Nothing about virtual reality development is easy, nor are there many questions that have been fully answered. Not even subtitles.
I’m playing through the first three levels of Arizona Sunshine, an upcoming zombie shooter, and it’s one of the more complete first-person experiences I’ve seen in virtual reality. There’s a campaign with a story. There’s multiplayer, and there’s a horde mode. It’s being released on Dec. 6 for both the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift.
And my first impression of the game was a strange one: Why is there text on the screen?
"In the final game there will be an option to toggle the text on and off, it will probably be off by default and you can turn it on if you want to," Vertigo Games’ Richard Stitselaar tells me. "We have some different iterations on the subtitle system."
In the early days of development they wanted to be able to share the story and prompts with players but they didn’t have the voice acting done. The build I’m playing has that version of the subtitle system: You read everything characters say, and the text is always in the same place on the screen no matter where you look in the headset.
But what do you do with the final version? Do you keep them there, or do you find a way to make subtitles a physical object in the world somehow? Do you make the text follow the player’s head when they look around, but with a slight lag to keep them from restricting the player’s view? They have options, and they’re exploring them, even a month away from launch. But the subtitles, in some form, are staying as an option.
"If somebody is deaf, you still want them to be able to follow the storyline," Stitselaar says. They’ll figure it out. This is virtual reality development, after all. Nothing is easy.
CHASING THE SIGNAL
Arizona Sunshine follows a survivor of the zombie apocalypse as he tries to survive and find the source of a radio signal that seems to offer some small amount of hope. You can walk around the environment as long as you stay within the bounds of your play area, but moving around the world requires you to hold the top button of the Vive controller, aim a blue crosshair where you would like to go, and then let go to teleport to that area.
Arizona Sunshine / Vertigo Games
It sounds unnatural, but it makes sense in virtual reality. It’s one of the few comfortable ways to get around a large area when you can’t physically walk there, and it’s surprising how quickly your body and mind get used to it. The stamina gauge tracks how often you teleport, so it’s not always simple to skip across the world to escape the zombies.
"At the beginning of the game it’s linear, by design," Stitselaar tells me. "Some people are very experienced in VR and some are not, so we wanted to guide the player."
Those first areas give you a sense of what to expect, and they’ll guide you through how to interact with the world. This is how you pick up a gun, and aim it. These are the threats, in small numbers. This is how you shoot them.
There is no ammo counter on your gun itself; it’s up to you to count shots if you don’t want to be surprised by nothing but a dry click while a zombie is nearly on top of you. You reload by tapping the directional pad on the controller to get rid of the empty magazine and then moving the weapon towards your gun belt to put in a fresh one.
"Its been a struggle to make that work for everybody," Stitselaar tells me. "We’re getting close. That was a huge challenge."
Arizona Sunshine / Vertigo Games
The game asks you to put your hands at your sides and click a button before it begins, and it uses the distance between your head, which is tracked by the headset, and your hands, which are tracked by the controllers, to make its best guess at where the gun belt should be.
You switch weapons by putting the gun on the lower ring of the belt and squeezing the side buttons of the controller. You can hold four guns in total — two on your belt and one in each hand — so it’s not long before you have to make hard choices about what to keep with you and what to leave behind. This gets even harder when you go underground and grab a flashlight that displaces one of your gun slots.
You pick up ammo by physically reaching to it and pulling it to your chest. Your health is displayed on your watch. Movements and interactions that require button presses in a flat game now require physical movements.
It builds slowly, however. You have time to learn. The opening area allows you to plink at a few cans to get a feel for how the guns work, but soon you meet the zombies, and you have to shoot them.
That’s when you realize you don’t know how to shoot, and everything changes.
HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
Shooting things in flat games like Call of Duty require you to put a dot over your target and push a button. Things like muzzle flash and recoil are modeled, but aiming is an artificial process. Many people play those games and get good at them and assume they know how to play virtual reality games like Arizona Sunshine.
"Nope," Stitselaar says, laughing. "We’ve had people come in and think that just pointing their arm in the right direction is enough, and maybe if the zombies are right in front of you, but you’ll need a lot of ammo."
Arizona Sunshine video and concept art / Vertigo Games
And this is where things begin to get good. Guns in virtual reality are three-dimensional objects. You have to make sure you’re lining up the front and rear sights to shoot straight, and in the first 20 to 30 minutes of the game you’re given plenty of time to do just that.
The zombies are slow, there aren’t that many of them, and you can hold up your gun, aim, fire and hope you see a bloody smear where their heads used to be. Body shots require multiple hits to take them down. If you blow off a leg, they can still crawl towards you.
"There are no aim assists at all in the game," Trevor Blom, the game’s lead programmer tells me. "It’s all you."
And it’s thrilling. You can hear the zombies, and you have to make sure you’re always looking around to make sure you’ve spotted all the threats. There’s an area where you’re asked to fight your way through a building to find an item, and I figured out a way to get to the second floor first in order to lean over the balcony and destroy the zombies below.
Aiming accurately when there are only a few targets and you have time to think is one thing, but learning how to reload when needed while aiming both guns at the same time, at least accurately enough to spit lead in the right direction to buy yourself some time, is thrilling.
Fighting my way through the first true wave of zombies as they come crashing down the side of a cliff, watching my ammo run down and noticing my perimeter is getting closer and closer, is a rush. It’s likely to be more scary than fun for some players, especially once you get into the dark underground in the sections where the only light comes from your flashlight and the muzzle of your gun.
"At the moment how we balance is that we play a scene or scenario or a wave of zombies and we see how much ammo we need on average to clear that wave," Blom explains. "And that’s the ammo you will find near that wave. And the next wave will be balanced the same way. So a really good player will have an abundance of ammo, and the bad players will have a harder time with it."
Click and drag inside video to look around inside Arizona Sunshine
It also gives them a way to tweak difficulty. Once you know the average ammo needed to clear an area, you can give the player fewer rounds in order to make that section harder. This forces you to prioritize head shots while staying away from fully-automatic weapons.
While there’s no aim assist in the game, there are clever ways that difficulty can be managed for the player. You’re given a laser sight on the easy mode to help you aim, and the hitboxes for the zombie’s heads are variable; you don’t have to be as precise on the easier modes as you do on the hardest, when you’re shooting at a target that’s more or less the size of a real human head. Normal mode strikes a balance: You have to aim with precision, but it’s pretty easy to nail those headshots.
You’ll also be able to play through the entirety of the campaign with a friend, which is likely to make the difficulty go up, not down.
"You can be the one guy who grabs all the ammo, but that’s going to be tricky for the next guy, you actually have to work together," Stitselaar says. "If you end up in the mines, one person will pick up the flashlight, but what about the other guy? If you just leave him there it will be completely in the dark. It forces the players to work together."
That also means that not only did they have to build a model of the other player, but they had to make sure it animated in real time as the second player moved with their actual body.
"For the other player we’re using an [inverse kinematics] system, where we use the data from the hands and the head to get as close as possible to the real world," Bloms explains. "We accepted the assumption that you don’t know, as a player, what the other player is actually doing in real life, so if the arm is a bit odd or at an angle we just accept that."
There are also some context-specific animations that work around what the actual human being is doing so it doesn’t look too weird; if you watch your friend picking up ammo, the systems makes sure they’re not standing in the table.
"It’s not perfect, if someone takes off the headset and puts it on the ground, the character will look really, really weird," Stitselaar says.
"It’s part of the fun, though!" Bloms replies, laughing.
THE HOME STRETCH
It took me around 90 minutes to play through the first three levels of the game, and they expect the full game will take players around four hours to finish. And that’s just the first play though, as trying it again on the different difficulty levels or with a friend will provide a very different experience. The horde mode supports up to four players working together online to fend off endless waves of zombies as well. The $39.99 price seems about right.
Now they just have to make it to launch.
They’re having an issue where some players get lost in the caverns, a terrifying underground section of the game where it’s easy to get turned around as you teleport. They talk about signs that will hint at where the player is, and where they need to go. They shortened the flashlight-only sections so they’re still scary, but open into areas of light before they become overwhelming.
They’re working on the loot system and launching a closed beta this week for some of the people who signed up for the newsletter. The game launches in a month, with preorders going live later today.
I ask if they’re going to make it in time.
"You saw that email that I wrote at 2 or 3 a.m. or something, Stitselaar says.
The systems all came together in the past month, so now they can balance and tweak. The game as it exists today is a huge leap from where it was a month ago, and they say the launch game that exists a month from now will have gone through one more leap in quality.
"We’re working really hard to get it up and running," he continues.
This is VR, after all. Nothing is easy.