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In early 2024, a VR action game based on the theme of “underground mecha combat” was born – “UNDERDOGS”. With its high reputation, it has gained considerable popularity and has shown a strong posture of a “dark horse”. The developer behind it, One Hamsa, is a small VR game studio. In 2018, they launched the VR game “Racket: Nx” (Chinese translation: Squash Space), which was inspired by squash and brick-breaking. It is also a highly acclaimed work. During the holiday period of 2019, the game announced that its revenue exceeded 1 million US dollars.

A small team of only a dozen people has developed two such excellent works in succession. What are their unique insights into the VR industry? Recently, VR Tuo Gyro had the honor of having a conversation with Dave, the creative director of One Hamsa Studio, to learn more about this VR content developer from the Middle East.

Dave (Photo source: One Hamsa)

About UNDERDOGS

The Chinese translation of “UNDERDOGS” is “Mech Heroes”. It currently has a 97% positive rating on Steam (1,003 reviews) and a Quest score of 4.86/5 (1,050 reviews), achieving great success in both reputation and sales.

The protagonist drives a five-ton mecha and fights a desperate battle in the dark underground world. The mecha control is based on physics. The faster the player punches and the larger the swing, the more powerful the attack. In terms of movement, a design similar to that of an orangutan is used to avoid dizziness caused by the translation of the joystick. The roguelike elements are mainly reflected in the randomness of events in the process and accessories sold in the store. Some choices will be determined based on the number of dice rolled by the player. This game has designed more than 100 types of equipment for players to prepare and strengthen the hands and body of the mecha, so as to obtain more powerful combat power, ensuring a different experience in each round of the game.

The game has maintained content updates since its release in January this year, including new weapons, events, etc. The patch just released on June 27th added official Chinese subtitles to the game.

“UNDERDOGS” is based on the theme of mecha battles in underground arenas. (Photo source: One Hamsa)

A 100% independent VR studio from the desert of the Middle East

VR Gyro:First of all, could you please briefly introduce yourself and tell us about the founding of One Hamsa Studio? Why did you choose to start a business in the XR track?

Dave:My name is Dave, and I am one of the five founders of One Hamsa and the game director of the studio. I have been friends with the other founders for a long time. One of them and I went to elementary school, and later worked together and even lived together for many years. The other two founders and I became friends at a global game competition a few years before we founded the studio.

We founded the studio to make games in our own way. At that time, no other game studios in China were doing the projects we were interested in, and we didn’t like the management style in our previous workplaces. So we decided to do it ourselves, for ourselves and for the local ecosystem.

About a year later, when the VR game Racket:Nx (also our first title) started gaining traction as a free trial, we decided to focus our efforts on the XR space. We like unexplored areas where the main players and competitors have not yet been determined, and there is a lot of room for new studios like us to grow with the industry, carve out our own niche, and put ourselves at the forefront of new areas of gaming.

VR Gyro:What is the current size and composition of the studio?

Dave:We are currently 14 people. 5 of them are founders, 3 are current partners, and there are some remote freelancers. Our technical team is 6 people, 3 of them are founders, the art team is 5 people including me, and then marketing, quality assurance, and studio heads.

We often work with external services and freelancers, but the team size won’t change much.

A recent photo of the team in 2023 (Source: Facebook)

VR Gyro:One Hamsa was founded in 2016. What do you think is the biggest difference between the studio now and when it was first founded? What has remained the same?

Dave:This is a thought provoking question for me, thank you.

I don’t think our core values ​​and internal behaviors (or “culture” as they say in the tech world) have changed since day one – we strive to be authentic and honest internally and with our players; we love our craft and are committed to improving, polishing, and delivering well-made, coherent games; we want to continually innovate and go where no one has gone before; we consider One Hamsa our second home and want it to remain a relatively small, 100% independent, financially viable creative enterprise for many years to come.

Today, I think the biggest difference is that we are more mature. Just like a person grows, we are better at what we do, but at the expense of flexibility; we are more pragmatic, but at the expense of idealism; we understand who we are more than ever before. I am glad that we have been able to maintain our integrity and values ​​in this process, and I hope we will never forget them.

“Games from the desert” is the studio’s slogan (Photo credit: One Hamsa)

VR Gyro:One Hamsa’s first VR game, Racket: Nx, combines American squash and brick-breaking. Why did you come up with such a creative combination?

Dave:Racket started out as a tech demo for Waves Audio’s spatial audio plugin Nx. The goal was to make a small VR experience to showcase the plugin, but we wanted to expand it into a full game.

So, inspired by Breakout, we thought of making a paddle-based brick-breaking game. In a spherical arena, bricks are placed around the player, and some of them are portals. If you hit a portal, the ball disappears and appears from a random portal in the arena. The best way for the player to deal with it is to listen for it, and using the Nx plugin you can identify exactly where the ball is coming from and turn around to face it.

In this way, we have provided Waves Audio with a great way to demonstrate its plug-ins in a way that is engaging and has the potential to go beyond a technical demo.

VR Gyro:Since its release in 2018, this work has been continuously updated for 6 years. Can you share some experience in long-term operation of VR games?

Dave:The initial demo of Racket: Nx was released in 2016. Our goal was to make it a full-fledged game, but Waves Audio wasn’t interested and we had almost no budget.

We had to work hard for the next few years until the game was released and all the updates after that. Every penny of revenue was put back into production, but it was never enough to develop the game into what we knew it would be. We ended up taking on commissions from many XR startups to cover the continued development of the game. Out of a sense of responsibility for the game and its community, we worked pro bono for several months and eventually even brought in another partner, Keshet International, to help fund the game’s development.

The game has been in Early Access since day one, which means it has remained active over the years, even as it has undergone massive changes. We have a great community that has supported us along the way, benefiting from the generosity and enthusiasm of the early VR spirit, allowing us to make mistakes and learn along the way.

Racket: Nx (Image source: One Hamsa)

VR Gyro:In addition to original VR games, One Hamsa has also collaborated with companies such as Simbionix, Mantis Vision and ActiView. Can you introduce these B-side businesses?

Dave:Yes, this is an XR-related commissioned project we have completed for some companies.

All of these are high-tech companies that need our expertise and flexibility to help, whether it’s VR – in Simbionix’s case, we synchronize VR simulations with real CPR dummies for educational purposes, or AR – we’ve developed various AR applications for Mantis Vision, including continuous real-world AR embedding in 2018.

VR Gyro:What is the current proportion of the studio’s to C and to B business?

Dave:Overall, we spend about 15% of the studio’s effort on these B2B projects, and they generate about 25% of the studio’s revenue.

These projects have been our lifeline for years. They kept us from closing down when there was little money to be made developing games for VR before Meta Quest came out. While it’s still proving to be very difficult to make a living in VR games, I hope to never have to work on anything other than my own games again.

Designing around VR limitations to avoid breaking immersion

VR Gyro:Next, let’s talk about One Hamsa’s new VR game UNDERDOGS. What was the starting point for the game’s design?

Dave:It’s hard to pinpoint the beginnings of UNDERDOGS. We first came up with the idea of ​​piloting a robot in VR that would mimic the movements of its operator in melee combat in 2018.

Sometime in 2019, we developed methods for drawing 2.5D comic-style illustrations in VR, which had absolutely nothing to do with the concept of mech piloting. This was also around the time when the concept of Big Sys and the AI ​​nanny state (an integral part of the game’s lore) began to take shape. Although the idea of ​​a modern, realistic interpretation of cyberpunk had been in my head since around 2017.

All of these things finally came together in early 2021, when we came up with the characters, story, and specific style for UNDERDOGS.

VR Gyro:The game creates a unique atmosphere of the underground arena through graphics, plot and music, and the plot cutscenes give people a feeling similar to immersive comics. What is the inspiration for this stylized treatment?

Dave:I wanted to make a modern take on cyberpunk. I wanted it to feel dangerous, realistic, and down-to-earth. So I started building the world of UNDERDOGS by drawing inspiration from criminal organizations, gangs, and mafia culture around the world, as well as modern-day perceptions of the “underworld.”

We wrote pages of lore, developing the game world and culture, its unique language style, mapping it, and imagining its social trends, fears, and motivations. I used a lot of early AI-generated imagery (the 2021 Disco Diffusion model) to develop the visual feel of the world, and the art team used these rough but inspiring references to set about bringing the world to life, both in 3D for arena combat and in 2D for cutscenes outside of combat.

Music also played a big role in defining the style of the world and gave us reference points throughout the production process. There is a sub-genre of UK Grime and Bass music that I particularly like. It sounds dangerous, raw, and underground, but it is not a well-known genre, so it feels foreign and doesn’t quite match our real life.

The cutscenes in UNDERDOGS use a comic book style. (Source: One Hamsa)

VR Gyro:In UNDERDOGS, players operate mechs from the cockpit, but the physics-based actions are very intuitive, and the mechs feel heavy and the combat is impactful. How did you achieve this effect?

Dave:I love that you framed the combat as having impact and weight – making a melee game in VR that felt that way was a fundamental goal of ours with UNDERDOGS.

Normally, hand-to-hand combat in VR doesn’t feel good because there’s no impact or weight. You’re holding a lightweight controller and punching your target, but you can’t feel anything you see in the game world. This is very immersive.

The idea is that if you put the player in a mech that follows the pilot’s movements, the player’s in-game arm can accurately follow the real-world arm, while the mech’s arm physically interacts with the game world. We speculate that this will avoid the dissonance between what the player feels and what they see, while retaining the feeling that the player is the one doing everything. This also allows us to make all interactions in the game physically based, because it’s not the player’s arm that is interacting with the world, but the mech’s arm that the player is controlling.

It’s a simple yet effective way to get around a fundamental limitation of VR, and I’m glad it proved itself.

VR Gyro:UNDERDOGS reminds me of some movies like Real Steel and Pacific Rim. Did you draw inspiration from any classics?

Dave:Of course, but the works most mentioned by fans such as Pacific Rim, Real Steel, and Titanfall are not the main sources. For me, the biggest sources of inspiration are the movies District 9 and Elysium, the classic TV series Overheard, and the first episode of Love, Death & Robots, “Sonnie’s Edge”.

And a lot of the inspiration didn’t come from fictional media. My real-life neighborhood was a big source of inspiration for the “jungle” streets where the game takes place. I started learning Muay Thai early in the game’s production, which also provided a lot of reference for me.

In addition, various underground fighting competitions on YouTube, such as Street Beefs and King Of The Streets, and even the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), are important reference sources.

VR Gyro:The combat system will increase the power of the attack based on the player’s punching speed and arm swing range. What are the technical difficulties of this design?

Dave:I think one of the key challenges for combat systems is translating the player’s simulated free-form actions into the types of binary interactions we’re used to seeing in games. In a game where there’s no “high kick” button, no pre-made player animations, how do we define “action”? How do we make sure the player’s actions look and feel cool?

Ultimately, we defined the “quality” of a punch as a value between 0 and 4, based on how fast and hard the player punches, and gave it corresponding bonuses to damage and impact, as well as larger VFX and SFX. The result is that players punch hard and hard – they really get into it – and we kept the analog controls while gamifying their quality to a certain extent.

The mecha will realistically reproduce the player’s hand movements. (Image source: One Hamsa)

VR Gyro:The movement of this game adopts a control method similar to “gorilla support on the ground”. Why did you choose this design instead of a joystick? This method seems to help reduce VR sickness?

Dave:In our opinion, movement is another major limitation of current VR systems that breaks immersion. Using joysticks or teleporting in first-person VR doesn’t make sense and doesn’t provide good control.

So, like our solution to the weight problem (putting the player in a mech), we wanted to find a solution that felt good and made metaphorical sense in terms of movement.

If you’re flying a mech, then a joystick-based movement scheme does make sense metaphorically, but does it feel good? For some mech types in some games, maybe. But our game is about the body, about moving the body, about being a mech! We knew very early on that we wanted to use as few buttons as possible, because this is a game about action, so joystick movement was a no-go.

We came up with the gorilla-like movement system early on, and it was an immediate surprise. First, it felt good and intuitive, and provided very detailed movement control. Second, it gave the player a strong illusion that you were a giant metal beast! Nothing feels better than dragging yourself around the arena on your knuckles like a 5-ton ape. Finally, VR sickness wasn’t an issue, thanks to the tight player control over movement.

VR Gyro:Many VR games add random elements to ensure replayability. UNDERDOGS achieves this through random events, dice, equipment, etc. What do you think is the most important part of the design of the meat pigeon element?

Dave:A lot of people can talk about this better than I can. But I personally think that the idea of ​​”Zero or Hero” is the key to a good roguelike. This idea means that there will be times when you are terrible and can’t do anything well, and there will be other times when you feel like an absolutely powerful god. I think if there are good combinatorial possibilities between the random factors in the game, that is a big step towards achieving this goal.

VR Gyro:How long did it take to develop this game? What was the biggest challenge during the development process? How did the team solve it?

Dave:UNDERDOGS took us two years to go from proof of concept to final game. For those unfamiliar with game development timelines, that’s a crazy schedule, especially considering we had to invent a lot of mechanics and ideas from scratch. Half of the team had just joined, and none of us had worked on a project of this complexity before, so there were a lot of unknowns and interdependencies in terms of design and product.

I think the schedule itself was probably the biggest challenge, because it made all the other challenges much harder. There was no time to make mistakes, reflect, take a break – combined with the unknowns in the project, it added a lot of pressure. I never want to make a game under those conditions again, but I’m glad we had no choice and that we got it done in the end.

The game’s update “Dangerous Streets” released in June. (Photo source: One Hamsa)

VR Gyro:Currently, more and more studios are turning to online services and multiplayer VR games. Why did UNDERDOGS still choose to make a stand-alone game?

Dave:There are three main reasons.

First, we wanted to focus on lore and world-building, with characters, places, and events – an area we still feel is lacking in VR games. Single-player experiences are better suited for this type of content.

Secondly, we didn’t want the game’s success to depend on having enough concurrent users of average skill at any given moment. We felt the game was risky enough without making it dependent on yet another external factor.

In the end, we already had enough technical and design challenges just making a physics-based mech combat game, and we would have been even less responsible than we already were if we had added multiplayer to the timeframe we had (laughs).

VR Gyro:Will you consider adding multiplayer elements such as PvP or cooperative modes in the future?

Dave:This is indeed the question we are asked most often, and we are happy to be asked this question.

VR Gyro:This game has received very high praise from users on both Steam and Quest. Can you share the sales results? What is the approximate sales ratio between Steam and Quest?

Dave:Yes, UNDERDOGS is highly reviewed, I believe it is currently the highest rated game on the Quest Store, and has a 97% positive review on Steam. The sales ratio between the two platforms is close to 2:1, and the game has sold tens of thousands of copies so far.

VR Gyro:Can you tell us about the subsequent operation and update plan of UNDERDOGS? Are there any plans to launch this game on other VR devices in the future?

Lack of healthy competition is one reason VR is in trouble

VR Gyro:One Hamsa is located in the Middle East. Can you briefly introduce the local XR industry environment to us?

Dave:As a high-tech country, the content industry here is not so developed. We have many XR startups, and even some of Meta’s core XR software development is done here, but there are only a handful of XR-related content or product studios.

VR Gyro:UNDERDOGS added Chinese subtitles in a recent update. On behalf of Chinese players, I would like to express my gratitude to you. What do you think of China’s XR market?

Dave:You’re welcome, and we’re delighted to finally have this service available.

I think the Chinese XR market, with brands like PICO, is best positioned to bring real competition to Meta, which I think is currently sorely lacking, and would greatly benefit the development of the XR industry. Competition is an important source of health and innovation in any market. We learned from the console wars of the 90s that good competition is essential to the development of gaming hardware.

So, come on China! I support you.

Even after the turmoil in 2023, PICO is still the focus of the industry. (Source: PICO)

VR Gyro:One Hamsa’s LinkedIn page mentions that “the studio has been developing two new original VR games since 2019.” One of them is UNDERDOGS. What information can be revealed about the other work?

Dave:First, this is a great opportunity to express my appreciation for the depth of research and questions in this interview.

To answer your question, things have changed since we last updated LinkedIn. While we are not currently developing another VR game, there is a game world that has been brewing for 10 years, and if it goes well, we will definitely make a game for it.

VR Gyro:Since the release of Meta Quest 3 last year, the number of mixed reality gaming experiences has increased rapidly. What do you think about the future of MR gaming?

Dave:There’s no doubt they have a ton of potential, but personally, I haven’t seen anything that interests me as a player.

VR Gyro:Meta just announced on April 22 that it will open its operating system Meta Horizon OS to third-party partners and gradually eliminate the barriers between Meta Horizon Store and App Lab. As a developer, what do you think of this event?

As for the latter though, I think Meta’s storefront needs a deep overhaul. It’s already hard enough to find, filter, and discover good games there. If App Lab were incorporated, categorization and aggregation would become even more important. I hope they learn from Steam.

Meta Store is integrating with App Lab. (Image source: Meta)

VR Gyro:Apple launched Vision Pro in February. What do you think of this spatial computing device? Will you consider developing content for Vision Pro in the future?

Dave:I don’t think the Vision Pro is relevant to game developers right now, and we have no interest in developing apps for the platform for now. I don’t see anything groundbreaking about the device, especially in terms of the software design it facilitates. As Apple fine-tunes its product for the wider market, I’m sure we can easily re-evaluate our position.

VR Gyro:Apple Vision Pro does not come with a controller, and relies purely on hand-eye and voice interaction. Do you think this will limit game design? What types of games do you think will have greater potential on this platform?

Dave:Each hardware has strengths and limitations, and good game design will take advantage of the former and cleverly circumvent or support the latter.

The fact that the Vision Pro has no controllers but has flawless hand tracking limits some designs but enables others, and I’m eager to explore these kinds of controls (although I don’t think they’re compact enough for non-casual games right now). However, designs without buttons or other binary inputs are certainly a bigger leap than traditional game design.

VR Gyro:From last year to this year, there has been a huge wave of layoffs in the gaming industry. How did you and your studio cope with the difficulties you encountered during this period?

Dave:Over the past few years, the world around us has been hit by several shocks, including the pandemic. We have done our best to persevere and overcome all the difficulties in reality. The large-scale layoffs in the video game industry have aroused our sympathy for the unemployed, but other than that, we will continue to move forward as long as we are able.

Vision Pro has been launched in eight overseas markets outside the United States, including China, in June. (Image source: Apple)

VR Gyro:What do you think about the current market environment and future development of VR games?

Dave:The future is going to be bright for VR developers and the entire ecosystem. When? I don’t know.

I feel like we’re in a rut right now, VR games and hardware haven’t really inspired me very much lately, and the same can be said about the development environment. I think a lot of this is due to the lack of competition. Without a real competitor threatening to overtake Meta and take a major market share, there’s only so much Meta can do on its own.

VR Gyro:Do you have any advice or tips for independent studios and developers who want to get into VR gaming?

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