Welcome back to Virtually speaking, the interview series with the pioneers of VR.
This week we're talking to one of the AAA companies taking a big gamble on VR: Crytek. Crytek have always been at the forefront of PC games with "Can it run Crysis?" being a long running joke for years after the games release.
Slight unrelated fact that I'll probably never get to relate anywhere else: my first ever writing job involved running hardware benchmarks on PCs that was a man standing on a dock urinating in Crysis. I watched that scene a lot while benchmarks ran.
Pocket Gamer: Crytek is quite a big company. What made you guys decide to go all in on VR with two titles?
Elijah Freeman: You know, Crytek in general, if you think about what we’ve done in the past - our DNA has been established around innovation, so that means with any kind of new tech, new medium that emerges, we want to get our hands on it and touch it and play with it as much as possible.
We started back at Crysis 2, in that timeframe we starting thinking about principles of stereoscopic rendering, so we’ve kind of been dabbling in this for quite a while. However early on, about a year, year and a half ago, we started actually prototyping things for the new headsets that were emerging.
Those prototypes were just us trying to establish how and what was of interest in terms of this new medium, but what was really cool about that is we ended up finding things that were simply so much more engaging in VR that we started to establish an idea of how to tackle simple mechanics and bring them into VR and see what was if we could embellish it.
That kind of established some core mechanics for us, and from them we extrapolated games. And I know that sounds like a really simplistic approach, but if you look at The Climb that’s exactly how we attempted it, and it’s so simple in terms of mechanic that it just lent itself to the rest of the world.
PG:I’ve not played Robinson but I played The Climb when it came over to England. I feel like it’s a really interesting game because it wouldn’t work outside of VR.
Elijah: To be honest, I haven’t given that a lot of thought because, you know, it is a VR from the ground up game.
Yeah, I would tend to agree with you. It probably doesn’t have the same level of impact, because your presence is so intense in that game that you literally walk away with a physical sense of relief when you’ve accomplished or got to a certain platform. I mean, there’s not too many games that give you absolute white knuckles, you know, like The Climb does.
PG: I feel like it’s an exciting thing because it’s opened up a lot of new avenues. I know when you guys were doing the press on it you said it was like a new genre, and I can’t think of anything else that’s anywhere near similar.
Elijah: You know, people were mentioning that to us and it stuck. I can’t think of another first-person climbing experience like this, and I think it is kind of the first of the genre. To be fair, I think it may be establishing a genre that everybody’s kind of jumping into, first-person, extreme presence. It was perfect for us.PG: You guys are climbers there, aren’t you, or at least a significant chunk of you are?
Elijah: There’s a big chunk. It’s a great experience for me because I guess I’m a couch climber, but we have quite a few subject-matter experts within our team, and enthusiasts around the studio, so yeah, we’re getting a lot of feedback that this is a surprisingly accurate representation of the intensity of climbing.
I think a unique aspect of this particular game is that people have played this and they’ve said, ‘You know what, I want to go out and climb now,’ so I’m only hoping that this-, playing this game engages, you know, people in such a way that they now have the desire to go out and actually try this in the real world. So that would certainly be a first, you know, reversing that experience.
PG: What have you noticed have been the big changes in how you’ve designed for VR?
Elijah: In terms of difference, at first blush you take a look at how a game works in VR, or at least the work that’s done for a game in VR and just for a normal AAA game, and there’s a lot of similarities, except it’s when you get into the details, actually the processes are flipped, right?
Because in many times what you want to do in a AAA game is you want to establish gameplay that makes you feel comfortable, rewarded, so on and so on.
In VR, you want to establish that VR presence, what makes VR unique, first, right? So you spend more time prototyping up front the experience as opposed to the actual gameplay. At least that’s what we’ve experienced so far. I mean, two years down the road I may come up with a new scenario, but right now that’s what we’ve experienced in the two games that we’ve been working on.
PG: A lot of people I've interviewed now have said there’s been a lot of collaboration between developers and everyone’s kind of working together, because the point we’re at now is the same point we were at the start of games so it’s working out ‘press A to jump’ and things like that.
Elijah: Right. I’d have to say VR as a medium is bringing game developers together figuratively and, you know, physically. It’s kind of interesting in the fact that VR developers, because it’s a new medium, you know, like, they’re talking-, you know, everybody’s talking about what feels comfortable, the button mappings in a certain piece of hardware, and so on.
We’re lucky to have the CryEngine so we have a lot of indie-type developers that are, you know, partners with us, as well as going to conferences. You know, I started getting the impression that the more mainstream AAA developers, they’re kind of feeling what their competition is looking at and doing.
But it seemed very collaborative. It seemed like, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing with this?,’ you know, ‘How does it feel? How big is your team?,’ that kind of stuff. So it’s been a good exchange all the way round, but you know what, to be fair, game development has kind of been that way for a long time.PG: It’s not something that I’ve ever really heard much about, but I guess people have been quite quiet about it, now with VR it’s definitely coming to the fore.
Elijah: Yeah, I think that’s accurate. I think it’s a new medium and there’s a lot of freshness, and we are in a generation of transparency. People really like to know what people are doing. There’s a blog, there’s a video, there’s a this, and I think that lends to better game development long term because, you know, people are jumping off of the work that’s already been established, and that ends up with the gamers getting better-quality games. So I’m all for it.
PG: It feels a bit like all the people jumping up now are kind of like the pioneers of it, and everything’s iterating so quickly, bearing in mind the DK1 came out, what, three years ago?
Elijah: Yeah.And that’s nothing now. Even the DK2 feels really old.
Elijah: Right, yeah. You’re right. It has grown exponentially and I suspect we’re gonna see more of that type of growth as well, because soon everybody will give it a try, at least they’ll try their hand at it, and once the player base has grown to something big, the super teams that are out there will take interest and you’ll see more monster experiences starting to occur.
PG:What would you say you were most excited about with VR?
Elijah: Well, there’s lots of things. To be fair, you know, I’m a game developer and I’ve done it a very long time, so whenever there’s a new medium I love those kind of challenges, right?
Just learning, in VR, the experience of designing for a whole new level of the 3D space. So those things are really appealing, but I think what I’m looking forward to is the social experience. I think long term, and I’m not predicting anything, I’m just saying what’s appealing to me, I think that you’ll be able to play with friends all around the world and have a social exchange where you actually are sharing things virtually with virtual characters. I think that’s really cool. That’s some good stuff, and I can’t wait to see more of that.PG: It’s not long now until the first generation of players are gonna get their hands on all the stuff you’ve been working on. Surely that’s a big thing for you guys as well?
Elijah: Yeah, I can’t wait. And we’re excited, because the feedback we’ve received, the team has really worked hard to get to where they are, and so I love when there’s a win like that and people enjoy the game as much as we’re currently enjoying it.