Stu­dio Pro­file

How the stars aligned for a pioneering team of VR tech­ni­cians

EDGE - - CONTENTS - BY CHRIS SCHILLING

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”

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