Please note: Star Wars Squadrons is not included in this post as ILMxLAB did not produce the game, just provided VR support.
Even though VR has been around now for decades and has consistently been touted as the next big thing, it has yet to take off to the level of console or PC gaming. The big factor in this is the cost versus what you get. Facebook’s Oculus is on the cheaper end with the latest Quest 2 (299USD for 64GB and 399USD for 256GB) and on the opposite end, you have the Valve Index VR Kit for 999USD (excluding the PC required to use it). There are just over 200 VR games on Steam, 665 on PlayStation and the average VR game size is 800MB and game length not nearly as long as non-VR games but some with similar price tags. And then, there is the setup and space needed to play compared to the ease of a traditional console or PC, highlighting that VR is still a luxury, even in gaming. Despite these challenges, Lucasfilm and ILMxLAB have been able to carve out space for Star Wars in VR in five years through three different experiences.
Collective Experiences | Star Wars Secrets of the Empire (2017-2018)
ILMxLAB worked with The Void (former mixed-reality entertainment franchise) to put together a location-based experience at Disney Springs in Orlando, Downtown Disney in Anaheim, and a 12-week engagement in London.
In canon, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire takes place before the events of Rogue One. Participants are in teams of up to four people, joining the Rebellion disguised as stormtroopers and traveling to the planet Mustafar. The mission is to recover Imperial intelligence vital to the Rebellion’s survival. Along with K-2S0, teams navigate and blast through an enemy facility to fulfill the team’s orders.
Secrets of the Empire was a 15-minute group experience where guests were able to interact with a virtual reality that mirrored the real world space: if there was a door in the VR experience, you would find that door in the real world; if there was a blaster to pick up, a real blaster you would find in your hand. A pure immersion only a VR-based company, and a lot of money, could provide. Adding in check-in and a briefing provided by Cassian Andor (Deigo Luna) himself and the total experience was about 30 minutes. With ticket costs at 35USD and reservations needed at each location, Disney was able to provide a realistic, premium VR experience to a mass amount of people for the same cost as a VR game. The overall experience was a huge success, financially and critically with many outlets claiming that Disney/Lucasfilm along with The Void had finally cracked the VR code for success.
This was also before Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge opened so it was the closest thing for fans to get an in-world Star Wars experience. But not all of the coverage was positive: Jamie Feltham from UploadVR said that while the content was “incredibly well made and sure delight Star Wars fans of all levels” the cracks started to show 10 minutes into the game and the hand tracking technology was “far from perfect” with “difficulty telling if your free hand is holding the end of the weapon or actually being held out in front of you.” Worse though was regular freezing while moving between positions. Not every guest experienced this but, with a price tag of 35USD, errors like that would leave any paying customer with a sour feeling. All things that could improve with time and more investment and testing, which seemed like Disney was willing to make given the success of these experiences. Unfortunately, in 2020 (due to the pandemic), The Void faced financial difficulty and Disney subsequently terminated the company’s licenses and agreements. Hopefully, Disney/Lucasfilm can find some way to bring these types of experiences back to the Disney retail/entertainment complexes outside of the theme parks.
Narrative-driven Experience | Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series (2019)
Next up was platform-specific Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series, a three-part VR game that has two-player modes: narrative and non-narrative. Like Secrets of the Empire, Vader Immortal also takes place on Mustafar but, unlike the former, has a narrative screenplay written by David S Goyer (Blade Trilogy, Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel). The narrative is a first-person pilot who, along with their droid ZO-E3, finds themselves at the mercy of Darth Vader when the pilot learns he is a force-sensitive descendent of Lady Corvax, who has hidden a key artifact within his castle that he seeks but only a blood heir can open. The player learns the history of Mustafar (which use to be a lush green planet) and ultimately must battle Vader to save Mustafar and the galaxy. The non-narrative “lightsaber dojo” mode allows the player to hone their skills for long-term play (and future Star Wars VR games).
Vader Immortal was a success in terms of sales across the Oculus and PlayStationVR platforms and has even picked up some top awards: Game Developers Choice Awards (Best VR/AR Game) and the VR Awards (VR Experience of the Year). For others, however, it strangely seemed like a step back, as Jeremy Horowitz at VentureBeat put it when referring to Vader Immortal, “a VR experience is a movie without fixed cinematography, or a game minus deep gameplay or branching storylines — you’re a participant whose participation barely matters.” And this sentiment is somewhat understandable, especially if you are used to playing games with story modes that can be edited and viewed as a film. But Vader Immortal is not trying to be deep gameplay on the level of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. It is more like being transported into a three-issue comic, exploring a part of Star Wars canon, moving within the world, and being given the cues to turn the page. And it’s telling that ILMxLAB recently announced that Vader Immortal will be getting a special retail release later this Spring with all three episodes bundled together, including an art book, postcards, and more. (You can read my story review of Vader Immortal here).
Pay-to-Play DLC | Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge (2020)
The second VR project to release in 2020 was Star Wars: Tales from Galaxy’s Edge which is a first-person shooter campaign released with an add-on DLC narrative tying into The High Republic. The first part sees the player (a droid technician) who finds their ship under attack by the Guavian Death Gang above Batuu. Using the escape pod, the player finds themselves in Black Spire Outpost, having to shoot, reload, repair, and repeat their way out through members and other scoundrels and creatures. There are plenty of guns to pick up on your way through the game and the tools at your disposal are plentiful compared with Vader Immortal and there is more to explore outside of what would be present in the parks, giving the building the character and identity to Batuu outside of Black Spire. Total gameplay is between 3 – 4 hours with a small boss fight at the end and some familiar droid faces show up along the way.
The added DLC is the first of future add-ons for an additional cost. The entry point for the launch DLC, “Temple of Darkness”, is Seezelslak’s Cantina (which is also the main hub for the game) as he recounts one of his tales. In the tale, you are Padawan Ady Sun’Zee who has to battle dark side temptations and an evil Sith Relic alongside Master Yoda in a Jedi Temple near Black Spire during the High Republic. The skills that are learned from lightsaber training in Vader Immortal come in handy for this 15-minute story. Hinted by your humble bartender Seezelslak (voiced by Bobby Moynihan), the story of Padawan Ady is teased to continue in future DLCs. Besides the first gaming experience taking place during the High Republic and a nice additional voice casting of Frank Oz as Yoda and Ellie Araiza as Ady, this base game shooter/ long-term narrative bank of Star Wars stories might be the best use of VR for Star Wars. Per ILMxLAB’s Jose Perez III interview in Star Wars Insider #199, they “wanted a structure that would allow us to play in all the different eras of Star Wars while giving us the flexibility to dabble in new gameplay mechanics and interactions.” So yeah, a VR version of Star Wars comic issues is a smart way to keep these VR games fresh with new 15-minute stories added across all Star Wars timelines. I know many gamers have issues with pay-to-play DLCs but it makes sense for the VR Platform, especially if the base game mechanics will be useful in future VR games like Vader Immortal’s lightsaber dojo. They could even do tie-ins to series releases: imagine the PR if they dropped a Galaxy’s Edge tale involving Obi-Wan that leads up to the anticipated Disney+ show.
There are many barriers to VR becoming a staple in households, and it might never truly be as popular as traditional gaming consoles, but ILMxLAB has created a solid blueprint for other franchises of how to push out content that remains evergreen.