How Brass Tactics makes VR real-time strategy accessible to core and casual gamers
Hidden Path CEO Jeff Pobst shares learnings from the design decisions behind the Oculus-published tabletop battler
While the high price, complicated set-up and beefy PC specs required to enjoy virtual reality mean the audience is primarily made up of core gaming enthusiasts, the countless firms that have invested heavily into the technology no doubt hope to reach a far wider audience in the years to come.
As such, developers are attempting to build games that are satisfying for both the hardcore evangelists and any less experienced players that get a chance to sample the tech. This has been demonstrated most recently by the release of Brass Tactics.
On the surface, Hidden Path Entertainment's latest launch may seem to be a daunting affair: a vast battlefield to manage and all the intricate systems you would expect from a real-time strategy game on PC. But CEO Jeff Pobst tells GamesIndustry.biz a lot of work has gone into making Brass Tactics as accessible as possible.
"RTS games have a tremendous amount of interface and features," he admits. "Our question was, how do we make that physical but also make it feel natural, easy for people to jump in, and make sure people who want advanced strategies have plenty available to them?"
Publisher and financier Oculus Studios gave the Hidden Path team the opportunity to spend seven to eight months prototyping potential solutions. More than half a year was spent experimenting with table layouts, navigation, and streamlined alternatives to the myriad of menus and tech trees that typically come with AAA games in this genre.
"You don't want to have a menu, and you don't want to have a lot of floating UI," Pobst says of the major differences in designing for VR compared to a screen. "You want the information you need to be physical and in the world."
He adds that the virtual reality perspective, the ability to look around you, was actually advantageous to these efforts. While PC players must scroll around the screen, zooming in and out of the map to keep on top of their various battle efforts, placing the VR user in the battlefield itself allowed access to everything they could need.
"RTS games have a tremendous amount of interface and features. Our question was, how do we make that easy for people to jump in?"
"Your awareness of a screen in front of you is limited, whereas when you put the headset on and you're in the space, your awareness of that space is actually greater than you might expect," Pobst explains. "Even if you don't know exactly what's going on [in the distance], movement out of the corner of your eye tells you to start paying attention. It's actually pretty cool - your awareness factor is much, much larger."
Unsurprisingly, Brass Tactics has been built around the Oculus Touch controllers, not only giving access to the buttons and sticks traditional gamers are accustomed to but also motion controls that tend to be more intuitive for newer players. Pobst adds that this also made the action feel a lot more tangible.
"We wanted to do a fully-fledged real-time strategy game, while allowing you to play with it the way you wish you could have played with little army men or a tabletop game, and make it feel like a physical experience," he said.
"One of the things that makes VR so great is that sense of being there, and that sense of being present in the space, and that's enhanced much further when you're using your hands like you normally would."
At the centre of this concept is the palette, a small virtual slab that appears on the player's in-game wrist - not too dissimilar to that used in Epic Games' VR version of its Unreal Editor. This 3D interface was the product of those months of prototyping and informed much of the design decisions around creating, upgrading and, more importantly, directing units.
"One of the things that makes VR so great is that sense of being there, and that's enhanced much further when you're using your hands like you normally would"
"We tried hundreds of different interfaces, laser pointers, ways you could point them, highlight them, all sorts of things," Pobst says. "We added a sticky arrow so you could see where you were directing them to, or the action that would trigger like an attack.
"Since there are different types of moves in an RTS - like attack, direct or hold position - we added those modifiers to the thumbstick. It's kind of an advanced thing, but not something you need. Then we built a hidden system underneath everything we call SmartMove, which basically analyses the area you're moving things to, the area you're moving them from and tries to do the smartest thing for you. If you're trying to retreat, it tries to disengage. If you're trying to attack, it makes sure that if enemy units come in front of you your troops don't ignore them.
"So we have a fairly intelligent way for the game to do what you expect, and then we have this switch to do only exactly what you say for those pros who really want that."
Navigation, meanwhile, is handled by grabbing and sliding the table around. Like most VR control schemes, it may take some players a while to get used to but they'll soon find themselves zipping around the map to keep up with the action. That said, this was one of the toughest aspects for the developers to nail.
"People want the experiences they remember from classic strategy games but they tend not to want it to take as much time. That's a great design challenge for us"
"The concept is very simple, but the math behind how you grab the table, how the table moves, when you let go, and when you don't let go is actually amazingly complex," says Pobst. "Part of it was driven because so many people do things so many different ways and you have to interpret that."
Of course, all this grabbing, sliding, pointing and directing sounds far more physically demanding than a typical RTS title, where players mostly move a single hand back and forth to control the mouse (perhaps with a finger or two poised for keyboard shortcuts). But Pobst assures that player comfort was high on the team's priority list and the controls have been designed to be second nature.
"While the controls and the math behind them sound complicated, you'll find that these are actually movements you do every day," he says. "If I sat down and explained how much you do in order to get up, go over to the coffee machine, make coffee, grab the cup, take the coffee back to your desk, make sure the coffee doesn't spill, it would sound exhausting - but to actually get up and do it is no big deal.
"It's the same thing here. It ends up becoming really simple mechanics that are actually not exhausting. People talk to us about how long they could play this game."
Virtual reality is still a gaming experience built around shorter sessions - a stark contrast to the hour-plus matches strategy fans are often absorbed by. As such, Hidden Path has designed Brass Tactics skirmishes to take no more than 30 minutes and built controls that account for both standing and sitting players. And yet, the team is still hoping to include all the thrills that make real-time strategy such a popular genre.
"We have a ton to learn about building VR games as the audience grows - and it is growing, just maybe not at the rate everyone hoped it would"
"We wanted all the things that happen in an hour-long RTS match to take place in the course of a half hour," says Pobst. "One of the ways we do that is we make the economy a lot simpler. If you take over a region, we automatically start building workers and they auto-start mining. We're going to focus more on the tactics of the experience, rather than the mining and resources.
"We also removed fog of war so you can see everything in the level, you can go anywhere, so you don't have to spend that whole first section of the match sending scouts and trying to see what's going on around the board. It gets rid of that early stage that's maybe a little less fun in RTS games."
He continues: "People want the experiences they remember from classic strategy games but they tend not to want it to take as much time. That's a great design challenge for us: what are all the key elements of going from the first stage to the end, and how can we make sure that's still interesting but increase the pace a bit? And also, how can we make sure that pace is still comfortable, not overwhelming to the player, but that all the drama that takes place over that hour-long session still happens in the 30 minutes?"
To quote Pobst's own "RTS speak", the key metric is APM: actions per minute.
"You want to make sure a pro player who is very good at maintaining a high number of actions per minute and thinking about multiple strategies across the map is able to show their strengths and abilities," Pobst explains. "But you also don't want it to be so high that the APM becomes a barrier for entry for people to come in and enjoy the game.
"There was a mantra we had when we went from Counter-Strike 1.6 and Source to building Counter-Strike: GO, which was 'lower the skill floor and increase the skill ceiling'. I think we took the exact same philosophy here in Brass Tactics. We wanted to make the on-ramp for people to get into it really easy [but also] ensure the game can become deeper and deeper [for experienced players].
"Over all the games the Hidden Path team has worked on, from Counter-Strike to Age of Empires to Brass Tactics to Defence Grid, we're really good at finding complex systems and making them really accessible for people to get into. Don't be fooled - this game may look simple, but actually there's a lot of emergent gameplay and microplay in here for those who want it. You can win without that, and being able to win either way is something the team worked really extensively on."
"There was a mantra we had when we [built] Counter-Strike: GO, which was 'lower the skill floor and increase the skill ceiling'. We took the same philosophy here"
Pobst stresses this is not about bringing the real-time strategy genre 'as is' from a traditional screen-based format to the uncharted realms of virtual reality. Rather this is a title designed to showcase how real-time strategy can work when built from scratch for VR.
And while this will inevitably appeal to fans of StarCraft, WarCraft, Total War, Age of Empires and all the other desktop RTS classics, Hidden Path is keen to stress that the expectations for a virtual reality title should always be different.
"We often compare VR games to the AAA games on PC, but these have smaller budgets so they don't necessarily have all the things you might have in a AAA PC game," says Pobst. "But [Oculus' titles] have much bigger budgets than other VR games, and they use those budgets to hone research and development on the right way to do things, exploring cool mechanics. It creates a really high quality experience, and it's Oculus Studios that has given us the opportunity to do that."
Brass Tactics launched last month, having been delayed from an original October release. Far from an issue with the game's development, Pobst claims this was freely offered by Oculus when both teams agreed on additions they wanted to see in the game. Not only did Hidden Path get an extension of several months, but also further funding to finance the new features.
More importantly, it enabled Pobst's studio to create a free trial version: Brass Tactics Arena. This permanent addition to the Oculus Store includes a tutorial, a mix of single-player, multiplayer and co-op scenarios, and even the ability to play against people who own the full version.
"This was a way to make sure Brass Tactics got to everyone on the Rift for free if they were interested, and the response from people playing it, enjoying it, and preordering the full game has been beyond our expectations," says Pobst.
"We thought we had something special enough that it was worth sharing a taste of it to everybody so people can work out if it's for them."
A real-time strategy game for virtual reality may seem like a title that primarily appeals to core gamers, but let's not forget that many of the highest-grossing titles on mobile are of a similar ilk. Supercell's various Clash games, Machine Zone's Game of War and countless others have engaged audiences far beyond that of typical PC strategy series, and Pobst points to this as proof that it can be a great entry point to virtual reality.
"We definitely believe so," he says. "People have said what I call the magic words: 'dude, I'd buy a Rift for that'. We love hearing that, and of course Oculus does, but the question is whether or not they actually follow through with that? I don't know, but it does feel like this game... satisfies a lot of different itches for different people so I'm hopeful that it's something that makes people want to get VR."
He concludes: "We have a ton to learn about building VR games and as the audience grows - and it is growing, just maybe not at the rate everyone hoped it would - you're going to see that access, price and really good content is going to drive things more and more. It is moving forward, and we're really excited about being a part of that."