Fantastic Contraption’s developers are part of an exclusive group of VR creators who have successfully generated in excess of $1 million.
It released with the launch of the HTC Vive in early 2016 and Facebook’s Oculus Touch controllers for Rift late in the year. This summer, it launched on Sony’s PlayStation VR. The game was bundled with Vive headsets for a period when it launched but generally sells individually for $30 on Rift and Vive and $20 on PSVR. According to the team, between the bundling deal and individual sales (of which platform owners like Sony, Facebook and Valve usually take nearly a third) the title has generated more than $1 million.
I appreciate the team sharing this information exclusively with me. Though they declined to be more specific, the figure paired with the size of the team establishes the title as one of VR development’s success stories. It isn’t possible with the available information to establish just how big a success it is, but the creators are comfortable saying they’ve made enough to fund further efforts and continue exploring a new medium. Other teams in this group include Survios (which is funded by investors to the tune of $50 million) and Owlchemy Labs (acquired by Google). In the case of Fantastic Contraption, not only does the game itself push forward interaction design and mixed reality capture, its creators have bootstrapped their creativity enough to keep going into future projects as independent creators.
I met with Moore and the Northways for a conversation recently in Colin Northway’s still-under-construction virtual art gallery. Sarah Northway is working on her own VR game she’s not ready to talk about yet. Moore’s studio developed a series of VR experiments, one of which he hopes can get funded by a publisher into a full game. Colin Northway’s art gallery is still very early too, but he’s already using cutting edge tools like Valve’s Steam Audio to bring life to the space for people gathering to check out creations from a wide range of artists. The sound technology combined with the movements of our hands and heads made our conversation, even between avatars represented as the simplest of shapes floating in space, feel remarkably like the real thing.
During a transitional time for the mixed reality industry when startups like Envelop, AltspaceVR, CastAR and Vrideo close down, I talked to them for more than an hour in VR trying to break down how they succeeded with Fantastic Contraption. Here is what I came away with from our talk:
Moment Of Inspiration
Many VR creators have a very clear memory of the time they became convinced the technology was ready for mass market appeal. Rift’s first development kit wasn’t compelling enough to Fantastic Contraption’s creators.
The creators hail from the Vancouver area, just a three or four hour drive across the border from Seattle-based Valve, and when they took a trip down to Valve’s offices in the summer of 2015 they got a look at an early HTC Vive with controllers that brought hands into VR. They recall demos of Owlchemy’s Job Simulator, Google’s Tilt Brush and Valve’s early robot demo, each of which made excellent use of those hand controls.
It was a moment that changed their lives. Colin Northway sat on a couch after his demo, his mind exploding with the creative possibilities ahead.
“For me it was like ‘I’m not that into VR’ and then I was like ‘alright this is my life now’,” he said.
It didn’t take them long to decide their legacy project, a 2D puzzle game called Fantastic Contraption that relied on creative thinking to build machines, could be adapted to VR.
“Isn’t this the best medium for Contraption?” Moore recalls thinking.
Embracing New Tools
While inspired, the creators of Fantastic Contraption weren’t recipients of the very first developer kits Valve sent out secretly to a handful of developers like Owlchemy. But the creators were so inspired after their demo they started building Fantastic Contraption without any VR headset at all.
“We decided it would work and it would be amazing,” Moore recalls.
Some weeks later they held a game jam (an event where teams rapidly create games) and partnered with Valve which brought some early Vive kits for groups to test their projects. They showed the demo to someone at Valve and, after the event was over, were told they could keep the headsets.
“There was some good stuff going on there,” Moore said of the event. “But we were using it as a sneaky way to show off the game to Valve.”
“We spent the jam on VR integration basically,” Colin Northway said.
During this process of development the Northways learned Unity, a game creation toolset that alongside competitor Unreal Engine has been early to support VR. In 2007, the original Fantastic Contraption was built for traditional screens with Adobe’s Flash tools. That’s about the time Flash started its decline partially because Apple’s Steve Jobs refused to allow the technology on iPhone and iPad.
So while the Northways became experts in Flash to the extent that the original Fantastic Contraption made Colin Northway enough money that he could quit his day job — “Now I just have a hobby that pays better than my jobs ever did” — that toolset wasn’t built for VR and they had to learn something new.
“I had a lot of trouble transitioning to Unity and VR, and 3D art I’d avoided for ages,” Sarah Northway said. “It’s scary trying new stuff but you really need to in this industry, because things keep changing and moving forward so fast.”
“There’s so much to learn in VR,” added Colin Northway. “If you’re working in VR you can’t help but be pushing boundaries all the time and learning a huge amount.”
Accepting The Possibility Of Failure
The team went into the project with a four month plan to deliver the VR game by the end of 2015, which is when HTC originally said it would start shipping headsets in volume. At the start, Sarah Northway said, they became comfortable with the idea the project could make no money and it could be a total failure. They had enough coming in from previous projects to make a four-month timeline work.
“We’ll spend four months on it, we’ll finish it, even if nothing happens of it we’ll know something about VR, we’ll be set up to do our next thing, it’ll be fun,” she said. “So we didn’t come into it thinking we’re going to put all our eggs in this basket.”
The scope of the project grew as several things happened. The Vive’s consumer launch was set in stone later than expected, for April 2016. In addition, people reacted positively to early versions of their project and they secured a bundle deal ensuring some income from the game.
“The bundle deal paid for development,” Colin Northway said.
“As soon as we had the bundle deal we knew everything was gonna be just fine,’ Sarah Northway said. “Being agile in your business plan was pretty key.”
“The story would have gone very differently if we never got the bundle deal or there weren’t so many sales at launch,” Moore said. “We took a risk the whole team was comfortable with — which was four month dev and before that four months was up we secured larger deals.”
Embracing Weird and Favoring Good Design
The extra development time allowed the team to explore a more fully realized version of the game including the ability to push VR design ideas much further. For example, Fantastic Contraption includes a helmet which sits on the ground. When you pick up and place the helmet on your head it transports you to another world with tables to save your creation or access those made by other people. It is the VR equivalent of the kind of flat screen menu to save your work that you’d access in a traditional game. Their extra runway freed them to explore these ideas.
They also developed a miniaturized version of the game that made it easy for people to play it in a seated or forward-facing position. This in turn allowed the game to more easily make the jump to additional platforms like Rift and PlayStation VR that were tuned better for those setups.
So with all these different pieces falling into place just right to expand both the scope and reach of the game, was it luck or smart decision-making that allowed Fantastic Contraption to find success?
“It is definitely both,” Colin Northway said. “A big lesson to learn from indie development is that you have this one advantage and that is that you can do super weird stuff. Big companies can’t do weird stuff because they are going to be risk averse.”
On the other hand, independent developers might be gambling their own future rather than a company’s. Moore and the Northways warned against people mortgaging their house or running up credit cards in order pursue an idea in VR. They all had previous projects that gave them the runway to start the VR version of Fantastic Contraption in a game jam. And before that they made the transition to indie developer by working on ideas on weekends and evenings. That’s why they were comfortable with the concept of failing.
For the Northways and Radial Games, however, moving into 2018 they are poised for even greater success when headsets ship in larger numbers.
“I personally kind of feel like we’re in a time where you should be doing a lot of building of your own skills, a lot of your own experimenting so that in the bright commercial future, when it comes, you’re set up to take advantage of it,” Colin Northway said.