The gaming landscape has undergone a drastic evolution throughout the years, which can be clearly seen on the realistic graphics and modern play style in the latest releases. While these changes will progressively improve due to rapid technological advancements, there might be a shift in the way games are presented in the future, thanks to the development of VR and AR.
As the general demos transformed to proper game releases, more and more companies are undertaking the risk to commercialize this groundbreaking technology. EXA Global is currently one of the pioneers in producing hyper-reality entertainment outlets in Southeast Asia, and we recently got the opportunity to catch up with the founding partner of parent company Havson Group, Kee Saik Meng and the founder and managing director, Havene Liew to know more about their inspiration in creating Exa Outpost, the challenges in developing their proprietary tech and making it a good selling point to convince prospective customers. (transcribed by Dale Bashir)
Gamehubs: As we all know, VR is booming nowadays. It first started with general demos in events, before moving on to more commercialized efforts like VR labs and VR cafes. What inspired you guys to take one step forward by introducing this immersive experience?
Kee Saik Meng: We actually have a background in making video games via our subsidiary, MediaSoft, and it’s mainly mobile titles such as Jump Smash. It is well-known in the region and we have also developed the world's first sepak takraw game. But over the years, the game industry evolved and we saw an opportunity for VR, which prompted us to start the research and development into the technology about 3 years ago. Just like you have mentioned, virtual reality has evolved into what it is today and there are many VR centers like cyber cafes, with consumers coming in and try VR games using wired VR systems. This business model is viable because it’s still very expensive to have your own VR set at home, and it’ll only cost you around RM30-40 for a session at these VR cybercafes. But we want to go beyond that, as we have positioned ourselves as a tech company from the start and we want to go global. The Void and Zero Latency from America and Australia respectively are the pioneers in developing immersive VR experiences in the world, and we all saw these global players two years ago and said: "Hey we can do that or maybe even better!". Hence why we began R & D on VR and instead of developing the content alone, we would like to focus on the tech as well. So, the tech we're looking at is: it's wireless, free-roaming and multiplayer. This is the main difference.
Gamehubs: Is this a proprietary tech? What are the challenges involved while developing it and how long did it take to get it running properly?
Kee: The content is 100% proprietary. The tech we have put together was from what is already available out there, but we are also creating a software that holds everything together. Moving forward, we have prepared a tech roadmap and it won’t be long till we make our own proprietary tech. As for the challenges, I think one of them is the high cost of the whole infrastructure together in terms of motion sensing cameras, developing the content, the backpack and things like that. So we're looking to bring the costs down and make it more affordable to consumers as well as more affordable to our licensees. We work in such a way that we develop the infrastructure and content, and we have a business model where we license it to shopping centers and theme parks. Licensees will get updated content regularly, It will be a very attractive economic model. There are many malls that are looking for new traffic and theme parks that are looking for new content.
Gamehubs: Is there an inspiration behind this game (eg. Popular triple-A titles)?
Havene Liew: We were drawn to doing VR after attending the 2013 Game Developers Conference. But three years ago, there was no technology available out there. Everyone was doing mobile, so we had to get our hands dirty and learn VR as we are more familiar with mobile, consoles and PC. On top of that, we were also gamers like you guys, and we thought it’ll be cool for us to feature in a world similar to the likes of Left 4 Dead, Halo, and Counter-Strike. Then we found out that this is the technology we can use to provide an immersive experience, which became the foundation of Project EXA.
Kee: So, we specifically chose FPS as a genre because VR is so new and everyone knows how to pick up a gun and shoot. Very accessible, and easy to enter. And the learning curve is easy, you get a small kid, 10-year-olds or 11-year-olds, it is intuitive, they know what to do immediately.
Gamehubs: Motion sickness is one of the common downsides of VR games, how are you all planning to deal with it?
Kee: So that's the biggest difference between us and VR arcade centers and cafes out there. VR arcade centers are being commercialized in Malaysia, and there are a whole lot of them in China and South East Asia, with most of them shutting down due to poor user experiences from motion sickness. While we develop the tech, we also look at the consumer's experience, which we heavily emphasized on to prevent the problem. We have tested with more than 400 beta testers and there is no motion sickness at all.
Gamehubs: Are there any plans to expand the games available, instead of it being a shooter only?
Havene: In the world of EXA, we call it The Universe, and FPS is our first concept and available content. We’ll add in PvP in August, then by the end of the year, we should have 5 more expansions. These extra contents will still be in first-person mode, but you’ll get to experience different roles in the universe, such as engineers, scientist, and even chefs.
Gamehubs: In Malaysia, there'll be an upcoming VR theme park by a big international company. How will you all differentiate yourself in terms of the service/games that you provide?
Kee: Yeah, actually we heard there will be a few big ones next year. But I guess we have the first mover advantage. This is the first free roaming wireless multiplayer VR Park not only in Malaysia, but South East Asia. Already, we are getting very interesting consumer insights that we plan to work on and incorporate into our product roadmap. The other thing is, in terms of content development, we are in chapter 1, and you'll see our content development roadmap all the way into Chapter 2: Player vs Player at the end of the year.
Havene: We're only on episode 1 of the story, and there will be 100 of them.
Kee: As a first mover advantage, we are way ahead as we have a 40 person development studio with 5 years of game development experience in developing games for South East Asia. Now, we are moving to the global market. So, in terms of capability, market penetration, consumer insights, we are ahead of the curve.
Gamehubs: RM65 ringgit can be a very steep price for some, as they'll be skeptical of the value of the experience. What would you like to say to these people?
Kee: So far since we have opened, the consumer response has been very good, because it is such a new technology and immersive consumer experience. It is like they have discovered a new dimension. As we open more parks, we will have an economy of scale and will review the pricing structure. As an introductory price, I think we have found a sweet spot with RM 65, and you will come out and talk about it on social media and share videos about the experience.
Gamehubs: What can newcomers to VR expect when they try out the game?
Kee: For newcomers, it will blow your mind away. From what we've seen, many people who come here have never tried VR before and it’s a very rich experience for them. VR is ushering in a whole new sense of immersion, and it used to be interactivity. It's just you, the screen and the game. With VR we put you IN the game, you are actually walking around and shooting things. Later on in our roadmap, you can touch things and have haptic feedback when people shoot you. So it's a new age of immersion. For people who have tried VR before, either HTC Vive or Oculus, it is wired, and you can play in your room or VR arcade centers with very limited movement. Ours has a 500 square feet moving space, wireless, you can run around, squat, or go commando. We capture your full body movement, and it’ll be translated into the game. In the near future, we have a tech roadmap that includes haptic feedback.
You can check out my hands-on experience with the hyper-reality VR game here.