EVE Valkyrie [official site] has a modest aspiration: to be the best competitive multiplayer game in virtual reality. It's a great statement in terms of grabbing headlines, but how are the development team at CCP's Newcastle studio translating that aspiration into a working reality? I asked that exact question of lead producer Owen O'Brien at the recent EVE FanFest event. His answer: "by talking to the best competitive multiplayer players in the world and letting them help us design it."
The involvement of professional-level MOBA and FPS players in CCP's VR-exclusive project is because, as O'Brien points out, "a map has to be fun to play, not just the first time or the tenth time but the thousandth time." MOBA and FPS professionals are a logical port of call given they spend thousands of hours exploring and refining play on single maps, and so CCP are actively seeking feedback from eSports teams for Valkyrie.
These discussions are in their infancy right now, as CCP needed to get the basic mechanics in place first. The major development for the build which was being showcased at FanFest was the capture point mechanic which has been developed to work with 3D space flight.
"To quote Star Trek, initially we kept displaying two-dimensional thinking," says O'Brien. "This is how you do capturing in an FPS – you go and hang around there and a bar goes up. But what was happening was people were flying somewhere and then having to fly in really tight circles which is the last thing we want people to do because they get disoriented. Then we came upon this idea of dropping a drone that does that work for you and you can fly around protecting the drone."
I'd had a turn with the mode the previous day, and thought it was working well. It's still a dogfighting game, but you'll drop the drones to capture points in order to boost rewards for killing other players. "You could be holding all three points on the map and still lose because you're burning through ships. The way you win the game is by inflicting more damage on the enemy than you take yourself," adds O'Brien. If you're looking for a point of reference, it's probably closest to Destiny's Control mode in PVP.
O'Brien views the capture mechanic as one reason he hopes a Valkyrie map will still be fun on the thousandth visit. "There has to be tactical depth and options for other styles of play. We've got some already opening up – we've got the capture mechanic and that can then be applied to triggering different events. That's one tool in our toolbox but I think we need to start layering in more. I think we need to do more with allowing players to do things that aren't necessarily just shooting one another. It might be farming AI or protecting something for a period of time – things that League and Heroes of the Storm and those guys do really well. 'I'm not winning here so I'm going to switch up the tactics.'"
That layering isn't yet present in the current form of the game, at least as far as I could see. The capture point mode I played at FanFest still feels like an FPS idea – one of narrow objectives and singular focus. I ask about the future of game modes in Valkyrie – about adding these other objectives versus dividing the game up into particular play concepts – capture/salvage/whatever.
"I think this is something we'll learn in testing," says O'Brien. "For us as experienced players at the studio we would like [other map objectives] and could cope with that, but new players are like, 'Jesus Christ, I'm in space!" They really just need one thing; 'This is what you have to do, don't worry about anything else.'
"We tried before with multiple objectives, and we'll probably go back there, but it's something we need to investigate and try out in this pre-alpha we're starting on. It's getting the balance between tactical depth and confusing depth or overwhelming options."
In other words, maybe trying to impart the finer points of a space MOBA dogfighting hybrid to someone who's dealing with "I am in space what even oh god" would be a bit of a tall order. That's something which the single-player sections might be able to help with, though.
There are no plans for a single player campaign, but there will be something O'Brien sees as more of a new player experience. "It all needs to be feeding back into the multiplayer in some way," he says, "whether it's bringing you into the multiplayer and teaching you new mechanics or it's somewhere you go to hone your skills and practice. So, for example, it wouldn't be out of the question to have horde modes or even co-op but not a story-driven single player."
Having talked about what Valkyrie might become, we switch to talking about the challenges the team have encountered so far, particularly in terms of developing a 3D map.
"It's really hard to channel people without it feeling very artificial," says O'Brien. "It's easier if we were to do – which we may do – a map which is all interiors on a huge space station or inside a Titan or something. Then it'll feel more like Descent or something, and that's easier because you can do more traditional level design. It's much tougher in space, especially when there's no concept of up or down or horizon. But there are lots of things we can do and put in the world in terms of orientation, like man-made structures or asteroids or nebulae."
When I was pootling about I'd noticed the amount of debris thinning out around the edges of the play space, becoming less visually interesting and creating an unobtrusive boundary marker you tend not to fly beyond. I ask O'Brien what else the team uses to communicate spatial awareness to players.
"Some things that anchor you in the world are your carriers. You can see where your carrier is and where the enemy carrier is so that's a constant reference point, or having a planet nearby or something very distinct on one side helps. That's to do with orientation. The challenge we have is with funnelling players and allowing people to sneak or hide or go round – to stretch the MOBA analogy probably too far, but to go on the bottom lane or the top lane. How do we do that? We've got some ideas of how to do it, but it'll be a constant challenge for us to create maps that work in 3D space."
One of the map suggestions which has come up repeatedly when talking to EVE players over the course of FanFest is that of recreating famous EVE battles as playable arenas in Valkyrie. O'Brien is open to the idea, although is understandably wary of what it might mean in practice.
"I'd certainly be open to that as long as the gameplay experience comes first. If it gets to the point where it would be much better if – this is a stupid example but if this carrier was over here or this type of asset was in the map and would make the map better but somebody's saying 'Yes, but that's not what happened!' Then we've reached the point where we can't do this. It needs to help us towards our goal of being the best competitive multiplayer game in the world. If it starts to hinder us doing that we go back to our own little part of the universe and do something else."
The ships themselves are also being considered through the lens of a MOBA-style role division. "If I'm on this ship what role am I playing in the match?" says O'Brien. "Am I a ranged support guy or am I melee – or as as close as we can get to melee? We were going to have a melee ship at one stage which was like a battering ram. I think there are some guys still waving that flag, but we'll see. But it's that way of thinking rather than 'We'd better make a fighter and a bomber.' It's more – for want of a better word – we're going to make hero-type ships that [fill] certain roles on the battlefield."
The involvement of professional players, and the fact that one of the big events tat his FanFest was a livestreamed Valkyrie tournament, meant our conversation also touched on what Valkyrie as an eSport would mean for development.
"We're taking our first baby steps into this world tomorrow when we stream the tournament. We've started experimenting with spectator cams and I'm sure we can do more with them. But the trick with eSports isn't just about making the game fun to play. It's about making the game fun to watch and – especially in VR – how do you do that?" He adds, "people yesterday were watching a guy play the game and they were all cheering so there is something there I think [...] We're the first to admit it's going to be a learning curve for us as well."
Valkyrie will launch exclusively on Oculus Rift on PC (although CCP aren't ruling out other platforms in the future). That means there's no launch date set at the moment. I ask whether it's harder to work on the game and all of these different elements when there's no definitive release timeline.
"We've got our own cycle and because of the type of game we are making it's never going to be a defined scope game," O'Brien says. "It'll be a game we release with a launch offering and then keep adding to it. What's happening over time is the launch offering is getting more sophisticated and bigger, then it will come out when the headsets come out."
He adds, "We want to launch a living game that we keep adding to and bringing in new classes and roles and upgrades and maps and modes reacting to the community."