Audica is a VR rhythm game from the studio that created Rock Band and Dance Central, Harmonix Music Systems, Inc. Currently SteamVR, PlayStation VR, and the Rift are supported platforms. Players stand in place and shoot targets in sync with the music track with Star Wars inspired blasters. Disco balls also fly at the players from both peripherals and need to be hit with a blaster to be destroyed. Targets are two colors, both of which correspond to the right and left blasters. Points for the targets are scored based on a base score of 1000 for hitting the target and two 500-point categories for how in sync with the song and how close to the center the shot was. This means that a single target is worth 2000 points. For the disco balls, a score of 1000-2000 is awarded based on how hard the target was hit. Both scores can be multiplied up to 4 times based on how many consecutive targets/disco balls have been hit successfully. Players can even earn skill points by performing tricks. These are done by interacting with the touchpad and involves either spinning the blaster or letting go/throwing it. Although Audica has been in Steam Early Access since March, version 1.0 was recently released on November 5, 2019. This release included additional songs, a party mode, more environments, a campaign, and additional customizations unlocked by progressing through the story.
It was made with gamers in mind as most of the advertising has been toward them, but I would also argue that another potential customer that Harmonix has in mind is VR Arcades. The tutorial image is always present to the left of the player on the main menu and the gameplay is not hard to pick up. In fact, the only thing not intuitive to the player is hitting the disco balls. The addition of the party mode could also be indicative of an attempt to branch out. Finally, the game a score history and global high scores which is very reminiscent of an arcade game.
Audica does something that a lot of VR games do today, and it does it well. It plays around with one mechanic and expands on it. There’s not a lot going on with the controls, so they blend into the background, allowing the user to focus on what they are seeing, rather than blindly (literally) trying to find the right control. It also lines the handle of the blaster with the grip of the controller, furthering the narrative that the player is holding a laser blaster straight out of Star Wars. Along these lines, the controls are very easy to pick up. Most people have seen how a gun/blaster works in movies and can pick up the “pull the trigger to fire a laser” command quickly. Aside from that, the instructions essentially boil down to a three to four sentence slide in the game that is always visible. Experienced VR users who have the feel of the controller down can use the touchpad for tricks, but it is not required. Audica even advises the player that the game will work better if they blasters are within view of the player. This helps tracking on the Rift because the tracking is inside out from the headset and if the headset cannot “see” the controllers, then tracking can only be reliable for a few seconds.
There’s not a lot for the player to interact with outside of the menus and the targets. In fact, the entire environment, except for the platform the user is standing on, is placed out of reach of both the player and the blaster. This allows the developers to both play with the scale of the environment and maintain a decent framerate. Things further away can be rendered at a lower resolution so the player can focus on the targets. It also prevents the player from having to look around to see the menus since even they are placed at a good distance. Players shoot at the menu to pick options. With this, Harmonix has made the areas that the blaster is pointing at brighter so players know what they will choose. This is a good alternative to a pointer, since the blaster does not have a pointer on it when playing the game.
Along the lines of the environment, all environments in Audica are abstract and some are abstract representations of real-world environments such as temples and arenas. This puts everyone on the same footing since most can relate to the concept of an arena, but Audica doesn’t provide such a detailed space that only a subset of players can relate to it. Most of them are muted in color, preventing player’s from becoming overwhelmed and not being able to see the targets. If players have trouble seeing the targets using the default colors, they can go into the menu and change the colors to something they can see and differentiate well. These environments are also adjustable to the player’s height. Players can either rely on the height set by their platform or set in themselves in the settings menu. Since height is something that must be considered in VR, this helps the usability of the game. It would be hard for a taller player to hit disco balls aimed to low and vice versa.
Also, in the settings is a utility to help the players find the right target, audio offset for them. Since people, computers, and VR headsets are different, the audio to video sync might be slightly off, especially on lower end systems. This problem is exacerbated in VR because if something like this happens on a screen, players can just write it off as a hardware issue, but if this happens in VR, it could cause some players to have a negative physical reaction. Imagine a vase breaking in a video on a computer screen, and the audio is delayed. There’s not really a problem here unless you’re an audiophile. If this were to happen in the real world and the sound was delayed, the brain might be slightly suspicious that you’re in the Matrix.
The player does not physically need to turn, they just need to move their head around. They are also on a stationary platform. Both help reduce the risk of vertigo and getting caught on the cable, if the HMD has one since the players feet stay in the same position. But, since the player must move their head to hit the targets, it can be hard to find where the next target will be as the field of view must be considered. To counter this, the game places light rays as children of the targets that appear. These light rays point in the general direction of the next target. Furthermore, almost no targets are spawned at such a distance from the previous one that the player that it will be out of the players field of vision. Even the disco balls start near the center of the screen and travel in an arc so the player can see them if they are looking forward.
Audica is a great game, but it doesn’t get everything right. The advanced levels, for example, require the player to look around very quickly to hit targets. This can cause neck fatigue for some players since some headsets can be hefty. On these advanced levels, there are obviously more targets to hit. When a target is hit it causes a flash of light and some particles to spawn. This may cause some eye strain since each flash is displayed on a screen very close to each eye.
Since the controllers’ order matter, each controller must be mapped to a certain hand. There is no way of knowing which controller belongs to which hand outside of opening the Steam menu or instinctively knowing the that the blue blaster belongs to the left and orange, the right. There is no way to swap the mapping in the game, the player must physically switch the controllers.
Currently, it seems the immediate plan is to add more songs as they have released DLC featuring Ariana Grande and Post Malone with a season pass, promising more songs by the end of the year. Long term, I could imagine that an AR version could come out for smartphones. Users could move the phone around them and tap on the targets instead of blasting them. I don’t see it coming to other VR platforms like Google Cardboard and Samsung/Oculus Gear, however. Even though mid-range phones could drive the graphics on medium to low settings, these platforms don’t offer the high-fidelity tracking needed for enjoying Audica without a virtual pointer that users would have to “re-center” every minute.
Overall through, Audica is a great game. It’s well thought out and address a lot of issues that previous VR games have failed to. It is also a positive sign that larger companies feel more comfortable investing in consumer level VR (those music licensing fees aren’t cheap).