Here's how Crytek and Oculus plan to bring VR to millions of gamers

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Virtual reality is a game-changer, a fast moving technology that shows no signs of slowing anytime soon. Its influence is so great, it’s already changing the way everyone involved in gaming, from creation to consumption, thinks about the medium.

This new technology is also affecting the development cycle. At a hands-on event for the newly announced Rift launch title The Climb, we sat down with David Bowman, Director of Production at Crytek, and Jason Rubin, head of Oculus studios, to talk about the future of VR.

Playing and learning

There are some questions at the heart of game development that must be addressed before diving into what’s different. Bowman has his priorities straight, having worked at Bungie, Turbine, and a number of other popular publishers before finding his way to Crytek in 2014.

“Fun comes first. That’s the bottom line. We start with ‘is this more fun than that’ and A/B test everything. We do a lot of quick iterations. Our team is as nimble as any team I’ve ever worked with. We have an idea, we prototype it, see if it works.”

Rubin isn’t new to this, either. In addition to co-founding Naughty Dog, the company responsible for Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter, Rubin was President of THQ for a time before working at Oculus. “There’s a balance between going too far to simulator, and too far to not playing. Right in between you have incredible fun.”

Virtual reality development isn’t all business as usual. There’s an added layer of immersion that makes the staggering heights in a game like The Climb more urgent, it gives every action by the player more gravity. This is exactly the sort of feeling Crytek hopes will contribute to the success of VR games.

“You know you’re in a safe environment. This is probably the best way for you to have this experience. And that’s the promise of VR. Games for me have always been about doing something that’s too expensive, too dangerous, or simply impossible.”

“We’re giving people something they want to do, intellectually, emotionally, but they might be intimidated by it. VR makes it feel richer, more immersive. You’re present.”

Bowman is thinking big, with an eye for the marketplace and the technology that’s a result of years of experience, and a healthy scoop of love for video games.

Give the people what they want

It can’t be all challenging users with new obstacles, however. Creating a fun experience is what’s ultimately going to lead to the proliferation of virtual reality.

“We’ve done about 1,200 [Return to Dino Island] demonstrations, around the world, in different audiences. Height is a big part of that feeling in the second demo. People all report that they feel high, that their stomach responds naturally to that feeling. A lot of them say ‘I didn’t think I could ever do that, and I’m glad I did.’”

Word of mouth is how VR is going to work anyway. It’s hard to sell a VR experience until you’ve actually experienced it.

Having just played The Climb, and not being a big fan of heights myself, I can tell you that the feelings he’s describing are true. For a few minutes, I really felt like I was hanging onto that wall for dear life. It’s the kind of experience that doesn’t translate well to a monitor at all, and even worse into words.

“Word of mouth is how VR is going to work anyway. It’s hard to sell a VR experience until you’ve actually experienced it. That’s gonna be how we get over that hump.” The hump, in this case, is actually selling the headsets. Early adopters and gaming enthusiasts are the users that will sell the VR experience to friends and family.

Best laid plans

While the games Crytek has planned after The Climb are unsurprisingly secret, Bowman is happy to share his ideas for where the technology, and where the company’s VR development, is ultimately headed.

“We have ambition. We know what we’re making. We know where we’re going. The way to get there is to prove out all the mechanics we need to make the larger epic thing that we want to create.

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But in order to make [VR] work, in order to do it right, we’ve got to make each experience as comfortable, and make each mechanic elegant. Combine all of those elements together, you could imagine a much broader story, but that also requires a bigger team, bigger budget, and more time. Right now is the time to do smaller, focused, beautifully elegant games. As we do more, the ambitions are going to grow with the audience.”

That new development timeline isn’t unique to Crytek, either. Game development is a moving target, and as Rubin points out, that’s particularly true for VR.

“It’s a conflict right now between time and technological progress. Most people making games for Rift started this year [2015].

When you think of those big Crysis-style games, those take multiple years. If you started in January, by the time you got to today, you’d have to scrap everything you’d done on the title and restart, because actually there’s a much better way of doing things.”

That’s not to say the blockbuster titles aren’t on the way, though. Even as Bowman and Rubin go back and forth about the development cycle of smaller titles, Rubin is clear about the fact that big-budget VR games will be just as massive and deep as games played on a TV or monitor.

“Those big games are going to come out a year or two from now anyway, because they’re huge and they take a lot of time. Instead of taking massive leaps, making these huge games, what the bigger teams are tending to do right now is build the nuggets of a larger game that’s far down the road, without the risk of being outpaced by technological advances.”

Why The Climb?

Crytek didn’t start out with the idea for a climbing game. Instead, The Climb was born out of experimenting, learning, and playing with new technology. It all began a set of tech demos called Return to Dinosaur Island that, unsurprisingly, featured an idyllic island loaded with prehistoric creatures. Bowman’s story about how those tech demos became The Climb is telling.

“In Back to Dinosaur Island we were very cautious. We put you in a cave, controlled the environment, didn’t let you move, just to see what VR in our engine was like. And it was like wow, we can make that beautiful, we can actually extend the draw distance. Then we said let’s push that. We want to do epic, we want to do bigger stories, so how do we show that? We put somebody on the edge of a cliff.

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And even there, at the top of a cliff, everything was running smoothly. Looking out over the vistas, the render calls were all good, we’re getting 90 frames per second, sub 20 millisecond response times. So now we’ve got the epic beautiful vistas, how do we do something fun in that experience?”

This fundamental question is still at the heart of gaming. That developers and game designers haven’t lost sight of it despite the breakneck pace of VR development is important, and positive.

On the precipice

To those who have used it, VR headsets like the Oculus Rift are clearly the future. But the only way to “get it” is to put the goggles on and see it for yourself. Until you chalk up and climb that mountain yourself, you won’t understand its true power.

In a lot of ways, the development of The Climb is a metaphor for where VR as a technology has brought us. Developers are standing on the edge of a cliff, goggles in hand, an expansive, idyllic world stretched out as far as the eye can see. They’re playing and learning and admiring these experiences in a way never before possible. It’s a distinct change, and one everyone will have the opportunity to enjoy at home when the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and other competitors hit store shelves in 2016.

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