Evolving VR: FoxNext VR Studio and the making of Crisis on the Planet of the Apes

Evolving VR: FoxNext VR Studio and the making of Crisis on the Planet of the Apes

Written by Eric Hauter on 4/3/2018 for PC   PS4   VR  
More On: Crisis on the Planet of the Apes

Spoiler Warning: Minor story spoilers for Crisis on the Planet of the Apes VR are included in this article.

VR as an entertainment medium is still in its infancy. With the major VR platforms now in their second year, there may be a feeling among enthusiasts that trends are emerging, but opinions vary wildly from player to player when it comes to VR “standards”. Certain VR fans have started to latch onto particular control schemes, for example, while other players might find alternate methods more comfortable. While developers continue to pick their way through this minefield of critical player opinions, no single set of standards has bubbled up to the top. Various UI configurations are tried and either embraced or rejected. Methods of locomotion are experimented with. Some games are designed for sitting, some are designed for standing. The variations are endless.

This wild-west of game development can be both exhilarating and confounding for players and developers alike. Neither side of the developer/player equation can predict what will work until it is tried. Which is why it is so exciting the FoxNext VR Studios, the company behind Crisis on the Planet of the Apes, has thrown aside what little existing convention there is, and tried something completely new with their game.

In developing Crisis, FoxNext has created something wholly original in the VR space. Through a combination of visuals, sound design, and kinetic motion controls, the studio has developed an experience designed to place the player inside the body of one of the popular science fiction franchise’s intelligent apes. Having been recently captured by military forces to be the subject of experiments by the CDC, being inside this particular ape is not an especially pleasant place to be.

“For us, the ability to put you in the shoes of the ape and to feel the persecution from the soldiers was a major creative goal,” says Brenden Handler, SVP & General Manager of FoxNext VR Studio, speaking about the cinematic opening of the game. Players find themselves arriving at a military prison facility, being processed into captivity by a group of distinctly unfriendly soldiers. “It’s about a ten to twelve-minute opening before you escape out of the cage and we had some debates about how intense we could make it. We really wanted to try to lean into that, with the player being in that situation.”

To help players feel as though they are part of the Apes universe, the team at FoxNext focused on three development pillars; stunning (though appropriately apocalyptic) visuals, immersive sound design, and motion controls that simulate the movement and behavior of an ape. It is this concept of kinetic motion that makes Crisis stand out from other VR experiences. Players move forward through the game by swinging their arms, effectively “walking” like an ape. When in cover, players physically grab the wall they are hiding behind and pull themselves up with one arm, while wielding large weapons with the other arm. And, perhaps the most impactful mechanic is the climbing, which allows players to scale certain walls and obstacles, hang from ceiling fixtures, and stealthily bypass enemies.

“We feel that interactive VR is a kinesthetic movement based medium,” says Handler. “How do we make you feel embodied as that character?  How do you move in the world? What are the mechanics? How do you walk? How do you interact? Our point of origin on the movement was “absolutely no teleporting”. We think that’s a huge immersion killer. It gets into my whole thing about movement, mechanics, and embodying the character. With apes we have this great ability to have you walk on your hands.

“When we were in preproduction, we spent a ton of time on grey-box prototypes. That’s when we felt like we were on to something. Within that prototype (and this pertains to the walking and climbing), we were trying to prove out all of it. For the walking, we spent tons of time on the walk speed, and acceleration, deceleration, everything that was needed to get the comfort just right. It was the same thing with the climbing. A lot of time spent thinking about the little things, like the haptic feedback, how the controllers are reacting, your scale, and again with comfort; knowing that to pull this off we have to be ultra-careful about not inducing any sort of motion sickness. We applied tons of polish and grey-boxing to the prototype, until we felt like the overall movement systems were solid. We’ve continued to tune and tune and tune as we’ve moved through production.

“Another design rule that we tried to follow as much as possible was never having any non-endogenous elements in the game,” continues Handler. “So, everything that you are doing as an ape, there shouldn’t be any menus that pop up, or any sort of interface in the world that wouldn’t be naturalistic. We eliminated any sort of button pushing to pop in and out of cover. That was one element, but there were probably two other elements that led us to the cover system. One was asking ‘what feels ape-like’? As you are [embodying] a powerful ape, and you are darting in and out of the cover points, and you’re wielding the machine gun with one arm, you know, pulling yourself around. It’s also interesting the way that constraints drive the creative process. We knew that we were going to have a standing experience, and it needed to work with PlayStation and Oculus (and of course on Vive as room-scale), but for health and safety reasons, we don’t want people actually physically ducking for cover in their living rooms.”

I had the opportunity to play through an early build of Crisis on the Planet of the Apes. While the beta code I played was not as finely tuned as the final product, much of what Handler describes was in place. Crisis on the Planet of the Apes VR breaks free from conventional VR control schemes, managing to achieve something that few film-based games do - it feels daring and original. Transporting the player into the body of an intelligent ape allows FoxNext VR Studio to utilize motion controls and environmental narrative in unexpected ways, teasing the player with hints of larger events that they may not have context to understand. Players must move like an ape - and therefore must think like an ape - to move through the game's many engaging challenges. The feeling of dread and oppression at the hands of your human captors is palpable and at times, Crisis is downright visceral in the connection that it creates between the player and the Apes Trilogy's apocalyptic world.

For Handler, it was important that players feel immediately that they were part of the Apes universe. Coming on the heels of the studio’s last project, The Martian VR Experience, it was important that players experience the feeling of embodying the ape, while still providing them with an experience that felt like a game. FoxNext wants players to know right out of the gate that they play an important role in the experience, and that they are not just along for the ride.

“[The Martian] was our first foray into thinking about interactive storytelling,” Handler says. “Ultimately – if you are familiar with that piece – it is a 30-minute amusement park ride, in the sense that it takes you through the arc of the film. It has some minigames in it, but what we were playing with was character embodiment. We were trying to put you in the shoes of Mark Watney, on Mars. For [audiences] that were new to VR or didn’t know much about VR, it got a great response, but for the hardcore gaming market that actually owned the headsets, it was a bit of a feathered fish. It was more of a narrative piece, it wasn’t really a game. That was an important point, because as we went to market – and we’re quite proud of the piece – we also understood early on – and this may put us in contrast with other film studios – that this was a commercial effort. What we are doing with Crisis is our first big commercial release. We didn’t look at VR as promotional first.”

FoxNext, while a division of 20th Century Fox, is first and foremost a game developer. They just happen to have access to some of the most interesting and popular IP franchises in the modern entertainment world. “FoxNext,” says Handler “was a very inspired move by 20th Century Fox to look across our gaming business, which was split between mobile and console licensing, which were two different divisions. We realized all the adjacencies between those areas and then combined that into one gaming/next gen storytelling division that can work together across those areas. When FoxNext was formed, we then had the mandate to really stand up the VR Studio (which is now nine to ten strong, depending on the day), and that allowed us to build it up and then pursue the slate that we’ve been working on over the last year.”

While FoxNext VR Studio has the ability to work within franchises from the 20th Century Fox stable, they do not consider the games they are producing to be film tie-ins. Crisis on the Planet of the Apes, for example, could have taken place at any time within the wider franchise. It is not tied to one particular film.

“With Apes, we had started off with a concept that actually [took place] right before War of the Planet of the Apes,” remarks Handler. “Mark Bombach, who was the writer on the trilogy, consulted on the project. He ultimately steered us towards the direction to write [a story that took place] between Rise and Dawn, which we felt was actually a great story world. There is a ten-year period where the apocalypse happens, which is only covered in Dawn by a 60-second montage at the beginning of the movie, where you see the world has died off. We felt like this was a perfect wide-open area to explore. We felt like setting the game midway, in the midst of that apocalypse, where society is starting to really unravel. We wanted the camp to be a microcosm of that, with [the dynamic] between the military and the CDC. The CDC is holding out hope that science can deliver a cure, and of course you see a much different calculus from the military, which in some ways foreshadows War as you see with Woody Harrelson’s character. We felt it was a really fertile ground narratively to put players as an ape, embodied, into that world, and still feel like we were staying true to the franchise.”

“One of the themes that we felt was in the trilogy is this idea that even though the humans are cast as the antagonists, you certainly feel for them,” Handler continues. “You understand them, and ultimately you see different groups with justified worldviews brought onto a collision course. The idea that we could throw you into that camp and put you in the midst of that was pretty compelling.” 

FoxNext VR studio is not stopping with Crisis on the Planet of the Apes. In fact, Crisis is seen as something of proving ground. The studio has two more titles that they are preparing for release this year. While they are not ready to reveal these titles publicly, musing over which franchises FoxNext will tackle next is fun and exciting. With all of the 20th Century Fox franchises fresh in everyone’s minds on the heels of the recent Disney deal, it is clear that FoxNext VR Studio has an enviable pool of properties at their disposal.

While the VR market is still a smaller subsection of the overall gaming universe, Handler and FoxNext are satisfied that they can sustain a decent business model with their VR games.

“Right now, we think that it is a niche market, but a very healthy one,” says Handler. “You have a lot of hardware out there, and it is so early in the medium. You are only starting to see, with each new release that is coming to market, all the different devs and creators starting to figure it out. We’ve always taken a very long view that it’s going to take a while for the content to evolve, the hardware to evolve, and the market to evolve. But we’re very hopeful about 2018, and the longer term. Of course, I’m biased. But as the games start to become more fully realized, I think that they are going to give 2D gaming a run for their money. You can ultimately embody a character and play. Our philosophy is that in film, you are watching a story. In games you are playing a story, but in VR, you are living it, whether it’s a game or a story. Long term, that’s pretty hard to beat.”

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

Evolving VR: FoxNext VR Studio and the making of Crisis on the Planet of the Apes Evolving VR: FoxNext VR Studio and the making of Crisis on the Planet of the Apes Evolving VR: FoxNext VR Studio and the making of Crisis on the Planet of the Apes Evolving VR: FoxNext VR Studio and the making of Crisis on the Planet of the Apes Evolving VR: FoxNext VR Studio and the making of Crisis on the Planet of the Apes Evolving VR: FoxNext VR Studio and the making of Crisis on the Planet of the Apes

About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a 45-year-old dad with four kids, ranging in age from 1 through 17.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs).  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on PS4, PSVR, PS Vita, 3DS, Wii U and a janky PC.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect.

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