‘Onward’ and Upward: How A College Dropout Built One Of The Best VR Shooters
On the night of August 29th, 2016, Dante Buckley started crying.
It wasn’t because he was heartbroken from a devastating breakup, or because he was sad and distraught from horrible events in his life. No, this night, Dante Buckley was crying tears of joy, relief, and excitement. After dropping out of college and focusing on teaching himself how to create a video game from scratch almost entirely by himself, his game, Onward, was finally released on Steam Early Access. The weight had been lifted and he could finally breathe again. A long, arduous road he started down over a year ago had finally reached its first milestone.
But this wasn’t the end of the road — he was just getting started.
The Anatomy of a Surprise Hit
“This is my first-ever interview,” Buckley confessed nervously during a Skype call. “I honestly did not know how big the game would be. I dropped out of college and focused for a full year on game development. I had some funds left that didn’t go towards tuition and I just went heads down and focused. I had a bit of programming background, but not in gaming. I watched YouTube, used resources online, and just built Onward. That’s where the name for the game came from. I wanted to keep moving forward and this was the perfect name for that point in my life.”
Now, two short months later, Onward has over 700 reviews on Steam with a ‘Very Positive’ designation and it’s widely regarded as one of the best VR shooters available on any headset. It’s easily one of the most popular games among Vive gamers on Steam.
Which, in some ways, defies logic. Conventional wisdom says create a fun, accessible game that can be enjoyed by gamers of all types and VR-comfort levels. Make it sickness free. Provide a multitude of movement options. Hold hands and simplify controls. That’s what common knowledge says for a brand new medium, but Onward isn’t like that. It’s a hardcore, simulation-style, multiplayer military shooter that requires motion controls and a roomscale environment.
According to the game analysis website Steam Charts, Onward had over 270 concurrent players at its all-time peak and maintained over 50 players on average throughout the past month — which means you should never have issue finding a game. That may not sound like much, but compare those numbers to other multiplayer VR shooters you may be more familiar with, such as Battle Dome (87 all-time peak,) Hover Junkers (107 all-time peak,) or even the 100% free Rec Room (112 all-time peak) and the popularity is clear.
“It’s my first game and nobody knows who I am and I just really didn’t expect it to be this big,” Buckley admitted. “I started working on the game when I was 18 and I’m 20 now. It’s just so much bigger than I could have expected.”
Much to his surprise, the game was a hit in the budding market of VR gaming. The surprise success adds up to approximately 18,000 sales so far to date. The game costs $25, and with a little quick math, that means the game has made ~$400,000 from Onward, not counting any limited sale periods and not factoring in the revenue split from Steam. For a small game made by a single college dropout, that’s tremendous.
“I definitely grew up playing a lot of first-person shooter games,” Buckley said. “The biggest one for me was probably Halo, back when I was around six on the first Xbox. I used to play the old Call of Duty games on PC too, my dad let me try those. Medal of Honor, Battlefield, Ghost Recon, and Rainbow Six too.”
A Hardcore Shooter Without Compromises
The VR landscape is constantly in flux in its early stages and there is an apparent mad dash to be one of the first in various different genre categories. Buckley knew that people would release shooters, but they weren’t the shooters he wanted. A focus on arcadey, simple experiences was a far cry from he tactical realism the desired.
“I knew there would be a market for it, ” Buckley said. “So I just made this game for myself. I want Onward to be my dream game. This is based on what I want to play and what I’ve played in the past. ”
The game’s entire development was also chronicled in a series of dev blogs on YouTube, the first of which was posted almost a full year ago. That was a crucial part in building the game’s fan base. But he wasn’t just creating Onward, he was creating an entire game development studio. By hiring some freelance commissions and contractors to help with art work and other assets, he took on the job of programming and launching the game, and thus Downpour Interactive was born.
When someone loads into the game for the first time, it can be overwhelming. There is a brief series of tutorial-esque moments and a shooting range to practice on, but it definitely isn’t a game for the feint of heart. He encourages everyone to watch the tutorial video (embedded above) before actually playing the game. It feels like one of those safety training videos they make you watch before going on certain rides at Disneyland.
Due to the type of game that Onward is, you’ll be using the full compliment of both Vive controllers. You can move yourself freely around the environment using the left touchpad, or physically walk, duck, and maneuver in your actual physical room. Reach down and grab your gun, put a magazine in, load the chamber, and configure settings all using actual switches and slots on the physical gun’s model.
You can reach up to your shoulder and talk to teammates on your radio, or grab the grenade at your belt, pull the pin, and toss it at your enemies. You’ve even got a knife at the ready for use in close-quarters combat. All of these things I’ve described are in most other modern military shooters — but they’re not in VR. Using your hands and physically doing all of these things — like ducking behind a wall as an enemy fires at you from 100 yards away — is a visceral feeling unlike anything else I’ve tried inside a headset.
Since the game uses a mixture of roomscale movement and artificial trackpad locomotion, you’d initially assume people would get sick, as that’s the common understanding. But according to Buckley, that’s almost never the case.
“I got lucky with how people don’t really get sick. People that get sick in other games don’t seem to get sick in Onward,” Buckley laughed. “I can make some guesses, but I don’t really know what I did to avoid sickness.”
Essentially, there are three main contributing factors, he surmises. Firstly, there is no yaw rotation, meaning you can’t artificially move your head’s view from side-to-side using the trackpad. That’s often a big contributing factor, so he makes you physically turn your head. Secondly, the touchpad movement actually help as well, as you can adjust your speed and acceleration based on where you place your thumb — or lack of acceleration, as it were — however you want. Finally, by focusing your vision downfield at enemies and points of interest, it creates a subconscious tunnel vision that emulates the narrowing field of view seen in other games, like Eagle Flight.
I’ve never been susceptible to motion sickness either inside or outside of VR, but I can verify that I also don’t experience it in Onward either. Granted, it could also be the hardcore-leaning nature of the experience as well. I assume it’s tough to focus on whether or not you’re nauseous when you’re splayed out, prone on the ground, trying to line up a shot a few hundred yards away.
In fact, I’ll never forget the first time someone opened fire on me — it had that sudden, adrenaline-infused impact of an event that was actually happening. It didn’t feel like a video game as I ducked for cover.
Building VR For The Future
As much as Buckley loves making Onward, he doesn’t want to stop with where he’s at right now. Ultimately, he’s a creator at heart. He has ideas for adding cooperative missions and expanding the competitive modes, as well as other game ideas for the future.
“I don’t think multiplayer is going anywhere for me, but I want to go into singleplayer storytelling soon,” Buckley explained. “I don’t see myself leaving the shooter genre much, but there are other genres I enjoy. I am really interested in telling stories in VR and I just knew that multiplayer was a great place to start and learn. That’s really what the studio name, Downpour Interactive, is all about. I want to make people feel a downpour of emotions when they play my games.”
There is already such a wide variety of content available for VR devices, it’s easy to see the allure of other genres at some point in the future. He’s working on building a team for Onward right now, since it’s still mostly just him by himself pushing out patches and updates.
“It’s been super stressful with lots of Red Bull,” Buckley told me. “Continuous 14+ hour work days. It’s been worth it though — it’s lots of fun and I love it. After Onward, I’ve got at least 5-10 other game ideas I want to work on in the future. It’s been really scary though, putting myself out there so much as the face of this game and the company. Gamers can get a little extreme with their opinions. For the most part though, it’s been super positive and I wouldn’t be where I am without the fans. Their support means everything to me.”
Onward and upward, indeed.
Onward is now available on Steam for $24.99 with official support for the HTC Vive with motion controllers.
[Editor’s Note:] This article was originally published on October 25, 2016 and has been republished as commemoration for the game’s one year anniversary on August 29, 2017. For tips on playing the game well you can read our Onward Field Guide here.