EVE Online developer CCP Games has embraced virtual reality in a big way. Space shooter Valkyrie was one of the first games developed entirely with VR in mind, and the company is continuing to invest in the technology with something it’s calling Project Arena.
I was in Reykjavik last week for Fanfest, their yearly fan convention, where Arena was shown to both press and attendees. It’s an experiment, really; a proof of concept for what may or may not become a full game. And it’s one of the best VR games I’ve played.
In a mode called Brawl two players face off in a corridor that’s straight out of TRON. On one hand you have a shield, and on the other you have a gauntlet that launches a glowing disc. If your disc hits the other player you score a point, but they can bat it away with their shield.
The game uses Oculus’s Touch motion controller, which is due for release later this year. It’s remarkably lightweight, and seeing your virtual hands perfectly mirroring your own is a surreal feeling. When discs start flying you have to duck and dodge to avoid them, firing your own back in response. It’s basically an elaborate game of Pong, but it’s incredibly fun.
When you see a disc hurtling towards you down the corridor, you forget you’re wearing a VR headset. Some hard-coded survival instinct kicks in and you instinctively dodge it, like if someone threw a frisbee directly at your head. And when you smack it with your shield to send it hurtling back their way, it feels wonderfully physical and kinetic.
To throw your own disc you hold a button on the Touch, then throw it like you were throwing a baseball in real life. Let go of the button at the end of the throwing motion and the disc shoots out of your gauntlet. But rather than throw it directly at your opponent, the trick is to bounce it off the walls, floor, and ceiling of the corridor to make its movement more unpredictable.
But no amount of words can capture what it feels like to step into Project Arena for yourself. The physicality of it all, the tactile feel of throwing discs and blocking them with your shield, is hard to convey to someone who hasn’t had a first-hand experience with it. I’ve played a lot of VR games, but this is the first one where I almost forgot I was in virtual reality.
Project Arena might not become a full release, but I hope it does, because it’s a powerful expression of what VR can do. It’s also the kind of thing that could propel it into the mainstream. Put it in shopping centres around the world and you’ll almost certainly see a surge in virtual reality converts.
I also took some time at Fanfest to talk to Sigurdur Gunnarsson, a VR software engineer working on Valkyrie at CCP Newcastle, about the company’s relationship with the tech. I ask him what it’s like to be on the vanguard of a new type of game design.
“It’s exciting, but also quite intimidating,” he says. “As a big VR fan, I think this is just the beginning. We’re going to look back at the technology we have now and it’s going to look ancient. We want to continue on this path and hopefully be at the forefront of it." But as good as the current range of VR headsets is, I wonder what Gunnarsson thinks could be improved. “I would like a slightly higher resolution. Reading text is an issue. I’d also like a wider field of view.”
Valkyrie and Arena are both highly accessible games, which VR needs at this early stage. It’s clear CCP are focusing on inviting people into the world of virtual reality rather than making complicated games for people already familiar with it. I ask Gunnarsson what he thinks it’ll take to get the tech into the hands and onto the heads of a wider group of people.
“VR will go big when you get things on it that appeal to everyone,” he says. “Travel applications where you can preview your holiday destination. That kind of thing. But I think the biggest killer app will be a social one. Being able to talk and interact with people in VR, like the Skype of the future.”