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VR Karts Dev Talks Origins, Being First in VR and the Future

The next few months are going to see virtual reality (VR) infect all kinds of videogame genres. Horror and exploration have already proved popular within the indie community, but it’s time to see how the technology can be applied to other areas. Karting videogames, for example, present some intriguing new opportunities for VR. UK-based indie developer, Viewpoint Games, is exploring just that with its first title, VR Karts.

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VRFocus spoke to Design Director Neil Wigfield during last week’s London MCM Comic Con. In the interview below, the developer talks about creating the first VR karting experience, the pressures of working with unproven technology and meeting some of the expectations of the genre in VR.

VRFocus: How did VR Karts start and where is it today?

Neil Wigfield: We formed Viewpoint Games in September 2014 and have been working on VR Karts since then. We’re on Steam Early Access, so getting it out there so people with [Oculus Rift] DK2s can start jumping in and help us shape the game.

We’re probably a couple of updates away from getting online multiplayer up and running. Already we’ve got kind of weapons and stuff. So, next update, we’ll have more weapons, more tracks and then we’ll put the online multiplayer probably after that. And then we’ll just add more tracks and more features as we go along. So plan is to get it finished before the end of the year, before the VR hardware. And we want to be there day one so people can jump on, race online against their mates and blow the crap out of each other.

VRFocus: When you started your studio, did you immediately decide to go develop for VR?

Neil Wigfield: Yeah, we’ve both worked for big companies, both worked on AAA games and had been working on that for a while. So we both had VR hardware independently, we were just doing demos and working at home, learning about VR and it was kind of like, if you’re going to start a studio, what do you do? Are you going to be another mobile studio like everyone else? Or you could focus on VR.

And it’s kind of an educated gamble that we wanted to make and commit to it so we had a game finished for when VR is public. And that’s our goal: VR’s such a new frontier and the rules aren’t defined yet. No one’s decided how a HUD should work or any main game mechanics, so it’s just a nice place to start fresh really. From someone who’s been in the game industry for 16 years it’s great to start from scratch and just build up and see what works and kind of throw the rule book away, which is kind of nice.

VRFocus: There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in the karting genre recently. Is it scary to be leading the charge there?

Neil Wigfield: It’s nice that there is no rule book. When we started out we had a few rough prototypes of things and we kept going back to the karting prototype because it was the most obvious and the most intuitive and the easiest to just jump in and play. You don’t have to explain, really, how a karting game works, you jump in and play. Then there’s adding the layers that make it unique to us, the VR head-tracking and the VR-focused stuff. So we’ve got working wing mirrors, you can see yourself in wing mirrors, you can look 180 degrees behind you and drop weapons. There’s stuff that VR is really good at and applying that to something that’s familiar to people but played in a very different way, that’s what’s nice because you actually put people in the game for the first time. And that’s what’s refreshing for us. I mean, demoing to people on a day like today, every three minutes someone’s getting that “Wow!” reaction, which is great.

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VRFocus: You’re using a steering wheel here at MCM. What kind of support will the full title have at launch?

Neil Wigfield: So currently on Early Access we support the Xbox 360 steering wheel, just because you can plug it into a PC and go. We don’t know what the hardware manufacturers are going to support. We support the Xbox 360 pad. Presumably Vive will support a standard controller and new independent VR controllers. So we’ll make it work with any default controllers and hopefully they’ll support steering wheels or standard third party peripherals. Because what we find is that having a steering wheel in front of you adds a nice layer of immersion because your hands are doing exactly what the character in-game is doing.

VRFocus: The karting genre is usually family-friendly. VR right now is very much aimed at adult audiences because of potential risks that we might not know about yet. Is that a risk for you and VR Karts?

Neil Wigfield: I think the way we approached it is that VR is considered quite a techy, early adopter quite thing but when those people want to show of VR to their friends, they’re not going to show off a really hardcore, gory first-person shooter to their kids or their family or their friends. We wanted to be that approachable VR game that people could jump in and play and not really need to explain how stuff works. And the technology’s getting better all the time. So I think that fact that we demo to a few thousand people over a couple of weekends, we’ve had no reaction to any kind of VR sickness or anything like that, so we’re very happy with the direction we’re going and the feedback we’re getting from the public is really promising from 10 years old to, well, we had a 50 year old guy playing earlier.

So it appeals to a broad spectrum. That’s just kind of why we like the bright, vibrant, cartoony world because it doesn’t put anyone off and everyone that walks goes: “Oh, I wonder that’s like.” And that’s what we want, we don’t want to put anyone off from VR because it’s such a new horizon for people to experience. We want to attract people to VR, we don’t want to put them off because we don’t want a gory shooter or a hardcore racing game. It’s a hardcore racing game but it appeals to such a broad spectrum. We want it to be fun and approach and jumping in and playing.

VRFocus: Another aspect associated with karting videogames is local multiplayer. Is that a challenge in VR and how are you tackling the issue?

Neil Wigfield: I think nobody knows whether you can have multiple VR headsets connected to one computer from the horsepower that it requires. So our approach was that we would go network multiplayer. So anyone with a kit can jump in online with a couple of clicks and race around the world.

That’s where we see VR Karts’ strength is that it’s something that you can just jump in and have a quick blast and we don’t want it to be something where you have to do a set of lobbies or rooms, it’s just jump in and click and play. Because VR can be quite isolating, so local single-player will be entertaining but where VR Karts will thrive will be online multiplayer. And we want leaderboards and we want people to customise their kart and their character for players to recognise karts and other players. Like: “Oh, the guy with the mohawk and all in black with the gold visor and the spikey tread. He beat me.” And we want you to build a win/loss record against these people and have a bit of rivalry and be competitive but in a fun way. But we don’t want it to be super hardcore.

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VRFocus: You just mention customisation. What can we expect there?

Neil Wigfield: So at the most we’ve got basic customisation, you can change your name, you can change your horn from a beep to a kind of full-on air horn, and you can change colours. Our plan for the longer term is to have decals and props so you can really become the character rather than just filing in a generic blank canvas as it is at the moment. So we’re talking about Viking horns or mohawks or anything like that that will be really unique. It’s kind of like an event like this where you kind of don’t know who is going to walk round the character. It might be some cartoon character or you’ll see someone from Resident Evil. To have that kind of experience on a racing tack when someone goes past you and you’re like ‘Who the hell’s that?’ and you get that. That’s what we want, we want it to be a fun, over-the-top, cartoony, blast really.

VRFocus: Right now VR Karts is confirmed for Oculus Rift. Do you have any confirmation on ports to HTC Vive or Project Morpheus right now?

Neil Wigfield: We don’t at the moment. The way that we’re approaching it is that we’re making a VR game and we’ll be on any platform that we can get on to. Obviously Vive coming this year is very exciting but we have no solid plans to be on any platform. We’re making a VR game and we’re using Unity so we can port to any platform really. It would be great to be on Vive and Morpheus and all the platforms that are available because we want to make a game that’s approachable to anyone and we want people to recognise the brand and play the brand on any platform.

VRFocus: Are you heading to any other events for the rest of the year?

Neil Wigfield: I think we’re scheduled to go to EGX in Birmingham later in the year. Then it’s about managing time. By going to an event we’re not developing the game so, picking and choosing what we do as there’s only three of us. So as much time as we can on the game and then when we feel we’ve got something good to show people we’ll go to an event and show it off and get people’s feedback.

VRFocus: Does Viewpoint consider itself VR studio that would keep working with the technology?

Neil Wigfield: Yeah, I think we want to keep being VR-focused. There’s nothing to stop us making a 2D version somewhere down the line but I think our approach to forming Viewpoint was that VR is a new horizon, it’s a new way to start a fresh in the games industry and we want to continue to make VR products first and foremost. Obviously how well VR takes off will define how many products can be sold, but I think our approach is to be VR first.