RIGS: Mechanized Combat League straddles two newly emerging games markets.
Could this be VR's key to the eSports locker? Jem Alexander speaks to developer Guerrilla Cambridge.
Virtual reality eSports have moved from sci-fi fantasy to near reality in just a few years, and UK-developed RIGS is leading the charge.
The combination of VR and eSports sounds potentially thrilling, but so far this relationship has only gone as far as spectating certain eSports matches.
Valve developed software to allow viewers of The International 6 to watch the DOTA 2 tournament; receiving an immersive eSports experience through their HTC Vive headsets. But we’ve yet to see a multiplayer VR game being played as part of a competitive league.
"RIGS possibly being the first VR eSports is something we're incredibly excited about. It would be the biggest stamp of approval."
Piers Jackson, Guerrilla Cambridge
With the launch of the PlayStation VR, alongside games such as RIGS which have a strong multiplayer offering, competitive VR experiences are suddenly far more accessible. The relatively inexpensive PSVR headset, coupled with the guaranteed parity of visuals and framerate across all PS4 systems, could help kickstart the VR eSports honeymoon period.
“The possibility of RIGS being the first VR eSport is something that we’re all incredibly excited about,” says Piers Jackson, game director at Guerrilla Cambridge. “It would be the biggest stamp of approval we could get, because it would mean that we’ve successfully created a competitive sports title that’s being enjoyed by a lot of people.”
As is so often the case, however, the Guerrilla Cambridge isn’t specifically targeting the eSports market with RIGS. One does not create an eSport, rather one sets the stage for an eSport to occur, and then hopes. “Becoming an eSport is something you’re kind of invited into; you can’t just force your way in,” says Jackson. “The critical mass of players and people wanting to watch needs to be there first.”
“For a game to get there it needs to be accessible and playable by all. I believe you can only really appreciate games being played at the top level if you’ve had a go yourself and understand how impressive the pro players are.”
Many eSports eschew accessibility in favour of layers of deep, complex tactics and strategy. This makes professional play truly competitive and gives casual players something to be impressed by.
Jackson maintains that, despite being easy for people to get into, RIGS has the scope for people to refine their play styles. The accessibility is important because VR is such new technology, no-one can take any player knowledge or experience for granted.
“It has been really important for us to ensure that everyone can pick up the game and get into it quickly. But we’ve been making the game for a couple of years now and have a wide range of skill in the studio with the more competitive of us continuing to refine our playstyles, so I’d say the scalability is definitely there.”
But as with many eSports titles, what ships in the box isn’t where the game ends. There will be updates that will expand the skill level, and indeed the skillset, of players looking to hit the upper echelons of RIGS play. “We have plans that will let us push the envelope, unlock additional high-end play styles, and be responsive to our community’s feedback,” says Jackson.
So, once again, it comes back to community. The game will grow with the players, as will the competitive scene. Not least because in order to have a competitive scene, you need audience members to fill venues, or to watch via Twitch.
“A good eSports experience is something that can be watched and for this to be possible it has to be readable, understandable, engaging and exciting,” says Jackson.
Naturally, this brings up questions about what a spectator mode should look like for a game that is played in VR. Since it’s never been done before, there’s a huge amount of freedom when it comes to developing such a thing, but also the potential to make mistakes. “The games don’t yet exist in VR that will support spectating – this will change.
“Using VR for spectating has really powerful possibilities as it lets the viewer engage in a deeper way with the game. It’s the difference between watching football on TV and being in the stadium; it comes down to immersion.
“From talking to eSports broadcasters, one thing we’re aware of is the importance of showing the player’s actual view to the spectator, particularly in first-person games. It’s critical for the audience to get a second-by-second understanding of what a pro-player is thinking and looking at, as well as what decisions they’ve made and why.
"Using VR for spectating has really powerful possibilities. It's the difference between football on TV and being in the stadium."
Piers Jackson, Guerrilla Cambridge
“When you do this through VR, you’re genuinely getting a window into the gamer’s world because you’re able to see their head movements as they happen. This could be pretty revolutionary in terms of how you perceive games and certainly adds more connection between players and the audience.”
In the interest of generating as large an audience as possible, however, spectating games on a flat screen may be necessary for accessibility. Requiring viewers to step into a VR world to watch matches is great for immersion, but it requires anyone watching to be 100 per cent focused at all times. That’s a problem for VR whether you’re watching eSports or real-world sports.
Like football, watching eSports is also inherently social, something that VR headsets would limit considerably. Not to mention the painfully real fact that alcohol and VR don’t mix, so say goodbye to the idea of the virtual reality sports bar.
“Both options have pros and cons,” Jackson explains. A mixture of the two is clearly the key, so it’ll be interesting to see how developers tackle this as the industry matures. As for RIGS: “We haven’t revealed our spectator options; we’ll unlock them a little down the road. Gamers can use the social screen to watch and capture match footage.”
As for live competition, played on stage, precedent has already been set with a demo that took place on Sony’s stage at TGS this year between pro-teams SCARZ and Detonation Gaming. A good sign that, should the audience exist for it, Sony has the ability to put together entire live shows and tournaments in the future.
Beyond giving pro-players the chance to demonstrate their skills, an eSport needs balance and visual clarity in order to make playing and watching fun.
“We wanted both competitors and spectators to understand what a player’s abilities and loadout were at a glance. Balancing is critical to making our sport fair, so whilst they all have strengths and weaknesses, it’s how you use them and how players combine their use with their teammates’ RIGS that really counts.
“When we were designing our arenas, we tried as much as possible to keep the structures clean and readable so a fictitious occupant in the stands would get the best view of the action. As we also discovered, this clean readability and reduction in noise is also really critical for creating an optimal experience in VR. The two combined nicely to provide an experience that’s pretty easy to follow visually.”
With RIGS, Guerrilla Cambridge is exploring two games frontiers simultaneously. Piers Jackson doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but sees a bright future for both VR and eSports, whether they’re intertwined or not.
“We haven’t any real idea where the boundaries of VR are; it’s simply too early. But I’m excited to see how player interaction develops in VR and the tech that will be invented to support it.”