CCP on Why Sparc is Dodgeball Meets Baseball Meets Fencing

EVE Fanfest is an annual event in Reykjavik hosted by CCP Games where fans of EVE Online from all over the world come together. The universe of EVE Online is harsh, cruel and one of the most brutal and predatory worlds someone could enter, though the opposite is true of the fan community when they return to Earth from their intergalactic wars and piracy. Morgan Godat is the executive producer for Sparc, an upcoming VR game and spent some time with Hardcore Gamer discussing the first game by CCP Games that is a completely separate entity from the EVE universe.

[Hardcore Gamer] Am I correct in my understanding that Sparc is the first game created by CCP Games that is not EVE related?

[Morgan Godat] Yes, that is correct and that is not something lost on myself or the team, having to invent a new sport for VR. No pressure (laughs). We’re VR programmers building a sport that doesn’t exist in the real world and has nothing to do with EVE. It’s pretty crazy.

Since Sparc is a sport you’ve had to create how would you describe it to someone who hasn’t had a chance to play the demo?

Let me try this one out a couple times before you start quoting me, that’s a great one, I haven’t actually got that question before. The best way I would try to describe that is to take a baseball batter and a baseball pitcher and combine them into one person and put two pitching mounds opposite each other and let them play. It’s probably the best way I could describe it in an elevator pitcher, you’re playing the person taking the mound and launching an attack but you’re also playing the person having to defend so it’s a clever version of dodge ball with shields or something like that.

So like dodgeball meets baseball…

Meets fencing

But with exploding laser balls so that makes it sound more fun

Exploding laser balls make everything more fun

What are the differences between rookie mode and professional mode?

Rookie mode is like if you’ve ever taken kids bowling or used training wheels. We didn’t want the game rules to be radically altered, we wanted to change the parameters of how you’d play. If a kid is bowling and the gutters are open and the kid is just gutter balling all the time it’s not going to be a fun time and not going to try to learn and figure out how to play. So right now in rookie mode we have the knuckle shield which runs along your hand so that way your hands can always be defensive even after you’ve thrown your projectile. You throw the projectile and your big shield goes away but you can always defend yourself by punching the projectile. Right now in the current two modes the only difference is we peel those knuckle guard away, so after I throw my only defense is to dodge. So we designed the game in verbs. We want defense, we want deflection, we want to use the shield as a deflection to protect myself from incoming projectiles, so I’m standing here and I’m going to knock this away from me, like when you’re teaching a kid how to throw and catch a ball, the first step is to deflect it, and after that we focus on throwing it. We start weaving that throw verb in so it’s like deflect, deflect, throw. The third verb is to dodge, which is just get the hell out of the way. The most basic human reaction is just to get out of the way of something coming at you. Here comes a ball at my head, I’m going to dodge, but what we’ve found is players weren’t comfortable with dodging until they got the other two movements down. After you’ve got the other motions down that’s when dodging comes into play, and that’s what pro mode does. Once those knuckle guards come off dodging is the only defense once you’ve thrown your projectile and lost your shield. What we’ve found is in weaving all of those together dodging is the one that felt the most unnatural to people. Once you’ve got your feet underneath you and know the boundaries of how you can move around and stay in the game people got pretty good at it.

We were pretty active yesterday when we were playing. How much space would someone need at home to play Sparc and be able to move around comfortably?

Our goal was to design the game so you could move your coffee table and play in front of your TV. If you have a Vive when you set up the standing room space you can still play it in room scale VR but you can play it in that standing room circle and the PlayStation VR constraints are as recommended by them to be a six foot by six foot square, maybe a little bigger like two meters by two meters squared. It’s easy to get lost if you go much bigger than that but you can also use things like the Oculus chaperone walls to keep you from running into the real world but people can lose track of that if they get too focused on the game so we’re trying to include parameters to keep people from running and punching their concrete walls. We expect that most people are not going to have a set up in their home like we have here since we have a room large enough to have two VR machines in the same room where people can play together locally, each player needs their own VR unit and friends can agree on times to meet online to play.

That’s pretty reasonable. My one worry with the game was I would get into and end up crashing into a wall display of breakable things.

We were talking to someone at GDC that said he had some nice collectables near his Vive and we said regardless of what game you’re playing it might be a good idea to move those.

Don’t put the VR set up near the china hutch.

Do not put the VR set up near the china hutch. Just as a side note as a VR nerd and much to my wife’s anger I have a room at my house devoted just to VR. I was playing Unseen Diplomacy and was crawling around in some air ducts and was like why the hell is my head tangled on something? There is nothing in this room so I take the headset off and my dog had come into the room and I didn’t see her. She was sitting in the middle of the room and I was crawling around her, tangling her in these wires and she’s sitting there like really, this is what you’re doing instead of walking me. This is what we’re doing instead of going to the park, you’re crawling around in circles on the floor. Oh yeah, you’re a super spy alright. You really need to have control of your space. Don’t kick your cat. Please don’t kick your cats.

So there’s a legit reason to make a pet free room.

Definitely make a pet free room. The Kinect is actually what got us started on this with making a full rendering of the room, when you can see the whole room and everything in it in VR that changes the experience. That’s where VR will eventually end up but for now keep the pets out of the room.

VR seems like the natural evolution of physically controlled gaming that started with shaking one’s Wii to then going into full body motion with the Kinect.

My recommend is anyone that can is to get their hands on a VR demo that uses the Kinect features where you can see a full body creepy rendering of yourself. It’s just next level stuff getting to see the world the way the computer sees the world, your brain starts to go what is even happening? It starts to open up all kinds of weird avenues of people melding digital elements in space with concrete items and your brain starts saying “that is real.” Like having jump scares and spooky games in VR.

Sparc is fairly chaotic with two balls being play most of the time. Are there any plans to eventually expand it to two on two or team matches?

Two on two or team matches are the number one question we get. The comparison to tennis is tennis has doubles, and this is something we absolutely want to explore after we get this out. We are in a weird and experimental period of VR, everyone who thinks VR is nailed and we have it down is full of it. We have years and years to go of experimenting with game design and waiting for hardware to get less expensive so our goal is get feedback on this and start implementing the features people say they want.

It is still very new technology and is constantly evolving. Games coming out now seem more polished and focused than they were when the hardware first launched and what things will look like in say five years will be very different.

Exactly and our goal is to evolve with it. Right now we are only tracking head and hands and eventually we want you to be able to lift your feet and have that register in the game. With the Kinect we were doing full body so when a projectile came at your foot you could move your foot out of the way and you don’t get hit. We tried to cut off our avatar so it reflects on what is currently being tracked. Once we get foot tracking into a mainstream part of VR we want to figure out how to get that into our games because the more of you get into the game the better it will be. Like being able to jump over projectiles. Right now we cut off the avatar below the knees because you can’t get hit in the legs when the avatar doesn’t have any. It does create this weird disconnect but it’s better than being hit in the legs while not having control over them. The ultimate pie is the sky, who knows if it will ever exist, is not to have that avatar but just have you as you in the VR field. Maybe you have cool attachments and can customize the look of the attachments but ultimately it would just be you. That’s our goal and my primarily motivating factor in VR to have the player not playing a fantasy character but just being themselves. And having people acting more sportsmanlike to each other online wouldn’t be a bad thing either. Sparc was designed to play to the current strengths of VR, where it’s a very accessible, pick up and play game. The early games where just a paddle you move up and down on a flat screen and that was extremely complex and technologically advanced and now we’ve seen how far that can go with the complexity of what we’ve seen on some computer screens. League of Legends players have eyes that just flicker on screen, there is a joke that League of Legends players always have one eye on the minimap and one eye on the game, like their eyes are somehow crossed to make that work. To constantly focus on things near and far puts tremendous strain on your eyes, which is why they recommend that every hour you spend looking at a computer screen to take some time to look out a window to relieve some of the strain. In VR there is all kinds of depth and complexity so we’re still working on understanding how much a person can perceive in VR. In video games now on flatscreens with all the stuff on screen happening so fast imagine trying to do that in VR. I wouldn’t be able to tell what was going on anymore so we’re trying to just get the basics across so people can understand it. Based on what people tend to get in VR we can use that to determine how to increase the complexity. I don’t want people to go into the game thinking this is complex, I want them to think this is easy, and then maybe go this is too easy why don’t we try to win and try to push themselves in it. We want people to treat it like it’s a virtual Sparc court, like how people would come together at a tennis court and meet up and call dibs on playing the next match and meet people who can benefit from their interactions. Like finding some casual players that want to practice together or find a pro player that wants to teach someone. We’d like to see it bring people together in ways like that. Instead of leveling up a character level up yourself, learn a skill. Like in playing real tennis there is no cookie that shoots out of the side of court when you do well, play and improve for personal growth. People start forming leagues and start competing against each other since there is no mathematical algorhythmn that will perfectly match up people together. There is no perfect way to measure who is the best player. Is it throw speed, is it wins? There are a lot of factors that play into how well someone is at Sparc. It’s like measuring the best player in tennis, there are a lot of different skills that are looked at to figure out where someone fits in a league.

It’s like baseball, is the best player the one with the most home runs or the best batting average. Or maybe look at RBIs or fielding as the main focal point.

People are always going to try to figure out who the best is but there is so many different attributes to look at. The fastest fastball is a point to consider, and there is value to throwing a legitimately fast fastball but what happens you throw a slow change up? Why did the pitcher just throw a 85 mph pitch, because he was throwing 110 mph pitches and that’s what the batter was expecting to hit. That’s the same thing in Sparc, you can’t really use just stats to measure someone’s skill since it’s not just the abilities but how they choose to use them against other players. We won’t know how to organize tournaments until we get the game out in players’ hands and start getting feedback. It is doubles or is it a league calendar system? We have ideas but we won’t know until it gets out there and our ideas could drastically change based on player feedback. This is the third Fanfest we’ve brought prototypes of Sparc to and it has always changed and evolved based on the feedback. If 25 percent of our audience is having an issue with something, that is something we need to examine and figure out how to change it.

Is there any projected release date for Sparc at this time?

Just 2017. Our goal is to get it out as soon as possible but we don’t know exactly. It’s in pre alpha now with a pretty small dev team of eleven people. We have a lot of support because of what CCP is able to bring to the table, we’ve gotten a ton of support from all corners.

Outside of EVE Online it seems all other CCP projects are focused on VR.

We aren’t trying to take over the VR market by making a huge franchise. It’s more of a matter of trying to gain competency in how people interact with computers physically. Like how people can use their phone to point at speakers and turn them on, why even use the phone? We could eventually have glasses with outward facing cameras where we can just look at the speakers and contract my body or something and bam I just turned it. There is a debate of VR against augmented reality but eventually they will converge and they will be the future.  Like those screens Tony Stark has in the Avengers, those are hyper aspirational but what do we need to start doing to make that a reality. Look at the evolution of mobile games, I was playing a bunch of iPhone games and one day playing Angry Birds I dragged my finger across the screen and sling shotted the bird across the screen in the satisfying way and that just changed how my brain worked about those games, like we no longer need to worry about making a virtual touch screen controller.  It’s super simple, it’s fast, it fits the medium, and it’s an interaction model that works. It’s a simple touch screen, but it took a long time to really get those mechanics down. VR is like that but even more complex. If we get rid of controllers and buttons, what goes next? Can we get rid of the tethers so people can freely walk around the room or go outside? How do you anchor virtual objects in space? And say you decide to support the PlayStation and it didn’t take off, you still learned how to make disc based games that can translate to a future project, the same principals apply to these VR platforms.