virtual reality developer with headset on looking at three screens

Want to ride the wave and develop a virtual reality (VR) product? You’re doing it at just the right time. VR is taking the world by storm, offering immersive experiences for entertainment, education, marketing, and productivity for industries ranging from construction and engineering to healthcare and retail. It’s showing no signs of slowing down, which puts VR developers in high demand.

VR is a highly involved process with quite a few moving parts—storytelling, database management, UI and UX design, sound design, motion, animation, 3D modeling, and environmental design—not the least of which is the complex development behind the technology itself. That means you’ll need a diverse team: designers, art directors, programmers, and testers, to name a few.

Your first step should be to engage a VR developer to help guide the process. Who do you need, and what factors will affect how much it will cost? Read on for a general framework to help you budget the cost to hire a virtual reality developer.

Virtual Reality Developers at a Glance

Virtual reality developers code immersive, multifaceted VR apps and games to run on various native platforms and the web. They’re creating simulated worlds, and a lot goes into making those realistic.

Like VR apps themselves, not all VR developers are created equal. Some will be highly skilled programmers who can custom-code apps from the ground up, while others may be newbies who use more user-friendly platforms to whip up simpler prototypes.

Some developers specialize in the complex, nonlinear world of VR gaming and will have other skills and artistic prowesses that enable them to bring storylines to life with characters, music, sound, and animation skills such as 3D rigging.

The tools they use include 3D programming engines such as

  • Unreal Engine, which uses the C++ programming language and Blueprints OOP visual scripting language
  • Unity 3D, which uses C# and PlayMaker visual scripting language
  • WebVR, an experimental JavaScript-powered API
  • Cryengine
  • OpenGL
  • Vizor and A-Frame web frameworks
  • Google VR SDK

The platforms they develop for can include

  • Google Cardboard (Android)
  • iOS
  • Oculus Rift
  • PS4
  • HTC Vive
  • Gear VR

First Step: Defining Your Virtual Reality Project

The first thing to nail down is what you need the VR developer to do. This is going to depend on what your VR app is, how complex you want it to be, and how far along development and planning are. Put all this into a thorough project description. This should cover information about what final product you need and when you need it, such as

  • If your VR app will be native, and what platforms you’re developing for
  • If your VR app will be web-based
  • SDK preference
  • What type of VR app it is—educational, gaming, etc.
  • If you need a full-blown app or a prototype
  • If the app is being developed from scratch or being built on (i.e., programming game play classes vs. iterating on existing classes)
  • Project timeline

Because you’ll need the expertise of numerous people, it’s important to identify whom you need, let each team member know whom they’ll be working with, and clearly define what you need from each. The creative elements of VR development will be supported and brought to life by your developer, so it’s important he or she fully understands your vision and has the experience required.

Cost Factor #1: Scope of Your Virtual Reality App Project

Your project description will definitely help when it comes to assessing the first major cost factor: the overall scope and complexity of your virtual reality project. Are you developing a VR app from scratch or adding new features? Are you starting with a small-scale prototype project to test the waters? These variables will help inform the level of developer you require and the skills he or she will need to have.

What kind of VR app are you developing? Is it an educational app, a gaming app, or something more specific such as a healthcare application? The more complex your VR app, the more-advanced the tools you’ll want to develop it with. There are platforms that allow nondevelopers to create VR apps without a lot of code (e.g., Unity’s PlayMaker script or Unreal’s Blueprints script). Note that you get what you pay for with programs that are more DIY in nature, in that the apps these produce tend to be lower-level and simpler.

Very professional, high-quality VR necessitates a good amount of coding, which will require a more experienced developer (who may command a higher hourly rate).

Cost Factor #2: Experience and Platform-Specific Expertise

Although two of the most popular VR engines are based on common programming languages (C# and C++), you need a developer with more than just expertise in those languages. VR comes with its own set of challenges and associated technologies. Just as web developers often need a broad view of a project (web servers, APIs, virtualization, web security), VR developers work with a range of variables.

VR is rapidly evolving, but two things aren’t likely to change: VR software requires a highly polished interface, and it has different hardware requirements, when run on portable devices like wearable headsets and mobile devices. For a truly immersive and professional VR experience, you’ll need someone with a breadth of experience.

What kind of VR app are you developing? Is it a native app for iOS, Microsoft, PlayStation, or Google Cardboard (Android)? What engine are you using to build it: Unreal, Unity 3D, or something else? Many VR developers will be skilled with object-oriented programming, which is crucial for game development in particular. Games are their own niche, in fact—you definitely want someone experienced with the physics behind them.

The following table breaks down some average rates of VR developers you can find on Upwork.

Typical Rates Charged by VR Developers*

Level of Virtual Reality Developer Description Average Hourly Rate
Beginner VR fundamentals: C, C++, C#, Unity 3D, and/or Unreal. Animation software such as Maya and/or Blender. Basic image/video editing. $30-$50+
Intermediate/Advanced Higher proficiency in the fundamentals. Specialization in video games, mobile, or 360° film with a portfolio to back it up. $50-$150+
Multidisciplined Beyond VR fundamentals, also has proficiency in other fields such as film production, game development, design, animation, and/or hardware optics. $75-$150+

*Reflects rates charged by freelancers on Upwork in North America with more than 1,000 hours and 90% success rate.

Cost Factor #3: Developing a VR Gaming App

Is your VR project a game? Gaming apps often require a lot more specialized expertise and creative execution. Is your game going to be multiplayer? Will you require the game to process user-generated content or respond to controllers or other trackable equipment?

For gaming apps in particular, you’ll need skills and experience in sound design, art direction, and UI/UX design. Someone experienced with the physics behind games will be able to help with sound design, art direction, 3D modeling, animation, and nonlinear storytelling.

Cost Factor #4: Location of Talent

Location is another variable that can affect a freelance VR developer’s cost. A big advantage to working with freelancers on Upwork is the access to a talent pool that spans the globe. This can mean leveraging different costs of living around the world to get yourself a better deal on a skilled freelancer.

Likewise, freelance talent outside the larger U.S. cities, where the cost of living is lower, often charge more competitive rates. Learn more with Why Sourcing Domestic Talent Is Compelling—and Cost-Effective.

Read more: