Olivier Palmieri spent his childhood dreaming of flying. And now Palmieri, game director for Ubisoft's Eagle Flight, spends hours at a time living out that childhood dream, soaring over the streets of an abandoned Paris as an eagle.
Eagle Flight is Ubisoft's major launch title for the Oculus Rift. It's an experience that lets you soar along the streets of a Paris long ago lost to humanity, zipping through arches, around trees and over peaked chapel rooftops.
But the game, first introduced as a demo last year, isn't just about aimlessly exploring the empty town. There are also challenge modes that have you taking out enemy eagles with a shriek or zipping through floating hoops for a low time and high score.
Most engaging, though, is the added element of competition found in the game's three-versus-three take on capture the flag that has eagles fighting eagles in an attempt to deliver a bit of dead meat to a nest.
Despite the high speeds and sharp turns, the game seems completely free of the issues that can cause motion sickness. The result is an incredibly fast battle of interweaving flight, eagle trying to outfly eagle as opposing teams work to bring the kill home.
My time with the game left me wanting to play more and to learn the more advanced moves that let players layer controller input on top of the game's basic motion and gaze tracking. In the simplest form, the game has players using their gaze to guide the eagle through incredibly precise moves and turns, while the controller is used for increasing or decreasing speed and triggering the shriek attack.
The shriek attack sends a sonic wave out of your eagle, instantly killing any eagle in its path until it fades away. Hitting an opponent eagle, though, is a lot harder then it sounds, because of the precise head-tracking movements.
Eagle Flight's evolution from demo to full-blown game started about two years ago when Ubisoft began to study how to make the most of VR.
"Sometimes VR has a motion issue," Palmieri said. "We wanted to find a solution so that a game can have motion and still make people comfortable."
The team also wanted to make sure the game was very accessible and very precise in its movement controls.
They selected a game centered on controlling an eagle in flight because, when stripped of competition, it can be an easy, even relaxing way to explore VR and its controls, simply using where a player is looking and where their head is pointed to guide the eagle's path.
"It's more concise than any joystick and keyboard," Palmieri said. "Everything is happening in your head. You don't need to have an interface that uses your hand to have something that feels very natural, very precise."
Once the team landed on using head tracking to control the bird, they had to start working on how to prevent players from becoming motion sick while zipping around the skies of Paris.
Through plenty of scientific research and failures, the team eventually came up with a solution that nearly completely removed motion sickness.
"It was a combination of techniques," Palmieri said. "There's the beak you can see on the screen, we reduce the peripheral vision dynamically."
The end result is a game that can deliver fast gameplay without getting people sick. Oculus thinks the solution is so slick that during this week's big launch event, they kept bringing other developers over to check out the game and see how the issues were tackled.
"This is one of the most comfortable VR games for motion," Palmieri said.
Note: Eagle Flight will also be coming to PlayStation VR and the HTC Vive.