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Commercial Reality: Why the man behind EVE Online is betting on VR while others aren't

Commercial Reality: Why the man behind EVE Online is betting on VR while others aren't
Sharif Sakr
Sharif Sakr|October 1, 2013 6:06 PM

Hilmar Pétursson is convinced virtual reality gaming will be mainstream in 2014. It's a bold claim to put to people who, by next year, will have been exhausted by next-gen console purchases. But Pétursson has already tasked 20 engineers at his company, CCP, with creating what looks set to be the first major game designed solely for the Oculus Rift VR headset. EVE Valkyrie is a high-profile commitment: a Wing Commander-esque dogfighting title, which will tie into the same universe as CCP's main PC and console properties, EVE Online and Dust 514. The question is whether significant numbers of gamers will choose to spend an estimated $300 on a pair of Oculus goggles. For a number of reasons -- some immediate, some futuristic and others downright outlandish -- Pétursson believes they'll come up with the money. They won't be able to stop themselves.

Other games have been retrofitted to work with the Oculus Rift, but what's the thinking behind making an EVE game that's totally tied to this particular headset?

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EVE Online is about owning ships that you've spent time to create over many months or years. A ship is something you care about, and it can be taken away from you. That's one of the core mechanics of the game. But that takes time. If you're a core gamer, you've been trained over years and years to perceive value in virtual items. For a mainstream audience, it takes a longer time for them to care about items on this level. What I see when I put the VR goggles on is that it accelerates the curve of accepting that you are in a real place -- you're in a reality. And then you can generate emotions around virtual objects, just like real-world objects. You don't have to destroy the Earth to feel those emotions.

"These technologies may start off in one place, but then they meld into people's behavior."

How much will EVE Valkyrie (formerly EVR) be a part of the EVE universe, rather than a separate experience?

When the Oculus Rift Kickstarter project came about, a lot of the guys at CCP were backers at a personal level. They came up with this space dogfighting idea with cool head-tracking and aiming, but we knew it would be difficult to bring that to EVE Online, because EVE is more about strategy. We didn't want to disrupt a game that half a million people enjoy. So we thought we could create something focused and fast-paced, with an entirely different game play paradigm, but still set in the EVE universe.

In terms of tying Valkyrie to EVE Online, we haven't really released a lot of information about that. But given how we've done it with EVE Online and Dust 514 -- how a spaceship in EVE Online can shoot a laser down on a planet and it lands in Dust and affects the outcome of combat, and how there's shared economics and social networks across the universe -- it isn't hard to imagine how we could add that level of connectivity across the three games. It could materialize that you're one day flying a fighter that belongs to one of the larger carriers inside EVE. But right now, we're focused on delivering the tightest experience, and we can add the connectivity as the thing progresses.

Activision has suggested that the Oculus Rift is only good for "small doses" game play. Have you noticed any limitations like that?

I've not seen a limit. Hundreds of people who go through the [Oculus] experience are super happy afterwards and they crave more. I myself haven't had it on for hours and hours, but then again, we're engineers -- we've trained our eyes and our minds to look at a computer screen for hours and hours. We've just forgotten that we had to train ourselves to do that, or how to use a mouse. These technologies may start off in one place, but then they meld into people's behavior. So I wouldn't want to prejudge how people will use it.

Some mods have tried to add a camera to the Oculus Rift to enable depth sensing. Have you developed anything in EVE Valkyrie that could make use of that?

As soon as you can see your hand and put it in the VR, then you have a lot of interesting ways to be even more immersed. You can use your hands to interact with the world. There's a guy in Orlando who has done that using Oculus and PlayStation's motion controller [Note: video embedded below]. It paints a picture of what this could become, if you could really control your fingers.

Do you expect the Oculus Rift to become an add-on for consoles eventually, even if it looks expensive for that type of market? $300 isn't much less than the console itself.

Well, consoles are changing. This is the lowest-priced generation of consoles, if you adjust for inflation. They're also more like PCs than they've ever been. Microsoft and Sony are both doing a lot of accessory plays with their motion controllers. So I think it's too early to say how it's going to play out, but if Oculus works on a PC, I see no reason for it not to come on consoles.

"... But the challenge with VR is that it's very hard to explain it to anyone without them trying it out."

As for the right price, it will depend on how compelling the experiences are. Valkyrie is pretty compelling, but then you need five or six other super-compelling experiences; then it could take off in a big way. Core gamers have a big appetite to invest in their hobby, but the challenge with VR is that it's very hard to explain it to anyone without them trying it out. So there's a challenge with audience diffusion, because it's hard for people to communicate that.

Do you wish that others were also developing for Oculus Rift?

We're comfortable being pioneers, but I'd love for there to be more experiences to make the platform more compelling. I've seen some pretty cool YouTube videos, like that guy who had high-res scans of people in his living room, and he was walking around them wearing his goggles. It was kind of eerie to see that, and I think there will be a lot of innovation on that front. We're going for something very simple, non-complicated, even obvious -- you're just a space fighter pilot -- but there's lots of scope for more human-to-human interaction in the future. [Editor's note: the video of the human models is embedded below, and it has a smattering of nudity to go with its eeriness.]

If everything goes as you hope for VR, where could the technology take us in five years?

Within five years, we're going to see things like Google Glass and VR headsets becoming much smaller, and they'll also become more of a replacement for screens and televisions. This is frankly just a much more effective way to interact with your retina than staring at a PC monitor half a meter away from you, or staring at a large and very expensive TV screen four meters away from you. I can imagine taking an airplane ride two or three years from now and spending the whole flight in virtual reality. It's no longer a drag to be on the airplane because you're having a connected human experience, or some kind of telepresence with your friends, or you're playing a mech game or something. I fly a lot, so I look forward to that time, and I think that can all happen within the next five years.

A connected human experience -- such as virtually "meeting" passengers sitting on other rows of the aircraft, perhaps?

Yeah, a space where people can choose to get together. Like a virtual nightclub on the plane. It's a good idea!

What about further into the future?

Further away, maybe 15 years from now, as we're already helping blind people to "see" by feeding information straight to the brain, maybe we can just skip our eyes and connect directly to the image generation part of the brain. Then you connect to the internet and you just think about Wikipedia and all of a sudden it's superimposed onto your reality. We can do all of this, but it's going to be about what's commercially viable and I think VR headsets will define that commercial viability a lot. They will get smaller, cheaper, faster, lower-power and investment will eventually go away from big screens and come into this instead.

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Commercial Reality: Why the man behind EVE Online is betting on VR while others aren't