Developer Sanzaru Games aims to deliver a next-level 30-hour VR epic with Asgard’s Wrath
We recently had the chance to interview Sanzaru Games Creative Director Mat Kraemer and Technical Director Evan Arnold to learn how the studio is developing the game’s satisfying swordplay. They also talk about how they’re delivering one of VR’s best-looking games while keeping performance steady. In addition, the duo elaborates on the benefits of using Unreal Engine 4, provide their thoughts on the future of VR, and more. Thanks for your time! With a fantastical Norse premise coupled with a focus on melee combat, what games influenced Asgard's Wrath?
Creative Director Mat Kraemer: Asgard's Wrath is a concept that Sanzaru has always wanted to create and build. It brings together influences from some of our favorite games and genre’s. Asgard's Wrath has a combat style influenced by God of War, the puzzles of Zelda, and the exploration and crafting loops from games like the Witcher. All of these influences are taken to the next level in VR utilizing the technology of the Oculus Rift platform.
Asgard's Wrath was originally going to be a game where you controlled a massive-sized god, but human-scale gameplay was later added to the experience. Can you elaborate on why it was important to incorporate both aspects of gameplay?
Kraemer: As with all game development, the game and its direction evolved over time. In the original concept, players only played as the god, but would place down pawns that would be AI-controlled. The team discovered it was so much fun switching back and forth between human and god that it became a full feature pillar and drove the game’s future direction.
How did Sanzaru Games leverage VR to play with the sense of scale to differentiate the look and feel of the game when you're controlling a larger-than-life god?
Technical Director Evan Arnold: In the original design of the game, you played as the god exclusively, manipulating the environment to assist the mortal in accomplishing goals (puzzles, castle defense battles, etc.). Around this same time in development, we were experimenting with scale in Marvel Powers United VR. We knew from some very rough experiments that our brains were quick to accept scale. We just didn’t know if it was compelling and fun. Once we got Rocket Raccoon and The Hulk running around next to each other, we immediately saw some joyful reactions between people experiencing that scale.
From this starting point, one of our engineers on [Asgard’s] Wrath took this sense of scale to the extreme. Transforming the player into mortal and god-scale experiences creates an environment where players can feel small among giants or tower over mortal minions to help the hero with their adventure. It was immediately fun to see the world from two very different perspectives. It required a fair amount of engineering work and optimization to be able to view the world in this way, but the game is much better for it.
Kraemer: What Evan describes is that exciting moment in game development when you have stumbled across something really special. When you see recurring feedback on something you experimented with, and players enjoy it, you know you are onto something good. This was the case for the god and mortal perspective switching. The team is really happy how this all came together.
Coupling VR controls with physics, people are saying Asgard's Wrath features arguably the best VR melee combat to date. How did you set about achieving this?
Arnold: We’ve been experimenting with user interaction with the environment from our earliest prototypes on VR Sports Challenge. We’ve found time and time again that as we slide along the scale between simulation and canned experience, we generate very different VR experiences for the end user. In Asgard’s Wrath, we have tried the spectrum of experiences for our melee combat from entirely canned responses to entirely simulated physical responses.
I believe we landed on the perfect balance between what physics would dictate should occur and what the player “meant” to occur. Total physics simulation is fine for a time, but we wanted our combat to be fast-paced, responsive, and always working towards realizing the player’s intent.
Since people are claiming it’s the best VR melee to date, all of us here feel validated about our many decisions along the way.
Kraemer: It took lots of iteration and a great team to pull it together. As with all our VR experiences, we are always trying to push new features that have been unproven in the VR space. We have done this with our locomotion, full body IK, and throwing/catching. For Wrath, we wanted to nail combat, and I think our team is doing an excellent job at proving melee combat in VR can be a fun and rewarding experience.
Asgard's Wrath features numerous weapons that include bows, swords, and throwable axes. How did you go about designing weapons in the game while ensuring they would feel fun and satisfying to use in VR?
Arnold: Creating fun experiences with a variety of weapons has indeed been a challenge. Most notably, players are typically not quite as good as they think they are when it comes to throwing or timing.
In Asgard’s Wrath, we have scalable assist in place so players can select the amount of help they require in order to have a fun, yet challenging experience. The types of weapons, and the tuning required to get powerful and fun VR experiences, is something that Sanzaru has been working toward for years. We now have a full bag of tools and tricks in order to create a compelling “feel” to the experience using these weapons.
Kraemer: Working on Marvel Powers United VR really helped pave the way for our weapon variety. We had already done bows with Hawkeye and had a great foundation for melee and projectile combat. I am excited for players to see the unique weapons we have in Wrath, many of which have not been shown yet.
Does Asgard's Wrath take into account how hard players swing their swords?
Arnold: Absolutely! We have taken examples from a variety of different sword play ideas and tried to integrate them into the game. There are some attacks where it’s sufficient to just intercept the incoming attack (put my sword between me and the bad guy), and there are other attacks that require the player to actively swing a counter direction. Without the latter, we found there are many exploitative behaviors that result in a mushy, non-threatening engagement with enemies.
With good lighting, high-quality textures, and impressive character models, Asgard's Wrath features amazing visuals. How did you achieve the look of the game?
Kraemer: A group of talented artists and lots of iteration. Sanzaru has an extremely talented art crew that has experience with the platform’s needs and boundaries. Our game director, Bill Spence, has a really good eye for detail and where to best drive the art team’s efforts.
Considering VR's steep requirements, how are you keeping performance in check?
Arnold: Here at Sanzaru, we have a world class art team and an incredible next-generation engine. We also have ambitious worlds, complex interactivity, puzzles, UI, and physics. The short answer is… Profile, profile, and profile.
It cannot be said enough to have strict asset guidelines in place, and then hold the team accountable for abiding by them. Using an engine like UE4 has made keeping tabs on this enormous world much easier than it would have been with other engines. We make full use of all profiling infrastructure and automation tooling to check our work as we go. We fix issues as they arise and, as much as feasible, try to maintain performance stability.
Kraemer: Evan [Arnold] is a performance guru and stays on the team when we go over budget. Many times we want to add more VFX, polys, and complexity, but Evan keeps us in check. It’s a balance back and forth where we spend our budget for performance requirements.
Having worked on several VR games like Marvel Powers United VR, Ripcoil, and VR Sports Challenge, what have you learned about developing for the medium that you're bringing into Asgard's Wrath?
Arnold: Never take anything off the table. This is a totally new medium and we are finding more and more that things need to be tried before they are tabled. Traditional flat screen ideas sometimes really don’t work in VR. Sometimes something that you feel would be perfect for VR becomes laborious and players get tired (as cool as Minority Report is, most of us don’t have Tom Cruise’s muscles). This has been, in my opinion, the best part about working in VR. It’s uncharted, and the team here at Sanzaru is helping lead the way into standardizing what it means to build games for VR.
Kraemer: I agree with Evan [regarding] the comment, “never take anything off the table.” There have been many times people have said to us, “don’t do that in VR,” but we push back and do our best to make it work. It’s such a new medium with lots of space for growth and exploration. It’s exciting to be on the front of the technology creating things that will drive the VR space for years to come.
As a game that Oculus is using to showcase the Oculus Rift S, were there any special considerations developing for the new VR headset?
Arnold: Oculus has done a fantastic job with the updated Oculus Rift S hardware. The inside-out tracking is stable and robust. We have not had any issues moving our content from Rift to Rift S. Plug in and enjoy the higher resolution.
Does the studio have any favorite UE4 tools or features?
Arnold: Too many to pick. We utilize almost every tool in the tool box in our regular daily development.
Kraemer: Sanzaru really enjoys using UE4, and it’s smoothed out many pipeline issues. Wrath will be our fifth game shipping on UE4. Sonic Boom: Fire and Ice was our final game developed using our in-house APE engine.
How helpful has it been having access to UE4's source code?
Arnold: Extremely helpful. We regularly delve deeply into the codebase to track issues and apply bug fixes from future releases. Having the code base allows us to have a more thorough understanding of the decisions we need to make and the technologies backing those decisions.
With Sanzaru Games being a pioneer in the VR space, what do you think about the medium and where it's headed?
Arnold: As soon as we tried early prototype versions of what is now Rift, we were convinced that VR is the future. VR remains very exciting, and Oculus is doing a fantastic job growing the ecosystem. As cost comes down and more players try VR, the ecosystem continues to grow. There’s no doubt that VR is an incredible gaming experience.
Kraemer: Since the time we started our work in VR, the medium has evolved immensely. We now have full-body locomotion and games are getting bigger with more complexity. It’s nice to see larger adventure games coming to the platform and not just smaller experiences. With games like Asgard’s Wrath, it’s a massive adventure game with lots of content. I hope that this trend continues and players get more full-game experience on the platform.
Thanks for your time. Where can players learn more about the game?
Kraemer: Check out more info on the official website or our join the discussion on our Sanzaru on Discord channel.