E3 2019: Beat Saber 360 Mode Feels like a New Way to Play

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Developer Beat Games last week revealed a new ‘360 mode’ for their VR hit Beat Saber. Notes can now come from all around the player instead of just straight ahead. While it feels like a fun new way to play, it makes beat mapping considerably more complex. It’ll take innovative and creative mapping to really make 360 mode great, and for that, Beat Games should turn to its community.

Beat Saber’s primary mode throws a series of blocks at you from directly ahead. It’s simple and straightforward, but can be very challenging at high levels, which is part of the reason why Beat Saber has such broad appeal. A new ‘360 mode’ planned for Oculus Quest allows beat maps to send lines of blocks at you from arbitrary directions as the song plays out.

At E3 2019 I got to play an early version of the 360 mode. As a relatively high-level Beat Saber player, I found it very intriguing and I see a lot of potential, but it’ll take more time to discovery what kind of note patterns really make this mode shine feel unique and awesome.

You can think of the 360 mode much like the normal mode, except that the direction where the blocks are coming from can rotate around you on the fly. No matter which direction they’re coming from, they’re still traveling in straight lines, but notes can come along multiple tracks at once with different angles to you. Lines on the ground are used to show where you can expect the next string of blocks and to give you an idea of which direction you should be facing.

I got to play two songs, both of which were only mapped up to Hard difficulty. At first the songs started with notes coming head-on, but pretty quickly I saw the lines on the ground shift to indicate that notes would be coming from the side. The lines worked well to tell me ahead of time what to expect, and even slicing notes that moved between tracks felt pretty natural as they shifted gradually around me. However, sometimes the lines and note paths intersected in front of me and it was little more difficult to sort out the order of the notes because of the way they intertwined as they got closer to me.

In the end, playing in 360 mode was fun and different, and definitely felt like a new way to play Beat Saber compared to the standard mode, but it’s clear that it’ll take more time to learn how to make beat maps in the 360 mode which are really innovative and interesting. Ideally 360 mode should allow note maps which create totally unique movements for players compared to the standard mode. Because the design space of 360 mode is larger in scope though, it’s going to be more difficult to discover what really makes a great beat map.

In order to accelerate this need to learn what kind of 360 mode beat mapping could really be awesome, I think that Beat Games ought to put these tools out to their passionate communicate to see what kind of interesting 360 beat maps they come up with.

While the 360 mode could be a cool addition to Beat Saber, it could also represent ‘feature-creep’, which is dangerous for an indie team like Beat Games and for a game which thrives because of its simplicity.

Beat Saber already features the standard mode and ‘one saber’ mode, both of which have unique maps across four difficulties. That means that to make one song level for Beat Saber, the developers need to hand-craft eight unique maps if they want to serve every difficulty of both modes. Introducing 360 mode means not just more complex mapping, but four additional beat maps for each song (if they choose to cover all songs and difficulties with the 360 mode), meaning each song needs 12 hand-crafted beat maps.

Beat Games says that 360 mode will debut first on Quest because of its untethered 360 tracking, but it expects that a similar mode would come to other headsets later in a way that confines the rotating notes to some area in front of the player (so that they don’t get wrapped up in their cable), perhaps a ‘180 mode’. Without incredibly careful mapping and testing, it seems unlikely that 360 maps could easily be automatically converted into 180 maps though, so again, a 180 mode might mean yet more complexity and work when it comes to beat mapping.

Speaking with the developers though, it sounds like 360 mode is still very early and both the mechanics of how it works and the extent to which it will or won’t cover all of the game’s music is unclear. So we’ll still have to wait and see if it ends up being a boon for the game or extra baggage.

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