The Deep — how we launched 13 full-immersion VR arenas in 9 countries
Full-immersion VR arenas are essentially gaming platforms that you can visit with your friends to play in Virtual Reality, freely moving over a spacious area of, at least, 60 square meters (650 square feet). A remarkable feature of a VR arena is that you do not have to use any joysticks to control the character you’re playing for, but only your arms and legs.
In 18 months, we created two games, developed a device management system, mastered the art of attracting visitors, and concluded 23 contracts (13 venues have already been launched, and ten will open in the first half of 2020) and all of that we did while being physically located in Siberia.
In the spring of 2018, in the “Evening Urgant” program (a Russian late-night TV show), I saw Ivan Urgant and his friends fighting zombies in Russia’s first full-immersion VR arena. The game created a sense that everything happening around you was absolutely real, and all people’s movements on the playing area were repeated by their avatars in the virtual world. That moment I realized that fantastic technologies vividly described in sci-fi movies and books have already become a reality.
The video showing how Polina Gagarina (a famous Russian pop-singer) and Ivan Urgant were trying to free Moscow from hostile monsters:
3D design and gameplay for games with full immersion are just the tip of the iceberg. The most important thing for creating the feeling of total immersion in another world is for the player’s movements to fully coincide with the movements of their virtual avatar. It is necessary to solve two main problems to ensure the synchronization of the body motions and a virtual avatar’s gestures:
- Determining the positions of the trackers (on the head, arms, and legs) in space.
- Projecting the body projection in space based on the trackers’ coordinates.
The positioning system is responsible for determining the location of trackers in space. There are lots of positioning systems on the market differing by the type of work (for example, optical, magnetic, and acoustic positioning systems), by the number of objects that the system can capture, and by the area that such a system can cover. Positioning systems are a separate complicated topic that is fully described in this article.
In 2018, only Optitrack’s optical positioning system could cover the area of more than 100 square meters (1100 square feet). Their system works in the following way: superfast cameras are installed around the entire gaming platform. These cameras are necessary to determine the position of trackers attached to the players’ arms, legs, and head.
Professional cameras for such activities do not come cheap; for instance, the price of high-speed cameras to cover an area of 10x10 meters (32x32 feet) will amount to $70 000, while to cover a maximum playing area of 30x30 meters (100x100 feet), one will have to spend nearly $500 000.
HTC and Valve joined efforts to develop their positioning system called Lighthouse. When we were taking the initial steps in this business, we already had the first version of HTC Vive VR glasses running on Lighthouse.
After a quick test in the empty lobby of a business center, we found out that HTC’s position control system effectively covers an area of 10x10 meters (32x32 feet) with the cost not exceeding $600.
We decided to opt for exactly this system to create our own game for four players on a 10x10 meters (32x32 feet) gaming platform.
Testing the hypothesis
Before pumping a lot of money into long-term development, we needed to make sure that our to-be product will be in demand.
At the end of July, we went to a conference in the USA to present a demo version of our product that we concocted from ready-made assets and tape in just a month.
People who had never dealt with VR before had difficulty in navigating the virtual space; they feared to walk around the game zone and were very scared of what was happening around them and felt generally uncomfortable.
Before the conference, we seriously considered the idea of implementing complex game mechanics with the integration of fine movements. After attending, however, we realized that this does not work in VR.
Simultaneously, one of our company’s founders shared the achievements and plans of our startup in popular social networks. One follower who enthusiastically read all the posts of our progress and was impressed by the popularity of our project at the American conference decided to purchase a license for our game, which at that time was essentially a pig in a poke.
In response to such enormous trust, we promised him that we would provide the product by the beginning of 2019. This is how we closed our first deal!
After returning from the conference, we made the second sale in a similar, old-boy-net way; this time, the buyer was the owner of several escape rooms from North Carolina.
So we got our first franchisees who did hope to soon open profitable total-immersion VR arenas that we masterminded. There was no way to retreat for us.
After seeing and analyzing how people play our demo version, we decided to make the product as simple and intuitive as possible. And what could be easier than a good old shooter? So, we will kill zombies, just like Ivan Urgant.
The investments we received from the first two contracts were, of course, not enough for full development, so all the project’s founders poured their own money in, and the work got to full swing. So we:
- Assembled a team of 3 developers, 2 sales managers, and 1 marketing specialist;
- Hired a couple of freelance 3D designers for polishing ready-made assets;
- Started writing a script for our game and doing the voice-over.
- Bought expensive MSI VR Ready backpack PCs, HTC Vive helmets, and HTC trackers. On average, a kit per player cost us $4000. We purchased two kits for development;
- Decided on our brand’s name and ordered the logo;
- Started designing landing pages and running PPC advertising.
It was time to choose a location for our first game. Everyone understood that 3D design is fiendishly expensive work, so it was decided to assemble the platform from ready-made models.
The main requirements for the gaming site were an appropriate atmosphere, an area spacious enough to move freely, and lots of places from which the zombies would appear. As a result, we chose a gym hall, and in about a month, we prepared an alpha-version of the full game.
After the first presentation to our investor from America, we had to promptly change the previous location to an abandoned factory. This decision was driven by the fact that by that time, there were several incidents of shooting in some USA schools. But we even did not consider these nuances at the design stage.
In November 2018, we realized that by the 1st of January, we would not be able to provide the final version of our game. But fortunately, the buyer from the United States was not hurrying to open, while the buyer from Novosibirsk could not find suitable premises to host the VR arena so our release was delayed until March.
In early 2019, thanks to the efforts of our marketing experts and sales managers, potential buyers started coming to us. During the demonstrations, our product fell to pieces before our very eyes: avatars did not match the height of the players, zombies got stuck in boxes, players failed to hear each other in the game, or helmets could suddenly turn off, leaving the player in complete darkness.
But despite all the shortcomings and backlogs, our game brought a lot of positive emotions, which greatly compensated temporary omissions and problems.
In the video below, you will see a kinematic model of a zombie that abruptly went out of control:
Our first promo video was made with all the faults imaginable: the game was constantly freezing; the avatars were squirming as if in a seizure because of the ever-glitchy trackers on arms and legs, and two players had to settle for school backpacks instead of the high-tech MSI VR Ready backpacks PCs.
Nevertheless, eight long months of development did not pass in vain, and this is what we finally managed to get:
- A comprehensive system for managing the game, controlling the equipment (such as the computers’ and vests’ battery level and vests and status of trackers on a player), as well as calling the functions of third-party software (rebooting of a PC and components from HTC).
- Full-body tracking responsible for the synchronization of the player’s movements and their avatar in the game.
- Mechanisms for calibrating an avatar to fit a specific person as well as six different avatars.
- A fully-ready game Safe Night lasting 30–40 minutes with three difficulty levels translated into two languages.
- A license system that prevents the launch of games without a license key and records the duration of each running game session.
Our first VR arena
In March 2019, the space for the arena in Novosibirsk was ready as surely as our product. At least, we thought so.
Due to the arena being located in a shopping mall, there was a lot of interference in the 2.4 GHz band, which happens to be around the frequency that HTC trackers use. During the game, the limbs of the players constantly twitched and flew in different directions.
But from the players’ point of view, the whole extravaganza was pretty funny, and they kept laughing because of ridiculous acrobatics their avatars were performing, such as “Haha, Danila, what a nice leg-split, can you do the same in reality?”. But from our point of view, it was a complete failure. While working in a comfortable office where everyone uses 5 GHz, we could not even imagine that we would face such a problem.
We could not influence the level of interference in these premises, so we decided to utilize some workarounds. First, we changed the assembly diagram of computers at the hardware level to reduce the distance between the tracker and the receiver, which improved the signal quality.
Then we added the detection of failures in the work of trackers to the game logic, for instance, when a leg suddenly appears three meters away from the virtual body. Once a failure was identified, the system ceased to register the data from the tracker and rendered the defective limb of the avatar in a neutral position.
After a couple of sleepless nights, this feature was finally ready. It saved us at conferences several times already, while competitors had problems with launching because of frequency interference.
After settling the issue of frequency interference, we suddenly encountered a non-technical problem. The players could not hear the administrator’s commands (for example, do not leave the playing area, do not run backward, and other standard rules of conduct).
But players should not be blamed for this because in emotionally tense situations every person cannot help but focus all their attention on a source of danger, and in our case, the source of danger were zombies, but not strange sounds coming from the headphones. Another couple of sleepless nights were spent on the integration of the “Pause” and “Kill all the zombies around” buttons for the administrators.
As a result in the middle of spring 2019 we opened our first VR arena with full immersion.
Since it was our first experience of selling the game franchise, and the process of attracting visitors had not yet been polished, we devoted ourselves to advertising and promoting our arena together with the franchisees. So now we have a dedicated marketer for the future and already existing VR platforms who works with the following channels:
- SMM as the main channel.
- PPC advertising in Yandex and Google search engines.
- Different landings: from holding corporative events to romantic dates with a loved one.
- Arranging tournaments, competitions, and giveaways.
- Special offers and discounts.
A year after we got started, we finally began to sell not beautiful pictures and sound promises, but a ready-for-launch franchise through the example of the work platform that made money on our product. The sales team was highly motivated, while the technical team proceeded with struggling for stability.
The euphoria from the launch of the first arena gradually died down, and it turned out that sales were growing slower than we expected. We phoned all the customers who refused to buy our franchise and found out that the main reason for rejection was a large lump-sum payment, not to mention the fact that customers also had to purchase expensive equipment at the cost of nearly $25 000.
We decided to change our business model: we reduced the lump-sum payment and increased royalties. Now our strategic goal was not making quick earnings from franchise sales, but ensuring long-term efficiency through royalties.
When we opened our first full-immersion VR location, interested entrepreneurs from other cities and even countries began to fly to Novosibirsk to try our game first-hand.
Very soon, we had similar VR arenas in Saratov, Kazan and even Luxembourg. Of course, not everyone was happy with the idea of flying to Novosibirsk, so we agreed to meet with clients at conferences in Europe and the USA.
In June 2019, we attended the Up The Game Conference in Amsterdam, and in October, we participated in IAPPA, the largest entertainment conference held in Orlando. That way, we got similar total-immersion VR playing sites in Amsterdam, Mumbai, Sydney, and Glasgow.
While some part of our sales team was actively visiting exhibitions and attending conferences, another was increasing online sales through the following channels:
- PPC advertising.
- Various landing pages.
- Emailing to everyone who had similar equipment to facilitate the opening.
- Emailing to the owners of quests and other entertainment centers.
In September 2019, HTC released the Wireless Adapter, which made it possible to attach an antenna to the helmet and remove the computer from the shoulders and hide it. We finally managed to wean off the players of the heavy backpacks; at least, of three of them, as the HTC Wireless Adapter supports only three channels in one room. One player still has to carry a backpack PC on their back.
An analysis of the open franchises’ efficiency showed that despite high attendance, the customer retention ratio was quite low. It was necessary to somehow stimulate people to come again. In the summer of 2019, we began to develop a second PvP game to play on the people’s competition instinct, and we also arranged a global team rating across all associated platforms in the world.
We proceeded with honing our product and improving its financial model based on the cost of HTC Vive Pro. This continued until the fall of 2019 when Facebook revolutionized the virtual reality arena market by releasing its Oculus Quest.
With the Oculus position control system, the playing area is no longer limited, and a player does not have to carry a heavy computer on their back, while the total number of players is increased to 8. At the same time, a complete set of equipment for one player with Oculus now costs several times less than a similar in terms of the functionality set with HTC Vive. Still, some disadvantages with the Oculus position control system take place, namely the absence of full-body tracking (there are no trackers on players’ feet) and less beautiful graphics.
The virtual reality market is rapidly developing: new helmets, joysticks, and position control systems appear every other day. We expected this from the very beginning and tried to spread the risks by not tailoring our product to only one manufacturer.
This approach enabled us to adapt our PvP game for Oculus Quest in just a few months. In February 2020, we are to open the first platforms running on Oculus Quest for eight players in Novosibirsk, Tyumen, and Montreal.
The current situation
In the year that has passed since the launch of our first VR arena, we conducted 6000 games and concluded 23 contracts. Now, we are developing two products simultaneously:
- The first game runs on HTC and is meant for up to four players. It features haptic vests for even greater immersion, full-body tracking, and beautiful graphics.
- The second solution is powered by Oculus and is suited for up to eight players to play on platforms from 80 m² to 400 m².
To ensure our VR arenas get fresh, engrossing games regularly, we, along with designing proprietary products, began to negotiate with content studios to connect their games to our platforms. Now we are adding three exciting games from third-party developers: one more zombie shooter, a family game about cats, and a small quest.
Our plans are truly lofty! By the end of 2020, we plan to:
- Open 60 VR arenas in total with 3–4 new platforms opening every month.
- Increase the number of games to 16.
- Attract one new partner per month and continue developing proprietary games.
- Open our SDK so that any studio can develop or adapt their games for our platforms.
At the end of the year, I will tell you whether our plans came true!
If you are interested, visit our website.