Virtual reality arena shooter Conjure Strike is all about zapping your enemies and conquering their bases. It’s the first game from The Strike Team, which grew out of Oculus‘s three-month incubation program Launch Pad, and it’s out now in Early Access on the Oculus Rift.
Each Conjure Strike match is quick, as it’s 2-on-2 with a small map that forces the teams to contend with each other almost immediately. As in multiplayer online battle arena games like League of Legends, you get minions — in this case, droids — to help stave off enemy attacks. The objective is to demolish the opponents’ base, which is easier said than done.
Producer and engineer Andy Tsen started working on the prototype last June when he joined the Launch Pad program. As part of the incubator, Oculus offers remote consultations and advice. At the end of the three months, a panel of judges determines whether or not the VR company will decide to fund the project. Conjure Strike was among those it picked, and the team began developing the game in earnest in September.
Tsen is the only person who works on Conjure Strike full-time. The six other members all are otherwise employed. The Strike Team engineer Lauren Frazier, for instance, is a full-time engineer at Unity. Before Launch Pad, Tsen left his role at a mobile startup based in Boston to commit to a career in VR game development. But he’s had a background in the industry already — in the past, he was a product manager at mobile studio Gree and he was the lead engineer on the Facebook RPG Mob Wars.
What brought him back was VR, and what he calls the “expansive” possibilities of the medium. He considers himself a hardcore gamer, and he plays every night.
“So I ask myself, why don’t I spend more time in VR playing the types of games that I’d be playing on console or desktop? Like Overwatch or League,” said Tsen in a phone call with GamesBeat. “For me, I want to create that experience in VR. An experience that is compelling and strategically deep enough to hook players into VR the same way that traditional desktop and console games have. I just don’t think that many games have successfully done that in VR today.”
In the early access version of Conjure Strike, you can choose from three character classes, each with its own special abilities: The Elementalist, Mage Hunter, and Earth Warden. In a playtest session, I went with Mage Hunter because I can never say no to a vorpal blade. And it’s a great weapon here, as in this game, it’s a one-hit kill. The action was quick, and each time I died, it didn’t take too long to respawn. Moving around the playfield was pretty intuitive: I simply looked in the direction I wanted to go, and pressed forward on the joystick.
I admit that I had to tap out after 30 minutes, but I wouldn’t blame the game’s movement necessarily. It’s fairly smooth; I’ve just never done well with vertical movement in VR. And Conjure Strike involves 360-degrees of movement because your hero is floating in mid-air and you can traverse the space however you want. Tsen says that they’ve found about one in four players end up feeling a little motion sick.
Locomotion is one of the biggest problems that virtual reality is trying to solve. From Tsen’s point of view, Conjure Strike is also trying to address another challenge: making interactions feel satisfying and visceral in a way that can’t be done in a traditional game.
“The idea was to take a game like Overwatch or League, with a high skill cap, and translate that intensity into VR, and figure out what were the moves that VR enables that were unique to the platform,” said Tsen. “For example, instead of having Pudge’s hook, in VR you would literally pull somebody in with your hands. And so figuring out the satisfying combination of skill shots and mechanics that work in VR, that was always the design goal, versus making something feel as immersive as possible.”
Tsen says that mastering skills in VR feels more similar to “mastering skills in real life,” and Conjure Strike does have a compelling physicality to it. It has colorful, low-poly visuals, but death is always just a lightning strike away. It keeps you moving around, and even though I had to leave the playtest early to take a Dramamine, I still had fun.