Get In Shape with OnShape – The VR Game for Home Aerobics
Get In Shape with OnShape – The VR Game for Home Aerobics
How OrbusVR Reborn is leveling up the VR MMO
How OrbusVR Reborn is leveling up the VR MMO
Top 5 Multiplayer VR FPS Games to Make You Sweat
Top 5 Multiplayer VR FPS Games to Make You Sweat
Start a career in VR game development with these e-learning bundles
Start a career in VR game development with these e-learning bundles
Blade & Sorcery: How One Man Redefined VR Melee Combat Physics
Blade & Sorcery: How One Man Redefined VR Melee Combat Physics

Young Developers at USC Ascend to New Heights

The birth of Ascend, like the birth of all good ideas, was humble and simple. In 2017 Mark Yampolsky, a games development student at USC had just bought his first VR headset and was immediately hooked. As he played the library of games at his disposal he had a realization: VR games needed a new way to move and he felt that modern locomotion systems left much to be desired. Yampolsky strove and tinkered individually over the course of summer 2017 to create the beginnings of a system that he now calls “Lean Motion,” a movement solution that was completely devoid of all of the things that make standard VR locomotion systems nauseating and uncomfortable for the average player that is truly free from all outside virtual influence. Rather than using any sort of controller input, the player’s movement is completely dictated by the position of their head and hands.
To demonstrate the exceptional flight experience his core solution provided, Yampolsky put together a prototype of a game that could be made around it. This was the true beginning of what we now know as Ascend, a flying fast paced arena shooter, with architecture inspired by classic arena shooters of old such as Quake and Tribes, built specifically to take advantage of Lean Motion to achieve what Mark calls “decoupled combat,” which is combat where a user can fly in one direction while looking in another and shooting in a third for a degree of freedom never before present in VR.

Major Brands Are Investing in VR. About 75 percent of the Forbes World’s Most Valuable Brands have created some form of virtual reality or augmented reality experience for customers or employees, or are themselves developing these technologies. Given that this study was conducted in October 2015, the number is likely significantly higher.

A screenshot of a very early build of Ascend 
A screenshot of a very early build of Ascend

Picking up steam

From this, he pitched it to fellow student Audrey Cheng, who was quickly on board as his partner-in-crime, and then they and pitched it as their Capstone Project. This became a project that would not only define their time at USC but also their future career prospects. The project, now called Ascend, has been worked on by about 42 people, with the core team being Mark as creative director, Audrey as production manager, and around 20 other students working on the project around the clock. Twenty other students and alumni threw in their hats as well, from the music that you can hear in the trailer, which was made by a former USC student all the way to the models that were apparently made and polished towards the end of the development cycle by a benevolent modeler that swooped in to save the day.
Early Concept art for Ascend, Jessie Chang Early Concept art for Ascend, Jessie Chang
Ascend has powerfully swooped into the public eye as well. It was a smash hit at USC’s game expo this last May and captured the attention of many during E3. Though it was shown in a small booth directly across from the richly decorated Oculus booth, it was a show darling that left many VR influencers including our own Senior Editor Sonya Haskins, looking to see what the future of the game could be. The game itself has come quite a long way from its original “90’s gothic cathedral” look that inspired many of the swooping arches that we will soon be able to fly around. The original level design, pictured below was created by Audrey, seemed to be inspired most heavily by gritty-feeling games like the aforementioned Quake and Tribes. However, the environment has shifted and changed into what we see now, with its “Neo-futuristic Art-Deco” look.

iGlasses. While today Apple is infamous for their use of “i” in their products, they weren’t the first ones to come up with the idea. In the 1990s, a company known as Virtual I/O came up with a headset that was capable of color 3D stereoscopic vision, as well as head tracking. Known as iGlasses, the device had a price tag of just under $1000. While the glasses were fully capable of delivering an immersive experience, they didn’t truly ignite the consumer market.

This is best explained by Mark who said the team “actually had a pretty dramatic visual shift over the course of our development cycle. Originally it was pretty dark and all of our environments primarily occurred in caverns. In fact, the entire level was inside of a cave because that was our artificial way of keeping the height level.” Once they had made their way past this limitation, they were allowed to freely explore different aesthetics and tones. The final product is heavily visually inspired by low-poly games like RiME or Journey, two other indie-darlings that took the industry by storm.
The piece of concept art that changed the art-style. Environment: Christine Park. Characters: Quiana Dang.
The piece of concept art that changed the art-style. Environment: Christine Park. Characters: Quiana Dang.

Passion and The Mission

All throughout the interview with both Mark and Audrey, it was extremely clear how passionate they were, not only about Ascend but also about the mark it will make on the industry, and especially for their team. When asked what was their favorite part about developing the game, Audrey answered for both of them by saying;

“Probably the best thing for us and for the game was the team that we got to work with! Mark and I were super fortunate to be able to work with such talented students.”

Some of the Best Applications Have Nothing to Do with Gaming. Typically, when people think of virtual reality, they think of computer games. This is unfortunate because some of the best and most interesting virtual reality experiences out today have nothing to do with gaming. There are virtual reality travel experiences, virtual reality documentaries, and much, much more.

The team not only worked together, but they ate together and played together.

“Lots of memes were thrown around,” Audrey continued, “and we hung up stockings and put candies in each other stockings. It was just such a positive and fun team environment.”

The Mission was one of the most important things that both developers had mentioned over the course of our interview. The Mission is what kept their small but powerful development team moving towards the final goal of finishing the game.

Typically student development teams are fraught with all kinds of personal issues and tales of horrific blowups and walkouts, but Mark stated that the reason why everything had been so amicable during development is that they treated team members with respect.

“The team development was just as important to us as the game development,” he said.

The primary Ascend Team, with Audrey and Mark in the front.
The primary Ascend Team, with Audrey and Mark in the front.
In the modern atmosphere of mandatory crunch, long hours, and impersonal management in the gaming industry, their leadership style is far beyond their years, as both of the leads are only 22-years-old. They look forward to long and successful careers in their fields of choice, and it really speaks to the strength of the team that almost every single member of the forty-two-person team has found a great job in their industry of choice. Mark is currently working on Apex Legends for Respawn Games, bringing his high-flying style and love for speed to the battle royale genre while Audrey has found her place at Blizzard games working on their next big masterpiece even though she did mention in passing she was tempted to work at a boba tea shop as she did during her senior year.

The VR Bandwagon. With hundreds upon thousands of people wanting to get their hands on a VR device that was still in development, huge companies, including giants like HTC and Steam, Google, Lionsgate and Samsung, among others, started heavily investing in virtual reality technologies and experiences.

The beginning, the end, and Lean Motion

Ascend is slated for release sometime near the end of Summer 2019, finally allowing VR competitors to take to the pastel-colored skies at breakneck speeds. Mark and Audrey say there is still a good amount of polish being applied to the game so that the final product will be all the more satisfying. The amount of hype and attention they have received from this project was surprising to them, so they have put in more effort to pay back the community that has given them so much.

To this end they said that they are currently working on developing a third character, along with a few other minor things, however, the biggest and most important gift to the VR community was planned from the very start. The source code for Lean Motion will be released as open-source for anybody who wishes to use it! That means that this new, cutting-edge technology will be placed freely into the hands of whoever wishes to create something with it and the devs are extremely excited about the prospects of what that might bring.

It Is Global. Virtual reality is not just a thing in the United States alone. People all over the globe are learning to embrace the technology. Some of the biggest virtual reality conventions are actually held in other nations. Some of the leading companies behind virtual reality are located overseas as well. Virtual reality is gradually becoming a great way to connect with people from around the world. No matter the distance, this technology can bring people together.

Mark and Audrey themselves talked about how they had also thought of an idea for a role-playing game with the flight system and that the possibilities for how the code could be used were endless. They have great hope that the VR community will make great realities with their system, and we wish them both the best of luck in their careers!

Designing a cross platform VR game in Mr.Hack Jack news
Designing a cross platform VR game in Mr.Hack Jack news
Making a VR Game From Scratch: Part1 — Need Ideas
Making a VR Game From Scratch: Part1 — Need Ideas
Every Game Confirmed For Oculus Quest So Far
Every Game Confirmed For Oculus Quest So Far
Making a VR Game with UE4 & Publishing It
Making a VR Game with UE4 & Publishing It