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From Mirror's Edge to the cutting edge of virtual reality
September 16, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

September 16, 2013 | By Christian Nutt
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Last week, CCP announced that it had hired EA DICE veteran Owen O'Brien as executive producer of EVE Valkyrie, the full-fledged spacefaring virtual reality game that grew out of the EVE-VR Oculus Rift tech demo unveiled earlier this year.

O'Brien served as senior producer on DICE's Mirror's Edge, and also worked on its recently announced sequel. He joins the 25-strong team at CCP's Newcastle, England studio, which recently finished up engine development on Dust 514 and has transitioned full-time onto EVE Valkyrie.

"I saw a unique opportunity that is I think is kind of rare, these days. It was an opportunity to work with a small team at a small studio, but with the support of a bigger organization, and working on a cool project that's kind of on the cutting edge of things," O'Brien says of his move from DICE to CCP.

Now installed in Newcastle, he hopes to recruit a handful of developers, but no more than that. "You don't get that opportunity much, these days. You've got the big, behemoth projects, and you've got the small mobile projects, and there's not much in between these days."

"I feel like I'm looking at the future."

He's also attracted to being on the "cutting edge," he says -- a feeling he also got working on Mirror's Edge. "The belief at that time was that movement just didn't work in first person, which was something we decided to push and challenge, and we were on the bleeding edge of that for a long time."

"It's very exciting and inspirational, and to feel like you're breaking new ground all the time is great," he says, of working on EVE Valkyrie. "It's what I'm in games for. That's really what motivates me. I feel like I'm looking at the future."

Mirror's Edge may have been a great game, but it was also widely reported to have underperformed in the marketplace. Has O'Brien pulled forward any lessons he learned from working on it?

"I think the main lesson is just having a great core mechanic isn't enough," he says. "You need to build a really strong compelling game around it that's got legs, for want of a better word. Having a great core mechanic is a great foundation, but that's what it is: a foundation. And you need to build on that for success."

"The other lesson I've learnt is accessibility. Making something accessible and fun is key to success. That doesn't mean it has to be shallow, it can be fun and compelling but also have depth and be skill-based."

EVE Valkyrie has already made strides in this direction. To aim at targets in the game, you simply look at them and then lock on with a controller button press -- a mechanic that's extremely intuitive.

Developing for VR

That simplicity, says O'Brien, is crucial to developing in VR. "I think by its very nature, we have to make things more accessible, because you can't see a huge keyboard or a lot of control systems. Things need to feel intuitive. Things need to be simple to understand and quick to grasp. And it can take a longer time to master, but at least you know what you're supposed to do."

"I think that Valkyrie is a great project and a great setting for a VR game in the sense that you've got the point of reference of a cockpit, and you're looking around, so it's a perfectly in-fiction thing to be doing... it makes sense in the world. Putting on the headset is like putting on a helmet. I think you brain can cope with it more quickly, perhaps, than other styles of games."

This issue -- of making games that make sense in a VR space -- is one that Oculus founder Palmer Luckey has spoken to Gamasutra about. Developers may have to unlearn years of existing genre conventions, as they just don't work in VR, cautions Nate Mitchell, Oculus' VP of product.

And O'Brien agrees. "I think there are always things that need to be rethought -- especially for the VR interface." But that road will be long, he warns: "It's not just about one eureka moment."

"With Mirror's Edge, it wasn't like we had one breakthrough moment. It wasn't like there was just one thing we had cracked and then we had it. It was just about hundreds of little problems that you solve. You solve one problem, one hurdle, and you get on to the next one, and you just keep going and you keep going, and suddenly you're somewhere nobody's ever been before. I think it's the same here."

"It's about having the passion and perseverance to go through all of these little challenges and little hurdles. And some of them might be things that, you know what, it is re-learning stuff. It is going back and redoing something that there's already a tried and tested way for doing it, because it doesn't quite work in this space."

Interestingly, though the game was demoed at Gamescom on prototype Oculus Rift HD headsets and O'Brien said "we've got a really good relationship with Oculus and we work very closely with them," he also said that he "can't talk to specific platforms or target platforms at the moment." When asked for clarification, CCP PR said that it had not announced any platforms for the game as yet.

The Dream

For O'Brien, however, while working on EVE Valkyrie represents the future of games to him, it is also the fruition of a childhood dream that's been "a long time coming."

"This is kind of what's been in my head since I first played Elite and was trying to dock my Cobra Mk 3 at the Coriolis space station. I was right back there. I was right back as a kid in my bedroom playing Elite and getting lost in that world. And immediately all the things that were in my imagination playing that game, I was seeing for real. It's really exciting. I'm really stoked about this project, and that we can finally do this."


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