Ask any virtual reality developer about what makes a game in VR immersive, and undoubtedly you'll end up talking about locomotion. The very act of being able to move within a VR world instantly makes you connect with the environment being rendered by that high-end graphics card - it's why Vive's room-scale solution is so appealing for those who have the space. That said, because most people don't have dedicated VR rooms at home, a lot of developers resort to the teleportation mechanic. It's quick, easy and something anyone can get used to, but it sure isn't gratifying. Survios, the studio behind one of the earlier success stories in VR (Raw Data), has been developing a brand-new locomotion system in an upcoming title called Sprint Vector, which may prove interesting for the entire VR ecosystem. I played the game, broke a sweat, and then sat down with core designer Andrew Abedian during GDC.
"It's an entire system - it's actually a two-part system," he explains. "The first part being the entire arms driven [idea] - you're moving your arms, holding down on the trigger, releasing to get going, basically shooting out impulses from your hands to get around. The other half is something people don't see, which we call intended motion. Basically people run very differently in real life - some people have their hands straight, some people have them flat, some people zig-zag their hands. Well, if you do a zig-zag kind of motion you don't get a straight line if you were doing one-to-one, so in Sprint Vector, in the fluid locomotion system we take all this information and we boil it down to what we think the player wants to be doing. And in Sprint Vector you really want to be running forward."
"The locomotion system is actually very extendable, it's very flexible - we foresee using it in the future... Going forward I could see different styles using this same system"
The demo that Survios showed at GDC was merely a prototype that the studio had worked on in R&D for some time. It ultimately evolved into a racing style game, where you use your arms to almost skate and jump around and over obstacles.
"When we got to a good point with Raw Data we said, 'OK, let's take a look at some of these prototypes.' Sprint Vector was one of those - it was a completely different game at the time. It was nowhere near the speed and style that it is currently," he says.
"When we came back to it we were like 'OK what do we want out of this, and where do we want to take it?' The main thing that came from that was, there was this huge question of locomotion in VR right now. We want to tackle it head-on, we want to take the references of athletic competitions, extreme sports, game shows, and a large variety of both mainstream and niche video games and combine it into this thing that is all of those and none of those."
If the locomotion mechanic is successful on a bigger scale with the average VR player, Abedian definitely sees it being something that could be used in some form in numerous games.
"Sprint Vector kind of oddly evolved with its locomotion and because of it. The locomotion system was built specifically to answer those questions [around movement], then Sprint Vector adjusted to that and then we adjusted the locomotion to what we thought Sprint Vector should be. The locomotion system is actually very extendable, it's very flexible - we foresee using it in the future, [but] obviously this is a very early version of it, very promising though. Going forward I could see different styles using this same system," he continues.
Playing Sprint Vector was satisfying and showed that unique VR treadmills and other expensive accessories aren't necessarily the answer to the locomotion problem. Survios' early solution isn't perfect, and it takes a lot of getting used to, but the foundation feels solid. The next crucial step for the studio is to refine the locomotion based on player feedback. That's why it's brought Sprint Vector to shows like GDC and PAX and why it's hoping to launch into Early Access at some point. That's a lesson that Abedian says is important for any VR developer in the nascent market now.
"I would say pay attention to the community, pay attention to what everyone is doing. It's like the dawn of VR right now," he says. "This is really the dawn of the industry - everyone's doing a lot of different stuff. It's important to keep track of those things because we also looked at things like arm-swinger locomotion, gesture-based locomotion and our creation of the fluid locomotion system came from the fact that there were certain things we liked in those systems and certain things we didn't like.
"And it was very easy for us to quickly prototype and R&D and see what worked - basically [developers] should be in the mind to iterate. Nothing is set in stone - people are writing rules on the wall like, 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' Quite obviously, we're breaking a lot of those rules, it's the kind of thing we do at Survios. Just experiment and pay attention, and honestly, one of the biggest things with this locomotion system is it's very player-driven. The player is doing everything and we try to give them a huge tool set and a lot of utilities on how they're moving through the world."
"It's really useful as a developer to have that back and forth. For Raw Data, in particular, we took a lot of user feedback and we applied it right back to the game"
Abedian, who was the lead designer on Raw Data as well, attributes much of that game's success to the role of player feedback. The modern trend of open game development has been a valuable tool in the VR space.
"I hope players appreciate it honestly. It's really useful as a developer to have that back and forth. For Raw Data, in particular, we took a lot of user feedback and we applied it right back to the game," he notes.
"There's always a lot of factors going on. As a designer, you have a core vision for your product and maybe other people don't really see that vision. Sometimes it's not developed yet so they couldn't see that vision, so they might have a different perspective or they don't understand your perspective. That being said, everybody can judge and play a game and say what they think they'd like to see in it. And if it's a good idea, it's a good idea - we pay attention to those things. What we'll do is we'll take that kind of idea and go 'What can we do with this?' Maybe we can't apply it in the exact way that they're saying for x,y, and z reasons but 'What can we take from this and deliver on what this person wants?'"
Sprint Vector's competitive nature seems to lend the title to eSports, spectating, and possibly the burgeoning VR arcade scene. Abedian agrees that those all could be factors.
"We see that here at GDC in particular because players are next to each other [racing] and that's what it would look like literally [in an arcade]. I wouldn't say [we had thought of it] from the get go but it's something that became very obvious, just how easily spectatable Sprint Vector is," he says. "That would definitely lead to the arcade scene - way too early to decide stuff like that and we have a V1 of Raw Data in arcades. So it's very early for that."
He adds, "I'm less focused on that and more focused on, since Sprint Vector is so watchable and inherently enjoyable it doesn't need mixed reality footage to sell it. You kind of understand what the player is going through just by watching their first-person camera. You get a feeling of terror when they mess up, so I want to see where we can go with that aspect actually because we were also doing tournaments in-house and it was just exhilarating. I was racing someone from QA and he beat me and everyone was cheering and I felt crushed. It was awesome."
Survios has been an active supporter of HTC Vive from the beginning, so with HTC now sending out Trackers to developers, would a motion-based game like Sprint Vector benefit? After all, if you wear Trackers on your feet, suddenly the game could map your leg motions. Abedian is intrigued, but at this stage utilizing the Tracker probably would be counter to their entire locomotion innovation.
"To me, it is very clear that in the future we will have a device that does both VR and AR, it will be lightweight, it will be hopefully affordable and it will change everything"
"I definitely want to experiment with that stuff. I haven't used the Tracker yet. As soon as I can, I want to kick something with it. That being said, I have no idea how we'd apply it to Sprint Vector - maybe it would make sense, maybe it wouldn't. Honestly, a lot of what makes Sprint Vector work, particularly the fluid locomotion system, is that it's all built within your hands," he explains.
"You transfer everything in your hands fluidly, one thing to another and when you really get good at the system and you understand every little bit of it, it's very easy to just get in this flow state and just do it. You just see the challenge ahead of you and you already know what you're supposed to do and it then comes down to this rhythmic timing. I don't know how that would [work if] now you have to move your legs and everything. That being said, we have to experiment with it. We love to experiment with all things VR. If in Raw Data a crawler was at my feet and I got to curb stomp it, that'd be awesome."
As Survios continues to experiment with things in the VR world, one project doesn't suffer on account of the next big thing on the horizon. Abedian makes it clear that Raw Data doesn't lose any resources as Survios builds up Sprint Vector. "We just get more [people] and move them around," he says.
Survios continues to push boundaries in VR but Abedian is confident that AR will play a big role in the future as well.
"To me, it is very clear that in the future we will have a device that does both VR and AR, it will be lightweight, it will be hopefully affordable and it will change everything. It is literally going to change everything because we're going to start learning in new ways, it will replace a lot of physical screens. This stuff is not a question of if, it's a question of when... It'll become a new tool for a new age," he says.
Abedian says that Microsoft's HoloLens blew him away, even with its tiny field of view. "Honestly, if I hadn't experienced HoloLens first hand I would also be like, 'Yeah maybe, maybe not' [about AR]. HoloLens as limited as it is, with what its display is... It's a tiny rectangle, a tiny glimpse into the future."