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Indie VR Developers Find Calling, Not Profits

Dirk Van Welden, a Belgium-based mobile and PC game developer, was in the midst of two big projects last year when he donned one of HTC’s prototype virtual reality headsets, forever changing his career. “I am like, ‘I’m going to drop every single project I am working on now,’” he said.

A year later, his old work left unfinished, he’s become one of the best-known developers in the burgeoning field of virtual reality thanks to his arcade-inspired game, “Space Pirate Trainer,” which was crowned the top game at this year’s Proto Awards (the Oscars for virtual reality). More than 60,000 people have bought the $14.99 game so they can blast flying, laser-wielding killer robots coming from every direction. Mr. Van Welden says success hasn’t made him rich. In fact, there’s no telling if any of his work in VR will pay off in the long run. “Everyone is taking a risk working in VR,” he said. “We’re not in it purely for the money.”

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In Mr. Northway’s “Fantastic Contraption,” players build lifesize machines out of virtual sticks, wheels and other objects and then set them in motion, all to transport a purple ball to an island in what feels like Rube Goldberg meets Willy Wonka. Mr. Northway has enough money saved up from his traditional video games to fund his new virtual reality endeavor, but he isn’t worried about the financial calculations. “I’m not a market researcher. I just f--ing love it,” he said.

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“Right now, VR doesn’t have a clear monetization model. It doesn’t have a clear consumer base. Developers need to really soul search why they're getting involved.”