One of the big highlights of this year’s Gamescom was strapping myself into EVE: Valkyrie. That sense of immersion – of being in the cockpit of a spacefighter – is a dream I’ve had since childhood, but CCP’s grand experiment has brought it within reach. I’ve stared down the launch tubes several times over the last few years of development, but now it feels tantalisingly close to release.
How close? I asked Andrew Willans, Lead Game Designer on EVE: Valkyrie, just how ready it is. “Put it this way, we are in full production. We have dates, very loose dates, which are hardware-bound. We’ve said we’ll be a launch title for Oculus, we’ll be a launch title for Sony Morpheus. When they’re ready, we’ll be ready.”
It doesn’t mean that the 30-strong development team from Newcastle, England are kicking back and shooting up internet spaceships, as Willans went on to explain. “We do still have a lot of production work to go into the game. There are things that we’d love to do, and if we get the time we’ll get them into the launch product. We’re excited. We’re ready when the hardware’s ready is the headline.”
Lightning in a Bottle
EVE: Valkyrie is currently in closed pre-alpha, and I was eager to discover how it had been progressing. But before we got into the details of balance, progression, and eSports, I was interested to discover what pulled Willans to the project.
“I was actually at Ubisoft for 7 years, and worked on a range of AAA games. I tried Valkyrie at GDC, not last year but the year before, and it just blew me away. As a game designer this was the sense of immersion that I’d always dreamed of, growing up in the 80s and 90s. So I was like ‘Holy shit, how do I get into this?’ They needed someone with experience in shipping big AAA titles to come in there and just help to clarify the vision, to make sure we had all the pieces for PvP, PvE, how we have a new player experience, using exposition and balancing the mechanics. It was the perfect role for me - I was really excited to join the team.”
At this point, the core experience of EVE: Valkyrie – launching into intense team vs. team dogfighting action – was already well defined, and Willans stressed to me that he’s preserving that feel. “In terms of that launch sequence and getting out into space, I didn’t want to change a thing. Like you said, you’re on lightning in a bottle here. How do you massage all of these pieces to become a cohesive AAA game, so that we can indeed be the poster child for VR? That’s what we’re aiming for”
Just as with EVE Online, CCP’s sandbox MMO, EVE: Valkyrie will be light on story. A single-player campaign isn’t part of the studio’s plans, instead building ‘narrative-light’ missions that explain some of the backstory and setting. “It’s more of a tuition tool, how we introduce the player to mechanics and features that they’re going to experience in PvP, but do it in an offline environment so they can practice.”
“When we get people into the demo we only do controller-light. We don’t talk about doing barrel-rolls, we don’t talk about a lot of stuff on the d-pad. There’s all kinds of manual locks, there’s chaffs, there’s countermeasures. And there’s a lot of stuff going on the HUD, with shields and hull damage, fire rate and everything. We don’t go into that, because we really want to be no pre-flight checks. Get out there, have fun, enjoy VR, get some kills and feel good about yourself, then bring that to the PvP.”
“And that’s where the heart of the game is. We want to be the number one competitive multiplayer shooter for VR. And honestly, when you get in there, we’ve got two sides of PvP, half the office versus half the office, it gets insane. It’s like being in Battlestar Galactica, which is a hell of a feel.”
A Squadron of Test Pilots
Currently, EVE: Valkyrie’s pre-alpha is open to a select group of testers who number ‘in the hundreds,’ many of them with Oculus DK2 developer headsets. As Willans described, testing is currently focusing on two areas of polish: weapon and class balance, and player progression. “We’ll have matches with them on a weekend and stuff, and then we’ll talk with them about shields, hull damage, why this cannon was particularly overpowered, this missile’s not quite right, how do I get this in a Heavy class, how do I move it to a fighter class. We’re really hammering out the details of that, so all of that time is brilliant because it means we can have a really well-balanced game.”
“But we’re doing that in-line with looking at how we put in player progression, within PvP. We’re trying to reward people for spending time with a particular type of ship class. So if you like the fighter class, then how can we give you appropriate rewards and allow you to customize your ship so that it matches your playing style, but then at the same time tease you with other things? Like ‘have you tried the heavy?’ And what is it about the heavy that you like, that you don’t like? Is there any way we could make those parts modular so that you could maybe put them on to your fighter? So we’re looking at experimenting with that gameplay balance, to make sure everyone is happy and gets the craft that most matches their play style.”
With trees for each class of spacecraft, it presents a conundrum – do you focus on a single ship, or try to unlock everything? While some of us might focus on a single role, Willans thinks that completionist tendencies will persuade players to try everything. “I think initially I’ll be a fighter and I’ll follow that as far as I can, but I’ll definitely be branching out, because there’s tools and upgrades within the other progression trees that are really helpful, so you’ll probably be mire inclined to say ‘I’ll be a fighter for a bit because I’ve really got my eye on this particular perk the fighter has’, and then there’s a point on the tree where I can use it.”
With pre-alpha underway, a significant portion of feedback has understandably been about weapon balance, particularly with finding the ‘sweet spot of missiles and cannons.’ Surprisingly though, Willans told me that that level design feedback has been one of the newest challenges, mainly because VR represents a new medium with its own set of challenges.
“When you have structures in 3D space, how big do they need to be? It sounds great flying through a trench, [but] how big does that trench need to be? Where are the entry and exit points of that trench? If I say to you ‘Dude, I need backup, I’m beside the asteroid!’ ‘Which asteroid?’ Eer, yeah [laughs]. A lot of the challenge is getting hooks and environmental narrative within the level so we can call it out with each other quickly, because there’s so much going on.
But, Willans added, pre-alpha players had also praised that strong sense of immersion, echoing the cries of almost everyone who’s played EVE: Valkyrie over the past two years.
“You’re sat down, you’re in a cockpit, you’ve got a joypad/gamepad – some people even bring joysticks into the office – you’ve got a controller that feels immediate, and I think it’s that. Strap on the VR headset and you’re immediately out there. Competence in minutes, mastery in months. That’s been the strongest feedback, and that’s something that we’re keen to never lose.”