Inside Epic’s incredible first attempt at real VR gaming

25 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Bullet Train, Epic Games Reveals a Sci-Fi Shooter Built Especially for the Oculus Touch.

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.Epic Games unveiled its newest “VR experience” at Oculus Connect 2 today: Bullet Train, a first-person shooter demo than makes use of the Oculus Rift and Oculus Touch motion controllers to simulate an elite agent training program inside an ultra-modern train station.

Epic Games has already done a lot for the virtual reality (VR) community by loading its Unreal Engine 4 development middleware with support for the technology. Bullet Train is an evolution of their DK2 demo, Couch Knights which was started as a demo to employ many of the different technologies involved with VR in an Unreal Engine game. 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. The experience that they’ve created is built completely around the Oculus Touch controllers, letting you interact with the environment in all dimensions. Ahead of its announcement on-stage at the event, VRFocus got to sit down with Epic Games’ Seattle Studio Manager Ray Davis, Lead VR Engineer Nick Whiting, and CTO Kim Libreri to talk about the origins of this impressive new demo.

You can control not just locomotion with the half-moon looking controllers, but also to pick up weapons and experience an interesting and visceral experience. As The Verge notes in its in-depth coverage of Bullet Train, teleportation is only possible to specific points in the map, and plans to make the escalator ridable were scrapped after Oculus testers tried it and felt queasy on the way down. Inside you’ll apparently be able to take advantage of a bullet time mechanism, something similar to what’s found in Max Payne, though a lot more personal from the FPS perspective. Nick Whiting (NW): We were talking about action films like Hard Boiled and Oldboy where they have these kind of one shot scenes where you’re kind of following through a hallway and just a bunch of bad guys are coming out.

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. You want to interact with things and not be, you know, barraged in a game that requires skill but a game that makes you feel like super human or a badass.

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. Finally, while Epic Games shares a tellingly close relationship with Oculus VR itself, Sweeney takes the time to reflect on other major HMDs such as PlayStation VR and HTC Vive, commenting on their quality and how this reflects the state of the industry as a whole. So that’s where we looked and initially had the idea of going straight down the hall, but then once we got to take our resources to kind of open it up and build a cool kind of train station. [One developer] was like “Hey, let’s do it in a train station or something so we can open it up and fill out a bigger space.” And then we kinda took the kind of micro-game of grabbing guns off of people in a very contained environment and brought it into a very wide environment and then put the teleporters around to let you traverse and see it from multiple angels since obviously walking around is not working so we needed some way to let you kind of move. Wouldn’t it be awesome to grab a gun out of his hands?’ And then it was just a few weeks ago that Donaldson actually got the bullet time back and working in VR to do that. I think it’s like, every time you do it and have a really great experience with it you’re like ‘What about that?’ and at some point we have to say ‘Okay, stop.

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. So we just—literally it was a team of a dozen guys firing ideas off of each other and whatever seemed like it was working, they took it to the next level. 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.

So you’ve got to have these things in there to remind them: ‘Hey, by the way, you can do like what you’re doing but you can do other things here, you can manipulate it.’ And I think, also, we have just so many mechanics you don’t have to explain all of them. But, I mean, most people aren’t used to being shot at, or teleporting around a large space, so we kind of had to introduce these people to that because if you can just come out in that space it’s completely overwhelming with bullets flying at you and you’re like ‘Oh shit, what do I do?’ I mean, even the opening door sequence, where you finish training, you open the door and they all shoot at you, we got feedback that this kind of overwhelms people and they just hide in the train and they don’t even bother teleporting out.

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. And actually my wife was going through it and playing with it and she didn’t understand that when you hit the button to teleport it also slowed down time. So when she came into the headset she was showing me the controller and was like ‘Well, what does this button do?’ and was like showing me the grip button.

So there’s a little bit of induction there where you have to help people a little bit but I think kind of intuitively they kind of grasp it and you just want to get in a safe place to try it out before they start getting shot at. 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. You know, a lot of people that go to Connect are into VR, it doesn’t mean they’re great gamers, so we wanted to make it as easy on them as possible. 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.

You take the environment that’s created by somebody else for a different film and you take the interactivity that you get from games and you put in this sense of presence that adds another story-telling mechanic. 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.

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. 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.

RD: Yeah, originally it was kind of that we took the Showdown approach of just moving the camera straight forward but we ended up going back to that original hallway mechanic. Sweeney has described the Unreal Engine as a “common language” for a world where film and gaming converge, and there’s nowhere that convergence is more strongly felt than in VR. “I think we see almost equal amounts of game companies and movie companies using the engine for producing content at this point for VR,” Libreri tells me.

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. 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. And then on the second go-through when using the teleporter I immediately knew where the bad guy was teleporting away from was going to be because I knew where that teleporter was in relation to where I just was. 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. That’s gonna be fun for 10 to 30 seconds but without being able to move around the environment or the scenery changing you can’t sustain any experience like that for more than 30 seconds without it getting boring.

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