A year on, CCP’s simple tech demo has become a virtual reality poster child
CCP is no stranger to technological leaps of faith. EVE Online hosts all of its western players on a single server cluster, Tranquility, rather than opt to split them up over multiple shards, while Dust 514 ambitiously attempts to marry a console shooter with a PC MMOG. Now, with the commercial releases of Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus still a way off, CCP’s Newcastle studio is creating a dogfighting game that will require a VR headset to play.
That game is EVE: Valkyrie, which started life as a prototype, shown off as a curio at EVE Fanfest 2013 under the name EVE-VR. Its unexpected popularity there was a clear sign to CCP that this could be much more than a tech demo, and now a 25-person team is working on what has become a third major strand in the company’s portfolio. And in just one year, Valkyrie has come on a long way.
“We’re one of the few games, if not the only [one], at the moment being developed from the ground up for VR,” says senior programmer Sigurður Gunnarsson. “Other games are focusing on supporting VR [as an option]. I’m a big fan of both Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous as well – I backed them both, and I can’t wait to play them. Star Citizen, Elite, EVE Online and Valkyrie are all starship games, and all space combat games, but they’re also really different. We’re focusing on immediate combat [and] intense multiplayer piloting. That’s our primary focus for now.”
As we’re hurled down a launch tube and out into space, hectored by chirruping alert noises and a busy-but-readable HUD that points us to the enemy, it becomes clear that Gunnarsson and his team have captured the immediacy he speaks of. Combat feels urgent and violent, and our ship is responsive, but protests just enough to make it feel hefty. And, just as in Elite: Dangerous, being able to track your enemies simply by turning your head to look at them proves transformative.
The controls are simple, too. On our 360 pad, the left stick points the ship in the desired direction, L1 and R1 trigger barrel rolls, Y cycles targets, X deploys countermeasures, and our primary and secondary weapons are fired using the triggers. While our ship is always moving, A and B provide a boost or retro thrusters respectively.
But immediacy needn’t mean a lack of depth. As of the latest build, Valkyrie is dropping EVE-VR’s standard, heavy and sniper ship classes, which were based around their weapon loadouts, and replacing them with a selection of more nuanced ‘roles’, which are intended to interlink. On paper, it seems like a semantic difference, but Gunnarsson is adamant that the change makes sense.
“[In EVE-VR], we were trying to find a way to distinguish those kinds of ships, but we found they were all kind of the same. It felt like you were flying the fighter but you just happened to have a sniper gun. It didn’t feel different enough. Our lead designer, Chris Smith, said, ‘All right, let’s stop thinking about classes and start thinking about roles that promote team gameplay.’ So now we have the middle-ground fighter, which is a jack of all trades. Then we have a heavier ship, which is more specialist – imagine a ship that’s more like a slow-moving tank on a battlefield – and it will have some interesting functions you can deploy. And then we have the support role… The teams that win the most fights will be the ones that combine those different kinds of ships well to help each other.”
Since the current build features only the fighter, it’s impossible to tell yet whether this new design will make a profound difference, but other changes are more obvious. Missiles were overpowered in EVE-VR, and have been tempered by smart new constraints. You still hold LT to lock and release to fire, but rather than simply unleash a volley of rockets, now five dots light up sequentially around the target marker, and releasing the trigger fires only as many missiles as have been primed. This not only allows players to loose, say, one missile to finish off a stricken ship, but also means it takes more skill to hold your lock long enough to fire everything you’ve got.
Further nuance will be introduced by Turfs, the name CCP has given the areas where combat takes place. Rather than simply offering a series of attractive star boxes, each region will contain natural phenomena that play to the strengths of certain types of ships, while disadvantaging others. The nimble fighter will find it easy to hide in an asteroid field, for example, while the heavier tank-like craft will have to manoeuvre more carefully. Similarly, ships with strong shields will thrive in an area with an electrical storm, while weaker shields might collapse and leave you vulnerable. CCP is still experimenting, but other possibilities include dust fields, areas strewn with wreckage and even huge interiors.
The areas we do see look incredible, thanks to the combined efforts of Unreal Engine 4, which the team has now switched to from Unity, and Rift Development Kit 2’s higher-res displays. The view is sharp, with detailed textures, extravagant weapon effects and explosions, and little noticeable lag. Movement is naturalistic – you can lean out over the side of your seat and look down below it – and we experience none of the nausea we’ve encountered in the process of trying various Rift demos in the past.
We also spend some time playing the game on PS4 with Project Morpheus, which, while comfortable and visually arresting in play, can’t quite match Rift’s smooth tracking.
Valkyrie is running at 75fps on PC right now, but at a lower rate on PS4, illustrating the difficulties involved with rendering two instances of a game simultaneously. It’s worth noting, however, that the version we played with Morpheus was an older build, and Gunnarsson is confident that the difference
The view’s sharp, with detailed textures, extravagant weapon effects, and little noticeable lag
won’t be too pronounced by the end of development. “Both platforms have strengths,” he says when we ask him if he thinks PS4 is capable of standing up to PCs when it comes to VR. “Perhaps if you have the highest-end PC ever, you might be able to have some options in there that allows it to look slightly better on PC. But our goal is to make both versions look really similar”
Indeed, CCP’s biggest challenge so far has been to establish the right rhythm for a game that immerses you so completely. Making
Valkyrie too fast meant it was tough to track foes and the Turfs felt smaller, so now velocities are slower and the sense of pace is maintained with particle effects. “We constantly have to experiment with Valkyrie to see what works and what doesn’t work, because there’s not a lot of previous examples to look at of things being done well,” says Gunnarsson. “With VR coming, I believe that you need to design your games in a different way – VR games are going to look very different to the games you see today.”
Sigurður Gunnarsson, senior programmer
The Wraith Mk II – so named because of the existence of the Wraith in EVEOnline – combines the defence of Online’s Amarr Templar ship with the Caldari Dragonfly’s offensive capabilities
The larger craft in the game suggest a future in which Valkyrie and EVEOnline are meshed in some way. There are no immediate plans for this, but Gunnarsson admits that CCP already has ideas for how it might work