The virtual reality revolution is underway, slowly but surely.
It’s less than a year since the launch of PlayStation VR - not the first high-profile virtual reality kit, but certainly the most affordable and accessible to date. It has reportedly been a modest sales success.
VR is still very much a developing technology and market. However, there’s been plenty of interesting things happening in VR development - whether that’s big-name VR titles such as Resident Evil 7, or the countless fascinating experiments being carried out in games, film, art and even education and training.
One Irish game development team hoping to make a name in VR is War Ducks, a small studio based in Dublin city centre. After enjoying a hit with their casual mobile and Facebook game Global Agents, the team has switched their focus VR.
After a few experiments on mobile platforms, they’re preparing to launch an updated version of their mobile game Sneaky Bears. It’s set to be released later this summer on all three major home VR platforms - PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
The game itself instantly brings to mind the old arcade favourites such as Time Crisis, from the (pleasantly) frantic speed of the gameplay to the addictive chase for high scores. Using an Oculus Rift and the dedicated Touch controllers, the game is pretty much flawless - any fears that the technology is not up to scratch for a fast-paced action title are quickly extinguished.
The main goal is simple: fight off waves of psychotic teddy bears with a toy gun, while trying to avoid taking damage. The mere fact that this is in virtual reality adds an immediate wrinkle - you need to have a constant awareness of the space around you, with bears more than likely creeping - or floating - at you from just outside your current viewpoint.
Trailer for the mobile version of Sneaky Bears
Further complications add variety to the experience. One of your two guns - which you need to draw from their holsters to use and reload, in a lovely little nod to old Western films - will have different functionality depending on the mode (the game will feature three main modes, as well as an unlockable boss mode). It might be a freeze gun used to stop a bomb rolling towards a group of cute panda teddies, or a water pistol used to extinguish flaming barrels.
The need to multitask is what lends the game its energy, and comes to a head in a genuinely challenging boss fight which mixes up the earlier objectives while adding a few tricks of its own.
The challenge of switching platforms
The game is certainly a big step up for War Ducks - how has the move from mobile to the three big VR platforms been? CEO Nikki Lannen explains: “Upgrading from [mobile] is actually quite a difficult process because you have to make a lot of the assets again. You have to make everything much higher in terms of quality.”
VR development demands resources - and that process has seen War Ducks swell from four staff members to nine. The fact that players will be ‘immersed’ in the world means much more attention needs to be paid to art and animation - and many other areas of the game’s design.
“You have to be very conscious of sound, and where that’s coming from,” Nikki observes. “You have to be very conscious of music and atmosphere. A lot of elements that wouldn’t be applicable in other platforms are very, very important here.
“Even things like user interface - how do you show someone a menu when they’re in a very immersive platform? You have to be more creative on that side of things.”
The cost of VR
One of the undeniable problems with virtual reality in its current form is the expense.
Not only is development more demanding, but the audience is much smaller. That’s no surprise: in its current form, VR kits are very much luxury products. An Oculus Rift and Touch controller combo will set you back more than €700 - and it requires an expensive PC to even run in the first place. A Vive is more expensive again.
The PSVR is the most affordable option to date - but that’ll still set you back €400 on top of a PS4 itself, and the price doesn’t even include the (mandatory) PlayStation Camera or (optional but preferable) Playstation Move controllers. VR is, basically, a big investment for players, and the much cheaper mobile VR options can’t come close to competing with the full experience.
VR is, basically, a big investment for players, and the much cheaper mobile VR options can’t come close to competing with the full experience.
There is some cause for optimism, though. This is still the first generation of consumer VR hardware, and it’s clear the hardware manufacturers are looking to drive down prices. Google has announced its plans for a standalone headset, and others will surely follow. It's an ambitious goal, but if it works will make VR much more affordable.
For now, the team at War Ducks hope Sneaky Bears appeals to anyone with a VR kit - but they’re also looking to the future.
Nikki acknowledges that desktop VR price points are “too high” at the moment. “The standalone kits are going to become very interesting - people are going to pay €400-500 and have an actual VR kit that they will have at home, that will be portable.
“I think that’s where the market’s going to become very interesting - personally, I think this year is when we’re going to see a massive scale in VR.”
She also suggests that the development scene for virtual reality in Ireland is in a positive place. “I run the Irish VR meetup group, and we run our meet-ups in conjunction with another meetup group called 3D Camp,” she explains. “We get 160 people to all our meet-ups, they’re always sold out. They’re free events, but tickets are always fully committed.
“We see a lot of interest in it here. There’s a lot of development, and developers. Virtual reality is quite a new area, but people are definitely experimenting and there’s a lot going on here in that space.”
War Ducks are hoping to submit Sneaky Bears for approval in the coming weeks and aiming to release the game in July. It’s an ambitious, forward-thinking project from a small Irish team and, if the momentum behind virtual reality continues, they’ll likely be joined by many more in the months and years to come.