The latest in our series of VR developer interviews zeros in on High Voltage Software, makers of Oculus Rift exclusive Damaged Core. How do you move the first-person shooter genre into VR without making people puke? That's the problem Chief Creative Officer Eric Nofsinger and company were tasked with.
Of the first three developer interviews in this VR series (we also chatted with the creators of Lucky's Tale and Job Simulator), Damaged Core is the one we've had the least hands-on time with. In our brief demo, we saw what looks like a smart (and at times snarky) FPS that has you perched on a faraway ledge, hacking machines in an opposing building full of evil robots, then picking them off one by one. Similar to Epic's Bullet Train, the game also employs teleporting mechanics to add movement – without also adding the need for a barf bag.
We sat down with High Voltage's CCO Eric Nofsinger to talk about the upcoming Rift exclusive.
Gizmag (Will Shanklin): Where did the idea for Damaged Core come from?
Eric Nofsinger (Chief Creative Officer, High Voltage Software): We wanted to do an experience that was gonna take advantage of VR and we wanted to do something with shooting. Initially a thought was "okay, we want to do a traditional first-person shooter." But what we found out was that a lot of things in a traditional FPS really don't transfer very well to VR. A lot of the movement and quick turns and things like that make almost everyone – even the most hardcore player – pretty nauseous.
We realized we wanted to do a certain kind of game, but we had to go back to formula and question everything we know. I've been making games for over 23 years and I've been fortunate to have worked on over 90 shipped titles. But with VR, we had to throw out the whole rulebook.
Gizmag: So you know you want a shooter, but your typical FPS is gonna make people puke.
Nofsinger: It just doesn't work. So yeah, it was really fascinating ... even basic things like displaying a reticle in space, really took a lot of iterations to get that right so that your eye didn't focus at the wrong thing and make you cross-eyed or do anything weird there.
As we got into it more and more, we had this philosophy of running towards the fun and taking what worked and [asking ourselves] "is this something we can build a game around?" So we just kept experimenting and experimenting, trying different things and ... sorting out the stuff that did work.
There [were] a lot of things that we'd try and go "hey, this shouldn't work but somehow it does."
Gizmag: That's similar to what Paul Bettner (CEO of Playful Corp) was saying. Before getting to what eventually became Lucky's Tale, it was just trial and error.
Gizmag: VR developers really are pioneers. You don't have blueprints to go on, and when you try to go off of what you know from traditional gaming, it just doesn't translate.
Nofsinger: A lot of it doesn't work. Even things like interface, traditional UI or HUD, all that falls apart. If you stick 2D elements to the screen like that, it feels very ... it's almost claustrophobic. It feels very weird and artificial. There's a lot of stuff like that, where you go "of course you can use this," but it just doesn't work.
And then other things you play with and simple things that you think "we've been doing that forever" […] like particle systems. Particle systems look amazing in VR. Almost every game and demo I've seen where they've shown particulates in the air, they look amazing. You see these things floating around ... and it's maybe gimmicky but–
Gizmag: Whereas on a 2D screen, that would be–
Nofsinger: On a 2D screen, it's like nothing. You wouldn't go "hey that's beautiful!"
Gizmag: "Why would we put that in there?" Maybe for two seconds.
Nofsinger: After two seconds it's gone.
I could see experiences where you think about things like Bullet Time and stuff like that. It's kinda played out, but I could definitely see experiences that use that kind of stuff because [in VR] it's really fascinating to look at things like that.
Gizmag: I liked the voiceover guide in the demo. The sarcasm adds to it, gives a nice edge to the game.
Nofsinger: Thank you. The game has come so far since [that demo], we're really anxious to show it to folks again.
Gizmag: Can you tell us about any of the changes?
Nofsinger: Outside of the greater visual fidelity and a lot better lighting ... We started playing a lot more with different forms of movement, being able to transfer your consciousness ... you do a little bit of that in [the demo] where you transfer from point to point, but we started playing a lot more with that, where we get the player to do a lot of rapid jumps from thing to thing. And that's kind of a neat way to go.
And then some of the more fantastic robots that we've worked up, we're very fortunate to have some absolutely brilliant concept artists. One of our concept artists worked on Donkey Kong Country Returns and Metroid Prime series and he's done some amazing stuff, and he helped realize some really fantastic robots that we're excited to show off. I've not seen robots like these in any medium, not just in VR. So I think that's gonna be really cool when we're able to kinda show this stuff off [...] I get to fight these freaky things, but then I can be those things too, which is kinda neat.
Gizmag: So it's beyond just teleporting from point to point, you're actually inside these different–
Nofsinger: You're inside these different robots. And then they have a different series of abilities ... some of these robots you go into and you have more guided missiles and things. We tried to take advantage of the Oculus Rift hardware, and so a lot of the mechanics ... we spent a great deal of R&D around doing what's right for that as opposed to just shoehorning a traditional shooter into the Rift. We went the other way around where we tried to make something that felt intuitive and good for the device.
Gizmag: Is a lot of the game zooming in with the scope and sniping enemies?
Nofsinger: Some of it gets real up-close. That's one of the things we like about it: there are these elements where you're far out and then we start doing very strategic things with that, but then we also had these elements where you get really down and dirty and into the fray, up close with things. I think that makes it a little bit different than other games.
Gizmag: Damaged Core is a Rift exclusive, right?
Nofsinger: Yes. We're really excited about it. The platform and VR in general, the technology has finally caught up with this vision that a lot of us have had for many years.
Gizmag: But it looks a little different from what we all expected. I was always picturing Call of Duty in VR, but that doesn't work.
Nofsinger: It doesn't work.
Gizmag: So did you try a lot of those kinds of things?
Nofsinger: Yeah, we did. And you never know, somebody might figure something out that does work [...] we've got moments of gameplay where we were able to work some movement in, like we were able to do stuff like transfer onto different enemies that are on moving platforms or other moving structures, and [...] if you frame that correctly it can feel really good. But that independent movement, where you're going along and changing directions very quickly ... it really doesn't feel very good.
Gizmag: I tried Half Life 2 for the Oculus Rift DK2, and at the very beginning where you're walking slowly, it was amazing. But as soon as I started running I was like [grabs stomach] "Uuuugggh!" I had to lie down for a while, take deep breaths.
Nofsinger: Yeah, we had the same experience and I think a lot of people did. You're not alone in that. With the DK2, we downloaded a ton of people's stuff, because it's exciting. Obviously there's always the part where you want to see what else is out there, but you want to see the lessons that other people are learning, what works and what doesn't.
There's some stuff that I'm really curious [about], as a gamer, that I want to play. I want to play horror themed stuff.
Gizmag: Horror is scary as hell in VR.
Nofsinger: Exactly, it'd be amazing. I played demos that play with a sense of space or different things like that. That stuff is really interesting ... I think that's where there's gonna be some magic in VR. It's gonna be really new experiences that weren't presented on PC and weren't presented on console.
Gizmag: You kinda have to erase everything that you knew before VR.
Gizmag: I remember after my first Rift demo I thought: gaming has been evolving through the years, but it's been the same thing, getting a little more advanced over time. But VR is different.
Nofsinger: I agree. And if you think about it ... although it's a completely different technology, it's not all that different from motion control gaming or touchscreen gaming. When those things came out, initially a lot of people just went "well, we'll just apply what we knew onto this" and it didn't really work. When you do things for the Wii or other motion controllers, initially everything was waggle the Wiimote ... or touchscreen gaming, the early touchscreen games were all just virtual sticks and stuff like that. None of it works.
Gizmag: You have to adapt.
Nofsinger: You have to do something that works for that platform. I think the things that are gonna be exclusive to the Rift or exclusive to VR, I think those things are gonna be the most interesting to look at.
It's an exciting time, I think this is a transformative time. Not just for games, but for entertainment, social media. It's exciting.
Gizmag: To people who haven't used it, all the VR hype probably wears a bit thin.
Nofsinger: Well you've heard it forever.
Gizmag: But when you put it on and you try it, you get it. "Oh ok, now I see what they're talking about."
Nofsinger: Exactly. And I think that's what's gonna be exciting about, with the launch of [the Oculus Rift] and now with the date announced and people doing pre-orders, I think that when those early adopters get it in their hands and they share it with their friends to try this ... once you've experienced it, no matter how good of a writer you are, no matter how good of a video you show, it doesn't do it justice as to the sense of presence that you have in there.
Gizmag: There's no way to describe it.
Nofsinger: There are experiences that are really ... they're magical. I don't know about you, but I'd pay a lot of money for magic. It's a form of escapism that I think hasn't existed until now.
Gizmag: I think that's part of where the Gear VR comes into play, because it's a little more accessible, it gets people saying "Oh, this is virtual reality, I get it." Before they spend $600 on the Rift and $1,000 on a PC.
Nofsinger: They can try it. And the Gear VR is cool, we have them and we like it. It's a neat system.
Gizmag: For more basic kinds of games, it's great.
Nofsinger: It's cool and there are some people doing neat stuff. Glu is working on some different stuff, [there are some things] different indie developers are doing ... Like you said, it's sort of the gateway to the bigger, higher-end stuff.
Gizmag: And people need a gateway with this. Without that, a subjective first-person account is almost the best way to communicate it.
Nofsinger: Absolutely. And I think it's a little bit of an uphill battle because it's really hard to describe this to somebody, it's so experiential.
And then you look at it from a perspective of stuff like 3D movies and stereoscopic in general, things like that ... a lot of people aren't won over by that, and a lot of people are skeptical, especially from a home perspective. Home 3D movies I don't think were largely adopted.
Gizmag: It never really caught on.
Nofsinger: A lot of times their TV has 3D on it and they might not use it. [VR] is not that.
Gizmag: 3D TV never had a movement; VR feels like a movement.
Nofsinger: For sure. Oculus and Facebook are really invested in this. And they've been so supportive to developers, on a level of ... that I've not seen before.
I've worked with everyone from the biggest publishers and hardware manufacturers out there, to some of the smallest indie things ... But I can tell you that of anyone we've worked with, they've been the best partner we've ever had.
The people that they have on their teams, like Jason Rubin [Head of Studios at Oculus and co-founder of Naughty Dog], not only are these guys legendary in the game industry, but when they give you feedback or something about a build that they check out, it's all really good stuff. You want to listen because you know that they know their stuff. Every producer they have over there, anyone on the line, they all have tons of experience and they're giving you ... gold.
Gizmag: I've seen a little bit of that: at Oculus Connect John Carmack was sitting there talking to indie developers of Gear VR games, and it was like he was the professor and they were the students as he was critiquing their work.
Nofsinger: It's brilliant, right? That's an exciting thing ... it's like from the early days of this, when people were more collaborative, people were all learning from each other.
Gizmag: There's an old-school feel to all of this. I think part of it is because Oculus brought in Michael Abrash, Carmack, lots of old-school guys, who lived through those earlier eras. It reminds me a bit of the NES or PC gaming in the late 80s, early 90s, which was a lot more indie-driven, with really creative stuff.
Nofsinger: We're just so thrilled that, even just to play a small role in any of this. We kinda feel like we're sitting on this rocket that's taking off and it's building up steam. We're exploring lots of areas in VR right now and I just think that Oculus has the lead by far.
Even if I wasn't working on this, as a gamer I buy every console that comes out, I'm always getting new updated PCs, new graphics cards and all this stuff. So I'm doing that stuff anyway, but ... looking at [the Oculus Rift] hardware from a sleekness factor and everything, this seems like a no-brainer for me. [It has] the Xbox controller and it's got a camera and a headset. That's really elegant and simple for me to have at my station.
The [HTC] Vive is really cool tech, but at the same time I look at it and go "I'm not gonna–"
Gizmag: Who's gonna devote a room in their house to it?
Nofsinger: That's the kind of cool stuff that I geek out about wanting to make something for. But, in my own house, am I gonna set this up?
Gizmag: "Alright, honey, clear the living room. All the dogs, kids, everybody out!"
Nofsinger: Yeah, my wife and kids are gonna love that. "Sure, you can just take over."
Gizmag: So you guys have other projects in VR? Anything you can talk about?
Nofsinger: Right now we're currently unannounced on a second big project that we're working on, but we're gonna be talking about that around about GDC time.
I'd really like to show you the newer builds of [Damaged Core] because we've come so far, literally that build [you played in the CES demo] is going on almost a year old for us. So we're light years from that.
Big thanks to Eric for taking the time to sit down with us. High Voltage's Damaged Core is an Oculus Rift exclusive that uses the bundled Xbox One controller. It doesn't yet have a release date or any confirmation as to whether it will be a Rift launch title.