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January 28
2021

ISSUE

Winter 2021

BEAT SABER, HALF-LIFE: ALYX and STAR WARS Bolster Virtual Reality

By CHRIS McGOWAN

 A player wearing virtual reality gear slashes the music beats with light sabers in the VR game Beat Saber, created by a small team of Czech video game developers. (Image copyright © 2018 Beat Games, Oculus Studios and Facebook)

Virtual reality had its ups and downs in 2020. The pandemic boosted VR home usage, but disrupted headset supply chains in Q2. In addition, theme parks and other location-based entertainment centers shut down, closing many VR attractions for part of the year.

SuperData (a Nielsen company) projects total worldwide VR hardware and software revenue for 2020 of $3.2 billion, a slight drop from $3.3 billion the previous year, with that figure rising to $3.9 billion in 2021 and $6.2 billion in 2023. Among the bright notes: big tech firms continue to invest heavily in VR, hardware keeps improving, and breakthrough titles like Beat Saber, Half-Life: Alyx and Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series, along with a wide variety of new experiences, are luring new users.

BEAT SABER
Beat Saber has been something of a killer app for more than two years now and continues to inspire people to purchase their first virtual reality headsets. It is an addictive VR “rhythm game” in which the player slashes the cube-like “beats” of various pop songs with a pair of light sabers – kind of like Guitar Hero meets Star Wars. It was initially developed by Czech programmers Ján Ilavský and Vladimír Hrinčár, who had been building games together since high school and had published Chameleon Run, a mobile game that won an Apple Design Award in 2016.

The Azumel bartender Seezelslak will bend your ear with wild stories when you visit his cantina. Concept art for Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge. (Image copyright © 2020 Lucasfilm and ILMxLAB)

Fortress Vader on the planet Mustafar. From Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series. (Image copyright © 2019 Lucasfilm and ILMxLAB)

After that, they decided to build a game for VR and posted a demo of Beat Saber on Facebook, which was seen by composer Jaroslav Beck, who was living in Los Angeles. When he discovered that Ilavský and Hrinčár were also Czech, he flew to Prague to see them and convinced them to let him create the soundtrack for the new game. He also pushed them to finish it. Together, they formed Beat Games.

They released an “early access” version of Beat Saber in May 2018, with an official “full release” coming a year later (Beat Games was purchased by Facebook through Oculus Studios in November 2019). Beat Saber comes with 10 songs and can be expanded with downloadable content (DLC) packs containing multiple songs. In addition to Beck, artists include Imagine Dragons, Panic! at the Disco, Green Day, Linkin Park and Timbaland. Beat Saber won many video game awards and in 2019 became the first VR-only
game on Steam’s Top Sellers list (in the bronze category). To date,it has sold some two million copies, along with 10 million songs as DLC, according to Beat Games, and its gamer videos have tallied over two billion total views on YouTube.

HALF-LIFE: ALYX
Half-Life: Alyx is another current VR killer app and is a virtual-reality, first-person shooter developed and published by Valve Software. It required a four-year production involving 80 people and launched March 23, 2020. It achieved nearly universal acclaim. SuperData claims the title sold 680,000 copies its first month of release (including pre-orders), generating approximately $40 million in revenue, and Half-Life: Alyx led to a leap of nearly one million users on Steam in April, according to the distribution service. In the VR game, Earth has been colonized by an alien empire called the Combine. Game players control the actions of Alyx Vance, who is in the resistance in the crumbling urban dystopia of City 17 and on a mission to seize the Combine’s superweapon. You interact with the environment and fight enemies, using “gravity gloves” to manipulate objects. The game includes puzzles, combat and survival horror aspects.

Seezelslak is not just a bartender and owner of a cantina – he will also give you missions to complete. Concept art for Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge. (Image copyright © 2020 Lucasfilm and ILMxLAB)

The power-hungry pirate Tara Rashin leads a cell of the fearsome Guavian Death Gang. Concept art for Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge. (Image copyright © 2020 Lucasfilm and ILMxLAB)

The alien Combine governs the Earth from atop this Citadel in City 17, which you climb in the high-production VR game HalfLife: Alyx. (Image copyright © 2020 Valve Software)

Half-Life: Alyx represents the first time an AAA [major publisher] has really put their full weight behind a VR title. It’s not a port, it’s built from the ground up for VR and [for] what makes VR different. It’s beautiful and polished in the ways that consumers care about, and it’s lengthy. This is a signal to other AAAs that the time is now, that the consumer appetite for VR is real, that the technology works and isn’t a gimmick, that it is something groundbreaking.”
—Denny Unger, CEO and Creative Director, Cloudhead Games

Cloudhead Games CEO and Creative Director Denny Unger comments, “Half-Life: Alyx represents the first time an AAA [major publisher] has really put their full weight behind a VR title. It’s not a port, it’s built from the ground up for VR and [for] what makes VR different. It’s beautiful and polished in the ways that consumers care about, and it’s lengthy. This is a signal to other AAAs that the time is now, that the consumer appetite for VR is real, that the technology works and isn’t a gimmick, that it is something groundbreaking. While many AAAs have passed on VR, we’re reaching a critical point that will be impossible to ignore.” Unger’s Cloudhead Games has published the popular Pistol Whip VR game and The Gallery titles.

“As a developer, [I thought that] Half-Life: Alyx was extremely exciting, as it’s the largest VR production I’ve experienced, and truly exemplified a level of production value in VR that we’ve only been dreaming of. My hope is that developers working in the VR space use it as a benchmark of what VR experiences should be,” comments Keith Guerrette, Founder and Studio Director of Beyond-FX, a VFX design studio that focuses on immersive, interactive visual effects for real-time entertainment.

STAR WARS IN VR
Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series brought the film franchise to the format with an impressive high-end production. The three-episode, short-form narrative VR game was created by ILMxLAB. With cinema-quality visuals from ILM, it was launched in May 2019 for Oculus, winning many awards, and then released in August 2020 for PlayStation.

In Vader Immortal, you step inside your own Star Wars story as a smuggler operating near Mustafar, the fiery world that is home to Darth Vader. When you are unexpectedly pulled out of hyperspace, you find yourself uncovering an ancient mystery at the behest of Vader himself. The series includes a lightsaber dojo mode, where you can spend hours honing your skills.

Vader Immortal filled a new storytelling niche in VR that people responded well to. We spent a lot of time working on the balance between the interactive parts and the more passive, story moments. In the end, it flows well between the two,” says Mark Miller, ILMxLAB Executive Creative Producer and Executive Producer on the project. “Graphics quality – meaning character look and animation, lighting and environments – was also a place where we looked to separate ourselves, both on the Rift and Quest versions, and our team did an amazing job of doing just that.”

He continues, “Our success will continue to expand the market and make space for projects that incorporate great interactive game mechanics and compelling narrative. The PlayStation VR platform has allowed us to reach a broad new audience of Star Wars fans who’ve been eager for us to come to that platform,” says Miller.

Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge is another original VR experience from ILMxLAB, developed in collaboration with Oculus Studios and scheduled to launch soon. It involves adventures, stories and characters connected to the Black Spire Outpost, associated with the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge land in Disneyland and Disney World. “I look for a continued rise in adoption rates and hopefully a spike in interest brought by Vader Immortal and Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge,” adds Miller.

The Stars Wars VR titles, along with Walt Disney Animation Studios’ virtual reality short Myth: A Frozen Tale, which explores a world inspired by the feature film Frozen 2, are venturing into new territory: virtual reality experiences that immerse viewers in settings and stories associated with popular films and – in the case of Galaxy’s Edge – theme parks.

THE MANY VARIETIES OF VR EXPERIENCES
There may not be enough killer game/entertainment apps currently available in VR to make it mainstream, but the format is expanding steadily into a variety of uses. Social VR platforms like VRChat, Bigscreen VR and AltspaceVR (owned by Microsoft) are creating unique experiences that could attract millions of users who want to take video conferencing into a new dimension, engage in diverse activities in VR or just hang out with others in virtual reality. It also seems likely to be heavily used in education,
creativity, medicine, research, training, travel, real estate and other businesses. It could turn out that VR goes mainstream in both predictable and as yet unimagined ways.

VR 2021
Strong demand for existing popular headsets should push the format briskly forward this year, as may interest in new headsets like the HP Reverb G2 (scheduled for 2020) and PlayStation VR 2 (release TBA). Apple appears to be working on its own AR/VR headset, possibly launching this year. And the advent of 5G, the next generation of wireless technology, is expected to provide lower latency and more stable connections that will greatly improve the performance of wireless VR headsets. Amazon’s Prime Video VR app, available for Oculus Quest and Samsung Gear, should also significantly expand the audience for virtual reality. Initially, Prime Video VR will migrate the company’s existing content into VR headsets, as well as launch original 360-degree videos.

Tuong Nguyen, Senior Principal Analyst for Gartner, Inc., a research consulting firm, sees three “Cs” as necessary before VR  goes mainstream: “Content – more breadth and depth of content. Convenience – accessible, affordable, multipurpose devices to experience VR. Control – improvement in the interface and experience. Things like 6DOF for VR experiences. Best practice/combinations of UI for interaction in VR.”

There was still more promise than performance with VR in 2020. Yet despite a sluggish year for the industry as a whole, Beat Saber, Half-Life: Alyx, Vader Immortal, social VR and apps in diverse fields are showing us that virtual reality may soon have its day in a bigger spotlight – indeed in many bigger spotlights.

Half-Life: Alyx is a VR first-person shooter in which you guide the actions of the heroine Alyx as she fights the alien Combine that has taken over Earth. (Image copyright © 2020 Valve Software)

In Half-Life: Alyx, you must battle relentless alien Combine soldiers wearing hazmat suits and riot gear. (Image copyright © 2020 Valve Software)

Cross swords – or light sabers in this case – with the legendary Darth Vader in the VR experience Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series. (Image copyright © 2019 Lucasfilm and ILMxLAB)

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