December 9, 2023

Guerrilla’s Ben McCaw and Firesprite’s Alex Barnes spill the beans on what players really want to do in VR (spoiler: they want to move plants around!)

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Sony Interactive Entertainment’s second generation virtual reality platform, PlayStation VR2, is set to launch on February 22nd, and with it comes Horizon Call of the Mountain, a standalone adventure in Guerrilla Games’ popular far-future action adventure series in which tribal humans must contend with massive machine predators.

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As a flagship first-party game for Sony’s new VR tech, it takes advantage of pretty much all of PS VR2’s features, including eye-tracking and advanced haptic feedback (rumble motors that creative tactile sensations). It also features a new protagonist in Ryas, an experienced climber and archer, and we see the game’s lushly detailed world looking directly through his eyes the first time the series has ever given players a first-person perspective.

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Post Arcade had a chance to chat with two of the game’s key developers: Ben McCaw, studio narrative director at Guerrilla Games, and Alex Barnes, game director at Firesprite, a British studio brought in to help develop the franchise’s first foray into virtual reality. The pair were excited to discuss their work, ranging from what virtual reality helped teach them about a world they already thought they knew (the machines are really, really big) to whether they prefer using VR’s gesture controls or traditional thumb sticks for movement.

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Horizon Call of the Mountain for PS VR2.
Horizon Call of the Mountain for PS VR2. Photo by SIE /SIE

Post Arcade: Did Sony come to you about doing a PS VR2 game or did you approach them?

Ben McCaw: It was an ambition we had. We felt like Horizon would fit really well into VR. There’s something about the visual spectacle of the franchise, the contrast between beautiful nature and the awe-inspiring machines that we felt would be a natural fit for VR. 

And we were thrilled when we got hold of the hardware and saw the potential. There was this amazing sense of verticality and scale that you get when you play. You could be hanging from a cliff and looking down and seeing the world from a totally different perspective than you ever could in Horizon Forbidden West. When you’re actually confronted with one of the machines and you’re doing it in first-person at scale in VR it feels like the machine is looming over you in a way that is just incredible. 

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PA: I know exactly what you mean. As the game opens, we’re gliding along a stream with machines everywhere, encouraging us to twist our heads and crane our necks. It’s a great sense of immersion. Did seeing the world you created through VR provide you with any fresh insights into how the characters who live there might feel living amongst massive machine predators? 

BM: Wow, that’s a great question. I mean, I think there’s something about getting tossed off the boat and seeing the snapmaw (a crocodilian machine) in the water, or the moment where the thunderjaw (a giant dinosaur-like machine) is stalking you later in the game, that deliver a more immersive and frequently more tactile experience than we get in third-person games. I remember thinking when I saw the watchers (raptor-like machines) — which are, in some ways, the most innocuous machines in Horizon — I was like, holy crap, these things are really big and scary! 

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We also tried to think about the best perspective on this world to really take advantage of VR and the hardware. That’s how our protagonist, Ryas, got developed. We felt we wanted a new protagonist, a kind of master climber. That came to mind really quickly, especially when we’re talking about the verticality that the game has and the potential that we saw in climbing. 

Once we had our protagonist we were thinking about the world in a different way, from the perspective of the inhabitants of the world. 

PA: What specific features about Sony’s second generation of VR were you most excited to leverage?

Alex Barnes: I think the thing that blew us away most and became a real game changer for us was eye tracking. We saw the use of it and exploited it for foliated rendering, which means that we render at a really high quality only very specifically where the player is looking. We built really beautiful, dense environments that previously had not been attainable in VR. 

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And it supports Ryas’ character. Ryas is a master archer, so he needs to be able to hit what he’s shooting at. A player isn’t necessarily going to be super adept with a bow and arrow, but that doesn’t matter because you’re playing the game through Ryas’ eyes. We use eye tracking to enhance those moments. 

We can also start to really feel the machines, as well. The advanced haptics in the controllers and the headset means that when a tallneck (a massive giraffe-like machine) plants a foot right next to you, it sends a vibration through every part of you. And you can feel things going from the left and the right, moving from one controller to the other. These haptic moments make you feel more immersed in the world than ever before. 

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Horizon Call of the Mountain for PS VR2.
Horizon Call of the Mountain for PS VR2. Photo by SIE /SIE

PA: Is PS VR2 easy to work with for developers already designing PS5 games?

AB: We had to break some ground, because as a first-party launch title we’re trying to get as much out of the technology as possible. But one of the things I love about PS VR2 is that it’s a single cable into a dev kit and console. And I have a button on the headset that lets me see through the visor. Even just these very small things make it more user-friendly and ease development. 

Also, the sharpness of the displays in the headset — getting that 4K feeling and the wider field of view — meant we weren’t being limited by the hardware. Developing a VR game previously, you would have this vision and then you had to scale it back. But we were going, hey, we can actually get a little bit more. It just put us in a really good, positive position.

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PA: Did you run into any unexpected problems?

BM: From the narrative side, a lot of what we do in third-person Horizon games has to do with taking the camera away from the player. But you’re not really ever going to do that in VR. That’s a huge challenge, but also a huge opportunity. It can be much more immersive, because it feels like you’re there. You’re in control of where you look, but story events are happening around you. 

There are other opportunities, too. Like when you’re talking to a non-player character we’ve got gaze tracking. It’s like they’re there. You’re looking at them and they’re looking at you. Their gaze follows you. You can reach out and they’ll react to it. So there’s a whole different level of interactivity and immersion available there. But you have to reset your mind about the camera.

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AB: I think players just want to interact with the world around them. Early play testers would want to pick up this thing or stick their hand in there. They want to experience the world and see how it reacts to them. So you get the haptics when you stick your hand in water because play testers were trying to stick their hands in the water. 

It sometimes made a headache in design. They wanted to move around plants, so we started going okay, let’s build that out. But then it really became an opportunity to push everything up to that next level. It’s incredibly rewarding when you see players doing things that you’ve put so much love and care into and they just have a big smile on their face underneath the headset.

PA: How do you walk the line between exploiting VR’s potential while keeping the experience from feeling like a glorified tech demo? 

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AB: As we went through development we found we naturally wanted to push these things. We wanted to add more to the experience. There certainly wasn’t ever a time where we were going, hey, well we need to do haptics for this. It was, hey, I really think it would be great if we could feel the tension on the bow when we pull back on the bow string, and the engineers and the design team would go hey, maybe we can do that with the haptic setup. Those things started to naturally introduce themselves into the game, not as a requirement.

BM: What we really tried to do was focus on the pillars of the Horizon franchise and the core loop of the game. We wanted to take aspects including traversal, combat, and crafting and translate those things into VR. But we also wanted to strike a balance between a kind of narrative urgency and all the awesome things to do in the environment. You want to fulfill Ryas’ mission, you want to climb the mountain, you want to find new machines to fight, new weapons and tools to craft. That’s the balance, right? As long as you have that sense of momentum in the game. 

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Horizon Call of the Mountain for PS VR2.
Horizon Call of the Mountain for PS VR2. Photo by SIE /SIE

PA: Did the technology instruct the storytelling or did you start with the narrative and then build up the game around it?

BM: It obviously helps that we have this amazing IP (intellectual property) that’s going to inform everything. But we thought a lot about the hardware and the design and what we wanted the core loop to be before we really started developing the story. I don’t think that’s actually much different than how we would approach other Horizon games. Because those things always have to work together. Design, story, art…all those things need to be working together all the time, and sometimes one needs to lead the way a little bit more. I think in this case tech and design had to kind of take the first step.

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PA: Last question: Do you prefer to move around with gesture controls or with the analog sticks?

AB: I prefer the analog sticks. But I think that’s because I’ve had quite a long time working within VR. We find the gesture controls are a lot more suitable for people when they’re they’re starting to gain their VR legs. It was important to make sure we had a set of movement options that were accessible to a wide range of players. For some people, we found that sticks were a complete no, but they really enjoyed the gesture controls. For other players, we noticed they liked more traditional controls. So it was really important to us that the game works with both. VR is really a deeply personal experience. 

BM: I tended more on the gesture side. I have a different experience developing the game. I’m thinking more about the story moments and the overall immersive feel of the game. And for me the gesture stuff worked really well for that. But I totally agree with Alex in just how personal the VR experience is for everyone. Everyone plays differently. PS VR2 technology changes a little bit of our definition of what exploration really is within the world of Horizon.

The preceding interview was edited for length and flow.


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