VR: the final frontier – Ubisoft talks Star Trek: Bridge Crew and the challenges of VR

Back in June last year, MCV named its top titles from E3 2016. When it came to VR games, though, we faced a difficult decision: choosing between Capcom’s Resident Evil VII: Biohazard and Ubisoft’s Star Trek: Bridge Crew. 

We chose the latter due to the unparalleled sense of being inside a (much-loved) TV show. Now, almost a year later, we’re finally finding out if we made the right choice. 

Admittedly, we didn’t expect to wait so long before seeing the final product, as Bridge Crew’s launch was pushed back from autumn 2016 to March 2017, and finally to May 30th.

“There were actually quite a few [challenges],” Red Storm’s creative director David Votypka tells MCV. “On the technical side, we needed to build a large outer-space game that rendered at 90+ frames per second in stereo, on both PC and PlayStation 4. We also really wanted to do cross-play between the VR headsets, and I’m excited to say that is included in the game. And, of course, it’s a game that supports one to four players, thereby ranging from solo play with NPCs to up to four players online. All of these areas needed various technical trailblazing and the engineers on the project did some great work.

“Ultimately, one of our primary goals was to deliver a game that was authentic to the Star Trek brand. This was all really fun to work on, but also presented a variety of challenges to ensure we got things right. Working with CBS and folks like [Star Trek graphic designer, scenic artist and author] Michael Okuda was a real treat and a great way to ensure the nitty gritty details were on point.”

Indeed, when you work on an IP that has a fan base as dedicated and informed as Star Trek does, the attention to detail is vital, as Trekkers will no doubt pick up on every facet of the game. And with Star Trek: Bridge Crew being arguably the most anticipated VR games of 2017, and it’s no wonder Ubisoft wanted to take the time to get things right. 

Bridge Crew isn’t just for hardcore Trekkers, though, as Ubisoft’s chosen to position the game’s narrative outside the main story arcs in the films and TV series.

“The game is not tied directly to any existing Star Trek narrative,” Votypka explains. “The only thing we have leveraged as a jumping off point is the Kelvin timeline that was established in the 2009 reboot film, and specifically the plot point of Vulcan being destroyed. In Star Trek: Bridge Crew’s campaign, the first mission of the U.S.S. Aegis is to explore a largely uncharted sector of space with the goal of finding a new home for the decimated Vulcan populace. Otherwise the story, the ship, and the crew are all new. The game is really about empowering players to become their own crew, their own officer, and live out their own adventures.”

Becoming a Star Trek officer is high on many geeks’ wishlist, so Ubisoft had quite a challenge on its hands when it came to managing player expectations.

“We are definitely appreciative of the very positive response that has been received so far for the game,” Votypka says. “Of course, the risk with a lot of hype is that player expectations become so pumped up that they can become nearly impossible to meet.

"It’s about empowering players to become their own crew, their own officer."

David Votypka, Red Storm

“That said, the coverage that’s been generated for the game so far has been almost completely impression based from media and gamers that actually played the game and then reported on their experience. We hope that those sentiments carry through when the full game is released.“

Another issue for Ubisoft is faithfully conveying how a VR game is going to feel for long-time fans. After all, how do you market a game when it’s so difficult to give an accurate preview of what it’s going to be like?

“VR is something you simply have to try for yourself in order to really understand and take in the actual experience,” Votypka reckons. “The most important thing we’ve focused on is letting people play the game. Of course, a strong benefit this game has is that it’s based on such a well-known brand.  This makes watching a video of a playthrough much easier to imagine because the brand activity and fantasy is so clearly established and well understood.”

That said, Ubisoft also wishes to attract players who aren’t necessarily fans of Star Trek.

“Star Trek is ultimately about space exploration and the relationships between the crew, which is a pretty broad and universal fantasy,” Votypka continues. “Along these lines, the core of the game is ultimately about operating a spaceship with your friends, and who wouldn’t want to do that? While the brand brings a great deal of value to the game, being a fan isn’t a requirement to enjoy the core gameplay that Bridge Crew offers.”

Despite the hurdles Votypka’s team faced with Bridge Crew, he says they never considered making it a non-VR title.

“Prior to starting VR at Red Storm, we had been working on prototypes aimed at deepening social interactions in online games,” says Votypka. 

“When we took one of those prototypes and put it into VR, it immediately became clear how strongly VR can create a sense of social, shared presence. This quickly led to conceiving both Werewolves Within and Star Trek: Bridge Crew a few years ago.”

He continues: “Bridge Crew was always a VR game from day one namely because VR empowered us to bring players into the Star Trek universe more deeply and immersively than ever before. With VR, players can be inside the bridge. They can literally reach out and interact with their stations to operate the ship just like we see the actors do in the shows. And just as importantly, you really feel like you’re together with others. You just don’t get that in traditional games.”

This also explains why Ubisoft has been heavily investing in VR from day one. After Eagle Flight, Werewolves Within and TrackMania Turbo, Star Trek: Bridge Crew is Ubisoft’s fourth VR title, and all were developed in-house.

“Ubisoft is a company that has always believed in engaging with new platforms early, and taking on the risks and rewards that brings,” Votypka says. 

“When those platforms are successful the benefits are very valuable because we build expertise, technology, and ultimately leadership in that new space. Our first four games explore VR in very different areas, and now we can observe and learn from each one of them.”

VR still has a way to go before it reaches a mainstream audience, but it’s clear Ubisoft doesn’t want to be left on the sidelines as this emering technology continues to grow. With Bridge Crew, the developer-publisher might finally have a title powerful enough to attract a new kind of audience to VR, bridging the gap between the mass market and hardcore enthusiasts – especially when it’s releasing on all VR headsets, including a retail version for PS VR. 

“My personal ambition is to see VR grow and succeed, and to be a part of that,” Votypka enthuses. 

“VR gaming is something that’s been my career passion and goal since the 90s. VR has the potential to create experiences in games that simply were not possible before, and I can’t wait to see where we can take it and where it will go. VR really is a new frontier. It has so much potential, not only in terms of creating more interactive and social gameplay, but also in other immersive experiences beyond the gaming industry. It’s an exciting time from the development perspective to continue to explore how we can push the boundaries on this platform for compelling experiences to draw players and new audiences.”

Also in MCV’s VR special this week: 

Virtual Reality Check – Oculus, HTC and Sony give their verdict on the future and first year of VR

nDreams and Climax on how to build a successful VR business

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s former senior staff writer. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

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