With Arcade Saga, HTC’s Vive Studios delivers on the promise of room-scale gaming

Somehow playing VR games with an Xbox controller seems wrong. Even playing them sitting down isn’t ideal. The whole notion of virtual reality is to mimic reality. Finally this year the platform pieces have started to arrive — room-scale movement, reasonable-resolution headsets with a long tether, and versatile touch controllers. Now, HTC has put them all together in a compelling new title called Arcade Saga, the first from the company’s newly formed Vive Studios unit. I was able to spend quite a bit of time playing the three games that make up Arcade Saga here at VRX, and by the end I really wished I had a Vive (and a room to dedicate to it). If this is the beginning of the future for VR gaming, we’re in for a great ride.

Games purpose-built for touch controllers make a difference

It's probably a good thing you can't see yourself when playing a VR title. It always looks weird to be hacking and slashing in an empty room.Hardcore gamers can do just about anything with a simple handheld game controller. But it requires a lot of memorizing buttons, figuring out how to map joysticks to various actions, and trying to pretend that batting a ball is something you can do entirely with the tips of your fingers. In contrast, the touch controller interface for Arcade Saga is intuitive, and requires almost no instruction. I was able to be productive (and dare I say competitive) in each of the games in only a couple minutes. For me, the experience delivered on the promised potential of the Wii and the Kinect for natural-motion gaming, with the added dimension of VR.

Arcade Saga is like a Holodeck version of arcade video games

There are three games in Arcade Saga: Fracture, Smash, and Bowshot. Each focuses on a different physical metaphor and activity, but they all have certain “enemies” (called Bosses) in common, and have the same basic structure, so that once you can navigate through the options and levels of one, you can work through all three. All the games have plenty of flexibility in degree of difficulty, ranging from a near-tutorial mode where you can work off a little stress beating up on the Bosses, to advanced modes where you’ll work up a sweat in no time.

Fracture harkens back to arcade favorite BreakoutThe most straightforward to start with is Fracture, where you bat a ball into targets with your “plasma” bat. You need to “fetch” the ball (which you can do with a simple trigger pull in the easy modes, but have to work at in the more advanced modes), then swat it with the bat. Since you’re swinging with one hand, I found it most natural to use the same strokes I do for tennis. I got absorbed quickly, and in a few minutes was exploring the room space enough to be running into the virtual geofence at its edges — which was both subtle and effective at stopping me from hurting something.

Bowshot provides an amazingly realistic simulation of drawing and firing a bow — realistic except that you’re never embarrassed by screwing up when you release. Rather than just firing at the various objects that show up to be destroyed, you also need to move around to avoid the enemies shots that are aimed at you.

Smash is an air hockey like game worthy of The Matrix. It starts out simple enough, as you spin the puck (here a sphere) away from you and try to get it past your opponent (one of the Bosses). But as you advance through the levels, the pucks multiply, as do the projectiles you need to dodge. As with the other games, you are playing against one of the Bosses, each of which plays slightly differently. All the games feature at least 20 levels and three difficulty levels, and the same four Bosses as enemies.

Room-scale VR and touch deliver on the promise of motion-based gaming

Unlike with the Wii, for example, the motions needed to bat a ball, pull back a bow string, or slash at a target with a magical shield were all very much as you’d expect if you somehow had those things in front of you in real life. Of course, the instant visual feedback of being in a 3D scene with the objects really helps with this. It makes the training process much more natural than simply staring at an image of yourself on a monitor while you prance around the room gesturing wildly. I think if Microsoft had really stuck with the Kinect technology it could have gotten close, but of course it wouldn’t have had the VR dimension.

Game developer 2 Bears Studios wanted to move beyond the typical short-term experience found in many arcade-style games, so it provides a detailed back story for Arcade Saga that weaves through all three games. A combination of the thematic back story and the multitude of playing modes and levels, mean that the game is likely to deliver on its goal of providing many hours of enjoyable play. You can get a small sense of it from the game trailer:

HTC has bold plans for its new Studio in the Wild West of VR development

HTC used VRX and Arcade Saga to launch its new Vive Studios business unit. In an exclusive interview with  Joel Breton, VP of Content at HTC Vive and head of the new studio, he explained that its primary mission is to create great content that will help VR succeed. While the Studio is clearly focusing on Vive at the outset, they plan to take advantage of the flexibility of OpenVR and publish on other VR platforms as well. Making money is in the cards, also, but is clearly not the primary focus of Vive Studios. Earlier, Breton told the conference that VR development was a new frontier, explaining that the abundance of powerful tools and lack of entrenched competition make independent game development possible. He cited one of his favorite VR games, Onward. It was developed in less than a year by a single, inexperienced game developer. He contrasted that with flagship traditional games, which often require over 500 man-years of effort to complete.

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