As "eSports" become increasingly mainstream, growing in popularity to the point where they surpass viewership and monetary potential than some traditional and physical sports, so to will its rapid evolution. The AP Style Guide even officially updated the spelling to esports (dropping the capital "S") just a few weeks ago and more recently it was revealed that the 2022 Asia Games will make competitive video games an official medal sport for the first time ever. Esports could soon be an Olympic competitive event!
Bridging the gap between the old and the new are what we can call vsports - games and experiences that take the competitive and physical nature of traditional sports and merge it with the digital immersiveness of virtual reality. And what could spearhead this evolution and expansion of VR are experiences such as Sparc. Sparc is a 1 vs. 1 game with multiple modes, the primary one being a battle where each player has a ball that they throw at each other. They can dodge the enemy ball or on the easy setting, deflect it with a shield on their offhand. It began as a TRON-esque disc game but evolved into a ball for reasons we'll discuss below.
Sparc first debuted under the working title Project Arena at 2016's EVE Fanfest, an annual event hosted by CCP Games at their headquarters in Reykjavik, Iceland. The reaction to it from players of CCP's main game EVE Online was so positive that CCP decided they absolutely had to make it. It's especially notable because not only is Sparc a deep vSport experience, but it's also the first CCP game that's not going to be set within the world of EVE like their other games (EVE: Valkrie, EVE Online, and EVE: Gunjack 1 & 2) although that possibility was pondered early on in development.
CCP's Atlanta studio is in charge of Sparc and we had the opportunity to chat with Morgan Godat, Sparc's Executive Producer, after playing the game. We speak to CCP's exploration, experimentation and willingness to invest a lot into playing with VR and to see what VR-specific experiences they can craft. Sparc will be the greatest testament to what they've been playing with since modern VR became a thing.
How did you guys come up with idea for doing a non-EVE sports game?
[CCP] Atlanta started working on virtual reality in 2014. Valkyrie was already ongoing at [CCP] Newcastle and we were really stoked about what was coming out of the team in Newcastle - the team in Atlanta originally started as seven developers and so we started them down a path saying “take these VR headsets and [figure out] what is going to come next?” Not next after EVE: Valkyrie per se but what comes next for VR. And this was before the Oculus DK2s - the headset that had positional tracking. It wasn’t even out yet. We were working with the HD kit.
The DK2 prototypes, they had one. Like one of the first ten prototypes or whatever. It was over at Newcastle so we knew head-tracking was coming. And we knew head-tracking was the future you couldn’t ignore. The positional tracking was something that fundamentally changed the usage of the HMD (head mounted display).
So we were doing prototypes where we took PlayStation Move controllers and strapped them to the top of the headset like a big goofy unicorn and used that move.me software for the PC to do positional tracking with that kind of software. That’s kind of the vibe where this steam started, with just gnarly, weird, hacked together Frankenstein equipment.
And to get even more Frankenstein than that, we started using the Kinect. So we took the Kinect 1 - this was even before the Kinect 2 was out - and we were using that to do full body visualization in VR. I don’t know if you remember seeing anything with the Kinect in VR but it’s next-level shit.
Yeah, I’ve seen multiple setup in a room to do weird mocap stuff.
Exactly. The other stuff you might’ve seen is with Leap Motion where they put the camera on the front of the headset. It looks out and then you can see your actual hands and the space. And that was the stuff that really blew it up for us.
Within a couple months of working on this we were in VR and you could look down - and you know, it’s not a photorealistic of you by any stretch of the imagination but it’s YOU. You can see these creepy little pixels moving around when you [grabbing and pulling out his shirt] do that with your shirt. That was always one of the jokes: “look, we have cloth dynamics in the game!” It’s just a depth rendering thing that turns it into a mesh.
The [other] guys were working on Valkyrie which is a seated experience with [a console] controller. At that point we weren’t even doing anything to track the hands right so you’d get that disembodied feeling. This was just 180 degrees the opposite direction of that and so we really pushed on to that. We said “hey, full body. That’s magic.” People who didn’t even like to hold a controller away from them, we call them T-rex arms - we had to stop them from walking [with what we were showing them]. People were up, wandering around the space and walking everywhere.
We had made these extensions for the headsets - and again, we were being told you can’t make extensions. We had 24-hoot extensions with HDMI repeaters jammed into the front of them, just doing all sorts of weird kind of experiments like that. So we showed some prototypes in 2015. We showed three different prototypes, one of them was a disc wars - it was actually called Disc Battle - ya, TRON-style, throw as many of them as you can sort of thing. People were juggling like 18 of them in the air and it was a lot of fun. All the experiences were really solid but the competitive experience of seeing somebody in the space with you, being like “I can see you. Not just you, but you you. Like I can see what you’re wearing and I can recognize your body language” which again, just melted people’s brains.
And so the question then became in 2016 was, can we take that experience and translate it onto just these motion controllers? Because by that point the motion controllers had all been announced.
So we said take that full body thing, take that and apply it to just head and hands. That’s all we're gonna be able to track. We’re not going to have the Kinect - we really wanted to keep the Kinect. The guys loved the Kinect. But the answer was yes, we can.
At 2016 Fanfest last year we showed an early, early prototype, Project Arena. It was like shoestring bubblegum tied-together prototypes. But what it showed us was that when you put people in there, even though the tracking wasn't perfect like with the Kinect where it’s your actual body, you can still read people’s body language. You can still see somebody and recognize who they are just based on how they're standing and how they play. And the guys here last year loved it. People they lost their shit.
So we said fuck ya, let’s make this game. That was really where Sparc came from.
Morgan explained that he was standing with Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, CCP’s CEO, and watching people funnelling in to play Project Arena and as they left, some would be drenched in sweat and just picked up their beers with a smile on their face, and they'd be so enthused. They love their EVE "nerds" but watching them have this reaction, they knew they absolutely had to make this game.
It just evolved from all these ideas and the goal over the last year has been to not only make it a real game that people can install on their machine and that doesn’t require some jacked up hardware [laughs]. But also trying to make a game that isn’t just a fantasy. It isn’t trying to be a fantastical character where you’re in a fantasy world.
What happens if I just want to convert this six-foot square of my living room into a Sparc court/sports arena that I can play with my friend on the opposite coast, and trying to wrap our heads around what that even means.
Morgan references working for Midway way before all of this and building games where elements like flashlights are used to gain or focus the player’s attention. In VR you’ve already got the player attention so it’s about what sort of interaction you can then offer the users. What you see in traditional triple-A video games is always going “a hundred thousand miles an hour” he explains “so how do you make something that has breaks? How do you make something that has a social aspect where you might just want to stand around and have a chat with somebody.”
And that’s a whole different thing. That’s what’s compelling about it to us.
The concept of Sparc proves there’s so much more potential when technology and the popularity of VR catches up to the limitless creativity we’re seeing from so many developers. Instead of just making sports VR, CCP Atlanta’s approach was to design a sport around the current VR tech specifically where your sports equipment is the VR gear (the helmet, motion controllers, and a limited square of space in your living room).
Project Arena/Sparc has three experiences (the other two being fencing and basketball), but for the main game they’ve shown so far, why the switch from disc to ball?
The reason why is because when we got done with Project Arena here [At EVE Fanfest 2016] we said “Do we want to make this a disc game?” and that would mean you have to start throwing it like a disc, right?
Once we said “hey, Project Arena has got legs. People at Fanfest love the fuck out of it” we started looking really critically and we said “maybe we should start building a sport.” People were like “what the fuck do you mean, a sport?” and as soon as you start saying things like that we have to be internally consistent. And what we ultimately chose was that we’d rather have a game where I can find all kinds of different ways to throw instead of saying “nope. It’s a frisbee and frisbees through like this or like this.”
And we were talking about whether or not we’d want it to bounce and would the disc kick off the wall hard enough? What happens if you throw it against the ground? We can’t make a game where the ball or disc stops on the ground. We didn’t want a game where people would be like “aw, I didn’t quite make it there.”
They wanted a game where players can throw the ball in any direction, bouncing off any flat surface with the ability to curve the ball as well. Morgan gave the example of where players would try to throw it like a baseball and not quite understand why the ball moved the way it did and that has to do with Sparc having no gravity. It’s like the phenomenon where real baseball players would swear a pitcher was able to curve the ball upward but that’s impossible at the speeds humans can throw baseballs. What actually causes that sensation is the pitcher’s ability to spin the ball fast enough to reduce the descent speed but the brain makes the receiver (or batter in this case) of the ball think the ball is moving upward when really it’s just disobeying their visual understanding of the ball’s natural trajectory.
With zero gravity we wanted to have a game where a person came come in and learn how to throw a slider that slides up.
Sparc, the first full "triple-A" vsport title, came from experimentation and the belief that VR is really something special. That it is a step towards a whole new type of interactive gaming. CCP Atlanta began its work while the main three headsets were very early in development, before head-tracking was even accessible with dev kits.
Experimenting with taped-together custom rigs and software, they were able to play around under the current limits of the tech, even pushing it until they landed on the key idea that the social aspect - being in a virtual space with another person - changes everything. This is something CCP’s VR brand manager echoed to me as well about his beliefs for the future and success of VR being intrinsically linked to the social aspects of it.
Hardware aside, one of the challenges in designing Sparc was ignoring the videogame-y side of it. Someone would ask, as an example, of how to raise your stamina or get a power up and you’d have to respond… “do some cardio.” They had to make a game that utilizes actual physical player skill, from dodging or speed and accuracy in throws, but within a confirmed square space.
As for what’s next for Sparc, potentially as post-launch content or features?
The biggest thing that's on everybody's brain right now on the team is doubles. People always ask “can we do more people playing?” The answer is “absolutely.” We’ve been so focused on trying to get 1v1.
I suspect Sparc will launch with its three game modes (we've yet to see the other two mentioned above yet) with 1-on-1 play and for 2v2 to come post-launch, similar to how EVE: Valkyrie launched without its flagship mode but has since had fives significant free expansions with much more free content on the way. CCP is doing it right when it comes to VR.
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.