CCP’s VR Labs
It’s no secret that virtual reality is quickly making its mark on the videogame industry. If that weren’t evident before, GDC 2015 kicked the door wide open. That’s why, with numerous developers turning their attention to the new technology, it’s remarkable that the developers for EVE Online have been at the forefront of VR for years now.
EVE: Valkyrie, the spaceship dog-fighting game, has been pinned by Oculus as a flagship title for whenever the Rift ends up launching. That’s coming along nicely, but its origin story is particularly noteworthy. It was created by CCP as a tech demo for convention-goers at Fanfest in 2013. It basically boiled down to a treat for coming out to the show. However, the reaction was so strong and positive that CCP turned it into a fully-realized game – one that obviously caught the attention of Oculus.
CCP is casually trying to recapture that lightning in a bottle. It directed its Atlanta and Shanghai studios to work on VR experiences. The instruction ended there — no mandate that they do something that fits into the EVEuniverse. The four demos that the studios collectively came up with are wonderfully experimental and, most importantly, fun. They’re all united under the banner of “VR Labs” for now, and CCP stresses that none of them are official games. But, as we’ve seen in the past, maybe that’ll change after this weekend.
The Atlanta studio put together three demos, and used Rift DK2 and Microsoft’s Kinect for all of them. While it’s a suitable use of the VR peripheral, it’s the integration of Kinect that pushes everything to the next level. Taking the controller out of your hands and replacing it with actual movement goes a long way toward achieving the ever-sought-after “immersion.” I dare say that these three demos are the best use of Microsoft’s Xbox One Kinect yet.
Speaking with Atlanta’s executive producer Morgan Godat, he shed some light on the developer’s decision to make use of the Kinect. “We said ‘What comes next?’ Our assumption was that the Xbox controller was kind of the first generation of VR like you’re seeing with Valkyrie. But, what might come after that?” he said.
The result was what Godat described as a “Frankenstein setup.” The team started with a PC, Oculus Rift, PlayStation Move controllers, and a Kinect. It just threw everything together to see what worked and what didn’t. As Godat put it “Some of the hardware has fallen off, but Kinect has made the long haul. It’s really impressive.” It’s the piece that, for now, is crucial in taking that next step in VR development.
When standing in front of the Kinect with an Oculus strapped to your head, it’s apparent how important that proverbial (and, in this case, literal) next step really is. Hands-down, the most impressive and enjoyable game was a player-versus-player contest named Disc Arena. The only way to paint a mental image of the aesthetic is to call it “overtly Tron.” Standing across from another person in the futuristic corridor, you’re tasked with flicking a disc toward your opponent. If you hit them, you get a point. The challenge comes from the fact that you’re both “equipped” with a shield that can be held up with the left hand. Blocking will break the disc; swiping at the disc with the shield reflect it back.
At first, it’s easy to get caught up in the simple exchange of flick a disc, block a disc. It’s boring, simple, and basic. But, then a disc goes astray and you learn that the walls can be used to bounce the disc and disorient your opponent. Suddenly you have to watch all directions for incoming projectiles, throw your shield everywhere, and still find time to shoot off your own discs. When you score a point, it feels like an actual accomplishment. It’s just great. (And, I won six points to five, by the way.)
Ship Spinner was the most experimental of the three titles. There wasn’t an objective, but rather exploration was the focus. With a detailed spaceship hovering in front of you, you were asked to swipe it around to change the orientation. From there, leaning into the ship completely changed the view and offered insight as to what’s actually happening aboard. All the rooms were detailed in their own special way. At one point I triggered lounge music. A colleague of mine found a dead guy. I raised the ship as high as I could, and explored the underbelly and furnace of the ship. There wasn’t really any point, but that’s what made it great.
The last of Atlanta’s demos, called The Workshop, let me grab fire and throw it. Putting elements on a literal pedestal, I just picked up fire or electricity and lobbed it about as I felt fit. Then, a stack of boxes appeared and I kicked them as far as I could. It was neat, but nothing on the level of Disc Arena or Ship Spinner.
The Shanghai studio went in a very different direction and ended up developing an untethered VR experience. Using GearVR, it created an on-rails shooter named Project Nemesis. Originally codenamed Invaders, it’s simple to grasp where it draws inspiration from. It’s essentially a VR conceptualization of Space Invaderswhich requires tapping on the side of the headset to dispose of waves of ships circling in patterns.
Admittedly, there’s a good chance that none of these demos will ever see the light of day as some sort of consumer release. That’s fine with CCP, though; that was never the intent. As Godat emphasized, the point of making these one-off experiences was to get creative and see what the developers could do with virtual reality. It’s all a part of CCP’s ultimate goal of “finding a future vision within the EVEuniverse with a laser focus on VR.”