Jason Kingsley, co-founder of Rebellion (with his brother Chris) and current CEO cracks a smile at the first mention of Battlezone, the company’s first attempt at virtual reality.
"VR’s absolutely a really fascinating area to work in," Kingsley says. "The concept of being immersed in a computer game in a way that is different from any other medium, I think, is exciting."
However, immersing yourself in a whole new world has challenges, particularly for creators. Kingsley talks about an established language to video games, which can act as a guide for players, but also developers.
"We sort of know if we go into a big room and there’s health packs, ammo and a big chamber: ‘Shit. Boss fight.’ You know it’s a boss fight, which is fine, because that’s all part of the shared experience, and game designers can play with that, either by preparing you or playing with your expectations."
Kingsley says that virtual reality hasn’t hit that point yet, where those making VR games have discovered the lexicon of VR and, until we come up with the right language for the medium, people will struggle to understand it.
"We’re just at the end of the novelty phase," Kingsley says. " We have no idea what we can do with it as an industry. We have to learn new words. We have to learn new ways of telling a story. We can’t, for example, edit the same way we could do with linear media, with film and television."
Kingsley says he’s proud of Battlezone, which was "a huge financial success" and says that Rebellion managed to get a lot of things right, and that the studio is planning to keep working in virtual reality.
"VR continues to be something that we’re very interested in." says Kingsley. "I think the business side of it has been a very rapid start and very successful. Now I think everybody’s pausing for breath and going, ‘Right, what’s next?’"
He’s not the only person at Rebellion happy to take another swing at virtual reality. Battlezone’s lead designer, Steve Bristow, who has been with Rebellion since 2011 and is often at the very bleeding edge of the company’s experiments: When Rebellion made its first mobile game, Dredd vs Zombies, Bristow was there, part of an experimental mobile brand within the studio which Bristow shouldered his way into because in his own words "It was Dredd, I had to work on it."
Naturally, when the company decided to pursue virtual reality, Bristow was involved.
Tanks for the memories
"I think [with VR] we started on the assumption that we didn’t know what we were doing with it." Bristow said. "Initially, it was a case of ‘Have a go, find out what the problems are going to be’."
Bristow claims Battlezone "is the best game I’ve made here." He credits a lot of the success to the team’s approach, which started with a lot of research into how a vehicular shoot-’em-up could be done, and how it could be done in virtual reality.
"We didn’t have to do much research into the title because we all knew the game inside and out," Bristow says. "Creatively, there was a question of working out how we could stay true to the original arcade game but expand upon it for a modern audience, an audience that’s using virtual reality headsets often for the first time."
The team got virtual reality dev kits and broke off into a small team, three or four people, to work out a prototype over a couple of months. This is common practice at Rebellion, Bristow confides, to see if a prototype idea has merit before committing major resources to it.
"Starting with Battlezone probably saved us from some of the bigger headaches of VR, although we didn’t realise it at the time," Bristow said with a chuckle. Being in a cockpit meant that movement was easy, and the player was seated both in real life and in the game without any other narrative contrivance.
The biggest problem with the early prototype, a vehicular combat game that didn’t have Battlezone’s structure, but captured some of its pace and feel, had tanks rolling over hilly landscapes and engaging targets at a variety of different heights. Unfortunately, it turns out that Bristow was much less susceptible to motion sickness than his colleagues, and the game proved challenging to anyone that was afflicted.
So hills were out and plateaus were in. This wasn’t the first or the last change to be made for comfort either, with Bristow saying the team was "horribly naive" with the way it implemented certain features. At one stage the tank the player pilots in game had a jump button, and players would hare around the map platforming and shooting. Weaker stomachs put an end to that idea too, as Bristow couldn’t get anyone to play for longer than a minute. "Unquestionably it ended up being the best for the product, Bristow says, laughing. "That was a difficult thing to accept as an arrogant auteur, that I might actually be wrong about something."
This is the build that made its way to GDC in 2014, and the response from the public was "overwhelmingly positive". It looked like Rebellion had a virtual reality game to make.
Bristow talks about the collaboration between early virtual reality development too, praising Sony for organising symposia where researchers and developers came together to talk about best practices for virtual reality.
"That was interesting because pretty much the first things they said were: ‘Don’t do free movement, don’t let people zip around quickly, don’t have things flying at the camera’ – there was this big tick list of features we were pretty much going to do in Battlezone. That was like: ‘Oh dear’."
"It was all pretty seat of the pants."
"We didn’t know what the release date was going to be because we knew we had to time it with the PSVR release and we didn’t have the date for that. It had to be a pretty flexible development where we had to change the scale of what we were attempting with what turned out to be pretty short notice."
"It was all pretty seat of the pants. We normally plan our projects pretty well and get our scope sorted out. That one had to be more on the fly. But it turned out well. We’re really proud of the game and the team that made it because at its absolute peak we had about 18, maybe 20, people on the team. It was a very small outfit doing it. They were all really committed to it and that made all the difference. Motivated people are worth three or four less-motivated people in development. We certainly had that."
Bristow, now working on Rebellion’s forthcoming Strange Brigade, is incredibly keen to get back to virtual reality development. "Working on VR is inspiring," he says. "I’d really like us to do something with zombies, to pick that up and do that in VR. I think those games are fun."
Bristow acknowledges that the zombie trope is somewhat played out in video games, but defends the idea as zombie games "get right down to the core of a really fun feeling" that can be amplified in virtual reality.
"I’ve also got this itching thing to do a top-down tactical game in VR where you are looking down on a battlefield or environment. Plus there’s a load of old arcade games that I’d like to have a crack at in VR as well. Lots of things."
Bristow cracks a smile: "I’m going to get myself involved (in VR) one way or another. Whether they like it or not."