Ready At Dawn Studios looks like it has a real winner in the virtual reality game Lone Echo and its multiplayer companion Echo Arena. It is a wonderfully creative mix of experiences in VR, reminiscent of science fiction films like Tron and Ender’s Game, real-world sports like soccer, and fantasy sports like Quidditch in the Harry Potter books.
I played Echo Arena at a preview event held by developer Ready At Dawn Studios and publisher Oculus Studios, which will bring the title later this year to the Oculus Rift and Touch VR platform. It’s a 5-versus-5 VR game where players fly through zero gravity and try to get a disc into the opponent’s goal.
That sounds simple, but it involves a lot of coordination and shouting over voice-over-Internet. On top of that, you have to learn how to control things in a way that’s similar to what you do in real life: using your hands.
Ready At Dawn has been working on the game for two years. During that time, it found that movement in VR wasn’t as big a problem as many thought. Many early games on the Oculus platform made people seasick. But Ru Weerasuriya, president and creative director at Ready At Dawn, believes that is because there’s a one-to-one relationship between what you do with your body and how you move inside the VR experience. With both Lone Echo and Echo Arena, you reach out with your hands and grab something to pull yourself along through zero gravity.
Once you are moving, you stay moving in that direction. You can stop yourself immediately by hitting the brake button. Or you can boost yourself in a particular direction by holding your hand out and pressing a different button. The comfort level was fine for me, even with the heavy VR headset on my head, because the game did exactly what I wanted it to do in terms of movement.
“It was a question of looking at boundaries and deciding whether they were solvable or not,” Weerasuriya said in an interview with GamesBeat. “It started with the movement model, figuring out a way to make people comfortable moving in VR.”
Echo Arena has a tutorial where you can spend a lot of time getting used to moving from place to place in zero gravity, where it’s easy to remember that when you start moving in one direction, you’ll continue to do that until you apply some force to either stop or to move in a different direction. Where it gets complex is when you have four other teammates as well as five opponents flying around in the same space.
Besides moving around, there are a lot of physical tasks to master. You can reach out and punch at an opponent’s face. If you connect, you disable the opponent for a few seconds. You can also reach out and grab the flying disc by squeezing the trigger on the hand controls at the right time. If you catch it, you can then swing your arm in another direction, let go of the trigger, and send the disc flying to a teammate.
Inside the zero gravity arena, there are a lot of barriers that you can either run into by accident or grab to propel your body forward. It’s hard to do at first. I tried to throw the disc and I let go too late, and the disc went flying in the wrong direction.
You have to take into account the movements that are possible in VR that aren’t possible in real life. For instance, the disc flew past me and I tried to reach out and grab it. I missed. But that wasn’t necessarily the end of the action for me. I could have hit the brakes. Then turned around and hit my thruster button to propel me in an opposite direction. In real life, I couldn’t have done this so quickly. But in VR, it wasn’t a crazy movement to try to undertake.
The use of voice communication is important for the gameplay, as you have to tell your teammates how to coordinate their movements so you can score a goal. With five players on a side, it helps to be organized and voice commands are the quickest way to do that. But the technology isn’t easy to create, Weerasuriya said.
The inspirations for the game are multifaceted. The 3D graphics look superb, and the art style reminds me of the neon characters in Tron. Weerasuriya said the game uses the same engine that Ready At Dawn designed for The Order: 1886, the PlayStation 4 game that debuted in 2015. The multiplayer game is a lot of fun by itself, but it will be part of Lone Echo, a single-player campaign with a deep story.
Asked about Ender’s Game as an inspiration, Weerasuriya said, “Similar and different. There’s still the combat aspect in both. But the disc mode, the sport mode, the way that functions is a mix of Ender’s Game meets Tron meets ultimate Frisbee meets a bunch of other sports. It leverages everything we wanted to do – the tactile movement, the social elements, the competitive side. All of that turned into this one thing. It’s great to get inspiration from so many other things, but it’s its own thing once you start playing.”
The team still has plenty of work to do, like creating a social lobby where players can congregate before and after matches. But if it all comes together, Ready At Dawn and Oculus could have a real esport on their hands.
“It lends itself to becoming a sport. It will be interesting to see how players and the community react, because that’s always tricky,” Weerasuriya said. “You put it out there and you wait and see how players attach themselves to it. If they like it and they need support on that side, we’ll provide it. We’re looking forward to seeing their reaction when it comes out.”