CCP makes a play for the first ‘vs­port’


PSVR, Rift, Vive

From Speed­ball to Discs Of Tron, game de­sign­ers have long ex­per­i­mented with sports that lie be­yond the bounds of cur­rent tech­nol­ogy. Sparc, the Ice­landic pub­lisher CCP’s first non-space­ship-based vir­tual re­al­ity project, is the lat­est in the lin­eage, weav­ing DNA from a va­ri­ety of phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal sources. The high-walled court of squash com­bines with baseball’s three-strikes rule; the back and forth of ten­nis is couched in the fu­tur­is­tic styling of 2001’s Cos­mic Smash, one of the few ti­tles re­leased by Sega Rosso, that short-lived ar­cade di­vi­sion headed by Sega Rally’s Kenji Sasaki. These fa­mil­iar in­gre­di­ents com­bine to cre­ate some­thing fa­mil­iar, yet oth­er­worldly.

It’s a twoplayer game, which CCP At­lanta winc­ingly de­scribes as the first ‘vs­port’, since the stu­dio in­tends it to be­come a com­pet­i­tive and spec­ta­tor-friendly sport for the still-nascent VR scene. The rules are straight­for­ward, but nev­er­the­less ini­tially be­wil­der­ing when ex­pe­ri­enced first hand. Play­ers face one an­other from the ends of a long, nar­row court. Each holds a ball and the ob­jec­tive is, in sim­ple terms, to throw the pro­jec­tile with the aim of strik­ing your op­po­nent’s body. The ball can be spun and curved with flicks of the wrist, while its speed is set by the force of your throw­ing mo­tion. In other words, clear your front room.

As in Wind­jam­mers, the clas­sic Fris­bee game whose re­cent resur­gence on the com­pet­i­tive scene was surely an in­spi­ra­tion for CCP, the pro­jec­tile can ric­o­chet off walls to dis­ori­en­tate your op­po­nent. With two pro­jec­tiles in the field, your at­ten­tion is split be­tween of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive play: as well as an­gling your shots, you must also de­flect those of your op­po­nent. Cor­rectly time a

de­flec­tive hit (us­ing knuckle guards, which ap­pear ghost-like on your hands) and the ball can be shot back across the court. You also wear a shield on your non-throw­ing arm, which is only avail­able while hold­ing a ball in the other. This al­lows you to sim­ply bat any shots away. When both balls are in play the game be­comes in­tensely phys­i­cal and men­tally tax­ing. For this rea­son, per­haps, matches are lim­ited to three min­utes.

“In the be­gin­ning

we had two shields and you could throw one and keep one,” ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Mor­gan Go­dat tells us. “It was fun, but crazy hec­tic. We had to boil it back down, again and again, al­ways ask­ing: ‘Are these rules I can un­der­stand? Does the game feel nat­u­ral? And does it fit in a small area?’” This fi­nal point is a re­stric­tion placed on any would-be VR sport by the cur­rent state of the tech­nol­ogy. The ma­jor head­sets are each teth­ered by a ca­ble that runs to the PC or con­sole, which pre­vents free move­ment. Then there are the dan­gers of hurl­ing one­self around a liv­ing room. “We can’t have peo­ple try­ing to throw a ball over their heads be­cause they will hit their lamp,” Go­dat says. “And we can’t have them div­ing for the ball and punch­ing a wall. The game has to fit into a fairly con­fined space, and no part of the game can en­cour­age you to leave that space.”

For CCP At­lanta, en­sur­ing Sparc’s leg­i­bil­ity for spec­ta­tors has been such an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion that it has ac­tively af­fected the game’s de­sign. “We have cut fea­tures that were fun to play, sim­ply be­cause they were un­read­able,” Go­dat ad­mits. Ini­tially, view­ers watched games via sep­a­rate vir­tual-re­al­ity head­sets. But as devel­op­ment has pro­gressed, CCP has trans­lated live cov­er­age to a TV screen, us­ing a third­per­son view that shows both com­peti­tors at once. “The con­sid­er­a­tion has al­ways been, do view­ers have a chance in hell of un­der­stand­ing what’s go­ing on?” Go­dat says. “Two balls feels like as much as you can man­age. So a crit­i­cal part of the de­sign process has been, what is the best way to show this on a TV?”

There are sur­pris­ing sub­tleties and nu­ances to the con­trol scheme, which af­fords pre­ci­sion and nu­ance via whichever pair of con­trollers you’re hold­ing for the head­set you wear. But Sparc cur­rently suf­fers from CCP’s rather dour pre­sen­ta­tion, all muted colours and un­der­whelm­ing vis­ual feed­back. Score a hit on your op­po­nent and there’s no Rocket League- style par­ti­cle ex­plo­sion, but these el­e­ments may yet be added. Psy­onix’s break­out com­pet­i­tive hit is a ma­jor in­spi­ra­tion for CCP, which in­tends to add new courts post-launch in much the same way as Rocket League added new pitches. “We’re still fig­ur­ing out game modes and courts,” Go­dat says. “We found that when we added in oc­tagons and crazy an­gles, play­ers’ brains couldn’t read where the ball was go­ing to bounce. So we want to have a reg­u­la­tion court. But like Rocket League we want to mess around with new courts that change the bal­ance. Ba­si­cally, I’d love to have Rocket League’s prob­lems.”

There are sur­pris­ing sub­tleties to the con­trol scheme, which af­fords pre­ci­sion and nu­ance

The game is planned for all three ma­jor VR head­sets on the mar­ket. Cur­rently a Rift user can face off against an­other on Vive, al­though CCP At­lanta can’t yet con­firm whether or not it will be able to of­fer cross-plat­form play on­line at launch

LEFT CCP At­lanta has plans to sell ad­ver­tis­ing in Sparc, not only around the court but also po­ten­tially on branded ver­sions of the shields worn on the com­bat­ants’ arms.

BE­LOW The team is try­ing out char­ac­ter cus­tomi­sa­tion. “It’s a chal­lenge in VR,” Go­dat says. “Con­trol­ling slid­ers is dif­fi­cult – you can’t make move­ments su­per pre­cise”

Be­fore each match starts play­ers must bump fists in a show of sports­man­ship. The game then seam­lessly tele­ports ou to the far ends of the field of play

Mor­gan Go­dat, who is ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on the project, pre­vi­ously worked at CCP’s Shang­hai stu­dio, be­fore mov­ing to Liver­pool to work on EVE Valkyrie

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