Epic’s ‘Bullet Train’ For The Oculus Rift Looks Awesome

25 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

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.Oculus are also doubling down on this accessibility angle, with the joint announcement of newer version of the Oculus Platform – a framework and ecosystem similar to Steam, PS4 or Xbox One’s front end.

Oculus has announced a partnership with PC manufacturers to make sure that virtual reality PC systems will be available at launch to consumers priced under $1,000. Sure there wasn’t any information about a solid release date or price point, but Oculus VP of Product Nate Mitchell explained why that’s so important. 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. Using the Oculus Touch controller for locomotion, the game features a world-scale VR gunfight with gameplay that “weaves in and out of bullet time”. Speaking to PC Gamer, Mitchell likened Oculus’ strategy with pricing details and release to Apple, saying that there was no reason for the company to want to take your money early.

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. So if I’m going to promise you something and you’re going to hand me a significant amount of money or whatever it is—we all know it’s going to be at least $300—if you’re going to hand me $300 today, I am not going to be excited to tell you: ‘OK, in nine, 10, 12, 11 months, whatever it is, you’re going to get something in return.’ Oculus has been tight lipped about pricing for the Rift, but said this time last year that the headset would fall somewhere in the region of $200-$400. But previously it has been suggested that users will require a graphics card similar to the Nvidia GTX 970 or AMD equivalent to be able to enjoy the Oculus Rift experience.

Bullet Train is an evolution of their DK2 demo, Couch Knights which was started as a demo to employ numerous different technologies involved with VR in an Unreal Engine game. Judging by the comment above, it seems that scale has tipped slightly in the more expensive direction, with Mitchell somewhat confirming that the Rift will cost no less than $300. 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. Bullet Train, as its name suggests, drops me in a fast-moving subway car that has me turning around to get my bearings — I do a quick double-take at a couple of reassuringly familiar MTA etiquette PSAs. 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.

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. 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. When Sweeney says “VR” will change the world, that’s what he’s talking about. “I think of VR as having a potential audience of like, 250 million people,” says Sweeney. “It’s not all of humanity. 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.

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. Epic’s developers can describe lots of ideas for virtual reality, but if they’re ready to embark on any grand, unified plans, they’re not telling. 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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