Epic Games’ new shooter is virtual reality’s killer gaming app

26 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Inside Epic’s incredible first attempt at real VR gaming.

Although it seems like a no-brainer this news is peculiar on a couple of levels, the first being that Oculus Rift support was added for free by Doom creator John Carmack.The Windows 10 version of Minecraft will be compatible with the Oculus Rift headset, according to a Microsoft representative that took the stage at today’s Oculus Connect 2.Epic’s VR war room is a small office space strewn with prototype equipment: an HTC Vive, a small stack of Oculus Rift cases, even an old Razer Hydra controller. Microsoft, who now owns everything to do with Minecraft, didn’t pay him for the work, but as the head technology guy at Oculus VR he felt it was important enough to be worth his time. ‘I think [Minecraft is] the single most important application that we can do for virtual reality, to make sure that we have an army of fanatic, passionate supporters that will advocate why VR is great,’ he said. ‘This is why you want to do some of it every single day.

They’ve got another two days of squashing bugs before they can hand it off to Oculus, and a week before it appears for the first time at the Oculus Connect convention in Hollywood. Everybody that work on that at Oculus and Facebook, you all have my deepest thanks for making this happen.’ The other reason it’s weird is because Minecraft creator Notch was originally working on Minecraft VR Edition for Oculus Rift, but stopped when Facebook bought company Oculus VR for $2 billion. Now, back to ignoring Quiet because D.D. obviously is much better.” Interestingly, Persson had been vocal about his dislike for the social media service, Facebook, which now has a partnership with the game. Senior designer Nick Donaldson was in the office until after midnight, and he seems both weary and animated as he copies over the latest build of Bullet Train, helps me into a Crescent Bay headset, and hands me two half-moon controllers.

You can see his reaction to today’s news in the tweet below, with the reference to Quiet and D.D. implying he finds playing Metal Gear Solid V more interesting. The Minecraft announcement was made at a Oculus Rift press event last night in the US, where they were showing off the Oculus Touch controller and the new Oculus Medium virtual sculpting tool. A virtual partner talks you through playing with things like action figures and slingshots, and the most high-stress part is shooting toy missiles from a miniature tank.

Where games have trained me to think in terms of hitting keys and buttons, I start paying attention to things like which hand to use first when picking up a two-handed rifle. A rifle will automatically leap between my fingers if I grab one of two highlighted sections, and I can’t just shift it from hand to hand — I have to awkwardly drop it and start over. It looks just like any other FPS game map — just rendered on a different kind of screen. “I think building a 2D game and building a 3D game aren’t actually that different, other than the extra dimension,” says Donaldson. Bullet Train uses teleportation because it’s one of the safest ways to move in virtual reality (putting players in a vehicle or using a distant third-person camera are others).

The entire game is designed to carefully position players in the right spaces, looking the right direction — the teleporter will only move you to predetermined spots, placed carefully behind trash cans or desks oriented toward the center of the map. Players don’t necessarily expect photorealism from VR; because it’s so graphically demanding, an experience like Bullet Train has to use simpler graphics than one of Epic’s 2D demos. But things like scale, camera height, and sound placement matter a great deal. “This isn’t some abstraction anymore,” says Donaldson, when they get it right. “This isn’t a screen on the wall.

When Epic lead programmer Nick Whiting agreed to check out a weird little prototype from a company called Oculus, he didn’t expect it to slowly take over his life. His friend Nate Mitchell had just walked away from video game interface company Scaleform to take a gamble on a teenage inventor named Palmer Luckey — and the project he said would bring virtual reality back from the dead.

It was exactly what I dreamed of — being in those 3D worlds.” Oculus was taking an early version of its headset to the 2013 CES, and it needed something to show. Epic phased in support for VR in Unreal Engine 4, and it created or adapted flagship demos for each new version of the Rift: a miniature lava fortress called Elemental for Crystal Cove, a two-person sword-fighting game called Couch Knights for the DK2, and a street battle called Showdown for Crescent Bay. Showdown, for example, repurposed material from old non-VR demos, slowed down drastically to disguise the fact that there was only 6 seconds of motion capture material.

VR development occasionally sounds like the kind of thing that sends science fiction protagonists into existential crises. “After a day of heavy VR, I get this weird reality effect,” says Davis. “It’s like you’re now becoming more… scrutinizing [of] reality or something.” Ordinary objects have to be constantly examined, tweaked, and tested. “In our experience, you spend a lot of time looking at your hands, right? In reality, you tend to not focus on your hands, because why would you?” he says. “I think we were debugging some of the Touch stuff or something, and I was going to the elevators and was like, ‘Oooh, I have hands!

And look how they move!’” But the real problems are comparatively mundane — including finding the cutting-edge VR they need to create these kinds of demos in the first place. Epic founder Tim Sweeney was already making games during the first wave of virtual reality, which ran from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, and he wasn’t impressed with what he saw. “He was a non-believer for a little while,” says Whiting — until, according to Davis, he tried out one of Valve’s room-sized VR demos, at that point far more advanced than Oculus’ test units. “He and [Epic engineering VP] Dan Vogel went inside and were like, ‘Oh, this is pretty cool. The pixels would be like the size of a quarter sitting on a table, and running at 20 frames a second, it was just a completely disjointed experience,” he says. “It was always like, ‘I have this thing on my head, and I’m looking at some monitors, and it’s all pretty crappy.'” Today, Sweeney is an enthusiastic convert — VR, he insists, will change the world. “I think it’s really hard to remain a skeptic right now,” he says. “It’s not going to happen in the next year or two, but it’s going to happen in the next decade.

It aptly conveys two pieces of common wisdom: virtual reality is going to transform computing as we know it, and 90 percent of what early adopters see will be awful. “In the early days of iPhone, every game had virtual D-pads and they were trying to simulate a mouse and keyboard. I think that’s where we’re really looking at VR,” says Whiting. “I think the real magic is about two to three years out, when people really wallow in the space and learn it.” But VR has more hype to deliver on than smartphones did, especially because the greatest excitement is reserved for things that don’t exist yet — few people are totally satisfied with the goggles-and-controller technology that’s available right now. Like many other early adopters, Epic’s VR enthusiasts predict that virtual reality will merge with augmented reality like Microsoft’s HoloLens, allowing wearers to alternately block out the world and project visuals onto it.

It will revolutionize everything and, I think, displace all existing computing platforms, including PCs, and smartphones, and tablets, and everything else.” That includes Epic’s own desktop game-making software. “Picture every sort of content creation tool: Photoshop, 3D modeling, 3D editors associated with games — like the Unreal Editor,” says Sweeney. “Over time these will evolve to be VR-based. There’s no question that people creating content for VR would want to create that content in VR.” For now, though, the vast majority of experiences are for entertainment only. It hired a Lucasarts executive (and veteran special effects artist) named Kim Libreri to serve as CTO, and it started putting out demos that felt less like first-person shooters: a Pixar-esque animated short about kites, a virtual-reality Hobbit tie-in produced with special effects company Weta Workshop.

Right now, VR film gravitates towards live-action documentaries and short film or TV tie-ins — the series Sleepy Hollow was just awarded an Emmy for its virtual reality experience. But Libreri thinks that they’re about to start feeling a lot more game-like. “The whole idea of just looking at something becomes a little bit dull,” he says — once audiences can use headsets as a matter of course, they’ll want more interaction. “Once you’ve actually been able to move something in VR, you become pretty dissatisfied. No matter how beautiful and awesome flying over the Grand Canyon is, you still want to be able to control your own destiny.” And now that headset companies like Oculus have enough faith in their control systems to show them off in public, that’s finally starting to look like an option. Epic won’t say more about its plans beyond Bullet Train, except that new projects will start “as soon as we’re done.” It’s unclear whether the company will get a dedicated VR division, instead of pulling together a handful of people for each project.

Their creations are designed to showcase specific features on each of Oculus’ new prototypes: 360-degree head tracking for Showdown and Crescent Bay, interactivity for Bullet Train and the Touch controllers. That’s likely to hold for whatever technological leap comes next — Whiting and Davis hope it’s wireless headsets. “We haven’t actually started thinking about the next steps, since we’re just trying to finish this step,” Donaldson says. It’s hardly the fast-paced arena-running of Unreal Tournament, but after years of hands-off demos, it’s probably the most classically Epic-style VR experience yet. “It may not be for everyone.

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