Video details

Creating a Sport for the Metaverse


The ball is in your court! Hear from Max Weisel, founder of Normal, as he breaks down his latest VR esport title: Nock. An archery game that's designed to be a sport of the metaverse. Learn about his early iterations on building the next VR esport and the behind-the-scenes prototypes it took to get to release on the Meta Quest Store. Max will share how he and his team foster a community of players to grow their thriving community. You’ll also get a peek at what’s next as they expand the game into a professional sport.


Music. Hello, my name is Max Weisel, and thank you for coming to my talk at Metaconnect. For those of you who don't know who I am, most of my work focuses on the way people interface with computers. I'm the creator of a studio called Normal, which is a research and development studio that focuses on the way virtual and augmented reality can fit into our lives in a meaningful way. We're also the creators of a tool called Normcore, which allows you to add multiplayer integration to any Unity app with a focus on VR and AR. And we're also the creators of a title called Halfandhalf, which I like to think of as like the public park of VR. It's not a game that you're trying to beat. It's really a catalyst for conversation, and it's something that you use when you can't talk to someone in person. But today I'm going to talk about our latest title, Knock, which I like to call a sport for the Metaverse. So today's talk is going to be about creating Knock and creating a sport for the Metaverse. But you might be asking yourself, what does that even mean? Well, three years ago, I wanted to look at what it would take to create a virtual sport that is on the same level as the most popular real life sports. I think virtual reality has the ability to combine the athleticism of real life sports with the thing you get from Esports, which is the ability to play with anyone anywhere in the world. I think that VR is going to be one of the most physical ways that we play virtual sports of all time. So how do you create a virtual sport? Well, what makes a real life sport good? That's kind of the first thing to look at. When I look at the most popular sports in the world, what is something that they all have in common? And the first thing that comes to mind is a ball. A ball gives you a single focal point when you're playing the game or when you're spectating, which I'll talk a bit more at the end. A ball gives you kind of the center of the action. It's kind of the thing that everyone is focused on. And when I started looking at Esports, I saw a lot of first person shooters, a lot of games where if you weren't familiar with the game, you couldn't really tell where the action was going. And there are a lot of video games that are based on real physical sports that have a ball. There's games that are based on soccer, there's games that are based on basketball. But in a lot of the titles that I looked at, the physics of the ball didn't really matter. Now, there was one title that kept coming to mind, which is Rocket League. Rocket League, for me, feels like a real life sport. It feels very physical. You get into this flow state, the physics of the ball matter and what make every game unique and different. But it's also a game that you can enjoy as a total beginner or something that you've played if you could be the best player in the world. And every game is still interesting. So in half and half, we'd created Starball, which sort of proved that the soccer and VR concept would work, but it didn't really have the death that I would expect from the most popular sport in the world. And there's this quote I love from Nolan Bushnell, which is that all the best games are easy to learn and impossible to master. And I think that applies to sports as well. So starting with Starball as a base, our designer Dave added a bow and arrow. And for those of you who have never used a bow and arrow in virtual reality, it's something that feels really good with the controllers. There's something about the feedback you're expecting, it really lines up. And it's something that also is easy to pick up and hard to master. And I think when you combine that with soccer, we essentially get twice the surface area. We get a game that is easy to learn. Anyone can look at someone playing bow and arrow soccer and understand how it works, but you could spend your whole life playing this game and still not be the best player in the world. So we put it together and it started to feel really good. I think this is one of the first prototypes that we played and we got to the drawing board, we started thinking about how heavy the ball should be, the shape of the arena, the mass of the arrows. And one of the things we learned very early on was how important the shape of the arena was. Here you can see that the slope of the arena kicks the ball up when it's hit versus in the arenas where there are no slopes, the ball kind of just always stayed on the ground. There was no vertical element to the game and we just continued iterating on this concept. As it got better, as the bow and arrow started to feel better, as the physics of the ball started to feel better, there was this magical thing that happened. And that's what I'm going to refer to as flow states. Now, flow state is something that many of you are probably familiar with. The way I like to think about it is it's the moment where you're completely absorbed by a sport. Time slows down, the voice in your head goes away. And I think this is one of the most important things to get right when building a sport. You want something that feels more like soccer or basketball than maybe something like chess. That's very roll. So by this point in the project, bow and arrow feels incredible. In virtual reality. Combining that with soccer, you've got something that's easy to learn and hard to master. But something was still missing. Whenever we would play prototypes of this game, you could really only hit the ball in one direction, and that direction was away from you. Here you can see a prototype where we're trying to add curving to the arrow so you can hit the ball in different directions. And that kind of worked. But the real crux of the issue was that Knock needed a way to move. If you look at movement in any real sport, it's very important to the game. There's like an entire metagame about where you are, where your teammates are, where your opponents are, where you think people are going to go. There's inherent risk to leaving your goal and the position of yourself on the field really matters. So that's something that I wanted to bring to Knock. One of the first things that we tried was instant teleport, and we created a few pads that you can move between. And the way this works is you would point the bottom of your bow in the direction you wanted to move, and you click a button and you'd move there. But very quickly we learned that this just absolutely breaks your flow state. And so this rule started to develop that we could not use instant teleport. And there are a few other reasons. I mean, in addition to breaking your flow state, you can't really predict your opponents movements. If you can move instantly, if you're looking at people and they just immediately jump between pads. On the field, that metagame of thinking about where players are and trying to even trick people into thinking and going in a different direction doesn't really apply. You lose out on that. And if you can move instantly, there's no risk if you leave your goal and you go to score on your opponent's goal, if the ball goes over your head, there's nothing keeping you from just jumping back and defending your own goal. But as we got farther in development, one of the most important things was that it gives you depth perception. So when you move instantly, you have to reget your bearings. But a lot of people think that your depth perception comes from stereoscopic vision, and that's true with anything that's at arms length. But once you get about 18ft away, all of your depth perception comes from parallax. And I've got a good example of that here. So in this clip, it starts still, but as soon as the camera starts moving, you instantly know how far away the pillars are, how far away the goal is. All of that depth information clicks into place. And so with the teleport mechanism in a virtual sport, it's gotta be something where you move smoothly in order to get those depth cues, in order to be able to understand where the ball is. And so the challenge really became, how do we make smooth movement without motion sickness. So I knew this was possible. In Starball, we had a smooth movement and it didn't really make anyone motion sick. I get motion sick pretty easily, but this wouldn't really work for a game where you need to be on the field. And we tried a lot of prototypes, but the one that worked the best is what I call a Ski locomotion. And ski Locomotion works like you're on this giant Omnidirectional ski, and you use your bow as a ski pole to slowly push yourself in any direction. And as you build up momentum, you just continue sliding. And you can use that time essentially to try and hit the ball or to play the game. So you're using your bow as a ski pole to get momentum going, and then as you're sliding along, you can play the game. And to our surprise, this did not make us motion sick. I think, for me, maybe after an hour, I would feel a little bit but maybe for a day or so. But this was the smoothest movement we could get without any motion sickness. And a lot of people ask me, how does this work? How does this not make you motion sick? And honestly, I'm not entirely certain. But I have a few ideas. The first is very specific to our title, which is you spend all of your time looking at the ball instead of the world. You're hyper focused on this moving object. And I think it doesn't allow you really to have the ability to get the death cues that would normally throw you off or make your brain think that something doesn't line up that would make you emotion sick. But also, you're never really introducing that much acceleration in the same way that when you're on a plane and you're going 400 miles an hour, you don't really feel like you're moving. It's not how fast you're moving, it's how much you're changing your speed that makes you feel sick. And by using a ski pole that just gradually adds small bits of momentum, you don't really get that feeling of large changes in acceleration. And of course, something we learned from half and half was no close visual landmarks. If you keep the scene pretty simple and you keep everything pretty far away, objects just do not move as fast. And your brain doesn't really possess the ability to understand really how fast you're moving. There's one more point which I won't go into here. It's sort of out of the scope of this talk, but it's a thing that I call perfect deceleration. And I think when you're moving the camera in virtual reality, you need to do it in a way that's maybe a little bit smoother than the way you would move a physics body in VR otherwise. But here's a QR code if you'd like to learn more about this. You can scan that in a link to a thread where I go into more detail. So at this point you've got Ski Locomotion and it checks all the boxes for virtual sports. You've got smooth movement so you never lose your flow states. You can predict where your opponents are going to move and you can use this to fake them into thinking you're moving in a different direction than maybe you're going to go and your position on the field matters. So if I leave my goal to go score on an opponent and the ball goes over my head, I have to really work to get back and in most cases I'm not going to be able to get back fast enough. So you're constantly thinking about the risk of where you are in the field and where your teammate is on the field. But of course the most important one here is depth perception. If you've got spoof movement, if you've got parallax, you can understand where the ball is, you can understand where the goal is and then it gives you the ability to actually hit this ball with a bow and arrow. Now, I have another example that I want to show this, which is Ski Pole was great for moving on the field, but there was this verticality you get from something like Rocky League that I wanted to bring to this game. So we added the ability to jump and you can see here, as soon as you jump all of the steps information comes into play. You'll understand how far away the ball is, how fast it's moving, where it is in relation to the goal, and it gives you the information you need to hit it with a bow and arrow and score. So by this point we've got a core mechanic that's easy to learn and hard to master. What's next? Well, of course you need people to play with. You want every game to feel competitive, you want them to not be too hard, where people get discouraged early on, but you also want them to not be too easy where it gets boring. And virtual reality solves that. I mean, you can play with anyone anywhere in the world. There's a very large pool of people you can pull from. And so it's possible to make matches that are always balanced. And luckily Esports have solved this with skill based matchmaking. There's a lot of different algorithms you can use. I won't go into details about any specific one, but they all follow the same pattern, which is that matches start off fun and challenging. You're playing with people who also just got the game, who are the same skill level as you. As you practice, you get better at the game and you start climbing through the ranks. And so the matchmaker becomes aware that you're winning more games, you're getting better at the game and it starts matching you with more skilled opponents. And right about this point you start getting crushed, but not too hard. The matches are still fun, they're still challenging, and the cycle repeats. So at this point, we've got a game that's easy to learn, difficult to master, we got people to play with, but there's a lot of sports like that. So I wanted to think about really what is separating the most popular sports from the rest of sports. And to me, that is the culture. If you have the culture of different sports, the teams are famous, the players are famous, street wear fashion play a huge role, and the most popular sports in the world have the most popular culture. There's a reason that football in America is more popular here than, say, soccer in Europe. It's not because one mechanic is better than the other, or they have better players to play against. It's because of the culture that surrounds the game. Culture is something that people enjoy together. I think if the sport is fun to watch with other people, the rest will follow. And so when I look at all of the most popular and the most watched sports, what do they all have in common? You might be able to guess. It's a ball. So in addition to a ball making a great sport for players, it's also really great for spectators. It's what drives the energy, the suspense. You don't have to know anything about the game. I'll show a clip here from Knock, and just from following the ball, you realize you don't have to look at the players. You don't even have to know that they're using a bow and arrow. You can tell where the suspense is just based on the position of the ball. So as it gets closer to blue team's goal, you know you need to start paying attention. You're watching the blue players and as soon as there's this breakaway moment, you realize that they're about to score and you can feel the emotion of the game, even if it's something you've never played. So having a sport that's fun to watch is important. I think this is, again, the detail that's going to bring the culture to the game. And I think it's something that is missing from a lot of Esports. I think the majority of Esports out there are first person shooters. They're things that are really hard to spectate if you don't play the game. But so putting it all together, I think the recipe for creating a virtual sport that can compete with the most popular physical sports is first you got to have something that's easy to learn, hard to master. You need a mechanic that you can pick up in a day, but you could spend your entire life playing and still not be the best. You need good competition. Something that we don't have the luxury of today is that you can't really get if you invent a new physical sport, it's really going to be hard to find enough people to play and to keep it competitive. You might be the best person to sport and not have anyone to play with. But with a virtual sport, you need something that's competitive and something where you can play with anyone anywhere in the world. I think that's kind of the key that's going to allow virtual sport to have a chance of becoming the most popular sport in the world. And of course, most important to me, it's got to be fun to watch. If it's not fun to watch, like you don't have the culture, you need something that people are going to want to watch. Because I think, honestly, there's probably more people spend more time watching sports than they do actually playing them. So the final result is knocks easy to pick up, it's hard to master, it's competitive, you can play with anyone anywhere in the world. And most importantly, it's fun to watch. This is the first step in a very long journey to create a virtual sport that's on the same level as a physical sport. But I want to show you guys the final product.