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Building Epic VR: It Takes Time

No one studio has done as much for virtual reality (VR) while seemingly doing so little. A smattering of technical demos and a handful of updates to the popular Unreal Engine 4 development suite may appear to be a lack lustre approach to the new medium, especially when Epic Games are yet to confirm any real interest in producing a commercial VR product of their own. But in truth it goes much deeper than that. VR is flowing thickly through the veins of Epic Games.

The story begins in January 2014, with the reveal of the studio’s first demo. A renovated version of the Unreal Engine 4 Elemental demo that made full use of the then newly revealed Oculus Rift prototype, Crystal Cove, and its positional tracking. The user is able to lean in-and-out of the experience, watching small minions operate around the base of a throne upon which the Elemental Knight sits. It was a small taste of what was possible with the hardware opposed to a noteworthy experience of its own, but nonetheless the attention is garnered from its debut at CES 2014, Las Vegas, lead to further endeavours in the field.

Elemental VR demo screenshot

Just 2 months later Oculus VR was ready to unveil the second iteration of the Oculus Rift development kit, aka DK2, and once again Epic Games was in support. Announced at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), San Francisco, Couch Knights was the first multiplayer experience showcased on the head-mounted display (HMD) that would eventually go on to become the backbone for more than a year’s development of VR software. The DK2 was largely based on the Crystal Cove prototype and so developing for the HMD was not a great shift for those already versed in positional tracking and low-persistence displays, yet Couch Knights remained an impressive feat for what is considered a very restrictive development period.

Couch Knights, which has subsequently been made available to download for free, is a perfect example of Epic Games’ view of VR as it stands. It’s not about defining what VR can be, but creating an immediately accessible experience that anyone can enjoy. It’s a gateway drug, capable of convincing even the most adamant naysayer that VR can offer something that traditional 2D monitors will simply forever fail to deliver.

In a recent visit to Epic Games’ base of operations, Cary, North Carolina, VRFocus spoke with the teams involved in creating these and other VR demos. The belief in VR as a new medium and the passion behind the opportunity to assist in bringing the technology to mainstream audiences was palpable. Everybody on these teams was unanimous in the belief that VR would be transformative for not just videogames but entertainment as a whole, but it was never summed up better than in the words of Epic Games founder, Tim Sweeney:

“Once you’re in a virtual reality environment you’re not going to want to take the headset off,” enthused Sweeney. “Imagine when this technology is reduced to the form factor of your Oakley sunglasses and everybody can experience that level of realism anywhere they go.”

Of course, it’s likely that the HMDs of today will be looked back upon 10 years from now in the same way that 8- and 16-bit consoles are viewed today: enjoyable but primitive. It’s still a long road to get to that point, but Epic Games continues to make strides to help the technology along the way.

Oculus Rift consumer headset

At Oculus Connect, Hollywood, in September 2014, the studio unveiled its third VR demo, Showdown. A science-fiction action sequence made largely of assets borrowed from the original Unreal Engine 4 Infiltrator demo, Showdown was a non-interactive experience built for another new Oculus Rift prototype, Crescent Bay. This latest hardware proposed an early look at what the eventual consumer version of the Oculus Rift would be capable of, and Showdown was arguably even more impressive than Oculus VR’s own internal demo reel.

Showdown went on to become a showcase piece for Epic Games and featured at many subsequent events, and partnered with the studios’ work with Weta Digital on A Thief in the Shadows continued to impress with every outing. But Showdown is a year old, and things are moving fast in the VR space.

“Going from Showdown, which was a very realistic tour through a ‘bullet-time’ slow-motion view of a movie action scene, now to Bullet Train – taking full advantage of Oculus Touch – delivering a bite-sized gameplay experience where you’re battling realistic enemies in a very realistic scene, that’s the pace we can expect,” states Sweeney. “The standards are going to be very high in VR. Your brain expects reality when you’re in one of these experiences, so the teams that can deliver realty will have an unprecedented opportunity.”

Bullet Train follows Showdown as being Epic Games’ Oculus Connect reveal, presented for the first time in Hollywood last week. It’s an experience unlike anything else that has been seen in VR before: deeply engrained within videogame convention and yet retaining the high visual standard that Epic Games have become famous for. Once again, even Oculus VR’s own first-person shooter (FPS) title, Dead & Buried, couldn’t stand next to Epic Games’ design for their platform.

Bullet Train 02

So what’s next for Epic Games and VR? Unreal Engine 4 is regularly receiving updates to aid external development studios and Bullet Train will inevitably receive more outings. But Epic Games has plentiful resources at its disposal, surely there must come a time when a project designed for commercial release will be forthcoming? According to Sweeney there’s nothing to speak of at present, but VR has the potential to become so widespread that it could become too enticing an opportunity to overlook.

“There was no doubt we had to get involved from the very beginning,” states Sweeney. “It’s going to completely change the way that gamers and everybody experiences computing in the future.”