After years seemingly stuck on the horizon, virtual reality (VR) arrived in a big way in 2016. Brand-new headset devices from Oculus, Samsung and Sony finally hit the market—opening a new realm of projects for video-game developers. For organizations, massive growth opportunities beckon: VR sales are projected to hit US$40 billion by 2020, with software leading the charge at US$25 billion, according to SuperData Research. VR hardware sales this year will reach US$2.3 billion, IDC projects.
All this potential has begun to transform the gaming industry. For the studios that decided to bring VR games to market this year, the short-term risks and project management challenges were immense. Game development teams had to work with untested technology destined for still-in-development hardware, while racing to be among the first to market with new games when VR headsets finally arrived. Agile approaches are proving ideal for this highly uncertain project environment.
Scrum is well-suited for VR projects because it's “ideal when time is the major constraint, underlying mechanisms and requirements are not well-understood, and the work depends on knowledge creation and collaboration,” says Nick Hadjinicolaou, program director, global project management program, Torrens University, Adelaide, Australia. It's particularly key to foster greater interaction among team members and the product owner to drive creative breakthroughs and then refine them, he says.
“We'll go from hundreds of thousands of potential users to hundreds of millions as required graphics chips become affordable on a mass scale.”
—Neil Schneider, Immersive Technology Alliance, Whitby, Ontario, Canada
The risks of early-stage VR gaming projects are great, but organizations can see the future of gaming coming fast: VR game development projects are sure to multiply as the new devices go mainstream. “We'll go from hundreds of thousands of potential users to hundreds of millions as required graphics chips become affordable on a mass scale,” says Neil Schneider, executive director of the Immersive Technology Alliance, based in Whitby, Ontario, Canada.
It's with that mass audience in mind that some game developers are committing major resources to VR projects now. As Mr. Schneider says, “right now organizations have a golden opportunity to experiment, because early adopters have reasonable expectations of quality in the short term. It takes three years to build a major game title that can drive a big chunk of a studio's revenues. So now is the time to build skills and experiment.”
That was how Mindfield Games approached its first project. The organization's five co-founders, all veteran game developers, were drawn to VR after experimenting with an early Oculus Rift prototype—and it gave them an idea for a game: an “open-world” sci-fi adventure called P.O.L.L.E.N. But applying a traditional project management methodology to the development process was challenging. Not only were they experimenting with new technology, but they didn't know the specifications or release plans for the platform on which the game would ultimately be released.
“We had a huge amount of unknowns,” says Olli Sinerma, project lead and co-founder at Mindfield Games, Helsinki, Finland. “On the positive side, our team members are good at estimating their own work and have the skills to see what the game will be before actually implementing it.”
Given all the unknown variables, Mr. Sinerma went with an agile scrum framework for the project, with slight variations for the production, marketing, outsourcing and testing teams. Flexibility was key with untested technology. Mr. Sinerma wanted “an agile system that could be molded to fit each need.”
“Our team members are good at estimating their own work and have the skills to see what the game will be before actually implementing it.”
—Olli Sinerma, Mindfield Games, Helsinki, Finland
Virtual reality projects are popping up far beyond gaming.
Explore a world-famous museum without leaving home. Overcome a phobia through exposure to panic-inducing environments. Tour a physical store before making a purchase online. Virtual reality (VR) application projects extend far beyond the gaming industry. Super-Data Research predicts that by 2020, games will account for only a quarter of VR software sales.
There's plenty of business-to-business project potential. Chicago-based InContext Solutions, which provides software to clients in the consumer packaged goods industry to help them develop in-store promotional content, has jumped into VR. It uses the technology to simulate proposed retail programs for clients—especially those who were initially skeptical.
“Years ago, people weren't sold on the fact we could simulate real-world concepts and scenarios in a virtual environment.”
—Tracey Wiedmeyer, InContext Solutions, Chicago, Illinois, USA
“Years ago, people weren't sold on the fact we could simulate real-world concepts and scenarios in a virtual environment,” says Tracey Wiedmeyer, chief technology officer, InContext Solutions, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Thanks to the new availability of VR headsets, that's no longer an issue.
Now VR is so compelling that clients are asking Mr. Wiedmeyer to port content from the company's ShopperMX desktop platform into headset displays. Beginning in February, his team spent six weeks developing a 3-D application that can play 360-degree videos on a Gear VR headset. It released that app in April even as a smaller R&D team of three fulltime employees plus a couple of part-timers worked on translating the full, interactive ShopperMX experience to a VR environment.
The short video project offered useful feedback for InContext Solutions’ larger VR project, because the testing process revealed differences between VR hardware platforms. The same video that delivered a fine viewing experience in an Oculus Rift caused motion sickness in a Samsung Gear VR, Mr. Wiedmeyer says.
To ensure the project delivers a product that works well on all devices, the project team has ramped up testing to refine the user experiences and to align with various manufacturers’ evolving hardware requirements. Mr. Wiedmeyer says his clients are satisfied with the prototype, but he wants to push the VR product a little further.
“We're close, but our destination is that this has to be magnitudes easier than desktop. Otherwise, why put on the headset?”
“If you are not working on VR 100 percent, it is really easy to fall behind our rapidly changing industry.”
There were plenty of new needs throughout P.O.L.L.E.N.'s development. As headset prototypes were released from different hardware companies, the development team had to adapt to varying requirements across different devices. Its initial plans based on the early Rift prototype were validated when Oculus released its second prototype in 2014, and so very little of P.O.L.L.E.N.'s virtual world had to be remade.
The project was more significantly affected by the 2015 release of another headset, the first HTC Vive prototype, which offered unique elements such as the ability to allow players to see their hands on-screen. “That was a game changer,” says Mr. Sinerma. “It really makes the experience VR.”
As the team began to imagine the Vive's possibilities, it continued to work on the Rift version. Developers had to guess which game-play peripherals Oculus would include: Would the Rift use only motion controllers or also a traditional controller? “We agreed early on that for VR, motion controllers were the superior device. But we also guessed correctly that the Rift would come out with a game pad,” Mr. Sinerma says.
With different VR devices now in play but no official release dates in sight for them, the project (and the team's size) kept growing. Mr. Sinerma didn't know when to stop expanding the virtual world of P.O.L.L.E.N.
“Having to extend our production schedule from a 2014 launch to a 2015 launch to a 2016 launch made it difficult to set a target completion date and scale the project correctly,” he says. “It was really hard to stop the train when the launch actually happened.”
After years of delay, the Oculus Rift finally shipped to gamers in late March—yet Mindfield Games was caught off guard. P.O.L.L.E.N. wasn't among the Rift's initial launch games. “We missed the launch due to putting quality over schedule,” says Mr. Sinerma. Mindfield Games released a beta version of the VR game in late April, along with a non-VR PC version of the game developed in tandem; the final VR edition is slated for release by the end of 2016.
FROM ARCADE TO VR
A team at game developer Rebellion also worked within a scrum framework to produce a VR title—a version of the 1980s arcade classic Battlezone—beginning early last year. Rebellion had previously produced dozens of video games, but never for VR. So the company altered its project management approach for this game, anticipating a learning curve with the new technology. The project team extended the preproduction phase and implemented a wider-than-usual game-testing rotation so that more employees could gain VR experience.
Good thing: “Many design aspects we've learned from our extensive experience with action games didn't translate as well to VR. So it was very important to test every key aspect of design on VR,” says James Valls, senior producer, Rebellion, Oxford, England.
“It was very important to test every key aspect of design on VR.”
—James Valls, Rebellion, Oxford, England
For Mr. Valls, the good news about design changes made for Battlezone's VR version—set to debut in the fourth quarter as one of the first games available for Sony's PlayStation VR—is that most of them affect Rebellion's central game-play engine, rather than components specific to Battlezone. For example, the organization can now handle rendering multiple images, one for each eye, which requires greater processing capabilities. By priming the engine to more readily handle the company's next VR game, the Battlezone project produced benefits that should cascade into future projects.
Not that Mr. Valls plans to take any chances. He says his team learned not to “take anything for granted until we've experienced it in VR, and to give yourself as much time as possible iterating key features during preproduction.”
Mr. Sinerma agrees that extra time is of the essence. With VR gaming taking off, organizations need to be prepared for constant change. “A month in VR is like two years in mobile,” he says. “If you are not working on VR 100 percent, it is really easy to fall behind our rapidly changing industry.” PM