I entered the demo room — a modified suite in a downtown San Francisco hotel — with a Diet Coke in hand. It was an early morning appointment, and I knew I'd need the caffeine.
I was greeted by Crytek director of production David Bowman. He noticed the soda and smiled.
"You can take one drink of that now, but the save the rest for after the demo," he said. "You'll need it."
I laughed awkwardly, not sure what he meant.
Twenty minutes later, I peeled the Oculus headset off, having finished a demo of Crytek's second virtual reality project, The Climb. Sweat matted my hair to my forehead. Bowman was right; I was parched.
Crytek announced its first VR title, Robinson: The Journey, at E3 earlier this year. Around that same time, though, a second team was being spun up within the company's Frankfurt studio to begin work on a new project.
"Early on, there was the idea of bringing a proper, large Crytek experience into VR," says Technical Director Rok Erjavec. "We started experimenting with all kinds of different mechanics."
Eventually, Erjavec and his team pitched the project to Oculus itself, showing off a variety of playable tech demos, each of which demonstrated how a particular mechanic would be translated into a virtual reality experience. Jason Rubin, co-founder of Naughty Dog and current head of Oculus first-party content, was impressed by the demos, but one in particular stood out to him.
"This is all cool for the product you're trying to make, but I really like the climbing thing," Erjavec recalls Rubin telling him.
"If you ever wondered how Nathan Drake feels making those jumps in Uncharted..."
With that, The Climb was born. It's a game about scaling up a mountain from a first-person point of view. The gameplay is deceptively simple: holding down the left or right triggers causes your in-game avatar to grab any viewable, in-distance ledge with their left or right hand. You "aim" at new ledges simply by looking, craning your neck, shifting your body weight when necessary. If the nearest ledge is too far to reach, you can attempt to jump for it, but you'll need to look well above where the ledge is actually located.
It's a simple base from which to build, and Bowman says that was the key for Crytek as it looked for a virtual reality idea that felt right for the company.
"What we've done is focused our team," he says. "We want to give the most beautiful VR experience within the scope of being an Oculus launch title. In order to do that, we have to stay focused. We have to make it just the best climbing experience possible."
The single mountain face I scale in The Climb is the first and easiest in the game. It's a slow introduction. My first five minutes are spent learning the ropes, moving ledge by ledge.
Then I have to make my first jump. Then there's a jump across a gap behind me — one that requires twisting my head to look backward. Later I reach some longer ledges that require shifting my way across, hand over hand. And through it all, I need to pause every once in a while, chalking up my in-game hands with the left and right bumpers — your character's hands get sweaty as you go, slowly washing away the chalk and making it harder to grip ledges.
At one point, as I make my way across a wooden beam hanging precariously near the top of the mountain, the beam begins to crack under my virtual weight. My breath catches, and I swear aloud.
Erjavec laughs. "If you ever wondered how Nathan Drake feels making those jumps in Uncharted, now you know."
What sticks with me is not only how different this is from Crytek's wheelhouse, but how slowly and elegantly the mechanics expand — in a way that doesn't seem normal for this ambitious developer. Each new ledge type, each new mechanic is introduced thoughtfully. It's something more on par with a well-designed platformer than what I'd normally expect going into a Crytek game.
"It's really been very exciting, because this is our chance to hone in and polish something to a level we've never done before," says Bowman. "Those big games — like if you make a Grand Theft Auto 5 or a Crysis 3, if you make a big game like that, you have to do a lot of things. You don't have the time to polish every one to the point that you want."
According to Erjavec, this focus on polish extends beyond mechanics too.
"It's been a bit of transformative experience having those restrictions placed on us," he says. "VR also places a lot of restrictions on performance. CryEngine games are known for pushing the boundaries but not necessarily running great across all hardware. Here, we have to pull that in to guarantee a framerate on a particular hardware set. It's running at a perfect 90Hz on the target machines we're working with."
The Climb is running at a continuous 90 frames per second and a resolution of 2160 by 1200
These technical restrictions on The Climb aren't just a matter of making the game run on certain machines. They're necessary to make the game a comfortable experience and prevent what Erjavec calls "simulation sickness."
To achieve this, Crytek has The Climb running at a continuous 90 frames per second and a resolution of 2160 by 1200. These are far more taxing demands than the average triple-A game of 2016, and yet it also still manages to look gorgeous.
"We do a lot of things that people traditionally think are a bad idea in VR," Erjavec admits. He notes that locomotion and letting players shift and rotate around corners are generally considered poor ideas by many virtual reality developers. "We do all this without making you sick. For the last two days, all the people we've tested with it, none of them had any discomfort."
Bowman also points to The Climb's subdued color scheme. It's a beautiful game, but the graphics are not overwhelmingly bright; they're easy on the eyes. He says that wearing a VR headset with an overly bright game is "like being on the beach with no sunglasses."
There are all sorts of problems Crytek is facing down with The Climb that it has never encountered before. But so far, the developer feels very confident in its work.
"We do it in a way that you don't even notice that we did it," Erjavec says. "That means we're doing it the right way."
The Climb has one other hook we haven't discussed yet, one that perhaps shouldn't be a surprise as a release on hardware created by a company owned by Facebook. While the game will be single-player only, it will have scoreboards for competing against your friends. Each climb will earn you a score based on various factors, including how long it took you to complete it, how difficult of a path you took and more.
One thing that plays into that competitive aspect, something I notice as I watch a coworker play through the same course I just completed, is that The Climb is extremely watchable. There's something wonderfully tense in seeing a new player navigate a cliff wall, holding your breath as they attempt a difficult jump or forget to chalk their hands before reaching for a smaller ledge.
"We still play it for fun," Bowman says, unable to take his eyes off my colleague's climb. He tells me that the level designer for this course has a current record of two-and-a-half minutes. It took me about 15 minutes to complete. The studio is excited to see what kind of wild speedrun routes players will be able to come up with when it's in the wild.
"Part of the point is that every mountain you climb has many paths through it," Erjavec says. "There's no single path."
Right now, The Climb is split up into regions of the world. Each region will have three course of three difficulty levels — easy, medium and hard. Bowman is careful to clarify that these are not more difficult takes on the same courses. They're each completely different mountain faces, just in the same general setting.
"every mountain you climb has many paths through it"
Bowman isn't ready to say how many settings or total courses there will be at launch. He hints that Crytek wants to keep expanding that number, perhaps through patches or downloadable content, but then he backs off of that.
"We haven't determined all the details beyond launch," he says. "Right now, we're just focused on reaching the best possible quality for launch. But you can see the structure of the product."
What Bowman will commit to is Crytek's desire to make The Climb "a franchise product" for the company. He genuinely believes they've hit upon something special, a simple, fun virtual reality activity that hides untold heights for exploring in the future.
The Climb is planned for release as part of the Oculus Rift's "launch window," which will be some time during the first quarter of 2016. It will debut on Rift exclusively, but Bowman says that Crytek owns the intellectual property, and future versions could come to other platforms.