BigBox VR’s Population: One is attempting to break new ground as a battle royale shooter game that you can play in virtual reality. It debuts this month on the major VR headsets, and it represents an attempt to bring the same joy that people have playing battle royale games on the PC and consoles into a more immersive environment.
The game pits 18 people, in six teams of three, against each other in a vertical environment, where players can ambush others in midflight or drop on players from above. BigBox VR’s founders, Chia Chin Lee and Gabe Brown, wanted to remove the guardrails of typical gaming experiences and let the players climb anything and fly or fight anywhere.
It has a full progression system with character and gun skins that players can unlock through gameplay. I played a few sessions of the game on the Oculus Quest 2 headset coming on October 13 from Facebook, and then I interviewed Lee and Brown about how they made the game and its vertical combat. Sadly, the game made me a bit woozy, but I appreciated its design, including the 360-degree spectating system that lets you watch a match’s final gameplay from just about anywhere on the battlefield. One way the game will limit discomfort in VR is that players can choose the level of mobility they can have, and the matches will only last about eight minutes.
The game debuts on the Oculus Quest, Quest 2, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Windows MR, and Valve Index October 22 for $30.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. And here’s our preview story.
GamesBeat: I enjoyed myself. But I did get fairly nauseous playing in this game. I probably should have chosen the most comfortable setting. I picked the middle one, where I was moving around with the thumbstick. Usually, that’s not a problem.
Chia Chin Lee: When we made our previous game, Smashbox Arena, we let you teleport everywhere. The funny thing is that the hardcore gamers come in and say, “We need to have smooth locomotion.” At first, we were skeptical, and then we tried it. It worked pretty well. However, and this is a big however, in the early days of [first-person shooters] FPS, I remember when we first introduced mouselook. People would stand over me looking at the screen and get sick. It reminds me of those early days. I got pretty sick in VR in the beginning, especially on the highest video settings, but now I’m used to it.
I do think there’s a slight easing-in effect. It’s real. It’s not made up. I do get motion sickness in real life. But with that said, when I use the comfort mode in our game, I feel pretty good, and now I don’t even use it anymore.
GamesBeat: I remember getting sick the first time I played Halo. But over time — playing Call of Duty Warzone now isn’t difficult.
Lee: Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.
GamesBeat: Games like Beat Saber and Pistol Whip are perfectly fine for me, though.
Lee: You’re moving in real life, but the world is stationary. That’s why teleportation works. You’re going from instances to instances. You’re not really moving. It’s so interesting because when you teleport in a game, most hardcore gamers go berserk. “I never want to play this game!” But we’ve found that teleportation is a solid way to get everyone into VR.
At some point, after Smashbox, we made a quick tradeoff. For me, the analogy to the old FPS games–at some point we need to make sure that, to the fullest extent possible, VR shows its full potential. You can only do this in VR. For me, that was the tradeoff. But I’m always interested to hear people’s reactions. If you’re sick, is there something we can do to make it better?
GamesBeat: I do wonder about the settings. What’s the difference between the three settings for comfort?
Gabe Brown: The high settings have the most aggressive vignettes, where the size is shrinking when you’re moving. We did a lot of work with some folks out of Westminster that work with research with the real Air Force. We use the same calibration scale they use for motion sickness, the same calibrated survey. We put people in the game and ask about their sickness before and after they play Population: One, to measure what’s happening.
On the high setting, the biggest thing is we’re blocking your peripheral view, which is what triggers motion sickness in VR for most people who aren’t accustomed to it yet. As time goes by you get desensitized to that, to a point where you don’t need the help. The medium setting only shows up in certain situations.
GamesBeat: I remember when I was flying, I had the narrower field of view. That was in the middle setting.
Lee: On the middle setting, it’s less aggressive when you walk and when you fly. On the high setting, when you fly, it makes it very small. When you fall it’s very small. The sensation is so real in VR when you’re falling.
GamesBeat: That was what got to me, the falling. I fell off a building.
Brown: Yeah, your brain is doing what it’s supposed to do. “Oh, I’m falling off a building!” Falling is one of the biggest triggers in VR, and that’s why the vignette, at least in the highest mode, is the most aggressive. The other thing that can trigger it is if you didn’t get a good night’s sleep, or if you’ve just taken a long flight. That dramatically increases your sensitivity to motion sickness.
GamesBeat: What about the lowest setting, then? What are you doing differently there?
Brown: The biggest, most observable one is the field of view, but a lot of tricks you don’t see are also in there. One of the common things that people do — did you try banking when you were flying? What’s happening, a lot of people think they’re turning, just like you would in an airplane, but we’re actually just strafing you left and right. There are dozens of those types of tricks that achieve the vision–what you expect the game to do is reacting to your bank. But it’s not really turning you. It tricks your brain into thinking you’re doing something, but it’s actually making you quite comfortable while you do it. Most players should be able to play and feel relatively comfortable unless there’s an underlying medical issue related to balance.
GamesBeat: I thought it was interesting gameplay, though. My partner got shot out of the sky while she was flying. That was pretty good shooting. I like the spectator view, too, where you can see the whole battlefield. I don’t know why most battle royales don’t do that. Warzone just gives you the point of view of another player. It’s more fun to watch everything that’s happening.
Lee: It’s pretty cool, yeah. One of the key things we wanted to do is make sure the game is easy to jump into. If you’ve played an FPS, you should be able to play our game, even if you’ve never been in VR. On the counter side of that, we wanted it to be simple to watch. If someone is streaming, or if you’re just a spectator, you can watch the action and know exactly what’s going on at all times. That makes a very streamable game, very fun to watch and social. When you’re watching, you can still talk to your teammates. “Hey, look at this. Jump that out.” It’s pretty cool.
Brown: That’s one of the modes we kept from Smashbox Arena. When you die in Smashbox when you’re eliminated, you go to the spectator mode and you can talk to players while you’re there. We wanted to bring that because it’s a social moment. Even if you’re eliminated, there’s something to do, something to watch and enjoy. You can learn from other players, see how your opponents are playing, and bond with people. If two of you were simultaneously eliminated, you can talk to each other about it. “Oh man, did you see that shot?” “Yeah, that was crazy.” It’s an interesting social moment for a lot of people, being able to chat with each other.
GamesBeat: Did you start out at 100 players and figure out that going down to a smaller number was better? How did that change for you, how many players should be in the game?
Lee: The last time we met in person was a while ago, and we were showing our game in the PC VR version. What happened, we talked to Oculus, and we figured out that mobile VR, tetherless, at a really good price point, was going to be the way VR really took off. We believe in this. That said, it still needs to play across everything, because you need to drive the concurrency and the user base.
We took a detour and–if you imagine the PC VR version being a giant elephant, we took the elephant and squeezed it into a little box and made it cross-play. We spent more than a year and a half making all the magic happen. We’re proud of this because now you can play with the Quest 1 even, plus Quest 2, the Rift, Windows MR–you can play across all this hardware.
Brown: It was a lot of work to get there. We ended up developing a lot of custom stuff to make it a very efficient VR mobile engine. That’s baked into what we’re using now. We’re using supercomputing techniques on the Quest, using memory layout, optimizing the CPU for how the CPU reads each byte out of memory. That’s the level we’re going to to make this run screaming fast on a Quest, for a 1km world.
A lot of the time in other games, particularly for Quest, you’re on rails. They do that because it’s easy to make shooters in a tunnel when you can control where the player is going. But when you have a one-kilometer map as we do, you need to be good in every position on the map, because we don’t stop you from going anywhere. You’re not limited. That’s something that sets us apart.
Lee: Going back to your question, the original was PC VR, and it was a free-for-all game. We quickly figured out that the most fun part of our product, though, is playing with teams, with your friends squadded together. From there we figured out that squads of three, six teams of three, was the best size for a 1km by 1km map. In the future, because we’re a live service product and we’ll keep releasing stuff, we could expand the number of players as VR grows and our hardware optimization gets better. But for right now, 18 players in squads of three, for the map size, gives us the perfect pacing. It’s the right size.
GamesBeat: Do the matches usually end in a final circle? Or can the players kill each other off faster than that?
Brown: As teams are eliminated, the zone shrinks. If you eliminate all the other teams before the zone collapses, that ends the match. But the zone also allows you to go up as high as you want. You can have parts where the zone is 10 feet wide, but people are on multiple levels on top of each other. It makes for some interesting endgames.
Lee: You know the giant tower in the game? We had someone try to be really sneaky and climb all the way to the top and start building up a little bridge. They were waiting for the endgame to happen. But the problem was the zone wasn’t closing in that person’s favor. He had to jump off and start flying down. You’ve probably seen situations where people on the lower levels are shooting people up above. That’s a lot of fun to watch.
Brown: That ties into the spectator mode. When you get eliminated like that and you go into spectator mode, you’ll probably hear everyone in the spectator mode screaming. “Oh my God!”
Lee: It’s important for us to convey why we built this thing. We’ve built games in a 2D space before. I’ve done PC and console games. I moved to Seattle to join Valve in 2000, when it was about 30 people. When I was thinking about starting my next company, Gabe said, “You have to try VR.” My friends at Valve had a demo. Back then this was pre-Vive. It was all wired up. When I saw that, it was just, “Holy crap.”
I thought about the potential of taking 2D games and putting someone in there and making them live the FPS moments. The fact that you’re not only in there, but you can touch and feel your friends, almost, feel their presence — and it’s all off the rails. Anything in the world, you can climb, you can grab, you can fly off it. That got us going. The whole premise of this is to make sure that we completely nail FPS in VR. That’s the first step.
After that, the product becomes the community that we love, and the community becomes–hopefully our game is good enough to last a long time. As VR grows, with our live service component–we want this to be an esport in the future. But that’s off in the distance. One step at a time.
GamesBeat: The quality of the visuals, how would you compare that? It looks like it might be more difficult to make VR look really good next to something that’s just a 2D game. You have to tackle some harder problems. Something has to look good really close up.
Lee: I can give you the fast gameplay and business answer. We could have made this game–if you look at Half-Life: Alyx, it looks incredible. But in VR right now, having a really fun game that runs across many platforms is important. We squeezed magic on the tech side to make this work across all these different platforms. That was our primary object, to get the game to as many people as possible.
Brown: We did have some limitations in terms of processing power. Some console games get three times the time to render a frame compared to what we have. They can do 60 frames per second or 30 frames per second. We get 72 to 90, somewhere in there. We have half the amount of time to do a lot more work, because we’re rendering two pictures, one for the left eye and one for the right. We have to do double the work, so there are tradeoffs there.
This is also just the genesis of VR. We’re only on the third generation of this type of hardware. We had to do quite a bit of work to get this looking good. We have a pretty heavily modified networking system. We wrote our own rendering pipeline, our own physics engine, our own level of detail engine, our own particle engine, and several other VR-specific things we built for our own purposes. We need to make sure our interaction with the VR world matches what’s in people’s heads. Just like Ready Player One, everyone imagines, “I can fly! I can drive a car!” All the interactions you would expect to happen in the world would happen for the players, versus an on-rails experience.
There are some technical limitations, but I think it’s only going to get better. Personally, I’m waiting for the day that RTX works in VR, so we can get those realtime reflections, people looking in a window and seeing themselves. That’s maybe a year out.
GamesBeat: I did wonder, on the vertical combat, how much did you want to let people play vertically? Hanging on to a building and shooting down, or flying and shooting. In games like Warzone, you can shoot while you’re skydiving, but only if you’re loose from the parachute, in free-fall. How did you think about that part?
Lee: Vertical combat is the foundation of our game, honestly, in the sense that — we call these “Pop One moments.” We’ve been playing our game every day for a long time now. We playtest every day to make sure the game works. But even then we’re constantly surprised by the creativity of players. People would climb up, build something, fly off, crash through a window, grab something, hang from the wall, and shoot. The fluidity of the movement is pretty incredible. When we opened up movement for people in VR, they’re reinventing combat in open spaces.
Brown: In our earliest prototypes, climbing was always an element in there. That was a foundational piece of Pop One. But it wasn’t until a year and a half ago that we thought, “We need one more thing. Let’s add flying.” We tried it out and we ended up having so much fun. We knew we had to keep it. It became one of those things where–the player’s ability to jump off a tall structure and leverage movement in a way that completes the fantasy of what you would expect someone to be able to do in VR.
GamesBeat: Are you able to shoot a two-handed weapon while you’re flying?
Brown: Yeah, yeah. You can do that in the air. You can do it one-handed while you’re flying, or you can go for a very fast drop and two-hand it while you’re dropping. It’s a risky move. You have to time it perfectly to open up your wings before you hit the ground too hard, but you can do it.
Lee: Some people carry grenades and fly in on people on the ground, dropping grenades from the sky. It’s pretty neat.
GamesBeat: When I was spectating, I did see one player climb to the top of a building and then wait for someone to go for the loot box that dropped. Once they made a move on the box, the first player dove down to kill them.
Brown: Basically, you’re a VR stunt actor.
GamesBeat: Did you want to make that part really hard, or really easy? Should the majority of players be able to do that?
Lee: The answer is actually both. The game is designed such that if you’re super hardcore, there’s a high skill cap. You can learn a lot and get really good at it. But if you’re a casual player and you want to just pick it up and play, we make sure that anyone can come in. It’s super accessible. That’s always been a core principle behind our company. We like things where people can come in and master it over time, but you don’t have to be good on day one. You can have fun with your friends and shoot things.
Brown: A lot of user testing–you played Portal, right? The tutorial is like, “Thinking in portals!” When we did our user testing, on their first time out most players are just focused on locomotion and gun mechanics, just getting around. Most of them stick to the ground. But once they understand that, it’s easy to learn and difficult to master. They start to pick up climbing. Once they get climbing they move on to flying. It opens up an entire Pandora’s box of all these things to apply in different combinations depending on the situation you run into. We see a lot of that.
Like I say, it reminds me of Portal. You learn how to problem-solve using just those two portals. We have climbing and flying and building and guns and teammates. You have all those axes of problem-solving to work with.
GamesBeat: For the sniper rifles, you have the circle, another circle, and then a dot that I have to line up. Is that something you have to do in VR? What makes that different from just having a scope in a flat-screen shooter?
Lee: There are two sniper rifles. I think you’re describing the Sako, where you have to hold it with two hands and look down the sights to line things up. That’s the first type of sniper rifle we have, and then with the other type, you can pick it up with two hands and get scoped in. It’s the more traditional style you’d expect.
Brown: That scope was designed because it’s something that’s only possible in VR. It’s a concentric ring holo-scope. The actual presentation is a really thin sliver, but when you look through it, it has depth. It’s something fun that you can only do in VR, where you can perceive that depth. It was a unique take on something like a red dot scope. Once you line up those concentric circles and you have the dot in the center, you’ve perfectly aligned your eye down the sights.
GamesBeat: The different inspirations here — you got the building from Fortnite, I suppose?
Lee: The thing we did here–at first we had a game where it was just a very open space. We were trying to figure out how to build cover right away. First we tried having shields coming up on your arm, but that felt awkward. Then we did trigger shields, but that didn’t work well either. The last thing we did — it wasn’t Fortnite or not Fortnite. It was a question of, how do you move across an open area and build up cover for yourself right away?
The premise of that cover is a little different compared to Fortnite, because in Fortnite the idea is, how do I build up something really tall and then spin around and use that to keep you from catching me? Whereas in our game, people build a lot less. It’s nuanced in a way, I suppose, but you’re building cover to help your squadmates cross something, or so you can protect yourself. When you were playing the game, did anyone build, or did you try building?
GamesBeat: My demo partner built a way for us to cross a field when some enemies were shooting at us, yeah. I just ran behind her as she built cover ahead of me.
Lee: She demo’d it perfectly, then. That’s a good use case.
GamesBeat: What are you looking at as far as how many maps to create? Some battle royale games don’t even change up their main maps, while others will have lots of maps that rotate.
Lee: We have one big map where we’ll rip out certain areas and evolve the map, both in a narrative sense and also around gameplay. Our friend John Cook, who works at Valve, my old co-worker who made Team Fortress and worked on CS: GO, he worked on Smashbox Arena with us. I forget what his precise name for it is, but he told us about what I’ll call the golden map theory. In Team Fortress and CS: GO, they made as many maps as they could, and everyone ended up just playing on one or two of them regardless. If you build one or two maps and evolve them all the time, that’s what people want.
This was before Fortnite, even, and then Fortnite came out and gave us another example. PUBG, on the other hand, started doing new maps. It was a good moment to see what happens in that kind of situation. Also, in VR we want concurrency. Driving everyone toward the one map, it’s a good move for business reasons.
GamesBeat: Apex Legends and Warzone have been doing a good job modifying their maps. They’re adding trains or adding spaces inside the stadiums. They have the underground subway now. There are different elements added to the single map that change up how it feels.
Lee: Totally, totally. For example, that big tower you see in the game, we’re talking about one day opening up the entrance so you can go inside the tower. There are ways we can let you explore that space.
GamesBeat: How many people are at the company now? How long have you been around?
Lee: We’re at 30 people now. Gabe and I started the company about four years ago, in 2016. We launched Smashbox, and then Smashbox Arena. After that, we raised a convertible round and a seed round. Population: One has been in the works for three and a half years.
GamesBeat: Was there a big reset on the design of the game at any point?
Brown: No, it was more about the visual fidelity, working around the limitations of using 10 times less power to render to the screen, and the limitations of the devices themselves. But also keeping the original vision of a large world with lots of players and the ability to run around anywhere in the world. Making sure that stayed there. I posted some videos I found of our playtests from about three years ago, and it’s shockingly similar to what you’ll see on the Quest today.
GamesBeat: When did you start focusing earnestly on the cross-play?
Brown: Day one. We started this with the intent of focusing on cross-play. As soon as the Oculus Rift 1 came out, we were on that. HTC Vive came out and we were on that. Windows MR as well.
Lee: The Quest 1, it’s basically a Samsung Galaxy smartphone on your face. We talk about the fidelity piece, but I want to drive home that it runs perfectly on that hardware, just like all these other devices. That’s the primary thing we were trying to accomplish.