Oculus and other content publishers, particularly in the gaming space, are putting increased emphasis on the social aspects of virtual reality in an effort to win mainstream acceptance. While location-based experiences and competitive multiplayer games help to overcome the perception that VR is an isolating experience, some companies are also looking for opportunities in family-oriented entertainment.
But those doing so are making early bets. Kids and families aren’t a priority market, Stephanie Llamas, SuperData’s VP of research and strategy, told AListDaily. This is mainly because there isn’t much demand right now, as adults are still deciding whether to adopt VR for themselves, much less their kids.
Although some might see that as a good reason to put this audience aside, others view it as an opportunity to build a nascent market as awareness and adoption of VR technology continues to grow.
Playful, which also makes the Minecraft-like game Creativerse, developed Lucky’s Tale as a launch title for the Oculus Rift. It still comes free with purchase of the headset.
Mark Stanley, president and chief business officer at Playful, told AListDaily that offering the game for free was the most effective way to make the IP widely known, even among the relatively small number of headset owners when the Oculus Rift first launched, establishing Playful as a family-friendly brand. Awareness for the original Lucky’s Tale continues to grow as the price of VR hardware drops and more people purchase headsets for themselves.
“That’s a category that we’re going to be very clear on,” Stanley said. “That the experience with our content, whether it be VR or flat screen, is going to be a joyful experience and can bridge the gap between kids and parents.”
Establishing brand recognition is an important part of helping parents overcome their sense of apprehension when it comes to letting their kids try out experiences. Since you can’t always get a sense of whether VR content will be appropriate for kids, thinking of Playful along the same lines as Disney or Nintendo could go a long way. To this end, Playful expanded its franchise in November by partnering with Microsoft to launch Super Lucky’s Tale, a traditional action title it hopes will be regarded as the Mario game for the Xbox One platform.
Startup VR developer Rocket Worldwide also sees an opportunity when it comes to family entertainment and debuted Train Runner VR for the HTC Vive in December. The game, which involves constructing gadgets to rescue a puppy from a speeding train, will be updated with additional content in the future.
Rocket Worldwide CEO Doug Kryzan explained that there are essentially two target audiences—the first being the kids who will be playing the games and the other being their parents. The first step in engaging parents is to create entertainment that parents are comfortable with, meaning the games need to be non-violent while promoting aspects of personal empowerment and critical thinking.
Similar to Playful, Rocket is conveying the message that it is a brand that makes family-friendly games in order to appeal to both audiences. The company is doing this by taking a focused approach with its promotion, mainly relying on social channels such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to get the word out about Train Runner.
Both companies agree that VR content is currently geared heavily toward hardcore gamers. “There isn’t the same level of experiences for the wider audience,” Kryzan said. “So, as a game developer, we’re carefully watching this and working to understand what messages resonate with these two audiences and what the most effective ways to reach them are, given the maturity of the market.”
But Stanley believes engagement with a more hardcore audience is the key to growing awareness for family-friendly titles. For example, the communications Playful has done with the Xbox One community in partnership with Microsoft for the launch of Super Lucky’s Tale is helping to bring more attention to the original VR game.
“Xbox’s traditional target audience has not been kids and family,” Stanley said. “We just launched [Super Lucky’s Tale] in November, but we’re still finding new ways to reach kids and parents.”
However, according to Llamas, the ongoing view that VR is an isolating experience presents a major obstacle, especially as parents already battle the endless pull smartphones and computers have on kids.
To combat this perception, Stanley pointed out the “copilot mode” for the Xbox One game, where parents can help their children control the main character through trickier parts.
Rocket also plans to include cooperative play features in Train Runner in the future. But even though multiplayer will help VR be seen as a more social activity, Kryzan added that another opportunity comes in giving the nearby viewing audience—those who aren’t wearing headsets—a means of interacting with the game.
But the greatest challenge these companies face is that parents may not know whether or not VR headsets are safe for their children.
“Many manufacturers warn that kids under 13 should not use VR headsets, even though there is not enough scientific evidence proving one way or the other, so already that is a deterrent,” Llamas said.
Stanley believes VR has a long road ahead when addressing this matter. He said people need to have access to headsets outside of events such as E3 to gain a better understanding of the technology. That way, parents may become more comfortable with their kids trying out VR experiences. Both Playful and Rocket are currently in discussions with arcades and other location-based businesses to support their games, but Playful is also looking to develop non-VR theme park attractions based on the Lucky’s Tale franchise.
Llamas admits that even though the kids and family demographic isn’t essential to the growth of VR, since the money lies with tech-savvy adults, it will eventually become an important market.
Stanley agrees, and said it will be first adopters, comprised of older gamers with greater purchasing power, mixed with the massive content consumption teens and tweens have that will drive the VR market forward. He also added that the accessibility of VR content must be matched by the hardware for the market to grow.
“Setting up demo stations at every retailer across the country is a major investment, but I think it’s one that’s necessary to accelerate the install base and spread the understanding of what VR is,” Stanley said.