An innovative new virtual reality game from M Theory and Oddboy, launched on Sony’s PlayStation VR, hogs the limelight for Auckland’s fertile game development sector.
Sony has a new game for its PlayStation VR platform that breaks ground in a number of ways. Unlike most other VR titles, Wanderer is an immersive, story-driven VR experience. Players visit Mayan temples, walk on the moon, and travel through time to set history back as it was. It is creatively fresh and highly engaging.
The first VR game to be developed in New Zealand in partnership with a major console platform, Wanderer is a creative product of Auckland studios M Theory and Oddboy, two of the leading lights in New Zealand’s rapidly growing gaming sector.
Auckland is home to 40 per cent of the national industry’s studios and workforce. As well as M Theory and Oddboy, these include Grinding Gear Games, Ninja Kiwi, and an early success story RocketWerkz – a studio that moved to Auckland to access talent and resources to fuel its rapid expansion.
Playing the long game
For M Theory’s Managing Director, Sam Ramlu, the launch of Wanderer and its critical acclaim from gamers and game reviewers alike marks a long-awaited validation following the many years her team – and others – have put into the game.
As the co-founder of the digital agency Method since 2003 – M Theory was launched as a sister business – Sam has a track record in applying cutting-edge tech to projects for clients, and her team were early adopters of augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR). “We were probably one of two or three people in New Zealand who had the Oculus development kit in the early days. We were thinking, how can we help clients create immersive content? As we’d always wanted to create our own IP, that’s where the Wanderer game idea came in.”
An early inspiration for the game was a virtual Star Wars museum developed as part of a corporate client pitch – a huge VR space, complete with TIE fighters and other well-known Star Wars items and vehicles. Later on, this idea of an interactive museum helped shape Wanderer. “Imagine walking through a museum, picking up an artefact, and being able to transport yourself to that space and time,” says Sam. “We asked ourselves, how could we create this more like an adventure? The next natural step was taking a leap through time, and then having to fix time – to alter history.”
With NZ$25,000 seed funding from the New Zealand Film Commission’s Interactive Fund, both M Theory and Oddboy then invested time and resources worth more than NZ$200,000 in developing a demo for Wanderer before seeking a global funding partner. After three years of visiting trade shows, networking, and knocking on doors, at a gaming conference in Boston a Sony executive saw their demo and went on to sign the breakthrough partnership deal in 2019. That’s when things really got going. At the project’s peak, 25 people were working on the game, which took another two and a half years to complete. COVID-19, inevitably, slowed the schedule.
Wanderer was released in January 2022. By the end of that month, it was one of the top-rated PlayStation VR titles in the world, being compared to popular titles Half Life Alyx and The Room VR.
The road to success
Several factors have helped make Wanderer the success it is.
Compelling content is vital. “You can’t create an experience without a good story,” explains Sam. “We want people to be so involved in our game that they forget they’re in VR. For us, it was really important that the tech was seamless, and almost invisible.”
Sam believes a massive part of their success was their commercial acumen from years running their digital agency and the quality of their game demos and marketing collateral. “We didn’t just fall into this and decide to make a VR game. It’s all the experience behind us that has enabled us to work to a budget, to a timeline, to pipelines, to deliver this game.” She adds, “I think a lot of people go into this with a good idea, a good game, but they can fail because they don’t know how to run a project.”
It matters, too, that M Theory and Oddboy are located in Auckland, with its strong creative tech talent pool that benefits from spillover from the screen industry in areas of animation and virtual production. With a range of higher education programmes designed for the creative industries – such as AUT (with its Bachelor of Creative Technologies and Motion Capture Lab), the University of Auckland, Massey, Unitec, and the Media Design School – the region is attractive to international creative companies looking to diversify their workforce distribution.
Gabe Newell, Co-Founder of game developer Valve, is an American who recently acquired New Zealand residency. He said in an interview at the Auckland's Future, Now economic summit, “New Zealand has proven that it is, if not the best, in the top three places in the world for hosting high-tech workers, where you are going to be able to distribute risk . . . This is a great place to have part of your labour force to offset any potentials down the road.”
He adds, “New Zealand has all of the pieces to be a leader in just about any industry that its entrepreneurs decide to invest in, the technical skills, the education system, the sort of attitude and make-it-happen principles that are critical to that are all here.”
Money flows where talent goes
Sam Ramlu is adamant, however, that New Zealand should be seen on an equal footing with the rest of the global gaming industry. “The rewards need to be the same as what people are getting internationally. Our down-to-earth attitude that ‘nothing is above us’: that should warrant more money, not less!”
Certainly, as Auckland’s gaming ecosystem grows, so does international interest and investment. Wanderer’s Sony partnership is anticipated to be the first of many similar co-labs between the region’s expanding gaming sector and major offshore production partners and platforms. On this point, Sam has no doubts: “The future is looking very bright. In 20 years’ time, when people talk about the emergence of VR games, we want our names in there.”
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