Battlezone is regarded by many as one of the first games to offer a glimpse of what virtual reality might look like. In fact, the original arcade machine had players looking through a “periscope” viewfinder that could be compared to some of today’s high-end VR headsets. Although we’ve come a long way from the 1980s wireframe graphics, the spirit of the game—where the player controls a tank against waves of enemies—lives on. Due to its first-person perspective and quasi-3D graphics, some consider Battlezone as a precursor to modern shooters.
Despite being around for over 35 years, Battlezone is a franchise that has been revived to fit into the technology of the era. A version that included strategic elements was published by Activision in 1998, which was followed by a sequel in 1999. The franchise later made its way onto the PlayStation Portable in 2006. Finally, a version that supported HD graphics and surround sound released on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008.
In 2013, the rights to Battlezone were purchased by Rebellion Studios, which will be bringing the franchise to the platform it was always meant to be on: virtual reality. The game is set to launch for PlayStation VR in the fall, with other platforms to follow. As an added bonus, Rebellion is remastering the games from the ’90s and will be releasing them on Steam as Battlezone 98 Redux this spring.
Rebellion co-founder and CEO, Jason Kingsley, speaks to [a]listdaily about what it takes to bring the classic arcade game into an all-new era of technology.
What convinced Rebellion to make Battlezone as its first VR game?
Battlezone has always been an important game to my brother (and Rebellion co-founder) Chris and I, ever since our childhood days playing it in arcades, peering into the cabinet’s VR-like visor that put you in that wireframe world. Likewise, we’ve always believed in virtual reality, and that it would make a return someday. So, when Battlezone went up for auction, we knew it made good business sense to acquire the property, but we had a feeling the time was right to bring it back as a VR game.
How does virtual reality enhance a game like Battlezone?
It’s much more than enhancement. It’s as a big a shift, if not bigger, than when games moved into 3D space. I imagine people might look at Battlezone and think, “I’ve played a tank game before, so I know what being inside a combat vehicle is like,” but even if it’s a huge cliché, you really have to put the headset on and experience it for yourself.
In terms of marketing, as an industry we’ve kind of backed ourselves into a corner by describing video games as “immersive” since the ’80s, but a traditional combat game simply can’t give you the sense of presence, peripheral vision and battlefield awareness that Battlezone does.
We’ve done hundreds—if not thousands—of public demos with Battlezone, and the most telling thing is that people just love looking around the cockpit, let alone starting to pilot the tank! Others drive around the game maps ignoring enemies because they want to take in these awesome sci-fi environments. This is the power of VR. It’s the difference between, say, playing racing games as a teenager, and then actually learning to drive in person.
With the Battlezone franchise, we’ve seen VR envisioned in the 80s and 90s. How would you say those compare with the real thing?
That’s interesting because the original Battlezone was clearly influential on Tron. We’ve seen many people say our Battlezone is Tron-like, but it’s Tron that’s really Battlezone-like! In many ways, films like Tron and The Matrix have shaped our imagined view of virtual reality, but what we’re seeing in this new wave of VR is a number of different titles and lots of variety.
And this is just the beginning. Who’s to say what VR might be in one, five or ten years’ time? As a developer, I’m excited that gaming is leading this new generation of VR, but games will eventually just be a small part of a wider VR ecosystem. There is just so much potential.
What convinced Rebellion to bring Battlezone to PlayStation VR first?
Sony has been really great to work with, and the company has done an amazing job supporting independent developers like Rebellion making their first VR titles. I think it’s a mutually beneficial relationship, of course, but we’re very excited to be able to say we’ll be there when PlayStation VR launches, day one. Naturally, we believe that Battlezone will be one of the essential launch titles, and with such a high install base for PS4, we’re confident PlayStation VR—and Battlezone—will do well.
How do you promote a game like Battlezone when the majority of people haven’t been able to try VR yet?
I think the thing we’re trying to remember is not to rush things. “Triple-A” titles, like our Sniper Elite games, require a certain timeline and lead-time for marketing, but as you rightly point out, it’s not that easy to actually try VR right now if you’re a member of the public, even if you’re interested in it.
This means we need to work with PlayStation so that Battlezone is at as many public shows as possible before launch, but also really leverage the community once PlayStation VR is in the wild, because it’s going to win a lot of converts very quickly, and they’re the guys and girls who will make VR a success via word-of-mouth.
No one is really sure what will happen when the VR platforms launch. How will VR ads work? Will YouTubers have the same success with VR games as they do traditional Lets Plays? Will we need to return to guerrilla hardware marketing like the original PlayStation days? These are the kind of questions we’ll be answering soon enough!
Apart from the VR features, what sets Battlezone apart from other tank-based shooting games?
Battlezone is far from a lumbering tank sim. It offers sleek, arcade, first-person shooting, so it has a lot in common with arena shooters, not just tank games.
The world we’ve created full of neon-coated wastelands and looming futuristic structures makes for a breathtaking landscape that you won’t see in many other combat games, and that’s just for starters. There are things like the license itself and all the nostalgia value that comes with it. We’ll have more than few treats for Battlezone fans!
What also makes Battlezone stick out as a VR game is the procedurally generated campaign map, in which dozens of environments, missions and levels will be mixed together across the single-player campaign. That means no two campaign playthroughs will ever be the same, and that should make Battlezone highly replayable.
What is it about the Battlezone brand that stands the test of time?
I think for a certain generation of gamers, the 1980 Battlezone sparked imaginations because it represented the cutting edge, the future of games at that time, so it’s remembered fondly for that. But for many gamers of the PlayStation 4 era, Battlezone will effectively be a new IP and their first gateway into VR. So it’s the best of both worlds!