It would be easy to say virtual reality has captured the imaginations of the games developers the world over. Easy, but wrong.
While we've seen a deluge of impressive and ambitious VR delights, a casual glance at some of the biggest titles out there reveals one thing: they're all first-person, and often involve shooting things. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large the rise of virtual reality seems to be led by wave-based shooters, or perhaps violence-free narrative adventures explored from a first-person perspective.
Perhaps this is to be expected: the very concept of immersing the player via a VR headset naturally lends itself to such a perspective, and its ability to transport the users into the game's world at the expense of any awareness of the real one is still magical to many. But UK studio Paw Print Games is one of the developers determined to prove virtual reality can be used for something a little different.
Enter Bloody Zombies, the studio's debut game announced today. Published by nDreams and due for release this year, this 2D co-operative brawler sees up to four players fight through a ruined London overwhelmed by the undead. The side-scrolling action is instantly familiar to anyone who has played Streets of Rage et al, but one or more of these players can wear a Rift, Vive or PSVR and get an entirely new perspective on the game.
Once the headset is on, the player is treated to a diorama-style view of the entire level, centred on their character. This enables them to see the enemies ahead and spot hidden areas that can't been viewed via the screen. The environments are 3D, but the 2D characters become walking cardboard cutouts - think Paper Mario meets Final Fight, with a Borderlands art style and a lot of zombies.
In addition to simply being fans of classic 2D brawlers, the project was the chance for Paw Print to prove that VR can enhance more than just first-person experiences.
"I want to see more diversity in the games. VR has a lot more to offer and there's more to explore with this technology"
"I consider myself a VR enthusiast and I definitely feel at the moment that I want to see more diversity in the games," lead game designer Steven Knapman told GamesIndustry.biz. "We've seen a lot of games that offer similar experiences: table tennis games, archery games, and so on. But I feel like VR has a lot more to offer and there's more to explore with this technology. So this is bringing in a bit more diversity and it's actually a genre I'm quite passionate about. It was interesting to see how we could bring that genre to VR in an original way.
"I picked up an Oculus Rift dev kit the moment I could get my hands on one, and as someone in the earlier days, I was trying pretty much everything I could. Some of my favourite experiences were this kinda diorama experiences. Games like Blaze Rush, Toybox Turbos. They genuinely made me smile. It didn't have to be an immersive first-person thing to add something special. I feel like there is a lot to explore right now. We're still in the early days of VR and, yes, there have been a lot of people tending to focus on things that are the safer bets but I feel like there is way more to be seen in the VR space. It's riskier but I think it's going to be worth doing."
Bloody Zombies is by no means the first VR title to explore 2D (or at least non-first-person) gameplay, but is certainly one of the few that genuinely adds something to the gameplay. Most of top-down or 2D VR games offer little more than a novel perspective on the action - even Oculus' own 3D platformer Lucky's Tale could easily be played without the need for virtual reality.
And in the case of brawlers, Bloody Zombies solves a problem I have personally had with the genre since its inception: actually lining yourself up with the enemies. Once you're using virtual reality, it becomes easier to gauge where each character and zombie is in relation to each other. Conveying this and any other advantages, as well as proving that the VR perspective is not just a novelty, is something Knapman describes as the team's "biggest challenge".
"We need to get the game out there for people to experience it and understand what [VR] brings to the game"
"We need to get the game out there for people to experience it and understand what [VR] brings to the game," he says. "We can do what we can to describe it, but really we just need to get people to experience it."
It's also interesting how Bloody Zombies is primarily a multiplayer game and the mechanics do not differ whether you're viewing the action on the screen or through VR. Many virtual reality multiplayer titles are exploring the possibilities for asynchronous multiplayer, with couch-based players working either against or in conjunction with whoever has the headset on. For Paw Print, this was vital: the team wanted the game to be just as satisfying as a non-VR title.
"If someone tells me 'here's a new brawler', I'm not looking for them to tick a box for a new technology," says Knapman. "I want to play a brawler with the proper gameplay and see how it can be enhanced for the technology. As someone who's a fan of this style of games, this is exactly what I would want from a VR interpretation. You could make an asynchronous experience but I feel like that would be a very different kind of game.
"I want to see some more VR titles where it's a proper game, an uncompromised experience where we haven't tried to rework it in ways that don't make sense for the genre. You're playing a brawler and we're doing everything we can to enhance it for VR without taking away from what it's supposed to be at its core."
While the gameplay is similar, transferring from VR back to the screen does limit players somewhat. It's no longer possible to see what's ahead, or what secret areas and chests might be just beyond the screen's borders, and (for a brawler beginning like myself) it's harder to ensure you're in-line with enemies before you attack. Since the game is almost certainly going to be played by friends passing a headset around so everyone gets to experience the VR perspective, how can Paw Print ensure the screen-based players don't feel disadvantaged?
"It's no worse that what a brawler would ever be. What you're feeling is the advantages or the enhancements of having the VR"
"It's interesting because those limitations... that is the normal experience when you play a brawler on a 2D screen: you're constrained to the screen edges, you have all these limitations," Knapman observes. "It's no worse that what a brawler would ever be. What you're feeling is the advantages or the enhancements of having the VR.
"We wanted to play that up, we wanted people to understand why we're doing this in VR. So rather than downplaying it too much and trying to shy away from what VR allows us to do, these are the things you tend to notice because it's adding something to that experience."
Building a virtual reality title around multiplayer - or enhancing a multiplayer with virtual reality, depending on which way you see it - is another example of the illusions Paw Print is hoping to dispel: that VR needs to be anti-social.
"Hopefully Bloody Zombies helps fight that view that [VR] isolates you. There's a lot of single-player experiences, but that doesn't mean that social and multiplayer isn't a valid way to play VR"
"Hopefully it helps fight that view that [VR] isolates you," says Knapman. "There's a lot of single-player experiences out there that are great, but that's a different type of game and doesn't mean that social and multiplayer isn't a valid way to play VR."
Each of Bloody Zombies' levels are presented as a diorama when played in VR; a slice of London with the gameplay area at the front and a lovingly crafted 3D background incorporating various landmarks in the background. The VR player can obviously see all of this and more, including the void in which these dioramas float. Does incorporating virtual reality not add to the design team's workload?
"Yeah, the artists can't cut as many corners," Knapman laughs. "It's obviously possible with things like room-scale to just walk into the level and if you really want to go out of your way to see something you shouldn't be able to see, we can't stop you. But from the typical play space, we just made sure it feels like a complete world.
"That's something we had to work out as we decided how to structure this. In one of our original demos, we actually had a full 360-degree environment. The interesting thing we found was it didn't do a lot for immersion but it increased the art requirements to an insane level. Performance is also something we've had to be very careful about because we're rendering in stereo for the VR headset and we're rendering a separate view for the co-op players on the TV, so we're essentially rendering the game three times. To get the level of fidelity we have and to render it three times, that was actually quite a challenge.
"This 'slice' structure felt like it made the most sense: it still gives you that nice diorama feel, and while the artists do have extra work to do, thankfully it's not the full 3D world we had previously aimed for."
I had to stifle a snigger at the title of the game, because Bloody Zombies is exactly my reaction when yet another undead-centric game is announced. So why zombies?
"It can come across as an overdone theme of games as a whole but with brawlers, zombies isn't actually a common theme"
"It can come across as an overdone theme of games as a whole," Knapman admits. "The interesting thing part is that with brawlers, zombies isn't actually a common theme. The themes tend to be the retro, '80s to '90s street punk look. When it comes to zombies, there isn't a lot out there and it actually works really well for some of the things we're trying to do in terms of the enemies.
"We can play about with the violence without it seeming too extreme, which is great because for VR we wanted to bring in as many effects as possible. If you kill a zombie with a heavy special attack, their whole body explode so we can do limb explosions. If that was people... It's nice being able to do something where it doesn't feel too gratuitous.
"The other thing was we wanted a lot of enemy variety, and we can play about with themes of mutations. It allows us to have very distinct-looking enemies, so players can identify different enemy classes and learn their behaviour. It works well with the art style, and it just gives us a lot to play with. It's definitely not a theme that's been overdone specifically on the brawler side."
This leads on to an interesting point that also speaks to the lack of imagination perhaps scene in the virtual reality space. Most VR games - particularly shooters - pit players against robots, drones and (of course) zombies. Human enemies are currently very thin on the ground.
It could be surmised that this is a conscious decision from developers, keen to avoid provoking the anti-video games crowd that would no doubt leap on immersive games in which you shoot or stab humans as further proof our industry is training murderers. Perhaps it's to avoid offending people, who find virtual reality 'too real', and therefore any violence all the more shocking. Knapman, however, offers a simpler explanation.
"A lot of VR development in general is on the indie side, and for some people rendering humans is a bit more of a technical challenge," he says. "There definitely could be some people that feel it becomes too personal, too intimate... I think eventually we're going to see those experiences but I think for a lot of people it'll be things like robots, where you don't have to deal with things like lip sync. It's a convenient thing to do for some people and maybe they wouldn't be able to achieve realistic people. Even some of the social VR experiences, the avatars are quite basic at the moment.
"When more AAAs get into the place, I don't think it's something you're not going to see. There's more to it than just being scared of the violent aspect."