5 Lessons in Mobile VR Development From One of Gear VR's Early Hitmakers

Insights & Best Practices

April 1, 2016


min read

Welcome to the brave new world of virtual reality, where mobile game developers are at the cutting edge of a market that's projected to reach $70 billion by 2020. It's kind of scary out there on the coalface, though, so advice from someone who's already earned their stripes is essential.Sergio Hidalgo is one of mobile VR's early pioneers. His creepy, claustrophobic horror game Dreadhalls is one of the top-selling titles for Samsung's Gear VR headset. The Spanish developer recently took the floor at London's Mobile Games Forum to speak about his past two-and-a-half years of early (and successful) mobile VR adoption.Here are some important lessons he shared with us:[caption id="attachment_16786" align="aligncenter" width="1999"]


Image via Flickr/Maurizio Pesce[/caption]

Lesson 1: VR is not a peripheral

A VR headset is a teleportation device, not just a peripheral, so developers need to realize that immersion is what really matters."The reason people are going to wear this weird-looking headset is not because the game is fun," Hidalgo says. "It's because of where it takes you."To find VR success, Hidalgo proposes a developer mantra: "find the place.? For Dreadhalls, he chose an underground dungeon, making the player feel scared, trapped and powerless.Hidalgo's smart choice of immersion made Dreadhalls a big hit with YouTubers looking to broadcast and play interesting VR content, and this helps immensely with marketing the mobile VR game. In fact, one playthrough video from Mark Fischbach (aka Markiplier) has racked up over five million views.[caption id="attachment_16787" align="aligncenter" width="1600"]

Image via Sergio Hidalgo

Image via Sergio Hidalgo[/caption]

Lesson 2: Input is hard

High-end VR headsets like Oclulus Rift and HTC Vive have sophisticated trackable controllers on the way, but the Gear VR doesn?t have the luxury of these input options.The ideal solution is to use the headset's built-in touchpad (every player has access to it): this prevents fracturing what's already a small market. Still, the touchpad is limiting in terms of input.Hidalgo went with a controller-based movement scheme for Dreadhalls, which allowed him to offer something "a bit more deep" than other mobile VR experiences. While that leaves more casual users out of the equation, most early adopters are hungry for cool and interesting VR content?either to play themselves or to show their friends.[caption id="attachment_16788" align="aligncenter" width="1999"]

Image via Sergio Hidalgo

Image via Sergio Hidalgo[/caption]

Lesson 3: Performance is critical

Maintaining 60 frames per second is tough, and with VR that needs to be done twice over?once for each eye. For VR, everything should be built around performance or the magic won't work."You cannot drop frames," says Hidalgo, "because the moment you drop frames, the player's going to notice."Getting that kind of performance from a mobile device is tough. Dreadhalls' room-based nature helps immensely, eliminating a lot of the map from view and allowing Hidalgo to optimize the player's immediate environment.Hidalgo also has a smart tip for anyone brave enough to tackle an open-world project: only optimize what's nearby. He says that beyond a virtual 20-meter radius, players can't tell if they're looking at a stereoscopic or a monoscopic image.

Lesson 4: Battery life impacts design

Mobile battery life sucks. It's a sad fact of life and a big hurdle for anyone working in mobile VR.Hidalgo built Dreadhalls with battery life and overheating in mind. Each dungeon is based around a central hub, creating a natural stopping point every 20 minutes or so to allow the device to cool and save battery life. This gives the player a better overall experience, too, leading to better word-of-mouth, better reviews and better sales. Plus, the built-in stoppage is a great place to introduce mobile game ads."We are taking the mobile GPU to the limit," Hidalgo says. "We tend to overheat. It's better that the player decides to leave the game than is kicked out by an overheating warning while they're immersed."[caption id="attachment_16785" align="aligncenter" width="945"]

Image via Samsung

Image via Samsung[/caption]

Lesson 5: It's a small market (but perfect for indies!)

We're really early in VR's story, so the market is still small.For Hidalgo, though, that's perfect?it makes him a big fish in a small pond. When he showed me the Gear VR store, Dreadhalls sat right there on the front page, alongside the highly-rated Land's End from Monument Valley creator Ustwo."As an independent developer, my biggest enemy is obscurity," Hidalgo says. "In a market where I have good visibility and people can find my game ? that makes up for the loss of a bigger audience."He says that Oculus is also really supportive of small developers working on Gear VR. "They need our content to survive, to make this new technology fly," he says, explaining that the VR company will "help you in any way they can."He ends by recalling the most important?but often forgotten?VR lesson: it's exciting.