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Free Fallin’: How Ubisoft Crafted a New Kind of VR Shooter with ‘Space Junkies’
Oculus Blog
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Posted by Oculus VR
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April 5, 2019
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Ubisoft’s new arcade shooter Space Junkies is out and ready for intrepid players to enter its Orbital Arenas. This “jetpack-fueled” multiplayer action game is full of outlandish weapons, gear, and and over-the-top galactic action. We’ve followed Space Junkies since before the June 2018 closed beta and are thrilled the game has finally made its way into orbit.

We spoke with Ubisoft Producer Adrian Lacey to learn more about Space Junkies and why it’s not your average spacefaring VR shooter.

What was the initial inspiration behind Space Junkies? How has the title evolved over the course of development?

Adrian Lacey: The initial prototypes varied from bouncing on Mars, to managing a spaceship and putting out fires, to drones trying to attack you. We also tried a bunch of different navigation styles, like swimming through the International Space Station. We felt it was all too slow and tiring, and we wanted something fast and twitchy. One of the developers on the team then added a laser pistol and solar saber, and Space Junkies was born!

Space is a popular trope in VR gaming. How did you go about setting yourself apart from the rest of the pack?

AL: Speed, precision, and gear customization are pillars. You essentially navigate, grab, and shoot your way through spherical battlespaces. In terms of gameplay, this means a completely new dynamic of situational awareness and playing with complex lines of sights. When we started development on Space Junkies, games were still using teleport for navigation, but we wanted to provide the player with as much freedom as possible. Most importantly, we wanted to deliver that feeling of flying with a jetpack.

How did you come up with the concept of Orbital Arenas?

AL: Since the beginning, competition has been important to us, and we always strive for a sports vibe in everything we make. We wanted to be more than another stadium battle game; we wanted to explore weird and wonderful locations—like abandoned mining stations and alien asteroids—in order to give players new worlds as battlefields. Another key element is breakable objects, which provide maps with dynamic elements that change situational awareness and give tactical advantages.

What can you tell us about “Brigitte”?

AL: Brigitte is an engine developed by the team, designed specifically for pre-production, production VR, and next-generation hardware. It lets our designers work directly in VR and allows them to iterate maps quickly within the virtual space. Literally working while immersed in VR is an incredible way to understand what the player will experience in the game and to get a sense of scale. The other advantage is that we put loading times for editing and the player at the core of development, as players don’t want to sit in VR waiting for a lengthy loading time. (It’s not like they can pass the time looking at their phone!)

So you did map and level design in VR. What can you tell us about that process? How does the game benefit from this approach?

AL: When developing any game, you need to be inspired by the native hardware itself. It’s like if you were making a console game, but designing it only using a keyboard and mouse—it makes no sense. We also live in a 3D world, yet everything we watch and interact with is in 2D, from films to games. VR changes all that: you are fully immersed in a 3D world, so we made a conscious effort to develop the game in VR, allowing our artists and designers to get a relevant sense of scale and space that 2D can’t match.

Did you run into any technical obstacles? How did you overcome those challenges?

AL: We ran into quite a few technical challenges! Frame rate is the hardest to tackle, as you need to be solid for comfort, but the issue is that everyone is different in terms of sensitivity and comfort. The solution is to play and test, then test and test again!

The social aspect is also very important. We want the player to feel like a living emoticon, so we developed an IK (inverse kinematics) system that lets players use their full bodies when playing, and not just two floating hands.

Who did you work with on the soundtrack? What was that experience like?

AL: We collaborated with the talented team from Feel For Music, based in England, to compose the game’s main theme. They quickly understood the style we were looking for: inspired by ’80s electro-synth but modernized in terms of synth texture. We also took advantage of Ubisoft’s expansive musical portfolio to integrate musical remixes from other Ubisoft games.

Can you talk about the overall sound design for Space Junkies and the role of spatial audio in VR combat more broadly?

AL: One of the central elements of Space Junkies’ sound design has been to provide the most accurate sound experience possible in terms of spatialization and immersion. We needed several months of research and comparisons to determine which binaural (3D audio) technologies would be integrated into our engine.

Space Junkies uses a combination of four audio technologies:

  • The game runs two real-time binaural encoders at the same time:
    • One is from Oculus and is used to spatialize a large amount of sound. It also handles a room-modeling engine with early and late reflections (for reverb simulation).
    • One is dedicated to voice chat and avatars’ “foley” (the sound of suit movements and collisions).
  • Native binaural recording with “Robert,” the studio’s custom dummy head, was used for the sounds with a fixed position, like character voices and breathing sound systems.
  • The “binauralization” of audio sources using a specific technique of re-recording with our dummy head has been very useful for most of the sounds related to the head but that did not need dynamic spatialization, like SFX, UI, and HUD sounds.
  • Ambisonic format has also been used, mostly for the head-relative effects that needed to be dynamically spatialized inside the character helmet.

Tell us how you arrived at Space Junkies’ roster of weapons.

AL: Space Junkies is based on a combination of weapons and equipment. Weapons have limited ammunition, and when it runs out, weapons turn into explosive grenades. This is where gear combination comes into play, as you may have a short-range weapon in one hand, like a Sunblaster, but a suppressive weapon, like the Ricoshaker, in the other hand. Alternatively, you may have a shield and a Solar Sword—it all depends on the situation and proximity of your enemies.

Weapons in any competitive shooter are a never-ending part of development, and we’re continually balancing, checking, and tweaking. All gear goes through rigorous testing and consumer playtesting.

The two-handed weapons and the Solar Saber are my personal favorites. I just love the Nuclear Slingshot since there’s nothing more satisfying then taking out a target with a slingshot; it’s like David vs. Goliath in micro gravity!

Did you experiment with multiple locomotion options besides jet packs? What was testing and iteration like there?

AL: In terms of navigation, you are now in a spherical space, which compared to traditional shooters means you need to navigate in all directions. We started to look at the headset as another input mechanism rather than just a pair of eyes. In addition, we found that using your head as an additional controller when navigating gives added control to dodge and move at high speeds. Before we settled on our final mode of locomotion, we experimented with everything from bouncing to swimming in micro gravity, which was fun but ultimately exhausting for extended play.

Player comfort was the most important aspect during build iteration. Frame rate is key, and it needs to be fast and stable. However, locomotion is so specific to each user that we really tried to eliminate discomfort through a combination of research and player feedback.

Any advice or best practices you’d like to share with new developers looking to build for VR?

AL: Iteration, iteration, and more iteration… When working on new hardware, you need to try, fail, and then fail again until something works properly. It’s the best advice that any developer can give.

What’s next for you? Any exciting projects in the works?

AL: We have lots more to add to Space Junkies in the coming months. This is just the beginning!

If you’re ready to blast your way through space (and the competition), give Space Junkies a shot on Rift today.

— The Oculus Team