Just like professional athletes, top eSports (electronic sports) players train hard for video gaming competitions. The events draw crowds of fans and amateur gamers, eager to see players battle it out in real time. Of course, it’s more engaging and fun if those fans get to do something interactive, too. That’s why Red Bull sought out director Ethan Shaftel to create a mini virtual reality game for the recent Battle Grounds Boston where high-ranking Street Fighter V competitors fought to qualify for Capcom’s Street Fighter tournament.
Using Cinema 4D for design and asset creation and Unity game engine for development, Shaftel and his team created a fully interactive VR experience that allows players to try their luck on a bonus stage modeled after the bonus stage scene in the 1991 Street Fighter II arcade game. Transformed by full-body tracking into one of five Street Fighter characters—Ryu, Chun-Li, Zangief, Ken, or Guile—players race the clock to earn points by punching and kicking an old sedan until it falls apart.
Produced with Trevor Burk at Visual Noise Creative, the Street Fighter II Bonus Stage VR experience will continue to be a feature at upcoming Red Bull and Capcom events. Here Shaftel explains how his crowd-pleasing game stays true to its roots while offering 21st-century VR immersion and the growing need to create virtual reality experiences for groups in social environments
Meleah Maynard: What did Red Bull ask you to do, and is this the first time you’ve worked with them?
Ethan Shaftel: Red Bull wanted to commission a fun, social experience for people at the tournament, and Trevor and I have a lot of experience in the live event- and location-based world. In the last couple of years, I’ve become very interested in VR, and I’ve made quite a few prototype projects and tests, including a VR film that premiered last year at Tribeca. I got my first professional VR gig shortly after that. So pitching ideas to Red Bull for something that was both social, and a VR headset experience, was really appealing. We brainstormed a bunch of ideas with Red Bull, but remaking the classic bonus stage in VR was everyone’s favorite concept.
MM: Explain how people besides the player participate in what’s happening.
ES: There are a couple ways we made sure that this wasn't just an experience for the person in the headset, like when you’re playing a VR game at home. We really focused on this being something that groups of people would enjoy, so we put the attention on the room not the headset. First, we took some of the interface elements that you would expect in a game and put them in the real world. For example, you choose your character while you’re in line by taking a Red Bull out of a cooler that has your character's face on it. When you put on the headset, you are that character, looking in a mirror. It’s seamless. Also, the mirror became a place where people would perform and dance while trying out their avatar for the benefit of everyone in line behind them. People tried to one-up each other.
Even in the game itself, we always tried to reward play that was the most fun for the people watching. That was the main mission of scoring. You get more points for using both hands and feet and flailing wildly, instead of approaching it in a precise or calculated way. Our developer, Andy Runyon, did a great job finely balancing the scoring system so that it's almost like the less you try to win, and the more you abandon yourself to the fun of it, the higher your score is going to be. That’s all about making the experience social and pulling other people into the arena to watch.
There was no scoreboard inside the game because it lives on a big screen outside in the room. So when a player is done and they take off the headset, it’s like when an Olympic swimmer finishes and whips off their goggles, and everyone in the stadium turns their head to see the new score on the board. When it’s good, everybody cheers together so it’s an experience for everyone.
MM: How did you combine retro and modern design in the game?
ES: From a graphic design perspective, we wanted to stay true to Street Fighter II’s classic look so it would feel like the game a lot of people, including me, remember from childhood. But it was a challenge to convert an old, 2D arcade game to give it a third dimension. We were inspired by films like Wreck-It Ralph and Pixels because both do a good job of capturing the design of the original arcade games, though they do it in different ways. It helped that we were able to take actual artwork and textures from the original game and use them in Cinema 4D. The wood on the pier, the water, sky, and clouds were all pulled unaltered. The text is straight from the original game, too, though we rebuilt it in volumetric pixels and even outlined everything in 3D to accentuate the blockiness of the letters.
The car was harder because it was originally a flat, forced-perspective 3D element in the arcade game. For our VR game, it had to seem like an actual car sitting in front of you because players have to run all the way around it to punch and kick it. So we modeled it more realistically in Maxon C4D, but then followed the design we inferred from the original graphics. What really made the car work was the very pixely environment map we put on the car’s surfaces. You can see the reflection of the big, blocky pixels in the car’s windshield, and your eyes just take it all in as if everything is visually related.
MM: Talk about your process for designing characters.
ES: 3D artist Frank Stringini created the game’s blocky texts as well as the character avatars, which was quite a bit different from designing characters for other games or animations. The players have to inhabit avatars’ bodies, almost like they are a costume, which means the characters have to be correctly proportioned rather than some cartoonish extreme.
Huge biceps are fine, but they have to have a skeleton that matches a typical human’s. The challenge was taking the existing characters that everyone knows and loves and being true to them within that constraint. Zangief, the wrestler, is a great example. Over the years, Capcom has depicted him more and more cartoonishly with really exaggerated proportions. But to make sure a human player could "operate" him from inside, we had to lose the exaggeration entirely. Luckily, he has a bunch of very distinct visual trademarks, like his red short shorts and funny chest hair and beard.
MM: What kind of feedback did you get from people?
ES: They loved it. It was a really positive experience at the events where we’ve had the game up for fans to play. For some people, it was their first experience with VR, and it was exciting to see them get excited about the medium, not just our game. People were dragging their friends and boyfriends and girlfriends over to try it. A lot of children played the game, too, and they were the ones who took to it like fish to water. It was awesome to watch.
Director: Ethan Shaftel
Producer: Trevor Burk
Developer: Andy Runyon
3D Artist: Orlando Costa
3D Characters: Frank Stringini
VR Technologist: Pete Thornbury
Meleah Maynard is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.