Ramen VR builds Zenith: The Last City at the intersection of MMOs and VR
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Developing and maintaining an MMO of any size is not an easy task for any studio. The exploit becomes more difficult when cross-platform. Doing all of this when it’s also a VR game – as is the case with Ramen VR’s Zenith: The Last City – is a constant juggling act, technically and logistically.
CTO and studio co-founder Lauren Frazier talks to GamesIndustry.biz to explain how the Final Fantasy XIV-inspired RPG found its way onto various headsets and became a PlayStation VR 2 launch title.
Frazier explains that his shared interest in anime with studio co-founder and CEO Andy Tsen sparked the idea for Zenith.
“It started because [Andy] and I wanted to make a game based on our upbringing.”
“It started because [Andy] and I wanted to make a game based on our upbringing. Shows like .Hack, then newer programs like Sword Art Online.”
She continues: “He and I had worked on a [VR] project before. So we had some experience in the VR gaming space, and we knew the next thing would be the same. But we thought, why isn’t anyone making a VR MMO title?”
For Frazier, Zenith remains on a short list of VR games that provide users with an MMORPG experience. From different classes to locations and quests, the title has the content one expects from the genre.
Playing a VR game on the scale of a traditional MMORPG can feel overwhelming for consumers; however, the CTO says the studio has not received such complaints. In fact, the social aspect of traditional MMORPGs isn’t much different than metaverse hunters’ notion of virtual reality as a place where people can hang out with friends.
“It’s very social; we have global voice chat enabled by default. So you just walk around talking to people. You can also enter a private chat if you have a large guild or party. But by default, you I just talk to people”.
Frazier says these interactions help consumers understand the game’s unique experiences. For example, welcoming members of the playerbase would help newcomers find and pursue quests and possibly try out other content within the title.
Zenith was the first game Frazier ever released, and while she may have seemed easy in landing $35 million in funding for the studio last year, she assures us it was anything but.
“It was hard [pitching] because VR and MMO are two of the riskiest things you can do. So by doing the two together, many investors were very wary. A lot of investors were burned by the first round of VR that didn’t quite work out.”
Frazier adds that Ramen VR first had to convince investors that its concept for Zenith was reasonable and something the team could pull off.
“[When pitching] MMO, you don’t need to convince people that [MMOs] are one thing; you just have to convince them that yours is good”
“[When pitching] MMO, you don’t need to convince people that [MMOs] are one thing; you just have to convince them that yours is good,” she says. “So the biggest hurdle was two risky ideas that people are already hesitant about. A lot of people have focused on the VR side of [Zenith] simply because the market is small.”
Zenith is available on Oculus Quest 2, Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR2, and SteamVR, and she explains that launching on multiple platforms offered its unique hurdles. “Oculus and Sony have [stricter] approval requirements. So you go back and forth with a developer relations rep,” the exec explains.
“They have standards for frame rates and what types of bugs are acceptable. If something isn’t clear in your game, they’ll push back and say [this scenario] It’s not obvious to the player that he has to do something here or it’s very misleading.”
Frazier continues: “I think it’s a good [process] because it means they’re committed to the content, and they want to keep it to AAA-minimum standard.”
Talking about how it became a PlayStation VR 2 launch game, she suggests the studio that released Zenith for Sony’s first headset last year likely played a role.
“It was something we were looking for at the time. PlayStation has one of our smaller user bases because there aren’t a lot of PSVRs floating around compared to the number of Oculus Rifts or Indexes Valve.
“But we were trying to be really good at making sure the experience was good on Sony hardware, and I think they appreciated that.”
Frazier points out that technically for Zenith, all users play on the same servers so that they are not separated by their respective devices.
“The quests and the enemies and the [content] are the same for PSVR 2. [Also] the way our game is built, graphics fidelity can be dynamically switched between different sets of assets and different sets of graphics quality per platform.”
Speaking about the hardest part of development for the studio, she notes that everything has to communicate between all devices as players experience the game.
“We need to make sure everything works well for an Oculus, Steam and Vive controller. [We] having to do it again and again. So the amount of things [the team and I] having to keep up was tough,” she says.
“It was very difficult to work with the servers because we want everything to be smooth”
“From a technical point of view, it was very difficult to work with the servers because we want everything to be smooth.”
She adds that one of the things she’s most proud of performance-wise is that the VR MMO doesn’t have a loading screen.
As for why the title isn’t exclusive, the exec notes one of the game’s inspirations as part of this business decision.
“Early on, we were up against games like Final Fantasy 14. These games have huge player bases, and VR is already so small. There’s no way we have the player base to sustain a game [from one device]. It is therefore mandatory to have to be on every helmet.”
As CTO and actively engaging the game’s community, Frazier juggles multiple tasks. However, she says the required balancing act is relatively easy.
“We work [with] our community in the game development process, we manage [player-controlled] trials. Thus, we test the servers, alpha and beta tests with each release. The team also constantly [conducts] community surveys.
Frazier uses the example of a boss monster and rates its difficulty with the help of players. “We have a world boss, a giant tree monster that just fights people. We’ve made tons of tweaks based on what people tell us. We have groups of high-level players and give them a version with the new stats; then we watch their battles.
“Then we will adjust the monster’s difficulty and stats based on player performance.”
Frazier adds: “Players know that if they have a problem, they can just say, hey, I have a problem or I have a question.”
When it comes to her job as CTO, she says the biggest misconception is that the job means she’s the best engineer on the team. “I don’t spend a lot of time doing engineering work and coding,” she explains.
“I make sure that for every build or every major patch, I have a feature [to work on]. So I’m not sad not to do something. Most of my job now is to move the business around, making sure that the engineers and people in the business can do their jobs.”
Frazier adds that his role has more in common with coaching sports teams. “People think you’re Michael Jordan on the team, and I say no, I’m Phil Jackson.”
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