Reality Labs

Last man standing: How BigBox’s ‘POPULATION: ONE’ successfully dropped battle royale into VR

By David Jagneaux
August 6, 2021
The Kingdom Age comes to POPULATION: ONE with new features, new items, new areas, and more.

One of the most defining trends of the game industry over the last five or so years has been the rapid and all-encompassing rise of the battle royale genre. To put things lightly, it’s taken off like a rocket into the stratosphere with groups of players from all over the world dropping from orbit down onto maps to stake their claim on the crown.

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There can be only one

In October 2020, right alongside the release of Oculus Quest 2, BigBox VR launched POPULATION: ONE (available now on the Oculus Quest and Rift Platforms as well as Steam). Just like in most other battle royale games, the setup in POPULATION: ONE is simple. You and your squad are sent down into a map that’s full of guns and gear to scavenge while you square off against rival squads to be the last team standing. The longer the match goes on, the smaller the safe zone gets, and the higher your chance of running into someone that wants you dead becomes. Eventually, there’s only one squad left standing.

POPULATION: ONE is actually the studio’s second game, following after the release of Smashbox Arena, a dodgeball-based VR game with a more whimsical art style and presentation. To this day it still has a dedicated fanbase, but now BigBox VR is focused on the high-flying future of their battle royale baby. And so far, it’s paying off.

“We started BigBox to make sure that VR has great multiplayer social experiences,” says BigBox VR’s Head of Studio, Chia Chin Lee. “In terms of the battle royale genre, we actually started by looking at survival games. We thought, ‘What would happen if you try to survive within a VR world in that kind of game?’ Then battle royales started to come out while we’re prototyping, and we realized there really was something to that.”

“We started BigBox to make sure that VR has great multiplayer social experiences.”

Head of Studio, Chia Chin Lee

Pivoting from a survival game to battle royale might seem drastic at first, but the two genres are actually more closely linked than you may realize. The origins of the entire battle royale genre date back to Minecraft and the zombie-based survival setting of H1Z1’s spin-off game mode, King of the Kill. The genre didn’t explode in popularity until PUBG and Fortnite really took things up a notch. Nowadays it’s about as ubiquitous as team deathmatch, but it wasn’t always that way.

“One of the things that we really wanted to make sure of is that it's not just a product you launch and forget,” says Lee. “You have to build that community. What people saw was that we came out and it worked and everyone thought, ‘This is a great game, let’s keep playing!’ But what most people didn't see is the previous span of over two years of building that community in the background, playing with them every week, sometimes a few times a week, and building a group of people who tell us what they love and what they hate, so that when we launched for real, it’s already a vibrant world. We care about social, community, multiplayer games. There are many opportunities now for others to launch great multiplayer games, and I think the ecosystem is there for people to do that.”

"We wanted to do stuff in an FPS shooter that you couldn’t do outside of VR."

Lead Designer, Kaden Nugent

Loading into a multiplayer VR game for the first time is such a profoundly different experience from its non-VR counterparts. For starters, you’re not staring at a screen and clicking through menus to find people to play with. In VR, you materialize inside of a world that surrounds you. If you’re new, those first few moments are first impressions of a digital space you’re visiting—not just a game you’re playing. Everyone has a mic in VR, and everyone has a unique body language when they speak.

“We live and breathe VR,” says Lee. “We’re in VR every day, but if I remember the first time I went into VR and had another person standing next to me that was actually not next to me in real life, that sense of presence you feel and you hear their voice and you sense their body language, it’s so immersive. That sense of magic and presence is definitely what we wanted to capture in a squad-based game. You’re communicating to people. You can actually point in a direction and say, “Hey, the enemy is over there!” That is so unique to VR.”

Elevating shooters with VR

Virtual reality has the power to redefine games as we know them, and there are tons of examples of how it’s changing genres in all sorts of exciting ways. But what’s most exciting is when developers are able to create new mechanics and interactions in VR that couldn’t have even existed in a non-VR game. Adapting what’s known to a new medium is great, but charting the unknown is where we find the really special moments.

“A lot of where POPULATION: ONE came from was, we wanted to do stuff in an FPS shooter that you couldn’t do outside of VR,” says BigBox VR Lead Designer Kaden Nugent. “Moving and interacting on a pancake screen, a 2D screen, just isn’t the same. So climbing and flying were some of the very first things we added to create the free motion system because you can’t do that anywhere else.”

“This is probably our most diverse and dense area that we’ve brought to POPULATION: ONE so far."

Art Lead, PM Casey

Those are the types of interactions that make VR so special, but they’re also the most difficult to convey to someone that hasn’t tried it before. In a traditional FPS game you might have a button that lets you aim down the sights of a gun or a button that makes your character hold its breath so their arms don’t sway as much when sniping. But in VR, you just physically do those things. Instead of being limited by the way the game’s designed, you’re limited by your own ability to stay steady, react quickly, and navigate environments smoothly. It’s an entirely new skill set when playing games that rely more on actual physical muscle memory than just moving your hands and fingers.

“It comes down to a lot of the little nuances that VR adds,” says Art Lead, PM Casey. “For instance, the climbing specifically, I’m a big shooter player, and the actual act of climbing and hanging off of a ledge and looking around your shoulder and firing over things, it’s a totally different experience than any other shooter provides...The way that you look around the map and think about moving around it, it’s just so different, and adding climbing and flying on top of all of that is like a giant puzzle that we’re trying to piece together.”

Whether you’re in a shoot out at a saloon, ducking behind the bar and poking your head out to take shots across the room, or scaling the walls of a medieval castle tower, POPULATION: ONE is full of incredible moments you can’t experience anywhere else.

Kingdom Age and beyond

Now with Season 2 officially over, it’s on to the next phase for POPULATION: ONE. This week, the brand-new Kingdom Age update was released with a new map region, new skins, new weapons, and a slate of exciting upcoming events to keep players engaged and coming back for more. 

Inspired by fantasy fiction and medieval lore, the Kingdom Age update looks to the past to determine the future of POPULATION: ONE. In addition to a sprawling castle, surrounding village, enormous towers, and more getting added to the map, players will be able to find and wield the legendary sword Excalibur, too.

“This is probably our most diverse and dense area that we’ve brought to POPULATION: ONE so far with the castle as the main centerpiece,” says Casey. “But there are also three to four micro regions within the kingdom itself, and all of those are very, very diverse. We have the peasant quarters in the outer ring of the kingdom, there’s the town square near the center, then the noble district estates, and then there's rural farmland as well with ruins of a wizard tower. It feels like this very vibrant and large space on the map. Even the castle itself is one of the most interesting interior spaces that we’ve built. ... It’s a really great sandbox that shows off our vertical combat system.”

And this time, it’s all without instituting a paid battle pass system like before. Instead, BigBox is experimenting with a more event-driven approach to keep players engaged more consistently.

"We wanted the freedom to change our format more towards events rather than a Battle Pass," says Nugent. "Instead of focusing on one big change that trails off, this gives players more beats of excitement throughout 11 weeks. Each big event will be unique, and has its own free rewards."

This update is a big shift for how POPULATION: ONE has existed for the last several months, but it should infuse some excitement into the community with a schedule of things to look forward to.

The Kingdom Age update is out now, so don your armor, sharpen your blades, and get ready to drop in to one of the most thrilling multiplayer VR games around with POPULATION: ONE. You can grab the game right now on Quest, Rift, or Steam for $29.99 USD.