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Selecting the Perfect Launcher for Your DIY Free-Roam VR Setup: A Comprehensive Guide to Maximizing Player Satisfaction and Operational Efficiency

This post is a section of the Do It Yourself Free Roam article in Bob Cooney’s VR Arcade Game Buyer’s guide (download full guide here). Links to the other sections of the article are at the end of this post.

There is quite a selection of launchers available now, and more are emerging annually. As indie studios build free-roam games, they realize they need operations features too. As they add features, the developers sometimes think they have something unique and decide to market their launcher as a product. Launchers all work differently, and you will need to train your staff on their features. Some are more complicated to use than others. If you have high turnover, opt for the simple ones.

These are the things I like to consider when choosing a launcher.
1. Content Library
2. Platform Business Model
3. Licensing Costs
4. Operational Features

Synthesis VR offers a broad collection of content from room-scale to free-roam

CONTENT LIBRARY

Evaluating a content library requires more than just having your kids play the games at IAAPA and tell you what their favorite is. A robust content library needs to appeal to a range of demographic and player types to become an anchor attraction in your facility.

Dead Again from Hero Zone is one of the few family friendly zombie games

The anchor game for any free-roam system will be a zombie game. There’s a narrative in the industry that people are tired of zombie games, but there’s zero evidence to back this up. On every platform I’ve surveyed, no matter how many games they offer, a zombie game is always number one. ALWAYS. Zombie games tend to be co-operative, with the players teaming up to fend off waves of zombies.

You should also look for a great competitive or player-vs-player (PvP) game. Some people call these VR laser tag games because players shoot one another. The best of these games creatively use the limited space to make players feel like they’re in a much bigger environment. Teleportation portals, elevators, ramps, and other tricks can make these games challenging and repetitive. Powerups, different weapons, shields, and creative game mechanics will have players coming back to play again. If the PvP game feels like you’re playing laser tag in your bedroom, keep looking.

Cooking games are another popular category. These co-op games are especially good for families that want to play together. They tend to be hilariously funny, easy to play, but very difficult to master.

Cook’d Up from Knucklehead Studios is available via the Hero Zone launcher

Puzzle games appeal to the escape room player. VR versions can range from 10 minutes to an hour. Unlike traditional escape rooms, many VR puzzle games have adventure and action elements like shooting to entertain a range of players. I hate puzzle games, but my partner Kylie loves them. She solves the puzzles, I slay the zombies, and we both have fun.

Zero Latency’s Engineerium game takes players on a mind-bending adventure

Another game genre to look for is an archery game for fans of fantasy. It’s a fun, easy-to-learn shooting mechanic that players love. It’s also fun to watch players mimic using a bow and arrow with their controllers. There are also some multiplayer music rhythm games which aren’t as popular but can round out a catalog.

If you hit on those five genres, you’ll have a game to appeal to almost anyone. Some operators seem to think more is always better, but there’s a diminishing return at some point. Focus on variety and quality over quantity. Be careful about being lured by creative, quirky games that don’t hit the mainstream. Zero Latency make an amazingly creative puzzle adventure game called Engineerium, which won the Brass Ring Award at IAAPA in 2018 (I think). Players walk on walls and upside down in a beautiful Mayan environment with flying whales. It generates a single digit percentage of play in their locations. Remember that 70% the play will almost always come from the zombie and PvP games.

Indie Games

One of the most exciting parts of the free-roam VR business is the opportunity it creates for indie gaming studios. There are some great games from smaller companies available to operators. Some are licensable through launchers, some through Steam VR, and some direct. Here are a few of the developers focused on free-roam games.

VRilliant is a studio in Zurich, Switzerland that makes Rotten Apple, a zombie shooter in a post-apocalypse New York City. Up to four players collaborate to survive the quarantine zone. The gameplay features close-up zombie horde action in narrow, closed-off spaces, which ramps up the intensity. Rotten Apple requires a PCVR setup and a 20 x 20 arena. It’s currently available on both Synthesis VR and Springboard VR.

Knucklehead Studios, based in the Netherlands, is behind the popular VR laser tag game Cops vs Robbers. Despite the name, it’s a cartoony, family-friendly, competitive shooter. It scales from two to 10 players and up to 1000 square feet. It supports both Quest and Focus 3 natively, so it’s easy to set up and run. You can license it directly, from Synthesis VR, or with the Spree Interactive laser tag games bundle.

Knucklehead also released a new 4-player cooking game, Cook’d Up. It’s currently available as premium content on the Hero Zone launcher.

Cops vs Robbers by Knucklehead Studios

Plucky Wombat enters the escape game markett with The B-Block Breakout

Plucky Wombat from Australia is focused on free-roam VR escape rooms. Their first entry is The B-Block Breakout. Up to four players try to break out of the infamous B Block by collaboratively solving puzzles. Plucky Wombat fancy themselves as storytellers, and with 40–55 minutes of gameplay, there’s plenty of opportunity to delve into the characters. The B-Block Breakout is currently available for direct licensing or via Synthesis VR and Spawnpoint.

Lightning Rock is another Australian developer building VR escape rooms. Their first game is The Chronosphere Chronicles, a fantasy adventure puzzle game. They’re currently working on their second game, the steampunk adventure Leviathan, which takes place in an ancient mythical submarine trapped for centuries beneath a glacier. And their third announced game is The Berg, where players are racing against time to repair their ship so they don’t freeze to death.

BackLight is one of the premier location-based VR developers in the world. They’ve won multiple awards, and their Bal de Paris experience is art-house quality. They have several games on various launchers, and all are available via direct licensing from the company. Eclipse is a two to four player escape game with environmental haptics and a dramatic storyline, available on Octopod, Synthesis VR, and Springboard. Toyland is one of the best free-roam games I’ve ever played. It incorporates StrikerVR guns and D-Box haptic chairs into a multi-modal adventure. Players go from a crazy jeep ride into a free-roam firefight, then buckle back in for a helicopter ride, before taking on the Crazy Monkey boss fight.

PLATFORM BUSINESS MODEL

We’ve all heard of SaaS or software as a service. It refers to a business model that shifts the supplier and customer relationship. The emergence of service and subscription-based economies has de-emphasized ownership in many cases in favor of access. We no longer purchase computer software on a disc; we pay subscription fees. Along with those fees comes an expectation of lower upfront costs, more frequent updates, and better support. Theoretically, if we don’t get the support we want, we can cancel our subscription and move to a competitor versus when we purchase software, there’s no refund.

You can love or hate it, but it’s here to stay and has expanded to other businesses beyond software. There is hardware as a service (think copier machines), platforms as a service (Amazon Web Services), and even games as a service (Fortnite).

Epic Games has extended their Fortnite Games as a service platform for third-party developers

Amusements have always been under an ownership model. Tournament systems like Golden Tee Golf ushered in subscription fees as part of an ongoing support system, but those were optional add-ons. Virtual reality systems introduced ongoing content licensing fees into the mix, with products like Zero Latency charging low double-digit royalties on ticket sales and smaller attractions like Hologate raking four-figure flat fees annually. Many operators consider these fees “double dipping” because they’re in addition to large five and six-figure purchase costs.

The New Model Favors Operators

With hardware systems becoming homogenized and prices dropping, the model is changing again. Most suppliers now use the same hardware like the VIVE Focus 3. With pricing available on Amazon, it’s difficult for them to maintain any hardware margins. This is good for operators as the costs will come down, but challenging for suppliers, who count on that margin, offer support and fuel development.

If suppliers lose their up-front margin from hardware sales, the ones with a large installed base and solid recurring revenue will be best positioned to thrive. New entrants, unless well-capitalized, will struggle to build a business from scratch with software-only subscription fees. This could hurt innovation in the long term or encourage developers to focus more on the consumer market, which is beginning to thrive.

Pricing of VR hardware is there for anyone with a browser to see

The software-only business model will prove challenging to developers, but it provides a great advantage to operators. Not only does it reduce the upfront cost, it makes switching down the road easier. Return on Investment is a mantra for the industry, but there’s another ROI to consider: Risk of Investment. One of the risks of investing in early VR platforms was being locked into a specific platform. If that company failed to deliver in the future, you were forced to sell the entire attraction at a discount to what you paid.

With the hardware stack standardized, the switching cost for operators is minimal. The headsets, computer, router, monitors, charging cabinets, and peripherals are most likely compatible with the new launcher and games. And while you will need to retrain your attendants on a new system, your customers will get new games to experience. All this makes it the lowest risk time to invest into free-roam virtual reality.

Active Platform Management

One of the hallmarks of games as a service is that the developers actively manage the platform. They consistently add levels, characters, weapons, and other gameplay features to existing games.

For example, Fortnite has “seasons” that run 10 weeks and introduce new storylines, competitions, and events. One of the best examples of games as a service in free-roam VR is from Hero Zone.

Hero Zone is a launcher with more than 200 locations around the world. They offer games as a service model with flexible subscription licensing. They update their system frequently, at least once a quarter. I grabbed this update announcement from their Discord, where their customers communicate with each other and the developers.

In this update, they released two entirely new games, feature and weapon updates to four existing games, a new environment for their Hangout social mode, and a host of other improvements.

And it happens automatically as a benefit of a cloud-based platform. So don’t just look for new games. Look for updates to existing games that make the games more fun and interesting. Players all understand that online games get updated with new features, environments, and weapons. Soon they’ll be looking forward to coming back to see what’s new in their favorite free-roam games at your location.

LICENSING COSTS

There are several different models for licensing fees. Some developers charge per minute of playtime, some charge per play, and others charge a flat fee per month or year. Some offer all three models. Choosing the right model for your business can be critical to the financial success of your free-roam VR attraction.

Pay-per-minute (PPM) platforms charge in one-minute increments for each player. If you have six players in a 10-minute game, you use 60 minutes of play. At 12 cents per minute, that session costs the operator $7.20. With an average charge of $10 per game, you wind up with a cost of service of 12%.

Pay-per-play (PPP) models charge a flat fee per game per player. In the above example, if the platform costs $1 per game, you’d have a cost of service of $6.00 or 10%.

Most companies require purchasing credits in advance. Companies that license either per minute or per play usually offer bulk discounts. So, the more plays you buy in advance, the cheaper they get. Minutes or credits usually don’t expire, so buying in bulk is the best strategy to get the lowest licensing cost.

The Phenomena VR Esports Arena website shows their three pricing models

Flat fee licensing allows unlimited play for a fixed cost per month or year. If you expect high volumes, this model will cap your licensing costs. Some developers offer discounts of 20% for committing to a full year, which is like getting 2.5 months free. Others let operators switch programs from PPP to monthly or annually. You can start with a per-play model until you determine your play volume, then switch to monthly or annual if your play volume is above the breakeven threshold.

Some launchers offer both first and third-party content. First-party refers to games developed and owned by the developer of the launcher. Third-party games are from external developers and often come with different licensing terms. It’s like basic cable vs HBO. Make sure to ask about this when evaluating launchers as it can impact your overall cost of operation. And if the games cost more, you might consider charging more for those premium ones to keep your cost of service in line with your budget.

OPERATIONAL FEATURES

If content is King, then reliability is Queen, and she runs the castle. Even the best content is useless if the system doesn’t always work. Frequent downtime creates a drag on confidence, reduces your group and party sales, increases your labor, and drains profitability.

The launcher suppliers with the biggest installed bases should have online user groups that you can tap into for referrals. Be wary if they cherry-pick customers for you to talk to. Ask for lots of referrals and check up on them. If they don’t have an operator community, then something is wrong. The best software companies thrive by curating communities of users. This gives them insights into feature development and bug fixing. If a company is afraid to bring their customers together into a forum, it’s a huge red flag.

Here are some key operational features to look for when evaluating a free-roam platform.

Ease of Onboarding: How long does it take to get a group of players into the game? How much operator intervention is required? Is there a lot of gear? Vibrating vests can be cool, but they’re a hassle to put on, take off, and clean. If it slows down your throughput by 25%, will it let you charge a 25% premium? Simpler is generally better. Less to handle, clean, and repair.

What are the players doing while they’re waiting for other players to enter the arena? Are they sitting in a dark virtual lobby staring at a screen? Or is there something fun for them to do? Getting eight or 10 players into a VR experience can be like herding cats. And then there’s the inevitable dead battery because the attendant wasn’t paying attention. Make sure it’s fun from the first minute they put on the headset.

First-Time User Experience: Does the attendant have to give constant instructions to the players during the game? Or is the game intuitive enough for the players to figure it out independently? Ideally, you want your attendant to hit start and then be free to deal with the next group of players getting ready.

Player Registration: Does the system register players? If it does, what’s the process? Is it self-serve, or does it require operator intervention? Do they offer a player database? Are there any built-in marketing functions? Do the players get an email with performance stats after the experience? Are there social sharing features? Modern systems should have player registration available on a mobile website. Players scan a QR code, enter their info, and they’re registered.

Spectator Screen: Does the system support spectator screens? How well does the spectator view capture the player experience? Is it just showing the headset view, which makes it impossible to track what’s going on? Or is there a third-party view like it’s a sporting event? One of the biggest challenges of VR is converting spectators into players. The spectator screen can play a role in this. It’s wise to consider over-investing in this area. So many locations use small monitors that are hard to see. Conversely, I’ve seen locations use large-format projectors covering the entire back wall of the arena with the spectator mode.

Operator Console: What features does the attendant have on the operator screen? Is it tablet or mobile based? Does it deliver all the insights the attendant needs to ensure a smooth player experience? For instance, does it give a warning when a headset battery level drops below the point where a player can complete a session? Can they view what a player having a problem can see without having to interrupt the game for everyone else?

What settings do you get control over? How easy is switching game lengths, difficulty levels, or other settings? Is it clear how many players each game supports?

Ask for a copy of the operations manual as part of your consideration process. This will tell you about all the functions they think are important enough to document and give you an insight into how detail-oriented they are. The better the manual, the more thought has gone into the whole system. Even better if the operations cues are built into the system itself so your attendant can self serve on the fly.

Other sections of this article you may be interested in

  1. Do it Yourself Free-roam VR
  2. The Arena
  3. VR Headsets
  4. Computers and Networking Equipment

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