Virtual reality is still a great way to make someone sick, and that doesn’t make for good entertainment.
Ubisoft’s Funhouse team realized this as they created their first VR title, Eagle Flight, for the PlayStation VR system debuting on Sony’s PlayStation 4 next year. It lets you soar as an eagle above the city of Paris of the future, 50 years after humans have left the city.
That sounds like a lot of fun, but soaring could also really give you a serious case of air sickness. So the Funhouse team, whose charter is to create experimental titles, invented new ways to control characters. For instance, your body can change the direction of the eagle’s flight. The PlayStation VR’s motion-sensing system detects which way you are leaning, and it turns the eagle’s direction. Such details are part of a collection of learnings that Ubisoft has collected for VR game development.
We talked with Patrick Plourde, the vice president of the Funhouse at Ubisoft Montreal, in an interview after Eagle Flight was unveiled at the PlayStation Experience (PSX) fan event last weekend. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Why did you choose the location and time frame — Paris after all the humans are gone?
Patrick Plourde: It’s all based on the gameplay. We experimented with different forms of movement, different comfort levels, and we came up with our flying controls. We happened to have set the prototype over Paris, and we particularly liked that setting. As urban environments go, it’s very intricate. It allows you to go through spaces like small windows. You get almost a down-the-trench-Death Star feeling close to the ground.
We chose not to go for something very science-fiction because there are so many games about flying in space or what-have-you. We could own our own space this way. Playing as an eagle lent itself to more of a fantasy about nature. Taking away the humans turns it into something—the French translates to “animal fable.” The Earth is taken over by animals and you’re at the top of the food chain, because you’re an eagle. Nature takes over this urban environment, and it’s turned into your playground. We liked that a lot.
GamesBeat: From my experience, high speed in a virtual reality environment is not always a good thing. The flight speed of an eagle seems like it works well for this kind of application.
Plourde: It’s also in the way we control the game. It’s very responsive. The input has no lag. All that’s to ensure that the experience is comfortable. You can play for a long time and not feel any dizziness or nausea. Speed isn’t necessarily a limitation.
Flying in something like a helicopter, there’s a feeling of drag and delay. With the movements of a bird, you can adapt very quickly. It felt like the gameplay was leading us to flying as something like a bird.
GamesBeat: What was your own introduction to virtual reality? So far we’ve mostly seen games from startups and small developers. You’re part of a big company working on a major release. How did you decide the time was right to do this?
Plourde: I lead a division within Ubisoft Montreal called Funhouse. The idea is that we’re experimenting with everything new – new hardware, new technology, new media, new themes. That’s the realm in which I operate. The two big questions for me are always, one, is the team passionate about it, and two, is there an angle that’s innovative?
We had a small team that was doing a prototype for VR and they were very passionate about it. I played it and agreed that this was really interesting, so we brought them into Funhouse and helped them build on that. What interested me is that this isn’t a narrative experiment, like so many VR demos. It treats VR as a vehicle for a game. Having fun was at the core of it – through immersion, but also through gameplay. I thought it could become something unique.
GamesBeat: Is this a title where you had to prototype over and over again?
Plourde: Not really? There were lots of small prototypes dealing with different problems of motion sickness and dizziness. We spend a long period of time on that. We’re using a few different invisible tricks to make sure it’s comfortable. What’s the maximum latency we can tolerate? What’s the maximum speed? If I hit something and I die, how can I make sure the transition is comfortable when the game restarts or goes back to the title screen? We’re dealing with new hardware and new technology, so we have to do a lot of research. But once the core of the game was done it was mostly about refinement.
GamesBeat: Is the team still entirely within Funhouse, or has it grown to become something larger now.
Plourde: No, it’s all still within the Funhouse. I can’t talk about the exact size of the team, but it’s definitely a smaller team than something like Assassin’s Creed.
GamesBeat: Compared to other VR games and demos out there, what would I notice that’s different about Eagle Flight?
Plourde: The way I like to describe it, in single-player it’s Pilotwings and in multiplayer it’s X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter. It’s very fun, very smooth. It’s super-accessible, but with the refined mechanics we have, you can get very good at it. With the multiplayer element and the fantasy of flying—it’s welcoming at first, but you can play it for hours. It goes back to some of the oldest roots of head-to-head multiplayer games. I think that makes it pretty unique for VR.
GamesBeat: Why did you happen to choose Paris as the setting for this project?
Plourde: One reason we chose to use Paris is that a lot of people on the team happen to come from France. They know the city well already. It’s like they say about working on a novel or a story – write what you know. Making a game is the same way.
Also, there’s something about the layout of the streets—we might have done it with a place like Rome as well. But with an old European city, as opposed to a newer American city like New York, it allows for more intricate graphics and street patterns. The city isn’t laid out on a grid. That allows for a richer flying experience.
GamesBeat: Ubisoft has re-created Paris at least once already for the Assassin’s Creed series. Was that at all useful in building your version of the city?
Plourde: It comes down to different requirements in terms of performance. We have to render at more than 90 frames per second for each eye, and at a much higher resolution. The technical constraints compared to a traditional third-person game are completely different, so we had to use a very different approach to building the city.
GamesBeat: You’ve mentioned a bit about multiplayer in general. Can you talk more about what makes that possible in VR?
Plourde: One of the first ideas at the core of the game was that it would be multiplayer. We went to E3 and Gamescom and showed the prototype to a few different people behind the scenes. The idea is that it’s two teams of three birds playing capture the flag. There’s one flag that you have to grab and carry back to your scoring point.
In multiplayer you can shoot these sonic waves, and if those waves hit another player, it’ll make them dive. The trick is that if you climb too high above the city, where you can just fly in a straight line, you’re very easy to hit. You need to fly closer to the ground and collaborate with your teammates.