In some ways, 1980s arcade hit Battlezone can lay claim to being the first “virtual reality” game to hit the market.
Its rudimentary vector-based graphics presented a 3D view of head-to-head tank combat, viewed by the player through a periscope-style screen. A far cry from what’s offered by the Oculus Rifts of today’s world.
But squeezing your face against the viewfinder of one of the remaining cabinets, which were already old when I was young, does summon some of the same feelings. You find yourself falling into the world, aware of what you can and can’t see through the limited field of view — and, unfortunately, a bit discomfited by the sweaty physical port through which you’re staring.
So it makes sense for a revived version of the game to be Oxford-based developer Rebellion’s first foray into the latest wave of VR. The company, which acquired the Battlezone brand from its creator Atari back in 2013, hopes to launch its spin on the classic alongside Sony’s Playstation VR in the autumn, with versions for the Oculus Rift and Vive following soon after.
As a result, Rebellion becomes one of the growing number of developers tasked with writing the very ground rules of virtual reality.
There’s a lot that can go wrong. The latest generation of VR devices, led by the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Playstation VR, provide a fairly intense experience. The screens, strapped to your face, occupy your entire field of view, while headphones block out the sound of the outside world.
“The intensity can be a problem,” says Jason Kingsley, Rebellion’s chief executive and creative director. “We have a responsibility to make sure that people aren’t impacted, in a negative way, by this new technology.”
To some extent, that’s a question of modifying what you put in the game. For instance, jump scares are beloved of horror gamers,but put that same effect in virtual reality, and even the hardiest fan may well end up tearing the headset off their face screaming. For Kingsley himself, who suffers from vertigo, a similar effect was triggered by a simulation of a rollercoaster.
“Even though I knew it wasn’t real, and told myself I could overcome, I was dripping wet from sweat within seconds,” he said. But even if the content is adapted to make up for the intensity of the experience, there are other issues to deal with. Like the fact that bad VR will give you splitting headaches then make you throw up, for one.
To avoid that, the game needs a high framerate and accurate head tracking, but it also needs to give up on artistic techniques which are common in games, TV and cinema. For instance, you can’t lock the field of view, and you can’t take control of the camera, explains Kingsley.
It’s easy to understand why: doing so would feel as though some invisible hand had reached down and grabbed your head, twisting it to where it needs to be. And yet, without any inner-ear response, it also risks inspiring immediate nausea.
But that poses a problem for any sort of storytelling if the player needs to be looking in a specific direction at a specific time.In Battlezone, this is achieved with a wide field of view, ensuring that most of what’s in front of you can be seen anyway, as well as some smart signposting in the tutorial mode.
The game is also helped by being set in a futuristic tank, because the player doesn’t have to control a standing avatar.
Sitting in the chair in real life is matched by sitting in the cockpit in-game, which avoids disconcerting mismatches between body positions. It also avoids a problem faced by makers of more physical VR games, where the player is standing up and walking around: namely, trip hazards.
A lot of the first wave of VR games look likely to be set in some sort of vehicle for this reason, with Oculus launch title Eve: Valkyrie helping to set the trend. But Kingsley disagrees with Valkyrie’s approach in one key area: “we found that one thing the human brain hates is the horizon going funny. If it does, you feel wrong.”