Words and interview by Simon Bland
Virtual reality is your passport to another world. Over the past few years, this swiftly moving sector has wasted no time revolutionizing almost every area of our daily lives, from education and skills training to architecture, healthcare and manufacturing. Then there’s gaming. With VR, developers can expand the parameters of user immersion like never before, making it a treasure trove of opportunity for those looking to push the boundaries of innovation. It’s this niche that Fallen Planet Studios is currently capitalizing on — and after finding early success with their chilling VR horror title AFFECTED: The Manor, they show no signs of slowing.
Created for the Oculus Rift DK1 VR headset, AFFECTED: The Manor made smart use of sound, lighting and suspense to draw players into a nail-biting world while establishing itself as one of the most popular VR demos on the market. “There was a website called The Oculus Share Site where developers could upload games and experiences, and anyone with an oculus development kit
could download and play them for free,” says company CEO Alex Moretti, recalling his studio’s first foray into this fertile space. AFFECTED kept things simple by inviting players to explore a haunted landscape packed with jump scares that grabbed all of their senses. As Moretti attests, it was a quick hit: “It really resonated well with the community.”
Looking back, perhaps the game’s secret lay in its commitment to doing something different. “A lot of early content made you feel a bit nauseous and threw you about,” admits Moretti, commenting on the various simulator-style demos that were the most obvious choice for VR gaming. “Our walkthrough experience was a horror, one of the most powerful genres you can use in virtual reality to capture that feeling of immersion. This style became our path and AFFECTED’s success helped us build a good relationship with Oculus, which were then bought by Facebook, now Meta — so we were right at the start of it all.”
As with most new technology, wider consumer adoption was relatively slow. However, Moretti and his small team decided to use this period to hone their craft, solidify their foundations and double down on their unique selling points, with AFFECTED’s success in 2013 helping to guide the process. “We moved into an office and had our first consumer release of the original demo which we remade for the Samsung GearVR in 2016; It landed really well with the early VR community, springboarded our growth and we’ve been able to build from there.”
This time spent understanding what they do best has given Fallen Planet Studios a clear ethos underpinning everything it does, with a ‘play to your strengths’ mentality powering the games it creates. It’s something that’s proven particularly useful considering the open-ended potential of their chosen sector. “During the time when there was no consumer market, we were deciding what path to go down because VR can be applied to everything,” reasons Moretti. “You can view real estate in VR, do architectural visualisations, training and education… you can put on a headset and get lessons from a tutor from anywhere in the world. We wanted to stick with what we knew and where we thought we could have the biggest impact,” he adds. “For us, it was making video games and immersive experiences.”
Their early arrival in the sector helped them build key partner relationships that help them stay ahead of the curve — something that’s critical in a rapidly changing industry. “We have really close partnerships with key platform holders like Meta, Playstation and Pico VR and they give us access to their headsets ahead of their release because they know content is the most important factor.” To illustrate this point, Moretti shares a quote from Palmer Luckey, creator of the original Oculus headset, that insists ‘the only thing bad for VR, is bad VR.’ “If you put on a VR headset and the experience makes you feel nauseous, you’re not going to do it again. Whereas, if you put it on and it’s the most incredible thing you’ve tried, you’ll come back for more,” suggests Moretti. “For us, it’s always trying to lean into what the medium can do best and what we can do best within this medium.”
Even within their chosen niche, there are many different avenues to explore. After noticing that arcade venues were starting to let users experience high-end VR at a low cost, Moretti identified an opportunity to bring their flagship property to new players. “We made a licensing model where we licence our work to arcades in the same way traditional gaming started off and people would play Street Fighter in an arcade cabinet.” Another key market? Theme park attractions. Here Fallen Planet created bespoke experiences for theme parks such as EuropaPark in Germany, and created an AFFECTED -branded ghost train adventure for motion simulators, for a VR theme park in South Korea. However, when COVID hit all of these places closed.
Moretti’s team used this fallow period to create content that would build their existing consumer base. Creating free, downloadable content for AFFECTED: The Manor during lockdown increased the value of the game for existing users whilst making it more appealing to new users. Fallen Planet Studios emerged from the pandemic stronger than ever. “We’re currently working on AFFECTED: The Asylum, which is a follow-up to The Manor and will be our first multiplayer game,” Moretti tells us. “When people play our games, they like to get scared and share it on social media channels, as it provokes dynamic reactions that others love to see. We want our players to be able share those types of experiences inside VR together. This will be the foundation for all of our games moving forward.”
It’s this path that has led Fallen Planet Studios to Enterprise: Evolve, our mentoring scheme designed to help businesses catalyze growth and prepare for future investment. Just as the company has thrived by identifying its collective strengths, Moretti has been keen to encourage his team members to adopt a similar attitude of self-reflection and personal development — and by his own logic, this mindset should also apply to the CEO.
“I always try to work on my blind spots and when I see programmes like Evolve that I can learn from and grow my network, they’re things I naturally gravitate towards,” he says. “It’s always useful to understand your strengths but also to know and focus on your weaknesses. As CEO, if I want to guide the company and have a long-term vision, I need to upskill in areas like investment and how I can best support the studio,” suggests Moretti. “Fallen Planet is like a train on tracks, gathering pace all the time, and my job is to always ensure there are tracks in front of us.”
By hiring new staff, Moretti has been able to focus on his own professional growth and with business mentor Travis Baxter in tow, he’s had access further support and business advice. “Travis has been invaluable,” he attests. “We’re going through a growth period so to have someone who’s been through the same journey for us to use as a sounding board is really important.” Combined, it’s this knowledge that Moretti believes will help keep his company at the forefront of the VR space. “Every industry goes through ups and downs. I’m using these learnings to make sure Fallen Planet Studios can keep growing in the best way possible.”