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I’ve Played the Future of Virtual Reality, and It’s a Lot Like ‘Wii Sports’

'Project Arena' is the most accessible, immediate VR experience I've had so far, and is a great advertisement for the social side of this new technology.

by Mike Diver
Apr 26 2016, 6:30pm

A screen from the still-very-much-in-development 'Project Arena.' Courtesy of CCP

Wii Sports is one of the greatest video games ever made. Shut up. Wii Sports is one of the greatest video games ever made. Beyond the amazing commercial performance of the Wii's killer app—it's the second highest selling game of all time, after Tetris—what it did was bring people to the medium who'd never considered enjoying it before. Out of their seats, into the moment—swinging and punching and laughing, be that alone or with friends. Its more passive events, like bowling, proved a hit in retirement homes, whereas there are fewer local multiplayer experiences in gaming quite so breathlessly stupid as stepping into the boxing ring beside a pleasantly pissed pal. Wii Sports appealed to every demographic, every age, every ability. Wii Sports was fucking genius.

Yeah, sure, it had its problems too. Nintendo's motion-control tech wasn't up to speed with its ambitions, for one thing. Nevertheless, its role in breaking movement-sensitive video gaming open to a huge audience was unprecedented. This was pre-VR VR, in a way—we turned on Wii Sports and willingly stepped into a reality that wasn't our own, yet bore recognizable similarities. We instinctively knew what to do, how to play these games. And to me, that's something that's largely been lacking from the virtual reality experiences we're seeing on today's raft of new hardware.

I've played my share of them, from the skin-crawling horror of Capcom's Kitchen to the thrilling spaceship dogfighting of CCP's EVE: Valkyrie and onto the puzzle-solving of ustwo's Land's End and the engrossing drama of nDreams' The Assembly. Each is, in its own way, magical; but equally, they all directly appeal to existing gamers, an audience with previous experience of adventures within comparable, albeit 2D, fantasies. But now I've played the VR title that has the potential to do for this generation of gaming what Wii Sports did the previous one, smashing down the barriers of entry, turning what looks like a very closed-off sector of this industry, this culture, into a for-everyone proposition. And I cannot praise it highly enough.

"Being the breakthrough thing for VR right now is never the expectation, but it's certainly a hope, right?" So Adam Kraver tells me, during a break from watching people play his work. He's the architect programmer on Project Arena, a new suite of competitive VR games being developed at CCP's Atlanta studios. "A lot of people say that VR is an isolating experience; that it's closed off and whatnot. But when we started with VR, we were using version two Kinect cameras to incorporate full body integration, where you could bring people into the game with you. And all of a sudden it became this really social experience."

A "really social experience" is precisely what Project Arena, as it exists so far, is to me. At 2016's EVE Fanfest in Iceland, where hardcore players of CCP's sci-fi MMO come together to talk massive spaceships, interstellar coup d'etats and such like, two Project Arena experiences are on show, playable by press and average Joes alike. The feedback from all who step into both 'Volley'—a tennis-like game played using a circular net—and 'Brawl'—a Tron-recalling game in which two players throw points-scoring discs at one another while deflecting incoming ones from their rival with a gradually depleting energy shield—is unanimous: people are wild for this. I play both and don't stop smiling for three days; every reminder of my face-offs with another journalist brings a feeling of warm happiness bubbling up from the pit of my otherwise blackly cynical soul. I can't be skeptical about this, like I am so much VR. Project Arena works. CCP is sitting on a goddamn goldmine.

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"We brought 'Brawl' here last year, to Fanfest, and people loved the hell out of it," Krave continues. "We new then that we had something great, and we knew that once we had the (Oculus Rift) Touch controllers, we would be able to get something that felt like you were throwing it. Having a shield just feels fantastic—it links back to playing swords and shields when you were a kid, with a trashcan lid and a stick.

"Wii Sports and those Wii things were never an inspiration, because we came at this from another perspective. But the fact that people are having that kind of connection with it, and that resonance, is absolutely amazing."

Project Arena doesn't strike me as a home-based proposition. For one thing, its Vive set-up requires a lot of space, for the body-tracking tech to really work—and that needs doubling to go up against someone else in the same physical space. This is something that needs to live in places where people, lots of them, congregate. Leisure centers and theaters; shopping malls and universities; airports and, naturally, arcades. As soon as you see this thing, you get it—this one is pretty much tennis, albeit with a glowing disc that you strike with a light paddle on the back of your forearm, arcing around a central "net"; that one is a corridor-set face-off where aggression and defense require careful balance. Both necessitate a degree of agility on the part of the participant—expect to sweat—but there's no reason why Project Arena can't expand its roster of playable options for less mobile people, just as Wii Sports offered.

This augmented video shows what it's like to play 'Brawl' in 'Project Arena'

"All of the design decisions revolve around the fact that we want this to be social, and that extends to being able to watch it and immediately know what's going on," Krave says. "We've done a lot of experiments on the game modes—we've made several iterations of 'Brawl.' At the beginning, we had two incentives, or goals. One, it had to play great, and be fun to play; but also, two, when watching it, spectating, it had to make sense, and create drama. And that's what's exciting here—seeing two people in the game, with the fluid motion, ricocheting the disc, and then looking at the people outside the game watching on the big screen and recognizing when there's likely to be a scoring moment. There are shouts, hoots, and hollers.

"We've received no mandate or anything saying that this has to fit the EVE universe. Really, our original mandate was to find out what the next thing in VR was, and then the thing after that. It was never: 'Go build us an EVE IP product.' But it's up to the powers at CCP as to whether or not they want to fit this into EVE. It might just be its own thing."

I hope that it is. Skinning Project Arena to match the aesthetic of EVE, to plug directly into its universe, its 13-years-established lore, could put people off checking it out. I know I've never been tempted to try CCP's long-running multiplayer epic, and attending Fanfest doesn't change that feeling. Seeing those same uniforms, that same fantastical aesthetic, applied to what demands to be an incredibly inclusive product, could immediately alienate the curious coming from a non-gaming background. Wii Sports was simple to read and respond to, to move with, and as it stands Project Arena's two VR experiences are much the same: see projectile spinning before you, swipe it away with a sliced backhand, score a point.

More is needed between now and Project Arena reaching commercial availability, but one of those things isn't a cack-handed insertion into a world that already has enough spin-offs. Fingers crossed that CCP sees the value in stepping beyond what's made its name, forged its reputation, and cashes in on what is simply a fantastic advertisement for both the present power of VR, and its future potential.

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