Respawn's first VR game is Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond

"It's different than Titanfall," says Respawn's Peter Hirschmann of the studio's new big-budget WWII VR shooter. "It's different than shooting zombies. It's about something that really happened."

Two decades after he helped launch the original Medal of Honor on PlayStation, Respawn's Peter Hirschmann is getting ready to ship the latest entry in the war-fighting franchise -- and the first in virtual reality.

"Coming back, it's great. For a lot of us it's been 15, 16 years where we 've all done other things," Hirschmann said during a recent press event attended by Gamasutra. "But there's something special about this series. It sprung from Spielberg, and a lot of us were just starting out in our career."

Hirschmann worked as a writer on the original game, and for the past two years he's been directing Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond, the game teased by Oculus in 2017 when it announced it was working with Respawn on a VR project.

Formally announced at Oculus Connect this week in advance of a planned 2020 release on the Rift, Above and Beyond is touted as a big-budget, triple-A WWII shooter with familiar trappings (including a campaign and multiplayer) built to capitalize on VR's immersive nature to sell both its setting and its design. 

"The last thing we wanted to do was 'Oh you're playing Allied Assault again, but in VR.' You've got a whole different experience as a combat engineer," Hirschmann told Gamasutra during a recent group interview.  

"So it's not just about trying to get to the shingle; you're having to navigate, do stuff, plant explosives, and it's been great to be able to tell the story of those engineers. So we try to not just say oh it's because it's VR, it's neat. We've tried to add a new twist...we try to bring new gameplay, new narrative to it."

In a VR game market still expanding and establishing a firm foundation, Above and Beyond is notable for its size and scope alone. While Hirschmann demurred when asked about the project's budget ("we really know how to spend Facebook's money; I don't know how else to say that"), he noted that the Above and Beyond team was 180 people strong at its largest, many of whom had never worked in VR before.

"We made sure to hire some ringers who knew what they were doing, but...yeah, the learning experience has been [significant]," Hirschmann said. "I love telling the story of how when we first got together with Oculus, I was waiting for them to hand me the binder of VR knowledge. Like, 'here are all the VR best practices'. And I remember [them] saying this right at the beginning, that in essence, nobody knows nothing. We are still figuring stuff out. And stuff that was considered best practices turns out not to be the case, things that we thought didn't work, when someone actually cracked that nut and figured out how to implement it, then it became standard."

As an example he highlighted how players move through Above and Beyond via direct analog stick control, rather than teleportation or another common VR locomotion system. This seemed like total anathema at the start of the project, but by the end it was the default option.

"When we started, the idea of stick movement was totally alien. Having to teleport from place to place was just sorta of what we had to do," Hirschmann explained. "It was the Marvel [Powers] United guys who really cracked that nut, and it was inspiring to see. I remember going 'Oh my god, this actually works,' and that opened up a world of possibilities. So to be at the front end of this platform, and to help kinda figure this stuff out and be inspired by what other people do...hopefully we're doing stuff that will inspire other developers."

This is Hirschmann's own first outing in VR, and after a career spent building big-budget games for other platforms, he's eager to celebrate how the touch-and-go nature of designing and testing VR games fosters empathy for players.

"It's so valuable to learn as you're making something, because it makes you empathize with the player way more," he said. "Because you have to figure it out for yourself, figure out how it works and what's comfortable, then you put it in the hands of a tester and player and see how they react."

In practice, moving through levels of the Above and Beyond demo available at the event felt comfortable enough, though Hirschmann acknowledges many players need time to get comfortable staying in the game for long stretches. 

Reflecting back across the long stretch of time between this and his first Medal of Honor game, Hirschmann says he still sees himself as getting to work on a project which might help some players appreciate what it was like to live through a World War -- but now he sees it from the perspective of the parents.

"I look at it as a parent, vs. as a kid. The one thing that we never ever want to glorify is war. That goes back to the original game, when we were first working on it," said Hirschmann. "Being able to work on a game like this, it's special. It's different than Titanfall. It's different than shooting zombies. It's about something that really happened."

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