CCP, makers of Eve Online and its assorted spinoffs, have a very un-Eve game on deck: Sparc, best described as a Tron-like take on Pong, all in virtual reality. It's coming to HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR later in this year.
The game is something first seen at Project Arena at Eve Fanfest 2016. In Sparc, which I played hands-on at GDC 2017, players hurl a ball (each get one, so two are in play) at their opponent, with the goal of striking them.
Opponents' throws may be deflected, and deflected shots can strike the thrower during the initial return. As a result, their opponent is awarded the point. Play is live at all times; nothing stops after a score. Balls may be spun and banked multiple times off the four surfaces of the arena, which is basically a long hallway.
This GIF provides a more visual explanation of what CCP Atlanta, the developing studio, is going for:
CCP is ambitiously declaring this a "vsport," a first-of-its-kind physical competition that is playable only in virtual reality. Sparc’s developers also pitch it as a game potentially as social as recreational league tennis and as watchable as a real sport, in a time when a video game's appeal in both departments plays an increasing role in whether something gets made.
"Player-to-player interaction is what's most important to us at CCP," said Morgan Godat, Sparc's executive producer. "We want people to realize that they're playing against another human being. It's not just somebody in a lobby somewhere that's spamming, you know, super hateful texts to someone. We really want to get to the core of sportsmanlike conduct even. Where you're feeling, maybe I would be embarrassed to start screaming profanities at somebody because they're actually here with me. Maybe we have another round to go."
For this reason, Sparc is envisioned as mainly a multiplayer game. While tutorials, training exercises and challenges against bot competition are envisioned, play in a full game of Sparc will only be against other humans.
Sparc's basic goals, described above, can be layered with any number of modifiers. Games may be timed (best score at the end of the clock) or untimed to a set number of points. Players may get beginner-level assists, such as fist guards that can also repel an incoming attack, or turn them off for a stouter challenge.
It was the first VR game where I felt I'd worn the wrong shoes. I had some smooth rubber-soled shoes that didn't have great traction on carpeting. I'm sure Sparc's designers would love the recommendation that players wear clothing that allows for good range of motion.
The view while waiting for the next game in Sparc, coming from CCP. CCP Atlanta/CCP
This is important in the pro mode, which I did not play. In that mode, physically dodging the shot is more important as a player can only activate their blocker (a rectangular force field on either forearm) if they're holding their ball. Significantly, nothing rebounding behind a player is dangerous to them; this is because CCP Atlanta did not want players turning around to play or dodge shots off a back wall while wearing a corded VR unit, potentially getting tangled in it.
"You can curve the ball, you know," Godat mentioned to me. Gripping a Vive hand controller I tried an overdone pantomime of a curveball. Lo and behold, the ball broke in the expected direction and its subsequent rebounds also demonstrated that spin. Screwball? Yep, that broke back in the opposite direction. Exaggerated topspin and backspin also bore observable results.
When I commented to Godat that this made it useless to throw a ball straight, he had a smart reply: Thrown balls leave a white trail, meaning curving balls’ trails are more visible. A thrown straight ball screened behind a deflected curveball functions as a sneak attack. I was amused to see the beginnings of fundamental play for something that hasn't launched yet.
Two-ball attacks are probably where Sparc's elite will distinguish themselves. I only played two matches on a beginner mode, losing both, and the times I did score on my opponent, it came when I returned his shot and sent a wildly unpredictable throw of my own behind it. Balls redirected with the forearm blocker may also be spun for the same effect as a thrown one.
It was tough, however, to find the right combination of arm speed and release point. All throws appeared to have the same velocity. Players grab a ball by depressing the trigger on their handheld controller and releasing it at the proper time. I’m not sure any VR solution can solve this disconnect — not until controllers can get dynamically heavier and lighter, and good luck with that one. (Clarification: A CCP rep reached out to say that variable speed throws are a “core component of Sparc’s gameplay,” dependent on arm speed and point of release, and that more will be done to make this clear to the user in the future.)
Still, it was fun to watch my opponent instinctively cover up, even if only his upper torso was in play, when two shots went directly into his space. Underhanded skip shots could be played as a slower deceptive alternative behind a fast redirection that occupied more of your opponent’s attention.
Sparc was one of the first ideas that CCP Atlanta, formerly a VR research lab for the company, came up with. It will roll out in a full release sometime later this year, and it will include a spectating mode, plus a way to signal “got next” or to ask out of the next match, same as players do in their local gym.
CCP promises support for all three consumer VR headsets but can’t yet say whether cross-platform support for multiplayer is in the cards.