When it comes to virtual reality-enhanced shoot-em-ups, it helps to have a good one with good focus and accessibility. The team at VoyagerVR knows this.
For years, co-founders Christian Bretz and Jessica Villarreal (known in some circles as “JesV”) have been working hard to make virtual reality experiences embraceable for others. Now, their latest game, the co-op-supported shooter Alien Dawn, is currently making the rounds on Steam in Early Access – and gaining momentum amongst both action gamers and VR embracers.
We sat down with the duo to talk about the inception of the game, the features that make it stand out, and the possibility of bringing it to other platforms! Let’s go get them Aliens!
First off, congrats on the Early Access launch of Alien Dawn. How has the game been doing for you so far in terms of community support and feedback? We saw the “mostly positive” reviews over on Steam.
JesV: Hello, and thank you! The community support and feedback has been so wonderful. We try our best to read and respond to every comment, suggestion, question, tech-support etc. on all our various platforms like our Discord channel, the Steam discussion forums, and Reddit. We absolutely value what people are saying because it helps us improve the game through their comments.
With the game being made by only two of us, we really appreciate the support from the community for being so positive and encouraging. They alert us when finding bugs we may have missed or gameplay mechanics that aren’t quite as polished as we had originally intended, and that kind of feedback is so valuable to us. We enjoy having the direct line with them and have often included their ideas into the game build. We even have named a character after one of the players in our Discord.
Secondly, the “mostly positive” reviews on Steam is so cool! I believe most developers want their projects to be well received, but the truth is that can be a challenge to predict, so seeing mostly positive reviews (and in different languages) is so satisfying that players are genuinely enjoying what we set out to achieve.
Now let’s talk about VoyagerVR. How did this all begin? We saw the Stonehenge project you launched back in 2017.
JesV: We started pursuing VR game development in 2013 when Christian first got to try an Oculus Rift demo at E3 that year. We don’t come from traditional game development backgrounds, although Christian used to make Quakemods in the 90’s. But what happened was VR was so early at that time and trying to get funding for our business plan from our previous clients proved too difficult.
So what we realized was that if we wanted to make our vision happen, we were going to have to do it ourselves. From there Christian started teaching himself the Unreal Engine from YouTube tutorials and the Unreal forums from his bedroom. Three months later he had a functioning build of Stonehenge VR.
With that, Stonehenge VR became one of the first room-scale VR exhibits to be in a museum – Pacific Science Center in Seattle, WA, and Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park, KS. Eventually, we launched Stonehenge VR SANDBOX on Steam in 2017.
What motivated the creation of Alien Dawn? We see alien shooters all the time, but this seems to have more of an earthly approach (well, compared to Halo, anyway, heh).
JesV: Alien Dawn was created at the very start of the pandemic in March of 2020. Where we live went into lockdown and our business and clients changed dramatically, so we decided our time would be best spent making something we wanted to play. A game that could include a single player or multiple players that would accommodate more than the standard 4 person squad. A game that could be played in VR, but also with our friends who only had a PC. And finally, something that started everyone off as fresh spawns so that no one ever had to catch up to the other friends who had far exceeded in experience points and inventory than the new person.
The goal is for everyone to work as a team and communicate to survive and make it to the extraction point. Since certain points of interest are spawned randomly, you’ll get a different playthrough each time. Sometimes you’ll fail, sometimes you’ll win. When that happens, it feels so rewarding to have experienced that through your teamwork.
In terms of the approach to Alien Dawn, the original idea came from a student short film that Christian’s older brother had directed in college in the 90’s of the same name. Fun fact: the full movie can be watched in an Easter Egg hidden in the game’s Dev Room Mode. It was one of Christian’s favorite childhood memories being on set, so when the time came to come up with a theme or concept to be the vessel for this new Escape game mode, the memory of Alien Dawn popped up as a perfect place to start for inspiration.
Now there’s a feature that stands out with this game called the Voyager A.I. Camera. Tell us more about it!
JesV: The Voyager A.I. Camera is a spectator camera for On-Line games that edits and films players’ gameplay as they Livestream. This really is the result of all the work Christian did in film & television in the first part of his career, combined with developing VR games and merging them into one. The seed of this idea came from a show we created called Best Game Show Ever in 2014, and one of the segments we produced was having our friends all try VR games and filming their reactions, then making a compelling story around them because of their reactions felt so legitimate and authentic.
Christian: The next evolution to this was to train a computer to be able to film and edit players completely on its own based on what they are doing in the game. The camera selects angles, music, and editing pace based on statistics from the game to tell the story and the audience at home will see their favorite streamers playing as though they are characters in a TV show. While it’s still early in development, we’ve been putting the A.I. Camera into actual use on our Twitch live streams. Alien Dawn is just the first example of where we will use this camera technology.
How many players does Alien Dawn support? Did we hear something about ten player squads?
JesV: Yes! So one of the main reasons why we made something that could accommodate so many players is because our squad can sometimes be up to 10 people on a big night, but anywhere from 5-7 on most nights. It’s been a challenge for us to find co-op experiences that allow larger squads as the standard seems to always be around 3-6 players. Alien Dawn also allows for players to play in open servers so that others can join if they are looking for a group. There’s also in-game voice chat so they can communicate without any extra chat setups, and the voices dynamically change based on the environment.
This game also works real nicely with VR, as we’ve seen consistent social media posts with JesV wearing a large VR helmet on her head for a few gameplay sessions. How tough was it to adapt VR technology into your game?
JesV: The game actually started off as VR, but we realized that the whole point of Alien Dawn is to “unite” with other players and escape this threat by working together. In order to do that we knew the game had to be available on as many platforms as possible, starting with PCs. So luckily we did the hard part, VR, first and then adapted to the traditional part which was the PC version. But one of the toughest things about VR is the optimization of the variety of headsets and motion controllers. One stutter or hiccup in the image can really hinder an experience and cause motion sickness. We make that a priority while developing but it is definitely the biggest hurdle when there are so many elements to an open-world game, and pinpointing what’s causing an issue can take time to find.
Christian: In addition to that, not one control scheme fits everyone’s preference in VR because of its physicality, so we have to account for many of the individual methods of controlling a character. An example is whether they prefer to play sitting or standing, or wanting Smooth Turn versus Snap Turn for character movement.
What’s probably the toughest part of developing a game like this? Running into problems and having to work around them? Long, sleepless nights? A combination of both?
JesV: There have been a few tough moments in development. For example, once we decided to adapt a PC version we had to think of whole new designs with inventory, HUD, animations, and more. If we change something, almost anything, we have to test to see if it works with both VR and Desktop each time.
Christian: The other challenge is making sure the Server/Client communication in multiplayer works in unison which can be the most time-consuming. In many cases, in order to properly test the network code, the game has to be actually compiled and then tested online with multiple devices for every build.
JesV: Since it’s only the two of us, you could say “long sleepless nights” is a part of our vocabulary, but it’s what we enjoy doing every day, and facing those challenges and problem solving is one of the skills we pride ourselves on.
Jes, we know you got your start in the industry with hosting gigs (like being on G4 for a session or two), but you’ve now dug in to full-time game development. How’s it feel to be on the other side?
JesV: Being on the other side is so different. I have played and loved games my entire life but had no idea how they were actually made and discovered a whole new level of respect for development. I’ll be 100% honest, I don’t have much time to play as many games as I used to, and that is an aspect I certainly miss at times. However, I actually wish I had the knowledge that I do now when I was hosting because I feel that I would have been able to have deeper conversations with the developers about their work and ask questions that could relay the message to players that these devs are working hard behind the scenes to bring them works of art.
Do you guys have any plans for a full launch planned for Alien Dawn yet, or is it still a work in progress?
JesV: This is definitely a work in progress with many more additions, including different game modes, that we want to release. A lot of the ideas we have planned are not too far off this year as many of them already have working elements of the base game code within the Dev Room of what’s available. We do realize that many of our plans sound ambitious for just two people but to that I say, what we’ve already accomplished sounded ambitious two years ago, but we were and are determined to complete every goal we set in motion.
Is there any chance we could see Alien Dawn surface on consoles? We certainly wouldn’t mind hooking up with our Xbox buddies on this.
JesV: This is absolutely something we have been wanting to do and it has certainly been requested frequently. Expanding to as many platforms as possible is a goal of ours, but have a few more steps to take with our current build platforms before we can explore that option.
Christian (smiles): Please let Phil Spencer know that we are ready to take his call at any time.
Once Alien Dawn is finished, do you have any plans for what’s next? Or one step at a time?
JesV: It’s great that you mention one step at a time because around here we often say, “one play at a time,” but we see the potential of this A.I. Camera technology we are developing is being adapted to all types of media.
Christian: So we want to continue to develop and support Alien Dawn for a long time moving forward, and we also have concepts in mind for many other games and experiences that would benefit from this new type of spectator camera that we are creating.
In addition to that, we still see the VR industry as being very early in its stages of development and we are excited to adapt our software to the technology as it expands.
Finally, where can we find you and Alien Dawn online?
JesV: You can find the game and all of our social links at: https://www.voyagervr.com/joinus!
We also started streaming our game more regularly on Twitch, so we’d love for you to stop by and say hello!
Big thanks to JesV and Christian for speaking to us! To learn more about Alien Dawn, check it out here on Steam!
Want more out of this world chaos? Check out our review of Powerslave: Exhumed!
Streamer and Cosplay Enthusiast