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Ultimate Swing Golf Devs Talk Challenges, Safety & Mixed Reality In Bringing Golf To VR

Ultimate Swing Golf Devs Talk Challenges, Safety & Mixed Reality In Bringing Golf To VR

Clap Hanz has spent 25 years making the studio synonymous with the golf game.

Partnering with Sony, it developed Everybody’s Golf and even created a PlayStation VR version in 2019, which saw the company make its first steps towards VR. A brief detour into the world of tennis aside, Clap Hanz dedicated itself to refining their prowess for golf games and has now branched beyond PlayStation platforms. Following 2021's Easy Come Easy Golf, the studio is back with last month's release of Ultimate Swing Golf for Meta Quest.

With a new coat of paint, Ultimate Swing Golf takes the core mechanics the team has refined for decades to Quest devices for the first time. It offers a slate of fantastical golf courses where you can hit the golf ball around in virtual reality, swinging the Touch controllers like real golf clubs. The company wisely chose not to reinvent the wheel, seeking to recreate the studio’s strengths in this new environment rather than overturning its typical approach to the genre just to accommodate a change in play style.

Yet even with this experience, jumping into VR was far from easy. I recently spoke with the team behind the company’s latest effort, including director and producer Masashi Muramori, lead programmer Kengo Sasaoka, lead artist Keisuke Futami and co-lead game designer Shunsuke Takashima. We discussed lessons the team learned from their experience working on Everybody’s Golf VR and how the nature of Quest's hardware assisted greatly when developing this new game.

“PlayStation VR and Meta Quest are completely different devices. Each has its own strengths, each has its own challenges,” explains Muramori.

“We found developing for the Meta Quest fairly straightforward, so there weren't too many challenges as we were able to develop based on our previous experiences. Two strengths of the Meta Quest series are that it’s untethered, which helps with player experience. As we were developing, we found that the controllers for the Meta Quest were highly responsive, so we were able to realize all the minute nuances and details that we wanted to include in the game.”

“From a programmer standpoint, the Meta Quest devices are well supported with Unity, and as we were developing the game in that engine it allowed us to maximize the game's performance for the Quest,” continues Sasaoka.

Instead, the challenges were more practical, and carried over from PlayStation VR: controllers are not golf clubs. “Compared to real golf, where you feel the weight of the golf club, the controller for the Meta Quest is very light, so it was hard to come up with a balance of how to make golf shots feel real.”

“What we did was develop our own tech that allowed us to adjust various parameters related to golf swings, then we had people who actually play golf come in and playtest to see how real the swing felt. From there we did multiple iterations on that until we came to a place where it felt real enough to put into the game.”

Like other Clap Hanz golf titles, there’s a delicate balance at play between the visuals and gameplay feel. This isn’t aiming to be an accurate true-to-life simulator in the vein of Golf+, nor is it an off-the-rails mini-golf title. Towing the line between arcade-like fun and simulation is key to Ultimate Swing Golf, which involves balancing the feel of the swing to approximate the real thing without locking out newcomers lacking in real-world golfing experience. It must be approachable yet real, courses must resemble a real layout but can have fun with more outlandish settings amidst urban cityscapes and autumnal valleys.

Indeed, this balance is a question Clap Hanz has pondered throughout its history, constantly refining its definition with player expectations and earned experience. As Muramori defines it, “We want kids and adults alike to be able to pick up our games, before maybe then going on to play real golf. Perhaps that would be an entrance for people to not just play our game, but go out on the course and play real golf. That's why, from a graphic standpoint, it's accessible for everybody, but at the same time, we’re really keen on the physics of the golf ball and how that is shown. We read up on the most recent golf theories as it relates to physics and golf ball behavior and do our best to put that into the game, so hopefully it feels real and fun at the same time.”

VR brings a chance to make this more real than you could ever approximate on a typical controller, yet it's bound by the limitation that it's not a golfing club, and you’re not standing on a real course. Beyond needing to balance the feel of a controller that weighs far less than a golf course, there are more practical concerns: controllers could fly loose from your hands, and as you stand in your living room encased within a virtual world, you can’t see what exists around you beyond the manufactured space. If a person walks past as you swing a club with all your force, you could strike or even injure that bystander, a consideration that would never exist when playing a flatscreen golf title.

It’s a third factor that must be considered when balancing simulation and the force of a real swing with the accessibility, fun, and safety of players and those around you. Explaining the ‘safety precaution’ needed while developing golf in VR, Muramori explains, “The game is developed in a way that players don't have to swing the controller as hard as they can because you never know who's going to walk past you in your room, especially if you're playing in virtual reality. This is the same for Sony with PlayStation VR as well, but both Sony and Meta have safety precautions so that the player can swing the controller lightly, yet at the same time the trajectory of the ball should reflect the real shot.”

“A completely accurate simulation of physics and ball trajectory causes the game to become less accessible, and it becomes difficult to shoot a straight shot. As such, a mechanic to limit how much the ball curves has been implemented, and the trajectory of missed shots are managed in a way so players have a chance to recover from this. Both of these mechanics are here to help novices challenge themselves while still having fun.”

It’s something the team has in mind for more avid golfers in a future update. Clap Hanz plans to introduce a feature that allows you to swing the controller lightly or as hard as you can, just as you would on the course. You would still need to be careful of what’s around you, but the planned update would add this option.

Even if the team could take lessons from their previous experiments in VR to aid Ultimate Swing Golf's development, the shift in hardware also brought with it new features the team could experiment with to try and enhance the experience, making the new game distinct from its prior titles. Beyond the all-new characters and courses, this comes most prominently in the introduction of mixed reality support in light of Meta's big MR push with the Quest 3.

“The discussion on introducing mixed reality to [Ultimate Swing Golf] actually came from discussions with Meta,” notes Muramori.

“Obviously Meta are committed to VR, but they're also trying to put a stronger focus on mixed reality, so it was basically a request from Meta to see if mixed reality would make sense for Ultimate Swing Golf. So we went back and did our research and it looked interesting, it looked doable, and that's where the discussion started.”

The resulting mode turns your living room into a driving range or putting arena, allowing you to practice your shot in a more homely environment with your caddy as support. While enjoyable, it had its challenges from a development standpoint.

“It’s worth mentioning that mixed reality is still fairly new as a technology, so there's a lot of innovative visionaries that are trying to do new things. At the same time, the technology is still being developed, so it's not quite there yet,” Muramori admits. “One of the challenges we faced was that when we rendered the game in the real world, it tended to look flat, whereas it should have looked more 3D.
“The realistic depth of your vision isn't quite there yet. Obviously it's still being developed, and hopefully with new hardware and new technology this will be further improved. As mixed reality develops further, we would like to update the feature so that the game world looks real when it's reflected into the screens of the Meta Quest headset.”

After working on golf games for 25 years, it should come as no surprise that many on the team are golfers or fans, even if their experience and opportunities to get out on the course differ amongst them. Whereas director Muramori can’t get out much anymore due to neck issues, the game’s lead artist, Futami, is a more regular golfer. As we wind our conversation to a close, I couldn’t help but ask whether the time spent developing golf titles, especially in more recent years with the jump to VR, has made a difference to their swing.

“I haven’t been able to get out on the course as much lately because we were developing the game, but I have been on the driving range more recently and I’ve noticed the trajectory of the ball seems to be the same [in-game when hitting the ball] as it is when I’m out on the range, so maybe there’s some correlation! I’ve tried hitting different shots in-game and then replicating that on the driving range, and it does feel like there’s a loose correlation, which has been satisfying. I hope to get out on the course to see if the experience has helped to improve my score!”

What about the future of Ultimate Swing Golf? Beyond the aforementioned update, I’m reassured that more updates are on the way. “We would like to address feedback as much as possible in future updates,” explains Muramori. “Also, we cannot give away too much at the moment, but we have DLC in the works, so we hope everyone looks forward to this in the near future.”

What Ultimate Swing Golf offers is an alternative to other golf titles on Quest, an experience forgoing the precision of a true simulator for something more casual yet enjoyable as you swing the ball around the stylized courses on offer. With new updates, planned DLC and online play, there’s enough to suggest more is on the way that aims to please fans, once again embodied by decades of experience from a developer dedicated to the world of golf.

Ultimate Swing Golf Review: Should You Putt This On Your Headset?
Ultimate Swing Golf is filled with charm, but the gameplay on the course is a swing and (sometimes) a miss. Our full review.

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