As you probably know, Sublevel Zero is being re-launched as Sublevel Zero Redux on July 13th, with full VR support and a huge free expansion, on Steam, Oculus, GoG and Humble. We wanted to take players through the tricky, convoluted, and much-delayed story of its development. As has been discussed many times, the game began at the Ludum Dare game jam in April 2014 and got a fair bit of interest. At this time, the Rift DK1 had been out for a year, and about 6 weeks afterwards, Oculus launched the DK2. It seemed we had a perfect platform to try our hand at VR, and so we got our hands on some hardware.
The cockpit’s scale was closer to helmet than spaceship
We had continued tweaking Sublevel Zero in the meantime so by now, “version 2” was quite different to what we made over those first 72 hours. We were considering using the game as a prototype to pitch a full project to publishers, and so trying a whole range of variations on the mechanics to polish the core concept and flesh out a real game.
In this context, VR support worked perfectly. As a cockpit space shooter, even with the limitations of the DK1 and DK2, immersion was uncanny. This was of course early days for the technology – people were still figuring out how to use and implement good VR support, and we were no exception. While the effect was exhilarating, there were some major issues. For example, the cockpit’s scale made it feel closer to a helmet than a spaceship. Nonetheless, the VR version gained traction quickly, with many in the nascent VR community even saying it was their favourite VR experience so far.
When we started development proper in October 2014 we were determined to design the game, if not for VR, then at least with VR in mind. As a small team of 5 – with only myself on full time to begin with, and Gary full time from a third of the way in – and with the VR market small and uncertain, it was impossible for us to prioritise VR development the way we would have liked. Throughout development it was possible to start the game in VR mode, but only really to check we hadn’t completely broken it! Performance, playability and comfort in VR were not key concerns. But fundamental decisions were made to ensure that the game would work in VR. The design of the cockpit, 3D HUD and menus, even the way the camera was attached to the ship all took this into account.
Allowing differences allowed us to make the game feel great both in and out of VR
We quickly found that VR- and non-VR design often conflicted. The initial goal was to have an identical game in both modes, but this proved, if not impossible, at least infeasible. The design constraints are fundamentally different, and compromise usually resulted in mediocrity. In practice then, many aspects of the game now change subtly between modes.
For a few examples; most cameras in the game get moved backward to compensate for VR’s restricted field of view, and to perceptually match the apparent scale of the cockpit. Post-processing effects such as bloom are rendered differently to avoid feeling like they’re attached to your eyes. The crosshair, rather than being at a fixed distance, gets drawn at the same depth as whatever is in front of the ship to seem more accurate and avoid feeling cross-eyed. The ship’s physics are subtly different in VR. This freedom allowed us to make the game feel great – rather than mediocre – both in and out of VR. And Sublevel Zero, if nothing else, hangs on the feeling of its flight and combat.
Solving all of these problems – and many more – was unfortunately not feasible during initial development. We resolved to focus on the non-VR version at least until after launch (October 2015). We managed to iron out enough kinks to launch very rough beta support for the DK2 the following month, and had our sights set on launching the full VR version in line with the consumer version of the Rift in early 2016. Shortly after Sublevel Zero launched however, our publisher went bust, and all of our plans disintegrated. We had been planning to release the console port and the VR version within about 6 months of the initial release, but this soon looked impossible. Without publisher backing, we had to deal with PR, marketing, liaising with upwards of 3 separate distributors, and post-launch support all on our own. Prioritising VR development and console porting over this just wasn’t feasible. Work on VR and console support was pushed to the background and continued slowly at best.
In mid-2016 we partnered with Merge Games to bring Sublevel Zero to PS4 and Xbox One. We decided to not only port but extend it, tweaking existing features, adding new ones, expanding the content and reworking the campaign and progression systems. This resulted in Sublevel Zero Redux. We knew from the start that we wanted to roll all this new content back into the original for free when we got the time, and Merge were completely happy with this. As such, we decided that not only would we release full VR support alongside the new features and content, we would re-launch Sublevel Zero as Redux on all platforms to mark the expansion. We’re so grateful to Merge, as their support has allowed us to bring the definitive version of the game to all of you.
Since the console release in March, we’ve been working hard to roll the Redux expansion back into the Windows, Mac and Linux version as well as finalising VR support. Particularly in the last couple of months, all our efforts have focused on VR. We’ve been optimising performance, tweaking the comfort options, and even adding some new features. We’ll have another post soon with lots more detail on VR performance and comfort.
It’s been a long road, but we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved, and we’re really excited to finally get this out the door! There’s a lot of new stuff for all players to get their teeth into, whether you’re playing Sublevel Zero Redux in VR or not. With easier modes, harder modes (for veterans and/or masochists), new enemies, new unlocks, VR support and more, there’s something for everyone. We hope you enjoy it!