Heroes of Newerth VR (Collaboration with Garena)

From 1-2 April, the top four Heroes of Newerth (HoN) teams from around the world descended on Bangkok for HoN World Tour 2017. The tournament was a part of Garena Star League (GSL) 2017, a huge multi-game e-sports event held by Garena, featuring other games such as Point Blank and League of Legends. While the rest of the world might have moved on from HoN to other MOBAs, it’s still the undisputed king in Thailand, and the fervour for it is as strong as ever.

As a part of the event, we collaborated with Garena to develop HoN VR, a virtual reality mini-game for fans of Heroes of Newerth at the event. In HoN VR, players wield a bow and arrow in virtual reality against waves of monsters and an enemy hero from the main game. Upon making it through the first stage, players will then go up against Kongor, a towering gorrilla-like monster that hurls boulders at the player. Despite only having three weeks to develop it, HoN VR was to be showcased at the HoN booth at GSL 2017. Having just returned from Bangkok last week, we thought it’d be fun to share the awesome experience we had there.

Before the event started, a couple of pro HoN players tried out HoN VR in the Garena offices. They put together a short video showcasing the game before the event to build some hype for it.

After arriving early on the first day of the event to set up, we awaited the throngs of fans that would flood the halls. Soon after, a line rapidly formed for HON VR, as Thai people were eager to try out virtual reality headsets which are still a rare sight in Thailand. After some growing pains with setting up our HTC Vive in an open area next to the stage with bright spotlights, we soon solved the technical issues and started running people through our booth at a steady pace.

And then the queue started growing…

While HoN VR was a relatively short game lasting just a few minutes per playthrough, the sheer number of fans wanting to interact with HoN characters in virtual reality resulted in a long snaking queue, the likes of which you’d find at DisneyLand or Universal Studios. By mid-day, fans were queuing from the edge of the hall (where the HoN booth was located) all the way to the center of the convention hall, with people waiting in line for well over an hour. It was a pretty incredible sight.

Once they finally reached the booth, many of them donned a VR headset for the first time in their lives. Despite the crowd’s inexperience with VR, almost everyone immediately grasped the controls and the gameplay. It was awesome to watch people pick up the controllers and instantly start having fun, shooting arrows at the creatures lumbering towards them, dodging attacks by dropping into a squat or leaping to the side. When monstrous wolves came running towards the player, many recoiled in fear and kept trying to back away from the non-existent threat. When fireballs and boulders came flying at the player, more than a few yelped in fear as they tried to avoid getting hit.

By mid-day, the queue was getting so long that the HTC booth got in on the action, repurposing some of their stations to run HoN VR instead. This included their main mixed-reality station in which they could superimpose players into the VR game on-screen.

On the second day of the event, half of the stations at the Vive booth had been repurposed to showcase HoN VR instead of other commercial games. Even the Intel booth got in on the action, with 2 out of their 3 Vive stations running HoN VR as well. In total, on the second day of the event, 7 out of the 11 Vive stations at the entire event were running HoN VR.

Over the two days, roughly 400-500 people played HoN VR. For many of whom, this was probably their first VR experience. It was awesome to be there personally to watch fans interact with and enjoy our game first-hand, something not many indie developers get to experience and relish in. It was a hectic three weeks to build a VR experience from scratch, but it was definitely worth it to be able to give so many gamers a unique experience in their favourite game and get them excited about VR in general. Watching hundreds of first-time VR users pick up and play the game with ease also reaffirmed our belief in the future of VR gaming, with people of all ages becoming completely immersed in the world of HoN VR. It was an amazing experience and we were glad to have the opportunity to work with Garena on this project.

Also, congrats to Fnatic for taking home the championship!

 

So… why VR?

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While the term “virtual reality” was first coined in the late 1980s, the idea of immersing an individual into a setting can perhaps be traced all the way back to panoramic paintings and cycloramas from the 19th century. Such paintings revealed a wide view of a particular setting or event, and were designed to be displayed on the inside of a cylindrical platform, providing a viewer standing in the middle a 360 degree view of the historical event. Just like modern VR technology, such sights were undoubtedly met with great awe and excitement among viewers.

The recent resurgence in virtual reality is unsurprising considering its development in recent years. The first public demonstrations of the earliest Oculus Rift development kit occurred all the way back in 2012 at various gaming conventions such as E3 and Gamescom. Initial reactions to the relatively simple demo made it clear that the Rift was leaps and bounds ahead of any sort of VR technology the public had ever seen.

Fast forward 4 years later, and consumer VR technology has continued to grow and improve, with a wide variety of VR headsets available for purchase. There are (broadly) three types of VR headsets available to consumers.

1. Low-end smartphone VR headsets

Google Cardboard and other cheap plastic headsets that are designed to house a smartphone that is to be used as the screen for displaying stereoscopic images. These headsets are fairly simple tech-wise, with head tracking but no motion tracking nor controllers. These headsets are a great introduction to VR due to their low price point coupled with the prevalence of smartphones among consumers. While they convey the “wow” factor of VR pretty well, they aren’t really suitable for more in-depth experiences due to their low quality.

2. Premium smartphone VR headsets

Gear VR and other premium third-party headsets. These headsets are similar in that they require a smartphone to be the main processing unit, however they include some extra features that the lower-end models lack (e.g. a non-tracked Bluetooth controller, better head tracking, etc.) In general, they’re built to a much higher quality which makes them more suitable for prolonged and more in-depth VR experiences. Google is slated to ship its own premium smartphone VR headset, the Daydream, this November with a motion-tracked (but not position-tracked) controller which will be interesting to keep our eyes on.

3. Dedicated VR headsets

Thus far, three majors dedicated VR headsets have been released – the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift and Playstation VR (PSVR). These headsets only contain screens and other sensors, but need to be hooked up to a separate desktop (or Playstation in the case of the PSVR) in order to function. Due to the much beefier processing units, these high-end headsets are able to present much sharper and more detailed visuals, vastly increasing immersion in VR space. Furthermore, postionally tracked controllers allow players to reach into their virtual environment to interact with objects, something not possible with smartphone-powered VR experiences.

The best of the best

At Actually Sane Studios, our focus lies primarily on developing games and experiences for dedicated VR headsets, in particular the HTC Vive. While these units are the priciest of the bunch, they offer unparalleled VR experiences and offer developers exciting opportunities to experiment and innovate with a whole new medium of games. There are three key factors to why we decided to head down this road of developing for higher-end headsets.

1. High fidelity graphics

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As the HTC Vive is powered by a desktop graphics card, it’s capable of displaying detailed graphics that add immensely to the sense of immersion in a virtual environment. While innovative game

concepts can undoubtedly be developed for smartphone-based VR, the vastly enhanced visuals in high-end headsets are much more appealing and convincing.

2. Room-scale and motion-tracked controllers.

While the original demo of the Oculus Rift back in 2012 was extremely impressive for its time, it lacked the ability to track users in real-space. With the advent of consumer versions of these high-end headsets, they now allow users to move about in real space and interact with virtual objects with motion-tracked controllers. The significance of room-scale cannot be overstated in terms of its ability to completely trick users into believing that what they’re seeing is real. While developing games for the HTC Vive, I’ve had a similar experience where I dropped a controller on to the floor because I was trying to place it down on a virtual table. Despite having quite a bit of experience with the Vive, there are still times when you genuinely believe that the pixels in front of your eyes are actually tangible objects.

3. It’s just… exciting

Honestly, after playing games for most of my life, playing games on the Vive has gotten me more excited than I’ve been for video games in a long time. It’s the most breathtaking fun I’ve had in a long time, and the possibilities for designing games for virtual reality are just endless. Many of the rules regarding game design might as well be thrown out the window when it comes to virtual reality, which is what makes it so exciting to be a VR indie game developer as we get to innovate on even the most basic systems in VR games. We hope to be able to continually experiment and explore new ways we can craft interesting experiences and games.

To that end, we are currently finishing up development on our first title, Danger Room, which will be coming to Steam in the near future. Stay tuned to this dev blog for further updates!

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Kang-An
Designer/Developer at Actually Sane Studios