"Like one fourth of all the dreams I've had in my life, I was flying," Ubisoft's Olivier Palmieri told me last month. "It's crazy. But it's always like two minutes, and then it's over, because dreams are short. And I wanted more."
That's why, when Palmieri wrapped up work on Far Cry 4 roughly 18 months ago, he found himself working on prototyping a virtual reality bird simulator with a few other Ubisoft devs.
That prototype eventually earned enough positive buzz at last year's E3 and Gamescom shows to merit being greenlit (as part of Ubisoft's Fun House skunkworks) for development as Eagle Flight, one of the company's inaugural VR games slated for release on multiple VR headsets later this year.
The premise of Eagle Flight is simple enough: players are birds in Paris, tilting their heads to wheel and dive as they try to accomplish objectives like racing through checkpoints or (in multiplayer) collect a MacGuffin and return it to their nest. Oddly, these birds also have projectile attacks; in a multiplayer demo we played at Ubisoft Montreal last month, these were represented as sonic "screams" (triggered via gamepad) that could knock enemies out of the match, forcing them to respawn.
VR affords devs easy access to one of the most intuitive controllers ever: the human head
"The cost of [VR] is high, yes, but in terms of experience, it's something that anyone can play. It could be the next Wii."
But while Eagle Flight clings to a lot of conventional game design tropes (capture the flag, shoot other players, fly through the rings, etc.), the way it treats the player's head as the primary controller is interesting because, at least in demos played by Gamasutra, it feels remarkably intuitive -- and not at all nauseating.
The Eagle Flight team seems to have solved the challenge of making a first-person flight game that encourages players to make tight turns, climbs and dives through a city without getting dizzy or sick -- something Palmieri attributes to a host of small design decisions, tweaks and adjustments made over the course of watching thousands of people try to play it.
"I love science, and I wanted to study, scientifically I mean, why people might be uncomfortable -- puking, as you say," said Palmieiri. "We had the idea of us using the head to control the game to make the game comfortable, but also to try and make the best use of VR."
Palmieri's case to fellow VR developers is this: the human head is effectively a new input device in VR game design, and it's potentially the most intuitive and effective video game controller (when read correctly) because almost everyone is accustomed to making thousands of small, incredibly precise head movements every day.
"It's even more precise than if you were using a joystick or gamepad," said Palmieri. "You don't need to interface with your hands; you don't have to think about moving and managing a stick, using your fingers to change direction. It's very direct -- from your eyes to your brain to your head, it's a very short path, biologically speaking. So it's very intuitive and quick to adjust yourself, and you can do very small movements, to do exactly what you want."
And he seems to be right; in the demo we played, I felt comfortable right off the bat and never once felt dizzy or nauseous, even as I titled my head left and right, forward and back with varying degrees to chase objectives and other players through a virtual city.
Of course, everyone experiences VR differently, and some other participants in our demo came away feeling slightly ill. But Palmieri maintains that VR headsets' ability to easily read head movement as input ensure VR developers can circumvent the accessibility barrier that gamepads represent for people who have never played games before.
"I've seen many people try our game, and they'd never played video games before and they're not good with a controller, they don't even know how to hold it, but they were able to play our game and have fun," he noted. "They wanted more! That's what I'm proud of, about our game. It's intuitive and accessible. I don't need to explain the controls at the beginning, really; I just say 'tilt your head to turn' and you're good to go."
For Palmieri, at least, the move into VR game development has been a satisfying one. A self-described lover of science and design, he says he'll continue working to make VR games for the next ten years, given the chance. After working with the tech for nearly two years, he seems confident that VR games will reach a broad audience, despite the fact that headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift currently cost over $500 apiece (and require powerful, potentially expensive PCs to drive them.)
"For me, maybe this is surprising, but for me VR is the new Wii," Palmieri said. "It can be very simple, very accessible. Very simple to play. The cost of it is high, yes, but in terms of experience, it's something that anyone can play. It could be the next Wii."