ESPORTS DISCOVERY

How Asgard’s Wrath 2 Devs Crammed an Entire Open World Into a VR Headset

Open-world games like Starfield and The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom have the seemingly impossible job of maintaining a delicate balancing act. If they give too much freedom in too empty a sandbox, the signal-to-noise ratio runs the risk of getting muddy, and all that freedom quickly loses its luster. On the other hand, if the world feels too small, it’s easy to wonder why the developers bothered setting their game in an open world instead of a linear one. Asgard’s Wrath 2 – a built-for-VR, Meta Quest 3-optimized, open-world RPG – manages to strike that balance perfectly all while in the relatively new medium: VR. And yet, the principles its developers followed to reach the apex of both VR roleplaying and open-world exploration are strikingly familiar.

“There is nobody that has seen every single square inch of this world,” Mike Doran, production director at Oculus Studios tells me. “It’s one thing to build a giant open world, but if there’s not enough to do in it, who cares?”

Oculus Studios Senior Producer Mari Kyle adds in her own tidbit of universal wisdom, “We’re all gamers and we all want to make something that feels satisfying to us and feels like the games that we love.” For instance, the first open-world area in Wrath 2’s sprawling campaign, the Great Sand Sea, wouldn’t be nearly as detailed without her and her team’s early input. Its vast dunes and craggy desert canyons are teeming with points of interest, but even the most basic interactions feel good – whether you’re fighting swarms of lizard men in one of many side dungeons, or even just plucking ore from a well-placed vein.

“I could feel it in my bones that there should be a combat encounter here,” Kyle explains about her first visits to an early version of Asgard’s Wrath 2’s Egypt-inspired desert expanse. “Or like, I can feel that a player is going to go and explore in this area that totally looks like there’s nothing there – but if they find something it’ll feel really rewarding.”

“Whether it’s the big thing of rocks with the monster den inside of it on the way to the Red Chasm, or combat encounters inside of these little areas that you wouldn’t expect. Just making sure that, as we were exploring it, we wanted to feel rewarded and make sure that people who do put in that extra effort to explore it were rewarded too.”

“From the earliest discussions about the second game, we wanted it to have more of a – and I don’t use this comparison lightly at all – but more of a Zelda feel”

VR games are far more physically intense than regular games, as there’s a degree of mental fortitude involved in sticking with a big, 30+ hour VR game. Plus there just aren’t that many lengthy VR games out there, partially for that aforementioned reason. But of the three major players behind Asgard’s Wrath 2’s runaway success sitting on the conference call with me, no one was more personally attached to the series than Mat Kraemer, Asgard’s Wrath 2’s creative director at Sanzaru, who also chalks up Wrath 2’s ability to keep people coming back as a simple matter of good game design.

Make It Bigger, and Smaller

“On the first game, we were worried like ‘what is the retention going to be like? Are people really going to play this, this long?’ and we were blown away by how long people would stay in [VR] and keep playing the game,” Kraemer explains. “The best answer for this – it’s not necessarily a VR answer, it’s just a gaming answer – is ‘I want to play games that surprise me.’”

And Asgard’s Wrath 2 is full of surprises, from its larger-than-life opening battle with the massive, griffin-like Hieracosphinx, to the epic switchups in direction that come about in its later Sagas as game-changing new characters enter the fold.

Even then, there’s so much going on under the surface that I knew I needed to dig further to fully wrap my head around Sanzaru’s herculean lift toward the heavens. Making a VR game is difficult, but the minds at Sanzaru somehow managed to create an open-world VR RPG that spans 100+ hours and runs buttery smooth on the fully mobile Quest 3 headset. But how exactly did Sanzaru manage to follow up Asgard’s Wrath 1, a 130-gigabyte PC VR game, by delivering a Quest 3 exclusive that achieves the seemingly impossible feat of packing in four times the amount of content of its predecessor at one-quarter of the size?

“The shaders were completely different; it looked more like Disney Pixar… And we were like ‘man, I really wanna see real Asgard’s Wrath! The grit, that tonal style – that’s the franchise.”

Doran tells me the team spent the months leading up to the launch of the first game experimenting with the OG Quest before a plan for a sequel was formulated. But when it became clear that Asgard’s Wrath was a hit and support for the Quest was only growing in size, the team was immediately able to apply the lessons learned during the development of the first game to a whole new project.

“A fair amount of it was ‘what would we do differently if we were making the same type of game?’” Doran explains. “So there’s some element of that, and then another element of ‘we’re going to have to rebuild this for mobile computers – combat, questing, map sizes, all of those things.’”

The process Sanzaru followed to reinvent every asset for the Quest wasn’t exactly simple. Evidently, the team needed to do some serious trial-and-error before locking down Asgard’s Wrath 2’s visual identity on mobile hardware. “When we started out, we didn’t think it could look like what you see today,” Kraemer points out. “The shaders were completely different; it looked more like Disney Pixar. Like, a very different approach. And we were like ‘man, I really wanna see real Asgard’s Wrath! The grit, that tonal style – that’s the franchise,’ so we shifted to dig into that and lean that way.”

Playing Asgard’s Wrath 2, I noticed the art style was particularly contrasty, deviating from the style of the first game with brighter colors and more vibrance. Everything right down to the sand looks amazing on the Quest 3’s hardware to the point where you’d think it shouldn’t work as well for a game of its scope! Yet, even with glistening sand and giant beasts roaming in the distance, somehow it does. According to Kraemer, this can be attributed to “a phenomenal engineering team, an amazing art team, and then all the support from the Meta side.”

That vibrant new art style immediately came to life during the opening sequence, where Asgard’s Wrath 2 reintroduced me to the realm of the gods by giving me a tour of the first game’s major story beats on the back of a giant raven. My question to the team: how did the cinematography of these early cutscenes come together, looking and feeling so good in my Quest 3?

As Doran tells it, “The worst thing in the world is watching a really long cutscene in VR where you’re static, and it’s like a play happening around you.”

“So the fact that you’re moving helps a lot. [For instance, in the opening sequence of Saga 1] you’re following Abraxas as he’s going through all these traps, and we get to do little tricks – like he dodges an arrow that you don’t even see yet and it flies right by your head, and it keeps you engaged even though you were passive in that moment. A lot of little things like that, and keeping within a certain time length overall.”

Trusty Steeds

Much like the impressively cinematic story sequences that the original also did well (as we noted in our 9.4/10 review of Asgard’s Wrath), Asgard’s Wrath 2’s animal follower system was one of the main returning features from the first game. Sure, there are fewer followers than before – but the ones that exist also double as mounts, which is an important factor since the introduction of mounts means players can cover a larger distance without interruption. “We had [fewer followers] in this game than we did in the first one,” Kraemer explains, “but we wanted to do something more with them. We wanted more depth with them, we wanted to learn more about their stories.”

“You’ve got the finishers, and then you can transform them to get mount stuff; that alone really opened up the gates of creativity. We also didn’t want all the mounts when you transform them to be the same.” That the first concept art for Asgard’s Wrath 2 showed Abraxas riding a mount proves how early on the team wanted to include mounts in the sequel.

Mounts in VR have been a controversial topic far longer than I’ve owned a headset, but when I encountered Asgard’s Wrath 2’s mount system for the first time, it was such a well-developed experience – jumping into it and suddenly riding across the desert – that I had to wonder about the problems Sanzaru ran into during the testing phase. According to Doran, the genius autorun mechanic that activates when you pull on a mount’s virtual reins “came online pretty early,” and all the other quality-of-life features followed thereafter. But it certainly wasn’t easy.

“What was interesting was all the stuff that was needed to add to [Mount riding],” Doran explains.. “Like being able to push ‘A’ to instantly hop on or off the mount, being able to grapple to get onto your mount, and it was like… we started talking about all these kinds of things and they made all of them work.”

Like Zelda, But in VR

Doran describes the first game as being more akin to a Metroidvania, with big levels and exploration gated by abilities and backtracking. But even just playing the second game without speaking to the lead developers, it’s clear they wanted to give it a different kind of Nintendo treatment.

“From the earliest discussions about the second game, we wanted it to have more of a – and I don’t use this comparison lightly at all – but more of a Zelda feel,” Doran explains.”More of a true open landscape that you’re exploring. Not necessarily Breath of the Wild big, but if you think about [The Great Sand Sea, that feels kinda like Hyrule Field from [The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time].”

At this point, I was curious to know more about some of Asgard’s Wrath 2’s more modern open-world inspirations. Did its developers intend it to share any DNA with games like Starfield, or Tears of the Kingdom perhaps? “All of the above,” Kraemer says. “I mean, I was playing Starfield a couple months ago. Zelda, all those games. I mean, we love games.”

And yet, given the Quest 3 only has so much battery life, I knew I needed to ask the team not only how they got around friction, but also how they approached keeping people engaged in an open world for upward of 100 hours.

Doran continues, “I think the root of what you’re actually asking about is, how do we compel people to spend a lot of time in a device that they don’t usually spend this much time in?… How do we structure this whole thing in such a way that they don’t feel like they have to play for two, three hours – but they can if they want.”

There are two answers according to Doran; one, about making it easy to save and jump in and out of the game, the other, most importantly, is accessibility.

Speaking on this further, Doran tells me they consider factors like the pain points people might encounter. “Some of them are gameplay, like you said. But there are other, more foundational things about accessibility. We would have cut so many things to make this game easier for ourselves if I’m completely honest with you.”

“There are a lot of nice areas that you can take a break from the game and hop back in,” Kyle chimes in. “Even with the Uncharted Rifts that are procedurally generated, we have checkpoints in them – so you can leave them if you like and then come back and do your Rift run later. It was super top-of-mind for us when we were going through this development that people had good chunks to play in.”

Uncharted Rifts are one of the many unique experiences in Asgard’s Wrath 2, offering more of a roguelike experience by way of increasingly difficult trials that let you bring loot back into the main campaign. But more importantly, they serve as a testing arena for elements of the campaign that would later get rolled out as the team builds upon the open world. According to Kraemer, “We always knew we wanted that mode from the beginning.”

“And hats off to the amazing John Hsia our lead [level] designer, he’s a huge roguelike fan,” Kraemer notes. “He’ll finish Dark Souls with no armor, no nothing, he’s hardcore. We love roguelike loops.”

Nearing the end of our chat, one of my final questions was simply… how long do Rifts go for? Hypothetically, could someone complete Rift after Rift ad infinitum?

“Nobody knows!” Doran says as myself and the team laugh. “Yeah, it’s endless,” Kyle concurs.

With the endless amount of content packed into Asgard’s Wrath 2, it truly is the Quest 3’s killer app, rivaling the PC-exclusive Half-Life: Alyx for the title of VR’s best game. From my own experiences, it’ll put the battery life of your Quest 3 to the ultimate test as you lose yourself exploring, questing, and fighting across the ancient Egyptian desert – that is, if you don’t find yourself trapped in Rift after Rift after Rift.

Some quotes have been condensed for clarity.

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Author: Matt Kim