Virtual Reality RPGs: How Operencia’s Classic Grid-Based Formula Became the Foundation for Innovation
Published: September 24, 2020
Our team grew up dragging manuals and character sheets and dice bags from house to house. When we couldn’t meet to game, we filled the downtime with CRPGs, crawling through dungeons in games like Bard’s Tale, Eye of the Beholder, and the Ultima series. Adventure was always on our minds, and we wanted to sink as deep into these fantasy worlds as we could, whether that meant rolling dice at a table with friends or sitting at a computer with a tablet of graph paper to map a dungeon in Wizardry.
As we matured into careers in game development, those quests and adventures we shared as children were still very much a part of our lives. We dreamed of building games like the ones we loved as kids, but we also wanted to capture that magic we felt. Though the graphics were only as good as our imaginations, these worlds felt incredibly immersive. Even if we were just sitting around a table or in front of a rudimentary set of pixels, we had little doubt that we were on the streets of Skara Brae or battling a lifelike lich.
The stakes for immersion are much higher today, however. Here’s why:
- Advances in graphics and technology have raised player expectations for visuals. The original corridors of a game like Wizardry just don’t cut it now that we have seen modern graphics.
- Player expectations for story and lore have gone up. Frankly, writing and narrative have evolved a great deal, and the pure volume of fantasy content means that players can be more particular of story and demand more interesting settings.
- Tastes in RPG mechanics have evolved as well. For some players, engaging with a game with the right blend of familiar and novel mechanics for their set of tastes is part of feeling immersed. If you love grid-based RPGs, stepping into a game that uses that format can be part of what makes the rest of the world feel familiar and accessible.
When we initially developed Operencia: The Stolen Sun in 2018, we approached the design process with this kind of thinking. We wanted to make a game that appealed directly to a very specific RPG audience, and we wanted the presentation of that world’s visuals and story to meet the high bar set by modern RPGs. I’ve written about some of these ideas before, such as how we approach narrative level design and how we wove local Hungarian myths into the world, but we have not talked about the true extent that technology can impact immersion.
We believe that the immersive potential of virtual reality represents a new frontier for RPGs but in many ways is also a return to some of the original ideas that drove CRPG innovation in the 1980s and beyond.
For example, the first-person dungeon crawler format is a clear attempt to put the player in the shoes of a hero, seeing what the hero sees as you explore an underground labyrinth. That seems trivial to say today, but the birth of first-person perspective in games was a pivotal moment because of how it felt. Virtual reality is the natural next step for true first-person experiences, but the format is still not perfect.
Hardware and interface limitations in virtual reality mean that many current virtual reality games make calculated concessions as part of the game design process. The nature of virtual reality development–often complex and expensive–makes many of these games relatively short and sometimes limited graphically. And though it seems counterintuitive to say, true first-person freedom, in the way we have come to expect it from first-person shooters or open-world RPGs like Skyrim, is also difficult to manage due to the mechanics of virtual reality headsets and how in-game movement has to address the practicalities of a real-world playing space.
We considered these challenges as a team when we brainstormed what a virtual reality RPG experience might play like, and we kept coming back to the roots of the RPG genre: the grid-based combat of tabletop RPGs and their CRPG expressions. This genre of games has always been clever about building sprawling worlds to explore while managing key limitations, and we saw that potential again when we looked at how to bring a full-featured RPG into virtual reality.
By blending the technology of VR with the classic mechanics of a grid-based RPG, we could insert players into a world, give them the freedom to feel like they can explore and experience every corner of their environment, and provide intuitive, familiar game mechanics.
It has taken our team a few more years to get it there, but Operencia has finally made its VR debut. You can get the free update on Steam, Epic, and PlayStation. Oculus support is coming soon!
Grab your headset and play today.