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Out of the Launch Tube

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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Just over a month ago, EVE: Valkyrie launched on the Oculus Rift. With an intense arcade style, the space combat sim represents the culmination of experimental development over a number of years, from early prototype to early access consumer launch. Now that VR headsets are finally shipping out, eager gamers are able to try out CCP’s latest concept for themselves.

For Lead Designer Andrew Willans, it’s all running according to plan. At Gamescom last year, he assured me that the studio would be ready alongside the hardware. When we caught up again at EVE FanFest 2016, he elaborated that this is the first step, with over a year of post-launch development already planned out. New maps, new ships and new platforms are all on the Newcastle studio’s slate, as EVE: Valkyrie becomes a ‘game-as-a-service’.

Before the new content arrives, however, Willans’ team is focusing closely on responding to player feedback and ‘battle hardening’ the game; social systems, progression kinks and similar gaming staples are the highest priority. But, beyond the immediate, that ingenious creative spark remains. With imaginative ideas for motion-tracking controls, and the possibility of player-created content, the VR experiments seem set to continue long into the future.

A Battle-Hardened Valkyrie

With the Oculus Rift launch behind him, I asked Willans what his team had learned in the month since. Laughing, he replied that ‘We’ve learned that we need more hardware in the hands of players.’ Even with an existing base of users with Development Kit 2 headsets, which enthusiastic and eager pilots have been using while waiting for full-spec consumer versions, the slow fulfilment of hardware pre-orders is a drawback.

However, despite this setback, Valkyrie is still growing. The studio has a display mounted on a wall, slowly tracking the growing number of pilots. ‘I almost imagine FedEx boxes being delivered and Oculuses being unpacked, and you can see these peaks of players steadily coming online.’

Setting itself apart from the many interactive experiences on the Oculus Home Store, EVE: Valkyrie was offered as a full-fledged game, available for free as part of the package. As a result, a player’s first experience might only be brief, but they almost always return for more. Willans’ launch-day experience was much like my own, as he later explained. ‘I was like a kid at Christmas. I downloaded every single thing, and I had a look at everything. You’ve got all your presents, and you open them, but you don’t sit and play with one thing. I went through the same thing everyone went through. And then people come back. Because we are a game; we’re not a five-minute movie, or an experience or diorama, we are a full on game, progression system and everything.’

With the barrier to entry being the price of a headset, I was interested to find out just how sticky Valkyrie had become, and how many players had been converted to regular pilots. Among other metrics, it’s a figure the studio is keen to work out. ‘We’re genuinely still waiting for data to come back on that, because it hasn’t been long enough to study any meaningful pattern.’

‘We’ve now put trackers in to look at when people complete the new player experience flow, and then how much time they spend in multiplayer from that point on. How much time they spend in offline modes, the PVE modes. So we’re waiting for a lot of that tracking data to come back in.’ There might be a few oddities lurking in that data, especially with some players using the single-player Scout mode and inner ship locations as a way to show off VR to curious friends. Even so, Willans added that the data will help to influence future development plans, alongside community feedback

Flying Squad

Putting the hardware supply constraints to one side, a small but burgeoning community is already starting to emerge. Some are becoming well-known, almost celebrities, their fame buoyed on by some early tournaments. After clocking up several thousands of kills in-game, they’re becoming feared by both player and developer alike. ‘I’m scared to fly against QuantumDelta and Wan5; they’re ninjas out there.’

In order to encourage this young community to grow, Valkyrie needs to have strong social nuts and bolts. Willans shared that this area had the strongest feedback so far, with many clamouring for a better squad system that makes inviting and communicating with friends easy. It’s hardly surprising, considering the relative maturity of Xbox Live and PSN compared to the rudimentary Oculus service that currently exists. ‘We want to nail the social aspects of Valkyrie before we address anything else, because it is a team game first and foremost, and having a cool squad that works well together is critical to being a successful pilot.’

In the end, it’s likely that some kind of overarching social system will emerge, particularly as EVE: Valkyrie goes multi-platform - with cross-platform play - later this year. As long as the bumps can be ironed out, limited hardware supplies will no longer be a factor in how many pilots can head out to New Eden. ‘We’ve always wanted to do something like this because, if you develop a game, you want as many people to be able to play it as possible. It’s good that the publishers, the product owners, can allow this to happen. I think it’s great for the medium - VR as a platform in general - it’s great, because you’re building a community together.’

That community turned out in droves at EVE FanFest, either to hear about the latest game modes being added, or packing out roundtable discussions on future development. CCP Newcastle have even invited players to vote on roadmap items, and provide feedback of their own. There’s even talk of a community-organised NA vs. EU tournament later this month.

Having an eager community early-on has already paid dividends, helping to refine various aspects of Valkyrie, especially in hard-to-test areas such as user progression. What might feel sensible for a developer that’s familiar with the game can be onerous for a newcomer trying out space combat or virtual reality for the first time, and feedback has helped in tuning the curve.

Likewise, AI bots are used when there’s a shortage of pilots. For seasoned veterans these were tuned to be challenging, but the artificial intelligence could be a little brutal to newcomers, as Willans explained. ‘Some of them are just too damn good. We have a very talented AI programmer, and he’s created a range of awesome, badass personalities for those ships.’

Since then, the team has been monitoring data and tweaking values. Target preferences, nemesis systems and more can be altered, updating Valkyrie without the need for patching. And when a patch is needed to update a component, the team is aiming to fix things quickly. To Willans, EVE: Valkyrie is a ‘game-as-a-service’, always on, always available, and regularly being updated, describing these features as just a luxury of the platform.

New Wings

Beyond battle-hardening and social systems, what lies next for EVE: Valkyrie? In agreement with narrative designer Andrew Robinson, Willans picked out the new Carrier Assault map, which will be heading our way later in Summer this year. Now in full-on gameplay testing, the team is currently working on refining scoring rules, victory conditions, and other match mechanics.

Carrier Assault will be joined with another new map, named Crossroads, which debuted at the EVE Valkyrie tournament held during FanFest. There was a little hint that more PvE content might also emerge, as Willans described how the studio liked to theme it in a similar way to the PvP maps. ‘I think it’s quite elegant. I like the fact that a planet is distinctly Forge or Shipyard, and then when we do stories or PvE content, we theme it round those same things that people are used to seeing in PvP.’

On top of new ships and ship classes, there’s also a possibility we might be treated to more experimental ideas for Valkyrie later on, particularly with motion controls such as the Oculus Touch. Willans was adamant that these wouldn’t be gimmicky concepts: ‘I don’t want to be cleaning the windscreen because I’ve got space dust on there. We’re not that kind of game. We’re sat down, intense arcade thrills, and so everything’s been thought out for comfort.’

Instead, Willans suggested the idea of enhancing the user interface, with a pilot being able to reach out and touch controls. He conjured this image of being able to customise your fighter in the hanger, applying paint and decals in an intuitive manner to create a bespoke look for your own personal wrecking machine. Ultimately though, it would need to add to the experience of Valkyrie, rather than being a distracting novelty

With an enthusiastic community behind him, and the whole of New Eden to pick from, I finished by asking Willans if we’d ever see player-generated content in Valkyrie. While he’s enthusiastic about the idea, it ultimately comes down to priorities. ‘It’s more a case of how we would build the systems to facilitate it, and how much dev time that would take up right now. To do something like that properly, you need a good tool set, you need a good list of ingredients, and you need all of those things to be accessible.’

Right now, Andrew Willans and CCP Newcastle have a very busy year ahead of them, with a steady stream of new content and two more platform launches. But who knows what next FanFest will bring; as he himself said: ‘Maybe this time next year, we’ll have the chance to go “how do we put control into the players’ hands?”’


Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.