Hubris developer Cyborn has plenty of pedigree when it comes to creating virtual worlds. The Antwerp-based studio has cut its teeth on a number of work-for-hire projects spanning movies, mobile apps, and video games, and has recently started building out its own VR franchise, Hubris.
The project is being pitched as a sci-fi action-adventure game with triple-A graphics that uses tools like realtime 3D to deliver a “future-proof” product. According to the studio, Hubris is being created to push the boundaries of the nascent medium, and if all goes to plan will spawn an entire franchise.
After going hands-on with Hubris at Gamescom 2022 — for those wondering, the 30 minute demo build left this writer impressed — we had the chance to sit down with Cyborn CEO and producer Ives Agemans to dig into the studio’s approach to creating a VR game that can stand the test of time.
Chasing the real
Hubiris ditches the teleportation-based locomotion of some VR titles in favor of letting players jump and climb over objects, but fine-tuning and implementing those mechanics to imbue them with a sense of weight and gravity that felt immersive, but not disorienting, took months of work.
Even then, Agemans explains it was impossible to get climbing “exactly right” because the mechanic only requires players to use their arms. Unless the dev team was willing to ship each copy of the title with a makeshift climbing wall, players’ feet will remain firmly planted to the ground, and that made things tricky.
“We put a lot of effort into jumping. It took us a long time to get that to a point where it felt realistic enough, but we couldn’t achieve the same kind of realism with climbing because you can’t use your legs. It’s too complex [a movement] to perfectly replicate in VR,” says Agemans.
“So you have to add a certain level of automation to help players when they push and move using their arms. Balancing those things took a long time.”
Although Agemans suggests that finalizing jumping was a more straightforward task, he explains it still took half a year to make it feel natural. The “jump” command is tethered to a button press and not a virtual movement, meaning the team had to spend months figuring out how the length of an individual tap would translate in-game, letting players measure the distance and strength of their leaps as they attempt to clear chasms and, in some instances, latch onto something on their other side using their real hands.
Blending those more traditional mechanics with virtual movements was a fine balancing act, and it required a lot of testing. “It takes so much to get the right balance. It was a long process,” says Agemans before going on to explain precisely why Cyborn ditched teleportation in favor of more engaging traversal mechanics.
“People often got sick when they moved [in VR games], especially when titles couldn’t deliver a consistent framerate. If you can hit the right framerate it’s less of a problem,” he continues. “Now, a lot of VR players are also used to moving with a VR controller, so you can do it that way. Jumping is also so important in our game, so if we moved away from it we’d have to find another mechanic — such as placing the cursor over gaps and letting players traverse that way. It might expand our player base, but it would totally change the game.”
(Literal) world building
During the Hubris demo I found myself constantly inspecting the world Cyborn had painstakingly stitched together. I’d wander around environments, pressing my virtual head against the thick digital glass and protecting me from the cold void of space and the gorgeous planet-strewn vistas beyond.
Each item I picked up — be it a punchy sci-fi pistol or wobbly alien tentacle — was immediately put through my own personal QA gauntlet as I attempted to search for cracks in the impressive construct Cyborn had created, poring over each object as if it held the key to some great mystery.
It’s something I imagine many players will do as they seek to ground themselves in a new virtual world for the first time, and I’m not alone. Explaining what Cyborn means when it talks about chasing immersion, Agemans explains the team spent a lot of time chasing graphical fidelity, but also placed a lot of important on nailing the small details.
“In VR games you can look in every corner, so I think visuals can make even more of an impact in VR. Of course, we wanted to add lots of cinematic scenery that can take a player’s breath away by showing them something they’ve never seen before. I think getting those big moments right and blending them with action scenes and smaller scenic moments [is critical.]”
During my Gamescom demo, there’s a moment where players are briefed on an upcoming mission by a hologram of their commanding officer. It’s a moment without bombast or fanfare, but one that must keep players engaged to impart crucial information about the challenge ahead. I ask Agemans about the challenges of directing cutscenes in VR, and whether it’s more difficult to keep players on task when you can’t lock them in place (without killing immersion) or simply hit ‘play’ on a tightly choreographed cutscene filled with exposition.
“More traditional games can have hours of cutscenes, but you can’t do that in VR, because it would pull players out of the experience. You have to find other ways to make it engaging and ensure people are focused on listening to and watching the characters on-screen,” says Agemans.
“[That process] is trial and error. You can use lighting tricks, which you might see in film, to highlight certain aspects of the scene and draw players in. It’s also important in VR to ensure players don’t have any objects to hand they can use to disrupt the scene — by, for instance, taking something and throwing it at another character,” laughs Agemans.
In general, Agemans explains that a good rule of thumb is to constantly remind yourself that you’re working in VR. It might sound ridiculous when you say it out loud, but old habits die hard, and if you’re making the switch from another industry — be it film production or more traditional development — it can be hard to let go of what you already know. Much like the uncharted worlds of Hubris, VR remains a wild frontier — and it’s best you treat it as such.