Eve Valkyrie preview: inside CCP's groundbreaking virtual reality space shooter

We've all read about EVE Online's epic space battles, where thousands of ships are lost and billions in ISK, the in-game currency. Yet only a relatively small number of players get to experience these events firsthand. Valkyrie is the solution: a space dogfighting sim designed for Oculus Rift that puts the player right in the middle of that dazzling combat.

“I see Valkyrie as the Halo of Xbox or the Tetris of the Game Boy,” says Chris Smith, lead designer. “We want to show that virtual reality is the next generation of gaming, and I think this is the game to do it. We had 2D, and Mario was the 2D master. Now we've moved into 3D with polygons, and EVE and World of Warcraft and first-person shooters are the established games for this period in the history of gaming. Now we have VR, which is as big a transition as 2D to 3D was.”

CCP's Newcastle team had been helping to develop Dust 514, but now they've been shifted to Valkyrie, hiring new talent including Mirror's Edge senior producer Owen O'Brien. The game's development is curious in that it began life as a tech demo, EVE-VR, which was shown at Fanfest in 2013. The project had been created by a team of 12 CCP developers in their spare time, but after an overwhelmingly positive reaction from players and press, it was decided to turn it into a full game. The original demo was created in the Unity engine using mostly existing EVE assets, now it's running on Unreal 4 and has its own dedicated art and design team. CCP are clearly taking VR seriously, and their enthusiasm is undeniable—especially that of Smith, who fizzes with excitement as we talk.

“That moment at the end of Star Wars where Han saves Luke from Vader in the Death Star trench, then says 'Let's blow this thing and go home!'—most games will script that and make sure it happens, but we're not doing that. In CCP tradition, part of the design is to make it modular and deep so that these moments just happen. If we have a mission with a similar setup, and someone has that Han Solo moment, we want them to think, man, that was just like Star Wars! EVE is zoomed out, but we're magnified right down. We're the little buzzing fighters around those 14km Titans.”

“The fact that you're sitting in a cockpit really helps with the sense of presence,” adds O'Brien, now Valkyrie's executive producer. “We deliberately moved the hand position so it mimics your hands holding the controller. If your hands are doing something different, you'd think, well, that isn't me. The space combat genre really helps too, because you're seated, and you're in space, so there's no concept of up or down or gravity to worry about. A WWII dogfighting game would be great to play in VR, but it would be more challenging to make, because players could hit the ground. The sci-fi setting gives us immense freedom in terms of user interface, so we can create things that work in VR and it doesn't feel weird or constrained. We're in space, so we can do whatever we want within EVE lore.”

The titular Valkyrie are an elite squadron of Guristas pirates led by a pilot called Rán, voiced by Katee Sackhoff, who played Starbuck in the Battlestar Galactica remake. She's a voice in your head, relaying objectives and storyline as you play.

“Even though Katee Sackhoff isn't that famous, she has a great voice,” says Smith. “If you hire actors who don't get science fiction, there's a chance they won't take it seriously and treat it as a bit of a joke. But Katee understands sci-fi and why it's important. She plays a strong female character that you believe is strong and powerful. She actually tried to change her shooting schedule to come to Fanfest in Reykjavik, but her agent was like 'Stop being so enthusiastic! We need to negotiate!' She brings a layer of quality to the game and an understanding of the universe.”

“The EVE-VR demo was very much based on a Battlestar Galactica kind of fight,” says Andy Robinson, lead artist, and member of the original EVE-VR team. “We wanted to give you that feeling of being the pilot and being in the ship, with those walls of bullets streaking past. EVE has a huge amount of sci-fi influences. We love Blade Runner and stuff like that, but Battlestar is one of the most overt ones.”

I ask Smith why, of all the factions, they chose the Guristas. “The short version is that pirates are cool. They steal from everywhere, and stealing is a great way to get technology. If we were one faction we'd be limited, but by being the Guristas and them stealing tech, it allowed us to be a bit freer with the gameplay.”

“We're very conscious that EVE is this great tapestry and backdrop for us to play with,” O'Brien says, “but accessibility is a big thing for me, so you don't have to know anything about EVE to play this game. That's why we chose the Guristas, because we can just say to someone 'You're a space pirate,' and that's all you need to know. The pirate fantasy and setting gave us a lot of freedom. We aren't locked to a specific type of ship or anything like that. We're pirates, so we can do whatever we want.”

Rán's story arc will impact the other games as well. “It's a story that will bring the games together. If you aren't interested in it, that's OK. But if you play Legion, EVE and Valkyrie, you will get more out of it. Having all of the EVE assets and lore has made our lives easier. It's why we can make this game with 25 people. We've got ten years of art, ships, designs and storylines to work with.”

“We knew we wanted to make something slightly different with Valkyrie,” says Robinson. “By focusing on the pirate factions we've been able to take the EVE universe and just put a little twist on it. We're changing it ever so slightly, giving us that little bit of freedom to dirty things up and rebel a little bit. We took a standard EVE cockpit. Y'know, nice and clean. Then we started sticking aftermarket modifications on it. A Gurista pirate inside that ship, what would they do to it? They'd mark it, decorate it, rip things out, rewire it. It was once a beautiful, clean fighter, but now it's been altered to personally fit this person. We want it to feel like yours and yours alone.”

Smith adds: “I don't think Valkyrie would feel this solid at this stage in development, or as polished, without ten years of EVE. With big universes like Star Wars or Warhammer 40K, their games always feel more established because they have this history. We think about what exists in the EVE universe that we can pull from. It's EVE's lore that influences our game design. We'll look at weapons and technology, and that will inform the gameplay.

“It's not in there yet, but in the final game you're going to see your body twist as you move, and hear the creak of the leather. There'll be differences between cockpits, depending on their role, whether it's heavy, fighter or support. In the fighter you're a predator, so you're looking forward. To your left and right you'll see your guns spinning up and pumping as they fire. You'll be able to see if they're overheating by looking at them. We're putting a lot of subtlety and gameplay into just looking around.”

While Valkyrie won't be explicitly connected to EVE Online—you won't be fighting in the same battles being fought by EVE capsuleers—there are similarities in both games' design. The most powerful thing about EVE is its ability to generate stories, and the Valkyrie team want to bring that over to their game. “EVE allows players to create the gameplay and create the history,” says Smith. “The developers give players the tools, then see what they do with it. The universe has changed through players, and I think CCP have been surprised many times by how they've impacted it.

“When designing our maps, we look at the history of EVE. We look for famous events, both created by CCP and players. We might have the remains of a famous battle, or the ships that humans first arrived in New Eden in. People might be able to see their ship, or their corporation's ship.”

Valkyrie still has a long way to go, but I was able to play an early multiplayer demo running on Unreal 4. When the press play developers at their games, they usually go easy on us, but not the Valkyrie team. I found myself on the tail of one of their testers, only for him to turn sideways and fly effortlessly through a narrow gap on a huge Amarr temple. I tried to follow, and slammed stupidly into the structure, losing him. But the more I played, the more I got a feel for how my ship handled, and soon I was squeezing through that gap myself, throwing my pursuers off. Unlike a lot of space shooters, there's a lot of stuff in Valkyrie's maps to use to your advantage, from asteroids to colossal wrecked ships.

“To give a sense of speed, you need a sense of scale,” says Robinson. “By passing smaller objects and larger objects, it immediately gives you this sense. As a fighter you're a smaller part of a larger battle. There are ships a hundred times your size around you doing things, and we want to sell that as much as possible. It's also that visceral feeling of being able to punch in and out between asteroids and debris and smashing through gaps. It's a VR playground.”

The future of VR, even with Oculus's much publicised $2 billion Facebook buyout, is uncertain. Anyone who's tried the Rift, myself included, will tell you with complete conviction that it's the future of games, and not just a flash in the pan—but will the public accept it enough to propel it into the mainstream? If they do, Valkyrie has the potential to be the killer app that sells the hardware. EVE Online has always been, perhaps unfairly, seen as elitist and inaccessible. Valkyrie is the antidote to that: an immediate, accessible entry point into the rich, storied universe of New Eden.

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.