As EVE Online's tenth anniversary Fanfest slowly got underway, the press were led into a small upstairs room with chairs lined up and ominous-looking black headsets. The headsets turned out to be expensive prototype devkits of the Oculus Rift, a recently kickstarted PC peripheral that aims to make immersive virtual reality affordable for gamers. VR headsets are traditionally heavy monstrosities costing thousands of pounds and usually have input processing lag that make them unsuitable for high-action gaming, but the Oculus Rift is a light and highly responsive device currently clocking in at a more reasonable $300.
We were sat down to take part in a demo of EVR, a new virtual reality multiplayer dogfighter that uses art assets from EVE Online. It was an incredibly immersive experience for those of us unfamiliar with the Oculus Rift, and even members of the press who had used the device seemed impressed with the game. Fanfest attendees were equally excited when a trailer for EVR was shown at the EVE Keynote on Friday, and many attendees got to try the game first hand last night. But what impressed me the most was the story behind the demo's creation and the possibilities that Oculus Rift could potentially open up if support for it were brought to EVE Online.
In this week's EVE Evolved, I give my hands-on impressions of EVR, delve into the story behind its creation, and speculate on how Oculus Rift support could revolutionise EVE.
Hands on with EVR on the Oculus Rift
Like a lot of gamers, I've always dreamed of playing really immersive games with a virtual reality headset. Playing EVR was my first experience with the Oculus Rift, and I was thoroughly impressed with both the technology and the game itself. The game takes place in a fictional battle in the EVE universe between two carriers, and two opposing teams of players take on the role of their carrier's fighters. The game uses twitch-based flight controls and felt very similar to Vendetta Online, but the key feature is the impressive 360-degree view from inside the cockpit of your ship.
Looking down gives you the eerie impression of looking at your own body, except it's the pilot in the game. It feels very odd when you move your leg and the body below you doesn't, which speaks to the fidelity of the immersion Oculus Rift can deliver. You can shoot down enemies from long range with a well-aimed laser blast from a fixed aim cannon on the front of your ship, but the main weapon is an auto-locking missile barrage. The headset tracks the movement of your eyes; acquiring a missile lock on an enemy involves physically tracking the target with your eyes for several seconds.
The game itself is a ton of fun, but as I talked with some of the other press, a problem began to emerge. Several people reported feeling a little bit motion sick at the end of their-15 minute session, a problem that could get worse with longer exposure. I too noticed a disorientation when rapidly spinning the craft in one direction and looking in another. This is likely caused by the fact that your inner ear is sending information to your brain telling it that you're not moving but your eyes are telling it you're clearly spinning around in circles. The effect was far less pronounced than I expected but may cause problems with people who frequently get travel sick.
The story behind EVR
For me, the real hook behind EVR isn't the gameplay or the fact that it's making use of some pretty exciting next-generation gaming tech but the story of how the game came to be. When Jon Lander took over the role of EVE Online's Senior Producer, he instituted a new work policy referred to in the industry vaguely as 20% time. The idea is that as long as developers are meeting their normal work goals, they can spend 20% of their work time on absolutely any project they want and get anyone else they want involved. EVR was produced by just a handful of developers in only seven weeks using nothing but this spare time.
EVR is a fantastic example of what a couple of creative people can accomplish in just a little spare time, and it's all possible thanks to 20% time. The interesting thing is that the strategy actually encourages people to get their normal work done earlier so that they can work on their own project. Productive output and morale both seem to go up with the increased workload of a personal side-project rather than down. This policy has proven extremely effective in other companies in the past, with products such as Gmail, Google News, and Google Talk all reportedly coming out of Google's 20% time. To see that CCP has adopted it is a very encouraging sign.
Oculus Rift support for EVE would be awesome
Though the press were all clearly briefed on the nature of the EVR demo, CCP didn't exactly explain during the EVE Keynote that this is not really linked to EVE. The game is built in the Unity 3-D engine using art assets taken from EVE Online, and the EVE engine currently has no support for the Oculus Rift. But it got a lot of players thinking about what EVE could do if it ever actually did get support for VR headsets. The ability to look around your ship by turning your head would be pretty awesome and tie in nicely with CCP's plans to add more UI information immersively on the main screen rather than in boring text lists.
The most impressive thing would be to use the eye tracking to select enemy ships and allow you to quickly give commands via the new radial UI menu. It could also be used to bring up information on ships and objects you look at using holographic UI elements reminiscent of the Butterfly Effect trailer and Future Proof fan video. The more I think about it, the more I think that Oculus Rift could be perfectly suited to a game like EVE that thrives on immersion. There also shouldn't be any danger of motion sickness as EVE's ships move slowly and always self-orient to an upright position.
Congrats to Kartith Kashada and Zigzy Xoxo, who both win a PLEX as part of last week's contest. Your PLEX will be contracted to you within the week!
Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.