If Sony and Oculus are leading the virtual reality hardware arms race, then CCP is running away with the dash to define this new medium’s software. We’ve seen and played our fair share of impressive tech demos on Oculus and Morpheus, but Eve Valkyrie is different: a built-for-VR game which will layer MMO and social features on top of its intense space dogfights. It’ll be VR’s first ‘proper’ videogame, in other words, giving players a reason to come back once the initial thrill of sitting inside a virtual reality cockpit has worn off.
If indeed that thrill wears off at all. In the Oculus Rift build I played at GDC, just looking about the place as the demo began was enough to elicit an unconsciously dropped jaw. Staring at the black dot at the end of the long tunnel stretched out before me, a short countdown allows the player to acclimatise to their sci-fi surroundings before the ship’s engines engage and it gathers momentum quickly, speeding through the tight corridor and out into open space. Already, my heart rate has quickened a little.
First encounters with virtual reality follow a strange pattern – it’s easy to forget there’s a videogame to be played when you’re busy feeling out the limits and limitations of the experience. Shoving the stick of the gamepad in my hands forward, I dive suddenly ‘downwards’ – though it’s difficult to tell exactly which way that is after a few minutes’ play – and, catching sight of an enemy ship at the top of my peripheral vision at the same time, I jerk my head upwards. The result is a dizzying sensation that’s gentler than, but still similar to, looking the wrong way when you’re slammed around a sharp bend on a rollercoaster. It’s the same when I take aim at an enemy ship, while, in the finest videogame tradition, I do a barrel roll. The effect is very nearly stomach-churning, and it becomes necessary to pull the ship out of its spin before this assault on the senses overwhelms.
These aren’t complaints, but testament to the fidelity of the experience CCP has put together and its remarkable physical effect on the player, even at this early stage. It works because you’re in a cockpit, replicating your real-world pose; there are also a few design decisions which show Valkyrie is a made-for-VR game. Your ship isn’t nearly as agile as you might expect, as VR negates the need for developers to ‘sell’ the sense of speed and movement so hard. The ability to aim missiles with your head, with shots released by letting go a held trigger, was another VR-specific flourish, though the tracking feels a little woolly at this stage.
It’s a fairly basic dogfighter right now, but played through a VR headset, it’s still dazzling. The controls are simple, there are a couple of weapons, a simple lock-on and play unfolds out in a relatively sparse arena. As development continues, the dogfighting will get tighter, more complex and MMO elements will build on top of this already spectacular three-minute VR experience, says CCP CMO David Reid. “Keep in mind that what you’re seeing here is the seed of a fully fleshed out game,” he tells me afterwards. “You’ll go into battle, earn currency, earn skill points and you use those assets and resources to improve your character and you grow, you unlock new ships, you acquire new modules to fit new ships, as you do in Eve Online and in Dust 514.”
CCP is still working out how exactly that metagame takes shape, though there will be a detailed character sheet to build out, an in-game marketplace and myriad ways to spend the currency you earn. “You won’t be dogfighting every second,” Reid continues. “You’ll be progressing through some social experiences and collaborating with teammates and deciding how to take on the next match. I wouldn’t want to do what this demo does for hours at a time, but I believe that as we get more and more of the full foundation of the game then that’ll be less and less a percentage of the experience.”
CCP’s early backing of VR, and indeed Eve Valkyrie’s presence on both Oculus and Morpheus hardware at GDC, can be attributed to the neat confluence of existing business relationships and development resource at CCP. Though the studio was talking to Oculus long before it discussed Morpheus with Sony, its ties with PlayStation run back to the lengthy development and implementation of Dust 514, its free-to-play PS3 shooter that feeds into its trademark title, Eve Online.
CCP was among the very first thirdparties Sony contacted about Project Morpheus, and it means that the studio is one of very few to have publicly confirmed it is developing a game for both VR devices. It might seem like a handy comparison, but the development processes here shouldn’t be compared to what we know about existing cross-platform game development, says Reid. ”The hardware is so new, there aren’t libraries of code or big white paper documents or APIs yet, it is a much tighter collaboration with both partners on the engineering side,” he tells us. “We’re just making sure we’re building a game that will work well on their hardware and with their SDKs, which continue to evolve.”
What helped CCP get a VR prototype up and running so quickly was its vast library of historical assets from Eve Online, and the timing of VR’s re-emergence. Once a group of around 20 engineers at CCP’s Newcastle studio had established the link between Dust 514 and Eve Online, ongoing maintenance of that infrastructure was moved out to the developer’s Shanghai office. With virtual reality on the horizon, an experienced team of engineers at the ready and a bank of assets at its disposal, the natural next step was for that group to start building out a VR prototype. Valkyrie was demoed at E3 last year in its previous form, EVR, and CCP has been working on the game in earnest ever since. So even with those close ties to both Sony and Oculus, is it harder to make a VR game than it is a ‘traditional’ game? “At a high level, yes,” says Reid. “But there are a very different set of details involved here because we are all together pioneering VR gaming. It’s very different to saying ‘let me take a first person shooter and bring it to consoles and PCs’. That’s a very well established thing. In this space, those norms haven’t been established – we’re doing that now with Oculus and Morpheus.”
That process means that the final game will stand apart from the kind of videogame we’re used to on traditional formats, and it’ll also reflect CCP’s player-powered approach to game design. “As a moment to moment experience it’s very different to a lot of high-end console games,” he adds. “Part of it comes back to our core philosophy – we don’t believe in designing huge amounts of narrative, NPCs, dungeons, quests and the kind of content a designer writes to send you through a story. We believe in just providing tools and ways for players to interact with each other and allowing the stories to emerge from there.
“I’m a huge fan of Bethesda – I love Fallout, Oblivion and Skyrim – but I can’t imagine what it’d be like to write a VR game like that. [Eve Valkyrie] is a very different proposition, development spend and a faster time to market than it would be if we were trying to create GTA 6 in a fully-realised VR world.”
It’s clear virtual reality gaming won’t be defined by simple ports of existing gametypes, though they may well emerge and might even work well; built-for-VR games like Eve Valkyrie will be the best advertisement for the medium, and right now, CCP’s space dogfighter is VR gaming’s leading proponent.
Yes, virtual reality in millions of homes remains a rather distant prospect, but with Sony and now Facebook’s backing, VR has edged closer to actual reality in the last few weeks alone. The smart use of existing assets and deployment of a tight, experienced team means that CCP isn’t betting its entire business on VR and Eve Valkyrie; nonetheless, it has been smart enough to quietly become the frontrunner in the race to define virtual reality videogames. Now it’s time for other developers to follow the Eve Online creator’s lead and help shape this thrilling new medium.