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