Image courtesy of Thirdverse, Co., Ltd.

Thirdverse puts your finger on the trigger in its immersive VR hero shooter X8

Mike Williams
Founded in 2020, Thirdverse, Co., Ltd is a virtual reality and Web3 game development, distribution, and management company paving the path to the metaverse with two studios in Japan and the United States. In 2019, the studio released the world’s first VR multiplayer sword-fighting action game, SWORDS of GARGANTUA. In August 2022, the studio launched its next-generation sword-fighting VR title ALTAIR BREAKER for Meta Quest 2 and PCVR. In September, Thirdverse announced a new multiplayer VR tactical hero shooter title called X8 developed by its US Studio. They also announced that the latter titles are joining the lineup for PlayStation®VR2. Currently, Thirdverse plans to strengthen the recruitment of VR game creators for the development of new titles, scheduled for release in 2023 and beyond.
The ultimate vision of Thirdverse, Co., Ltd. is building a new path into the metaverse. The Japanese studio’s previous releases were a pair of VR sword-fighting action games, SWORDS of GARGANTUA and ALTAIR BREAKER. Now the US side of the company is leveraging that experience to produce its own VR title, X8. The multiplayer VR hero shooter is currently in development for release on the Meta Quest 2, Steam VR, and the recently-released PlayStation®VR2.

X8 takes place in an alternate far future, where the sentient X8 Engine brings to life a colorful cast of heroes hailing from past FPS franchises, in order to see who is truly a worthy opponent. Players can step into the shoes of these heroes, utilizing their fantastic abilities and powerful weapons to triumph. We interviewed Thirdverse to understand what inspired the development of X8, how the team approached designing a hero shooter in VR, and how Unreal Engine helped to bring it all together.

What is X8 about?

Thirdverse Vice President of US Studios Dax Berg:
X8 is an immersive and action-packed, team-based, 5v5 tactical hero shooter that offers a Seek and Destroy-style game mode at launch, with additional modes to follow. The game is designed with an arsenal of weapons, hand-gestured abilities, and a vast array of skills, combos, and intel gathering tactics. You can employ various strategic maneuvers: locking down corridors or entire rooms with turrets; creating an array of smoke spheres with varying effects; and utilizing powerful hero items to ensure the successful planting or defusing of the "Syphon," which is our unique take on the classic bomb scenario.

X8's advanced abilities also allow for tactical intelligence gathering to track the movements of opponents and best position yourself for optimal offensive and defensive strategies. With its exciting gameplay and plethora of features, X8 offers an engaging and thrilling experience for players looking to test their tactical skills.

What inspired the team to create X8?

We love the hero shooter genre—Overwatch 2, VALORANT, and Apex Legends—and we wanted to bring players an experience that would be similar in nature to those games, but designed around our own strategic VR twist. We wanted players to feel that they’re invoking abilities rather than just pushing a button, actually throwing objects at people, physically aiming knives and weapons, and swinging swords or knives to takedown opponents.

Your previous virtual reality games were SWORDS of GARGANTUA and ALTAIR BREAKER, which are both focused around sword fighting. Why did it make sense to make X8 a hero-based shooter?

Thirdverse Co-Founder and X8 Executive Producer Masaru "Nogi" Ohnogi:
SWORDS of GARGANTUA and ALTAIR BREAKER, both developed by our esteemed Japan Studio, have earned their places as popular titles in the gaming world. However, X8 is a different kind of beast. Developed by our US Studio, our core team members come with extensive experience in crafting successful shooter games. In addition, to pay homage to our previous games, we've included exciting melee combat in X8!

That said, we felt that venturing into the realm of hero shooters would allow us to create a more competitive and engaging PvP experience. Although the development process presented many challenges, we're proud of the results and thrilled to share it with the growing community we're building.

Did you have any goals coming into the project?

For X8 to become the most popular VR multiplayer shooter in the world! Ultimately, we would like the game to be fully esports-ready, and also accessible enough for the casual player to enjoy. We’re aiming to find that “golden balance” between easy-to-learn and hard-to-master.
Image courtesy of Thirdverse, Co., Ltd.
How do you feel virtual reality enhances the feeling of combat compared to traditional first-person and third-person shooters?

In VR, aiming and moving can be more challenging than it is in traditional first-person and third-person shooters. However, the immersive experience of casting abilities, lining up a perfect headshot, or swinging a blade in VR is truly satisfying. The act of firing a weapon, controlling its recoil, quickly reloading, and simultaneously casting an ability while throwing a knife at an opponent is simply exhilarating. The sensations are so much more visceral and authentic, allowing players to feel truly immersed in the action. So, while VR games may present certain challenges, the rewards of feeling truly present in the game world make it well worth the effort.

X8 features a cast of heroes with unique abilities. Can you talk about how you might have designed their skills to take advantage of VR?

Abilities are all based on what our engineers called the “Arc Throwing System,” where you can aim and rotate abilities depending on how you would like to place them. We have one ability that you can curve a flash projectile after throwing it with a flick of the wrist. We also have a shield that properly blocks and deflects bullets depending on how you hold it. There are 18 different skills and six unique hero items available at launch. Many of these abilities lean into using them in a VR space.

In the game's story, all of the heroes come from different FPS franchises. Can you talk about how you landed on a cohesive art style while making the heroes feel like they're actually from different games?

The narrative of X8 is rooted in the history of a popular game engine that emerged at the end of the last century, around the same time as Unreal Engine. The “X8 Engine” gained a following among developers, but unlike Unreal Engine, it eventually fell into disuse. Decades later, the X8 Engine has evolved into a sentient entity that longs for companionship.

It summons characters from the games that were created using it to compete against each other, forcing them to extract data from the engine in order to return to their respective worlds and get their games back online. To pay homage to popular first-person and third-person shooters of the past, we infused our hero creation process with elements inspired by a range of game genres.

In terms of art style, we prioritized cohesion, and decided against using disparate styles. We crafted a backstory that explained how each character's look became homogenized after being brought back to the source engine. This element of the narrative helped to ensure that the characters would fit seamlessly into the X8 world.

To make each character feel like they belong to different games, we initially explored several development phases for each one, drawing inspiration from a variety of genre titles. Next, we crafted premises and backstories that could serve as individual games with standalone appeal, which we plan to explore further in the future. Overall, we believe that our approach to character design and backstory will provide a unique and immersive experience for players.
Image courtesy of Thirdverse, Co., Ltd.
Do you think there are ways in which VR alters traditional shooter level design?

Certainly, as the player feels they’re in the game world, narrower corridors don’t feel as claustrophobic as they would in traditional games. Longer range shots are more difficult to pull off, so we tried to keep combat at a manageable range. Free-falling can cause motion sickness, so we kept that to a minimum. That said, as players get used to verticality, we may implement more of this in the future.

Can you explain why the team settled on five-person teams for X8?

As we went with the traditional two objectives on a given map, we felt that anything less would make it too quick for rounds to end; it would be harder to defend and there would be less strategy involved when deciding which to attack and how to split teams. Also, with the number of heroes and combinations of abilities we have, it would make it less interesting to have less players and abilities on the map. We felt that five players is the sweet spot in terms of things happening on scene, round length, strategy; all while not overloading gameplay.

How does the team approach balance, given the heroes' abilities, a wide variety of weapons, and the players' option to create unique loadouts?

Apart from playing the game internally with several developers that are high-ranking players in other shooters, we’ve also played with professional esports VR players to judge and give us feedback on how the game plays, what they would like to see, and how abilities feel. We’ve gone through great lengths to analyze feedback shared with us by the community in our closed beta, hired game balancing industry veterans as consultants on weapons, and iterated several times as we added features and completed maps.

Are there any specific heroes or abilities you'd like to highlight?

Sarai, the brilliant biotech inventor, is a favorite, as she is able to heal and support her teammates. Her ultimate ability is a deployable [area-of-effect] that takes a hand slot, and can be passed between teammates. This increases everyone’s damage resistance within the area of effect. Between her defensive ultimate, her defensive pylons, and her healing Hero Item, she’s an incredible support powerhouse that makes it incredibly difficult for enemy defenders and attackers to get by without a scratch.
Image courtesy of Thirdverse, Co., Ltd.
Your first game mode planned for the upcoming beta is the Extrapolator mode, where attackers place a device while defenders try to disrupt deployment. Why did you decide on this mode as the foundation for your competitive multiplayer?

Demolition game modes are a popular form of gameplay, as seen in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and VALORANT for good reason. It encompasses heavy strategy, economy management, and high replayability. No two rounds are exactly the same. Throw in hero abilities and the versatility of VR gameplay and we get an action-packed, adrenaline-fueled mix.

Considering Thirdverse, Co., Ltd. specializes in making VR games, were there things the team learned from developing VR games like ALTAIR BREAKER and SWORDS of GARGANTUA that you’re building off of for X8?

Our teams have a vast wealth of experience in developing VR games, and we've been able to leverage this knowledge for X8. Our Japan and US studios work together to build upon our past experiences in VR game development. Through this cooperation, we've found that it's easier to implement multiplayer systems, and we've learned that player experience and retention are critical factors for success. We've also learned that providing players with more choices and options leads to a better overall experience, and we've incorporated this philosophy into the design of X8.

Considering SWORDS of GARGANTUA and ALTAIR BREAKER both offered cross-play, will X8 offer cross-play as well?

Yes, we are planning cross-play initially for platforms with Meta Quest, PC VR, and PlayStation®VR2, and others are in the works.

The studio has stated that its motto is, “First to try, first to fail, first to recover.” Can you elaborate more about this company philosophy?

As a startup company who is challenged in emerging technologies and the market, we strongly believe that fast experience is the key to win. Speed is the only way for startups to gain traction against giant companies. Thirdverse is not afraid of experimenting, and we’re always trying to find “the next best thing,” regardless of what may happen. This is the essence of making videogames to us, it’s not only about making a game that will guarantee success, instead we’re looking to make something truly fun; success to us is simply a by-product.
Image courtesy of Thirdverse, Co., Ltd.
Considering Thirdverse, Co., Ltd. is arguably the largest VR-focused game developer in Japan, what draws the studio to VR?

Our company's vision is to create a fully realized virtual society within VR, much like the world depicted in the popular film, Ready Player One. To achieve this ambitious goal, we've developed a comprehensive technical architecture that serves as the foundation for all of our VR projects. Each of our games incorporates key elements of this architecture, bringing us one step closer to realizing our ultimate vision of a thriving virtual society that players can truly immerse themselves in.

How would you describe the current state of VR development in Japan?

Currently, VR development in Japan is still largely dominated by startups that are dedicated to working on VR projects. But, we believe that the VR market will experience significant growth in Japan once larger companies begin creating VR games using their existing IPs. When that happens, the expertise and knowledge of VR tech that startups have gained will be invaluable to these larger companies, ultimately leading to more innovation and growth in the VR industry.

Why did Unreal Engine make sense for X8?

Many of our developers have been working with Unreal Engine pre-3.17—before the days of Fortnite—so we’ve grown with the engine as it has grown. We leaned heavily into Unreal Engine’s Gameplay Ability System, as it helps tremendously with how many hero abilities and items are available for players.

Were there any Unreal Engine tools that were particularly helpful in developing X8?

Although it’s not a tool per se, the source code of the engine itself is the most useful part! 

That being said, there are many things like the built-in optimization tools, such as Merge Mesh functions, CVars for dialing in quality settings, and a host of knobs and dials for tuning each platform. Unreal Insights helped us quickly find bottlenecks in game. We also use the Reference Viewer to help narrow down dependencies and memory consumption and shader view modes (Vulkan, Desktop Shader Model 5) for various platforms. On top of all of this, Blueprints is a powerful tool for our designers, sound engineers, UI, and art.

Sessions helped us with setting up online multiplayer environments for testing and as we mentioned the Gameplay Ability System is what we based our entire game on. Niagara for our VFX was very useful, and PlayFab plugins for our multiplayer and stats systems.

Thank you for your time! Where can people learn more about X8?

You can find out more about X8 at the official Twitter account, official Discord server, and official website.

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