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CCP New­cas­tle’s An­drew Wil­lans on the chal­lenges of 18 months as a VR pi­o­neer

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CCP New­cas­tle de­signer An­drew Wil­lans on the chal­lenges of VR

You’ll strug­gle to find a more pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate for VR than An­drew Wil­lans. Eve Valkyrie’s lead de­signer left Ubisoft Re­flec­tions af­ter seven years, hav­ing worked on the likes of The Crew, The Di­vi­sion and Watch Dogs, as well as lead­ing a small team on the de­light­ful Grow Home. He moved to CCP New­cas­tle af­ter be­ing daz­zled by an early Valkyrie demo, and is still work­ing on the game, some 18 months on from its ini­tial launch. Ahead of his key­note at this year’s De­velop: VR con­fer­ence at Olympia Lon­don on Novem­ber 9, Wil­lans spoke to us about his ex­pe­ri­ences work­ing on one of VR’s big­gest games. What’s the big­gest draw to work­ing in VR? I think I speak for ev­ery­one at the stu­dio that when VR came about it re­ally blew our socks off. We’re mak­ing games in VR be­cause we gen­uinely be­lieve that this is a large part of the fu­ture of games. For us there’s still that sense of won­der and ex­cite­ment. So that’s in the DNA of the stu­dio: we’re all wowed by the tech­nol­ogy, and we just want to make great games for it. Yeah, we’d be a lot hap­pier if it picked up sooner than it did, but we’re here for the long haul. As the tech­nol­ogy im­proves, as the prices come down and it be­comes more widely avail­able to more play­ers, then that’s only go­ing to be happy days for us. You’re in the un­usual po­si­tion of run­ning a live VR game. With no real prece­dent to draw from, how have you han­dled that? Well, I’d be a liar if I said there wasn’t an el­e­ment of seat-of-your-pants to it, as there al­ways is with any on­line game (laughs). But CCP has a re­ally strong pedi­gree with com­mu­nity in­ter­ac­tion, so we adopted a sim­i­lar ap­proach with Valkyrie. We had our early adopters pro­gramme – they were with us through the beta pe­riod, through the early re­lease on Ocu­lus, and then ob­vi­ously when PlayS­ta­tion VR came on­line. It was re­ally im­por­tant to have that con­stant line of di­a­logue go­ing to make sure we got things right. What are the big­gest chal­lenges? We learned an ab­so­lute ton about UI de­sign in par­tic­u­lar. We did lots of re­search into com­fort­able view­ing dis­tances and what I would call the cone of fo­cus – where you place things within a scene to draw play­ers’ at­ten­tion. And then as they shift that at­ten­tion, how to then lay the fo­cus on the in­for­ma­tion that you want to present. I think we’re on prob­a­bly the fifth or sixth it­er­a­tion of our UI and menus, which is quite a lot in a short pe­riod of time. But it was es­sen­tial – as we brought on­line more and more fea­tures, we needed to use more of this seem­ingly in­fi­nite space. Of course it’s not ac­tu­ally in­fi­nite space, be­cause even in VR there’s lots of vis­ual noise, so it’s about how we show play­ers that some­thing’s re­ally im­por­tant.

“We’re mak­ing games in VR be­cause we be­lieve that this is a large part of the fu­ture of games”

Are there any un­ex­pected problems you’ve had to solve? It sounds a bit grim, but one thing we looked at was how a player dies in VR. On Valkyrie we have a safety net, be­ing in a space­ship: the cock­pit shat­ters, but you’re be­hind that screen, so you get a pause when space rushes in and your hands freeze over, rather than a first­per­son shooter where you hear the head­shot and then bang, you’re dead and it’s quite bru­tal and jar­ring. We made sure the death se­quence it­self was tuned for com­fort, so there’s a pause for thought as you’re beamed back to the clone vat and then launched back out. We al­low you that lit­tle in­breath be­fore we fly you back out the launch tube and you get that slap-in-the-face adren­a­line fix. What do you think still needs ad­dress­ing in VR games? I don’t think we’ve solved bipedal lo­co­mo­tion. Some games have come in­cred­i­bly close to do­ing com­fort­able move­ment, but we’re still not quite there. I would still say that seated VR ex­pe­ri­ences are the best, be­cause they nat­u­rally match your body’s own po­si­tion, so if you’re in a cock­pit or the seat of a rac­ing car, it feels com­fort­able, and so you can use more ex­treme ma­noeu­vres to cre­ate much more ex­cit­ing sce­nar­ios. And what else have you learned about VR in gen­eral? Since the early days, my head’s kind of re­set to what’s go­ing to re­ally have the best sense of im­mer­sion and pres­ence. At first, I thought, well, it’s you, look­ing through the eyes of an avatar. And I think we know now that that’s not nec­es­sar­ily true. Third­per­son games, plat­form­ers, puz­zle games – you can do all of th­ese things in amaz­ing and com­pelling ways. I’m a lot more com­fort­able that VR will not be pi­geon­holed as ‘you are your avatar’, and that’s it. I think there are enough qual­ity games and ideas to prove that’s not a lim­i­ta­tion.

EVE Valkyrie lead de­signer An­drew Wil­lans has now been at CCP New­cas­tle for two and a half years

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