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Is the world ready for a free-roam VR experience with a business model akin to Laser Tag? Zero Latency may be the first company to find out.
Melbourne-based free-roam virtual reality startup has been learning a lot from patrons of the AU$88 (around US$61) per head 400 square meter (4,300 sq. ft) six-player co-op zombie shooter that it opened to the public in mid-August. Project manager Tim Ruse says that while they had a strong opening, they're taking feedback from players and working to improve the experience every day in the hopes of a coming global franchise expansion.
Zero Latency's tech is built around Oculus Rift headsets, with an array of PlayStation Eye cameras for full-body tracking (because when you can see your avatar and those of your comrades, you get a better sense of presence). They also have motion-tracked custom gun controllers and bespoke backpacks with built-in power supplies rounding out the hardware. On the software side, they built the bulk of their system from the ground up and have full integration with Unity and soon also Unreal Engine.
Levels sometimes wrap around or align in different directions to reuse parts of the warehouse space, to make it feel even bigger than it is. The average walking distance per player is around 600 meters, which is like walking the length of a basketball court 24 times. Ruse believes their system could work comfortably in half as much space. But he says that so far, more space seems to be better.
From there, the Zero Latency team scripted out an approximately 45-50 minute experience, whiteboxed it, and tested internally. "We wanted to see how does walking 100 meters feel? How close can we be together? All this kind of stuff," Ruse says. "Like, what does it feel like to walk down a corridor? And should a corridor be a meter wide? Two meters? What feels claustrophobic and what feels realistic?"
After internal testing came several weeks of beta testing, wherein the team would make changes during the day and then test at night. And they're still tweaking the experience based on player feedback and observing the sessions.
Ruse says that they can learn a lot from just watching people play, "especially stuff like what's too much intensity too soon and how that curve of immersion and difficulty bends." In the old version of the game, players had five minutes to find their bearings and then it was full-on zombie assault. "Now you start off and the first five or six minutes of the game is in a firing range, and you're underground," Ruse says.
"People wanted longer in the system, they wanted more of a storyline mission, and they didn't just want to shoot zombies endlessly."
"You then sort of come up into the world. It's kind of cool. You get used to being underground, then you come up into this massive world." Then there's several minutes of further build-up before a half hour or so of intense, never ending zombie shooting.
The team had to put mechanisms in place to keep people from getting too excited. Players go through a safety briefing and a series of equipment sanity checks before they begin, much like you'd face before hopping into a game of Laser Tag. And the game will stop temporarily if you move faster than a moderate walking pace or try to leave the game area.
"I'm always amazed by how every now and again you get someone who gets carried away and gets erratic," Ruse says, "but we've just instructed the game masters to be on top of that shit. And we also tell people now if you don't listen to the game master that'll be it for you. Yellow card. We haven't had to pull a red card yet, because they're coming with mates and it's quite expensive. Once you say to them, 'Guys, that's it,' they normally calm down."
"What does it feel like to walk down a corridor? And should a corridor be a meter wide? Two meters? What feels claustrophobic and what feels realistic?"
People familiar with modern console or PC gaming play very differently to people who aren't – they'll spread out and communicate rather than clumping together and ignoring each other, and they often finish faster (the record is around 33 minutes). But the people without much gaming experience also tend to have more fun or react more strongly to the zombie scares. They usually come in with a boyfriend or group of friends, not expecting to get anything out of it. "They've not played a modern video game and seen how immersive they are," Ruse says.
Zero Latency has tried to keep the game fully accessible to people with a limited gaming background. "We've even simplified things like the gun," Ruse says. "Initially it was a bit more realistic, but now if you don't reload it reloads itself. The thing is it's so new and exciting and immersive that I think less is more at the moment. That's what I've really taken away from it. You need a lot less stimulus to entertain people than you'd think."
That means no physical props in the space, too. "I don't think they're necessary apart from what you've got in your hands and some haptics," Ruse says. "I think in our system, because you're using the space and it's a big space, you're essentially leveraging your imagination." Indeed, most players — and this applied to me as well when I tried the earlier versions — will instinctively try to avoid walking into or through objects in the virtual space, and they feel uncomfortable whenever they accidentally do so, because their brain is tricked into thinking it's really "there."
The Zero Latency VR team is now working on a couple of shorter, more arcade-y modes, opening up to game developers who want to make free-roam VR games, and considering a raft of other ideas for the future. "The biggest challenge is focusing your attention on what the next big sort of commercial decision is going to be," Ruse says. "We're learning what we can from the venue here, speaking to the customers to see what's working, fine tuning any technical problems that we've got, and just going as fast as we can to the next stage: global domination."