Every year the Global Game Jam (GGJ) assembles game developers worldwide—this year spanning 488 locations across 72 countries—and presents them with a theme, something to base their work on for the next 48 hours of feverish game development. This year’s theme, ‘What do we do now?’ admittedly gave participants a pretty loose framework to build upon, but seemed to fit perfectly with the open-ended nature of virtual reality. One VR tech demo caught our eye in particular, HoloCommander, which brings real-time strategy (RTS) to the virtual tabletop.
As it goes, hackathons are a perfect place to experiment, offering a space to showcase developer talent, and explore new ideas that might not otherwise come to life. But game-oriented hackathons like GGJ, which allow for madcap development of flat screen games as well as games for VR, give those willing to work with VR headsets a special advantage.
VR-centered teams seem to have the unique opportunity to rejig traditional game mechanics in a way that feels familiar, yet at the same time entirely new to the player. We’re talking about HoloCommander, a real-time strategy tech demo designed by Paris based software company, MiddleVR, founded by our pal Sébastien Kuntz. “Believe it or not, everything including 3D models, textures, sounds and music were created in 48h!” Kuntz says.
HoloCommander is a multiplayer demo that acts like an augmented reality game in a completely virtual space, and like the familiar surroundings in Couch Knights, offers a ‘middle of the road’ style of gameplay between AR and VR. The developers, who also make a VR plugin for Unity, say the game is theoretically capable of working on nearly every current AR or VR device; Oculus Rift DK2, Playstation Morpheus, Samsung Gear VR (depending on rendering optimizations), and maybe on both CastAR and Microsoft HoloLens. But how exactly can a single game be both AR and VR at the same time?
It all boils down to HoloCommander‘s virtual miniature wargaming tabletop, which facilitates the transition between entirely immersive virtual spaces like the ‘tiny racer’ game, BlazeRush, and AR scenarios like HoloLens’ Minecraft. The only outstanding difference here would be the backdrop, a dingy bunker with exposed ventilation ducts in VR, or your own graphically augmented real life dining room.
With a perspective above the tabletop, players can select units before them using the Razer Hydra and command them around the battlefield which is represented fully in 3D with mountainous terrain and clouds in which one could hide air units. As a multiplayer game, shown here supporting two players, the head of each player is revealed to one another, effectively allowing both players to see where the other is looking, but not what units they’re selecting or what actions they’re taking—opening the door for another layer of strategic trickery.
As a proof of concept, HoloCommander does its job at opening up future possibilities, but if we’re thinking of the larger picture of cross AR/VR gaming, there’s the same old elephant in the room that needs to be addressed; input in VR is still splintered across a number of devices, making it difficult for developers to choose which to support. For now, solutions like MiddleVR’s Unity plugin aim to support a multitude of input devices with a single middleware implementation.
When asked about where Oculus stood on input devices for VR at Oculus Connect last September, founder Palmer Luckey remarked that “input is really important for virtual reality, and our approach is that anything that’s important, we need to be working on.” Without any indication of if or when Oculus will release its own input solution, many are still sitting on their hands until a leading input device emerges.
Unfortunately a download of HoloCommander isn’t currently available, but Sébastien Kuntz of MiddleVR maintains that depending on time and interest, that they might eventually release a playable demo. We hope it’s sometime soon, because a tabletop version of StarCraft in VR could be the CrossFire moment we were always promised.