While virtual reality has steadily been picking up pace over the last few years, it’s still mainly the smaller studios that are heading out into the unknown and experimenting with the possibilities that this new technology offers. One such company is Dream Reality Interactive, launching Arca’s Path today for practically every VR platform going.
Arca’s story follows a young girl who’s drawn into a VR simulation of her own, having to guide a ball down increasingly more treacherous paths as the landscape transforms from one level to the next. It’s a nice, light, but at times challenging experience – our review will be live a little later today – and we spoke to dRi founder and CEO Dave Ranyard about its creation and his insights on where augmented and virtual reality are heading in the future.
Dave has a long and storied history within the games industry, including his time as the Director of Sony London Studio as they were forging Sony’s AR and VR technologies and games. But what caused him to take the leap into independent development, leaving the warm embrace of a large company like Sony?
“I kind of just wanted to do my own studio,” he stated. “As a career I’ve done other things in my life which have been much more independent. When I was 17 I opened this antique clothes shop in Sheffield across the road from a pub that was an art school, so I’ve been there in that situation, I was in a band signed to Warner Bros. for a while. […]
“I really enjoyed my time at Sony and I got to do lots of different things. I started out as a coder, then I set up the audio department, a lot of the branding and video work, I ran SingStar for four years, I made Wonderbook with JK Rowling, I made most of VR Worlds which was a launch title for PSVR… so I was pretty happy with what I got to do there, and I hadn’t had the same job for all that time. Nevertheless, like you say, it was the cosy comfy arms of a big corp and I wanted to go out there. To be honest, I was 48 when I left, and I guess there was a mental barrier there of ‘Am I going to go indie at 57?’ So I decided to do it then.”
The time was certainly right, with indie development much more viable now than in the early 2000s, and with new frontiers to explore. dRi dove straight into exploring both VR and AR, with Hold the World commisioned by Sky VR Studio to take you behind the scenes of the Natural History Museum, and now Arca’s Path.
Dave said, “This is a super cool space to be in to try new things and pioneer. Genuinely, you can use the word ‘pioneer’. There’s a million game mechanics in this space, and we always set out to be VR and AR, because I’d actually done a lot more AR work than VR, with EyeToy, EyePet and Wonderbook. It just felt like a good place to go out and try new things. Most of the time I was at Sony, I was at a studio that was well known for doing new things, not for doing this IP for however many iterations, so this was in my blood.”
Arca’s Path has now come along with a simple concept and even simpler controls. You have direct control over a ball and point with your head to where you want it to go, as though it’s a powered ball like BB-8. With no controller to worry about, it makes it both accessible and also practically universal in what you can play it on.
Dave recalled, “I said to the team, ‘What can we do that will run on everything?’ and this was actually in 2016 when we’d just started and there were all these different controllers. So what were we going to target? There were ones with hand controllers, then there was the PlayStation market, Gear had some gamepads but no wand at the time. The team came up with [Arca’s Path], and there was one comment which was, ‘I dunno, a ball?’
“We’d been playing around with some asynchronous two player, where one person was the hands and the other player was controller almost a little BB-8 or something like that. A ball is useful because everyone’s played with one, you know how they work, it gives you physics. We tried lots of different ways of controlling it, just by moving your head or looking around, and it took three or four months to get right, which is quite a long time. I do see stuff where I think, ‘They’ve spent a month on that mechanic,’ because it’s not quite there, and that’s where I feel you sometimes get a dinner plate of different things rather than a meal. We kept on just iterating, and basically working in physics, using that as the language of the game so you can try different things.”
And it works really nicely. Of course, Dave admits to having games like Marble Madness and Super Monkey ball as inspirations, but it handles differently, because you’re controlling the ball and not the world, and it follows your gaze, even able to stop and roll up an incline.
“There was a conscious decision not to overload with lots of functionality on the ball,” he said, “but to put the challenge in the environment. So it wasn’t about ‘Hey! Now you’ve got this pick up you can shoot things!’ We wanted to have these pure mechanics and then have the challenge come from playing around in the environment and having objects, movement, bridges and things like that.
“I think, what we found at E3 and things like that, is that anybody who’s played a video game, if you put it on their head you don’t really need to say anything else. […] It was one of the easiest E3s I’ve done, because I’ve done dancing games!”
It’s got style as well, thanks to an interesting pink and pea green palette that it opens with, and getting a classic sci-fi vibe through marrying glitchy ambient music with a triangular graphic novel style during the light moments of music.
Dave’s a fan of having three core pillars both for his studio and his games. He told us, “Years and years ago I worked on Wipeout 3, and my takeaways from that were that you want really cool graphics, getable gameplay and an awesome soundtrack. I wanted to put that into Arca’s Path as well, because if you get those three things working together, you get a great game.”
While Arca is out in the here and now, Dave’s experience also lets him look to the future of these technologies and how they can evolve and reach different people. In fact, he dug up an old video of his mum in an early PSVR playing the shark cage experience from VR Worlds as an example of that reach.
“I used this in so many presentations,” he recalled, “inside Sony and then when I left. It was just such a good ice breaker where I can go “Oh, that’s my mum!” But in that video you can hear my eldest son who was ten at the time, and the story that I tell around that, which is absolutely true, is that they both did it and then they talked about it all day. So that game, even though it’s single player, was a shared experience.”
For VR to take that next step seems like a challenge on all fronts, from resolution and more uniform inputs – it’s interesting and a bit telling that Dave barely even considers the PlayStation Move when discussing 1:1 hand controls. However, two areas seem to excite him most:
“The thing I’m very interested in is the standalone headsets. There’s a certain risk that you’re getting more movement and it’s more like getting a Rift, but you’ve not got as big a processor. However you can deal with that and we’ve made games and experiences on all platforms, so there’s always things you can do to make it work.
“6 DoF head, two hands, and then decent enough processing. If you think the pricepoint of those is now $200 for the Oculus Go, the Quest is going to be $400, and that’s pretty competitive. A year or two after that, it’s going to get really interesting.”
Beyond that, it’s really on the market reaching a critical mass to support developers making more connected game. “One of the big things we don’t have at the moment is concurrency for multiplayer,” he said. “There’s just not enough headsets to really sustain it, but that will happen, there will be point and it will be quite significant because multiplayer is awesome in VR. It really is. The sort of gameplay that you can have is really powerful, and that sense of being with other people if you’ve got presence, some sort of embodiment and you’re in there with your mates, it’s phenomenal.”
Arguably, we’re already reaching that point with multiplayer games like Firewall: Zero Hour and Star Trek: Bridge Crew gaining dedicated followings, but there’s equally been a number of multiplayer games that haven’t hit the mark. Either way, while thoughts are turning to the next generation of home console and flatscreen gaming, there’s fascinating things in store for virtual reality as well.