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How Much Does It Cost to Develop a VR Game?

By now, all but the most obstinate of naysayers have conceded that virtual reality is no longer a mere novelty, with no hopes of making a decent living on its on. Admittedly, VR game development cost has not exactly resulted in record-breaking returns so far, but that is getting ready to change. While VR is finding acceptance in a growing list of industries, it is VR’s faithful niche market — VR gaming — that is poised to drive VR revenue off the charts.

VR gaming revenue expected to reach $22.9 billion by the end of 2020, a 3,469% increase over 2015 earnings. Yes, you read that right: 3,469%. For gamers who always knew VR had a rightful place at the table alongside its more popular cousin, augmented reality, vindication has arrived. More importantly, a golden opportunity exists for developers and visionaries who are prepared to take VR gaming to the next level.

For those who want their share of the VR revenue pie, they are right to wonder how much it is going to cost to bake it. Understanding virtual reality game development costs begins with understanding the factors that come into play. In this article, we will examine those factors so that you can determine the approximate cost for developing the VR game you have in mind.

Planning

As the saying goes, “to fail to plan is to plan to fail.” Nowhere is that as true as in VR game development. The more time (and money) you spend planning how your game will work, the less time (and money) you will spend developing it.

To see why this is so, consider the job of the VR developer. Whether you hire a lone freelance developer or a development company, the their first task will be to understand what it is you want them to do. Although your initial consultation will be offered at no charge by a reputable developer, the information you provide in this meeting will be used to plan your project. If you do not have a well-developed user story and game design document (GDD) to offer your developer, he will have to help you hash out the details and that will not be free.

You do not need to have every detail spelled out to the last infinitum. It is best to leave the developer some flexibility to contribute his talent to the project. On the other hand, if all you come to the first consultation with is an idea in your head, you will have to pay the developer for doing your homework for you.

How much money can you can save by having a proper game plan? The answer depends on the complexity of your game. In general, developers charge $700-$3,400 to prepare project documents. The more you can do beforehand, the lower that rate will be.

R&D

Research and development should not be confused with preparing your user story or GDD. Once the developer has grasped the concept of what you want your game to do, they will perform research in order to discover the best ways of making the game work as intended. Even the most experienced developers rely heavily on research to bring the latest technology to bear on e given project. However, the more experience a developer has in VR game development, the less of his time and your money he will need to spend on research.

The “development” aspect of R&D refers to time spent applying research to the practical design of your product. It is the phase of the project in which your software is actually developed, or written.

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Even after extensive research, things do not always work as well as a developer would like. You could say development is that stage of the project where new ideas are tried, modified, and tried again until they work properly. Again, the more experienced the developer, the less trial-and-error he will experience in the R&D process, and the less of your money he will spend getting the game to work. In fact, an inexperienced developer could spend more than 50% of your budget on reworking code that didn’t work correctly the first time.

VR Game Design

Design, in this context, does not refer to software or code design, but visual design. What will your gamescape and characters look like? Will the game be a simple 2D game, or will it have life-like content? These are questions you need to answer before hiring a developer.

You can estimate the relative cost of design by deciding what type of graphics your game will use. Here are the general categories:

360 Camera

Although the technology is relatively new, 360 degree cameras can be used for creating realistic panoramic backdrops for VR games. The the cost of creating panoramic video is usually low when compared with creating computer-generated graphics, but then you have to add whatever interactive functionality you want in with the video. The true value in VR games is yet to be fully realized, but the cost for 360 degree game interactive content is very real — $10,000 and up.

2D Graphics

2D is the most common design for video games, with wide-ranging costs for development. On the low side, DIY game-development software is available for creating simple 2D games at little or no cost. On the more professional side of the spectrum there are highly-complex and detailed 2D games, such as Badlands, released for iOS and Android platforms, with development costs in the millions — much of it spent on design.

3D Graphics

Whereas a simple 2D game design may include low-cost graphics or simple computer animations, 3D games utilize 3D models of game elements, including character avatars, weapons, and landscape elements.

Using Unity, the leading gaming development platform, experienced developers can create professional quality VR games beginning at $10,000. Depending on the complexity of the game and the details you want in the imagery, that cost can increase upwards of $300,000 for an average game of high-complexity. Of course, unique projects can exceed this price by orders of magnitude.

Photorealistic Imagery

Content creation for photo-realistic games is the costliest to develop. The life-like realism of the game graphics requires highly-specialized skills and equipment and software to develop. Photorealistic content for even a simple game can cost upwards of $25,000. On the high end, consider Final Fantasy XV, which was five years in development and cost $65 million to develop, with a huge chunk of that devoted to graphics creation.

Game Features

Not only does the design of your VR game affect development cost, but so do the features you decide to include. Features might include dashboards, geolocation capability, social media tie-ins, rating systems, and so-on, that are not crucial to the game.

Even though such add-ons are cool, they can rapidly inflate the development cost of your VR game. As an example, you can use this simple app development calculator to see how quickly even simple app features can increase the price of software development.

Software & Platform

Software considerations and choice of platform are nearly synonymous — you can’t think about one without taking the other into account. Planning your budget begins with deciding what tools will be used to develop it and what OS it will run on.

Google Cardboard

If you want your game to run on Google Cardboard, you only need mobile app technology to make it work. Software is available for free or at a low cost for developing apps and games for Cardboard and other phone-based viewers. Google even provides a free VR Software Development Kit (SDK) for use in developing VR applications for Cardboard or Daydream. If your VR application doesn’t require head-position or motion sensors, Cardboard could be just the budget platform you need.

Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR

Like Cardboard, Daydream and Samsung VR utilize the user’s smartphone for the display and processing. The Daydream Controller is packed with an array of sensors, and Samsung Gear VR has sensors embedded in the viewer, itself. These add functionality that cannot be incorporated into Cardboard applications. However, the additional skills needed to incorporate these features into a VR application means that developers will charge more for writing applications on these platforms.

High-End VR Viewers

If your VR application requires more power to run that a smartphone can provide, you will need to step up to a capable platform such as Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Microsoft HoloLens, or PSVR. Just because you choose to use these platforms does not mean you must pay premium rates. There are many low-end VR applications on the market that uses these viewers. But if you want your application to reflect the full power of these platforms, be prepared to pay higher rates.

The Numbers, Please?

Cost for professional development of VR apps can range from $10,000 to $60,000 or more.  If you want your game to tap the full power of high-end VR headsets, be prepared to spend at least $100,000 to get in the game.

If your VR game will involve MMORPG technology, be prepared to spend hundreds of thousands or millions in development. While multiplayer role-playing games are huge cash generators when ready for market, development time can last several years and the development budget usually keeps newcomers off the playing field.

Finally, it would be a mistake to rule out the lowly PC as a gaming platform for your product. In fact, while the mobile gaming market reached $41 billion in revenue in 2016, the PC game market came in a respectable second at $36 billion. Certain VR games, like flight simulators and race car games, actually play better on the larger PC screens. Cost for PC game development is comparable with that of mobile, so pick your platform — mobile or  PC based on your game, not your budget.

VR Game Testing

Your development budget should include complete testing of the final product. Some developers provide testing as an integral part of their development process, while others charge extra to ensure that your product will be bug free. Whether it is right or wrong for developers to charge extra to test software they have written, it is wrong for you to sell your software to your customers until it has been thoroughly tested.

Testing can comprise as much as 20% – 30% of the full development cost.

Marketing & Distribution

Fortunately, how to market and distribute your game is a cost factor over which you have great degree of flexibility. One of the most effective mediums, today, for marketing virtually anything is social media. A basic knowledge of social media marketing is required in order to be effective in this arena, but a short learning curve and high ROI makes this a wise avenue to pursue.

Through Google Play and the Apple App store, you can offer your software to the masses for free or almost free. Alternatively, numerous gaming distribution services offer additional channels for distributing your game.

Choice of Developer

Free, Freelance, or Professional?

It may surprise you to learn that your choice of developers game can have a great impact on the cost making a VR game. You can choose a budget-developer, who will work for freelance rates with often unpredictable results. You can try to develop your game own your own. Or you can hire a professional developer with a proven track record

The VR game development cost for one-man (or woman) developers can range from a few dollars per hour through an online freelance service to $150 per hour or more, and quality and support for complex software is often lacking.

Professional VR game development firms have a track record of delivering products on time and under budget. Generally, you can be assured that you will get what you pay for, and that some level of after-sale support will be provided. Cost for professional development teams can range from $95 and hour to hundreds per hour, depending on the skill sets you need and how fast you need your project completed.

How Geographic Location Affects Development Cost

The cost for software development varies widely across the globe. Offshore software development has become a cottage industry in India, Asia, and Latin America, where developers often work for pennies on the dollar, with a corresponding level of work quality.

Developers in the United States generally offer top quality development services at top dollar.

For high quality and competitive rates, Western Europe offers some of the best offshore development services in the world. Ukrainian developers, in particular, have earned a reputation for world-class excellence in providing technological solutions at reasonable rates.

Fixed-Rate Vs. Time & Materials Contracts

Finally, developer’s pricing plans can have a significant impact on budget. Some offer a fixed-rate plan, where you agree to pay a certain amount for your project, and others offer customers the option to be billed for time and materials.

The advantages of the fixed-rate payment plan is that you know exactly how much your project will cost to develop. The disadvantage is that you may be limited on change requests after development begins.

Time & materials contracts allow for greater flexibility in making changes, but costs are more difficult to control and delivery dates can become moving targets. With this plan, you agree to pay for materials plus a certain rate per hour for labor.

The Bottom Line

In closing, you should consider hiring a professional developer if your want a professional result with your VR game. If you’ve read this far, you probably do not have the skills to develop your own marketable product. On the other hand, if you read this far, you probably care enough to not trust your project to a freelancer living in his parents’ basement. The choice, then is clear. Do you research to find a competent developer, then approach them with a well-crafted plan for your game. Who knows? Yours might just be the next big VR game.

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