Famed developer Crytek is no stranger to pushing the limits of gaming technology, having melted PCs with Crysis, before switching its focus to VR.
Now prepping for the launch of its latest Oculus exclusive, The Climb 2, we sat down with Fatih Özbayram, the game's Senior Producer, and Stefan Heinrich, Lead Environment Artist, to talk about what they've learned from the first game, where the future of VR lies, and whether we could see any of their other franchises move into virtual reality.
The Climb was one of the earliest VR games that felt like it broke through to the mainstream. It's a pretty simple concept, but it really clicked with players, even back in 2016 when VR was less pervasive than it is now. Why do you think that is?
FÖ: As someone who has demonstrated The Climb at many tradeshows I think it is fair to say the navigation in the world is very intuitive. In other words, The Climb is a highly accessible game everyone can play and enjoy.
On the other hand, VR is all about immersion, and the graphical fidelity of the game is crucial to making you feel like you’re present in the environment. CRYENGINE renders worlds beautifully, and that’s what gives people a sense of presence and even vertigo as they climb.
Last but not least when we started exploring what we could do in VR space we first took a step back in order to understand what was needed to create an immersive experience. For example, some might say full-body locomotion would be a great experience, but in essence, it can break the immersion if the movement is not natural and intuitive.
What learnings did you take from the first game's development? Since it launched, you've also released Robinson: The Journey. Did your experiences on those games, and in VR, inform development on The Climb 2?
SH: VR requires stable frames-per-second for the best experience possible, and as such we have adjusted our content creation pipeline with all the learnings from our previous projects. In the past the optimization kicked in with the content completion, now we create all content with a specific budget in mind from the get-go as you want to know early enough how the game’s quality is shaping in relation to target frames-per-second requirement.
FÖ: In terms of gameplay chalking has been reworked as we noticed that especially new players felt challenged chalking with the Oculus Touch controllers previously. Therefore the chalking time has been shortened and the necessary hand movement has been simplified.
Cleaning dirty grips has been simplified too. Wiping over a dirty grip at the right height and angle seemed to be very challenging for many especially when the grip was above you and you couldn't see it properly. Now you just need to hold down the grip button while reaching for the grip. The cleaning happens automatically, and the grip is grabbed as soon as it is cleaned.
Besides that, we reworked the tutorial – both from the process and from the general feature point-of-view. For example, it includes elements such as monkey bars or zip line which were already present in The Climb but were not included in the tutorial at that time. While in The Climb you also had to listen for a long time before you were allowed to climb. You can now start immediately and get all the important information explained along the way.
You've taken the unusual step of adding a cityscape to The Climb 2. What made you opt for a man-made location alongside the heights afforded by nature?
SH: In the previous instalment you only climbed in natural environments with occasional human-made structures. In the city setting players climb on man-made objects primarily which created the challenge of incorporating interesting climbing gameplay into an urban setting full of flat surfaces and 90-degree angles.
A typical skyscraper is actually pretty challenging to climb on. We settled on a solution that has many different surfaces and lots of horizontal traversals. We typically climb not just one building but three different ones that are all very distinct in their gameplay characteristics.
For example, on buildings mostly made of glass, we use suction cups and moving window-cleaning platforms. You will zip line through vast cityscapes to reach the next building. You can jump onto moving elevators that haul you upwards and so on. I don't want to spoil everything, but there's some really cool stuff in there. In general, there is a lot more variation in the City settings to make it fresh and exciting.
What do you think the next big step for VR is? Obviously, we've seen wireless headsets and hand controllers recently, but what would you like to be able to implement in your future titles?
FÖ: With Quest Oculus has provided free movement in VR as it is free of any cables which makes a huge difference already. And it allows you to take your Quest (and Quest 2) anywhere and show off VR to friends now, and help them understand why VR is so exciting.
While we do not use hand tracking in The Climb 2 as we feel our game needs feedback in the form of a controller, the next “input device” some devs could benefit from would be foot tracking as this is one of the major challenges devs have to still overcome since there is no direct translation of “real-world movement” into “VR space” currently.
Don’t get me wrong there are many great manufacturers providing tools to do exactly that but what I am referring to is an all-in-one solution.
As for VR as a platform, is there any talk of moving any of your other franchises into that space? While I'd play a VR Crysis title, I think Hunt: Showdown might be a step too far for me (that damned spider).
FÖ: As a company, we love the challenge innovation creates – be it from a creative and/or technology point-of-view. However, we believe an immersive experience in VR works only if the idea is created from scratch with VR in mind.
Hunt: Showdown has been built as a traditional PC and console game, and we would need to apply quite some changes to make it work in VR. Basically, we would not be able to convey this game’s core DNA well in VR space to mirror the same experience.
On the other hand, I think it is fair to say The Climb / The Climb 2 would not be available without VR as traditional gaming devices do not provide a foundation to create such an immersive experience and allow for the sense of presence you can get in VR.
It certainly sounds as though the team at Crytek has found its feet in Virtual Reality, and the devs are clearly wary of "dragging and dropping" existing IP onto the new format. For now, though, we'll prepare ourselves for some vertigo and dive in.
The Climb 2 launches today, exclusively on Oculus.