Having a blast in VR

Cut the blue wire. No, wait – cut the red wire.”

It’s a cinematic shortcut for tension, a clichd moment of indecision that inspires collective intake of breath no matter how many times you hear the words uttered.

From James Bond halting the timer at 0:07 seconds in Goldfinger to the frantic tapping of a keypad in Counter-Strike, bomb defusal has remained a linchpin of the entertainment industry for decades.

Now, one Canadian studio is giving the well-trodden trope a virtual makeover in the form of VR game Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes.

Keep Talking is a cooperative puzzle game where one player is in virtual reality, locked in a room with a bomb that they don’t know how to defuse,” outlines Brian Fetter of developer Steel Crate Games.

Their only hope is their friends who are outside with all of the instructions, but who have no idea what the bomb looks like. They have to try to work together to disarm the bomb before it explodes.”

That’s right: the game utilises a real, dense book of printed instructions (the developers claim even they are yet to memorise the contents) being read out by the non-VR players to guide the headset-wearing individual – the only person who can see one of 30 complicated bombs equipped with a variety of switches, buttons and displays.

Think blindfolded Bop It meets IKEA flat-pack furniture construction, with a ticking explosive instead of a bedside cabinet.

We came up with the idea for the game at Global Game Jam in January 2014,” Fetter recalls of the game’s origins.

Ben Kane and I had backed the Oculus Rift Kickstarter and had our development kits with us. While we were trying to come up with an idea for a game a number of other participants came by wanting to try the headset.

We noticed that every time we demoed one person would be playing and everyone else would just be waiting around for a turn; this gave us the idea to make a game that could be played by multiple people even if you only have one headset. There were a number of different scenarios we though up, but the one that really resonated with us was bomb defusal.”

Although it can be played with a normal PC monitor, Keep Talking is part of a new wave of titles designed specifically for virtual reality headsets. It’s already out on Samsung’s mobile Gear VR, with launches planned for the Oculus Rift, Valve’s HTC Vive and PlayStation Morpheus.

The exciting thing for us about the Gear VR is that there is very little setup, meaning that it can be played pretty much anywhere,” says Fetter.

It allows people to just pass and play, which is great for a party game like ours. It also delivers a pretty compelling VR experience despite not having the power of a console or PC.

On the mobile side, phones will continue to get better and I think we’ll see things like Gear VR become even more capable, hopefully with some mechanism for positional tracking. As more phone manufacturers start building headsets that can be used with their phones we’ll probably see the cost decrease and the experience improve to the point where pretty much everyone could have one. This will probably be where we’ll see a lot of the non-gaming VR startups concentrating and should encourage a lot of cool new applications in education, ecommerce, communication and tourism that will eventually drive mass market adoption of VR.”

"The investment by large companies in VR gives us a lot of hope that the VR market will grow pretty well."

Brian Fetter, Steel Crate Games

Should virtual reality make it big among the masses, its natural to assume that the headsets required will only improve in their ability to digitise life-like experiences. Fetter adds that, despite this, it is in innovative controllers designed for VR – such as the Oculus Touch – that will actually lead the sector forwards.

Regarding VR technology, we’re going to see pretty rapid improvement in hardware,” Fetter predicts. We’ll see the resolution become substantially better, the field of view increasing and potentially effective positional tracking without external cameras or lighthouse beacons.

Input technology will probably be the big thing to drive game design changes. We’ll see pretty rapid iteration over new input types. I’m hopeful we’ll see full hand tracking and maybe some kind of haptics, though even with just improvements on the wand controllers that Valve and Sony are using we’ll see some really interesting new kinds of gameplay experiences.”

Keep Talking stands out not only for its focus on VR, but also because of its reliance on local multiplayer – an ever-rarer consideration among the online-only functionality of so many modern titles. The two overlapping sectors arguably make the game a niche within a niche – so could Keep Talking originality be its own downfall?

That is always something on our mind and it’s probably the biggest risk for us,” Fetter responds. At this point, given all of our public demos, we’re pretty confident that we’ve made a fun game that people enjoy, but there is always the chance that the market won’t be large enough to be sustainable any time soon.

There are some factors that make us feel a bit more comfortable. The first is that the investment by large companies in VR, as well as the incredibly impressive improvements to the hardware, gives us a lot of hope that the VR market will grow pretty well.

"The second is that, although this may be a small niche, for the moment we’re kind of alone in it, which may actually be better than trying to be part of a larger but far more saturated market.

"The third is that people in this early adopter group of VR tend to like to demo to their friends and Keep Talking has definitely had an unexpected effect of getting people who weren’t that interested in VR to become interested.

We’ll see a lot of VR games in the future that experiment with this kind of mechanic. I suspect it will probably be a small part of the overall VR ecosystem, but it also shows just how much potential there might be in VR and how we’ve probably only scratched the surface of what kind of experiences can be had.”

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