People react like kittens being carried by their mothers when you place a virtual reality headset over their eyes. Their muscles tend to stiffen, and they stare straight ahead, frozen in place. It takes time and encouragement to get them to loosen up and look around.
"People have been taught for years to look straight ahead. Even when we put the headsets on people we see they look straight ahead, if you ask them to look down they move their eyes, they don’t move their head," Owen O’Brien, the executive producer of Eve: Valkyrie told Polygon.
"I think in terms of game design, it’s about putting in features that will encourage people to look in all directions, and to look behind them. That’s why the head tracking is there for the missiles," he continued.
Eve: Valkyrie is part Top Gun, part Battlestar Galactica, and designed from the ground up to be played in virtual reality. This fact added challenges to the development process — the game recently moved from the Unity engine to Unreal Engine 4 partially to help with rapid prototyping — but it’s also allowing them to make the movement of your head an important part of your arsenal.
You get missile lock by looking at any enemy as they fly around your ship; if you can’t see them, you can’t kill them. The player who is most comfortable whipping their head around the cockpit to find targets is going to be at a massive advantage.
By linking the missile lock with head movement they were able to break people of the habit of locking their muscles and staring forward, and after the move to Unreal Engine 4 from Unity they’ve also added a bit of extra room to the virtual cockpit, including a space behind your seat.
You can look around and see that you’re in a physical space with a little bit of room to move, even if your in-game character remains seated. It makes playing the game much more comfortable, and much less claustrophobic. One of the team members went as far as building a mock-up of the cockpit out of cardboard in the studio to make sure it made sense physically and people could sit in it comfortably.
He ran out of cardboard before the project was done.
"We’re learning as we go along, which is what makes it so interesting. This is the frontier," O’Brien explained. They’re finding weird things that made them rethink certain aspects of the game’s design and execution.
It can be hard to read text while wearing a virtual reality headset, and at any rate reading information takes a few fractions of a second that you don’t want to give up in battle. "It’s better to use symbols; everything is moving so fast it’s better to be able to instantly recognize things," O’Brien said.
They also found out it’s disorienting when your virtual body doesn’t match what your real body is doing. Your brain doesn’t know how to deal with your in-game avatar moving its arms and flipping switches while your real arms remain stationary. Imagine phantom limb syndrome, but in reverse.
The original design had the pilot holding a flight stick, it feels strange when you look down and see a flight stick but feel a controller in your hand. They’ve since adjusted the cockpit so it looks as if you’re in-game character is holding a flight yoke, which mimics how your hands grasp a controller.
It’s a tiny detail, but it adds an extra layer of comfort in the game, and maintains the illusion of actually being inside the cockpit. There may actually be support for different animations so if you connect a flight stick, your in-game character will change to show a flight stick.
Put the information on the ship
"You have to make the player look. Don’t tell them everything. I shouldn’t have to tell you the engine is on fire, if you look you’ll see the flames," O’Brien explained when discussing where information is kept in the game.
The game comes to life when you move your head and look around, and there is information you can only gain by doing so. The guns, for instance, fire very quickly for the first second or two and then begin to overheat, slowing down. That information is conveyed visually; you can see the change when you look to the left and right and watch your weapons firing.
"This is about taking away from the HUD to not overload it, because again we want as minimal a HUD as possible," lead game designer Chris Smith told Polygon. "The information’s on the ship, and on the missiles."
In the earlier version of the game you locked on with your missiles and fired a swarm at every target. Now you see each missile being loaded, and decide when to fire. The longer you stay locked on, the more missiles you can fire. You can use this as you play; if a ship has only a small amount of health left you can get away with quickly firing a single missile or two and then move onto the next target. A heartier enemy will require a longer lock, and more missiles.
And of course while you’re looking at the enemy and focusing your attention on target acquisition and the value of differing numbers of missiles it’s harder to see other enemies who may be coming after you. By locking your head in place for missile lock they’ve made you vulnerable. When you stop looking around, you become easier to kill.
Our goal is to make you every goddamned space movie you’ve ever seen that you want to fight in
They've tried two-seater crafts as well, where one person is flying and the other is operating the guns or other weaponry, and it just doesn't work. The fantasy of being a gunner on the Millienium Falcon will have to wait until they can make the experience comfortable in virtual reality. No matter how they tried to mock up the experience, developers who tried it became ill. The problem is that, when you're not in control of movement in virtual reality, you want to throw up.
"It’s like you’re on a roller coaster, without rails, going backwards," O'Brien explained.
They want to add co-op ships with different roles, and they want to add single-player content and what Chris Smith referred to as "Left 4 Dead-style" missions where multiple people team up to take down a fleet or enemies or a capital ship. But first they have to make the core game the best it can be, and once that's done they can release it alongside the Oculus Rift retail kit and Project Morpheus. And then they will begin to build out the content.
"Our key as a team is to satisfy one goal in the short term ... and that is to make you red leader, that is to make you Starbuck in Battlestar, that is to make you every goddamned space movie you’ve ever seen that you want to fight in, but to do it in the EVE universe, to get up and close with the big vehicles," Smith said. "I’ve seen some of [the battles in Eve Online], and they amaze me, but amongst those there’s drones and the small little things. That’s where we are. We’re the microscope put on the EVE universe."
They've already begun to flesh out the game's lore and story, and this will be published in a comic book in 2015. The Valkyries are a group of the best fighter pilots whose consciousness has been stolen at the point of death and placed into clone bodies. They have a choice: To fight under the control of Rån, a pilot played by Katee Sackhoff who controls the Valkyries, or be unplugged and die forever.
Since this is the first time players will be put in the body of a character in the Eve universe, it's possible we'll be able to experience what it's like to die in that world, to have your mind eject from a dying body only to be placed back into another shell. It's something they're working on showing to the player.
"Something that evokes that would be great, this is a game of life and death and life again. And I want to capture that feeling," O'Brien said. "This is stolen tech, rough and ready. It’s not a smooth transition. You don’t want to die, because it hurts."
The trick is to create something that makes the player uncomfortable and unsettled, but without making them feel physically ill. Dying in the game should be shocking, but not to the extent that it makes one unable to play. They're even discussing how to explain the minimum system requirements to play the game, as things become very uncomfortable when played under 60 frames-per-second. You don't need to just be able to run the game, but to run it smoothly to avoid sickness in the player.
It's a design problem, just like creating a two-seater craft, just like making sure players look around and just like creating a cockpit that is comfortable enough for players to play inside for extended periods of time. There are no rules for how to do these things in virtual reality, not yet at least, so the Valkyrie team is creating best practices from scratch.
"There will be a solution, there is a solution," O'Brien told said. "We just need to find it."