CCP Games, best known for the MMO Eve Online and the space-dogfighting sim Eve: Valkyrie, doesn’t refer to their newly-announced VR title as a “videogame.” They call it a “v-sport,” or simply a “sport,” and they’re right to do so.
How can I be sure of this? Because I played it at this year’s Game Developers Conference… and I sucked at it.
In concept, Sparc is simple enough. Two stationary players stand in a walled-in, rectangular, virtual court and hurl balls at each other, scoring points when they succeed in striking their opponent. In the game mode the studio is showing off to journalists (titled “brawl mode”) each player gets a ball to launch at the other person. You can easily hold onto and catch your own ball, but the opposing ball can only be deflected with your knuckle guards or shield, the latter of which is only active when you’re holding your ball.
In short: manage throwing and deflecting the two balls at your opponent without getting hit yourself. Score against them enough times and you win. Brand Manager Cameron Payne explained this to me as I strapped on the Vive headset and took hold of the controls, foolishly rushing through the tutorial and starting a match with a waiting developer. In my hubris, I was absolutely crushed in the first two games.
It was only after I’d finished my four-game session that Payne and Sparc’s executive producer Morgan Godat both separately described the game to me as “easy to pick up, but difficult to master,” and I couldn’t help but laugh both times. That was the perfect description. I hadn’t expected my opponent to put spin on the balls or bounce them off the walls the way he did. I was so focused on catching and deflecting that initially the concept of any actual strategy was beyond my comprehension. Afterwards, all I could think about were the first times I’d played tennis or racquetball. This what it feels like to learn a new sport. From the outside it seems so simple and accessible, but when the ball is in your hand for the first time, the possibilities can feel overwhelming. Luckily, by the next two matches, I started to get the hang of it.
Godat says while he’d love to make it sound like the simplicity and accessibility of Sparc’s design were purposeful, he concedes that so much of developing for VR is uncharted territory. He admits that CCP’s Atlanta studio is “still learning how to make stuff in VR.”
We didn’t sit down and write a design document ‘X’ years ago that said ‘we’re going to make a sport in VR’, that’s nuts. Someone tells me that in 2014, I’d be like ‘you’re fucking crazy, leave me alone.’ As we worked on it, it just evolved, we took the best ideas from each of the experiences we built… then last year at Eve Fanfest, when we showed Project Arena, it had just clicked together.
Here’s that initial reveal video of what was then code named Project Arena, and what eventually became Sparc:
Though CCP has dialed back the apparent Tron vibe considerably since last year, you can see that the fundamentals of the game have changed little. Modat says that the six-by-six-foot area allowed for players to stand in is meant to approximate the feeling of free movement that traditional sports allow, while keeping combatants locked in enough “so they’re not off punching their wall or their cat.”
I wish he’d told me that before I’d smacked an observing Payne with my controller mid-match, though I was assured that was only due to him leaning over my six-by-six square carpet to check out the monitor.
Again, by those second two rounds (and after a constant flow of helpful advice from Payne) the game began to click a little better. I’d learned that it was wiser to overwhelm your opponent with diverging, simultaneously thrown and deflected attacks instead of safely launching each ball one by one. I became more confident in relying on my knuckle guards for swift counterattacks. I even won my last match, though I’m pretty sure some points were kindly handed to me by my veteran opponent. Finally, when Modat said the real version of the game (in it’s “pro mode”) incorporates dodging as its third main gameplay pillar, my victory felt a tad more hollow.
Before you ask, no, this won’t be a Call of Duty-like multiplayer experience where XP will earn you stronger equipment. What makes Sparc a sport is that it’s only progression system is designed to be the player’s actual progression of their own skill. This isn’t even like a friendly golf game where you can buy better clubs than your opponent. CCP takes advantage of this sport’s digital nature by ensuring every player’s equipment is always “regulation.” You’ll likely only be seeing cosmetic unlocks here.
While it would be premature to declare this v-sport a clearly viable e-sport contender, Sparc has undoubtedly earned the “sport” part by virtue of its design philosophy alone. And most importantly, like any other “real” sport, there’s only one thing that can earn someone as uncoordinated as myself more victories here: good, old fashioned practice.
Peter Amato is an intern for Paste Magazine. He’s on Twitter @Peter_Amato.