How the developer of EVE: Valkyrie is planning to play the long game with virtual reality.
"Maybe it's a stroke of luck that a dogfighting simulator in the EVE universe is the perfect sort of thing to do while you’re sitting in a chair."
It’s been a couple years since we first saw the Oculus Rift kick up the latest attempt to make virtual reality seem like a viable concept in gaming, and unlike so many other attempts over the decade this one has persisted. CCP’s EVE Valkyrie multiplayer space flight sim came along last year and helped keep Oculus in the news over its lengthy cycle of development that has taken place mostly in the public eye.
And it’s no coincidence that Valkyrie manages to find a prominent place in the chatter out of every huge event CCP takes it, including last year’s E3 when new consoles were supposed to dominate and Valkyrie wasn’t even actually a game yet. At GDC last week, there still snaked a long line around the Oculus booth to strap on that headset outsiders keep telling us looks weird in order to play a short round of Valkyrie. And even though by now most of us have messed with it before, Oculus and Valkyrie still impress.
A huge part of that is the improved Oculus hardware. I had the chance to try Valkyrie on the latest Rift dev kit and the previous edition one after the other, and the difference is stark with an image far more clear and steady, as well as an obviously better response to the movement of my head. The Valkyrie demo is itself a very simple experience (right trigger to shoot the guns, left trigger for lock-on missiles), and it continues to be an exemplary way of demonstrating what playing a game in virtual reality should feel like.
“Maybe it's a stroke of luck that a dogfighting simulator in the EVE universe is the perfect sort of thing to do while you’re sitting in a chair,” CCP chief marketing officer David Reid told me on Wednesday in San Francisco.
Regardless of whether that was just a matter of fortune, Valkyrie has made such an impression on the people who have used the Oculus Rift that the two items have become linked as the frontrunners of a new VR movement. But this week Sony also revealed officially its long-rumored VR headset, dubbed Project Morpheus for the PlayStation 4, and CCP will be bringing Valkyrie along for that ride as well.
It was pretty much a move that simply had to be made. VR is exciting for people like me on the outside looking in, but for the folks trying to make it happen there’s a bit of fear and uncertainty that comes with the excitement. So while it may be easy to look at Morpheus and Oculus as hardware competitors - and, really, how many people are going to buy two VR headsets? - Sony making its own VR device does absolutely aid the effort to keep VR around for a while. For now, at least.
“This is just great for virtual reality,” Reid said of the Morpheus announcement. “It convinces all of us developers that this thing is really going to happen. That it isn't just a fad or a flash in the pan or just one company trying - it is now a movement. When you have one of the foundational companies of the video game industry getting into this, it really has accelerated the chances of this becoming a very big deal.”
Of course, Sony recently provided the big push for 3D media in the home and was met with consistent ambivalence, and it was far from the only tech company putting out 3D televisions. But part of the reason that 3D gaming on a TV hasn’t worked out yet is due to a lack of horsepower - 3D games on the PS3 looked ugly because that machine couldn't render AAA games in 3D at a decent resolution - and even the very quick Valkyrie demo shows that if there are going to be significant barriers that keep VR in this new age from appealing to the masses, that won’t be one of them. Motion sickness, on the other hand, is a real concern, but at least there are pills you can take for that.
“At some level, we as a developer can't just be enamored with interesting technology,” Reid explained. “We have to make sure that these are things that matter to gamers and become vibrant parts of the game industry business, or else we're just wasting our own time and our community's time as well.”
"It isn't just a fad or a flash in the pan or just one company trying - it is now a movement."
It’s a valid concern, given EVE Online’s rather dedicated fanbase probably will (or already is) play a significant role in the early days of the new VR movement. “We look at those things and we think about those risks but this is very much in line with the ultimate vision of the company,” Reid continued. “We said a vision statement a couple years ago that we want to be a developer that created virtual worlds more meaningful than real life.”
That last bit can mean a few discrete things even within what CCP does. EVE Online is so meaningful because players have so thoroughly embraced the concept of a truly open digital universe within which they have a legitimate freedom of action. Valkyrie is meaningful because it provides a level of literal immersion that looking at a screen a meter or more away can never provide. That’s the very point of the “holodeck” concept in the first place.
But as CCP has figured out at least one really effective way to cater to VR tech, this movement is still in its infancy two years in. When we look back at 3D gaming on the PS3, a less obvious mistake Sony made was in implementing it into games where there was not much point, like Killzone 3. While 3D on the television can be outstanding with third-person titles like the Tomb Raider reboot, most of the sense of depth is lost in first-person games.
In VR, first-person is its lifeblood, but the real lesson from Sony’s 3D efforts is about using discretion, especially now. Simply put, all games built for the Oculus and/or Morpheus need to impress. So developers are taking their time, and CCP is considering further possibilities but won’t put the rush on anything. Deliberation is the name of the game in VR at the moment, it seems.
“I think our time horizon as a developer is very different from others' in that we are independent and we're not a slave to a schedule of what other companies may need,” Reid told me, referring both to Valkyrie and whatever other VR thing CCP might build later.
“We’ll do our analysis of what makes sense and what can be a real business and what’s rewarding to our community and our gamers. Without that it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it feels like things are moving very much in this direction, and it’s something we want to be a part of.”