Within the last few years, hopes about the popularity of virtual reality home use were dashed. In 2020, there were still a few well-received releases of virtual reality games, like Half-Life: Alyx or Lone Echo. However, the equipment is pretty expensive, so not many gamers want to give an arm and a leg for it.
Yet, some VR formats prosper. For instance, XR training within enterprises is becoming more and more popular, as it helps owners prepare new enterprise workers, risk-free. The same is true about location-based VR entertainment. It is much more affordable to play on location using somebody else’s equipment. Besides, at the location, you can play together with your friends. It is no wonder this form of entertainment enjoys such huge popularity.
That was the reason why we, VR Inn, stepped into the VR LBE market’s most exciting niche – Free-Roam VR games. Now I want to share our observations of the Free-Roam VR LBE state at the end of 2020.
What Free-Roam VR actually is
Free-roam VR is a world similar to the real one, where players can observe simply by wearing a VR headset. If players also wear motion trackers, they can see their augmented hands and bodies in the virtual world and interact with the objects within the game. Due to these technologies, free-roam VR immerses players into the game to the highest extent and gives them the most exciting experience possible.
Location-based VR provides opportunities in many areas, ensuring that it caters to the needs of different types of customers. Some customers want the immersive experience in their favorite video games such as fighting zombies, others – to interact with friends in the VR world, and the rest – to pass time, solving puzzles, or playing sports games. And VR LBE allows players to experience all this.
The fact that the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (that typically invests in breakthrough technology) invested $68 million in Sandbox VR proves the big potential for free-roam VR. It’s the first big investment in VR in a while, and it gave a big boost to the LBE VR development.
Obviously, this deal has caught the attention of many investors. Thereafter, many people started to compare free-roam VR locations to the escape rooms at their very inception in 2014. The hardware is becoming much cheaper and now in terms of costs, it’s more like conventional VR hardware. Due to it, games have become much more affordable. And now companies that previously only released home VR games have begun developing content for LBE VR.
In the beginning, the free-roam VR content was available only for big companies, with their own sites or franchised ones, like The Void or Sandbox VR. Nowadays, free-roam VR game development companies pop up. They create games not for their venue (they typically don’t have one) but for any free-roam VR locations. That mindset shift and content availability accelerated the expansion of free-roam VR venues. Another big factor was an HTC Vive Pro with Steam 2.0 tracking system release that substitutes super expensive systems from OptiTrack or similar companies.
Has COVID killed Free Roam VR or accelerated it?
But there is always a fly in the ointment.
And today this fly’s name is COVID-19.
Of course, LBE VR has been massively impacted by the pandemic, the same as other entertainment locations. Coronavirus slowed down the expected drastic growth of free-roam VR, as many LBE VR companies have stopped their activities for the duration of the quarantine because their audience is afraid to get infected at the VR location.
Many large companies faced hardships, as they still have to pay their rent and taxes, despite having lost many clients.
However, surprisingly, small VR businesses can survive. Some of our customers continue to work and have even opened new locations during the lockdown. This hints that the market is growing even in such a difficult time.
I think there are two reasons for such growth. The first is that due to closed borders, people are looking for new local entertainment. As we wrote earlier COVID accelerates free-roam VR integration to escape and VR rooms. So, many escape rooms have begun to offer free-roam VR as a new service, or completely transformed their escape rooms into free-roam VR locations.
Another point is that rent prices also went down. That’s because many shops went online completely, which makes many attractive locations available for an LBE.
Is the future behind the mixed model?
At the beginning of the free-roam VR journey, free-roam VR was a kind of upgrade to the regular VR sites, which allowed players to get a much brighter experience.
But as we can now see based on our customers’ business models, free-roam VR is something that is a perfect add-on to the regular VR games. It acts as a lead-magnet, for customers who are not familiar with VR at all, and gives them a chance to try it, without the need to buy pricey equipment.
Here is what our CEO, Giorgi Gulabyan says:
“The main benefit of free-roam VR games is simplicity. Players don’t require any knowledge about how to use controllers (at VR Inn, our players of free-roam VR games use only one button) and can move inside the digital world easily – just walk, as in everyday life. That’s why It’s a kind of a bridge into the VR world for newbies who try VR for the first time.”
It’s simple to play in free-roam VR, and after a couple of games, it becomes easier to try regular VR games that nowadays offer much more content than, say, a year ago. Turning free-roam VR customers into regular VR ones is the best way to increase LTV. At VR Inn, we even included functionality for switching the same venue from a free-roam setup to a regular, that allows our partners to launch both types of games using the same space and hardware.
Here is what LBVR expert and AIXR VR Awards judge Kevin William told us about the future of the free-roam VR LBE during our conversation:
“Soon enough, the free-roam VR will be separated into two parallel directions. The first one will be the Standalone Free-Roam VR, which will be based on cheap and accessible standalone HMD’s like Pico or Oculus Quest 2. The second one will be the High-End free-roam VR, based on high-resolution HMD’s and backpacks with huge computing power, and with visuals transferred via 5G channels.”
How you can adapt to a pandemic without losses
To not lose your clients and to attract potential ones, you shouldn’t ignore the pandemic but should put your customers’ health first.
Cleaning is the key now, as you can’t offer individual one-time equipment for every player. Show on your social media channels that you clean up after each play session. This will inspire confidence in your customers, and they will be sure about the purity of your location.
Sounds simple, but we receive a ton of questions regarding how safe is wearing HMD in VR LBEs. That’s not enough just to keep them clean, it’s also required to tell your customers about it. Even better – reclean equipment in front of them.
Post-Coronavirus, we must accept the reality that we will be unable to operate as we did before. Cleanliness and disinfection will have to become our top priority to ensure our customers trust us and can enjoy location-based entertainment.
The free-roam VR niche has been growing before the pandemic and will continue to grow during and after it. This fact is backed by investors’ interest in the LBE VR.
Of course, when a pandemic strikes the world, many businesses crash. But smart business owners can make use of such a dramatic situation as the COVID-19 worldwide spread, and not only help their free-roam VR business survive but make it extremely successful in the post-pandemic world.
All you need to do to make it happen is to track the new world trends and adapt to them. And of course, to take care of your audience’s well-being as much as possible.