Earlier this week we
shared details of how we set about bringing The Climb's vibrant Asia setting to life – from early inspiration to the challenges of implementation. Today, you can take a closer look at the setting with a brand new fly-through video.
The fly-through footage takes you on a tour of our bay and reveals the environment we've created and some of the rocks you'll be scaling when you play The Climb for yourself. Of course, the setting takes on a whole new dimension when experienced in VR, but we hope you'll agree the view is already pretty easy on the eye.
From temples up on the rocks to junk boats in the bay below, our Asian-themed environment takes inspiration from elements from East and South East Asia to create a sense of imagined-postcard-perfection surrounding you on all sides. Whether you'll have the courage to soak it all in as you scale the cliff faces towering above the water is a whole other matter!
For now, sit back, relax, and allow us to transport you to a tranquil paradise where you'll discover that life on the edge has some serious upsides.
When we first thought about here a VR climbing game should take place, it seemed obvious to take inspiration from some of the most stunning natural locations on earth. After all, for many people, this could be their first contact with a VR experience, and we'd like it to be as impressive and beautiful as possible. Photorealism would not be enough; it would have to be “desktop wallpaper realism." So rather than replicate real life places exactly, we decided to take the approach that people who make desktop wallpapers or postcards adopt: take the best possible perspective and light, bring together iconic elements from the area and retouch it all to perfection.
When it came to creating our Asia setting, we were particularly inspired by Halong Bay in Vietnam. Halong Bay is a World Heritage site featuring beautiful islands, arresting rock formations, and stunning waters. It's a major tourist destination, and its limestone pillars have drawn climbers from across the world, including free solo rock climbers who go to explore unchartered territory and enjoy spectacular ascents in this area of outstanding natural beauty. For us it was a starting point where we could bring in other Asian influences and features, to create a larger than life holiday feeling.
To truly get the “postcard" feel we wanted to achieve, we also took inspiration from another genre of games, which had done something similar in the 90s: arcade racing games. A lot of people on the team have fond memories of old-school racers like Daytona, Ridge Racer and Screamer. Those games really popped with color and had striking environments with the bluest of blue skies. And for some reason there was always a random helicopter flying around, so obviously we needed one too.
Another thing we did to create “our imagined perfection" was to increase the scale of everything. We made rock formations even larger so that we could provide different routes and challenges that created a real rock climbing playground. On the one hand, that opened up more gameplay possibilities. But from an artistic perspective, it played into our desire to give players awesome views with incredible draw distances that work fantastically in VR when you're looking around from the rock face.
The recurring theme was to ask “is it as awesome as you could possibly imagine?" If not, make it larger or find something else that fits. We took liberties and cherry picked from regions all across South East and East Asia. We looked to some of the beautiful beaches, bays and mountains from Thailand, like Krabi and “James Bond Island" for instance, and to China, Japan and other areas of Vietnam too. It wasn't just geographical features – we also brought in things like temples, junk boats and elements from holiday resorts that you find across the region, which all give the level a feel of human activity. There was no requirement to be rigid – if it looked good and we could take inspiration from it, we did.
We worked hard on the near cliff surfaces that the player climbs on. Naturally we brought in the kind of vegetation you'd expect to see from the region. We also wanted to have a feeling that the places you are climbing through are humming with life so as you climb, you'll come across birds and animals too. After all, you're climbing around in their home, and VR lends itself just as well to large scale vistas as to the smallest objects right in front of you.
To further fill the world with life, we tried introducing spectators. We'd have crowds of people cheering you on, giving you real-time feedback on some of the moves you were performing, and even used our random helicopter as a film crew chopper, which would pursue you as you'd climb. But unlike in a racing game, where you expect bystanders to cheer for you, the slower nature of climbing and the strong presence of VR made some players feel really uncomfortable, like they were asked to perform in front of a real audience. The feeling was just too intrusive; it added another level of stress on top of our free climbing gameplay, so we decided the player would not receive this kind of attention. But it was an interesting lesson about the power of VR immersion. Still, we kept that helicopter. Helicopters are awesome.
In the next blog post, we'll take a look at some of the surprising challenges and solutions we came up with as we sought to visually immerse players in our Asian environment.
One of the questions we're asked the most about The Climb is why you only see and use hands to climb. It's easy to understand when you play, as it feels intuitively right and the visual experience is different in the VR environment. In fact, because of the detail in which the hands are rendered and animated, and the way your eyes are drawn to where you want to go, you don't really think of the arms as 'floating' but more as a natural extension of the physical actions you perform. However, when you look at 2D media and you've not had the experience of playing the game, it can look unusual and not really what you'd expect. So let's look at how we came to our 'hands only' mechanic.
When we began production on The Climb, rendering a full body for player actions was something we instinctively looked at. But as with many aspects of developing for VR – a brand new medium – many of the usual approaches that you'd take in traditional game development don't work in the way that you'd expect, or even apply at all.
VR is primarily such an exciting field because of the incredible immersion it gives the player. When your brain sees a character's displayed arm in the game when you climb, it needs to be as it expects, or presence is broken. That's because scale in VR is immediate – the inevitable difference between a single character's arms as rendered in the game world and the player's own arms in reality causes problems. The deviance between the digital and the physical radically affects immersion.
For instance, the head tracking technology in a VR headset can accurately map where your head is, so when you look around, it feels like 'you' are looking around. It's that accuracy that makes it work – the visual inputs you receive are exactly what your brain expects. For a comfortable climbing experience, arms would need to be precisely rendered to the size of each individual's arm size. Why? It's because if you're facing the wall, then you see 'your' arm reach out for the next grip but it is longer than your own, at best it looks and feels unusual, breaking immersion, because the movements and sizing deviate from what your brain anticipates. At worst, it can induce discomfort and motion sickness. It's not consistent with what the brain expects. When we render hands only instead, the movements you perform become much more natural, and physical discomfort is eliminated.
There are vital gameplay reasons why we render hands only too. If, in theory, you could replicate everyone's arm length realistically in the game, via scanning from extra hardware or perhaps more clumsily by providing sliders for players to enter their own measurements, it unbalances the game. You could solve the discomfort and immersion factor, but people with a longer reach might have an advantage over people with a shorter arm span in certain circumstances, or even the opposite depending on the route in front of them, and that causes a problem for the competitive elements of the game. After all, The Climb is a sports game and needs to be a level playing field.
Not having arms also helps with gameplay in different ways. For instance, rendering arms – and indeed, a full body – obstructs your view. When climbing downwards, it's particularly intrusive. You can't see routes as clearly – or indeed, take in the view – as more of the visual real estate is taken up with arms and the body. It makes playing harder and less visually satisfying than it should be.
By eliminating the body and arms, you also do not have legs and feet. In real life climbing, legwork and foot placement is important but with legs – and indeed the entire body – rendered into the game you encounter the scale problem again. Your own body and leg dimensions may deviate from what's displayed, causing discomfort. But adding in feet also adds another layer of complexity, requiring another layer of inputs to control them that goes against the sense of immersion and flow that we want players to feel. So far, we've found that less is more when it comes to button inputs when climbing in VR – and we want complexity in the gameplay, not complexity in playing the game. We want you thinking about your routes and getting into a flow, rather than slowing gameplay down as you double the number of appendages you have to control to perform each movement.
Out of all the variations we prototyped and tested, just having hands in the game was the most satisfying, the most immersive and the most instinctive. It eliminates issues of motion sickness, makes exploring rock faces and the environment easier, keeps your immersion consistent and allows us to present more balanced gameplay. The hands might look a little strange in 2D, but in VR, they quickly feel natural to the point where you don't really think about them as being disconnected. Instead, you just think about what you're doing and where you're going.
As soon as we first prototyped climbing in VR, we knew we had a special experience on our hands. Even in an early, very basic development stage, climbing in VR just had that 'wow' factor. It didn't matter that the mechanic and environment was in an embryonic form - word spread about the prototype and everyone in the studio wanted to try it out. It was fun, right off the bat. Of course, climbing has been an engaging part of many games for years, usually as an enjoyable gameplay mechanic within a much wider experience. However, with the presence delivered by VR, it became clear that climbing had far more potential to take center stage.
Simply put, VR absorbs you into an experience in a way that traditional gaming platforms can't. The actions you perform are far more immediate, and the sensations you feel are more real in VR. It was just a perfect fit for realizing climbing as a fully-fledged sports game with distinct depth, immersion, and challenge, thanks to the unique power of VR.
Free solo rock climbing is, of course, one of the most extreme, exciting and dangerous sports on the planet. In many ways it is the ultimate expression of climbing - man versus Mother Nature, climbing without the safety net of a rope. The world's greatest free solo climbers can ascend huge rock faces unaided, conquering their fears and risking it all. Understandably, few people (and it has to be said, none of the climbers on the team!) would attempt this form of extreme climbing in real life. However, In The Climb you'll climb, negotiate different kinds of ledges and terrain, and work out routes on the fly, all with a real sense of being high up on a rock face, but without the risk. That's not to say you won't feel fear and tension, though…
In the Climb, we go further to let you do things that even the greatest free solo climbers wouldn't attempt in the real world and give you the kind of challenges that are deliberately far more fun than realistic. However, at the core of The Climb, we can give players some of the feelings of real life climbing, such as a fear of falling, the adrenaline rush of jumping, the satisfaction that comes from working out your route and, of course, the sense of accomplishment when you've completed an ascent.
Some of the real world actions you perform when you climb are perfectly brought to life by the head tracking technology featured in the VR headset, making them feel really natural and maintaining your absorption into the game world. For instance, as in real life, when you're on the rock in the game, you instinctively look around for your next grip as you work how you're going to negotiate your path up. It's very simple, but those head movements where you can peer around a corner, look up to analyze what is ahead or simply take in the scenery is intuitive in VR. Combined with the fact that the way climbers move – one grip at a time – naturally addresses many of the issues surrounding motion sickness, playing The Climb is very accessible. Gameplay becomes in many ways instinctive - anyone can quickly get a real sensation of what it's like to climb.
Climbing through nature is a perfect way to experience VR too. With the camera in control of the player, rather than the game designer, the detailed environments that we're able to create are so much more immersive. Intricately detailed rock faces and lush vegetation appear much more real under close inspection in VR, while the beautiful vistas players see as they rise up our rock faces become increasingly dramatic. Climbing is just a great way to move through these environments, allowing players to take in the (many) views of their choosing.
We're finding that when players, including people who have experience of climbing in real life, try The Climb for the first time, they're just blown away by a sense of realism. The feeling of being so close to the wall, the intimidating curvature of the cliff – you really get that sense of presence in the game when you put the VR headset on. And it's that presence that drives the tension, the adrenaline and ultimately the sense of accomplishment that lies at the heart of our vision for extreme free solo rock climbing.
Thanks for stopping by The Climb: Base Camp! This is our shiny new blog for our shiny new VR game, The Climb. It’s really exciting for us to finally reveal what we’ve been busy working on in super-secret at Crytek and over the coming weeks and months ahead we’ll be sharing information, screenshots, videos, and updates right from the studio, right here.
The Climb is being created in partnership with Oculus, and uses the immersive and unique ‘presence’ of VR to give a sensation of free solo rock climbing. Free solo rock climbing is one of the most intense activities in the world, and climbing rock faces without the safety net of a rope is something most people would never dare to do in real life. With VR and The Climb, anyone can get a taste of the thrill of this style of rock climbing from the comfort of their own home.
Because you really feel you’re ‘there’ in The Climb, VR opens up a new way of experiencing this exhilarating sport. You’ll scale huge heights, pick your route as you ascend, explore different rock faces, and take in some incredible views, all made more immediate and ‘real’ because of the power of VR. Our goal is not only for players of all abilities to be able to intuitively enjoy the feeling of rock climbing, but also to provide real depth and challenge for experienced gamers too.
As a team, we are excited to use CRYENGINE to create a fully-fledged, fully-featured game that exists on the cutting edge of this brand new medium, VR. It’s also a great challenge – creating a great VR experience requires a different approach to how we develop the game, and how we think about gameplay. Our team really is breaking new ground. We’ve tried things that haven’t worked, found new solutions, and we’ve been thrilled to realize possibilities that couldn’t have been achieved creating this style of game in any other medium.
There’s plenty more to come. We’ll be talking in depth about various locations in the game, features, the challenges and opportunities of developing in VR, and more good stuff as we go along. We hope you’ll enjoy coming with us on this journey and, of course, you can also stay in touch with The Climb by liking us on Facebook, following us on Twitter, subscribing to our YouTube channel, and following us on Instagram.