In the months since Vulcan, Inc., placed its Holodome inside Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, 38,000 people have stepped into the 360-degree immersive reality experience. Now, almost a year later, Paul Allen’s company is unveiling an interactive twist that the late Microsoft co-founder got a glimpse of shortly before he passed away.
“Dome of the Dead: Escape the Bayou” takes Holodome beyond the passive nature of its previous content offerings and allows users to take up arms against advancing zombies. The first-person-shooter game — which will be available to the public starting Friday at MoPOP — lets up to four players experience the high-tech surround video and sound inside Vulcan’s creation, without the use of a headset.
The objective was to create something that appealed to a wide range of gamers, and for it to not have a big learning curve. And that made sense when it came to Allen himself, who was described as a “curious gamer” who was very much interested in virtual reality and interactive experiences.
At Vulcan’s studio in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, Allen got to see and try a very early version of the game last September, just a few weeks before he died on Oct. 15, at age 65.
“He was fantastically curious about this,” said Kamal Srinivasan, director of product development at Vulcan and Holodome’s product manager. “Before this game got rolling he definitely wanted to understand, ‘OK, what are the different kinds of games?’ He loved it. That’s why we’re very excited that we got it completed.”
“Dome of the Dead” was created in a tight 6-month timeline by Endeavor One, a Seattle-based VR company founded in 2014 by veteran game developers. Here’s the official description of what to expect:
What was supposed to be a safe use of alien technology to purify the earth’s waters somehow turned into humanity’s ultimate fight for survival — and now you are in the middle of it. In “Dome of the Dead,” an intense 4-person cooperative shooter game, you and your friends must work together to escape the onslaught of alien-zombie hybrids prowling the infested Bayou and reach one of the last safe zones in existence.
The 10-minute game is pretty much what you would expect from reading that — lots of bullets flying and zombies exploding. Srinivasan said in the month or so that they’ve been testing it at the museum at Seattle Center, they’re measuring success in “screams per minute.”
“If you think think about VR multiplayer games, you’ve got to move,” Srinivasan said. “In this, we’re moving the scenes around you.”
Previous content inside Holodome wasn’t quite this heart pounding. The passive experiences were more cinematic, and were meant to wow visitors with sound and video absorption, as well as vibrations underfoot which played to the sense of touch.
But while user scores were high overall and feedback was positive for experiences such as “Death Planet Rescue,” “Justin Timberlake’s Montana,” and “Seattle Seahawks: Art of the Play,” MoPOP’s Holodome visitors voiced a desire for more interaction, and Vulcan listened.
Developers set out to build something that wouldn’t require users to wear a bunch of tracking gear. “Dome of the Dead” fits that bill, because players are tracked inside Holodome just by the plastic guns they carry, each with a color-coordinated laser pointer for taking out zombies and keeping up with each shooter’s score.
“Our foundation has been in VR, so the idea of ‘VR without a head-mounted display’ was an immediate appeal for us as game creators,” said Tom Doyle, co-founder of Endeavor One. “Our history as first-person-shooter console developers meant we got to apply our years of know-how, and translate that type of entertainment to the emerging Holodome platform. That being said, like all things new, it was exciting and with lots of valuable lessons from the development process. Being first means there are no rules.”
Endeavor One has created original VR entertainment titles for console, PC and mobile and most recently helped Microsoft Studios and 343 Industries launch Windows Mixed Reality with the release of “Halo Recruit.”
In three stages during “Dome of the Dead,” the action gets progressively more intense, but gamers are battling for the top score more than trying to stay alive in the swamp setting. Despite swipes from creatures that appear to leave bloody marks across the combatants, you can’t be killed, you don’t lose any power and you never run out of ammo. I found myself holding the trigger down for the duration, spraying everything that moved.
Doyle cited two major components in what makes the game appealing to casual and hardcore gamers.
“First is the shared social aspect,” he said. “Social co-presence in VR is only merely representative in its current form. In the Holodome, being able to stand side by side with other players makes it a much more human gaming experience.
“The second component is the concept of ‘immersive reality’ — the full high definition sensory experience is something that really needs to be seen to be completely understood,” Doyle added. “There is nothing on the market quite like it. With ‘Dome of the Dead’ we wanted something both action-packed and suspenseful to introduce the public to Holodome and showcase it as a gaming platform.”
Along with content offerings, Holodome itself is also evolving physically. The latest iteration of the dome being built in Georgetown is 20 percent bigger than what’s used at MoPOP and it can snap together like LEGOs in three days and come apart in one day. The door to enter has been reimagined and so has the vibrating floor.
When asked whether Vulcan will continue to develop Holodome in the absence of Allen, Srinivasan said it was the billionaire’s vision to bring the concept to life.
“It’s business as usual on the Vulcan side of things,” Srinivasan said. “There are no changes on the Holodome directive. We’re going hard at our potential customer segment. … Our vision was, ‘Can we create a shared immersive reality without isolating and without a headset?’ That’s what we’ve been out to prove and we are well on that journey to make sure we can do that.”