The first game I ever played on the Oculus Rift might become the first game you ever play on the Oculus Rift, thanks to a new partnership between CCP and the virtual reality headset maker. This morning, the pair announced that all Rift preorders will come bundled with a copy of the thrilling space dogfighting game.
And I do mean game, not demo. Last week I got a chance to play about an hour of EVE Valkyrie in its latest incarnation, running on (I think) consumer Oculus hardware, or what I was told were “Engineering Samples” of the final headset.
Valkyrie’s come a long way since my hands-on during E3 2013—though some of the finer details, like menus, still show the struggle developers face while designing virtual reality games. Much more on that later.
First, let’s chart the game’s progression. Two years ago I saw the core experience—two teams of five battle it out in space. At the time, all ten pilots flew the same ship type. It was as bare-bones an experience as you could imagine, but it didn’t matter because the tech was impressive as hell.
Then CCP added some more ship types. Heavy tanking ships, nimble recon/sniper ships, and the original fighters all battling alongside each other.
Next CCP ditched Unity, porting the game over to Unreal 4 and revealing that Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff would voice a character in the game. That was in May of 2014.
And since then it’s been incremental changes. New Oculus hardware, more than anything else—first DK2 and then Crescent Bay and now consumer hardware. But that’s not all CCP had in store this week. For the first time, we saw…menus!
Okay, so menus aren’t the sexiest bit of game development. When done correctly, you probably don’t even notice them.
They’re surprisingly important, though—especially in virtual reality where developers are still flying by the seat of their pants. And it was interesting to see CCP fall into some pretty standard VR traps, despite being one of the foremost developers in the field showing off one of the most fleshed-out games.
Simple things: Buttons that are too small. Buttons that are too inconspicuous or not immediately apparent as buttons. Controller behavior that doesn’t mesh with what your brain expects (like the A or B buttons not registering unless you’re looking in a specific place).
I don’t say this to rag on CCP. Quite the contrary. I say it to point out just how damn hard developing for virtual reality is at the moment, with few hard-and-fast rules and no real expertise for studios to draw on.
The industry’s been making normal games—shooters, RPGs, driving games, fighting games, et al played on normal, two-dimensional monitors—for a long time now. The people who create games have iterated on ideas, found convenient and consistent methods of solving problems, developed a wholly unique language (both actively and subconsciously) for “How These Things Are Done.”
Virtual reality doesn’t have that yet. We’re headed that direction, hammering out a few obvious rules, like “Games built for VR are better than games ported to VR.” But developers are just now starting to understand how to, for instance, do something as simple as build menus.
And some of CCP’s instincts are correct. For instance, each respawn puts you in a fake cloning tube (the central conceit of Valkyrie) where you can see your four ship options as tiny models arrayed around your lap. Choosing a new ship is as simple as staring at the one you want and selecting it.
It’s great! A natural, intuitive way to represent in-world what is otherwise-abstract information. You look, you understand, you make your choice, you get back into the game with a minimum of hassle. (Unfortunately we don’t have any screenshots of that environment, presumably because it’s a work-in-progress.)
What I find especially interesting though is that this skeuomorphic design tendency would be a terrible way to present the same choice on a monitor. There, it would feel like style over substance, a needlessly showy way of respawning that impedes the player. You’d need to move the camera to look down, then drag it around until you found the correct ship. Ugh. Just give me a list of ships.
But in virtual reality? It feels natural.
Again, we return to the simple truth: “Games built for VR are better than games ported to VR.” Menus are just one of myriad reasons this is true, and it’s interesting only because it’s an aspect we typically don’t think about. As I said, you probably don’t even notice menus when they’re done correctly.
Virtual reality is in flux though. The “correct” way of implementing something is changing monthly, weekly, even daily. There are few experts who can come in and tell studios what to do. So we get EVE Valkyrie, which feels like a weird blend of intuitive built-for-VR and old-style two-dimensional menus.
The good news is that the game itself is still amazing. There are some balance issues—heavy ships feel slow and vulnerable rather than slow and powerful, while fighters dominate every encounter due to their lock-on missiles. But the maps we played are ambitious, my favorite being a massive space station made up of hundreds of interlocking beams of metal, the perfect size for a brave pilot to dive between to shake off a determined foe.
And I’m happy to hear the game will ship with every Rift preorder—not so much because I expect it to be a system seller, but because I think the Rift will sell enough units to swell the Valkyrie community. As a (I assume) predominantly multiplayer-focused game, EVE: Valkyrie needs that install base out the gate if it’s going to survive.
Now, we wait. I’m honestly hopeful this is the last time we see EVE: Valkyrie before the Rift’s launch. It’s been almost three years since I first tried the game, and with the Rift mere months away it’s high time someone else got the chance. Maybe I’ll see you out among the stars in a few months.