My fighter sat ready in the launch tube as I familiarized myself with the controls for the first time. Turning my head to the left and right I could see the launch bay on either side of me, and even stretching behind me as I craned my neck to see out of the bubble canopy. Holographic controls floated in space on either side of my seated figure. A moment later, I was given the signal to prepare for launch. Speeding down the launch tube like a bullet from a gun, in a few seconds I was free and clear in space. And I wasn't alone: three red circles lit up in space. Hostile fighters inbound.
Like many forward-thinking software companies, CCP encourages its developers to spend 20% of their time on personal projects that might turn out to be the Next Big Thing. In some cases, it pays unexpected dividends. CCP Unifex (also known as Jon Lander), the Executive Producer of EVE Online, hosted a special demo for one of these personal projects for representatives of the press at Fanfest on Thursday afternoon. The contents of this demo have been under embargo - until now.
Some time ago, CCP helped fund the Oculus Rift VR technology Kickstarter, and as a result about seven weeks ago they received the first developer kit versions of the hardware. A group of EVE devs had spent their 20% time, as well as a significant number of their nights and weekends, working on a fun demonstration of the rig's capabilities in the universe of EVE. In a few minutes, he said, we would have the opportunity to sit in the cockpit of Amarr and Minmatar fighters - the same fighters EVE players launch from their carriers and supercarriers - and pilot them into battle using the Oculus rig and a console-style game controller.
I admit I was skeptical as I listened. The idea sounds cool, to be sure, but it also sounded a bit gimmicky. From what we were being told, this was not even close to being in a releasable state. As we waited in line to try the demo, I commented to The Mittani that the whole thing reminded me uncomfortably of the time a couple of years back in which CCP demoed EVE clients running on tablets and phones on the stage at Fanfest during the EVE keynote, only to never hear a peep about mobile clients again. It seemed like a way to generate a little buzz, but nothing more.
I also went into the experience with low expectations for the level of polish on display. I was skeptical about how well the Oculus rig would work and whether it could provide a seamlessly integrated VR experience. I also expected the graphics on display to be unpolished, perhaps even untextured.
Then I strapped the Oculus rig to my face and had my expectations blown out of the water. I was sitting in a fully rendered cockpit with holographic displays floating in front of me. The Oculus tracked the movements of my head perfectly as I looked down and saw my own virtual 'body', hands on throttle and stick in the cockpit. I turned my head left and right, craning my neck as far as I could, and I was able to see around and even behind myself. My fighter, an Amarrian Templar-class, was sitting in a lovingly-rendered carrier launch bay reminiscent of the Viper launch tubes from Battlestar Galactica.
A CCP dev - unfortunately I didn't catch his name - explained the controls to me. We would be using a standard console controller, he said. The fighter would be under constant thrust at all times, though we could accelerate and decelerate to outrun and avoid enemy missiles using the A and B buttons. A thumbstick controlled the direction of travel, acting like a joystick. The left trigger fired lasers, but these were said to be "really hard to use". Instead, the dev recommended using the missiles, which took advantage of another Oculus feature. Missile targeting is done by holding down the right trigger, which brings up a targeting reticule that follows the direction your head is facing. By simply looking at a target for a few seconds, target lock would be acquired, and missiles would fire when you released the trigger. Again, I was concerned that I would have trouble coordinating my head movements with the targeting reticule, but given how absolutely stunning the whole thing looked, I didn't much care.
Hostile fighters weren't the only thing we had to worry about, either. The spacescape was littered with massive, spinning Veldspar asteroids, and our tiny fighters raced among them, moving fast, dodging and weaving among the asteroids. In the middle of the asteroid field was a massive Amarrian space station, its golden bulk dwarfing my tiny fighter as I skirted its edge. But I wasn't just here to admire the scenery; there was work to do. As I dodged asteroids, I turned my head to look at the nearest enemy fighter and held down the right trigger, bringing up the missile targeting reticule. A few seconds and I had tone - the signal that a target lock had been acquired - even though I was maneuvering wildly and more than a little inexpertly, the Oculus system was tracking my head movements perfectly and keeping me right on target. I let go of the trigger and a Robotech-Scott Bernard-style stream of missiles spouted forth from my fighter.
In practice, the Oculus head-tracking system worked flawlessly and with surprising smoothness. I could look up, down and around at my environment with zero delay. The environment even stretched a good ways behind me, so that I felt truly immersed in my Templar's cockpit. Targeting missiles by turning my head felt natural and completely intuitive; in fact it was probably the easiest and most accurate targeting interface I've ever used in a video game. It made me wonder how long it would be before a system like this makes its debut in real life fighter aircraft.
The gameplay itself was straightforward: we were in a simple 3v3 dogfighting match, with Amarr fighters on one side and Minmatar fighters on the other, each fighter piloted by a member of the press who was participating in the demonstration. I found that engagement ranges were quite long. There was no way I was getting close enough - or flying my ship accurately enough - to begin to think about using the pulse lasers; it was missiles all the way. This meant that gameplay was restricted to maneuvering to keep an enemy in your sights, targeting missiles and avoiding them. It was fast and arcadey and not particularly deep, but one could easily imagine adding depth by adding weapon modules, balancing missile ranges, and giving the different fighter classes their own flavor.
As I played, I was on the lookout for symptoms of motion sickness, which has often plagued me when playing FPS games. Between the extremely high framerate (well over 60 FPS, according to Mr. Lander) and the perfect synchronization between my head movements and the changing field of view of the Oculus rig, I felt like I was really there in that cockpit, and there was no trace of nausea or vertigo.
Another fun note about the Oculus rig: it projects things in stereoscopic 3D. The holographic controls in my cockpit were really holographic, and I had a strong sense of depth and space in my cockpit and with the objects outside of it. Overall, it's a really impressive piece of kit, and this was just with one of the developer models. The actual consumer device will have higher resolution.
I was getting the hang of it, now. I released the trigger and fired a new storm of missiles, annihilating another games journalist. As his Einherji exploded, the game paused and a message floated in space: The Amarr side had won, and I had scored 540 points. Amarr Victor, I thought ironically.
As I pulled off the Oculus eyephones and struggled a bit to get my bearings after experiencing the vivid virtual environment, I heard The Mittani, who turned out to have been my wingmate on the Amarrian side, as he proclaimed the demo to have been 'incredibly cool'. We caught up with Mr. Lander again after the demo, and pestered him with questions about whether CCP was thinking seriously about productizing this. He said that this was just a demonstration and that there is nothing planned at this time as the Oculus rig itself is still under development. I think he could see the spark of excitement in the two of us, however, as we had been openly skeptical before trying the demo; now we wanted to buy the thing and face off against our friends.
If anything comes of this demonstration, it will be a long way off. The challenges are significant - the specialized hardware alone will present a barrier to entry for many players. But CCP has the beginnings of something that could be the hardcore PC-hugging EVE player's answer to DUST 514: an incredibly fun space dogfighting simulation in a smooth, well-integrated VR environment with a substantial player base that is familiar with the property. This might just give them an advantage in a new field of gaming.