There and back again - CCP’s VR journey with Eve: Valkyrie and Sparc

Marie Dealessandri
There and back again - CCP’s VR journey with Eve: Valkyrie and Sparc

In just under 15 years, CCP Games has built one of the most important and dedicated communities in the history of video games. After launching in May 2003, Eve Online has evolved alongside every trend affecting the industry, allowing CCP to explore other avenues based on its extended universe and gather thousands of people all over the world on a regular basis, whether that’s online or in real life via one of its multiple fan events, such as Eve Vegas last week. 

One of those new avenues was the launch of space shooter Eve: Valkyrie on Oculus Rift in March 2016. Developed in Newcastle, the game was one of the few full-priced, triple-A VR titles available at launch, and was the result of several years of hard work and dedication to the Eve universe. It also debuted to decent sales as a boxed PS VR launch title – an impressive feat considering its high price – and Eve: Valkyrie quickly became a prime example of what VR could offer.

“We launched at the dawn of VR, we were like the poster child for VR, with Oculus Rift and then with PS VR,” lead game designer Andrew Willans (pictured top) tells MCV. 

“So we’ve been really focused on that experience and on what that game is.”

"We were the poster child for VR."

Andrew Willans, CCP

It came as something of a surprise, then,  when CCP announced in August that Eve: Valkyrie was soon to become a non-VR game via a massive expansion called Warzone, not only allowing cross-play between different platforms, but also between VR and non-VR players. If that wasn’t enough, the expansion would also see the introduction of a huge price cut, too.

“This is a big move for us, to take away the requirement for VR and having a non-VR version,” Willans explains. “It’s been our most popular request. Since launch, whenever we do events, we’ve had so many people asking ‘When are you going to do a non-VR version of the game?’ And it’s never been the right time.

“Eve: Valkyrie was built from the ground up for VR and then, at the beginning of this year, we went to Eve Fanfest and there were a lot of things that we wanted to improve about the game. Our progression system was not as good as we thought it could be – we wanted to improve our rewards, we wanted to move away from some mechanics we didn’t particularly like or that were unpopular, and we wanted to offer more gameplay. So we took our time to have an open discussion with the community about what they wanted to see, and as part of that we realised it was way bigger than a normal update. This was a proper expansion for Valkyrie, and we had all of these conversations like, ‘Is this even Valkyrie 2? What is this?’ There’s so much we needed to do. So we thought, while we were doing it, let’s explore the possibility of 2D. It’s the top request, and we found out that it’s just really good fun.”

Eve: Valkyrie – Warzone launched just a couple of weeks ago, albeit to mixed reviews so far. It includes both the VR and non-VR version of the game, and five substantial updates that have been released throughout the year, making it “the most comprehensive version of Valkyrie to date,” Willans says.

Turning a VR title into a non-VR experience is an unusual exercise considering most studios seem to be racing to do the exact opposite, but it turns out both methods of conversion are equally challenging, according to Willans.

“The challenges we faced really had to do with some of the head-tracking weapons,” he recalls. “In VR, you can look around to aim and lock targets with missiles. So we looked at how we could transfigure it onto a pad that would be immediately accessible. Just ‘pick up and play’. 

“With our default configuration, called ‘The Valkyrie’, you’re not allowed to look around. Then there’s another one called ‘The Owl’, which is a very similar config but you can move your head independently on the right thumb stick. So this is kind of an advanced technique and it’s something that many people who are comfortable with FPS games will probably pick up quite quickly. 

“But we give players the option to do that. We haven’t taken away any of those mechanics, we’ve just thought about how they can work in 2D and implemented them at a slightly more advanced level.”

"CCP has been making spaceships for 13 years – it’s what we do, and we do it really well. We took all of that legacy and that heritage and put it into Valkyrie where we could."

Andrew Willans, CCP

Working on a 2D version of the title also required the team to go back to the basics and redefine the game, Willans continues: 

“As part of the whole process for Warzone, we revisited our ships and refined their weapons, abilities, and even put in super ultra abilities. So we kind of went back to the drawing board and it was nice designing with both VR and non-VR in mind. 

“But there’s been no compromise made to the quality of the game and the gameplay it provides, so I think however you jump in, you’re still going to have fun and it now means that people can play together.”

DespiteValkyrie taking place in the main Eve Online universe, it offers a very different experience from CCP’s MMO space-sim.

“Eve Online is really tactical and more like strategy compared to Valkyrie,” Willans explains. “Valkyrie is very visceral and has more in common with a first person shooter. We call it a first person spaceship shooter because this is the influence for Valkyrie. We’re all big FPS players, we all play and watch Battlefield and Call of Duty, so our DNA has far more in common with that kind of competitive gaming side of things – that’s what the dev team really thrives on. 

“So it’s a really different experience from Eve Online, but the cool thing is we share that same compelling universe. CCP has been making spaceships for 13 years – it’s what we do, and we do it really well. We took all of that legacy and that heritage and put it into Valkyrie where we could.”

For now, Willans and his team are focusing on “seeing how popular [Warzone] is” and “building the community further.” 

Valkyrie’s move to non-VR echoes another important change in its parent franchise, as it was in November last year that CCP decided to take Eve Online free-to-play. With so much work going into Eve: Valkyrie, we wondered where CCP’s main focus now lies. 

“Selfishly, I’d love to think we are [concentrating on Valkyrie],” Willans laughs. “But Eve Online is still the big focus for CCP, and obviously Sparc. I think there’s a healthy split focus, but everyone’s tackling a different subject. If you look at Sparc, that’s tackling the kind of full body, stood-up VR, whereas Valkyrie is seated VR and now 2D, and Eve Online is obviously a very different kind of genre. So I think it’s a healthy split of focus.”

Having launched at the very end of August, PS VR sport title Sparc (pictured below) represents a brand new direction for CCP, as it’s the company’s first game set outside of the Eve universe. That might sound like a lot of pressure for the team at CCP North America, but senior director of communications Adam Khan assures us that all is well: 

“The team was given total freedom to explore the art concepts, and there was never any indication that it needed to fit into an Eve universe or that kind of mould or be dark and sci-fi. They just did what they felt like doing and I would say we didn’t really have any pressure. We just do what we do.”

"I don’t know if vpsort the next big thing, but we hope it’s a next big thing."

Adam Khan, CCP

That freedom eventually led to developing a full body VR experience, a “physical sport only possible in virtual reality,” says Khan: “The thinking behind creating Sparc was really born from the experimental phase that the team in Atlanta went through starting as the idea of playing with full body VR and seeing how people reacted to that. 

“The big challenge was figuring out what to do and how to best do a game that has full body control. Several years ago, when the team first started playing around, they had this idea of motion control before the controllers even existed. They actually cobbled together this really cool contraption with the Microsoft Kinect sensor and connected it to a PC, and they had this prototype where you would have to kind of throw a disc with your body and kick boxes and that sort of thing. 

“That was just the first exploration into that kind of control and, as they were doing that, suddenly there were motion controls and PlayStation Move and Touch and that was kind of translated over. But the hard part was just figuring out ‘Does this work? Is full body control and VR a thing people can actually do now?’ So obviously the motion controls really helped, but there’s still a long way to go there.”

Like most VR titles, Sparc is a ‘you play it, you get it’ type of game, says Khan. “It’s a really cool, fundamentally basic idea that’s fun to play. We’re very happy with how people react. 

“It’s meant to be very accessible, it’s a very simple concept. If you want to be a little active, if that’s a thing that’s interesting to you, maybe it’s even better.”

Sparc might have been designed for a wide audience, but it’s also been created with competition in mind, so much so that CCP has even come up with its own term for it: vsport. It’s once again the idea of physical sport in a virtual space, which could well be the future of both VR and esports.

“I don’t know if it’s the next big thing, but we hope it’s a next big thing,” says Khan. “Sparc isn’t the only game that’s giving people action [in VR], but I think it’s a very natural progression for it. When you start thinking about the equipment as your sport equipment, like the controllers are like a tennis racket, and you’re lacing up your sneakers and you’re putting on special equipment, I think it forces your mind to think about it in a different way – and then suddenly we can now make sports that don’t exist in the real world and it can be just as competitive and just as challenging.

“A lot of games are built around this ‘easy to get into and tough to master’ thing, but that’s what sports are all about. If you go talk to Tiger Woods and you say, ‘Are you the master of golf?’ he’d say, ‘No, I still have plenty to learn about how to be good at golf’. When you think about sport and VR, you can start and play very quickly and have fun but to master it can take a very long time.”

Despite his ambitions for Sparc, Khan remains realistic about its sales potential: “As far as expectations goes, VR is new, motion controls are new, it’s the [Atlanta] team’s first VR game, so we have really modest expectations about where the market is. What we want to do is see how people react, then make it better and see what happens.”