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The VR believers and doubters at EVE Fanfest

The goggles...they do *something*

It wasn't hard to find the VR doubters at EVE Fanfest. One high profile EVE Online player told me he had no interest in CCP’s VR games but would “rather they have new teams working on VR than moving people from EVE to something like World of Darkness, which was left in the corner like a rotten apple.”

Another said he was “glad that the VR side of the business will be there to support EVE Online financially.” For a while at least, I figure it’ll be the other way around. It might seem strange to see a free-to-play MMO as the financial foundation that a studio relies on, but then CCP are a strange company and to some people their dedication to VR might seem like their strangest move yet. I spoke to VR Brand Director Ryan Geddes and CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson to find out what the future might hold, and why they believe VR is an important part of that future.

Throughout Fanfest, I heard people half-joking that CCP is responsible for Iceland’s greatest export, and when interviewing one member of staff who joined the company recently, I asked if he was already aware of EVE before joining. He had no background in the games industry pre-CCP but laughed at my question: “Of course I knew EVE. I live in Iceland.”

CCP make a game that people are often content to read about rather than to play, a game that the company’s CEO told me “is more a virtual world than a game”. As an MMO, it’s an enormous success story, not only in terms of its lifespan and consistently large number of subscriptions and concurrent users, but in the way it breaks the mould established by the likes of Ultima Online. The massively multiplayer game as social, economic and political experiment.

Surviving, and thriving, on the back of a complex, player-driven MMO is unusual and anyone trying to start a business on that strategy might well be laughed out of the bank in 2017, but CCP are still making it work. Why, then, are they putting some of their eggs into the VR basket, which seems like another risky venture? I’d assumed the people working with the tech at CCP would be true believers and evangelists, but I was surprised by the way my doubts were often echoed.

It began with the first appearance of CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, who spoke about the company’s ambitions during the Fanfest opening ceremony. As well as stating that virtual worlds might be the next step in human evolution, he spoke about the excess of hype that heralded VR’s arrival (or return, more accurately) and acknowledged that it had been unhealthy. The climb-down to realistic expectations could easily seem like an admission of defeat considering how inflated perception of the tech and its possibilities had become, he said.

This is reassuring. The statement itself isn’t particularly insightful, but to hear it at a public speech by a key figure in a company investing heavily in VR is far more convincing to me than an exuberant presentation that doesn’t leave room for skepticism at all. Pétursson’s approach is partly a result of his pragmatism. That might sound like a strange word to ascribe to him, ‘pragmatism’, given that during a half hour conversation the day after the opening ceremony we mostly talked about the virtual nature of everything from the economy to my own job, but Pétursson understands the limitations of VR tech better than most. He was there for the first round, a couple of decades ago, and has seen failed ambition first-hand.

I think he’s also aware that at Fanfest he’s preaching to the unconverted, and many of the never-to-be-converted. To many, CCP is EVE Online and anything that doesn’t feed back into it is muddying the waters at best.

Surely if anyone was going to give me the full promo-talk it would be Ryan Geddes, CCP’s VR Brand Director?

“When the team showed me the first EVE VR demo, I was the skeptic in the room. I was getting ready to play and already rehearsing in my head how I could let them down gently after I’d tried it.” The rehearsals were unnecessary. “I looked down at my own virtual body, flew out into space and was blown away. It was an overwhelming experience.”

A lot of people who’ve tried VR have had a similar Road to Damascus moment, and it’s often during the first encounter. I had one myself, seeing IL-2 Sturmovik on an early Oculus devkit. I wasn’t convinced that I’d ever buy a headset for home use or even that I’d want to play rather than spectate, but the first time I looked over my shoulder, then down at the ground, and lost the sense of the room I was actually in, I was sold on the idea of virtual experiences. Not necessarily virtual games though. I’m often a willing tourist but a dubious player when it comes to VR.

Geddes doesn’t believe VR is a fit for every type of game, and says one of CCP’s biggest challenges is finding the experiences that fit the form rather than trying to force existing ideas into new spaces.

“There is no hard limit to what kind of game we can make eventually, but where the boundary lies right now is in making sure we’re making things that are better because of VR rather than just porting things across. That’s why there’s no EVE Online VR component yet. It’s easy to think down that path, but it needs to be compelling and emotional in ways that the game isn’t at this point rather than just existing because it can.

“Sparc [read more here] is a good example of where we can go if they don’t limit themselves to existing ideas and IPs. It’s a no-brainer to do a cockpit flight sim like Valkyrie, but Sparc is a little different. People don’t look at it and think “of course CCP would make that game”, but it makes sense to us because it’s a great example of a game that works in VR for very specific reasons.

We could have fit it into the EVE IP as an in-world sport, but that wouldn’t add anything to the player experience, and might lead to confusion. There is no character in Sparc; when you put on the hardware, you are in the arena. It’s you. And you’re engaging in a physical activity that is made possible by the hardware.”

I’m interested to hear that the ruleset and motion weren’t the most significant parts of the experience, at least initially in Geddes’ mind.

“We narrowed it down to make it a pure experience that requires VR and that was about seeing people move in the game and know that the avatar represents them. Standing across a room and looking at someone is powerful, being able to communicate with them through body language and recognising them through gestures and stances.”

If VR is for new kinds of experiences, I’m interested to know how Geddes sees CCP’s role. Are they just creators within the emerging space or do they also have a responsibility as educators, showing people how VR can make better games?

“Education is too pedantic a word, we’re not stepping down from the mountaintop and showing people the future. In fact, we’re learning ourselves, as we go. We make things, put them into players’ hands and have them tell us what is working and what isn’t working. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to make an online multiplayer game [EVE Valkyrie]. It’s an ongoing concern and we’re already on our fifth update since launch.
We can put new stuff in players hands, then see where the moments of joy and pain are, and react to the feedback. A lot of the work is in figuring out how to make things feel better and that’s a lot harder to do when a game is just put out there without a community around it. In that way there are some similarities to EVE Online.

“We know enough and have a strong enough vision to bring our players along for that ride, and what we always intend to do is to learn from the that feedback loop. But there’s no alternative and no compensation for just doing the work and doing that in-house yourself. Sparc is a result of years of experimentation. We were duct taping Kinects together in a basement to make full body motion tracking work.”

If the educational role is less than I expected, Geddes believes there is another important element to VR design: building trust.

“One of the things that’s important is understanding how intimate and vulnerable a medium VR is. It might be the most intimate medium ever conceived. You put on the headset and the real world goes away, and you’re in the hands of the people who created that software. Making sure people are comfortable and taken care of in that simulation is vital.

“It can be very overwhelming. It has little in common with a 2d game, where you can glance away. We don’t realise how often we do that, glancing away to check our surroundings, because we do it instinctively.

“Once you’ve established a place where people feel they understand the boundaries of a space, and have agency, then you can violate the rules. You see it with some of the documentary experiences that have already been created; designers start to peel back the layers of safety.”

And for those concerned that VR might not be able to manage the larger more varied experiences they’re used to, Geddes says it’s not a question of “when” those experiences will happen but “how and why”. People don’t know what they want from VR yet, he says, so they often look for a copy of a game they already understand. We shouldn’t be looking for Battlefront VR, he says as an example, but for something new.

“It is trickier to plan ahead with VR right now, but as it becomes more ubiquitous it’ll be easier. I completely understand developers who are hesitant right now. There are people who might be interested in the tech but don’t have a great idea of how to use their talents as a studio and move those into VR. It’s not for everyone, either as players or developers, but it doesn’t have to be, and the audience will grow.”

The difficulty is in bringing that conversion experience to everyone. It usually involves sitting them down with the kit and letting them play, but Geddes points out that VR isn’t unique in that regard.

“I have a friend who is a SCUBA diver and he loves it goes and takes trips all over to do it. He comes back and shows me pictures and videos, and it looks great. The fish are beautiful, and i’m sure it’s really exciting, but until I put the mask on and take the plunge I’m never going to appreciate the real joy of it.”

While I still think VR is more likely to place another form of screen between me and the world, bringing me virtual SCUBA diving rather than plunging me into entirely new situations, I do think CCP are approaching the tech with the right degree of enthusiasm, smart design and caution. They're not trying to make their VR games all things to all people, and recognise that the path is long, but Geddes certainly believes that as on the road to Damascus, people might find a change of heart and mind somewhere along the way.

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