Virtual reality is still a relatively new component of the modern gaming equation, but that hasn't stopped developers like Zero Latency from using VR technology to create unique gaming experiences. The studio has given players the chance to enjoy four different free-roam VR games over the past few years, and the company's latest game Sol Raiders aims to blend Zero Latency's signature free-roam VR focus with something aimed at competitive-minded esports players and VR enthusiasts alike.
Shacknews recently had a chance to give Sol Raiders as well as other games in the Zero Latency catalog a test run. Once gameplay had concluded, we sat down with Zero Latency CEO Tim Ruse for a VoIP interview to discuss the studio's esports aspirations, the hardware and software used to create Sol Raiders, plus learn more about what it takes to develop untethered VR experiences for a global audience.
Shacknews: Do you have any specifics you can give us about the hardware used for Zero Latency games?
Tim Ruse: We use a combination of proprietary and off-the-shelf hardware and software. We've made our own tracking system, we have our own guns which have some electronics that we've put together inside there, and then we use an Alienware computer inside the backpack. The backpack platform itself, the actual thing you wear and clean and maintain, as well as the cable management, is all our own. We also use the OSVR platform which we've customized quite heavily for location-based VR.
What we've found in the past is that what you need for a location-based experience, to operate it smoothly and have it work, some domestic-grade equipment just isn't up to the job. So we've either had to not use it or get stuff that we could customize quite heavily.
So you guys are running pretty late-model hardware in there?
Absolutely. We've partnered with and are doing [research and development] with Microsoft, Intel, and HP to make sure that we're looking at the next generation of stuff. There'll be more announcements about that over the coming months.
Is there any specific goal that you have in mind with regard to esports?
I think, fundamentally, the first thing you do [with] PvP in free-roam VR as we see it, what we want to do is to make an amazing game, which I feel we've done, something that people want to play that is easy to learn, so you can pick up a gun and just shoot some [robots]. But, you know, it's tricky to master, in getting your tactics right and winning consistently. Especially against experienced players, you really need to think through your strategy.
We want to build a community around [Sol Raiders], we're going to do a lot of listening, collecting hard data from inside the game as well as feedback from customers and operators to make sure that we are building out new game modes and new maps that address the needs and wants of the community.
You build up that great game, that community, and then we want to over time turn it into a true esport. It's a unique blending of physical ability as well as the digital world. In Sol Raiders, the way you move, your physicality, your reactions and agility, [they're] all part of it. Where you put your head, and where you put your gun, is all incredibly important, so there's a fantastic opportunity to turn this into a fully fledged esport.
We're still working out how the spectating works... there's lots of stuff to do, but we're feeling really confident. It's been really well-received so far by everyone that's played it, and I think a large part of that is due to having been working on these products for over five years now, we've put hundreds of thousands of players through them, close to a million games played.
They want to come with their friends, and it's a social experience ultimately. It's digital, but people want to come with their buddies, get excited, put on a headset, have an adventure, get out and go, "Wow that was awesome, when you did this, when I did that." That's certainly what we're seeing.
Was that your goal all along, to make something fun for people? Or was this a project that spoke to the team personally?
Both, absolutely. It was a captivating project for us from the get-go, as budding entrepreneurs and massive gamers, to be like, "Hey, this is going to be awesome, we're going to build this amazing next-generation platform." It's been a massive challenge, but it's been so rewarding to take an idea and essentially conjure it out of the earth and turn it into a global business that entertains thousands of people every month.
It's amazing, but very much borne from a desire to want to play it ourselves, to be honest. It's like, "Man, that would be an awesome thing, we should build that, then we could play it, it's going to be cool," and then rapidly getting obsessed with it and wanting to bring it to as many people as possible.
Is the popularity of free-roam VR something you want to capitalize on, or is the field something you'd instead prefer to innovate? Is your goal to be at the forefront of the market?
We are very much at the forefront of the free-roam VR market; we have a lot of sites — there'll be at least 50 by the end of the year, and we're projecting more than that. In this phase we really want to roll out the platform as quickly as we can. We see a massive opportunity in getting a great network of sites, we're talking to content partners that we've got on-board, and we're just really motivated to be democratizing what we do. We want to get as many free-roam VR experiences out there as we can so people can play them. It's a big job, but this is such a great network for people that want to operate Zero Latency facilities or bring that technology to their market.
What did you do to make the experience in VR and real life work together? Did you build the levels out? Did you have any kind of modeling to structure them?
We do a lot of iterations. The way the developers work is they have their desktops, and they also use headsets to make sure it looks OK, but then there's lots of game testing. So we'll set up a white box environment, like a simplified environment, and then go and test it — walk around the space, be inside the space to see how it feels. It's super important, and we've tried different methods, but it's very hard — you can probably get maybe 50 or 60 percent of it done on your computer, but you've got to get in there [yourself].
The second thing that we do is we want to get outside of that echo chamber. We bring in [what we call] our "Alpha Army," they are essentially people from focus groups that come in during the day, they play our latest games, they play our latest builds, they give us feedback, and we can see what works and what doesn't. Because it's such a new industry, and such a new medium that we've developed, it's so important to get consistent feedback from people when developing new products. And I think that's one of the great challenges, [..] is how do you let people lose themselves, and make the space feel a lot bigger than it is, make them feel like they're traveling to different worlds? That's got so much to do with the fantastic global designers and programmers and artists that we have in our business.
I'd say you guys definitely nailed it. When we took those visors off, we were surprised to be back in the room we were in. We'd forgotten we were there.
(laughs) That's right, that's the goal. Mission accomplished!
I think there's something incredibly profound and immersive about physically moving through a larger space, and everything you're seeing and feeling matched in the physical world and to the digital world. It has a very transported quality; it must be doing something quite profound in people's brains. I find that, even having played these games and developing them for five years, if I get inside a new game I haven't played before, I rapidly lose sense of where I am. I still get that feeling when I pop [the VR HMD] off, I'm like, "Oh wow, I'm back in the warehouse," which I think is a testament to the quality of the experience.
Sol Raiders has three different maps, but you could almost say they're different game modes. Do you have plans to expand those modes or introduce new ones?
Absolutely, we've got lots of different ideas in terms of changing or manipulating the game modes on those maps, and also developing new scenarios within those worlds, and also developing new worlds. We've tried a lot of different things in the past, some stuff that we think will work in the future, but it's just a little bit more advanced gameplay, so we want to sort of roll those out slowly.
What's interesting as well, initially we were just focusing on the deathmatch aspect, but we rapidly realized you need something else — you need another cohesive goal the team can get behind. Once we introduced that, whether its the Sol cores or the data canisters, that's made a massive difference to the user experience. And it's really interesting, you can get 95 percent of the way there, but that last keystone piece is around objective management and making sure it all flows nicely. It just elevates the game to the next level.
Is there anything you can tell me about that didn't work?
There was a couple of notable examples. We did some earlier work where it's like, well maybe we'll be on two floating barges kind of in separate areas shooting at each other, [but] it just wasn't enough movement and engagement. Another one that we did — the first-ever player-versus-player test I guess, in hindsight — was we switched on as many backpacks as we could, 13 or 16 backpacks, I can't quite remember the number, until basically the system was like "I can't cope with any more objects," with guns as well, and basically put people into a map we already had — a large bunker staging ground for the military — and we were like, "turn friendly fire on and go nuts." And, you know, it was kind of fun, but what we rapidly realized is that if you have automatic weapons and you're facing off over 20 or 30 meters, it's just a bloodbath. It's not actually that much fun, it's not that technical, it's just too difficult.
What we realized is we need to make a game where there's a shooting aspect, but you also need other objectives, and that sort of fed into the map design. You don't want massive distances where it's really easy for someone to dig in and snipe, and a lot of that stuff that's inside the game represents a lot of iteration. Even around user experience design and UI, a lot of people are used to really heavy UI in games, you've got health bars, mini maps, ammo counters, objective markers... it's quite difficult to put those into an immersive experience, because you'll essentially wind up with this HUD stuck to your face, and that's a really hard thing to balance. All that stuff takes a lot of time and iteration, but it's definitely worth it.
Do you guys have any expectation to port your games to anything other than an open-air, free-roaming platform? Is there any chance of bringing Zero Latency games to other systems?
At this stage, no. We're really an efficient, tight little team, and it's all about iterating on what we have currently in this game, and we've got other projects that are under wraps at the moment that we're excited to kick off internally. But no real plans to move across platforms just yet.
One final question: Aside from open-air rooms, the space, and the connection you have with other players, what do you think makes for a great VR experience?
I think having great game mechanics, first and foremost, versus graphical fidelity, is so important. VR, as people are discovering, is a tough medium. It's new; some of the conventions don't exist or don't work in VR, so coming up with cool, awesome game mechanics is so important. People are deconstructing those perceived norms of game design, and going, "this is a new medium, this is more than a screen strapped to your face." It has different pros, different cons, different opportunities, and I think Zero Latency has done that by going, "Hey, we're going to put eight players into a free-roam space," something that was almost scoffed at four years ago, and we were talking about how it was considered to be impossible. We rapidly proved people wrong.
Zero Latency's latest title Sol Raiders is available for play now at 25 different locations across the globe. More information about the game, including ticket prices and venues, as well as more details about the studio's other free-roaming VR experiences, can be found over at the official Zero Latency website. Gamers can also learn more about the studio's latest developments by following Zero Latency on Twitter.