Space Adventure 'Lone Echo' Channels '2001' in VR

Space Adventure 'Lone Echo' Channels '2001' in VR

Oculus VR game 'Lone Echo' finds a solution to the motion sickness problem: zero-g Ready At Dawn

Ready At Dawn moves from PlayStation to Oculus for its debut virtual reality game, and takes aim at motion sickness

Ready At Dawn moves from PlayStation to Oculus for its debut virtual reality game, and takes aim at motion sickness

For game developers, the most befuddling problem in VR right now is traversal – the simple task of moving from one point to another without causing motion sickness. Unless you're playing a game that utilizes the HTC Vive's "room scale" capabilities, there's a good chance you'll get a one-way ticket to Barftown if the experience requires too much movement. It's been a tricky proposition for game developers looking to create the kind of vast worlds they're accustomed to. The upcoming Lone Echo is perhaps the most convincing attempt yet to solve this problem.

A first-person exploration experience set on part of a helium mining operation out in the rings of Saturn, Lone Echo has you take the reins of a robot-piloting AI named Jack, serving alongside a human crew investigating a mysterious anomaly in deep space. The game is being developed by Ready at Dawn, the studio behind last year's PS4 third-person "narrative shooter" The Order: 1886 – a beautiful, exposition-heavy cover shooter that launched to lukewarm reviews – and several highly-regarded God of War games for Sony's PSP handheld. Designed exclusively for Oculus Rift and its Touch motion controllers, more than half of Ready at Dawn's Irvine, California studio (some 60 developers) are working on it, making Lone Echo one of the biggest VR projects in production right now.

Lone Echo attempts to solve the traversal problem in novel fashion, by removing gravity and effectively replacing the player's legs with their arms. Nearly every surface in the game can be grabbed onto or pushed off of, creating a movement mechanic that feels like some combination of Spider-man, air hockey, and a game of Twister.

"With the Oculus [Development Kit 2], I'd tried out the Half-Life 2 mod that someone had made – I was really excited about it, but I got sick in about 20 minutes," recalls game director Dana Jan. "So I went deep into looking into why that happens, which is why we're so familiar with the science of this." According to Jan, this is where the root of the navigation system comes from: the coordination of body movement with what your eyes are seeing; because you feel "grounded" and connected to your environment – as opposed to on wheels, which is how most games feel – the brain is better able to process what's happening.

This is Oculus' third big, early bet on space: games that attempt to at least approximate realism, well-researched and studied simulations of spacefaring scenarios, complete with instructive yet affectionate female voices chatting through your earpiece. So far we've seen two flavors of space-set VR – the military (EVE: Valkyrie, a muscular multiplayer dogfighting space sim) and the industrial (Lone Echo, and ADR1FT: in which you play an astronaut floating through the wreckage of a destroyed space station). These games are a far cry from the works that have resonated on Oculus's rival PlayStation VR thus far; the likes of Rez Infinite and Thumper have helped define the early tone of the console as one that dwells in abstraction and music. This is likely a function of many things, including the processing power differential between the two platforms (the PlayStation is less powerful than a VR-ready PC), and perhaps the fact that Oculus is part of the Silicon Valley nucleus via its parent company, Facebook, occupying the same cultural landscape as space pioneer Elon Musk and other wide-eyed entrepreneurs.

It feels completely intuitive, fun, and doesn't eject my breakfast out through my esophagus

Though the studio had been generally interested in doing a science fiction piece, the birth of Lone Echo itself was perhaps most specifically a case of a VR game mechanic (pushing oneself around an environment, without the bounds of gravity) informing its setting (deep space). Early demos explored underwater concepts, but an extra inspiration for the team came from a short 2014 futuristic spacefaring film by Erik Wernquist called Wanderers.

Our Lone Echo demo begins inside a zero-gravity space station. Very quickly I'm grabbing railings and pushing off of bulkheads to make my way around. It feels completely intuitive, fun, and doesn't eject my breakfast out through my esophagus. After some introductions to your crewmates and abilities, the 25-minute demo has you go on a space walk to repair and realign a massive satellite dish outside your equally massive space station. After pushing and pulling yourself along the hull to get to the control panel, you float around looking for an extra fuse. Clambering around the ship in zero-gravity, with the vast expanse of space at your back and an enormous, disquieting "space anomaly" (a slowly churning void that looks not unlike a black hole) lurking in the distance, these mundane tasks are given a certain dramatic heft that in many ways surpasses what we're used to experiencing in traditional games. As has been the key goal for VR development, producing a convincing sensation of "presence" – the feeling of being physically "there" in a virtual environment – is the most important element. In Lone Echo, the feeling of presence comes in the form of weightlessness, despite the fact that, in the real world, you're standing on your own two feet.

In addition to climbing and pushing around the environment, you also have access to hand-controlled thrusters, which allow for course-correction (and avoiding the possibility of floating out into the great expanse of space). The game smartly nudges you towards the former of these mechanics, through a limited economy of energy for the thrusters and various other means. "You don't want to force people, but you definitely want to encourage people to use the comfortable [mechanic]," says technology director Garrett Foster. "They're more comfortable, so they can play longer in VR, meaning you can tell a more complete experience."

It's also simply a more fun, more tactile experience, going hand-over-hand, pushing off and catching things, using your momentum and mastering the art of the "push and float." Essentially, you are the projectile, the physics object, the Angry Bird. "Because it's your primary mode of navigation, you look at the world as your platform," says art director Nathan Phail-Liff. "You're constantly looking around to see what you can grab or ricochet off, to go from place-to-place." In fact, with the exception of actually going to space (or space camp), it's probably about as close to the real thing as most of us are going to get. "You realize that it's actually a skill," says Jan. "With the mastery of that and the hours put in, you sorta go: 'Wow, I'm a pretty proficient astronaut.'"

In addition to the story-driven single-player campaign (which the developers claim will be much longer and deeper than what we've seen to date for VR titles), Lone Echo also includes a five-vs-five multiplayer experience – a zero gravity version of capture the flag, where each team tries to throw a disc into the opposing team's base. Pushing off of walls and bulkheads remains an essential way of navigating the environment, but your thrusters are a bit more key in keeping up with the fast-paced action. Being one of 10 players in adjacent VR stations wearing headsets and frantically grasping and pushing off of invisible objects is a surreal experience. It's a lot more frenetic than the action seen in the game's single player mode and the dexterity and speed of the other players in the match is even more impressive. "It's crazy how good some of our testers have gotten in this mode," says Foster.

But why did Lone Echo end up on Oculus, given the developer's extensive and close history of working with Sony? "The big thing that turned us to Oculus were the plans they had around Touch," says CEO Ru Weerasuriya. "VR is not just about visual presence, it's about body presence, and I don't think anyone's doing that better than Oculus right now." Weerasuriya says Sony's PlayStation VR (then known as Project Morpheus) was the initial reason he was interested in pursuing something in VR, but when Jason Rubin joined Oculus as head of content in 2014, things changed.

"One of the things that made it hard for us to keep going with Sony on this project, specifically, is that the IP we're building for this was something we really wanted to retain. We wanted to keep ownership of everything we did," he says. "And with Sony, they have this doctrine that they don't make games that they don't own, and it's very hard to get funding for a massive project without Sony saying that [they] need to own everything. The very first conversation I had with Jason was, 'Look, we're doing this and we really want to own it.' And he says, 'Oh, no problem.' It wasn't even a point of discussion for him. Had we used a different IP, maybe we would have stuck with Sony."

Still, developing one of the biggest productions as an exclusive for a niche within a niche of the still-limited VR market is a fairly big bet on the near future of the medium and the platform. Oculus hasn't released numbers, but many believe Rift sales are in the low hundreds of thousands; Lone Echo is being developed for a controller that's been publically available for a matter of days, and which will likely further split this already small market. "Yes, it's a massive risk," says Weerasuriya. "But I think we have a strong belief in the things that we do. There was such a strong belief in the movement model – everything that was supposed to be right about VR, we went against that." The studio is mitigating its risk in some ways, of course, and still has a more traditional multiplayer console title called Deformers in development, and in addition to the money it's getting from Oculus, has also received funding from GameTrust. "Right now, it doesn't feel that scary," Weerasuriya says, before stopping to grin and reflect for a moment. "Although, maybe it should?"