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November 30
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

VR PARTY GAMES: BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER IN A NEW OLD-FASHIONED WAY

By CHRIS McGOWAN

VR party games are a relatively new subgenre of VR games that are bringing people together in an old-fashioned way – with gatherings in the same place in the real world. While multiplayer VR games and social VR platforms bring groups together, it is usually in a virtual world where users tend to be home alone with their virtual reality headsets. VR party games like Loco Dojo, Late for Work, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes and Acron: Attack of the Squirrels! take a different approach.

“VR party games are generally played together in one room,” says Yacine Salmi, Managing Director of Munich-based Salmi Games. “One person under the headset, the others on gamepads at a PC/console or on their phones. They are generally meant to be enjoyed together in a setting and to encourage taking turns under the VR headset.” One of the studio’s titles is Late for Work, in which a rampaging giant gorilla (the player in the headset) is pitted against up to four human opponents (on PCs).

“A VR party game has a focus on fun and hilarity first, competition second,” comments Sam Watts, Immersive Partnerships Director of Make Real, which publishes Loco Dojo and is based in Brighton, U.K.  The multiplayer title features 16 humorous mini-games to play to gain the favor of the “Grand Sensei.” It seeks to bring multiple VR headset users together in one room. “Loco Dojo was meant to be played together, [with] all having a great time virtually but also physically present with one another, which is why it’s been a great success in location-based entertainment VR arcades.”

Watts explains, “VR party games are quick to play, across multiple devices if available, with the emphasis on throughput and making sure as many people as possible at the party can play.” At the very least, there’s a great reason to be in the audience if you are not playing. In contrast, “straight-up multiplayer games are more about competition and typically last longer per session.”

“The biggest distinction between VR party games and other VR multiplayer games is that you will likely have only one VR headset available in a party scenario. That means the game must be designed to involve multiple local players using just one headset,” comments Taraneh Dohmer, Game Studio Operations and Communications Lead for Ottawa-based Steel Crate Games, which publishes Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. In the game, players – one with a VR headset and the others with no electronic devices at all – must work together to defuse a bomb.

Resolution Games created Acron: Attack of the Squirrels! with the Unity game engine. (Image courtesy of Resolution Games)

Acron: Attack of the Squirrels! is a VR party game that enables one player to be on a VR device and up to eight others on mobile devices at the same time. Acron was created by Resolution Games, which focuses on VR and AR titles and is based in Stockholm, Sweden. Leo Toivio, the producer for Acron and a game developer at Resolution, comments, “Prior to Acron: Attack of the Squirrels!, no other multiplayer party game had combined VR and mobile gaming at this scale. But we had bigger ambitions for the platform and wanted to make a fun and engaging experience for everybody.

Acron brings VR and mobile players together to compete or cooperate in high-stakes thievery,” adds Toivio. “One player in VR takes the role of the tree that is the sole protector of the golden acorns and needs to use hand controls to grab and hurl wood chunks, boulders and sticky sap to keep the squirrels at bay. The other team consists of one to eight frenemies who use their mobile devices to cooperate as rebel squirrels, each with their unique abilities and tools, as they try to steal the tree’s golden acorns.”

Resolution Games was co-founded in 2015 by CEO Tommy Palm, who previously was the Games Guru and spokesperson at King Digital Entertainment, which created Candy Crush Saga. Most of Resolution’s games are built with Unity. One of Resolution’s top titles is Angry Birds VR: Isle of Pigs, a virtual reality version of the popular game.

With Acron: Attack of the Squirrels!, he explains, “the intent is to bring people together with the VR experience as the focal point but allowing everyone around to also experience the content and fun in one way or another.

“A lot of our work has been focused on driving mass adoption of VR and eventually AR devices,” he adds. “By creating titles that can reach a larger audience and letting those players have a touch point with VR in a way where they can see VR as the ultimate experience, we are hoping to create a bridge for adoption for some who may not otherwise get exposed to VR.”

Acron: Attack of the Squirrels! is a VR party game that is meant to be played by one player on a VR device and up to eight others on non-VR mobile devices. (Image courtesy of Resolution Games)

Resolution Games, founded in 2015 by gaming veteran Tommy Palm, hopes to introduce a wider audience to Acron: Attack of the Squirrels! by allowing friends to play on their cell phones while one player handles the VR headset. (Image courtesy of Resolution Games)

This mobile device screenshot captures the squirrels doing their best to steal golden acorns from the tree (the VR headset user). Players with mobile devices (the squirrels) must work together to succeed, which makes for more engagement. (Image courtesy of  Resolution Games)

The player with the VR headset takes the role of the tree in Acron and battles with the squirrels. The game’s developer, Resolution Games, based in Stockholm, Sweden, is working to integrate mixed reality tools in its games so more people can be involved in social VR experiences. (Image courtesy of Resolution Games)

“A lot of our work has been focused on driving mass adoption of VR and eventually AR devices. By creating titles that can reach a larger audience and letting those players have a touch point with VR in a way where they can see VR as the ultimate experience, we are hoping to create a bridge for adoption for some who may not otherwise get exposed to VR.”

—Leo Toivio, Producer/Game Developer, Resolution Games

The player uses giant crab claws to fill a boat with fish. Loco Dojo and Loco Dojo Unleashed (here) were modeled in 3DStudio Max and built in Unity for Oculus Rift and Quest, Valve Index, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR. (Image courtesy of Make Real)

Flinging cats at a giant dog tongue can bring victory if you avoid the bombs. A player can play Loco Dojo online with up to three other players on multiple “PC VR” platforms, or it can be accessed by players all using standalone Oculus Quest headsets. (Image courtesy of Make Real)

Sausage nunchaku is necessary to protect piglets from bats. Loco Dojo Unleashed is essentially the same as Loco Dojo but with quicker multiplayer play. (Image courtesy of Make Real)

The Grand Sensei character, voiced by Brian Blessed, oversees challenges, and the meta game table acts as the board game to launch each of Lojo Dojo Unleashed’s many mini-games. (Image courtesy of Make Real)

Meanwhile, Loco Dojo can be experienced with up to four players using multiple tethered “PC VR” headsets, including HTC Vive, Valve Index, Sony VR and Oculus Rift. Loco Dojo Unleashed (launched in October) is “essentially the same game, with a couple extra game modes, but for Oculus Quest standalone VR devices,” according to Watts.

Watts thinks that a VR party game should be colorful and attractive to all players without worrying too much about taste or fine detail. “You’re going for the widest common denominator here rather than a specific target gamer type or genre.”  There’s a higher chance of the party session being someone’s first time in VR. So, the game has to be simple to pick up and play so the new player isn’t frustrated or made to look silly in front of his/her peers. It also needs to be non-violent. “Nothing kills a party quicker than a MDK or serious gun sim. People are there for a good time, not blood and guts and zombies.”And, lastly, it must be simple to set up. “No one wants to hang around whilst the host fannies about setting up the hardware or the game,” says Watts. Loco Dojo, like most of Make Real’s VR content, was made with Unity and modeled with 3DStudio Max.

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is a VR party game that connects a VR player in a headset with other players outside virtual reality who have access to all-important manuals but no devices. (Image courtesy of Steel Crate Games)

In Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, one player (with the VR headset) is trapped in a room with a ticking bomb. To defuse it, he needs the help of the other players, who are in the physical room with him but have no devices whatsoever. “The most unique element of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is that the focus is on communication between the player in the VR headset and the players outside of VR who are using the manual. Each has imperfect information. So, players must use verbal communication to express visual information,” says Dohmer.

Steel Crate Games created the first game prototype of Keep Talking in January of 2014. Dohmer recalls, “We saw that all of the existing VR experiences for the Oculus DK1 only involved the player inside of VR. Our game was designed to solve this problem by creating an experience that would involve the other people in the room – I guess this would have been one of the first VR party games in this sense.” She adds that the team created the game with Unity, “which was the most fully supported game engine for the Oculus DK1 and DK2 when we started the project. This allowed us to spend less time working out the challenges of getting early VR working and focus on creating an interesting and compelling game design.”

Inside virtual reality, you are alone with a bomb and you must defuse it with the help of others who are nearby but not in VR. The goal is to include everyone in the room in the game. (Image courtesy of Steel Crate Games)

There is quite a bit of information on bomb sequences. The game was made with Unity, which Steel Crate Games’s Taraneh Dohmer considers the most fully-supported game engine for the Oculus Development Kits DK1 and DK2. The manual was generated with custom tooling made with Python, PHP and Chromium. (Image courtesy of Steel Crate Games)

Transparent bomb: This bomb has different modules and each must be disarmed with the help of an “expert” (another player or players) to defuse the bomb. (Image courtesy of Steel Crate Games)

In another combination of VR and non-VR gaming mixing together, one player dons a VR headset and up to four others use their PCs to play Late for Work. The game can handle up to six renders of the scene each frame. (Image courtesy of Salmi Games)

A giant gorilla (in VR) wreaks havoc as four little humans battle him (with PCs). Salmi Games used Unity and Blender for the 3D art and “a bit of” Photoshop for the art work. (Image courtesy of Salmi Games)

Even fighter planes have trouble with the gorilla. Salmi Games used both the Steam VR and OculusVR SDKs to support a variety of headsets. (Image courtesy of Salmi Games)

“VR party games are generally played together in one room. One person under the headset, the others on gamepads at a PC/console or on their phones. They are generally meant to be enjoyed together in a setting and to encourage taking turns under the VR headset.”

—Yacine Salmi, Managing Director, Salmi Games

For Late for Work, Salmi Games focused on a “pick-up-and-play experience with as short of a tutorial as possible, a comfortable and intuitive movement system to make it accessible to both new VR players and those sensitive to motion sickness, and a variety of game modes to cater to a wide audience.” Up to five can play the game at once – one with the VR headset and four on a PC.

Salmi explains, “We also made extensive investments in the stability and performance of the game. You have to handle up to six renders of the scene each frame – two images in the headset and up to four players split-screen on PC. You also have to handle varying amounts of controllers to connect and disconnect. We ran into many issues throughout development. It’s a lot of work to get this relatively stable.” Salmi Games used the Unity engine and both the SteamVR and OculusVR SDKs to support a variety of headsets.

Make Real’s Watts sees the potential for improvement in many areas of VR party games. “For every successful reduction in extra effort in getting VR set up – like standalone devices and inside-out tracking removing the need for PCs, cables and external sensors – new barriers appear, like the ability to easily cast what’s happening in the headset so the audience can see. Currently with mixed reality support and iPads or GoPros, etc. you can run a composited setup that shows the player within the virtual world, bringing more agency and clarity to the audience of what is happening.”

VR party games are benefiting from the steady growth of the VR platform, partly due to its increasing affordability. Watts notes, “Devices are getting cheaper so we’re seeing more likelihood of there being more than one within a household.” In addition, “with cloud streaming becoming a thing for flat-screen gaming, hopefully soon we will have latency for VR cracked to allow libraries of content to be available instantly without everyone having to check whether they own a particular title, have it installed, etc.”

While VR party games are best played with everyone in the same room, they are adaptable when that’s not possible. Toivio notes that “during the pandemic Acron became an “incredible connector for friends and families from afar.”

Looking at what will further boost VR party games, Toivio remarks, “While there’s always room for technological advancements, I think the onus is actually now on the developers to create compelling, rich content that will keep players coming back and putting on their headsets. Other than that, we are actively working on integrating elements like spectator mode, mixed reality tools and more to our experiences so more people can be involved in social VR experiences.”

Other popular VR party games include DimnHouse’s Takelings House Party, Ruffian Games’ RADtv (Ruffian Games is now Rockstar Dundee, after being purchased by Rockstar Games in 2020), Pixel Canvas’s scary game Reiko’s Fragments and Sony Interactive Entertainment’s The Playroom VR.


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