You have a place in space.
CCP Games is best known for its persistent-world, spacefaring MMORPG EVE Online, where everything from in-game factions to the economy are influenced by players themselves. The company also spun off the franchise by diving into virtual reality last year with EVE: Valkyrie, a flight combat shooter within the same universe. Support for the game continued as the $30 expansion EVE: Valkyrie - Warzone hit the PC (HTC Vive, Oculus Rift) and PlayStation 4 (PSVR) on September 26 this year. It made significant changes, including the ability to play the game without a VR headset.
We were able to catch up with Andrew Willans (lead designer) and Hilmar Veigar Pétursson (CEO, Founder) of CCP games over the phone leading up to the launch of Warzone. We talked design changes, the possibilities and limitations of modern tech, and the future of VR gaming.
GameSpot: It seems like there's a lot more to EVE: Valkyrie now with Warzone. How do you think this will help sustain a stronger player base over a longer period of time, especially with non-VR support?
Andrew Willans: Absolutely, that was a core goal for us. I think we've always had a really healthy player base. Within VR, we've grown to a position of strength over the past year. It’s a multiplayer game first and foremost, and the more players, the better. I'm really looking forward to seeing full battles every time I go in there, and seeing squads of players out there enjoying themselves and having fun. It's the lifeblood of any multiplayer game. If you asked me a year and a half ago, would you go out of the gate with a multiplayer game at the dawn of VR, you'd be like, that sounds kind of risky. It's definitely a plus that we cast out a name for ourselves in VR. We want to broaden that audience now.
Our executive producer Owen O'Brien had an analogy; when mobile phones came out, the reason that they were so successful is because they could actually make calls to landlines. That's what we were thinking in terms of how we evolve Valkyrie. For us, it's always been about cross-play, and breaking down the boundaries of PC and console gamers. Now that we can do it with VR and non-VR, mouse and keyboard and gamepad, all fighting together in the same servers and same battles, it's pretty exciting. I really can't wait to see what happens when the population increases again and we have all of the new pilots in battle.
For us, it's always been about cross-play, and breaking down the boundaries of PC and console gamers. Now that we can do it with VR and non-VR...it's pretty exciting.
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson: That's definitely the thought every time we brought Valkyrie to new platforms, of course. EVE: Valkyrie was the first cross-play game across all VR platforms. Every time we added a new platform, we saw a jump in user base and a jump in overall engagement. I guess, by taking it now to a much larger pool with all PCs. We will see similar effect as when we took it from the Oculus Rift, then onto PSVR, and onto HTC Vive, and now it's onto every PC and PlayStation 4. I think we will be seeing very interesting dynamics forming now that the community or the potential community becomes substantially bigger.
Now that it's a non-VR experience, has that helped you craft a stronger game now that you can think of it as something that‘ll be played outside of VR? In terms of the creative process, are you now thinking outside the confines of VR itself?
Willans: Yeah, absolutely. To give you a more tangible example of this is, we didn't do a particularly good job of tutorializing a lot of the things within Valkyrie. We've styled it, we have four warzones. We have ability cards now so that as soon as you launch a ship, you can pass the port and bring up a menu which gives you the abilities, every single ability, what you've got to keep out so that no matter what you take out, you have everything you need at your fingertips.
We've looked at the controller layout and made some changes to that, both to accommodate the ultra-abilities, but also to look at how a non-VR player will look around the cockpit. We've come out with different controller mappings. One has a look-around on the right analog stick, we put it in there so people would want to look around the cockpit and get more use out of the head-tracked weapons, which are a lot easier to do in VR, because you just stare at something and shoot.
Games like Superhot really deliver that feeling of being in another world, and you genuinely believe it for the time you’re in there. And that's why I play games.
Even without that, if you just ran with the default controller, we've looked at the assist on the missiles. We've looked at mouse and keyboard, the dead zones, and the sensitivity to try and find a sweet spot. I think we're there. We're having a lot of fun in the studio at the minute. We've got people in VR, non-VR, people playing on mouse and keyboard, people playing on gamepad, and everyone's having a great time. We're not finding any radical differences comparatively. It's not like ‘all right, everyone who's on a gamepad on 2D is getting owned by people with mouse and keyboard.’ That’s not the case.
It's kind of a nice position to be in, because you always think we're a first-person spaceship shooter, and because we've got that spaceship in between first-person and shooter, that means that we're bound by the flight model. The actual mechanics of that vehicle we pilot, and the inherent latency that comes with flying a spaceship means that flying on a mouse or on a gamepad doesn't matter as much, compared to something like a proper on-foot first person shooter where that pinpoint accuracy is always going to give you an edge with mouse and keyboard. We don't have those problems, conceptually.
Pétursson: I would add to what Andy [Willans] brought up, and it's maybe not a creative reason, but it definitely adds to the creative space. Because we released Valkyrie at the dawn of VR on the Oculus Rift, and it was a massive investment for us competitively to other VR titles, and we have now been releasing five content updates since the release, and now we're doing a massive expansion. Of course, a part of the reason why we're able to make continuous investment into the game is, of course, the community that has built up, and the VR headsets that are obviously still selling. The potential of taking it to all PCs allows us to make the business around it work such that we can give Andy and the studio the creative space to do such massive improvements to the games, as they have been doing now over this year.
When working with the PS4 Pro, are there any specific challenges? I know VR itself is fairly challenging platform to work with since it's fairly new, but is there anything in particular about PS4 Pro, trying to get the most out of it that stood out to you, or is it simply making graphic overhauls?
Willans: The programmers will answer with a bit more expertise, but from my experience, it's always about platform parity. Our first consideration is the gameplay being the same on all of the systems. And as long as you’re locked at 60 FPS, then we're good and that's where we can do things like style up the rendering. Things like the PlayStation 4, they have a lot more dynamic systems within them. So, if we are in battle and there's lots of things going on, there's a huge amount of assets being rendered and things happening at the same time, and it's putting strain on the CPU and GPU. Then it can almost dial back the visuals to basically favor framerate over visuals, and then in the quiet moments it can dial back up dynamically the visuals.
The same is true with a lot of things, and I think as we get closer to our launch, we'll be in a better position to say specifically what optimizations we'll be making in terms of things like 4K and what we're going to do for the non-VR version.
After the release of EVE: Valkyrie - Warzone, the non-VR version runs in 4K at 60 FPS on the PS4 Pro.
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Given where hardware is now and accessibility increases as price goes down, and you see more beyond proof of concept, where do you see VR gaming going? Whether it's in EVE: Valkyrie or even EVE Online? If we can integrate other technologies into VR, what would be your dream VR scenario without limitations in terms of gaming?
Pétursson: I think you can do a lot with the eye-tracking. Then this whole AR versus VR debate would be permanently over by then! Without going all sci-fi, I would say that you could argue maybe we've been doing this for just over 12 months, and some companies have released numbers and we’re talking millions of devices. People are often talking about smartphones in this context. It's often good to remind ourselves that the first iPhone sold three million units in its first year. Certainly if you include mobile VR, VR is already bigger than the first iPhone in its first year.
I think people often tend to forget how long it takes for these fundamentally new things to take off. They are slow-brewing, and then they really reach escape velocity. I actually think that the VR devices we have today are really capable. Getting the price down, getting the content backlog broader so that people have a really good variety of quality software that meets their expectations, then we will see a very interesting pattern come out of that. You really have to throw in all the things you could think about, like eye-tracking, lighter ergonomics, cutting the cable, and make these stand-alone without a computer. These are all awesome things, but I think the devices we have now are pretty damn good. Working the price down and working the content backlog I think will do wonders for the industry.
We're certainly doing our best to help on the content side. We have a lot going on, as I'm sure you noticed with Valkyrie, Sparc, and Gunjack 1 and 2, and all the games we've put out there.
Do you see your projects as being the leap forward? Because not only is VR cost prohibitive at the moment, but people are hesitant to jump in for that killer app that's less of a tech demo. With Warzone and content updates, do you see yourself leading as the prime example of what VR is capable of? Is there anything that's holding you back at the moment?
Pétursson: Well, what is holding us back is many of the logistics of making games. That is a complicated endeavor, whether it's traditional or VR. I think there are people in the place that you are talking about where they're not very sure what they would play. Now by offering the game up to everyone with a PC and a PlayStation 4, at least they can check out Valkyrie for $30 and see if it's a game they like. They’ll have an experience with Valkyrie so they don't have to wonder what they would play in VR. I'm hoping at least a part of what we're doing can help acquire new people into VR by sort of nullifying this question of what would you really do, and are there really any full-fledged games? After almost five years of development, it’s getting to the place of being a full-fledged game.
Willans: Just to add to that, Warzone brings with it a whole new level of accessibility. Valkyrie had quite steep learning curve, and because we're at the dawn of the VR journey, we had many pilots that were really badass really soon. When you're matchmaking and everything's geared around multiplayer, your matchmaking rules in the first year of VR are pretty much: here's a human, find a human, have a battle. The increased audience that we're going to see once those pilots come on board means we can be far more effective with our matchmaking. It means we can bring onboard new pilots a lot easier, and it means that there are layers of challenge which are a lot easier for new pilots to get into the game and feel like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, which was always our intention. We always said we just want to get your blood pumping, get you into a battle, competitive in minutes, but master over months. I think we're much, much closer to those goals now with a game everyone can pick up with either a gamepad or keyboard/mouse and get involved.
When you dove into VR and recently with Warzone, did you draw inspiration from other VR games? What other VR experiences have you seen that you think really push the VR platform forward?
Willans: For me personally, the last one which really blew me away was actually Farpoint. I know there were mixed reviews at launch, but they almost managed to make me feel fine walking in VR, and I thought that was a huge challenge. They put in a load of different options for how you navigate the terrain, how you use the camera, smooth movement, and combined with the aim controller, it just blew me away. Because I was looking at it and thinking, this looks like a piece of plumbing, right? Then I loaded up the game, and certainly I believed that I had this rifle in my hand. I sat there, pulled out my shotgun from my backpack, I was just so in there.
It's all about that sense of purpose. I know people keep banging on about it, and I've said from day one, it's about the sense of purpose and believing you're in an alternative world. And I genuinely felt that from that game. I haven't completed that yet, so I'm not going to say I've got a thousand trophies on it! But that was the last time when I was significantly blown away by the sense of immersion. You look at it and you ask what are they doing right?
When I first hooked up my [Oculus] Touch controllers and started aiming guns in Robo Recall, that was another wild moment. But it's continuous. You only have to sit and look at Oculus or Steam and see these titles popping up, even the early access ones. Games like Superhot really deliver that feeling of being in another world, and you genuinely believe it for the time you’re in there. And that's why I play games.