With blood dripping from the walls and limbs skewed across the floor all around me, I’m staring into the cold, dark eyes of a lumbering necromorph. At first, it slowly limps toward me. Soon, the limp turns into a scamper, which turns into a breakneck dash as it’s only mere feet from disemboweling me just before the next save point. As I die another gory and horrifying death on screen, I savor the moment and the frustration because that’s what makes the Dead Space series so fantastic.
VR: The Final Frontier
Fast forward a few years and a some of the folks that worked on that iconic franchise with Visceral Games and Electronic Arts are sitting on the other side of the world on a Skype call with me. They were excited to announce not only a brand new game titled ZR: Zombie Riot coming soon to VR devices, but a brand new company named PlaySide VR to go along with it.
“We were always in a position within Visceral Games at EA to be trying to come up with the next best thing,” said Gerry Sakkas, CEO of PlaySide VR. “Right now, we see VR as a new medium, not so much as a continuation of console. What makes VR so exciting is that there is nothing to copy and we have to come up with this all by ourselves.”
If the name PlaySide sounds familiar, that’s probably because you’ve played a mobile title from the PlaySide Mobile part of the company. They’ve made a name for themselves developing several successful mobile games based on big-budget Hollywood IPs, such as Batman v. Superman, SpongeBob, PAN, Moshi Monsters, and many others. And beyond mobile gaming, their team has experience with gaming companies such as not only the aforementioned EA and Visceral Games relationship, but also Rare, Ubisoft, and several more.
In short: they know what they’re doing. Well, as much as anyone else does in the VR industry at least. “With VR development, we have to approach things from a perspective of having no examples to work from,” said Sakkas. “These things haven’t been done before.”
With such deep connections and experience across multiple industries, it’s no surprise that PlaySide VR is not only talking to Oculus, HTC, Samsung, and Sony about product partnerships and game development, but they’ve also started conversations with 21st Century Fox and other Hollywood entities about possibilities beyond just VR gaming as well. Diversify and conquer is the name of the game at PlaySide VR.
The VR Zombie Apocalypse
Everywhere you look in the game industry – no matter which platform or game genre – you’ll see zombies popping up in some form or another. Naturally, several VR experiences are already employing the use of zombies, such as the Brookhaven Experiment, Arizona Sunshine, and many others. It’s a natural extension of where the current gaming market sits. They make lots of money and their popularity isn’t decreasing any time soon. Now with the debut of VR devices, people are going to be clamoring not just for something familiar that they can easily grasp, but for something fun and unique as well. Thus, ZR: Zombie Riot was born.
According to a press release that PlaySide VR provided to UploadVR, “ZR: Zombie Riot highlights outstanding visuals with intuitive gameplay to form a fast paced, action, first person shooter for true VR devices.”
Since ZR utilizes motion-tracking like the Oculus Touch controllers, acquiring that immersive and visceral (pun intended) feedback is easier than with a traditional gamepad. The team described to me an example of how in the office building that their company is located, they’ve got a lot of lawyers, accountants, and other non-VR focused individuals. Common, everyday people more or less.
PlaySide VR invites these types of people into their office to give ZR a try and they’re able to immediately pick up the game and play without any directions. When designed well, VR experiences can be that immediately familiar.
“The great thing about VR, especially with motion controllers,” said Sakkas, “is that no matter what we want the player to do, we don’t have to explain it to them in the traditional way a game has a tutorial most of the time.”
It’s like a hidden, unspoken language that we all subconsciously know. But getting to that point isn’t easy – it takes iteration and practice.
“In VR, we are having to come up with simple things like, reloading a gun,” elaborated Sakkas. “Everyone is going to try and take a shot at how to do that best in VR, but how do we think we should do it?” It’s almost like having to reinvent the wheel each and every time a new gameplay mechanic is incorporated.
The inviting visual style likely helps a great deal as well. The blood-soaked hallways of Dead Space might have been a bit off putting to the casual consumer, so they’ve dialed back the entrail-gushing a bit in favor of a more approachable and colorful aesthetic. But that’s not to say it’s not an intense and action-packed experience, because it certainly is.
That being said, a wave-based zombie survival game is far from original in concept. However, an argument could be made that no one has really made a AAA-quality fully finished zombie survival game for VR yet. The ones that do exist are mostly still in development, are made by tiny teams of a couple people, or are incredibly shallow experiences. Games like Arizona Sunshine show promise of course, but no one knows which zombie killing spree will wind up on top. The market is still in early stages and hasn’t been saturated like on console yet. In its final release, ZR will have tons of environments, dozens of weapons, and most importantly, a whole slew of ways to customize your weapons with a unique crafting system.
Building the Tools of Destruction
Everyone has wielded a big machete, an assault rifle, a shotgun, or any one of countless typical weapons in games like this before. You stand your ground, shoot down the zombies as they approach, and try to make it to the next round. But when you’re in VR, everything is more immersive and intense. You’re not just helping this character in a game survive, you’re ensuring your own survival.
A necessary requirement for games that can be that immersive though is the abiltiy to reach out and interact with the world around you. The Oculus Touch controllers wouldn’t live up to their namesake if you couldn’t touch and manipulate the world around you. Luckily in ZR, that’s not something you have to worry about. According to PlaySide VR’s press release, “if it can fit in your hand, you can pick it up and use it as a weapon.” Everything from frying pans, broken bottles, and oodles of guns are free for the taking.
“You can find items in your house and mix them together, in real-time, to create new things,” explained Sakkas. “The way we’ve built it is that we want people to feel encouraged to just find things and try them out.”
What that means for the players is that you won’t be visiting a crafting table or a merchant at a kiosk between waves to have them make new upgrades for you. Instead, you’ll do it yourself in real-time. Turn that teddy bear into a molotov cocktail, make a spear out of a machete, or anything else you can think of. There’s no crafting menu to fuss with – you just find stuff and piece it together.
ZR and the Future of PlaySide VR
As is readily apparent, ZR is just the beginning of what’s sure to be multiple VR games and other experiences soon to come. VR is akin to the Wild West of the tech industry at the moment as everyone is just getting their feet wet while Oculus and HTC call to the shorelines, “Come on in! The water’s fine!”
“The biggest problem with console and mobile development right now is that everyone is copying each other,” confessed Sakkas. “They’ll say, ‘Let’s take Candy Crush and make it with this IP instead,’ or, ‘Let’s make Call of Duty, but with animals.’ Everyone is trying to remix something else and I think right now in VR, we are just trying to create something new.”
Despite the risks, it looks like PlaySide VR may just be ready to dive into the deep end head first.
PlaySide VR is currently targeting a Fall 2016 launch for ZR: Zombie Riot for Oculus Touch. You can keep track of the Australia-based PlaySide VR and their debut title, ZR: Zombie Riot, at the official PlaySide VR website.