BigBox VR has some serious talent behind the scenes, and Smashbox Arena, the company’s first game, shows how quickly gifted designers can make something interesting happen in virtual reality.
The game is an oddball mixture of Counter-Strike, in that two opposing teams eliminate each other player by player, and the Mario Kart series, due to the six pickups that spawn on each of the maps and can rapidly change the course of the game. It’s also a title that was built for the ground up for virtual reality, and is out for the HTC Vive today. You can already play with a Rift headset and Touch controllers, and official Oculus support is coming in the future.
I’ve had a chance to play two sessions with the development team and learn about the game’s creation for this article, and holy shit. They’re onto something special.
How this all happened
BigBox VR was founded in April of this year by Chia Chin Lee, who originally joined Valve in 2000 to work on Half-Life 2 before joining Zipper Interactive as the company’s COO in 2004, two years before the Sony acquisition. In 2008 he founded Offbeat Creations, which was acquired by Playdom/Disney in 2010. Co-founder Gabe Brown, oddly enough, was the studio head at Offbeat Creations after Chia Chin Lee left Disney, and later left to join Chia Chin Lee to create a company that focused on virtual reality.
“We actually started out looking at VR because it was the best way to make people feel like they were somewhere, to make them feel like they’re together in the same space online,” Chia Chin Lee explained. “Honestly, that’s the thing that blew our minds.”
They looked at a lot of ideas for what would make sense as a company, including different uses for VR in the worlds of medicine and real estate. But they quickly began focusing on entertainment again after prototyping what would become their first game.
“We thought it would be funny to have giant Jenga blocks, and then they would fall on top of you or you would hit it,” Chia Chin Lee explained. They wanted an idea they could create in Unity very quickly. “And then we were like ... well, how do you move these Jenga blocks?”
Why not shoot balls at the block? They decided to create a system for that interaction. The team discovered they were having more fun shooting balls in the air before catching them or even just holding the balls in their virtual hands to look at them than they were interacting with the blocks, which were supposed to be the central aspect of the game. They ditched the blocks, and began talking about what it would be like if characters could interact with both these physical, bouncy balls and other players.
“So we put that together in a couple of days, and it was just a blast,” Chia Chin Lee said, laughing.
John Cook, a co-creator of the original Team Fortress and Steam’s lead engineer before leaving Valve, joined the team a few months after the creation of the first Smashbox Arena prototype. They began play testing and honing the game even in the earliest days of production. The team eventually grew to include seven people, and constant testing and iteration, with ideas from everyone involved, helped the game grow quickly.
But wait, isn’t this dodgeball?
We talked about a variety of inspirations, including games like Rocket League that mixed competitive play with broader appeal, but to my surprise no one ever brought up the word that immediately came to my mind: dodgeball.
“We did think of dodgeball when we did it, but we didn’t want to make a dodgeball game for a few reasons,” Chia Chin Lee said.
They experimented with throwing the balls instead of shooting them, but they found they had more fun grabbing and shooting the balls with the game’s guns.
“When you throw in VR, it’s like the old Wii games, you get pretty tired pretty fast,” he explained. “We wanted to create a game you could play for a long time in VR. We see a lot of gimmicky type games in VR, but we really wanted to create something that was easy to play, but hard to master. It should grow with you.”
They did borrow a few ideas from dodgeball, however. A set number of balls spawn at the beginning of each match, and you can only grab balls that are within your reach to fire at the enemy. If you’re holding a ball in each hand, you can’t teleport, which means you’re locked in place. If you fire a ball at an enemy and miss, that player suddenly has another round of “ammunition” to fire back since the ball is likely close to their physical area.
You can also physically dodge the projectiles with your body, and in fact ducking under the balls or taking cover behind the game’s virtual structures is a large part of play. You can watch a big chunk of raw multiplayer in the video below.
It’s a three-on-three game, so they would bring in six new people and ask them to play through the game and offer feedback. The final question was how likely it would be that players recommend the game to their friends, and the first scores were high sevens.
“We were really frustrated,” Chia Chin Lee said. “So we looked through every single person’s feedback, we would adjust [the game], and do another play test, and another, until we were at mid-nines.”
The game is filled with many great details, despite the rather short production schedule. You can see the teleportation pad which player has to throw before they move around the level, which makes it possible to aim for where they’re going to be. The aimed teleportation mechanic allows you to reach higher levels in the map, and control of the game’s power ups is a huge aspect of each team’s strategy.
Everything is balanced to a bright shine; the sniper scope power up adds a physical object to your gun which you then have to bring to your face to aim through it. The sniper round is much faster than the standard balls that litter the stage, but slow enough that a skilled player can still dodge it if they seem it coming and have quick reflexes.
There’s even a fun spectating feature built-in; you can look into each level from above and spin the level or zoom in to watch the action if you’re eliminated early in a round. You feel like a giant, and it’s a great way to watch the rest of the action.
There still aren’t a ton of virtual reality headsets in the hands of players, so there’s a single-player mode with a bit of a story to get a feel for the game and to unlock new heads, as well as bots if you can’t get six human players together on a server. I asked if releasing a game with such a focus on multiplayer is a risk this early in the life cycle of virtual reality.
“Even creating a single-player experience [at this point in VR’s life cycle] is a risk,” Chia Chin Lee said. “So we might as well work on the most interesting thing to us as a startup, which is online, social VR experiences.”
It’s hard to get a sense for how much joy Smashbox Arena elicits from videos or screenshots alone, but blocking the enemy’s shots with your own locked projectiles or ducking behind cover at the last moment feels great. The physics of each object work with each other to create unexpected, often funny moments in each round. I left each session with a few interesting stories of what took place during my time playing.
Smashbox Arena is out for the HTC Vive today with unofficial Rift and Touch controller support, with official Rift compatibility coming down the line.