Wandering between appointments at Oculus' demo booths at GDC last week, NCsoft's title Blade & Soul: Table Arena caught my eye. Partly, it was the not too subtle allusions to Clash Royale and the polished presentation which drew me in, but I'll freely admit that it was in no small part because I'd just come from a 30-minute session in Tripwire's frenetic Rift zombie shooter Killing Floor: Incursion, and what I really wanted was a nice sit down.
Jetlagged legs aside, there's a lot to recommend about the game at first glance. I'm a sucker for a pretty strategy game, for a start, but my interest was piqued by the nature of the game itself: a PvP arena MOBA game with short play times, collectible units and easy spectator potential - all perfect ingredients for an eSport.
It does no disservice to Table Arena to highlight the similarity of the core gameplay loop to Clash Royale. Players face each other across a laned playfield with a castle at each end, a deck of potential units in their hand ready to be cast. Units have different abilities, attributes and costs and are upgraded between rounds with in-game currency. Pluck a unit model from your palette and you can drop it into a lane on your half of the field, where it will wend its way generally opponent-wards, according to its particulars. When it gets to the other end, it wails on the walls of the enemy castle until it dies or the walls collapse. Casting is rationed by crystals, which gradually accumulate as time passes, but can be boosted by destroying certain neutral enemies as they wander across the battleground.
It lends itself well to a VR experience, offering immersive tabletop-style gameplay punctuated by neat touches like the highly interactive collection of units that grace the walls of the headquarters you retreat to between matches. It's simple and fast, too, with the potential for significant emergent strategy. It seems perfect for a free-to-play VR game with eSport aspirations, and NCsoft's Chung Sangwon, team leader of the strategic partnership development team, says that the company is going to take its time in fulfilling them.
"We don't have a release date yet," he tells me after my demo ends. "We have a few more hurdles to get through yet. There's a lot more balancing to do for the units; that's a big aspect of the enjoyment, nothing can be unbalanced. We're also still considering what to do with the business model. We've built it as a premium product right now, but in the commercial version you'll start off with eight or nine units, learn those units, get used to using them, then units will be unlocked as you play, uncovering new layers of strategy.
"In that sense, attaining new figures is a lot of fun in itself, so we could obviously have a layer of in-app purchases in the game. We need to see what makes more sense. We can also sell aesthetic skins for characters or for the backgrounds of the battlefields. They're based on the original game, so there's a ton of variety in terms of what we can use."
"The US and Europe is the main market for VR anyway, so that's where our market lies now"
The original game in question is Blade & Soul, a MMORPG with a distinctly different feel to the publisher's western-facing Guild Wars 2. Sangwon says the company is aware that there'll need to be some adjustments to the source game's aesthetics to make it a success in Europe and the US, but also recognises that there's little point in pushing a VR title which doesn't target those markets.
"The US and Europe is the main market for VR anyway, so that's where our market lies now. Some of our rationale behind redesigning the figures is that the original game is very Asian in its feel, so we wanted to have a more global appeal. We've gone for super-deformed, cutesy characters, which should have a broader appeal.
"I think it's really basic - Oculus and Vive are really focused on the Western markets. That's their priority now, it's where they're doing all of their marketing and promotional activity. Other, Eastern countries are their second preference. That's the main reason, not that people have different preferences or playing habits."
I ask the obvious question: with competitive play at the heart of the game, and so many of the design decisions seemingly pointing towards it, does Table Arena have an eSports future ahead of it? Sangwon is surprisingly cool on the idea. The VR market, he says, just isn't ready.
"It's not a closed door at all, but the thing about eSports is that it has to have mass appeal. So the HMD device makers need to sell a lot more units and the whole industry has to grow a lot more in order to have that reach, so people can enjoy not only playing but also watching. But hopefully the industry will get there sooner rather than later. In that sense I think we're in a good position. I think, to our knowledge, we're the first competitive multiplayer game available in the store, so that puts us in a good place."
In fact, the executive says that the limited playerbase might even cause a delay in the game's release, in order to avoid empty lobbies and a poor first impression.
"That is one of the factors that we're taking into consideration," he confirms. "We still have some development left, to decide on what business model makes sense and to look at the market situation. We don't actually have a set goal of how big the market has to be before we release, but it's something we continue to monitor by talking to Valve and Oculus and other partners."
Ncsoft is looking at the wider VR market, too. Once the game is out on Rift, Sangwon indicates that Vive will be next, followed by other HMDs and, eventually, mobile.
"Yeah, we're planning to roll out on every single platform, eventually," he says. "We'll have a single server and everyone can play together across all devices. So because it's a multiplayer game by nature, we need a wider audience to make it more fun for everyone. Down the road we have plans for making it into a mobile VR title, but we will need a lot more optimisation. We're focusing on finishing the product for the high end devices first, then we'll move on to the lower end devices."
"We're planning to roll out on every single platform, eventually. We'll have a single server and everyone can play together across all devices"
Breadth of audience isn't the only challenge facing Table Arena if it wants to beat CCP's recently announced Sparc to the title of first VR eSport. Sangwon says that ensuring people are able to watch in a sensible context presents a thorny problem, but one he'd be pleased to be forced to deal with.
"I think it'll be a very different experience, watching VR games being streamed to 2D surfaces. So that's something down the line, it's a happy concern. If it breaks out and there are a lot of people playing and taking it seriously as an eSport, that's something we need to consider at that stage, but probably not for now.
"Because it's a first person perspective game, the VR element is immersive, which makes it difficult. I think it's along similar lines to the problems that FPS games have in eSports; there are five people playing, all from different points of view, and you never know what's coming up. As a spectator sport, that's very difficult, and it's true of VR games too."