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The maker of 'Eve' is betting big on VR and it might pay off

It's been a very rough 18 months for the makers of Eve Online, CCP. The company has lost money, canceled the long-delayed World of Darkness MMO, laid off well over 100 employees and said goodbye to two high-profile execs. It also hasn't released any financial statements or subscriber figures since revealing a drop in revenues in June 2014 -- in this case, no news is unlikely to be good news. But there's a plan to turn things around at CCP. It's making substantial changes to Eve Online in an attempt to attract new players, and has poured money into research and development with a big focus on virtual reality. Now, it's gearing up to release Eve Valkyrie, a AAA, competitive multiplayer shooter for Oculus Rift and Sony's Morpheus PS4 headset. The stakes are high, but this big bet on VR might just pay off.

At its annual fan convention, CCP showed off two things from Valkyrie: a playable multiplayer demo, and a gameplay trailer from a dynamic, truly gorgeous single-player training mission. If you haven't seen that video yet, you should watch it right now:

Leaving the single-player mission to one side -- CCP isn't letting anyone play it, unfortunately -- the multiplayer demo showcases the core of Valkyrie: dogfighting. Gameplay, at its simplest, involves flying around and shooting any ship that's flagged as hostile. Of course, there are variables and additional layers like turrets and drones that will aid you in battle, but the objective is almost always to destroy enemy spaceships. It's definitely not the type of game I'd usually be drawn to, but playing a few rounds of Valkyrie with a VR headset was enough to win me over.

OMG I'm in a spaceship

Valkyrie's strength is in its presentation. There's no real standard for what VR games should look or feel like, and CCP has put a lot of work into getting things right. You're given a first-person view, looking out through the cockpit of a spaceship. There are no overlaid maps or radar readouts crammed into the corners of your display. Instead, the interface is the spaceship. Shield levels and ship health are displayed through bars of light projected onto your ship's front window. Details on your chosen target can be found on a dedicated screen above the (virtual) flight controls. Readouts on additional, less crucial equipment sit elsewhere in the cockpit, at the periphery of your vision. It's a system that wouldn't make sense if this game wasn't played on a VR headset, but because it is, it works really well.

This is what you see looking straight out of the cockpit.

The carefully considered UI had me fully immersed before I'd even launched into outer space. Every battle starts with a countdown to launch inside a larger ship. If you want to, you can look all around your ship in relative safety, including what's directly behind you. There are some neat little details there, like a little "clean me" message etched into the dirt of one of the side windows.

Playing on a PC with the Oculus Rift and a wired Xbox controller, piloting the ship is dead simple. If you're even a casual gamer, you'll be flying around with ease in no time at all. Actually shooting and targeting ships takes a little longer to get used to. In the ship class I chose (Wraith, the standard fighter) I had two options for destroying my foes, both based on line of sight. The standard weapon is a machine gun, and because your crosshairs are centered, you need to move your head around while steering the ship in order to effectively target enemies. The secondary weapon is harder to use, as you have to keep the enemy firmly in your crosshairs for a few seconds in order for your systems to lock on and fire away high-damage missiles.

Valkyrie gameplay

Here, the player is aiming at an enemy to the left of center, which puts half of the UI out of view.

Once I grasped this line-of-sight offensive gameplay, the interface turned from beautiful into genius. I was either aiming at a fighter or checking if my defensive turret was ready to shoot down an incoming missile. I was barrel rolling away, looking helplessly for an aggressive enemy I couldn't see, or keeping tabs on my rapidly depleting shield levels. Just like in real life, you can't focus on multiple things at once. It's captivating.

CCP wants to build the world's first AAA-quality game for VR.

Granted, I've only experienced a single game mode, and a single map, but for what's described as a "pre-alpha build," Valkyrie is ludicrously polished already. CCP is aiming to make the world's first AAA game for VR, perhaps not in budget, but certainly in terms of quality. Now that the core mechanics are in place, the task is to add all the progression and game modes needed for long-term success, and it's reaching out to eSports professionals to build in the addictive hooks and balanced gameplay necessary for competitive multiplayer games to thrive.

From demo to game

On its own, the demo is impressive. It's definitely the best VR experience I've had in the three years since I put on the first Oculus Rift prototype. But it still felt like just that: an experience, a fragment of a potential game (albeit a very good one) to add to a long list of cool stuff that VR can do. It wasn't until I saw the single-player footage, and talked to the team behind the demo, that I truly understood the potential for Valkyrie, and what CCP wants to achieve with this game.

The footage from the gameplay trailer is from the first single-player level that introduces the world and its characters. It's one of a number of training missions that are being created to orient players in the game's intricacies, rather than throwing them straight to the wolves.

"For me, the new player experience is more about that awesome 'wow' moment and the excitement without them being totally nailed by other players straight away," explains Owen O'Brien, executive producer for Valkyrie. There's some continuity between the early single-player missions and the multiplayer experience as well: The aftermath of the battle shown in the gameplay trailer, for example, becomes the debris-strewn map I tried in the demo.

Right now, the official line is that the game's multiplayer modes will be competitive and simple, much like the demo I played. But O'Brien's team has more ambition. They're trying to bring those early game "wow" moments to the multiplayer modes, as well. "We're trying to work out how to make that work," says O'Brien. I retort: "But that's not going to be ready for launch, right?" To which he replies, "We'll see; I want it pretty bad."

I want it pretty bad too. I'd buy Valkyrie regardless, for sure. The single-player training missions look solid, as do the multiplayer dogfights, but a title that encompasses both is a way more compelling proposition.

Banking on success

While Oculus Rift has been by far the loudest voice in VR so far, it could be argued that Sony has the best shot at bringing VR to the mainstream right now. There are already over 20 million PlayStation 4 owners out there who only need to buy one of the company's Morpheus headsets to be VR-ready. It's a low bar of entry for an already captive audience, but gamers will only buy into Morpheus if great experiences are there to be had. CCP wants Valkyrie to be that experience. "We want to be the Halo or Mario for the Morpheus and Oculus," says O'Brien. "I'm biased, obviously. ... Time will tell."

"We want to be the 'Halo' or 'Mario' for [VR]."

I ask O'Brien how CCP will achieve that goal. Will we see Valkyrie bundled with headsets? "I would love as many people as possible to have access to Valkyrie. Whether that's an option or not at this stage I can't really say, but we have a very good relationship with Sony; we're a launch title with Morpheus. ... We're going to be very prominent."

Sony Morpheus

Sony's Project Morpheus headset.

CCP could be launching Valkyrie from stronger footing. CEO Hilmar Pétursson describes Eve Online subscription numbers as "stable now." Not growing, not boisterous, but stable. And "now," implying that, for a while at least, they weren't. Subscriptions are CCP's primary source of income, and with the cancellation of World of Darkness (and the resulting write off), one thing that definitely isn't boisterous is the company's bank balance.

CCP has learned a lot from past failures, says Pétursson. Rather than throwing all of its resources at Valkyrie, it's being made by a team of around 30 people, "a similar size" to the whole of CCP when it first built Eve Online over a decade ago. I ask Pétursson if CCP can afford another failure, or if Eve Online's future is tied to Valkyrie's success. He says that it can, that CCP has "a good financial standing to take some risks." It's hard to believe there won't be some knock-on effect if everything falls apart.

The importance of Valkyrie could be seen at the company's Fanfest, an annual event that invites players and press alike to see what's new from CCP. While Eve Online was still the focus of most of the smaller developer roundtables, it's Valkyrie and the promise of VR that owned the opening keynote, and it's Valkyrie that attendees were encouraged to play on-site.

Fanfest attendees queue for the opportunity to play 'Valkyrie.'

CCP admits the game will act as a gateway drug to Eve Online, and that Eve Online players will also pick up Valkyrie. This time last year there were around 500,000 active subscribers. Who knows what that figure is now, but it's clear that the opportunity to drive paid subscriptions is far more valuable than having a few Eve Online players pick up Valkyrie.

The gamble

The problem with this big bet on VR is Valkyrie's fate isn't entirely in CCP's hands. While the potential market is demonstrably huge -- quite literally anyone with a PS4 or gaming PC could pick up a headset -- we really have no idea if mainstream gamers will actually be willing to put down an as-yet-unknown amount of money for a VR headset.

VR needs well-considered, purpose-built games like Valkyrie to succeed, and vice versa, but history has proved that great games are not always enough to sell systems. Shenmue and Skies of Arcadia didn't save the Sega Dreamcast, and Nintendo's big names haven't stopped the GameCube and Wii U from being eclipsed by their competition.

Valkyrie may be shaping up to be a great game, but if Sony can't convince its users to buy into Morpheus, no one will buy the games made for it. CCP can't just predict the market. If any game can push this to the masses, though, if any game is going to be VR's "system seller," then right now it looks to be Eve Valkyrie. And CCP needs that to happen way more than it's letting on.