What Is Virtual Reality (VR) Game Development? Trends, Examples, and Essential Tools for Creating a VR Game
Virtual reality experiences are becoming more common across a wide range of industries, from healthcare to retail. However, gaming still stands out as a leader in this technological evolution. Virtual reality (VR) game development – currently a more than $7 billion market – is expected to bring in $53 billion by 2025. And in our 2023 game development report, 13% of surveyed developers noted they are working on a virtual reality game.
The world of virtual reality is a natural expansion for the game industry: By making players a part of the game through VR headsets and other technology, developers can achieve new levels of immersion, realism, and innovation.
This enhanced experience means the potential for VR game development is nearly limitless. Read on to learn about trends in VR game development and what tools are needed for creating a VR game.
What Is VR Game Development?
VR game development is the creation of games played using virtual reality hardware. Most VR games require a headset, which simulates three-dimensional reality through stereoscopic displays.
Through sensors, these headsets can track players’ positions and eye movements. A player’s movements will translate into game actions and have an effect on their virtual environment. VR game development also allows players to experience 3D sound and haptic controller feedback.
In short, VR games immerse a player in their fictional settings, delivering a hyper-realistic, first-person perspective.
Understand the State of Game Development
Learn about the current trends and latest shifts in game development, including the role that virtual reality plays. For our State of Game Development Report we surveyed game development professionals from around the world.
Benefits of VR Game Development
Virtual reality games are becoming more popular, with statistics from PC Mag estimating that there are currently 5 million gamers in the world. While this number is much lower than the population of traditional video game players, it represents a more than 3,000% increase over the past decade. New players are regularly drawn to virtual reality games due to numerous benefits:
- More immersive experiences: The most obvious benefit of virtual reality games has been their biggest selling point: The ability for players to feel like they are inside the game, experiencing different worlds and exciting storylines on a deeper level.
- Increased potential for innovation: Due to this greater immersiveness, virtual reality game development allows developers to push past some of the limitations of traditional gaming storylines and technology. Since there are fewer virtual reality titles, it is also easier for studios and teams to differentiate themselves and deliver truly new experiences in the virtual reality space.
- More social gameplay: Gaming publications like The Gamer and GameRant regularly publish lists of the best virtual reality games to play with friends. These games bring groups together with laughter, new experiences, and healthy competition. A 2023 study published in the Association for Computing Machinery Journal also found that virtual reality interactions can promote social connection and offset loneliness. In interviews with study participants who used virtual reality platforms, virtual reality gamers described themselves as becoming more outspoken, more comfortable initiating conversation, and more confident.
- Greater physical activity: According to a report from Games for Change, a nonprofit dedicated to uplifting and promoting gaming as a means of social change and advocacy, exercising in virtual reality has a comparable impact to exercising at the gym. An increased offering of games makes getting in your daily workout through virtual reality easy: The game Supernatural, for example, lets users choose between workouts like boxing, yoga, and dancing, as well as allows them to set these workouts to their favorite music. These workouts are led by certified fitness coaches. And the world’s first virtual reality gym, Black Box in San Francisco, opened in 2019. In workouts at Black Box, gym members fight virtual reality opponents while incorporating chest presses, squats, rowing, and other exercises.
Challenges of VR Game Development
The biggest challenge for the VR game development industry to overcome is its high barrier to entry. According to 2023 statistics from Statista, fewer than 2% of people globally regularly play virtual reality games, compared to the 45% who play traditional video games. This slow adoption can be attributed in part to the hardware’s high price point. Apple trended on social media with their $3,499 headset, Apple Vision Pro, set to release in 2024. Though this is an extreme example, virtual reality gaming is expensive across most popular models:
- The Meta Quest 2 headset is $299.99 USD.
- The PlayStation VR 2 headset is $549.99 USD.
- The Vive Pro 2 headset is $799 USD.
Though costs are one of the primary concerns for VR game development, there are other challenges for both developers and players:
- Difficult development timelines: The development timeline for traditional video games is a more established, fine-tuned process. Familiar workflows, like coding followed by storyline mapping and testing, may need to be revised significantly for virtual reality projects. Virtual reality game development also involves the added step of choosing what platform to develop for, since each significantly differs in terms of processing power.
- Heightened potential for graphics issues: Virtual reality games have richer visuals, which is a benefit for players, but a quality that has challenging implications for game developers. Since players are even more enmeshed in the setting than when playing traditional video games, cohesion and accuracy take on greater importance.
- User discomfort: Virtual reality experiences can lead to eye strain and motion sickness. To combat this, when creating a VR game, developers can focus on reducing the processing time of their game and optimizing animation frame rate. They can incorporate both high-action moments and stationary visuals to give players breaks from movement. Continued innovation in VR headset technology is also helping ensure that headsets are becoming more comfortable and lightweight.
Examples of VR Game Development
Big names like Meta, Google, Apple, and Sony have already begun investing in VR game development, even acquiring some indie virtual game studios. Along with these established companies, notable indie studios like Psytec Games, Survios, and Cloudhead Games have started carving out brand recognition.
Like traditional video games, VR game development can extend to all types of games for a diverse range of users, from cozy games to adventure-packed storylines. These are just a few of the top-selling recent virtual reality game releases:
- Beat Saber: Beat Games, an indie studio acquired by Meta, first released Beat Saber in 2019. Players are surrounded by neon visuals and must match their movements to the rhythm of music as they “slash” the beats coming toward them. Players must match the color and direction of the beats and can advance to different levels, plus choose favorite songs. Beat Saber is one of the most successful releases in VR game development, with The Wall Street Journal reporting it achieved $255 million in revenue.
- Half-Life: Alyx: Valve Software, a leading gaming company, released Half-Life: Alyx in 2020. The follow-up to the best-selling game Half-Life, this game lets the player act as Alyx Vance, a revolutionary fighting against alien invaders with her father. This game represents one of the biggest strengths of VR games – their ability to create high stakes for the player – as players fight a war against an empire. According to UploadVR, Half-Life Alyx surpassed 2 million units sold.
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR: Bethesda Game Studios, known for high-fantasy epic games, released a VR version of their popular Skyrim series in 2018. This exemplifies a common trend in VR game development – developers releasing VR versions of games players already love and allowing them to more deeply inhabit these familiar worlds. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR, players live in a medieval world, traverse mountains, and battle dragons.
How to Succeed as an Indie Studio
Indie studios are leading the charge when it comes to VR game development. Our webinar Level Up Indies: How to Scale Your Studio shares tips for accelerating your workflow, reusing assets, and delivering a high-quality game.
Creating a VR Game: Essential Tools
One of the most important considerations in creating a VR game is identifying what tools are right for your project. One of the biggest differences between making a traditional video game and creating a VR game is that VR games are less portable across different types of technology, meaning that you’ll need to decide what headset you want to make a game for.
Most VR game development teams will include a software development kit, a game development engine, and design software in their tool suite. Version control software, like Helix Core, is also essential as teams manage complex workflows and assets.
Game engines are vital for VR game development. Using a game engine allows you to centralize assets and serves as a powerful 3D editor. They work alongside artist and designer tools, as well as CAD software, to help you build realistic experiences. Unreal Engine 5 (UE5) and Unity are the most frequently used game engines.
Unreal Engine 5
Unreal Engine 5 (UE5) offers teams a powerful set of VR software development tools. It works with a multitude of VR technologies. With UE5 you get:
- Script access in C++ and/or Python to customize the tool for your needs.
- Multiplayer framework combined with a flexible editor.
- Blueprint visual scripting, which helps you design prototypes fast.
- Temporal super resolution.
- Virtual shadow maps.
Unity is well-known for game development with a specialty in mobile. But it also can be used to design VR solutions. Teams across industries have used it to design training and simulation because it works well with all popular VR platforms. With Unity you get:
- Powerful 3D editor.
- Built-in artist and designer tools, as well as support for CAD tools.
- Collaboration features that streamline your process.
Software Development Kits (SDKs)
A software development kit (SDK) is made up of a set of software tools and programs used for specific platforms. It can include libraries, samples, process, guides, tutorials, blueprints, and more. Here are some of the most popular SDKs that can be used for VR game development:
OpenVR SDK is an open VR software development kit (SDK) and API that supports HTC Vive and other VR headset related devices. SteamVR SDK and VRTK (Virtual Reality Tool Kit) are also used for HTC Vive. These offer additional benefits like access to controllers, chaperoning, models, and preview in Unity play mode.
To create using the Sony PlayStationVR, you need to have PSVR Dev Kit and to become a registered developer. Features of this VR software include 360-degree vision, incredible visuals/audio, and enhanced tracking.
Oculus Meta Quest Developer Hub
The Oculus Meta Quest Developer Hub streamlines VR game development for Meta Quest headsets. It allows developers to download a wide range of SDKs. They can also capture screenshots, record videos, conduct uninterrupted testing, and upload different apps and tools to a developer dashboard.
OpenVR from Valve Software
This open-source software development kit integrates with the SteamVR platform and can be supported by Unreal Engine and Unity. Using OpenVR, you can work on VR game development for best-selling headsets like Valve Index, Windows Mixed Reality, and others.
For successful VR game development, teams need to use design tools that can create illustrative, hyper-realistic environments, unique characters, and high-quality graphics and animations. Some of the most popular options include Blender,Autodesk Maya, and Tilt Brush.
Digital Asset Management Software
Flesh out your game environment with characters, music, world-building images, textures, and more. All of these different types of files – including both 2D and 3D – can be stored and accessed by teams in a digital asset management system, enabling reuse to simplify your workflow. Perforce Helix DAM allows artists and other team members to quickly find and iterate on any asset in their visual library with AI-powered search, auto-tagging, and automatic indexing.
Most game development teams will benefit from a version control software, which team members can use to track and manage changes to code and digital assets. Though open-source repositories like GitHub can help fulfill this function, teams looking for a more secure version control solution often opt for Helix Core, the software used by 19/20 of the top AAA game development studios.
How Helix Core Can Help With Creating a VR Game
When creating a VR game, development teams face complex workflows and new challenges. That makes it even more important to use a version control system your team can trust.
Plus, if you’re creating a VR game with a team of 5 or fewer, you can use Helix Core for free. Helix Core offers several key features for VR game development teams:
- A single source of truth for every digital asset.
- Unlimited scalability.
- Secure permissions and restriction features for IP security.
- Integrations for tools like Unreal Engine, Unity, and more, so you can version in the background.
Get Free Helix Core
Looking for solutions to support your team’s creative process and improve collaboration on 3D art and animations?
Helix Core gives your whole team a single source of truth for your 3D art assets. It is the version control system trusted by 19/20 AAA game development studios for its integration with popular 3D animation software and game engines.