We are VR: Where the Mechs at?


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[From porn to kitty rescue, and from the moon to the deep seas; the possibilities of virtual reality are virtually endless. But Torchman knows what we all want from VR: piloting giant robots. I call dibs on the Dragonzord! ~ Shade]

Ah, virtual reality. The new frontier of video games and other entertainment, opening up new possibilities and removing previous limitations. It’s an exciting period. One that will hopefully see the creation of games previously not possible, or improving genres that had reached their ceiling.

However, there is only one question that matters here: Where are the mechs at?

If any type of game is going to potentially benefit from VR, it’s the cockpit-based mech game. Just picture it for a moment. One minute, you are in your room, sitting on your chair, ready to kick some mecha butt. You then throw on the headset, and suddenly you are sitting smack-dab in the cockpit itself.

With a normal controller, you would see the hands and feet of the pilot you are controlling go to work. Machinery whining around you as it’s pushed to its limits, your co-pilot/commander/enemy yelling in your ear, sirens going off as you take hits. Admit it, right now you wish someone had that ready for launch day for the Vive or Oculus, and you’d pay good money for that if it was a finished product. The only thing even remotely close to it right now would be any type of aerial combat game that supports VR.

But why stop there? Let’s take this concept, and apply it to a whole other level. A complete mech cockpit, using a licensed mech from a TV show. A full, immersive experience that we don’t often see for licensed games. In order to do this, we’ll be making two major assumptions. A) All parts needed for the VR setup are firmly rooted in place, and B) We are in an arcade setting or rich persons home where larger and more intricate setups are able to be permanently set up and rooted. Because if you’re going to do it, then you better go the full way. We’ll start it off simple, working with a simpler design and working towards mechs that may be more complex or intricate in their design.

To start off, we’ll begin with a mech that many people in the Discord chat and Quickposts will recognize, and my personal favourite.

Big O, from the anime of the same name, is a simpler mech than the others featured later on in this article, due to the fact that a VR game focusing on it would only have to worry about piloting the mech itself (more on that later). There’s no flight to worry about, no advanced combat involving legs, no external weapons. Just a focus on good ol’ fisticuffs, with a set of heavy armour, allowing a newcomer to get an easy to grasp on how to operate Big O. Enough about that however, as it’s the cockpit that matters here. Pictured below, one of many images of its cockpit.

It seems daunting at first, I will admit, but it’s not quite that bad. Out of frame are pedals, which are used to control Big O’s feet. The two handles the pilot is gripping control the respective arms of the mech. Pulling the respective handle fully back will trigger the piston on that respective arm, while pulling back the right one and letting go will result in an alternate weapon in its arm being activated. The rest of the mech’s capabilities, as well as the start-up, are controlled via the control panel wrapped around the pilot himself. You don’t even necessarily need to use most of these features either, and many weapons require Big O to be stationary or will aim themselves. This is a key part in the design for any VR game: try to avoid overwhelming the user as much as possible.

This is the advantage of the arcade setup. The needed pieces will be physically set in stone, allowing for the setup in VR to generate without worrying about needed pieces not being in the proper spots or moving mid-way through. The few pieces that may not necessarily have that, such as the movable handles, can constantly transmit data of where they are on the rail to accurately reflect that in the VR environment. This resolves part of the problems that one may encounter with VR: The lack of physical feedback, arguably something that plagued games that utilized the PSMove/Kinect/Wiimote, often throwing people off, and often causing VR to feel off as a result. Even right now people have weird moments that break immersion with the Vive, and even the Rift, as a result of this.

“But Torchman,” you may ask, “how will you see your hands? How can you interact with this perfect setup if you can’t see your hands?”

Well I’m glad you asked, and I’d like you to take a look at the above picture. Now, look closer at his wrists. Notice the bracelet with a wire attached? That’s how Beck, the character in the image, controls the arms of a mech. That’s a baseline idea of how to represent the location of your arms in the VR, a wrist band that sends the location, either via cable or wirelessly. In an ideal world, it would be a set of gloves, with a sensor at the tip of each finger, each knuckle, and the wrist at minimum. Allowing you to see your full arm, and how your hand is currently resting on or holding an object. It’s actually quite surprising nothing like this is in the works at this time, at least publicly known. Could be an immediate revolution to the current VR situation.

There is a major bonus to the Big O setup on top of that however, which can be seen in a single picture, shown below.

What you are looking at is the cockpit of Big Duo, an aerial variation of Big O. Its cockpit is near identical to Big O’s with the exception of viewport and how far the rails go, although that may be a perspective problem. The same applies to Big Fau, which is a naval variation. Due to all three having the same cockpits, all that’s required is a change in what the VR is generating the mech itself in-game, and suddenly you get a different experience with the same setup. If I had to wager, I’d assume a variant of Big Duo, known as Big Duo Inferno, could also work as well. The sheer amount of possibilities you can potentially get with a single setup due to VR is absolutely staggering.

One series isn’t enough though. After all, we’re talking mechs here, and we can all agree on one thing: You can NEVER have enough mechs. There must always be at least three, no more, no less. As mandated by mech laws, you also need to involve the granddaddy of mechs in some fashion.

The Mazinger Z family.

From left to right you’ll see Mazinger, Great Mazinger, and Mazinkaiser. Each one is more powerful than the last, often adding on to the previous iteration’s arsenal or improving it in some way. The baseline arsenal of all three are rocket punches (sometimes with variants), a chest blaster, a wind attack originating from the mouth, and eye beams. Both Mazinkaiser and Great Mazinger gain the ability to use a sword, with Great Mazinger able to call in a lightning strike, and Mazinkaiser able to wield two swords. Of course, this also varies from version to version, but you get the idea. In an ideal world, each one would represent a gradual increase in difficulty, due to potentially more complicated controls alongside matching the strength of the mech.

The VR for the Mazinger family would be set up in a similar fashion to the Bigs. Each one would use the same physical control layout, due to a large amount of shared functions. In order to accommodate the fact that some functions may not exist in a member of the Mazinger family, the VR would display an empty area where those controls would exist, preventing a new player from being overloaded with unused features, or hitting a button out of habit. This once again maximizes the amount you can get out of the machine, causing it to be fresh, interesting, and appeal to as many fans as possible, while keeping the experience as immersive as possible.

“But Torch,” you say, “this sounds simpler than the Big O setup!”

Yes, it does, until the Pilders come into play.

The Pilder is an aircraft that docks in the head of the Mazinger family member. The mech is entirely controlled from the Pilder, and is near useless without it. Each Pilder is different from the others, such as Mazinger Z’s acting more like a gyrocopter and landing as it normally would, compared to Mazinkaiser’s as seen above. The dream setup in a Mazinger VR would be to open each mission with getting the Pilder into the head of whichever mech is being piloted for that session, with the Pilder coming under more fire with each mission, or having to eject from the head mid mission and get back in for various reasons. The ultimate challenge would be to relive the finale of Mazinkaiser’s movie, where Kouji must dock the Pilder into Mazinkaiser as it falls from space towards him with enemies pursuing. Add in some shaking from your seat, and you’ve got one of the biggest thrills VR has to make.

However, the Pilder would realistically be a pipe dream, and attempting to implement it could result in unhealthy scope creep. It would be hard enough to ensure consistency among the minimum three Mazinger family members/iterations, but to start including the Pilders, which all have different forms and potential controls, and it could result in an unintuitive or cluttered setup, ruining the immersion that the end goal is supposed to be. You can’t hide any needed levers either, as they could potentially get in the way of reaching control panels, putting the user at risk of hurting themselves. Narrowing down the number of playable pilders could help, but it would feel like parts of the series were given more attention for one reason or another. It just wouldn’t feel like Mazinger without opening with the Pilder though, so it’s a problem that should be addressed.

“But Torch,” you ask, “What if I want co-op?”

Well I’ve got just the mech series for you! Our final one of this blog too!

What you see is Getter Robo, another older series, much like Mazinger. Also much like Mazinger, the series goes through multiple iterations and versions of the main mech, which can result in drastically different capabilities and weaponry. The control panel would most likely be done much like Mazinger: Show any unused controls as blank panels to reduce overload. In order to build upon the immersion for Getter Robo, the seating and cockpit for the mech will most likely move around, as some iterations are known for high speeds and the resulting g-force. Preferred weapons of the Getter Robo family are usually tomahawks (of the thrown and held variety) and chest beams.

“Where the hell is the co-op in that?” you ask.

That’s easy: it’s a combination mech! There are three separate vehicles that make up Getter Robo, resulting in the end mech you see in the pictures. Getter Robos have two other forms they can take, depending on how the three vehicles are arranged. Each form has different capabilities, which can lead to quite a bit of strategies emerging as a result. That’s where the co-op comes into play.

Whoever is the top of the totem of vehicles controls Getter Robo, however they are limited to only that form. In addition, not all combinations lead to a mech, meaning memorization is an important factor for all parties involved. In fact, a bad combination can potentially damage those involved, even kill the pilot in the middle. In an ideal situation, either some type of timer or the two other pilots would force the change, to ensure everyone gets a fair shot with different parts of Getter Robo and a form they can control.

Although I guess I should make this clear: The three vehicles have to physically separate, arrange themselves at high speeds, line up, and then connect to form the mech. They don’t get to magically cycle through each form like it’s nothing, and going too slow won’t cause them to properly connect. You want cooperation? Get good at flying Getter Robo and switching forms with your friends. On top of that, learn to do it while being attacked. You want co-op? This is a real man’s co-op right here! The Dark Souls of mech co-op.

As with any VR setup, for Getter Robo and the previously mentioned series, there would also be a large screen so observers can see what is going on. This would make it all the more satisfying to nail the combinations, and all the more entertaining to spectators, who would possibly be more interested in trying out the machine as a result. Which is what you want at the end of the day as a designer; so people can experience the joy of what you made.

“But Torch, I want to use Getter Robo, but I have no friends!”

We have a solution for that. We call it Black Getter.

No transformations, but still a Getter Robo at heart. It also looks completely awesome, having its paint burn up in re-entry. Just the thing for you. Of course, autopilot could be added to the other two machines, but that’s no fun. Half the thrill of Getter Robo is seeing three pilots work together to operate the machine. The magic would be lost if that was taken out of the combining Getters.

However, it should be noted that, unlike the other series, Getter Robo would have a very steep learning curve in regards to controls and the cockpit, as seen below.

The player would receive a large field of vision, but there would be quite a few controls to learn, and not anywhere nice to easily label them. Getter Robo also uses voice commands for some of its actions, meaning even more controls would have to be added because we all know how accurate voice commands can be at times. As I was saying earlier, this will easily be the most difficult VR experience of all the mechs, but also the one that would have the most satisfying reward for learning it if it’s handled properly. Hence the phrase, ‘The Dark Souls of Mechs’.

With virtual reality now officially a mechanic in game design thanks to the arrival of the Rift and Vive, the possibilities have grown as a result. If anything has something to gain from it, cockpit-based mech games have the most to gain from it. Even just using it from an arcade standpoint, the amount that can be gained from it is huge, even just for the three mechs I covered. The possible resurgence of mechs in games as a result of this is exciting, with VR leading to our wildest dreams happening.

These are thing that everyone wants. Because let’s face it: we all dig giant robots. Especially chicks.