Ubisoft has learned a thing or two about virtual reality.
The giant French video game publisher loves to experiment with new game platforms. Whenever a new one arrives, so do new Ubisoft games. With VR, Ubisoft has tried a number of things, and in October it launched its first VR game, Eagle Flight, a simulation game where you can fly above a future version of Paris as an eagle. After the game debuted, Ubisoft found that 73 percent of the game sessions were longer than 10 minutes, which went against the conventional wisdom about how VR was too uncomfortable for people to stay in it for very long.
Ubisoft also launched Werewolves Within, a VR version of the Werewolves tabletop game, where players try to figure out who among the villagers among them is a werewolf. And the company is working on Star Trek: Bridge Crew, where VR players take on the roles of a starship’s bridge crew.
David Votypka, creative director at Ubisoft Red Storm, and Chris Early, vice president of digital publishing at Ubisoft, gave a talk about the lessons the company has learned in VR at the Casual Connect Europe event in Berlin. I interviewed them after the talk about those lessons.
Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.
Above: David Votypka (left) and Chris Early of Ubisoft at Casual Connect Europe. Image Credit: Dean Takahashi
David Votypka: The theme of the talk is things we’ve expected about VR in the early days, in three categories. One was locomotion. VR makes people sick, so you can’t do fast motion. Second was time in the headset. We’ve heard a lot of things from headset makers, like seven minutes is what we should be designing for. The third is that VR is antisocial.
What we’ve discovered is the opposite is true in all three of these cases, in a lot of ways. For locomotion, Eagle Flight is the example. You fly at high speeds, turning, fast motion. The vast majority of people are very comfortable with it. A lot of it comes down to the techniques they use, like closing off peripheral vision. Since our peripheral vision is designed to detect things here, if you sense something whizzing by it triggers motion sickness. When the game detects that, it closes that off, and it’s a very effective technique.
GB: The research must have taken you a lot of time. When did you discover that?
Chris Early: The work was done at Ubisoft Montreal. They had the idea for a flying game because they were experimenting with Paris from the Assassin’s Creed universe. They started noticing that some things worked and some things didn’t. One element that was bothersome was how fast things were going by.
Some of the research Olivier Palmieri did – he’s the producer on it – was in the concept of horse blinders, or what happens when race drivers go really fast. They get that tunnel vision effect, which allows them to focus. Instead of creating a small hole you look through, they do it dynamically. When it’s displaying fast motion on the screen, it trims down the field of view, and then opens it back up again when there’s nothing close by. You still have this wide vista, a panoramic field of view, until you get close to something. People don’t even notice it.
Votypka: That’s the surprising part for me. When I first saw it, I was watching a monitor of someone playing. I assumed people would see it right away. But then I tried it in the headset and I wasn’t even thinking about the effect. I didn’t notice it at all.
GB: It sounds a bit like this foveated rendering technology they’re saying could reduce a lot of the graphics computing requirements.
Early: We could do that with foveated, probably, by just blurring it instead of blacking it out. It might be enough.
Early: To be fair, they’re still calculating the full screen. It’s not a savings for us yet, because they’re trying to figure out where there’s too much motion. They’ve already had to figure out that there’s motion in that section, and then they black it out.
Votypka: Right. But rendering performance—this part doesn’t have to be as high-res as that part. Back to time in the headset, seven minutes is what they were saying you should design for in the early days.
Early: With Eagle Flight, 73 percent of our session times are more than 10 minutes. Eagle Flight is a short-sequence thing. You go in and do a bit of a flight. The missions are maybe a minute or two at the most. But people stay in for a long time. A lot longer than we expected.
Above: Eagle Flight from Ubisoft Montreal. Image Credit: Ubisoft
Votypka: In the social VR stuff we’ve seen about a third of our players playing for an hour to three hours. Very long sessions, longer than we expected, especially compared to that estimate of just seven minutes. That’s been really cool to see.
The third part is this idea that when you look at somebody in VR in their living room, it looks very antisocial. But when you get people in a shared environment together, when your physical traits and voice are networked, you get this social presence. “Wow, I’m here with other human beings.” It becomes extremely social. Werewolves has been out for a little over two months and we’ve seen some amazing stories, from strangers playing together to how long people spend in the headset to how many friends they add. All sorts of very interesting things from what was, in a lot of ways, a social experiment. It’s a multiplayer-only game. It requires VOIP to play. It’s almost totally personality-driven. The gameplay systems are pretty simple. So much of it is just the players’ personalities.
All of these things were huge questions around shipping a game like that. For the players that are aware of it, we’ve had super positive feedback on all those aspects, which has been somewhat—we hoped, but we weren’t sure.
GB: Did you set out trying to ignore conventional wisdom?
Votypka: Social and VR were two things you just didn’t think about together a few years ago. For me, VR goes back to the ‘90s. All the time I’ve thought about it, I never thought about the social side until around 2014, when Michael Abrash from Oculus was at Carnegie Mellon giving a speech. He said, “There’s a lot of open questions about VR. But one thing I’m sure of is it’ll be the most social medium ever.” That’s a pretty bold statement.
We had some multiplayer prototypes in Unity. When we got our DK2s we put on the headsets and got it running quickly. We sat across this table from each other where previously we’d been sitting with a mouse and keyboard and monitor. We looked at each other across this warehouse environment and we could see each other’s head movements and so on. I thought, “Okay, I feel like I’m actually there with this person, not just looking at an avatar.” That moment, it felt like there was something to this — something that’s not obvious, but once you try it, it’s evident how tightly connected people can be in VR. It’s you, as opposed to just a pre-animated avatar.
Once that was proven, we started thinking about what kind of social games we could make. Werewolves was obviously our version of the original Mafia game. There’s been a lot of derivatives of that card game. We put in our own unique VR mechanics and gameplay rules. We went that direction because we wanted to focus on the social aspect, improving that with a well-known gameplay model. Social deduction is an interesting gameplay format for getting together around a table together.
GB: It seems like certain genres fit will here. The board game genre in genre matches well with social VR.
Votypka: Right. But you look at Star Trek Bridge Crew, which we still consider a social VR game—I call Werewolves an around-the-table format, while Star Trek is a crew experience. In that case you’re all looking in different directions, seated in different places, more separated around the bridge. The around-the-table social connection isn’t there. We’ve designed it into the stations so you can work with each other. You still discuss with each other. But there’s another action component to the game, going on missions and fighting Klingons as a crew. It’s different gameplay from Werewolves, but it’s still social. A lot of different types of games can work in this social VR genre.
Above: Ubisoft’s Werewolves Within. Image Credit: Ubisoft
GB: Now that you have all this learning, what comes next? Is there a second wave of games on the way?
Votypka: Right now we’re trying to get Bridge Crew out the door. We haven’t announced anything coming after that yet, but we’re continuing to look at VR, for sure.
GB: How long has Bridge Crew taken you guys?
Votypka: I don’t think we’re saying, exactly. It’s hard to put a number on it, because we’ve gone back and forth splitting the team between Werewolves and Bridge Crew.
Early: We’ve had VR experiments going on for at least two or three years at different studios. We’ve talked publicly about 10 or more studios that have tried things and done experiments. Some have worked out and become games. Some are still in the trial stage. Maybe we’ve found a good thing that works, but it’s not a full game yet.
GB: How do you look at the rest of the industry and how it may advance? The Capcom thing was pretty interesting, where a tenth of the players are playing Resident Evil in full VR.
Early: That’s back to what we were talking about around session length. Players want longer sessions. The biggest thing standing in the way today is when we cause some form of disengagement. Whether that’s from nausea, or physical discomfort because you have this three-pound thing on your head, or you trip over a cord, or the headset starts to fog up—if you remove all the non-game-related issues, session times for us get longer. People seem to want that.
There’s data from a Google survey showing that 50 to 60 percent of PS4 players wanted the same type of experience they had on a console, but in fully immersive VR. Maybe only 10 percent of players today can tolerate the weight and so forth, even though the PlayStation headset is the lightest of the bunch, but people could probably play full games as long as we solve those problems. As it gets better and better, I think we’ll get there.
Above: The Oculus Rift. Image Credit: Oculus
GB: Did you pay much attention to all the talk about the “trough of despair,” whether there’s a cycle here you have to be aware of?
Early: From our standpoint, whatever you want to call it—what I’m most afraid of is people trying VR and having a bad first experience. Then they’ll be in the camp of, “Well, I tried that, and it doesn’t work.” It’s dismissive of the whole mix. I’m worried that there are thousands of VR experiences out there now and most of them are not curated. I’d say half of them probably produce negative results in the people who try them – not necessarily making them sick, but not getting them interested in the platform and continuing on.
Votypka: It ties to their desire for bigger games and longer experiences in VR. In the early days you’d get a lot of short, small experiences. We’re trying to do our part to add larger games to the mix. As better, bigger, longer games come along, that’ll help drive user desire to purchase the equipment.
Early: You can see it in the top earning charts. All the top earners are longer experiences, games where people spend $20 or $40 or $60, where there’s more of a game there.
GB: What about VR arcades? Do you think that will help?
Early: I think it’ll be an awesome discovery mechanism. The ability to come in and experiment—from my standpoint that’s awesome because it’s a curated mix of content. They’re not going to have a bunch of crappy content there, because otherwise they don’t make money.
Votypka: I actually feel really optimistic about VR arcades, for a couple of reasons. One, the hardware they can have in there can give you an experience you can’t have at home. Unlike the coin-ops of the ‘80s, where they replicated that on the Nintendo and other consoles, when you’re adding custom hardware and the ability to touch the environment, that’s an experience you’ll never have at home. There’s a very long life cycle coming for VR arcades, I think.
GB: We see a lot of filmmaker interest in VR, a lot of Hollywood interest. They’re doing some pretty cool stuff. They’re not exactly games, but it conveys what the show is like. I see better experiences coming from that direction as well.
Above: Eagle Flight from Ubisoft will let you fly in VR over the city of Paris in the future. Image Credit: Ubisoft
Early: There’s so much we don’t know yet. I think about movies, about cinematics in VR, and I remember not looking at the right spot at the right time. It was as if the movie went on without me. Or I didn’t hear what someone said. That’s not commercial at all. And that’s just thinking about movies, how we keep people’s attention in the right place.
It’s the same in gaming. We have it easier in gaming, actually, because you can tell where someone is looking and know whether you should move the plot along or not.
Votypka: Movies are going to have to adapt some gaming technology and design there.
Early: Right. You think about that already in game design. You don’t think about it necessarily when you’re making a movie. You assume people watch what you’re doing because it’s on the screen. Oops, it was on the screen over there. Squirrel! [laughter]
Votypka: Film directors are used to having the viewer’s absolute attention. Not having that in an interactive experience is a new paradigm for film.
GB: How many intermediate steps do you see on the way to the holodeck?
Votypka: [laughs] A lot. The problem with the holodeck, if I recall correctly, is that you could actually touch things and feel the haptics and all that. That’s the hardest part of it all. But if we remove that from consideration, the rest of it will come pretty quickly.
There’s tactile feedback, touching something, or squeezing it. But then you have a situation like, I have a sword and you have a sword and we swing them at each other. If our swords go through each other, that’s not cool. How can they clash? That’s the really tricky part. I don’t know if anybody has a solution for that yet.
Early: You’ll just have to create a new form of combat that doesn’t involve physical items stopping each other.
Votypka: Spells! But even that, say I shoot a fireball at you. Are we wearing bodysuits? Are people willing to wear that?
Early: If we’re talking about investing in a holodeck, we’ll probably have air guns, sound wave machines—
Votypka: The holodeck, or something like that, will come first in theme parks. You can put all kinds of hardware in there.