birthdays, and friends’ competitions gave a good return.
The game geometry shows two three-story towers that are opposite each other. You can move in the towers by using the elevator, and between them — with the help of a teleport. This allowed us to increase the gaming space by 6 times as compared to the physical one (and became one of the key advantages as compared to competitors).
To prevent the players from colliding, their physical position is displayed as “the human form ghosts”. It didn’t enter our minds immediately: at first, the bodies were shapeless. On testing, it became clear that a person who doesn’t clearly see another person takes them for a game object, which they want to go through. Imagine how it could end (and ended a couple of times).
Rolling up our sleeves, we developed two more maps and added more modes. We added “team to team” and “points capture” to the complete enemy destruction games Deathmatch. We developed two new maps with more complex geometry for the players who had already tested the first map.
For example, there are only two virtual spaces — the floor and the ceiling — in Space Battle, which were designed specifically for large arenas. The playing team sees the opponents running across their ceiling. You can move between sites using a teleport. VR allows “spicing up” as compared to classic airsoft or paintball.
VR for Kids
People often come to VR arenas with children who want to play more than all the adults put together. Our games are too scary and complex for the younger generation, so we have developed a simple and “friendly” Ghost Mansion game especially for younger guests.
Children run around the playground, catching ghosts at speed and competing, while adults save the world from a mysterious obelisk or try to survive in a zombie apocalypse.
Colony Code Red: Coming Soon to the Arena
We got high-quality 3D models of the game from the Another World company, which worked on HTC Vive and full-fledged computers. Having looked at them, we couldn’t resist and got caught up in almost a year of developing a new flagship game on Oculus Quest. The main task was to keep the level of graphics as high as possible. Soon we will know whether it worked out or not: since April 2022, the game has been under beta testing with our partners. I believe that the level of graphics is not inferior to the games from the Oculus store top. While the marketing videos for the new game are in progress, I’ll show you a screenshot taken in the office.
And minute gameplay of one of the locations in the Colony Code Red game (the full game version consists of 7 locations and 30 minutes of play). The video was filmed on site in a 25x15 feet office, that is, ~350 feet².
To make it more brutal, we developed cases for Oculus Quest 2 joysticks and set up their manufacturing. The players gain +100 shooting confidence against alien monsters with cases and vibration vests.
Device Manager 2.0
All our games were developed for HTC headsets and four players. It was problematic to use it on 15 people: the headsets did not fit the screen, and the administrator had to scroll constantly to monitor the status of all the players. The device manager also looked extremely out of date by today’s standards.
The original device manager was developed in WPF and C#. This time, our developers rewrote the entire user interface in React, but the same good old C# remained under the bonnet.
Now the administrator can change the players’ names, the game level, or even switch maps without reloading the entire game.
Initially, the analytics of all games launches was stored only on our side. The clients were billed monthly based on the number of game launches and the number of players. This was inconvenient because after a month it is difficult to discuss launches for the past 30 days or even a week. We had to deal with questions, like: “This launch… where is it from? We didn’t do it!” or “It was actually a test” To do this, we developed a web portal for all our partners where they can see all launches, leave comments, and make change requests.
The portal draws informative graphs with the growth of customer revenue and the number of launches. Our technological stack for the portal is as follows:
Backend: Typescript, NodeJS, Express, Bull MQ, PostGraphile, PostgreSQL
Frontend: React, React Hook Form, ttag, Core UI components, MobX, Apollo Client
Apart from Oculus Quest itself, there is a high-quality clone Pico Neo. Pico Neo with the same positioning system and approximately the same performance, but without a rigid connection to Facebook services. Pico Neo SDK is, of course, less elaborated in terms of development tools, but in case of emergency, we are ready to switch to it.
Marketing: expectation and reality
One of The Deep partners sent us this photo of their location before the rebranding. At that moment, it became clear that it was high time to tighten the contracts and coordinate the reality with our design project before opening.
The concept design looks like this:
In practice, partners sometimes deviate from the concept design, but not so much. Here are the photos of real locations:
The number of patterns is not chosen by chance: the Oculus Quest positioning system works through cameras on the headsets, and contrasting unique patterns are necessary for their correct operation. Empirically, we came to the current patterns and lighting on the point to get the most stable tracking.
Plans for the Future
Today we have:
• 100 partners, but due to varying restrictions, only 50 arenas currently accept VR guests.
• 3 PvE games: Ghost Mansion (for children), SafeNight (zombie shooter), and Colony Code Red (saving the world from a mysterious obelisk in a space setup)
• 3 PvP games: Skyscrapers (simple geometry for the first visit), Space Battle (for large rooms with a minimum of teleports), and Island Assault (for experienced players with very complex geometry). Each map has 3 modes: deathmatch, team vs. team, and flag capture.
In many countries, pandemic restrictions on entertainment have either been lifted altogether or continue to be eased, as more partners are reopening. We set ourselves the goal of increasing the number of partners to 150 by the end of the year, and the number of arenas that receive guests — to 120.
The team will continue to release one new game per year. Our next game will be in a post-Soviet setting with realistic weapons.
Clients increasingly approach us with large areas. For such premises, we are thinking to make a separate game mode without teleports and inspired by CS to immerse the players in another world as much as possible (however, there will be a version of this setting for small premises, too).
Our team is actively looking in the esports direction where it sees great potential. To do this, we need to add tournaments, ratings, and streaming features for the games to be interesting to follow. We also plan to add the ability to play between locations so that teams from different cities can compete.
Check out our website if you are interested in testing our games!