Thursday, June 16, 2016

Notes from the Zero Latency Free-Roam VR Gameplay

I spent this past weekend in Australia working with Sensics customer Zero Latency towards their upcoming VR deployment at SEGA's Joypolis park in Tokyo. As part of the visit, I had the chance to go through the Zero Latency "Zombie Outbreak" experience and I thought I would share some notes from it. Zero Latency has been running this experience for quite some time and have had nearly 10,000 paying customers do it. The experience is about 1-hour long including about 10 minutes of pre-game briefing and equipment setup, 45 minutes of play and 5 minutes to take the equipment off and get the space ready for the next group. There are 6 customer slots per hour and everyone plays together in the same space at the same time. To date, Zero Latency has opened this to customers for about 29 hours a week - mostly on weekends - but will now be adding weeknights for a total of 40 game hours per week. A ticket costs 88 Australian dollars (about 75 US dollars) and there is typically a 6-week waiting list to get in. The experience is located in the Zero Latency office, a converted warehouse in the north side of Melbourne Australia. Most of the warehouse is taken up by the rectangular game space, about 15 x 25 meters (50 x 80 feet), or 375 m² (4000 sq ft) to be precise. The rest of the warehouse is used for two floors engineering and administrative offices.  One can peak through the office windows at the customers playing and during the day you can constantly hear the shouts of excitement, squeals of joy and screams of horror coming from the game space.

I had a chance to go through the game twice: once with a group of Zero Latency employees before the space was opened to customers, and once as the 6th man of a 5-person group of paying customers late night. Once customers come in they are greeted by a 'game master' that provides a pre-mission briefing, explains the rules and provides explanation on the gaming gun. The gun can switch between a semi-automatic rifle and a shotgun. It has a trigger, a button to switch modes, a reload button and a pump to load bullets into the shotgun and load grenades when in rifle mode. I found the gun to be comfortable and balanced, and it seems that is has undergone many iterations before arriving in the current form. Players wear a backpack that includes a lightweight Alienware portable computer, a battery and a control box. The HMD and the gun have lighted spheres on them - reminiscent of the PlayStation Move - that are used to track the players and the weapons throughout the space. Players also wear Razer headsets that provide two-way audio so that players can easily communicate with each other as well as hear instructions from the game master.

The game starts with a few minutes of acclimation where players walk across the space to virtual shooting range and spend a couple of minutes getting comfortable with operating their weapons. The game then starts. It is essentially a simple game - players fight their way through the space while shooting zombies and other menacing characters, some of which shoot back at you. Every few minutes, players switch scenes by going through an elevator or teleportation waypoints, circles on the ground where each of the six players has to stand before the next scene can be reached. Sometimes you fight in an urban setting, sometimes on a rooftop, inside a cafeteria and so forth. Zombies can be killed by a direct shot to the head or multiple shots to the body. The players can also be killed, but then return to the game after about 10 seconds of appearing as a 'ghost'.  Game 'power ups' are sometimes found through the space. For instance, during my gameplay I found an AK-47 assault rifle and later a heavy machine gun. At the end of the game, each player is shown their score and ranking, where the score is calculated based on the number of kills and the number of player deaths. That score sheet is emailed to players and is available for later viewing on the Web. The graphics are fine and an attacking zombie is quite compelling when it is right in your face, but the things I truly found compelling in the game are not so much the graphics and gameplay but rather a few other things:
  • Free-roam VR is great. The large space offers fantastic freedom of movement. You can see players move throughout the space, duck to take cover, turn around quickly with no hesitation at all. This generates an excellent feeling of immersion. You can truly feel that you could hide behind corners or walk anywhere with no apparent limitations. Of course, every space has physical limitations and Zero Latency has implemented a system where if you get too close to a player or a wall, something like a radar appears on your screen showing you at the center and the obstacles (players, walls) on it so that you know how to avoid them. If you get too close, the game pauses until you are farther away. This felt very natural. Throughout nearly two hours of active gameplay I think I brushed once or twice against another player but no more than that, even though players were in close proximity. Immersion is such that players don't notice people that are not players around them. In the current Zero Latency office, the bathroom for the office (the "Loo" in "Australian") is right across from the playing space so to get there you can either take a detour walking alongside the walls or go straight through the playing area where the players couldn't care less because they don't even know that you are walking by.
  • The social aspect is very compelling. This game is not about 6 individuals playing separately in a space. It is about 6 players acting as a team within the space. You can definitely hear "you take the right corridor and I'll take the left", or "watch your back" or "I need some help here!" shouts from one player to another. Players that work individually have little chance to stop the zombie invasion coming from all directions, but playing together gives you that chance.
  • Tracking - for both the head and the weapon - are very smooth to the point where you don't think about it. Because multiple players are tracked in the space you can see their avatars around you (sometimes with name tags). The graphics of players walking in the game need some work in my opinion, but you can clearly see where everyone is and what they are doing.
  • 45 minutes of game play go by very quickly and the game masters control the pace very well. As you can imagine, some groups take longer than others to get to the next waypoints, and the game uses waiting for elevators or helicopters as a way to condense or extend the total time. For instance, once you arrive in the cafeteria a sign shows up that the elevator will arrive in 100 seconds. I would imagine that if a group arrived earlier, they would have to wait longer for the elevator or if a group took more time, they would wait less.
The space itself is essentially empty save for the overhead tracking cameras. Thus, the same space the tracking system can be used for many different experiences. Unfortunately, we had to work from time to time and I did not have a chance to try some of the newer experiences that Zero Latency is working on, especially since the space was occupied by customers most of the time. I'm certainly looking forward to coming there again and continue to save the world.

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