The virtual reality market is projected to reach $30 billion by 2020. While tech giants and gaming power houses may very well dominate the field, startups by the score will no doubt seize their fair share of market revenue. However, before sales, before marketing, before development must come the question: How much does virtual reality development cost?
It is not a simple question to answer. No more so than one can say how much it costs to build a house. The cost can vary by orders of magnitude, depending on the requirements. Fortunately, as with estimating the price tag for building a house, VR app development costs can be estimated once know what you want.
In this article, we will examine the factors that affect virtual reality app development costs, and we will see how to ensure that your VR app has the functionality you want, at a price that fits your development budget.
Factors That Affect VR Development Cost
The bottom line on VR development costs comes down to whether you will develop a mobile VR app, or a mobile VR game. You can expect to dole out between $40K and $70K for a non-gaming mobile VR app, and between $50K and $100K for a mobile VR game. These numbers are typical, and development costs can enter six digits for highly complex projects.
Regardless of ultimate expenditure required to build your VR product, the cost to develop your VR software will be dictated by the following factors:
In a general sense, all aspects of your project could be considered “research and development.” From writing user stories to planning distribution, every part of the creation process involves researching the best options and developing the ones you or your developer decide upon. But R&D can have a significant impact on your final bill in a more specific way.
At every phase of the project, developers will need to pause and explore the best way to implement a function or feature. When those functions or features are common, a good developer can code them from memory, or by briefly consulting reference material.
When a development phase involves building unique or more-complex capabilities, even the best developer may have to pause and explore how to make a design work. Sometimes, implementation of cutting-edge capabilities is not straightforward and requires trial and error, or more “development.”
To the degree that you can reduce the unknowns before handing your project over to a developer, you can help to reduce the amount of time they will need to spend on R&D.
Content & Software
Distinct, Yet Interdependent
The majority of your development budget will be allocated to content and software development. In other discussions, we might argue that the content you serve and the software that renders it should be considered separately. However, for budgeting purposes, it is difficult to separate the two. You can assume that the more complex the content, the more complex the software needs to be.
Not convinced? Consider the following.
A mobile VR app that allows online customers to view store products in 3D requires a relatively simple interface. The cost associated with creating both 3D models and the user interface are relatively low. Now, consider a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPGs) that ties in wearable interfaces with the HTC Vive’s laser lighthouse. Not only have the lines between content and software blurred, but the cost for both is significantly higher than for rendering 3D models.
Whether you want to create a simple 3D environment, an interactive VR app, or a highly-interactive VR game, the decision of content will affect your interface, and both will affect your VR software development cost.
What type of content will you have? Will the developer create it, or will you need to hire a 3rd party content-creation company? And how will content affect your platform selection? These are all factors you need to consider early in your project.
VR Video Vs. Interactive Experiences
Perhaps, you do not need to provide interaction so much as an immersive 3D viewing experience. If 3D video is your medium of choice, there is plenty of hardware available for recording and producing 3D video content — at semi-pro and professional levels. Some lower-end systems exist for DIY 3D video creation, and, then, there are companies that specialize in 3D video production. Prices for DIY video systems range from a few hundred dollars, while professional video stretching for 360° views can cost up to $10,000 per minute.
Apart from video stitching, 3D video is generally less expensive to produce than 3D interactive experiences. It is generally cheaper to record, edit, and play 3D video than to create immersive VR software.
To be clear, 3D video is not true VR. We mention it for those who may wonder, and because some VR developers also create 3D video players.
Next to the content you want to deliver, the factor with the greatest impact on your development cost is the platform you choose. There is a huge difference between the time and cost involved in developing applications or games for Google Cardboard, and creating a fully-interactive software package for the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
The Cardboard’s simplicity limits the commercial viability of applications it can serve. Consequently, one or two developers could develop most any Cardboard app in about a month. On the other hand, high-end headsets lend themselves to hosting extremely complex VR experiences. In terms of development cost for these platforms, the sky's the limit.
Of course, just because you choose a particular platform with more under the hood does not mean you will or should max out its capabilities. You can spend less developing a low-end game or application for the HTC Vive than trying to use all the bells and whistles on Google Daydream. The choice of platform, ultimately, comes down to two questions:
- Who is your market?
- Which platform is best suited for providing the features and capabilities you want in your application?
The following list presents a very generalized ordering of platforms in order of development cost. In fairness, we might should say this list is most valid for apps that tap the full capabilities of the given platform.
- Samsung Gear VR
- Oculus Rift
- HTC Vive
Both VR apps and VR games have features that may exist apart from the content. Dashboards, rating systems, and user privacy features are examples of add-ons that can affect your costs. Using online calculators, you can get a very general idea of the relative impact various features will have on approximate development costs.
3rd Party Integration
Some VR projects can benefit from capabilities that are not native to the development platform, and which would be costly to custom code. Fortunately, more and more plugins are available for inclusion in VR apps and games. Unity has added tools that allow developers to tie in 3rd party software with VR app development.
Plugins that provide advertising, social media interaction, and analytics are increasingly available for aid in VR app design.
Marketing and Distribution
iTunes and Google Play stores offer free, or almost free, online platforms for distributing your completed VR app or game. Even so, posting your software in an online store does not constitute a sound marketing strategy. To sell your product, you will need to also explore social media and other channels to get the word out. A good developer can assist you with distributing your software. A great developer can even help you market it. Asking about such services early in your discussions can help you pencil them into your development budget.
The methodology your developer uses will greatly impact your project cost. Here’s how.
Most professional development firms utilize the Agile methodology for software development. Agile ensures that projects are developed with flexibility, frequent iterations, and transparency. The advantages of Agile include delivering a higher quality product, less rework, and greater customer satisfaction.
Agile has been proven to reduce cost through less rework and less management overhead. If you choose a developer who uses an older methodology, or none at all, your cost may reflect the ills of a poorly-managed project.
Most developers develop under either the Fixed Price payment model, or the Time and Materials model. Which model your developer uses can have a great impact on your final cost.
The Fixed Price model is just that. Your contract with the developer will specify a fixed price that you can expect to pay for your completed project. This model prevents overruns and development costs that can spiral well outside your budget.
The Time and Materials model, on the other hand, requires you to reimburse the developer for cost plus an hourly rate. This model allows virtually unlimited changes, but also a virtually unlimited impact on your budget.
Where you have your VR software developed can also have a great bearing on cost. Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia boast the lowest overall VR app development costs, but customer satisfaction is often less than desired. Developers in the United States provide unsurpassed quality and customer service, but at a top dollar rate. Western Europe offers some of the best developers in the world, at fair outsourcing rates.
The decision on where your developer should be located must take into account several factors. Not only should you check the developer’s record for quality, meeting deadlines, and staying on budget, but you must also weigh the impact that the language barrier could have on your project.
The Bottom Line
How much do VR apps cost to develop? A lot less if you weigh the factors we discussed when planning your VR app or VR game project.