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