Image courstesy of CCP Games.

EVE: Valkyrie VR puts you right in the cockpit

CCP Games

VR game development isn't as big a mystery as we think.

"Approach it from a gamer’s perspective, using really good, rational game design and rational level design methodologies."

CCP Games' Andrew Willans, Lead Game Designer, and Emily Knox, Level Designer, discuss the allure of VR and how game developers can make virtual reality work for them.



With the success of CCP's EVE Online over the years, it feels like a natural progression to take on something as new as VR for the first time with the release of EVE: Valkyrie. What drew you both to this medium

ANDREW:  I’ve been in game development for about nine or ten years now, and before I came to CCP Games, I was with Ubisoft. I did a lot of big open-world games like Watch DogsThe CrewDriver: San Francisco, and I even worked on The Division before I came over to CCP, but one of the best games I think I ever did was a smaller games called Grow Home, where we took a mechanic and then scaled it up to be a fun playground - just a game that anyone could pick up and play. That gave me this burning itch to get back into smaller games because a lot of the games I worked on were between 250 and 400 developers. I tried a few of the VR games before Valkyrie and it blew me away; I’d already started my own VR club within Ubisoft, because I was so passionate about what VR could bring to game design and I saw it as the most exciting thing to happen, to move to, since Mario turned 3D. EVE: Valkyrie was already at a very unique and spectacular demo stage when I joined CCP and now we have a full VR game. We’re very successful – it’s been hard work, but very, very worthwhile.

EMILY:  I started out making iPhone games and I also did some prototyping work for Sony, which means making a small game in about a month and testing out new ideas. After that, I worked at Eutechnyx on racing games, which later gave me the opportunity to work at CCP. I've now been working in games for about five years.


How big is the CCP team?

ANDREW:  Globally, I think we’re around the 350 mark, and that’s obviously split between the different studios and each studio has its own IP: Reykjavik works on EVE Online, the Atlanta studio is working on a VR project under the working title Project Arena, and Shanghai is working on Gunjack and also handle the mobile VR side of things. CCP Newcastle – where we work – is predominantly EVE: Valkyrie. We’re very versatile in the studio and we’re very adaptive to change – we can act on things, we can respond to change and feedback, and make changes very quickly.  The other side of that, creating content and creating an epic campaign like missions, takes a lot more time as we are a small team, so we have to be very careful where we spend our development time. I think most people that you speak to within the studio absolutely love it here because it feels like a family, everyone knows each other, and everyone knows and has a stake in Valkyrie as an IP. We all want Valkyrie to succeed, and everyone feels emotionally invested in it.


EVE: Valkyrie - Gatecrash Screen, CCP Games VFX

EVE: Valkyrie - Gatecrash Screen, CCP Games VFX
Images courtesy of CCP Games



How did the concept for EVE: Valkyrie come about?

ANDREW:  It started off as a small prototype called EVE VR and that came about from Reykjavik. It was a small prototype and there were about five people on it initially.  They had the concept of trying out this new technology. They were developing on Oculus DK1 as it was at the time and the idea was that we were going to put an EVE Online pilot in the cockpit, and you’d get the chance to see from this perspective - you'd be put in the pilot’s seat and look through their eyes. So this is where it stemmed from and I think it blew a lot of people’s socks off. It’s the sense of presence when you launch and you actually see space for the first time in VR - it’s really quite an overwhelming experience, particularly in the early days of VR. You're transported into this alien world and it's just incredible. CCP had a lot of faith in that and realized that there was scalability there and that this could become a fully-fledged game in its own right. Personally, this is my first VR game… I did a few interesting prototypes prior to this; I messed around with a couple of things at Ubisoft, and I tried making my own games, but this was my first big VR project.  It’s been a real trial of fire, there’s a lot of best practices within VR and along the course with Valkyrie, we made and broke them in equal measure.

EMILY:  It’s my first VR game as well, so I felt that when I interviewed at CCP, I had to explain why I felt like my background in racing games would be good for VR and for a flight game. In games like this, I think that it mainly comes across in the sense of speed and the design of the environment, so that you get good feedback wherever you are, and that’s about how fast you’re traveling. It’s also about learning that when we show the game to people, we’re always telling them “remember to look around” because they tend to sit and look straight ahead, and we also have to remember to do that as developers as well.

ANDREW:  It’s become a little joke in the office, we’ll walk up and down the office and people say, “oh, we’ve got a feature ready for review,” and I’ll be like, “what’s it doing on a 2D screen?” It’s a hard habit to break - we’re used to 2D interfaces for all our design work, and slowly but surely we’re seeing more and more tools come online within VR that are going to allow us to edit and create content within virtual reality. It's a really cool idea that in a couple of years’ time we’ll be fully immersed.


In your experience, what are some of the key things that you feel people need to consider when developing for VR, from a gameplay aspect?

ANDREW: Some of the golden rules, which I think shouldn’t be broken: VR works best if you are looking through the eyes of an avatar. One of the most compelling things in VR is still seeing through the eyes of an avatar that is roughly in the same spot as the viewer, but in a virtual world that has believable content. I think it really deepens the sense of immersion. You should also never remove camera control, whereas with a lot of 2D games you can act almost like a film director. You can call out someone’s attention and force a camera pan to look at something. It should never be that in VR - taking direct control of the camera away is really uncomfortable for the player. There are a lot of games that deal with this by trying to lock up your movements in order to give you a narrative, but still, allow you to look around within it. Tell the story to the player, but don’t expect them to look at everything because they’re going to look wherever they want.

EMILY:  For me, it's mainly about your perspective and understanding the size of the environment around you. In our game, you’re so immersed in the cockpit and you only get a greater sense of how large it is once you’re in it, along with the ships and the environments around you. You really get a good sense of scale within VR.


EVE: Valkyrie CCP Games VFXImage courtesy of CCP Games 



One of the things I read was that the feeling of being in the middle of a cockpit in Valkyrie was one of the most amazing feelings in VR. So, when it was decided you were making a VR game, what were some of the key features or like elements that you absolutely had to include?

EMILY:  Because there was such a polished prototype already made by the original team, they had some incredible fundamentals already in there, and the main one is the missiles - which I loved a lot myself - where you hold a button down and look where you want to shoot, sending a missile to an enemy ship that could be above or behind you. We call this mechanic ‘look-to-lock.’

ANDREW:  We talked about generation one VR and I think that’s probably why we were very lucky in that because we’re in a cockpit – you won’t suffer from a lot of motion sickness and nausea from the movements, and I think that having this constant fixed frame of reference – which is this housing around you – really grounds you in the experience. The experience allows us to take a lot of risks and put in some very high-tech action sequences because we’ve got the terra firma, as I like to call it, around you and you never tend to lose your grounding in that. A lot of the lessons that people learn quite quickly within VR is if you get a movement wrong, you can get it terribly wrong. Player control and player movement is the number one thing within VR that if you’re going to do movements, take 99 percent of that time that you budgeted. It takes a long time to get it right. If you just want a game, as soon as you put the headset on, you’re in a different world and you need to make sure that the controls are as accessible as possible - the controllers have gotten more and more complex and we’ve got about 12 different inputs there. You can’t really have something ridiculously, overly complex as soon as you get launched in a bubble. A lot of the research that we did and a lot of the iterations on the control configuration really helped – the missiles, for example, really force people to move their head around even while seated. People would launch in space and they’ll be sat looking forward, so we try to have many types of events where you have to look around. You’re in VR - you don’t have to stare forward!  Having mechanics which prompt you to do that from a gameplay perspective also deepens that sense of immersion - you feel more connected with the virtual world.


When it comes to like best practices for VR, to what extent do you work with the hardware companies?

EMILY:  Performance is the number one most important thing.  It breaks the immersion, it can cause motion sickness and nausea. The hardware companies were very helpful in tackling things like that.

ANDREW:  If you look at a lot of Sony’s documentation, they really approach it from a gamer’s perspective, using really good, rational game design and rational level design methodologies. For example, take introducing the idea of someone walking across a bridge – the first time you walk across the bridge it might be daunting, so you might see a bridge with a safety net and it’s over some nice shallow body of water to keep the player comfortable.  And then the next time you show the bridge, the water becomes lava and then the next time it’s got no safety net. That really instills progression into the ingredient that you expose the players to.  We’ve tried to follow as many of those best practices as we developed Valkyrie, and I think all of the hardware people have been really helpful throughout the course of development as they’ve been developing in parallel to us the whole year.

We’ve learned a lot, but we’ve also helped define some of their rules as well – it’s a bit of a two-way street. If you make something that’s really successful and you hear back from Sony saying, “oh yes, you’re the top game when we go on the road,” they’ll obviously be looking to us to see what we did right, and adding it to their documentation.


EVE: Valkyrie CCP Games VFXImage courtesy of CCP Games 



If you had to give any advice to someone looking to make a VR game, what would it be?  How would you convince them?

EMILY:  I think in a way the best advice is to play VR games and see what’s there, see what’s working and what’s not in the system.

ANDREW: I think that’s probably a good example of every genre you can think of right now and, and you don’t have to look far. Movement is still a huge challenge in VR, and so next year it’ll probably be even more experimentation on how we can move in VR. There’s been a lot of solutions for that – point and click, move to a place by pointing at it and then teleporting to it. Movement within a vehicle is a little bit easier. I think there are still a lot of challenges ahead, and I think anyone that who wants to start off in VR – get on in there, you’ve just got to dive in and play games.  There are different levels of polish, but there are definitely some incredible examples of VR available. Seeing people’s first VR moment is a really precious thing and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone take the headset off and say anything other than “wow,” it’s usually that starry-eyed kind of “this is incredible, I want more” reaction. That sense of immersion is what sells people on VR. 


I have one last question, which is more for my morbid curiosity… I noticed in your communities, you refer to each other as 'CPP [random name].' Do you all have your own code name?

EMILY:  Yeah…

ANDREW:  Basically it involves an initiation ritual in Reykjavik that we have to go to, where the ancient gods of Iceland pass down our names…



The team at CCP Games used 3ds Max and Maya for modelling and animating.

Get in the pilot seat with EVE: Valkyrie VR, now available on PSVR, VIVE and the Oculus Rift.

Tags
  • 3ds Max
  • Maya
  • VR
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