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CCP Games is best known for its persistent-world, spacefaring MMORPG EVE Online, where everything from in-game factions to the economy are influenced by players themselves. The company also spun off the franchise by diving into virtual reality last year with EVE: Valkyrie, a flight combat shooter within the same universe. Support for the game continued as the $30 expansion EVE: Valkyrie – Warzone hit the PC ( HTC Vive, Oculus Rift) and PlayStation 4 (PSVR) on September 26 this year. It made significant changes, including the ability to play the game without a VR headset.
We were able to catch up with Andrew Willans (lead designer) and Hilmar Veigar Pétursson (CEO, Founder) of CCP games over the phone leading up to the launch of Warzone. We talked design changes, the possibilities and limitations of modern tech, and the future of VR gaming.
GameSpot: It seems like there’s a lot more to EVE: Valkyrie now with Warzone. How do you think this will help sustain a stronger player base over a longer period of time, especially with non-VR support?
Andrew Willans: Absolutely, that was a core goal for us. I think we’ve always had a really healthy player base. Within VR, we’ve grown to a position of strength over the past year. It’s a multiplayer game first and foremost, and the more players, the better. I’m really looking forward to seeing full battles every time I go in there, and seeing squads of players out there enjoying themselves and having fun. It’s the lifeblood of any multiplayer game. If you asked me a year and a half ago, would you go out of the gate with a multiplayer game at the dawn of VR, you’d be like, that sounds kind of risky. It’s definitely a plus that we cast out a name for ourselves in VR. We want to broaden that audience now.
Our executive producer Owen O’Brien had an analogy; when mobile phones came out, the reason that they were so successful is because they could actually make calls to landlines. That’s what we were thinking in terms of how we evolve Valkyrie. For us, it’s always been about cross-play, and breaking down the boundaries of PC and console gamers. Now that we can do it with VR and non-VR, mouse and keyboard and gamepad, all fighting together in the same servers and same battles, it’s pretty exciting. I really can’t wait to see what happens when the population increases again and we have all of the new pilots in battle.
For us, it’s always been about cross-play, and breaking down the boundaries of PC and console gamers. Now that we can do it with VR and non-VR…it’s pretty exciting.
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson: That’s definitely the thought every time we brought Valkyrie to new platforms, of course. EVE: Valkyrie was the first cross-play game across all VR platforms. Every time we added a new platform, we saw a jump in user base and a jump in overall engagement. I guess, by taking it now to a much larger pool with all PCs. We will see similar effect as when we took it from the Oculus Rift, then onto PSVR, and onto HTC Vive, and now it’s onto every PC and PlayStation 4. I think we will be seeing very interesting dynamics forming now that the community or the potential community becomes substantially bigger.
Now that it’s a non-VR experience, has that helped you craft a stronger game now that you can think of it as something that‘ll be played outside of VR? In terms of the creative process, are you now thinking outside the confines of VR itself?
Willans: Yeah, absolutely. To give you a more tangible example of this is, we didn’t do a particularly good job of tutorializing a lot of the things within Valkyrie. We’ve styled it, we have four warzones. We have ability cards now so that as soon as you launch a ship, you can pass the port and bring up a menu which gives you the abilities, every single ability, what you’ve got to keep out so that no matter what you take out, you have everything you need at your fingertips.
We’ve looked at the controller layout and made some changes to that, both to accommodate the ultra-abilities, but also to look at how a non-VR player will look around the cockpit. We’ve come out with different controller mappings. One has a look-around on the right analog stick, we put it in there so people would want to look around the cockpit and get more use out of the head-tracked weapons, which are a lot easier to do in VR, because you just stare at something and shoot.
Games like Superhot really deliver that feeling of being in another world, and you genuinely believe for the time you’re in there. And that’s why I play games.
Even without that, if you just ran with the default controller, we’ve looked at the assist on the missiles. We’ve looked at mouse and keyboard, the dead zones, and the sensitivity to try and find a sweet spot. I think we’re there. We’re having a lot of fun in the studio at the minute. We’ve got people in VR, non-VR, people playing on mouse and keyboard, people playing on gamepad, and everyone’s having a great time. We’re not finding any radical differences comparatively. It’s not like ‘all right, everyone who’s on a gamepad on 2D is getting owned by people with mouse and keyboard.’ That’s not the case.
It’s kind of a nice position to be in, because you always think we’re a first-person spaceship shooter, and because we’ve got that spaceship in between first-person and shooter, that means that we’re bound by the flight model. The actual mechanics of that vehicle we pilot, and the inherent latency that comes with flying a spaceship means that flying on a mouse or on a gamepad doesn’t matter as much, compared to something like a proper on-foot first person shooter where that pinpoint accuracy is always going to give you an edge with mouse and keyboard. We don’t have those problems, conceptually.
Pétursson: I would add to what Andy [Willans] brought up, and it’s maybe not a creative reason, but it definitely adds to the creative space. Because we released Valkyrie at the dawn of VR on the Oculus Rift, and it was a massive investment for us competitively to other VR titles, and we have now been releasing five content updates since the release, and now we’re doing a massive expansion. Of course, a part of the reason why we’re able to make continuous investment into the game is, of course, the community that has built up, and the VR headsets that are obviously still selling. The potential of taking it to all PCs allows us to make the business around it work such that we can give Andy and the studio the creative space to do such massive improvements to the games, as they have been doing now over this year.
When working with the PS4 Pro, are there any particularly challenges? I know VR itself is fairly challenging platform to work with since it’s fairly new, but is there anything in particular about PS4 Pro, trying to get the most out of it that stood out to you, or is it simply making graphic overhauls?
Willans: The programmers will answer with a bit more expertise, but from my experience, it’s always about platform parity. Our first consideration is the gameplay being the same on all of the systems. And as long as you’re locked at 60 FPS, then we’re good and that’s where we can do things like style up the rendering. Things like the PlayStation 4, they have a lot more dynamic systems within them. So, if we are in battle and there’s lots of things going on, there’s a huge amount of assets being rendered and things happening at the same time, and it’s putting strain on the CPU and GPU. Then it can almost dial back the visuals to basically favor framerate over visuals, and then in the quiet moments it can dial back up dynamically the visuals.
The same is true with a lot of things, and I think as we get closer to our launch, we’ll be in a better position to say specifically what optimizations we’ll be making in terms of things like 4K and what we’re going to do for the non-VR version.
After the release of EVE: Valkyrie – Warzone, the non-VR version runs in 4K at 60 FPS on the PS4 Pro.
Given where hardware is now and accessibility increases as price goes down, and you see more beyond proof of concept, where do you see VR gaming going? Whether it’s in EVE: Valkyrie or even EVE Online? If we can integrate other technologies into VR, what would be your dream VR scenario without limitations in terms of gaming?
Pétursson: I think you can do a lot with the eye-tracking. Then this whole AR versus VR debate would be permanently over by then! Without going all sci-fi, I would say that you could argue maybe we’ve been doing this for just over 12 months, and some companies have released numbers and we’re talking millions of devices. People are often talking about smartphones in this context. It’s often good to remind ourselves that the first iPhone sold three million units in its first year. Certainly if you include mobile VR, VR is already bigger than the first iPhone in its first year.
I think people often tend to forget how long it takes for these fundamentally new things to take off. They are slow-brewing, and then they really reach escape velocity. I actually think that the VR devices we have today are really capable. Getting the price down, getting the content backlog broader so that people have a really good variety of quality software that meets their expectations, then we will see a very interesting pattern come out of that. You really have to throw in all the things you could think about, like eye-tracking, lighter ergonomics, cutting the cable, and make these stand-alone without a computer. These are all awesome things, but I think the devices we have now are pretty damn good. Working the price down and working the content backlog I think will do wonders for the industry.
We’re certainly doing our best to help on the content side. We have a lot going on, as I’m sure you noticed with Valkyrie, Sparc, and Gunjack 1 and 2, and all the games we’ve put out there.
Do you see your projects as being the leap forward? Because not only is VR cost prohibitive at the moment, but people are hesitant to jump in for that killer app that’s less of a tech demo. With Warzone and content updates, do you see yourself leading as the prime example of what VR is capable of? Is there anything that’s holding you back at the moment?
Pétursson: Well, what is holding us back is many of the logistics of making games. That is a complicated endeavor, whether it’s traditional or VR. I think there are people in the place that you are talking about where they’re not very sure what they would play. Now by offering the game up to everyone with a PC and a PlayStation 4, at least they can check out Valkyrie for $30 and see if it’s a game they like. They’ll have an experience with Valkyrie so they don’t have to wonder what they would play in VR. I’m hoping at least a part of what we’re doing can help acquire new people into VR by sort of nullifying this question of what would you really do, and are there really any full-fledged games? After almost five years of development, it’s getting to the place of being a full-fledged game.
Willans: Just to add to that, Warzone brings with it a whole new level of accessibility. Valkyrie had quite steep learning curve, and because we’re at the dawn of the VR journey, we had many pilots that were really badass really soon. When you’re matchmaking and everything’s geared around multiplayer, your matchmaking rules in the first year of VR are pretty much: here’s a human, find a human, have a battle. The increased audience that we’re going to see once those pilots come on board means we can be far more effective with our matchmaking. It means we can bring onboard new pilots a lot easier, and it means that there are layers of challenge which are a lot easier for new pilots to get into the game and feel like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, which was always our intention. We always said we just want to get your blood pumping, get you into a battle, competitive in minutes, but master over months. I think we’re much, much closer to those goals now with a game everyone can pick up with either a gamepad or keyboard/mouse and get involved.
When you dove into VR and recently with Warzone, did you draw inspiration from other VR games? What other VR experiences have you seen that you think really push the VR platform forward?
Willans: For me personally, the last one which really blew me away was actually Farpoint. I know there were mixed reviews at launch, but they almost managed to make me feel fine walking in VR, and I thought that was a huge challenge. They put in a load of different options for how you navigate the terrain, how you use the camera, smooth movement, and combined with the aim controller, it just blew me away. Because I was looking at it and thinking, this looks like a piece of plumbing, right? Then I loaded up the game, and certainly I believed that I had this rifle in my hand. I sat there, pulled out my shotgun from my backpack, I was just so in there.
It’s all about that sense of purpose. I know people keep banging on about it, and I’ve said from day one, it’s about the sense of purpose and believing you’re in an alternative world. And I genuinely felt that from that game. I haven’t completed that yet, so I’m not going to say I’ve got a thousand trophies on it! But that was the last time when I was significantly blown away by the sense of immersion. You look at it and you ask what are they doing right?
When I first hooked up my [Oculus] Touch controllers and started aiming guns in Robo Recall, that was another wild moment. But it’s continuous. You only have to sit and look at Oculus or Steam and see these titles popping up, even the early access ones. Games like Superhot really deliver that feeling of being in another world, and you genuinely believe for the time you’re in there. And that’s why I play games.
Jonathan Blow led the design of two iconic independent games that dug deep into the minds of those who played them: Braid and The Witness. Both were released on consoles and PC, but Jonathan and his team at Thekla broke into the mobile platform recently by porting The Witness to iOS. It brought up plenty of questions about how this style of game was adapted to a much different ecosystem and what it means for him and his team.
The Witness received critical acclaim when it initially released in 2016 on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. GameSpot’s own Mike Mahardy gave it a 9/10 and stated in his review, “The Witness tells a human story, about people trying to make sense of the world around them.” It even earned ninth place in our Best Games Of 2016 list. Naturally, we jumped at the opportunity to speak with Jonathan over the phone to pick his brain on the challenges of game development, mobile games, what the future holds, and games he’s been playing.
GameSpot: As a game developer, talk about some of the challenges in porting your game to a mobile platform. What difficulties did you run into with getting the game to run properly?
Jonathan Blow: There were sort of three main aspects to it. Part of it was just brute force on the graphics engine, hammering on things to make them fast in a way that’s customized for mobile platforms. Our shaders are simplified a little bit so we don’t have to spend as much computation per pixel.
The second part, Apple has a graphics API (application programming interface) called Metal and anytime you take a relatively complicated engine like ours and adapt it to a different graphics programming interface, that’s already a bunch of work. But it’s good, because in this case it lets us use the hardware much more effectively than we would be able to if we were using something like OpenGL to draw on iOS. It just doesn’t let you have as much control over what’s actually happening.
And the third part was just content. We went through and did lower-poly versions of almost everything in the game. It’s not like there’s a lot of copy and pasting of things all over the island, every area’s unique, and so that was a lot of work, especially for our small team. We didn’t outsource it, because we thought we might get subpar results. The other thing about The Witness is the gameplay depends heavily on how things look, in a way that’s not true for most games, so we felt we had to be super careful with that whole process. When I play the game now, it’s like I almost don’t notice that it’s not the same as the PC version graphically. Part of that is probably because I’m playing on a smaller screen, but things look good for how small the form factor is! It’s funny, because when we were building the game, we got a bunch of devices to test on. And one of those test devices was the iPhone SE–it’s super tiny. It’s not a high-powered system, but somehow the game runs great on it, and I’m shocked by that. It’s this tiny tiny thing!
How did you come to the conclusion with the tap-to-move control scheme?
Early on this was a question, and I’m like how are we gonna control the game. And most games that do 3D aren’t free roaming. Those are not good models for comparison, but some of them do this virtual joystick, which I think for this game especially would make it really unplayable if we did that; just having to walk around the whole island with a virtual thumbstick. Though, we could’ve done that port much much faster.
I seem to remember way back, early in 3D days on iOS there was a demo that Epic put out, I think it was called Epic Citadel. It had this tap-to-move interface; when you tap something, you go there. It wasn’t that great, because it wasn’t a real game they put a ton of time into. And they also had virtual thumbsticks, but I always felt like that was a proof of concept.
So, this would decide a while back that [tap-to-move] was going to be how navigation worked. In The Witness you’d go up on the mountain and tap somewhere across the island and it’ll move you there. Doing all this pathfinding across the island, accounting for the states of which doors are open or closed, all this stuff took a substantial amount of work. That wasn’t necessary for the original version of the game, because in the original game there was no pathfinding, you just walked around. That was a big part of making it playable for sure.
You previously mentioned that The Witness has no action sequences because you want players to focus on understanding puzzles and soaking in your environment, free of distractions. Mobile gaming is more prone to distractions around you. It’s almost like this metagame of being distracted in your real world. Do you see that as a barrier to get the full experience of The Witness? What are your thoughts on that?
It might be. I mean I’m not sure what to think about all this, it’s a little weird. On the one hand, mobile is defined by ‘I got my phone and I’m on the bus and I can play something.’ but on the other hand, if I’m gonna watch a movie I might just take my iPad in my apartment and then I’d just watch the movie in a focused way. I think those things are possible. It comes down to culturally, how do people have their lives and their expectations set up?
I do strongly dislike what has happened, even with PC games, that started sort of on mobile where it’s expected that you’re supposed to be doing something. You have all these notifications pop up and bother you all the time. I don’t think that’s conducive to a deep experience. I turn all that stuff off on Steam, for example, or any other service like that. I have it turned off on my phone.
But I think a lot of people have that stuff turned on and… well, I don’t know. I’m sure some people will have a distracted experience, and if they have a super distracted experience, they may not be able to play the game very effectively, because it’s very subtle. But then I’d just hope that through shared numbers, because it’s a very popular platform, that we’ll end up having a lot of people play it in a relativity focused way. We’ll see if that happens.
Mobile gaming tends to not be as deliberate, do you think the deeper, more abstract themes are likely to be lost on mobile? Did you do anything differently to make some pieces more noticeable?
Yeah, you know we really didn’t do anything to change the game in that way at all. In part because it would be so hard to change. With the original game, everything has constraints on everything else. Making something larger to make it more obvious on a phone, I can’t think of any specific examples, but that’s one thing that you might do. Well, now that thing is going to encroach into some neighboring area that’s like precisely sized for some reason it might block a site line between one thing and another thing. In most games it doesn’t matter, most of the time, but in this game it matters a great deal.
Like I said, the individual meshes, textures, assets, and stuff are decreased in weightiness for mobile. There are lower polygons, fewer pixels, and and we worked a lot harder on compressing them. But the actual shape of everything in the world is the same. The sizes of things are the same, the colors are as close as we can get them although the screens on mobiles tend to be a little bit different in terms of color balance than PC monitors.
Charting unexplored territory is a huge theme in The Witness. So, for you exploring this uncharted territory of porting a game for mobile, how is this different from creating a console or PC game? What did you learn through trying to adapt to a mobile platform?
I mean, it actually wasn’t super different. As we said, it was a challenge, because the hardware can be very much on the low end. On the high end, an iPad Pro is actually a pretty fast machine. Trying to work the low end, that part is challenging, but we didn’t approach it like we’re trying to make a free-to-play game with microtransactions. When we did the design, we thought of what subtle things can we do to improve the control scheme so that this part of the game works better? How can we put invisible mark up into the world to help the pathfinding better in this particular situation?
It was very specific design decisions where the constraints came from the game that we had already made. If we were designing a new game from the ground up for iOS, it would probably make a big difference, but I cannot even tell you exactly how it would be different because we haven’t designed that thing.
I would say we lucked out a bit. When you get down to it, technically they’re both computers that render graphics roughly the same way. I mean the details are all different between those platforms, but the computing paradigm is the same so there’s nothing shocking there, but the paradigm of when a game is on those platforms is very different.
Are there any thoughts on bringing The Witness, or even Braid, to the Nintendo Switch?
There certainly have been thoughts in the past of that. There’s something I could say there, but I’m not sure if I can say it. You know, we would consider it. We’re not doing that right this second. We’re a very small studio and you can tell this iOS port took us a while. I think we did some other stuff before that, like we did the PS4 Pro HDR patch and upgraded stuff, and with Xbox One.
We have limited work power to deploy for various things, we just need to know if there would really be a sizeable audience there, and we’re not sure about that right now. I don’t know; if it seems like it would be a potentially successful thing then we would look at it, but we’ve also been working on this game for a while. We’re kind of ready to do new stuff, so it’s not high on the priority list, but I’m not saying we won’t ever do it.
Speaking of Braid and porting games to mobile, any thoughts on bringing it to iOS or other mobile platforms?
I thought about it lately. Actually, a long time ago when Braid came out, iOS was new, but there was a possibility of bringing the game to that platform back then. And I decided not to do it because I wasn’t convinced that the controls could be good. Because I’ve played platformers of the time and they were all kind of crappy. I’m not sure if I’m convinced of that anymore, I think maybe the controls could be playable. We don’t have any specific plans at this time for that, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
It’s been over a year since The Witness released. Now you’re able to go back to it, bring it into a much wider platform. How do you feel overall about? When you think back to The Witness, what do you look at and say ‘wow, we really nailed it right there’? Even your proudest moments or when you’ve heard people describe their experience with The Witness?
There’s sort of two aspects. One is just that we managed to make this game, it’s a really complicated game where the world is very interconnected. So many things, both influenced and uninfluenced by other things in the world, have a significance of sorts, that the player won’t understand until later, and that significance makes them difficult to design and build. The fact that we managed to do that and make it all work is great. I don’t honestly know if I’m ever going to do another game like that again. Maybe I will, but it won’t be for a bit. It was very challenging. It was the most challenging design that I knew how to do at the time. And then from players’ experience, it’s interesting for players to feel that.
You see an instance of something becoming meaningful in a way that you didn’t expect, and then another instance of that, and then another instance of that. At some point, it builds up a bigger, more abstract pattern and you’re in a world that’s meaningful in a way that you never expected or not used to. That’s very subtle, and whenever people say that they had that experience, I’m very happy with that. I know that we managed to do something that’s not only subtle, but something that most video games don’t even try to do. It’s nice!
Do you have thoughts you wanted to add about bringing The Witness to a larger audience? Or is there anything you want to say about your future projects, or anything else you’re working on?
It’s a little too early to talk about future stuff, not showable yet. We do have future projects, so I don’t think that’s a surprise. We’ve been working so hard on getting the game ready that I don’t know what to expect from people being able to play it on iOS at all. On the one hand I’m even hoping that anybody plays it. Obviously I think it’s a good game and it’s the best that I knew how to make, but we have this world where all these iOS games are free to play with microtransactions, and this isn’t that. It’s old fashioned, you pay some money and get the game. And broadly speaking, that kind of game is a minority of the iOS market. People just don’t pay for games on the platform as much, with some exceptions. We have to see how that goes.
I have no way of predicting how that will go. Apple is certainly giving us some great featuring. We’re right there right now, on the front of the IOS 11 store. So we’ll see what that turns into. In terms of just people actually playing the game, I don’t know what to expect. We took this PC and console game, we changed the controls around and hopefully it’s easier for people to deal with and understand. But we don’t really know, we’ll find out.
2017 has been a great year for games. You want to shout out anything that you’ve noticed or been playing this year?
Dude, I’m playing a lot of [Playerunknown’s] Battlegrounds lately. Maybe a little bit too much. Everybody’s playing so it’s not a surprise. A really good game came out a couple of months ago on Steam called Fidel Dungeon Rescue that I really liked. It’s sort of like a dungeon crawler roguelike. It’s a little bit inspired by The Witness in a sense, it’s hard to explain because it’s very different gameplay-wise, but then you can see why. That game’s good.