CP's virtual reality dogfighting shooter EVE: Valkyrie officially launched one year ago today – on March 28, 2016 – but it has actually been a very visible high watermark for the potential of virtual reality for much longer.
It began its life in 2012 as a pet project, simply dubbed EVE-VR at the time, from a small team of just five developers at CCP's Newcastle development team in the UK. The crew began work on the project after CCP signed up as one of the first backers in Oculus' wildly successful $2.4 million Kickstarter campaign, and the game was originally conceived simply as a fun sideshow for attendees of CCP's annual Fanfest event in Reykjavík. It quickly exploded into something far more significant though. Other games have come along since that arguably do what Valkyrie does better (and cheaper), but it's CCP's multiplayer shooter that still stands out as a marquee example of what's possible in VR.
When CCP later showed off EVE-VR at E3 2013, it won IGN's award for "Most Innovative" game and PC Gamer awarded it with its "Most Valuable Game" award. Writing for Kotaku, Keza MacDonald wrote aboutValkyrie's "potential to be VR technology’s Wii Sports moment: the simple, exciting, accessible experience that immediately shows people what virtual reality can offer." In June of 2014, Peter Warman, a video game analyst at Newzoo, told Fortune he believed EVE: Valkyrie played a significant role in Facebook's then-recent $2 billion acquisition of Oculus.
And so it went on. Any conversation about virtual reality over the past five years has invariably included mention of Valkyrie.
The one-year anniversary of EVE: Valkyrie this week, though, provides an ideal opportunity to look at how successful the game has actually proven to be. For all that it dominated the conversation about VR ahead of release, how has it fared since launch?
According to CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson and senior brand director Ryan Geddes, it has performed extremely well. "Valkyrie has an average session length of 60 minutes, which is very favorable in comparison to other multiplayer games, like Battlefield, which is about 90 minutes," Geddes says. An hour-long play session for virtual reality is unusually long. Articles urging players to take breaks every 15 minutes to avoid motion sickness and nausea are still quite common.
"I think we’re very happy with that," he says, "and I think, more importantly, we’ve developed a really solid core community of players. Some of those people are playing for an average of eight hours a day, for weeks on end. That’s not the majority, of course, but we do have people who are doing that."
He's less direct when I ask if he thinks players are generally sticking around or just dabbling with Valkyrie.
"I would say, as with most games, we’re seeing a mix of hardcore and long-term engagement, and more casual, pick-up-and-play behaviors," he says. "This is very typical."
With virtual reality, everything regarding speed and traversal has to be reinvented, because we don’t have the technology to give your brain the cue that you’re moving.
Pétursson describes players who've already inked themselves with Valkyrie tattoos, "It took EVE Onlinemore than a year to get some of its first tattoos!" – and how fellow developer Torsten Reil of NaturalMotion, developer of CSR Racing and the recently released Dawn of Titans on mobile, got so hooked on Valkyrie that he had to get a new VR system because his girlfriend wouldn't stop playing it on her PSVR. He believes that one of the the strongest factors in Valkyrie's success is the way its gaming experience so closely mirrors what you're doing in real life. Just as you're sitting in a seat in a space fighter's cockpit, you're likely also sitting in a chair to play the game. This gives Valkyrie an immersive edge over games with more ambitious goals that aren't yet fully solved by the current technology, such as the way walkabout RPGs like the upcoming virtual reality version of Fallout 4 generally rely on awkward "teleporting" to move around rather than walking.
"VR excels every time you can do a one-to-one experience," Pétursson says. He points out that in the two virtual reality games CCP has worked on since EVE: Valkyrie – arcade shooter Gunjack and the Sparc virtual sports game – the studio has continued to focus on one-to-one experiences such as keeping a player's head movements in tune with what's happening on the screen.
"I think all this focus on walking around in computer games is a bit of an artifact of being distant from the screen," he says. "With virtual reality, everything regarding speed and traversal has to be reinvented, because we don’t have the technology to give your brain the cue that you’re moving."
He adds that part of the reason why he thinks EVE: Valkyrie's design works particularly well is that the perception of weightlessness in the space setting keeps players from feeling G-forces as they might if they were "flying a more traditional airplane on Earth."
"It’s important that people find ways to do [teleportation] for walking or some tricks around that, but early on, we just decided not to go and go deep into that," he says. "Just find ways to make one-to-one experiences work, and make games around that."
Above all, he says, they want to focus on the player's comfort. This is especially important, he notes, as the illusions of comfort in virtual reality can't be sustained for long periods of time. "We have been seeing these kind of eight-hour sessions that Ryan is referring to all the way since the alpha," he says. "If the game is made with comfort in mind, and it's fun to play, then people will play as long as they can stay awake."
Valkyrie, Pétursson says, is most popular on the Oculus Rift (naturally, as it ships with it) and the PlayStation VR, for which it was a launch title. It's had a rougher time on Steam (and thus the HTC Vive) because that was the last platform they designed Valkyrie for, but Pétursson is confident that CCP now has most of the Steam community on board.
Petursson is quick to defend Valkyrie's pricing, pointing out that the game cost around $30 million to make and that the studio is only now making back that investment.
Still, when looking over the Steam reviews – which leave it with a "Mixed" reception – it's clear that the majority of them take issue with the fact that EVE: Valkyrie costs $60 on Steam and also has microtransactions for players to purchase Gold that can be used for premium ship decals, skins and cockpit interiors, as well as XP boosts. One of the most highly upvoted user reviews argues that the PVP-only Elite Dangerous: Arena does the same thing as Valkyrie but better – and for only five bucks, at that.
"Tried it. Not worth $60. Generic and lacks content," the review reads. "Asking for a refund... even if they cut the price in half I'd still be like 'ehh.'"
But Pétursson is quick to defend Valkyrie's pricing, pointing out that the game cost CCP around $30 million to make and that the studio is only now making back that investment. "I don't think it was a wrong call," he says. "To [be able to break even] on that investment, we went for premium pricing, and definitely, some people don't like that. It's just a fact of life. We also wanted to set the game up for continued success so that we could continue to invest in it. And I think it more or less has proven to be the right thing. Of course, it wasn't perfect and maybe we weren't exactly on point with all those points."
But what of virtual reality itself? CCP is rapidly becoming as associated with the medium as it once was with MMOs for EVE Online. "We're going to do more," Pétursson says.
Is it worth it? Steam's most recent hardware survey for the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive shows that purchases of both systems essentially flatlined months ago. In November, Chinese tech site 87870 reported that HTC had actually only sold 140,000 Vive units, and the best the company could offer in its next earnings call in rebuttal was that it had sold "much more" than that.
For that matter, virtual reality in general still struggles to deliver to same kind of rich, multi-featured experiences found in more traditional games.
The truth is that, generally speaking, VR games simply don't have as much going as traditional games, at least not yet. Much like EVE: Valkyrie, the best contemporary virtual reality experiences plop you into vehicles with seats or keep you on rails. Hell, get past the awe of feeling like you're sitting in a real starship cockpit, and Valkyrie itself sometimes comes off as a fairly generic dogfighter. EVE: Valkyrie showed us early on what VR should strive for, but few – if any – games have managed to surpass that vision since. After all the initial fervor surrounding VR, the future looks grim.
Is Pétursson worried about the technology's future? In a word, no. He points out that PlayStation VR alone has already sold over a million units and coyly hints that the number could be as high as two by this summer, though he won't say how he knows this. "I myself come from a country of three hundred thousand inhabitants, which is Iceland," he says. "So, we are closing in on being 10 times the size of my home country. That's a huge number of people."
He adds that sales of 3D cards for PCs weren't all that impressive in the beginning, especially compared to the millions of sales virtual reality units are already seeing in the same time frame. "We more or less guessed it would be at this place and managed our expectations in line with that," Pétursson says. "Time is going to be on our side."
Much like some of the more optimistic critics and consumers – consider this recent article from TechRadarthat states emphatically that "Virtual Reality is not dead" – Pétursson thinks conditions will get better once the cost of VR headsets gets more reasonable, and he points out that we're already seeing this trend in motion with the recent price drop for the Oculus Rift to $600 and the relatively inexpensive $399 PlayStation VR headset.
"We're a part of creating something magical and something that I think will transform computing as we know it," he says. "The content backlog will continue to build across all platforms and when we're into 2018, I think virtual reality will be a very, very, solid consumer proposition. And then people will join the revolution as we have done."