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Anime VR: present and future of a new medium

Today I feature a very interesting blog post about Virtual Reality anime by Fedotov Maxim . If you like anime and you like virtual reality (as my buddy Max, to whom I dedicate this post), I’m sure that you will appreciate a lot this article. And if it is the case, don’t forget to join Fedotov’s VR Anime Society community!

Have a nice reading…

Anime industry always had a fascination with Virtual Reality . A quick glance over the most popular anime series and films, from older entries like Ghost in The Shell or Digimon to the latest boom of so-called Isekai series, such as Overlord or Sword Art Online , shows well much Japanese audience get excited about being transported into a virtual world.

You could say the anime fans and by extension, Japanese gamers, always dreamt of what would it be like to live in their favorite series or games . As we all know, VR is an extremely powerful medium that lets us become part of the story or world, in the true sense of that word. Anime has always been one of the most daring mediums, telling the most amazing of stories, from weird and fun to deep and philosophical . You could only imagine just how engrossing would those amazing stories and worlds would be in VR.

In this post, I’d like to explore the current landscape of VR in the context of Anime industry, from the East to the West as well as what we can expect from the future .

VR Anime in Japan

In general, VR in Japan didn’t take off as quickly as it did in the West . VR need for a powerful computer didn’t fit well in a country where there wasn’t a well-established PC culture. Most people play games on consoles , such as PlayStation or Nintendo DS, viewing PCs as expensive and complicated machines.

But it wasn’t until Sony announced PSVR that things started to change . Project Morpheus, as it was called originally, was announced at the 2014 Tokyo Game Show and subsequently officially released as PSVR on October 13, 2016.

VR Anime PSVRProject Morpheus or Sony PSVR

It fit the Japanese market perfectly (and worldwide as well, still regarded as the best selling VR HMD to date), as it meant existing 40 million PS4 users could get into VR for as little as $399 compared to >1000$ for high-end VR.

The boom of Isekai or stuck in a VR game genre was raging on and it meant plenty of people were excited to get their hands on the system . Fast forward to today, when the second generation of PSVR is still unknown and people who wanted to get into VR, already got the system.

Apart from various PSVR games that saw the worldwide release, there were plenty that got released only in Japan and those are the ones that are specifically targeted at anime, visual novel or dating sim fans.

For the most part, we haven’t yet seen many full pledged games released for that audience, with an exception of some, like Summer Lesson.

What we do have are VR extensions to full games, such as Kai-ri-Sei Million Arthur VR . Based on a popular mobile card game, it was ported to VR by Squire Enix.

It Makes Playing Sports Thrilling. By now you know that virtual reality can make the sports viewing experience better. As it turns out, virtual reality can make playing sports a better experience, too. There are already simulations on the market that put you in the middle of a sporting contest to see how well you do. There are some additional props required, such as a machine for driving a bobsled down a mountain. It is a cool and one of a kind experience.

The game follows the same story as the mobile card game. You have linear “episodes” , which for the most part are just dialogues between characters of this game, in the same fashion as on the mobile version. The disappointing bit is that while you are in VR… you watch those dialogues on a small screen inside this world , rather than being present with actual models.

virtual reality anime(Image by Square Enix)

Mixed with those, are actual VR battles, which can be quite fun . Here is where the card game mechanics come into play. Before the battle, you need to select a deck of cards as well as who you are going to be playing as, from 4 main characters of the game. After that, you get transported into a well-detailed world to fight one of the antagonists of the story.

virtual reality anime(Image by Square Enix)

If you’ve played Japanese RPGs before (or simply JRPGs), you will be familiar with the turn-based nature of battles present in Kai-ri-Sei. Unfortunately, you can only control your own character so it can be challenging to clear some levels due to your “teammates” not using the right cards.

At the end of the day, while it gives us a glimpse of what a well-made turn-based RPG in VR could look like, it fell short due to limited game mechanics, linear story and of course lack of multiplayer. Being just an extension to an existing game, it’s not surprising, but I hope we’ll see a more complete game being released one day.

Another big category is promotional material for existing franchises. For example, One Piece Grand Cruise for PSVR .

The game revolves around just another day in the adventure of Straw Hat Pirates, a pirate crew and main protagonists of One Piece universe . You get to interact with all the main characters, like Chopper here.

virtual reality anime(Image by Bandani Namco)

Apart from that, there are two main events: Repel an attack by a Kraken and have a sea battle against the Navy. In any case, you just end up using your PS4 controller to shoot a canon and see various franchise characters duking it out.

virtual reality anime(Image by Bandai Namco)

So all we get is a very short experience with nothing substantial behind it , serving only to promote One Piece universe.

There are quite a few “games” in this category, but I’ll spare you the details, as none of them utilises VR as well as we come to expect from various high-quality VR games on Oculus or SteamVR.

But that’s starting to change. There has been a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign for Tokyo Chronos , raising $90,625 . Led by Kazuma Miki, the producer of Sword Art Online, this is an ambitious project to make a full VR virtual novel for PSVR and SteamVR.

virtual reality anime(Image by Kazuma Miki)

The story seems to revolve around A group of eight childhood friends, who get stuck in “Chronos World”, an empty, deserted Shibuya where time has frozen. You can expect a puzzling, mystery story with, I am sure, quite a few plot twists under its sleeve.

The project aim is to maintain a classical Visual Novel experience, with text-based narrative (which is voice acted), over free exploration, letting the creators craft a linear, but very high-quality narrative.

virtual reality anime(Image by Square Enix)

Another project which is blazing trails, but with an even more unique delivery, is Tales of Wedding Rings VR. Made by Squire Enix and based on a popular manga series, it gives us a glimpse of what would it be like to read manga in VR.

Codenamed Project Hikari , this new initiative from Square Enix’s Advanced Technology Division tries to reimagine what reading manga in VR would look like . And it seems to succeed so far, with very unique camera work and skilfully mixing 2D and 3D content.

Virtual reality has captured to the interest of Baby Boomers, Generation Z and Millennials.

LiveWindow view, a unique technology that renders 3D content in separate frames that allow multiple viewing angles, and also dynamically animate to achieve a unique narrative style like never before.

virtual reality anime(Image by Square Enix)

You can find it on Oculus Store , as well as recently released SteamVR version .

With how popular Oculus Go and Mobile VR is in Japan, there have been more and more original IPs in this space as well . One of the more well-known names is SpicyTails , that made a breakout hit Project LUX .

That success led them to get a license for Spice and Wolf VR game that they are working on now and is surely to be very successful, considering how popular Spice and Wolf is.

As I am writing this article, they’ve already raised over $190,000 during their Campfire crowdfunding campaign (Japanese alternative to Kickstarter). Kickstarter campaign has also started recently, already raising over $110,000. This already makes this the most funded VR anime project to date as far as I know.

There is a lot more going on in Japan, but unless you live in Japan and/or speak the language, it might be hard to find information about the indie scene. MoguraVR is probably the best source of information for those of us living outside the country.

But lets move on closer to home and look at the state of things in the West.

Humble beginnings in the West

As you’d imagine, the picture is bleaker here. Anime by itself only recently started to get the mainstream appeal , with Netflix making various adaptations, anime films being broadcasted in cinemas and Crunchyroll dominating the scene with more than 40 million registered users.

While its posed to change as the medium becomes even more widely accepted, for now, the scene is dominated by indie developers. Nevertheless, as you’d expect from indies, some of the experiences are very ambitious and push the medium itself even farther than what is being done in Japan.

For example, two man team based in the UK, are working on Virtual Novel , which already looks like a AAA game.

VR anime Virtual NovelOne of the corridors in the huge VN school campus (Image by Virtual Novel)

Taking a classical virtual novel formula of a protagonist exploring romantic routes for various heroines, they went beyond and above that, going for what I’d describe as a high school simulator. From a branching, modular story to various mini-games, like cooking or playing tennis, this game consists of more things to do, than multiple VR games put together.

virtual reality anime(Image by Virtual Novel)

Do I also have to mention, that the whole map is 6km², meaning you have to use a train or a bicycle to get around? And don’t get me started on the AI interactivity.

Improved our IK system to include clavicle solving for arms-up positions, and an experimental follow system 😗 #screenshotsaturday #indiedev pic.twitter.com/NOVzzAnIoa

— VirtualNovel (@VirtualNovel)

Unfortunately, there are also plenty of low effort VR games on Steam in this category, which is why I wouldn’t recommend using Steam to find high-quality games in this space.

Future of Anime VR

As with anything VR, the sky is the limit. It’s well known that Palmer would love to get an actual Sword Art Online game made in VR and I am sure something like that will happen in the next 5–10 years. But I am going to look at the more realistic, short-term future.

Its safe to assume that we will continue to see the most development and adoption of such games in Japan. Lots of studios are currently experimenting as I’ve mentioned above, but will slowly, but surely take on more ambitious projects. I see virtual novels and mobile VR being the predominant themes.

The biggest market fit would be virtual novels , whatever that would be PSVR, PC or mobile. This category is the most popular gaming genre in Japan and is a perfect fit for VR . Most studios already started with this genre through the likes of Summer Lesson, Chronos or SpicyTails games. I expect bigger studios start releasing VR add-ons to their biggest virtual novel games and slowly transition into making fully fledged VR games. This will only accelerate with standalone headsets and more comfortable, next-gen HMDs, like PSVR 2.

The State of VR in the Early 2000s. After so many capable devices on the market and so many let downs that didn’t truly capture the audience they deserved, virtual reality didn’t see much development in the early 2000s. Virtual Reality was at the background in the development of new technology. It took a step back, letting personal devices, such as computers, laptops, iPods, smartphones and tablets take over, which may very well have been the right step. With the development of new technologies, a new door was opened for virtual reality, because now head-tracking and capable displays were cheaper than ever before. However, it wasn’t before one start-up company mentioned the idea, that Virtual Reality truly took off on the consumer’s market.

Games and experiences for standalone headsets are going to be the second biggest focus in the coming years. Oculus Go was a huge success in Japan and I expect the likes of Oculus Quest or Vive Focus to be predominant consumer VR in the coming years.

VR anime Oculus Go

There is also a strong case for haptics and robotics research. Japan is famous for its continuous innovation in robotics and we’ve seen various interesting projects from Japan already, such as Unlimited Hand that simulates touch by using EMS or Exii , that uses a simple motor to add more precise force feedback. I believe this trend will continue.

(Image by Exii)

I do expect more innovative and cutting-edge VR anime games to still be made in the West. While Japan will continue to work in the low-mid tier, best use of haptics and PC VR will be done in the West. Being a niche, I expect to still see only a handful of developers , but their experiences and games would continue to explore the cutting-edge of the medium.

Closing words

There is a lot to look forward to and as an anime fan, this makes me extremely excited. That’s the reason I’ve created VR Anime Society , as in these early days, lots of great projects are left unnoticed and could never realise their true potential. So I am constantly looking out for developers to help and promote their works to the wider audience . With over 400 VR enthusiasts interested in Japan and anime, I think we are the only place with such concentration of people interested in this niche.

As the main activity, we watch anime together in VR, supported by a custom made website for event management. You can check out the video below to get a feel for what’s it like to join one of our sessions.

So if you are a developer making an anime game or experience, I’d love to chat! Feel free to reach out to me on . But if you are just passionate about this subject and want to discover more exciting projects as well as join us in watching anime together in VR, come and join us at https://www.vranimesociety.com/

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