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The lessons I learned creating an €80.000 VR horror game

by Eneko Celayeta on 05/19/20 11:42:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


It all started thanks to the first generation of VR headsets. The first time I used the VR-focused controllers I knew I wanted to create a horror game for virtual reality – but I never expected it to become DreamBack VR, a fully fledged horror VR experience video game. To say the least, that wasn’t the first idea that came to my mind. I wanted to start small, but the game grew until today, just a few weeks before its release. A €400-budget project grew until it became a €80.000-budget game. What the hell happened, you may ask? Well, allow me to elaborate…

My name is Eneko Celayeta and I’m the owner of Come Over Gaming S.L.U., a new born studio founded in 2020 in Hondarribia, Spain. I’ve always worked for the family business but, before transitioning to video games, I spent eight years moonlighting for a startup (EC Sim Hardware), assembling hardware and coding software for motorsports sims. I learned a lot from that experience, and one of the most useful lessons was that working on that field had little to do with creating video games. Yes, crafting software means writing code but it is a very different experience as coding for a video game.

As I said before, my wake-up call came when I laid my hands on a pair of VR controllers. That was the first time I experienced immersive audio or could interact with objects in a room such as handles on doors that reacted when I tried to open them. There still were no physics implemented but, after that experience and after playing some horror games, I had a clear goal in mind. If horror is my favorite genre, why not try to create a VR horror game?

It may look like nonsense, but the first idea that came to my mind was to create an experience, not a video game, with a minimum budget: 400 euros. I can see now how that idea may seem ridiculous but keep in mind I had no experience in the video games industry at all and my main driver was to have fun. That’s how I spent my first year: in late 2017 I downloaded Unreal Engine 4 and started getting familiar with its tools. I didn’t waste any time on learning about blueprints, textures, apps like substance painter or similar stuff. I just got a few packs from the marketplace and I started crafting an environment: first, a table, then, a roof… There was no level design at all, just trying to understand the ins and outs of UE4.

Everything changed a few weeks later when I started to do some serious work on DreamBack VR. I could say that the first year was a bit of a “waste” (at least when it comes to coding) until I found the right programmer for the game. I had some bad experiences with coders until finding the right one for DreamBack VR, who suggested to throw away the whole code and started from scratch. But there was other stuff that needed to be done during that first year: scripting, concept art, 3D character design/modeling, level design, legal stuff also involving copyright issues… It’s important to emphasize this was always done after my regular shift. Looking back, I spent around six hours a day for the last three years which, according to my calculations, account for a total of 7.000 hours, give or take, devoted to DreamBack VR. This meant there was no weekends for a while, just work on my game until the end of the week.

During those 7.000 hours I had to step up my game: I improved all the needed skills to create something like DreamBack VR like how to optimize a scene in order to reduce draw calls to improve the CPU/GPU performance, I learned how to use Substance tools and more, I got to know more about advanced materials, level and gameplay design… All in all, developing DreamBack VR has been like an intensive three-years course on VR video games development. Talking about saving points, DreamBack VR lets you save at certain points in the Rickfford Mansion were the action happens. Being passionate about classic horror games, I thought that could make sense but I found out during the development that, on this genre, it makes more sense to have savepoints at the same exact locations than letting the player save whenever he or she wanted.

I would also take the time to thank all the freelancers that helped shape DreamBack VR into the game that will hit the shelves in a few weeks. They account for the additional 2.000 hours spent on the game. Now, back to the budget thing. Where does that 80.000 number come from? Considering that I have been working on almost all the areas during development, I think it might be useful to account for the expenses associated to each department or aspect of DreamBack VR:

Why have I chosen to include my working hours as part of DreamBack VR’s budget?

While the estimated cost rises to 80.000 euros, half of that amount equals to the time I invested in DreamBack VR (a time and investment that hopefully I’ll recoup soon) which would translate into a real cost of 40.000 euros. Yes, that didn’t came out of my pocket – but it’s still something that has to be considered in the budget in order to calculate if the game is a success or not. and it's not even the standard freelancer rate, though -- it's my first commercial game, and a passion project on top of that. But it's a matter of principle: first of all, I needed to value in some way the time I was spending in this project, which was taking a toll on both my personal and professional life. Working both on my first game and on the family business meant I almost had no spare time to spend on what I want. That’s the turning point when you realize your game is not gonna cost 400 euros and more important, that you need to keep track of your expenses. If this project is going to have such a toll on my life, it was imperative to keep track of the time and cost I have devoted to DreamBack VR. Concerning the freelancers that worked in this project, I have to say that in some cases they didn't charge me their full rates, and I am incredibly thankful for that -- but the budget needed to consider them, even if it was just out of respect for their work and time.

But also, the time you're spending is something that needs to be considered in the budget in order to calculate if the game is a success or not and to decide if Come Over Gaming S.L.U. can become a viable company. Let's say I consider quitting my day job and focus on games development. How could I do this if I don’t know how much would it cost to work full-time to develop a second game? I believe that any indie developer should keep this in mind if he or she is really serious about working on this industry. Your first game may be born out of sheer passion for the media, but if it doesn't pay the bills it's not a sustainable way of life.

While I’m extremely proud of what I’ve accomplished with DreamBack VR, I don’t want to sugarcoat my experience. It’s been hard. Very hard. The hardest experience I endured in my entire development life. The good days during the past three years were seldom, but special and I learned to embrace them. But it was mostly bad days and very bad days. And I must insist, having my family and girlfriend around, whose massive support I am very grateful for, was key in order to reach the end of the journey. There’s just one little extra push to be done and the near three years of work behind DreamBack VR will be over.

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