Many new-age gamers may not know it but before there were games releasing every single month, vying for your attention with their quirky concepts or triple-A budgets, there were titles like Battlezone which were deemed revolutionary for their time. It’s not hard to see why Rebellion Developments, known for its Sniper Elite franchise, would choose to reboot the franchise. And yes, we’re also receiving Battlezone Redux for PC but there’s another Battlezone being designed specifically for VR devices. Old-school gaming fans will obviously be interested but what does this new-age Battlezone hold for VR consumers? GamingBolt spoke to co-founder and creative director Jason Kingsley regarding the same, as well as about the development process on both projects.
"The pitch for the new visuals was to honour the 1980 Battlezone but obviously move beyond the 2-colour palette. We wanted something that was clearly divided from reality."
Battlezone is one of the most well-known classics in gaming. What motivated you to bring it back for the current generation of gamers, that too for VR?
Jason Kingsley: My brother Chris (Rebellion’s co-founder and CTO) and I have been completely open about how much of an influence the 1980 Battlezone was on us. That arcade cabinet – the way you peered into the landscape – that was both the first 3D and first VR game. It transported us to another world and inspired us to start making our own games. Without Battlezone there’d be no Rebellion! Of course when we bought the Battlezone IP from Atari, Oculus Rift was already underway and other headsets were rumoured. Chris and I had always wondered what Battlezone would look like if it was made today, and of all the features you’d want to see in a reboot, VR was always top of our list. So there was a method to our madness!
The aesthetic for the new Battlezone is obviously a big departure from the classic game, incorporating a more “Tron” like art-style. How did you decide on this art style for Battlezone and how hard was it to implement?
Jason Kingsley: The Tron comparisons always make us chuckle! I think a lot of people probably don’t realize that Tron was actually influenced by the original Battlezone! You can even see a Battlezone cabinet in Flynn’s Arcade in the film…The pitch for the new visuals was to honour the 1980 Battlezone but obviously move beyond the 2-colour palette. We wanted something that was clearly divided from reality. The conceit is that the player isn’t pretending to be in a tank, they’re pretending to be in a virtual simulation of one – a game within a game, if that makes sense!
Visually it’s all slotting together really well because the retro-futuristic feel is actually perfectly suited to VR. I think some people assume that VR experiences must be photo-realistic to be truly immersive, but actually a more abstract environment can be just as believable in VR – arguably even more so – when you get the other bits right: the gameplay, the frame rate, the camera, the GUI etc.
In terms of gameplay, what is Battlezone looking to offer in this generation?
Jason Kingsley: Games have changed hugely since 1980, but in other ways they’re the same. There’s been a huge retro revival because when you strip back the visuals, designers have been creating fun gameplay loops for decades.
Just like the visuals, we want Battlezone’s VR reboot to hark back to 1980, so that means arcade vehicle combat that grabs you in seconds but with the kind of tactical depth to make you come back again and again. We don’t want to spoil any surprises but there’s going to be some nice references to the original game for those old enough to remember it, as well as some features today’s younger generation of players will expect.
"I think the hands-on reaction to Battlezone has been so positive so far because it grounds you really well in the tank cockpit; we spent a lot of time getting the “on-boarding” just right – that’s the process of getting you acclimatized to your virtual surroundings."
How much did the VR format influence your decisions for game length and overall gameplay features? Were there any points where you felt limited by the VR perspective in terms of what the player could do?
Jason Kingsley: Actually we don’t think of VR as limiting at all, just different. Certainly there are things you can’t and shouldn’t do in VR but the flip side is a deep immersion and presence that you just can’t describe unless you’ve played it…and yes that’s a huge cliché, but an accurate one!
Battlezone’s arcade design makes it an ideal early title for PlayStation VR. It’ll be a full-featured game, but suitable for lots of short bursts of play. I think Battlezone, along with some other big names, is going to show gamers that VR has already moved well beyond the reputation of being a collection of cool tech-demos. Personally I’m fascinated to see how people acclimatise over the years, and how that affects game design. Right now it’s hard to imagine people popping on a VR headset to play some huge, sprawling RPG for 10 hours at a time, but in 5 years? Who knows!
We’ve heard about concerns with motion sickness and whatnot as the primary challenges for developing VR games. What obstacles did you face and how did you go about circumventing them for Battlezone?
Jason Kingsley: Chet Faliszek at Valve put it nicely when he said its software, not VR that’s making people ill, and developers are learning more and more about VR every day. Motion sickness will be a footnote for almost all gamers sooner rather than later. I think our team who went to PSX in December told me that they did about 400 Battlezone demos and only two people felt uncomfortable – I’d bet that’s not far off the number of people who feel funny playing FPS games, or watching movies like Cloverfield.
I think the hands-on reaction to Battlezone has been so positive so far because it grounds you really well in the tank cockpit; we spent a lot of time getting the “on-boarding” just right – that’s the process of getting you acclimatized to your virtual surroundings. The visuals, audio and gameplay then work in harmony to give you a really comfortable sense of presence. From a design perspective there are some absolute basics. The frame rate has to be high, has to be smooth. Avoid anything that that makes your brain go “hang on, I thought I was in control here?” Camera shake, or anything that moves your virtual ‘head’ is a perfect example of something very common that is just a no-no in VR.
Will Battlezone support co-op or competitive multiplayer?
Jason Kingsley: We’ve not confirmed anything publicly yet, but there will be news soon!
What are your thoughts on PlayStation VR? What effect will it have on the industry, especially with devices like Oculus Rift and HoloLens on the horizon?
Jason Kingsley: I think the success of PlayStation VR is going to play a crucial part in taking VR to mainstream success. The fact that so many people already have the PS4 is critical for developers. The myth that are no “real” games yet for VR is well and truly being slain – we just need to get these games in players’ hands now!
"We’re remastering the 1998 Battlezone for PC and it’s very much a separate project. Even today it’s still a very unique blend of FPS and RTS, so we’re not going to tinker with gameplay…"
As for Oculus, we announced at Paris Games Week that we’re coming first to PlayStation VR, but Battlezone is confirmed for Oculus too, and this friendly rivalry between the VR platforms is helping drive the market forward. I think a lot of people were glad to hear that names like Sony and Facebook are heavily involved. HoloLens is a different proposition as VR and AR are totally different experiences, and it feels much further out than the major VR headsets.
From a PC gaming perspective, what do you believe Battlezone will offer to players who still want to rely on the keyboard and mouse?
Jason Kingsley: If anyone’s seen our weekly Twitch streams they’ll know I’m terrible on a control pad! I’m a PC man at heart, so the team already have their instructions for looking at keyboard and mouse controls!
Can you tell us a few details about the Battlezone (1998) remaster as well? Will this tie into VR version of Battlezone in any way?
Jason Kingsley: We’re remastering the 1998 Battlezone for PC and it’s very much a separate project. Even today it’s still a very unique blend of FPS and RTS, so we’re not going to tinker with gameplay, but at the same time we want to make it available to younger players who probably missed it 18 years ago!
What are your thoughts on PS4’s Graphics API and the possible changes that Sony’s GPU team may have done to it to support VR?
Jason Kingsley: Well, the PS4 Graphics API is already very close to the hardware, so they were already off to a great start. PlayStation have been very proactive in taking some of the extra grunt work needed to support VR off the developers’ shoulders. They’ve been great at sharing techniques we can all benefit from, but I like to think our in-house engine team has a few tricks of their own up their sleeves!
Is there anything else you want to tell us before we let you go?
Jason Kingsley: We just hope players are excited about VR as we are! We can’t stress enough, if you haven’t tried a VR headset yet, make sure to head down to shows like PAX, EGX and Gamescom and try it for yourself. And look out for Battlezone, because we’ll probably be there and we’d be honoured to be your first VR experience!