CharacterBank’s goal is to create “Mario VR”

It’s often difficult to track the success of VR, in part because it straddles the line between ubiquity and obsolescence. You’ll find VR experiences in malls and event spaces around the world, but the market beyond one-time experiences that showcase the technology’s value as a viable medium for long-lasting experiences and interactions remains low.

Internal Meta data places the device’s sales at 20 million across all SKUs since 2019, with original PSVR sales exceeding five million units in 2020 alongside the estimated 600,000 units sold to date in May for PSVR 2.

These are not bad numbers, but it should also be noted that this places the VR market penetration far below that of the gaming industry in general, with market penetration of just 1.3% in 2023 vs. 45% of the sector in general, which is expected to increase by only 0.4%. in the next four years.

Still, this is a passionate and dedicated community of gamers, and many argue that all the industry lacks is the so-called “system vendor,” the one-off project that sells the potential of the medium to the masses. Experiences like Beat Saber and Half Life Alyx are good, sure, but their appeal hasn’t yet expanded beyond already converted audiences.

There are many companies competing to be the ones to create that medium-definition experience, and one Japanese company hoping to elevate VR by this metric is Kyoto-based CharacterBank.

There are a few reasons Japan seems like the perfect market to develop and refine VR experiences to appeal to the mass market. Particularly in Tokyo, the presence of virtual reality centers, from pop-up simulators of Evangelion to spaces like the Red Tokyo Tower, are not only remarkably common, but popular with locals and tourists alike. VR-enhanced attractions can also be found at world-leading theme parks such as Universal Studios Japan, where the Monster Hunter full-body VR experience is not just one of several such experiences in the park, but its own sheer popularity has seen it extend to multiple years beyond its initial limited lifespan.

“We’re still waiting for Famicom’s Mario to come to VR and push players and become something sensational”Will Loubier

While VR’s popularity in the country may be hampered by limited space in Japanese homes, such receptivity to VR experiences demonstrates its appeal. And it’s something Shuto Mikami, founder of CharacterBank, as well as head of marketing Will Loubier, hopes the studio can achieve.

“When they talk to some people, they think it’s the age of the NES [for VR]”explains Loubier. “We’re still waiting for the Famicom’s Mario to come to VR and push players and become something of a sensation. This is what many developers aim for, including us.”

CharacterBank was founded in 2019, almost as an experiment for Mikami. Rather than coming from a game development background, their career was based on concept car engineering and design, theoretical ideas about what vehicles might look like in the future that could simultaneously inspire new ideas or solve problems with vehicle development modern.

“I come from an engineering background, but I also love gadgets,” she explains. “When the [Meta] Quest 1 was released for the first time, I put it in my head and thought “Oh, this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for, VR is finally here.” I also went to college with other designers and felt their passion for wanting to create their own worlds. Since I liked games and because there were all these people around me who liked games, I felt it was a natural step to set up a game studio to express my creativity.”

It was the possibilities afforded by headphones and ideas from Mikami’s day in concept car design that inspired much of the studio’s early designs. These included making the context and use cases for designs immediately clear to the player in order to facilitate communication and usability with minimal friction, something especially important considering the different inputs and design language that come from the typically motion-driven gameplay within virtual reality.

It was these lessons in communication that inspired and above all drove the studio’s first game, Ansuz, a mafia-style game that relies heavily on communication and contextual clues in the world where good players must eradicate the evil player from a group of players. four. Being able to communicate freely with all players in an immersive environment and picking up on subtle cues that might suggest another player is lying was key to making the game work for a large audience.

“When I first met Quest, I had a feeling that communication could be taken to the next level,” Mikami explains. “Because you can feel the presence of the people around you more, that’s why the first game we developed relies so much on communication. Because the players use a headset, that feeling of communication and immersion is heightened.”

It was still an experiment, a test to see if founding such a studio and pursuing gaming and VR was feasible. It was ultimately a success, followed in 2022 by a very different project, RuinsMagus. If you were to call CharacterBank’s first project a party game, then this would be the exact opposite, conceived as a story-driven single-player RPG in a fantasy world, complete with expressive dual-voiced characters working in intense scenarios of fighting.

It was a challenge that forced both Mikami and the ever-growing team to learn new lessons, and quickly.

“When RuinsMagus started development, the team didn’t have a lot of experience developing the game,” he admits of the studio’s team of around 12 at the time the game was being developed. “We had to really develop the content and the team and everything to get to a point where we could make a full-fledged game.”

Not only did the team need to learn more about the nature of VR development, they also needed funding to make this game a reality. Forging more connections and partnerships not only helped provide the funding the team needed, but also allowed, when needed, to rely on the expertise of these partners in crucial ways to push the game over the edge.

“When Quest 1 came out, I put it into my head and thought ‘Oh, this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for, VR is finally here'”Shuto Mikami

“We’ve definitely grown a lot as a company because of that,” Mikami explains. “[With RuinsMagus] we were able to incorporate voice acting and work with many external partners to support them. We had a publisher in Mastiff LLC, who we worked with [Akihabara-based anime merchandise store] Kotobukiya for a collaboration and we worked directly with Meta on the title. We were able to work with all these partners and get really ambitious with the project.”

The team has now tripled since RuinsMagus entered development, allowing the studio to work on multiple projects simultaneously and spread resources across multiple areas.

In addition to other yet-to-be-announced projects, this includes both the free-to-play title Kemono and Chibi, about an unlikely pair trying to regenerate a decaying Tokyo, as well as a new PSVR 2 port of RuinsMagus incorporating previously released updates and DLC, including the English dub, out September 19.

As well as simply packing all the updates and features into one complete version, this new conversion takes advantage of the tactile feedback offered by the new PSVR 2 controllers to enhance the gaming experience. The hope is that the increased fidelity of the lenses within the headset also helps to further immerse the player in this – something the game appears to be successfully achieving based on a short run of the game at the team’s studio in Kyoto.

With each experience, the team slowly builds their skills and technology for what comes next, in hopes of improving future projects.

“We recently released Kemono and Chibi, and in that we really tried to push forward the way music interacts with the player, as well as create a larger map [to] To explore. We are planning to use this technology in our next major title so we can connect more parts of the world together more seamlessly.”

RuinsMagus launches on PSVR 2 on September 19, incorporating previously released updates and DLC, including English voice acting

To accommodate the team’s rapid expansion, the studio recently moved into a new four-story building large enough to house a team that has grown from the dozen or so it employed just a few years ago to 30 today. Not only does this give the team the space they need to house the entire team under one roof, but it offers bespoke facilities such as the team’s motion capture studio that you might not expect to find tucked away behind the building’s modest exterior.

While Kyoto is home to a strong creative-minded, independent scene (it is the home of Bitsummit as well as being a hub for independent creators of all sizes, from one-man local operations to internationally renowned teams like Q-Games and Chuhai Labs), it is less known as a home to VR studios. Rather, many of these tech startups are based in Tokyo. While Japan as a whole is still a relatively small player when it comes to the number of VR companies, these companies are all close and regularly support each other’s projects.

“Japan will make a very famous VR game in the future. A Final Fantasy, a Dragon Quest, that kind of experience, will definitely come from Japan”Shuto Mikami

As Mikami says, “There aren’t many VR studios in Japan in general, but because of that, we’re all very close. We all like to help each other, we’re always sharing information and giving advice, all like this. Kyoto isn’t a very central hub for virtual reality, but there is a lot of energy and right now we aim to expand the perception of Kyoto and its positive aspects in the world.”

What limits the potential of virtual reality comes back to the question mentioned at the beginning of our discussion: if virtual reality is in the era of the NES, where is its Mario? Where is his must-see title? While Japan doesn’t have many film studios, it is not short on talent.

This is something Mikami remains optimistic about. “Japan will make a very famous VR game in the future. A Final Fantasy, a Dragon Quest, that kind of experience, will definitely come from Japan.”

From CharacterBank? “Yes, of course, we hope so!”

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