Developer interview: what it means to bring the zombie apocalypse to virtual reality

The Scared Jump is an image used in many horror video games. It involves a build-up of suspense, muted music, and then a sudden, terrifying or terrifying surprise. Bingo, scare the jumps!

But creating the atmosphere is an important part of it, and these days, if you want immersion, nothing beats virtual reality. Few games create an atmosphere like The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners from Skydance Interactive.

This first-person zombie survival game exudes atmosphere and tension. You don’t even need to scare the jump to lift your spirits. The sound of shuffling undead echoes off a tombstone or wall. You may hear zombies murmur or calls for help from other survivors in the distance.

Fighting undead is not for the meek. You can use different weapons to protect yourself from turning into another crowd, but you have to be accurate as only headshots can destroy zombies permanently. Weapons require careful aiming, and noise can sometimes be more troublesome than it’s worth. Other melee weapons require a careful hit or strike to finish off the zombies. The effort it takes to get the job done makes you feel like you are truly in post-apocalyptic Louisiana fighting for your life.

It is not easy to create such an atmosphere, especially when compared to a game without virtual reality. Everything is rendered in 3D video and surround sound, and the motion controls keep you engaged from the moment you put your headset on. Some VR games may seem like technical demos, showing only one feature. Military shooters like Onward, Pavlov, and Contractors showcase realistic weapon handling, while Half-Life: Alyx and Boneworks showcase complex physics. Asgard’s Wraith and Blade and Sorcery is heavy hand-to-hand combat. But The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners brings almost it all together in a 15-hour campaign.

New mechanics or the most natural way to play?

Mark Domovich, project director, explains that the development process was full of problems. “I think the biggest challenge is the sheer amount of inventions needed to make VR games today,” he explains via email. “Even now, there is no established best way to do anything in VR. VR simply doesn’t have a long history of games from which to find solutions, unlike non-VR games. “

However, his team continued to watch the players play and adapt. “One of the great things about VR games is that often the solution to a design problem is the most instinctive,” Domovich said. “We just need to ask ourselves, ‘What would you do in real life? “Or, better said, just give the game to new users and watch them try to solve the problems they face.”

He describes how players instinctively wanted to throw objects over their shoulders to hide them in the character’s backpack. “The predominance of this instinctive behavior made us realize it!”

In addition, as in other survival games, in The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, the player heals his wounds. This requires the player to simulate a bandage in order to be healed. “In some cases, the design was so obvious that it seemed funny when we thought about how to explain it to new users,” Domovich said. “We laughed when we thought about the nutritional textbook. For example, how to explain to users how to eat so that it doesn’t look stupid, for example, “hold food to your mouth”? “

Other features such as smoking or breaking bottles for use as weapons were a direct result of Skydance Interactive’s observers. The team tried to use natural human instinct as a source of new designs and new solutions. “[It] is indeed a product of virtual reality and is the type of 1: 1 presence that only virtual reality can give you, ”he said.

Scaling platforms, performance and reduced motion sickness

When consumer VR headsets came along, they had a reputation for being avid enthusiasts, and they had fairly high system requirements for games. As games evolve beyond the rail shooter genre and add more interactivity and other mechanisms, there are concerns about performance and scalability for lower-end systems.

“We must always be aware of the possibility of motion sickness and avoid or minimize it as much as possible,” Domovich said. “At least in our own studio, there was a big leap in ambition between our first VR attempts and The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners. When virtual reality was very new, the issues of illness, performance, and how to solve the problems that surrounded it dominated our thinking so much that there was little room left even to consider large, ambitious game projects. In addition, the anxiety generated by these problems made us too timid to come up with large-scale projects anyway, even if we had free space. “

In-game movements in VR can be a strong trigger for nausea as well as poor performance. Unlike other VR games like Half-Life Alyx or Robo Recall, The Walking Dead Saints & Sinners does not use teleportation mechanics to move the player, but offers several ways to get around using a controller.

Some players may prefer a sharp turn, while others are less annoying and less likely to cause motion sickness. There are also other settings, such as tunnel vision or blinkers, that help reduce nausea while keeping players immersed.

Another way to avoid motion sickness is to exercise smoothly. Stuttering and low FPS in VR not only keep players from being immersed, but can also make players nauseous.

“[We needed] so that our projects can work quickly even on inexpensive virtual reality equipment, – said Domovich. “Our past experience has helped us a lot. Many of us at Skydance Interactive are longtime industry veterans, some of us have worked on PlayStation and Nintendo 64 games. So we know a thing or two about performance engineering. “

While The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners originally launched on PC through the Oculus and Steam stores, it is now available on a wider range of hardware, including the latest-generation PlayStation 4 and the standalone Oculus Quest running on a relatively limited Arm SoC. …

“I still remember our first VR game, Archangel, and how we struggled to make it work and feel good on the PlayStation 4. We rightly thought it was about as good as we could have done VR. -play on this platform and it was just a shooter on the rails! Fast forward to today and we have Saint and Sinners with free roaming, semi-open world and gameplay simulators many orders of magnitude more complex than what we had at Archangel, but running on the same platform. “

Reviving the Walking Dead game

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Walking Dead franchise is huge. The original comic book series was released in an impressive 193 issues. There are three series adapted from the comics, as well as a web series, and there will be more to come. Also in work on a series of films.

However, when it comes to video games, the Walking Dead franchise has had very few hits. While Telltale Games’ episodic content series ranked 89% on Metacritic, other TWD games have had far less success. 2013’s The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct PC game takes 38 percent on Metacritic, while the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions are even lower. The mobile game The Walking Dead: Road To Survival is rated 73%. The 2018 PC game Overkill’s The Walking Dead also fell 51 on Metacritic.

Despite its relatively limited platform, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is rated 81 on Metacritic, which is a huge win for The Walking Dead gamers and fans alike relative to previous games in the franchise.

“The walking dead is such a revered and beloved universe,” said Domovich. “We felt a lot of pressure to do justice to and truly deliver the pleasure that will be true and worthy of fans of the Walking Dead title.”

Thanks to the developers’ enthusiasm for the franchise, the game feels much more addictive than a regular zombie survival game. But the quality put into it demonstrates the dynamics that grows in the virtual reality space.

“I think our trajectory is at least partially in line with the VR industry as a whole,” Domovich said. “There has already been a wave of ‘higher ambition’ titles, including games like Asgard’s Wrath and Half-Life Alyx, and I see that growing ambition is only continuing to make VR games more interesting and viable for more and more audiences.” …

“We enjoyed making The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners,” he added. “For me personally, the last six months have been the most exciting. This is when all our projects came together into a single whole, and you could feel how the game and the world come to life. There was potential for greatness, we just needed to play our cards right. “

The ambition seems to be paying off, with Skydance Interactive announcing that the game surpassed the $ 50 million (USD) mark across all platforms last month. While VR games and headsets still appear to be niche, such sales figures over the past year show that the environment is picking up steam. “All of our indicators are showing a very promising trajectory,” Domovich said.

Last year, the game received the Meatgrinder update, which added an intense wave-style arcade mode called Challenges. The development team also recently released the Aftershocks update for the game, another free content update that came a year after the game’s first release.

The update continues the story of the main game, refreshes old maps and adds new traps as players travel, with gamers requiring up to 10 hours of additional gameplay. The developer also revealed that there will be more updates on the horizon.

From immersive and intimidating atmospheres to natural healing mechanics and various comfort settings, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners showcases the incredibly immersive potential behind more ambitious VR games. Skydance Interactive has been exploring this potential with content updates for over a year now. They say others are approaching, welcoming current VR owners enjoying the game and new owners joining in the fun this holiday season.

“2019, 2020 and 2021 have improved the space, and various companies planning large investments in hardware and software in virtual reality are very promising signs,” adds Domovic. “On top of that, we can tell you that we are aware of several budget games in development with more than 8-figure sums. The future of virtual reality is bright and we are thrilled to be a part of it. “

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