How the stars aligned for a pioneering team of VR technicians
How the stars aligned for the pioneering team of VR technicians assembled at CCP Newcastle
There’s something wonderfully unlikely about Eve Valkyrie. The game with which CCP Newcastle has now established itself is a compact, fast-paced VR shooter, built by a small team. Yet it’s set within the universe of the biggest, slowest space game in existence. It’s a curious kind of offshoot in many respects, but
Ryan Geddes, brand director of CCP’s VR portfolio, thinks otherwise. Virtual reality, he says, has been embedded within the company’s genes for quite some time.
“A couple of the early founders of the company, including Hilmar [Veigar Pétursson, CEO], were part of a proto-VR movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s that was especially big in Iceland,” Geddes says. “Those guys tried to make it work along with everybody else who was into VR at the time, but as we now know with hindsight, the hardware just wasn’t ready yet. The parts needed to make this as cheaply and efficiently as possible just weren’t around.”
So when VR’s time seemed to have come once more, those from that original movement who remained at CCP vowed to invest in it. As the Kickstarter campaign for Oculus Rift was launched, CCP was one of the first companies to back it, albeit without any firm ideas in mind of how to utilise the new technology. When the first version of Oculus Rift, DK1, arrived, a small team based within the company’s headquarters at Reykjavik began to experiment with the headset. The group built a game prototype based on a simple conceit: what would it be like to fly an Eve
Online fighter craft from a firstperson perspective? The group took it to Fanfest, CCP’s annual Eve celebration, and earned a rapturous response for their efforts. The suits took note, and decided it should be developed into a full game. Five people from that team were then flown over to CCP Newcastle to flesh out the prototype. “They shipped over five guys and four of them were actually British anyway, which definitely made the transition easier,” producer Owen O’Brien laughs. “That was quite fortuitous, I guess, so it wasn’t such a huge culture shock coming over here to the UK.”
The stars had aligned in similar fashion during the studio’s formation, back in 2010 – not that the beginning felt particularly auspicious. “A lot of game studios are founded effectively because something has gone bad somewhere else,” technical director Rich Smith tells us, and such was the case for the staffers who found themselves out of work at Midway Newcastle when their parent company went under. Smith was suddenly looking for a job, but was simultaneously keen to keep his core technical team together. During his search, he spoke to CCP’s business-development team and found that the publisher was in need of some programming support for its upcoming firstperson shooter Dust
514. A dozen PS3 technical specialists with years of experience working in Unreal Engine 3 fit the bill very nicely indeed. “We managed to do a deal within the space of about a week that saw the 12 of us all become CCP employees,” Smith says. “An office was set up for us, and various operations people were parachuted in to get it set up. From [CCP] agreeing to set up a studio in Newcastle, we were up and running with a network of PCs and actively writing code about three days later.”
Such expediency may sound surprising, but perhaps says something about the difficulties presented by the project. Dust 514 was an ambitious idea, to say the least. CCP aimed to link it directly to Eve Online, so player actions within one game would influence the other. For an embryonic studio, this was an unprecedented technical challenge. “Part of the uniqueness of
Dust was that, rather than the levels being static, you were playing on thousands of different locations across all the big planets in the Eve universe,” Smith says. “Every time you played a battle in a different location, it had to feel like somewhere different.” The team conceived a system whereby individual city-block-sized chunks of geometry were stitched together into the various landscapes, but that in turn caused its own problems. “Not only did we have to work out how we could drop these installations into the landscape, but we also had to figure out how to light the whole thing so it all looked consistent,” Smith adds.
Geddes suggests that it was a game ahead of its time, acknowledging its successes while also admitting that it didn’t quite come together as the publisher had envisaged. “In a lot of ways we succeeded with that core ambition of bringing all these disparate pieces together, but there were some core elements of the moment-tomoment gameplay that we just didn’t get as well as we would have liked,” he concedes. “And I think that the game ultimately suffered a bit because of that.”
The game’s lights were finally dimmed in May 2016, but with CCP Newcastle’s technical work out of the way by launch day, the studio had long since begun to explore other avenues. A mobile Eve spin-off was mooted before the original prototype for Valkyrie all but fell into its lap in spring 2013. “We had these five guys who had cobbled together this early VR prototype in their spare time in Reykjavik, and paired them with the guys at Newcastle, who had this great core technical knowledge and knowhow,” Geddes explains. “And then we [recruited] Owen, who knows how to ship great games. We brought all three things together in Newcastle. It really was a special group.”
Eve: Valkyrie’s lead designer Andrew Willans, meanwhile, joined a little later; again, a degree of good fortune was involved in his arrival. Having spent years at Ubisoft working on blockbusters like Driver San Francisco, Watch
Dogs and The Crew, Willans found himself
“A LOT OF GAME STUDIOS ARE FOUNDED EFFECTIVELY BECAUSE SOMETHING HAS GONE BAD SOMEWHERE ELSE”
liberated by the experience of working within the six-strong team that made Grow Home at Newcastle studio Reflections. “I got a buzz from the simple joy of experimenting with a toy and having that sense of play back in my life, and my career,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is amazing, I want more of this.’” He subsequently began to experiment with VR as part of an after-work club of sorts, before playing an early version of
Valkyrie at GDC, which prompted another epiphany. “It was so overwhelming,“he recalls. “I was like, ‘This is it, this is what I want to do with my life.’ And then I was absolutely amazed to find out it was happening in Newcastle, where I already was, working on The Division at Reflections.” For Willans it was a dream project: a relatively small game that would be quick to both prototype and iterate upon, with an ideal team of 30-35 people. “That ballooned to the dizzy heights of 40, but we never exceeded that,” he smiles.
If all the pieces of the puzzle seemed to be slotting neatly into place for CCP Newcastle, the studio was still working with a nascent technology whose foundations were constantly shifting. The team’s broad technical experience certainly helped, but trying to maintain the high performance necessary for a smooth VR experience across all platforms was proving a significant challenge. “Our VR partners were working on their stuff at the same time we were trying to work on the game, so when we started on Valkyrie we didn’t know what the ultimate target platform would look like,” Smith explains. “New versions of hardware were coming out, there were rumours swirling around about what the final specs might be, and for a large portion of the project we had no special information from these partners about them. It was all top secret on their side, so we were trying to make a whole bunch of assumptions. As this changed, we found ourselves having to react to those changes in specifications and software, and the devkits that were available, while still ensuring the game continued to work.”
Valkyrie debuted in March 2016 for Oculus headsets, before being ported to PlayStation 4 in time for the arrival of PlayStation VR seven months later. Yet the studio’s work was far from done. A little more than a year on from release,
Valkyrie is much improved compared to its original incarnation, and the studio is committed to adding features for the foreseeable future. It has already received five major updates so far, and it’s clear from talk of content rollouts and roadmaps that CCP Newcastle has plenty more in the offing.
This was, O’Brien says, always part of the plan for a company that knows plenty about supporting games well beyond release; CCP was keen from the start that Valkyrie was never going to be a fire-and-forget kind of game. “I wouldn’t say it’s a different game now, but it’s a much bigger one,” he says, “and it’s much stronger for all the updates that we’ve done. We’ve worked with our community, getting feedback and reacting to it. We’ve still got a [list] of things we want to do, and we’ll adjust that based on what works and what doesn’t, and what new things come into the market.”
There’s certainly a steady influx of new VR players, and CCP Newcastle has found it’s been able to build a happy and active community around its game – and with a small team, it doesn’t need blockbuster sales to keep the lights on. The drip-feed of extra modes and features can’t have done Valkyrie any harm, and it’s found an audience among streamers, too. But it’s the game’s evolving multiplayer component that has kept many coming back for more, which naturally brings us to ask whether the studio is thinking about the esports market.
“I’d be a liar if I said we hadn’t strongly considered it,” Willans replies. “But I’m not a big fan of when people say, ‘We’re going after esports‚‘ because it’s a little bit arrogant. It’s more like esports picks you, not the other way round. Sure, we’ve put stuff in there that we think is compelling, particularly for streamers, and yeah, we are working to a point where we are looking at features even further ahead that will definitely facilitate esports to a greater degree. But it’s not our number-one goal.”
Still, the foundations CCP Newcastle is building are surely designed to make that much more likely. As Valkyrie continues to grow and build an engaged community around a consistently active player base, it may well happen organically. Though Willans won’t be drawn any further on the subject, it’s clear these VR pioneers still have one eye focussed firmly on the future. “I wouldn’t be teasing if I said we’re always looking at new technology and even further afield,” he says. “The mad scientists are still firmly in the lab, tinkering away with potions. I’ll just leave it at that.”
“I WOULDN’T BE TEASING IF I SAID WE’RE ALWAYS LOOKING AT NEW TECHNOLOGY AND EVEN FURTHER AFIELD”
Founded 2010 Employees 40 Key staff Ryan Geddes (VR brand director), Owen O’Brien (executive producer), Rich Smith (technical director), Andrew Willans (lead designer, Eve Valkyrie) URL www.ccpgames.com Selected softography Dust 514, Eve Valkyrie Current projects Eve Valkyrie
Andrew Willans (left), lead designer on Eve Valkyrie, and Ryan Geddes, brand director of CCP Games’ VR output
At the present time, CCP Newcastle remains a single-project studio – all members of staff are still working on Eve Valkyrie. “We’re still doing these regular free updates,” producer Owen O’Brien explains. “That’s an ongoing commitment”