Stranded on an alien world, the wreckage of his generation ship scattered across its surface, Robinson has a tricky challenge ahead of him just to stay alive. Crytek might have taken inspiration from Robinson Crusoe, but their version of the character faces entirely different dangers to the ones of being stranded on a Trinidadian island in the 17th century.
“So with VR, as this generation of hardware came along, […] we sat down and we had a brainstorming session.” Elijah Freeman, Senior Executive Producer, recalled. “No-one’s telling us what to do, we could do anything we want and dinosaurs popped into our heads.
“Crytek originally did a dinosaur demo, eons ago. It’s one of the first things that Crytek did, so it’s kind of part of our heritage, as well as it just being a cool thing to do.
“The rest of it happened a bit more organically. We started with dinosaurs and then we saw something about the Mars Rover and thought, ‘Oooh! Dinosaurs in space!’ The art director jumped in and… it happened pretty naturally. We wanted to make something that you could recognise in the plants and animals, but this is an alien planet and they have their own flavour. As you play through the game, you’ll see the dinosaurs have a different look than what we’ve seen from the typical dinosaurs. Robinson has its only unique fauna, if you will.”
Of course, the question on many a dinosaur aficionado’s lips will be whether or not Crytek’s dinosaurs have feathers, as is the current scientific thinking. Laika, a little T-Rex that becomes your pet, is all feather free, but Elijah considers for a second before replying, “Um… there are some feathers!”
Rok Erjavec, the game’s Technical Director, chipped in to say that, “On the other hand, this is an alien planet, so nobody says we have to!”
But there’s bigger problems for a VR game to consider, and especially one with free-roaming first person gameplay. This has notably seen people feeling nauseous after playing, such as with Resident Evil 7 at E3, but a number of clever tricks have emerged to help reduce this issue. Farpoint and Resi 7’s updated VR demo have both shown that first person VR can work very well, and Robinson has the same kind of 30º click when turning with the right analogue stick.
Elijah explained, “So there’s some really interesting things that we discovered with movement best practices. To answer your question, you can strafe a bit, and when you push a little bit further, it will turn. After you get used to it, you realise that 90% of everything you need to do, you can do just by using your head.
“However, once you turn, there’s a thought in the VR medium that anything that happens in less than a second, your brain doesn’t totally register. It’s a bit more disruptive than smooth turning, but smooth is bad.
“You can set it to move smooth, if you like, and if it doesn’t bother you then more power to you, but that was a conscious decision and we’re continuing to work on it. I don’t think we’ll ever be done with the movement scheme in VR.”
Rok added, “If we look at the last year of how VR has been changing across the industry, there’s an immense amount of progress happening. Not just in the things that we’ve been doing, but everybody. It’s moving so fast. In six months there may be movement schemes that are totally different!”
There’s plenty of other tricks that Crytek employ to help smooth the experience for the user. The low speed of walking, for example.
Elijah said, “Our speed makes a huge difference too, and there’s some things that people don’t even realise are happening, like when you look down in the E3 demo, you actually came to a halt. That was an interesting thing where a lot of people just accepted it and moved on, but that was specifically because if you run, your body is programmed to protect you, so if you take off running and put your head down, it’s a bad thing. The same thing happens here. ”
Of course, it’s meant that in comparison to the first rendered trailers for the game, the motion is a lot less dynamic and fluid that was first shown. “It’s not an action game at its core, it’s about exploration,” Rok said, “so you try to avoid the danger, rather than running away from it.” To that end, when danger does present itself, you’ll be trying to outsmart and avoid, instead of running away. Running isn’t what this game is set up to do.
To that end, HIGS is your guide and guardian, a floating AI orb that leads you through the world and helps you on your adventure. He’s pretty sassy, too, and really doesn’t like your pet dinosaur. He’s a big part of how Crytek are trying to avoid having lots of pop ups and instructions appearing in a floating UI, letting you remain immersed in the game.
Elijah said, “Some things we need to give instructions on, and that’s why HIGS is giving you a lot of the instructions. However, we found that people… don’t listen to HIGS.
“Some people pay extreme attention, but when we were at Gamescom, we realised that people were so [immersed], reaching out and touching walls [and ignoring HIGS]. So it’s a balance. How much do we make him come back and say, ‘Oh, by the way, you need to go over here…’
“Right now we feel pretty comfortable with where it is, and the fact that it’s an exploration game, it gives us a little bit of leeway to allow that to happen. We remind people a little bit, and it seems that when people have the opportunity to look around and get their bearings, then they start listening to the robot.”
This game, with its vast backdrops filled with the wreckage of Robinson’s generation ship, the lush jungle foliage and a variety of different wildlife, is a big technical showcase for PlayStation VR and the PS4.
“When people say Crytek, they usually go, ‘OK, we know it’s going to look good, but how’s it going to play?'” Elijah said. “So we spend spend a lot of our time always thinking about gameplay. However, it’s not trivial to make games look good.
“Whenever you have any kind of restrictions, like with consoles, we have to push a little bit more. That said, we’ve done two VR games now [The Climb and Robinson], and we kind of understand where we need to go in terms of optimisation and how to get the performance.
“Fortunately, Rok and I both spent some time at Sony hardware, so we kind of understand that. We’ve been very fortunate, and as you’ll see on this, it hits the quality bar for a Crytek game.”
Of course, we had to ask about the PlayStation 4 Pro at some point, but we asked literally a day before its announcement. Elijah joked, “Oh, oh! Let’s see… should we talk about the Neo?” Obviously not willing to go into any actual detail.
“We’re always interested in anything that’s going to [be more powerful]. For us, we like the challenges, in a way. The hardware doesn’t really make a difference to us, but that said, it’s always fun. Right now, we’re focussing specifically on the PS4, but we will support the Neo.”
The Neo will hopefully let them push the boundaries even further, but Robinson looks great on PS4. More importantly, it plays well, and as Tuffcub will tell you, just exploring this world and sating your curiosity can be a truly absorbing experience.