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Student VR game is the hidden gem of E3 2019

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I don’t necessarily hate VR. But I am wary of its broken promise as the supposed future of games and entertainment, a promise it’s still failed to deliver on years after commercial release — until I played Ascend, a fight and flight PvP arena game made by USC undergraduate college students. 

Its humble little setup at the IndieCade booth sat directly across from the glitzy AAA Oculus booth on the E3 show floor. But ironically, it was the DIY student game set up that felt like by far the best defense for how VR might still redefine the future of play. And that’s because its thirty or so young creators managed to fix one of the most fundamental issues plaguing VR games.

Right now, the simple act of getting around a VR world creates a difficult design problem. And though it’s more a proof-of-concept than a full-fledged game, Ascend revived my cold, dead jaded heart with a groundbreaking yet simple fix.

The actual gameplay of Ascend isn’t new, basically playing out like capture the flag but in VR, with guns, and swords, in the air. But the revolutionary feature that sets Ascend apart is what the team calls the Lean Motion locomotion system, allowing you to aerially maneuver its virtual space by just tilting your head in the direction you want to fly. 

That means no joysticks, or those conspicuous and cumbersome teleportation pads that have become standard for moving around in most VR games.

“We always loved building in VR, but hated the teleportation thumbstick locomotion. It just isn’t intuitive, causes a lot of motion sickness, and goes against the whole immersive nature of VR,” said Audrey Cheng, co-director of Ascend along with Mark Yampolsky, who made the original prototype.

“We were really inspired and devoted by the idea that traversal is everything in a competitive game,” said level designer WT Greer. “It’s the bedrock for providing the player with interesting, creative combat choices. It’s what allows them to come up with their own sense of playing the game.”

So the team’s main goal was to crack open that better, more intuitive approach — so you could play a fast-paced, heart-thumping battle game in VR while avoiding the usual VR sickness. And their solution almost rivals the instinctual simplicity of the iPhone’s touch mechanic as a solution to unwieldy cellphone keyboards and UX.

“We were really inspired and devoted by the idea that traversal is everything in a competitive game.”

“We came up with the model that basically if the body initiates the movement, the mind will follow,” said Greer. “Instead of that abstract joystick thumb movement, you just have your motions initiate the movements inside the game.”

That new approach made the sky the limit, almost literally. The aerial battles in Ascend feel no less natural than skiing: You lean where you want to go, bend the knees to go faster. The only remotely immersion-breaking control is having to use the trigger buttons to  fly higher or lower — almost like how you imagine a jet pack would work. And even that doesn’t really take very long to click.

For Greer, Ascend was all about fixing his top complaint with VR.

“Speaking from a designer’s perspective, what I wanted to reconcile was the small real-life play space with exploration of a giant virtual world,” he said. “Teleportation just breaks everything for me. So we wanted a system where it feels almost like the upper body is walking around. That way it’s not just immersive, not only feels good, but is also a locomotion system that gives you access to a big world.”

There’s also the added benefit that their Lean Motion system is best suited for sitting down. Often, you see people at conventions standing up to play VR. But for it to become a truly viable gaming experience, Greer thinks, they’ll have to design them to be playable in a seated position. 

And that’s exactly the case for Ascend, where bent knees not only makes you soar faster but also gives you more control over your body — both in the virtual and real world. When I played it from a standing up position, Ascend proved at times so convincing that I constantly felt in danger of falling over.

Let me tell you, it doesn't get much better than flying VR gun battles

Let me tell you, it doesn’t get much better than flying VR gun battles

Image: Team Newspaper Hats

But that too is by design.

“Vertigo is the intended effect,” said Cheng. “Because motion sickness and vertigo are two very different sensations: one makes you want to throw up, the other makes you feel like you’re flying. When you’re flying fast, you should feel that exhilarating, almost dangerous feeling in your stomach. Like, ‘Oh, I’m in the air, there’s like 500 feet below me, I gotta keep flying!'”

Sure enough, that’s exactly what they accomplished. While never once eking into the territory of nausea, Ascend inspires some of the most visceral embodied sensations I’ve ever experienced in VR. The closest metaphor for it is that feeling of falling asleep — only without the inevitable crash that jolts you out of a dream.

Ascend inspires some of the most visceral embodied sensations I’ve ever experienced in VR

The team’s inspirations for the game ranges from other VR games like Echo Arena, regular games like Titanfall, and even movies like The Fast and the Furious. “It’s all about speed and momentum. Honestly, we just looked at anything that really gets your blood pumping,” said Greer. 

They did such a good job that E3 even offered to feature Ascend on the esports stage, though unfortunately space constraints made it an impossibility. 

But according to Cheng, “We always talk about VR esports eventually becoming a thing. It’s going to take a bit of time before it can actually pick up, just because VR is still too expensive and the locomotion isn’t there yet.”

The Lean Motion controls the team came up with proved so versatile, though, that they’re hoping to make Ascend’s flight system open source soon.

“We made our game a shooter just to showcase how the Lean Motion can make a fast, VR arena battle possible. But we think it can apply to so many other places and would love to see where other developers take it,” she said.

'Ascend' is all fast, all furious.

‘Ascend’ is all fast, all furious.

Image: TEAM NEWSPAPER HATS

In terms of the immediate future, though, Ascend is slated to release for free on Steam by the end of the summer after some more polish. Most of the team behind it consists of recent graduates trying to figure out their real-world jobs and career paths in between working on what began as a school project.

“From our perspective, the commitment was just to make a great game,” said Greer. “We didn’t really think about monetization or anything after that.”

It’s astounding to realize that such a young group of minds could create something so potentially revolutionizing for a medium with all the buzz, attention, and venture capital — and seemingly far too little actual innovation to show for it.

But here they are, a few recent college undergrads, totally showing up the so-called industry veterans and visionaries across from them at Oculus booth at the biggest gaming convention of the year.

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