Spending a few days at EVE Fanfest, the annual community-focused event hosted by CCP Games near their HQ in Reykjavik, Iceland, the excitement about VR potential was palpable. We had the opportunity to chat with lead developers from CCP's various studios (they have teams in Atlanta, Newcastle, and Shanghai as well) and despite the focus of the event being on the company's flagship game, the popular MMO EVE Online, the conversations veered towards CCP's other projects.
In addition to the long-running EVE Online, CCP made a splash in the console shooter market with DUST 514 exclusive to the PlayStation 3 years ago, and are working on its successor - currently known as Project Nova. All of their other released games however, are VR titles, including EVE: Valkyrie, EVE: Gunjack, and later this year, Sparc.
We played Sparc and spoke with Executive Producer Morgan Godat about how the game was born of out crazy experimentation at CCP Atlanta. It's a similar origin story to how EVE: Valkyrie began as a small, in-house personal prototype as well. What was most interesting is how they were able to plan ahead, and how they still look ahead to what the future of VR can be as hardware improves and becomes more consumer-friendly and accessible. Beyond the three main, expensive headsets (HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and PS VR) which all have full motion controllers, the mobile market is starting to evolve in this direction as well. Google's Daydream headset for instance has a three-axis laser pointer style controller. It doesn’t track a position yet - just like the first Oculus Rift dev kits didn’t - but it’s a first step for motion control with mobile VR headsets that work with your everyday smartphone. Maybe that's why CCP made EVE: Gunjack 2 exclusive to the Daydream... More on this later.
The Evolution of VR is Ultimately AR
Godat offers examples of how the current VR tech could evolve from dual motion controllers like the big three VR headsets have or something like inside-out tracking where it can see the environment and your hands.
Morgan Godat: The current generation VR is just the tip of the iceberg and everything is just going to flow into VR and AR as the same thing. They’re all good. They’re different platforms right now and people talk about them very differently but they’re the same thing. VR is AR with a really, really bad passthrough camera. No amount of shouting “it’s about the V!” is going to stop you from punching that chair right there, right?
He continues explaining that there’s “massive interest” in things like Magic Leap, Microsoft’s HoloLens, and various other augmented reality ("AR") glasses which will be the next steps of VR eventually.
Godat: It’s next-level shit. Sure, it’s all chunky and weird right now but who knows how many years from now - I’m not a futurist and I’m not making weird predictions about it - but everybody’s just going to be wearing their glasses and be like “hold on a second.” “What are you looking at?” “Oh just checking an email real quick.”
What is the solution to VR’s current biggest hurdle - physical movement? Morgan jokes that he’d be making that very game if he knew the answer to it but it is something they’ve been experimenting with.
Godat: Before we got our hands on the [motion] controllers, we were playing in Kinect-land. We did a bunch of prototypes to try to handle locomotion. We had this thing we called the point-and-flick interface where I’d point at like a candle over there with your actual finger and it’d activate and give you an array of options to choose from in space, and then you just flick your hand through the option you want to trigger.
By the way, physically, in my life, there’s been nothing more empowering than pointing at a fucking television or a light and going ‘turn on’ and “pvvvvt” and thinking “I’m a god!” It’s like I have superpowers! But again, this is the reason. These chemical connections in our brain are the reason augmented reality is going to blow people’s brains out.
When it came to locomotion what we tried was things like pointing in a direction and if you stretch your arm out all the way, you’d start going that way. And if I want to change, I’d just point and then the further that I point it would rotate me towards it. We did things like a Segway - because again we didn’t have any buttons, controllers, or analog sticks - so you’d clap your hands together, pull them apart, and it would create bicycle handles in front of you. You’d pull them apart and push it forward and that’s how you drive forward and backward and you can turn left and right.
Morgan also explains they made tank style controls and as for how precise it all ways, using Kinect wasn’t as clean as using modern motion controls, but it worked. One of his team actually setup a Superman-style thing where he’d laydown on two chairs with a fan blasting towards him and pushing his hands forward, he could fly.
In the end, the team of 7 (at the time) decided this locomotion issue wasn’t something they needed to solve to do what they want with Project Arena, now known as Sparc.
Expanding Beyond the EVE Universe
Ryan Geddes, VR brand director for CCP Games, helps pick and choose the right games at the right time for the right people while involving the community in the process. I sat down with him as well at EVE Fanfest 2017 who caught me up on CCP’s long history of VR, from its CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson having been part of the VR movement in Iceland in the ‘90s to the modern era VR where CCP and several of its staff backed the Oculus Rift Kickstarter. They’ve been there since the beginning and are now pioneering some of its biggest and most innovative games across all VR platforms.
After they knew EVE-VR (the space sim shooter prototype that led to EVE: Valkyrie) could be its own thing, Geddes says they couldn’t do it in the main studio in Reykjavik so they made a “strategic decision” to have a small team of 30-40 in Newcastle working on EVE: Valkyrie.
Ryan Geddes: We see it as the paradigm-shifting medium that it is. At the same time, I would categorize what we do as almost… cautious is the wrong word, but cautious ambition. We are very bullish on the technology but we also know that the market is still being made so we don’t want to throw hundreds and hundreds of people at these projects if we can do it in a more efficient way. We’ve created techniques that allow us to develop very quickly, very efficiently at the studio.
The games so far are spinoffs of EVE Online but Sparc is its own thing…
Ryan Geddes: Sparc is its own thing. It’s actually the first game we will ship that’s not set in the EVE universe.
After asking Geddes if this reality that CCP projects don’t need to fit within the EVE brand changes everything going forward, he gestured with his hands and head to mimic his mind exploding. I explained how I thought that was a big thing for the future of CCP and Geddes continued, saying "it totally is" and that it’s something they're "very excited about." As you can imagine, this was a big topic of conversation during the development of Sparc and whether or not it should be set in the EVE universe, however loosely.
Ryan Geddes: What we decided ultimately is that with Sparc, IP is less important than the experience itself. It’s a vSport. It’s a virtual sport. It’s a physical activity that’s only possible in virtual reality. Do we need a story around that? Not really. The story is the same type of story you tell after a great tennis match.
In Sparc you’re not a character in a narrative, you’re just yourself in a virtual space and your sports equipment is your VR hardware. They’re hopeful the competitive nature of the game will make it a popular esport but they’re not building it with that in mind or trying to force it. As a vsport though the community will decide what game modes are the most fun to play and spectate themselves and Geddes and his teams will go from there.
Will EVE Online Ever Support VR?
Could the flagship game, EVE Online, ever get its own VR support even if it’s for observers/spectators?
Ryan Geddes: It’s a good question. Our approach to developing virtual reality products is starting with experimentation first and then seeing what catches on with the teams and what lights them up. That’s the Valkyrie story. That’s the Sparc story. That’s the Gunjack story. It wasn’t a bunch of us sitting around a board room and going “we need an arcade, on-rails whatever…” We are really passionate about this.
Geddes then gave the example of how CCP Shanghai came up with the idea to do EVE Gunjack - a VR turret-based space shooter - after the full VR EVE Valkyrie. They’d seen the “dark magic” CCP Atlanta had done with duct taped rigs and other craziness, and they had an idea for something designed specifically for mobile. Geddes says CCP lets the teams decide and then he helps establish boundaries or a framework for that team to work within.
Ryan Geddes: To the question of whether or not we’re looking at VR in EVE Online, it’s something we’re interested in. It’s something we play around with but our question is always ‘will this experience be better in VR?’ Will VR make this amazing or it just a gimmick or a trick? We try to avoid that.
The CCP VR games so far have been in-cockpit experiences but Sparc, again, does something new and different with full body movement. The biggest obstacle for VR games is figuring out movement in first-person action games, something we discussed with Morgan Godat as well.
I don’t know if you can speak to the in-development shooter, Project Nova, but is this type of VR something you guys are experimenting with?
Ryan Geddes: You can imagine we’re experimenting with many things all the time and ambulatory locomotion, people moving around, is a huge challenge in VR right now. We have friends in the industry we’re watching very closely who are trying to solve that problem. We hope they succeed, right, I really want that to be cracked. And there are some examples of that being done really well. Robo Recall is really cool. Superhot works really well. But I don’t think anyone has - I certainly haven’t had that ‘aha!’ moment yet.
We’ve played around with it, but again, our bar is basically when we’re all in VR together we take the headset off, set the controller down, look at each other and we’re like “that was fucking awesome!’ That’s the bar. If we don’t hit that then I don’t think our audience will have that experience either so what’s the point?
Andrew Willans, lead gamer designer on EVE: Valkyrie out of CCP Newcastle, was able to attest to this when we spoke with him later during EVE Fanfest. It was the early prototype of that game that sold him on leaving Ubisoft to join CCP.
Willans: Valkyrie, I played a demo of it at GDC and I was just like "Fuck. That is just insane." I took the headset off and I thought someone had put a desk fan on top of the TV. I imagine gravity. I imagined all of these sensation as I launched out of the launch bay for the first time.
Aside: I had this exact experience at E3 2013 while visiting the CCP Games booth. I had gone there to try out the Oculus Rift dev kits they had setup with their EVE-VR prototype and was blown away by it to the point where Sony and Microsoft's hardware (they were showing off the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, respectively, for a launch that fall) weren't impressive. I later ordered an Oculus DK2 dev kit for myself based on this experience
While all of the non-EVE Online games so far (and we don’t know enough about Project Nova yet to include it either way) support or are based on VR, Geddes doesn’t believe that means CCP is focusing on that for all of its in-development projects going forward.
Ryan Geddes: We are not the VR company. We are the company that pioneered in VR. I would say we see value in every game and medium that’s out there. VR just happens to be a place that we feel we can bring something special and so we’re focusing on it because we’re passionate about the medium itself and we think that there are ways to connect people in VR that you can’t do in any other medium. That doesn’t mean that’s the only place we’ll be going in the future.
EVE Online is a classic example of a perfect non-VR game that we’re adding to an growing and having success with, without VR. So what I think you’ll see is VR continue to be a huge emphasis for CCP in the years ahead but it won't be the only focus for us.
What's Next For VR and How Does CCP Stay Ahead?
As you can imagine, CCP is planning ahead and looking ahead even further. Geddes explains that it’s “crazy” to think about what specific product they’d launch in VR in five years because the hardware could be totally different by then. That being said, they certainly know “direction they’d like to go.”
Ryan Geddes: For VR what we do is partner very closely with the platforms themselves. We’re very fortunate to have great relationships with people who are making consumer VR a reality, people Google, PlayStation, Oculus, HTC, and Valve. So, we just work with them to find out where they’re going and we try to kind of stay ahead that way.
The aspect of VR Geddes is most excited about and sees the most potential for is the social side, something Andrew Willans echoed to us as well as something he wants to get into EVE: Valkyrie long-term. Sparc is an example of CCP trying to “reach the next handhold on the VR mountain,” as Geddes puts it, in how it connects people and how it makes them feel like they’re actually in a place with someone else, from the simple action of waving to someone to interacting with other players in the social/spectator room built into the game.
Ryan Geddes: I think far frontier for me, and it’s not sexy, but I kinda believe that VR is the most intimate and vulnerable medium ever conceived. And when you put that headset on you’re at the mercy of whoever’s software you’re going to experience. So I think taking care of people in there and making sure they feel comfortable and they’re excited to stay there is a real big opportunity for VR developers going forward and that’s something I can hope everyone can think about.
The words of Morgan Godat from the Sparc team in Atlanta, Andrew Willans from the Valkyrie team in Newcastle, and Ryan Geddes the overseer of CCP's VR initiatives, speak volumes to how CCP, an independent developer, was able to have multiple high-end products available at the forefront of modern consumer VR, and how they're still pushing the envelope on what can be done with current technologies.
They're pioneering new and focused VR exclusive experiences, through experimentation, while avoiding investing in gimmicks by setting a high bar: whatever project they push forward with must work better in VR or be something that can only be done - and done well - in VR.
As for the future of the EVE universe and VR, and whatever else comes from CCP expanding beyond that, beginning with Sparc, we have an idea of the challenges and how they hope to stay ahead of the curve working with all the major players in the space. This is still just the beginning.
EVE: Valkyrie is available on PlayStation 4 and PC exclusive for PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive headsets.
Sparc is also a VR exclusive and releases late 2017.