Countdown to ‘Phantom: Covert Ops’—Interview with nDreams Technical Director Grant Bolton

Oculus Blog
June 22, 2020

Phantom: Covert Ops cruises onto Oculus Quest and the Rift Platform June 25. We’re gearing up with a series of interviews to take you behind the scenes of the title UploadVR called “one of the most immersive VR games you’ll play this year.” First up, nDreams Technical Director Grant Bolton.

How long has the game been in development?

Grant Bolton: We created a proof-of-concept demo for Phantom in early 2018 and it’s been in full time development for around 18 months.

How did you get the look and feel just right? What about the core mechanics?

GB: The look of Phantom comes from working very closely with our Art Director, Glenn Brace, and our fantastic team of engineers and artists. As a VR title, lots of attention was spent on the area immediately around the player—their kayak, body, weapons, and equipment. Tactile interactions and layers of animation help the player’s sense of embodiment as a Phantom operative. The next layer is where the environment meets the Kayak—water that can be rippled and splashed, cones of mist-filled light to skirt around, and interactive panels, levers, and shutters that can be reached from the boat. Finally, we bedded these elements into large, complex environments that give the player a sense of place and scale—we developed a new system to deliver some of the largest traversable spaces on Quest.

The feel of the core mechanics was another area of focus. Our goal with Phantom was to immerse the player in “movie realism” where everything behaves as you might expect in an action film but isn’t held up by mundane or fussy elements. Our gameplay team have tuned hit-boxes, animated transitions, and value curves to balance the experience so that even a novice player can paddle, aim, and reload like an action hero... whilst enabling the depth for a veteran player to pull off impressive feats of mastery and skill. For example, anyone can turn the kayak to the right with a few strokes of the paddle on the left side, but a seasoned player can pull off a high-speed, silent maneuver by using their paddle as a rudder and leaning into the turn.

How did your previous work in VR help inform your work on Phantom?

GB: I’ve been working in VR since the Oculus DK2 was released—Phantom presented a great opportunity to apply my experience of developing great weapons, gadgets, and equipment for VR. I’ve also focused heavily on optimization. Getting a game as large as Phantom to run on Quest has been a great challenge—we’ve been blown away by how much a standalone device can handle with the right focus and love.

What’s your favorite part of the game and why?

GB: The kayak. It took a while to find the right balance between fun, realism, and comfort, but I think we’ve arrived at a great model that’s intuitive to learn but has depth and nuance for the player to master. It also provides a great platform for mounting weapons and equipment—access to these is immediate and tactile in Phantom, with no need for radial menus or inventory screens.

What advice would you give to a developer looking to start building for VR?

GB: I’d recommend starting with Unreal Engine. Oculus provides some great tools in a plugin that integrates directly with the engine and gets you off to a flying start. From there, focus first on what happens close to the player—what can they see, hear, and interact with. This is where VR really shines. Finally, keep an eye on performance right from the start; gameplay feel is much easier to judge with a smooth frame rate.

Tune into the blog tomorrow for a look at the inspiration behind Phantom with nDreams Art Director Glenn Brace, and get ready to pilot your own kayak in a stealth experience only VR can deliver when Phantom: Covert Ops launches on Quest and the Rift Platform June 25.