Six months ago, EVE Online developer CCP Games pulled out of the virtual reality market. The move came as a shock, given how well-suited and devoted CCP seemed to be to the tech, with international studios in the US and UK working on VR titles, and a tech-savvy EVE player base who were more likely to adopt VR early in its development cycle. As recently as last year's EVE Fanfest, CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson had been bullish about the technology and the company's investment in its VR teams, so last week, at this year's Fanfest, we asked him what had changed and what went wrong.
In short, hardly anyone was playing.
"We had always braced for a slow start kind of a journey [but] we were at fractions of what people were estimating at the beginning," CCP's CEO Hilmar Veigar tells me, speaking at EVE Fanfest – the studio's annual convention held in its hometown of Reykjavík, Iceland.
Citing a combination of a low install base of VR players, and low engagement from those that did own the hardware, Pétursson adds that the reception was "even below our lowest expectations."
..."I wasn't really, myself and other people there working in VR, [weren’t] seeing how you could start up new product development in the environment as it was at the end of last year," he adds. "The headset install base didn’t allow for big investments, and the platform vending environment was in more of a 'wait and see' posture, so we just decided it's too much risk right now."
Yet flash back a few years, and the atmosphere was very different. At EVE Fanfest 2015, a whole section of Harpa – Reykjavík's iconic concert hall and convention space – was given over to the company's then-experimental VR efforts, all with excited queues of gamers waiting to test out what the studio was working on.
"I think in those years, generally there was a lot of enthusiasm for VR, amongst technology enthusiasts, which we are and our users are," Pétursson says. "We always estimated there would be a 'walk in the desert', as we called it., but whether we were skewed by [early reception]?"
"I mean, this was a good bet," he says, after pausing to reflect. "When you run a company, you have to take bets. There's no guarantee that everything's going to work out, and if you look at bets, this was quite a good one. Our teams executed it extremely well, we got great products, they sold quite well, they are the top of each of their genres [but it] turns out the market is going to take longer. This was a righteous bet on new technology, and it just turned out to take longer."
Some of those early projects went on to become finished titles, with CCP ultimately targeting three areas of VR gaming. Rather than aiming at a specific release platform with each release though, the company saw each of its core titles as representative of an input or control scheme within VR. Sci-fi shooter EVE Valkyrie was aimed at seated play with a regular joypad controller, mobile spinoff EVE Gunjack was seen as a quick score rush game for mobile VR, and the TRON-like Sparc – where players slung and deflected flying discs around a futuristic arena – was for motion control VR.
The split focus speaks to the experimental, almost laissez-faire approach CCP took withhad to its VR titles, testing the waters of each style to try to find the greatest player engagement. The results were mixed, though. "Valkyrie was the greatest commercial success, Gunjack sold the most, and I think Sparc was the best VR experience. It was also the one we started latest, when we knew much more about it," says Pétursson.
Thankfully, there is some good news for players who have engaged with CCP's VR games. At Fanfest 2018's opening ceremony, Pétursson praised the work of the creators who'd worked on the titles, and confirmed ongoing support for all three products released to date. The company will also "continue to investigate opportunities to bring them to wider audiences", though with no dedicated VR team remaining, this looks to be very much a backburner project.
The games will remain available for purchase too, with Pétursson telling me there are no current plans to delist Valkyrie, Sparc, or Gunjack from digital platforms, and even saying that "if the market continues in its current slow trickle phase, they can probably stay on forever."
Despite closing down CCP's VR department and restructuring the company, Pétursson still sees promise in virtual reality.
"I'm very much a believer in the long term potential of VR, it's just right now, where it sits, for a mid-sized company it's a lot of risk to staff new developments," he says. "This is an environment that's very hard to make a success for a company our size, and we'd be better served doing something else."
"It was a very difficult decision but I still believe it was the right call, because keeping [up] the effort, or even having teams work on VR when you don't really see a great way to become successful, is not a great way to run a company and deploy teams, regardless of how much we believe in the long term potential of VR, which we [do] still believe in."
The comparison Pétursson gives me when I ask about the likely future success of VR in the marketplace is to mobile phones, or the internet itself. Both sectors went through several cycles of boom and bust before becoming intractable fixtures of the technological landscape.
"It's just a very classical technology adoption curve. People have a lot of enthusiasm in the beginning, then there's a hype cycle, a tear down cycle, a recuperative cycle, a slow-growing phase, and then it becomes a thing," Pétursson explains. "I was an 'internet worker' back in 1996, all the way through the bubble, when it burst in early 2000s. Then by 2010, everything is the internet. I think VR will be very similar."
With the imminent arrival of cordless VR on PC, thanks to Oculus and Vive both launching headsets that remove the problematic tether, I suggest that perhaps CCP was premature in cutting down its VR operations. Could increasingly seamless and, more importantly, faff-free headsets increase appeal across the board?
"It's very true, the cord is one of the things that need to be addressed, but there is more to it than that," Pétursson says. "The ceremony of putting on a VR headset; I often liken it to putting on scuba gear to go diving. Scuba diving is an amazing experience, but it's a lot of gear to put on, and when you have it on it's isolating, disorienting."
"Your body is self-aware that something isn't right, and that small discomfort, we have to find some way to address that," he continues. "My best idea currently is to have cameras all around, and some AI mechanism that creates situational awareness for you. But you still have to trust it, that you know your VR headset will break you [out of the simulation] if someone approaches you, break you out of the experience if something comes close, or goes to pass-through camera."
Ultimately, the biggest obstacle to VR's success may be timing.
"I think there's a lot on the tech side that needs to be tweaked, but we're now in a technology adoption situation which is more a cultural thing than it is a [hardware] thing," Pétursson offers. "I think there is a generation of people that has to grow up with it. Giving it to people who are set in their ways when it comes to interacting with computers is a hard paradigm to disrupt. You can see this a little bit in mobile – the pure mobile-born generation, that demographic will never really use computers. Let's not forget, it took a long time for mobile phones to become a thing. From the gigantic phones, to car phones, to the NMT in the Nordics, to having rudimentary mobile phones, to feature phones, to Blackberries, to the iPhone, to the AppStore – that was all many decades. It's hard to place where VR is – I think it's in the car phone stage."
"VR is probably going to take 30 years to become a thing," Pétursson says. "The question is: where are you going to start counting?"
For the time being then, one of the biggest evangelists for virtual reality is effectively done with the technology. Its existing works will continue to be supported, but not expanded – Pétursson confirms the total closure of its dedicated VR operations – but players shouldn't rule out the company making a return when the medium, and the technology underpinning it, is in a better place.