Sparc (ex-Project Arena) is somewhat of an oddity in the VR space. While some developers are focusing on recreating certain real-world sports like minigolf or tennis, Eve Online studio CCP has gone a different direction by creating an entirely new sport, one that you could call a true “VR native.” After popping into the game, which mostly retains the core gameplay we first saw at last year’s Eve Fanfest, I sat down with Morgan Godat, executive producer of the company’s VR Labs, to learn more about what makes Sparc spark.
If you haven’t followed Project Arena, the premise is this: you toss a projectile at your opponent down a long rectangular hallway. When your projectile is in your hand, you can use your shield to block your opponent’s projectile. The goal is to either catch your opponent without a shield or get by their singular defense by craftily bouncing yours off the walls, ceiling or floor. Matches are timed, but first to 5 points wins.
According to Godat, while the core gameplay is mostly unchanged, the team has overhauled “pretty much everything” when it comes to the development side of things. “[Project Arena] was a lot of prototype work, shoe string and bubblegum,” he tells me.
The new GDC demo I took part was indeed visually and physically changed somewhat from what I personally played at last year’s Gamescom in Cologne, now featuring ball projectiles, rendered as physical, tangible objects and no longer an abstract light disc that issued headlines comparing the game to Tron. A small difference, maybe, but you could argue that it’s a little more natural to catch and also a little less daunting to get hit by (which is how you score a point on your opponent). Both the playing court and avatars too have changed to reflect a brighter, slicker aesthetic, something that all together makes it feel a little less like Ricochet (2000) and a little more like the sort of game you would play on the holodeck of a star ship. Now that Sparc is definitely coming to market with its slicker, cooler aesthetic, we have to ask ourselves: is Sparc going to be the next eSport?
“My belief very firmly on this is that an eSport is made by the fans,” Gadot tells me. “Saying that something is an eSport before its released is the equivalent of someone saying “we’re going to make a video and it’s going to go viral.” That’s a cool story, bro, but come on.”
There is hope there somewhere though. After all, CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson when showing the game on stage at Fanfest 2016 said the company was “kind of hoping this becomes an eSport,” although “it’s kind of a VR-sport.” And that’s the wordage CCP is running with now in their recently released trailer. No talk of eSports or the potential fanfare of adoring crowds and competitive leagues like the PSVR exclusive RIGS: Mechanized Combat League (2016), only focus on the idea that the game pushes all the same competitive buttons among the well-known 1v1 real sports out there like boxing, tennis, fencing etc.
“For us right now, and it’s a wildly daunting task in the first place, is to just make a sport,” maintains Godat.
Sparc will feature two different modes, one that allows you to catch and block oncoming balls with your hands, and a harder (more sporty) mode that forces you to physically dodge your opponent’s projectile. And yes. Spectators are allowed.
“To be fair, we do have some benefits. If I were trying to create a real sport in real life, you’re competing with thousands of years of evolution of real sports and how you interact with a ball in real-world physics, but at least here I have a realm where I can create otherworldly things, like no gravity of this game, the way the projectile behaves, the concept of having a ball that when I catch it, a giant shield materializes on my arm. How the hell are you going to do that in real life? So we have access to other things that other people don’t have access in real life. But still, you tell people that you’re making a sport, and they think you’re making a ‘sports game’. Not really. I’m making a sport.”