Epic Games on Designing and Developing Bullet Train for Oculus Connect

Epic Games has already done a lot for the virtual reality (VR) community by loading its Unreal Engine 4 development middleware with support for the technology. The company also continues to develop its own ground-breaking tech demonstrations for the Oculus Rift head-mounted display (HMD). That trend isn’t changing at this year’s Oculus Connect 2 developer conference, where the company has revealed Bullet Train, a VR mini-game of sorts that uses the Oculus Touch controllers.

Ahead of its announcement on-stage at the event, VRFocus got to sit down with Epic Games’ Seattle Studio Manager Ray Davis, Lead VR Engineer Nick Whiting, and CTO Kim Libreri to talk about the origins of this impressive new demo. In the interview below the developers talk about the design decisions that made throughout the process of preparing for Oculus Connect 2, and how the project slowly changed from one straight forward concept into something much more open and exciting.

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VRFocus: Who came up with the original idea for Bullet Train?

Nick Whiting (NW): We were talking about action films like Hard Boiled and Oldboy where they have these kind of one shot scenes where you’re kind of following through a hallway and just a bunch of bad guys are coming out. We wanted to kind of recreate that feeling because we thought that there’s a lot of opportunity to feel like a badass, right? You know, you want to have a lot of actuality in the world, right? You want to interact with things and not be, you know, barraged in a game that requires skill but a game that makes you feel like super human or a badass.

So that’s where we looked and initially had the idea of going straight down the hall, but then once we got to take our resources to kind of open it up and build a cool kind of train station. [One developer] was like “Hey, let’s do it in a train station or something so we can open it up and fill out a bigger space.” And then we kinda took the kind of micro-game of grabbing guns off of people in a very contained environment and brought it into a very wide environment and then put the teleporters around to let you traverse and see it from multiple angels since obviously walking around is not working so we needed some way to let you kind of move.

Ray Davis (RD): I would say the process is highly, highly organic in true Epic fashion. I think, especially with this sort of thing, you find like ‘Oh, grabbing a gun and shooting it is really run. Wouldn’t it be awesome to grab a gun out of his hands?’ And then it was just a few weeks ago that Donaldson actually got the bullet time back and working in VR to do that. I think it’s like, every time you do it and have a really great experience with it you’re like ‘What about that?’ and at some point we have to say ‘Okay, stop. No more. We’re running out of time. Let’s make this work.’ And that was sometime late last week. Last Tuesday night at about 11pm.

Kim Libreri (KL): It was very organic, basically people just firing ideas off of each other. Basically there was not really a super big plan other than that we wanted to make a shooting experience. Even the train station, we were looking at ‘Well, let’s make it look as good as some of those ArchViz demos that we get’ and John came up with a bunch of options and one was a train station and one was an airport or something that would have nice architectural structures in it. So we just—literally it was a team of a dozen guys firing ideas off of each other and whatever seemed like it was working, they took it to the next level. So it’s very different from movie production. Right now a lot of people making VR experiences are sort of movie companies that are trying to tell stories. This is completely the opposite. This is basically all about interactivity and gameplay.

RD: Yeah and a lot of the effects and stuff and all that kind of stuff? That was just something that [a developer] was kind of working on to the side because he had this one idea one morning or whatever. And then once we saw that we were like ‘Holy, crap, that would be amazing to like pull that into this experience’, right? So there’s a lot of just sort of, I would say almost like scavenging and being like ‘Hey, what cool stuff have all these smart people been working on and now let’s bring it all together and make our game even more awesome.’

I mean, other than the original idea of shooting and then slow-mo and grabbing stuff off of people, I mean that was the original core of what we have and we were like ‘Hey, let’s just start down the hallway’ and it’s obviously become, you know, grabbing bullets out of the air, riding a train, fighting a boss, grabbing a rocket, throwing it back. I mean, it went from that tiny little nugget of the core action of grabbing something off of somebody from moving on to the next guy to a giant conglomeration of all the cool, badass things we can do.

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VRFocus: So the train at the start is effectively the training level. There’s a debate in VR right now where most devs are saying they’ve got to build experiences as if it’s people’s first time in VR. Because, for a lot of people, it will be. But you don’t have that with Bullet Train because it’s at Oculus Connect where everybody there has done VR. So why did you feel the need to have a training section?

NW: Well, I think we’ve gone back on forth on that and we’re not only going to exclusively show it at Oculus Connect. I’d love to get it out there for the whole world to see it at some point. I think it’s fun to watch some people really get in there without any training, like they can just figure it out on their own. I think a lot people, I think VR tends to overwhelm people. Especially if it’s their initial experience. So you’ve got to have these things in there to remind them: ‘Hey, by the way, you can do like what you’re doing but you can do other things here, you can manipulate it.’ And I think, also, we have just so many mechanics you don’t have to explain all of them. We got most of them in there.

But, I mean, most people aren’t used to being shot at, or teleporting around a large space, so we kind of had to introduce these people to that because if you can just come out in that space it’s completely overwhelming with bullets flying at you and you’re like ‘Oh shit, what do I do?’ I mean, even the opening door sequence, where you finish training, you open the door and they all shoot at you, we got feedback that this kind of overwhelms people and they just hide in the train and they don’t even bother teleporting out.

RD: I think one of the coolest things that happened with that training sequence is as we were kind of developing it we brought in external people that didn’t have a lot of experience with VR to train it. And actually my wife was going through it and playing with it and she didn’t understand that when you hit the button to teleport it also slowed down time.

She couldn’t grapple that. So when she came into the headset she was showing me the controller and was like ‘Well, what does this button do?’ and was like showing me the grip button. I was like ‘That’s the one you use to pick up every weapon you’ve picked up for the last 5 minutes in the game’. And then she was like ‘What does this trigger button do?’ And I was like ‘That fires every gun that you’ve fired in the game.’ Even that association between having that controller – she was just in the game and doing what came naturally to her. So there’s a little bit of induction there where you have to help people a little bit but I think kind of intuitively they kind of grasp it and you just want to get in a safe place to try it out before they start getting shot at.

KL: And remember, the controllers are new, so a lot of people haven’t experienced sort of high-octane gaming within a VR environment. So we thought it was important. You know, a lot of people that go to Connect are into VR, it doesn’t mean they’re great gamers, so we wanted to make it as easy on them as possible. And, for example, you can’t really die in this thing because we wanted to make the thing as accessible as possible. It’s like ‘You suck, you’re dead straight away! Game Over!’ wouldn’t have worked for Connect. We’re assuming that not everybody is an expert. If this was a real game it would be a different situation.

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VRFocus: So you’ve mentioned ‘game’ like 4 or 5 times there. Have we now crossed that point? Are we no longer looking at 5-minte ‘here you go, here’s something cool, look around this environment?’ Are we now in game territory for VR?

NW: I think it’s not hard to extrapolate the mechanics of what we’ve discovered, right?

RD: I mean, it’s kind of its own thing, right? We call games games because that’s a nice thing and we call films films. Because you need to have something to call VR and I think right now we haven’t quite settled on it. We’re in a stage with VR where we imitate games and we imitate film and we kind of call them experiences but they’re kind of their own thing. You take the environment that’s created by somebody else for a different film and you take the interactivity that you get from games and you put in this sense of presence that adds another story-telling mechanic. I don’t know that we’ve really coined an effective mechanic to describe what a VR experience is other than just experience. We kind of grab onto what’s the closest analogue in these mediums we’re familiar with. I think this one is closer to a game where something like Showdown is more akin to experiential movies. I don’t think we’ve coined a good term yet.

NW: Yeah, I think Showdown in my head is more like a VR short, right? It’s just a small short film. It’s not hard to extrapolate, like, Bullet Train could be that sort of mid-way point slice in a full game experience. VR is like unlocking powers and all that kind of cool stuff. So I think, for me, it was great to be building this experience to feel like, ‘Yeah, VR gaming definitely will be a real thing’, right? Because for the longer time, especially for us, we weren’t really playing with moving the camera around. But I think the teleporting mechanic gives us a lot of confidence that, yeah, we have something to work with.

RD: Yeah, originally it was kind of that we took the Showdown approach of just moving the camera straight forward but we ended up going back to that original hallway mechanic. But there’s a lot of problems with that, especially with the field of view and how you can only turn 45 degrees before you start clipping on yourself. But when you’re moving through a scene when you’re not in control of that you’re like ‘Oh I just wanted to do something here, or punch him one more time’ and by that point you’ve turned 90 degrees and you’ve lost tracking so we kind of had to adapt it to the teleporter where all those teleporters are in a ring all pointing towards the centre of the action so that you’re less inclined to have to turn more than 45 degrees.

I don’t know if you noticed that in the experience but there’s actually a lot of intelligence in the orientation of every one of those destinations to make sure that you’re never getting spun around. You know, because we also have that wire to worry about and people like choking themselves or getting out of control, which Mark Rein did, almost.

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VRFocus: I did notice the fact that you were reoriented at every teleporter. I didn’t notice that is was to the centre until I was told that. And then on the second go-through when using the teleporter I immediately knew where the bad guy was teleporting away from was going to be because I knew where that teleporter was in relation to where I just was. But that is a learning mechanic and that is something we haven’t experienced before, and people are going to have to work that out.

RD: Yeah and I think we’re learning there. There’s extra thing on the design side we can do of like, ‘Hey, what if the trash cans are always to the left’, right? So that you always have that anchor and, even it’s not a confidence thing, people can start to pick up on those. Because you can definitely know if you get it wrong. There were a couple of times we were tweaking with orientation, especially exiting the train, and you just get that feeling of ‘Woah, something’s not right now’ afterwards. So there’s definitely some of that and other hidden tricks in there.

And I think that’s the real magic you’re going to see that separates like people just getting into VR and then VR developers that really dig and try to understand the medium. I think the Valkyrie guys at CCP have spent a lot of time. They do so much and iterated so much behind that to make it feel perfect, right? You’re never—nothing feels out of place, right? And the only way for EVE: Valkyrie to get to that level of experience is just continuous iteration or try and sometimes fail. A lot of fail.

VRFocus: So can you give me one example of something that you’ve tried and failed and you decided to throw away?

RD: I mean, the kind of original hallway idea. There’s a lot of potential to it. It felt really good because you’re this kind of badass. We just wanted this scene that you could always kind of control and be in action a lot more so the actions were much more kind of scripted and it felt more dramatic and the pacing was controlled. That part of it was really cool but we just couldn’t get over the technical hurdle that people want to turn around and do things. So that one was scrapped pretty early on.

NW: We should totally make that VR Steam Roller experience. You can go in one direction.

I think a lot of it was, especially if you’re playing around with orientation, people are like—because there’s a constant question of ‘Hey, did you know where you were gonna end up?’ right? Did you have that grounding? And kind of the other part of that would be, a lot of movement was just having 2 players just sitting back-to-back and fighting hordes of guys coming at you. That’s gonna be fun for 10 to 30 seconds but without being able to move around the environment or the scenery changing you can’t sustain any experience like that for more than 30 seconds without it getting boring. And that’s why we had to get an interesting environment that you can feel like Superman in terms of creating environments that are interesting and have a lot of cool vantage points to be found but that’s why we have, I think 6 in the end, points.

The other stuff we chopped was just mostly because of time and resources. It was only a 10 week project and it scaled. I mean, it was me and Donaldson for a couple of weeks, 2 people. And then it scaled up to 18 at one point for one day and back down to about 7 or 8.

RD: Well that’s the dynamics of a team, you put too many people on it and it gets destabilised so it’s about finding that balance. We didn’t end this by saying ‘Yep, we’re done,’ we still got a tone of ideas of cool things we want to try.

VRFocus: So given the opportunity, would you like to take Bullet Train further?

NW: I don’t see why not unless we have some cool, crazy other ideas, yeah. We’ve got lots of cool crazy ideas.