How does a studio go from VR racket sports to urban sci-fi mech brawlers? With UNDERDOGS releasing on January 25 on Quest and PC VR, we interviewed developer One Hamsa to learn more.
Revealed last year, UNDERDOGS marks an intriguing second game from One Hamsa following Racket: Nx. Set in the 22nd-century underground fighting pits of New Brakka, this physics-based brawler uses arm-based locomotion and a comic book-style presentation, finding two brothers making their way into the city.
We were impressed by what we saw in our November UNDERDOGS preview. Going hands-on with a limited build, we found a tough but fair brawler, praising the "satisfying combat" and "great presentation." This led to us naming it as our Most Anticipated VR Game Of 2024, and you can read more below:
Keen to learn more, we spoke to One Hamsa through an email-based interview, discussing development with co-founder Dave Levy.
Henry Stockdale, UploadVR: First, thank you for answering my questions today. Could you start by telling me about yourself and your role on the team?
Dave Levy: Glad to. I'm Dave, one of the five founders of One Hamsa. We all have many roles in the team, mine are mainly game and art direction.
UploadVR: How do you go from making a game like Racket: Nx to UNDERDOGS, can you tell me about the development history?
Levy: For those who don't know, Racket: Nx is basically psychedelic racquetball in space. It's a sports game about high scores and motor control. UNDERDOGS, on the other hand, is a hardcore game about gangsters in mechs smashing bots in pit fights - it's a roguelike in a rich world full of f*&cked up characters, with RPG elements and massive customization options, and in general is a lot closer to the style and depth we know and love from PC games.
We made Racket: Nx in the very early VR days when everyone was just exploring the most basic mechanics (the first version came out in 2016!). But we're gamers, and we always wanted to see more hardcore games in VR. So that's what we set out to do with UNDERDOGS. Also, let's admit it, sports are great and all, but we wanted to make something more violent.
The idea of wrapping the player in a mech that follows their arm movement, bridging between them and the game world, came first. This small degree of separation was meant to solve the lack of weight & physical feedback that
always broke our immersion in VR melee games - you're there, but it's the mech's arm that actually smashes into stuff, so of course you don't feel it. This ended up working really well. UNDERDOGS has the best sense of physical impact of any VR game I've tried.
But an idea is never enough. Between prototyping the wrong things, working on expanding Racket: Nx, and dredging through commission work to keep the studio alive, it took us several years to arrive at a prototype we liked. We actually left the original concept at one point and it took me two years to say "guys, I can't let go of that mech idea." Luckily, one of my partners picked it up and in less than an hour cobbled together something that was instant magic - and we were back in!
By mid-2021, we had a playable POC, our main characters and world, and a fancy deck. We had most of the production budget covered by Racket: Nx and our commission work, but partnered with Meta for the remainder of it. We started production in 2022, with 2 years worth of budget and only half the team established. None of us have ever made something so big and complex, and literally no similar games to look to for reference. It's been an insane uphill battle every single step of the way, and I love (almost) every moment of it.
UploadVR: Were there any particular lessons or feedback the team took on board from Racket: Nx's development into UNDERDOGS?
Levy: We learned a lot of VR basics from Racket: Nx - from making UI work in VR, to crafting a satisfying physical interaction. Learning where you want to innovate because VR and where you want to keep things familiar and reliable was one of my personal biggest takeaways. Not that I have it down yet :)
UploadVR: One thing that immediately stood out to me during UNDERDOGS' reveal was its visuals. What inspired this comic book style approach and the New Brakka setting?
Levy: Thanks! The world of UNDERDOGS and New Brakka is an attempt at a modern-day interpretation of Cyberpunk. This genre is originally from the 80's when computer screens had two colors and punks were a thing. I wanted to take the basic premise of "high-tech low-life" and apply it to today's visions of the future.
Together with Canadian Sci-Fi author Peter Watts, we ended up with a humanity controlled by a benevolent digital dictatorship. An AI network known as Big Sys, that through resource and logistic control, saved humanity from self-destruction over the course of the 21st century. Big Sys is the ultimate nanny state: no one owns anything, privacy doesn't exist, everyone's behaviors and actions are scored, rewarded or punished.
But the world has never been safer or more prosperous. Most of the world, at least. New Brakka is the outlier. The last place still run by humans. A place Big Sys conveniently ushers all her unwanted psychopaths, criminally inclined and misfits to. As you can imagine, it's a s$%t show. That's where UNDERDOGS takes place.
As for the visuals, it's a combination of technical limitations and personal preference. I've always wanted to try to apply my understanding of composition, colors and lighting to a realtime game. We built UNDERDOGS' entire lighting and shading from the ground up. Here's what our basic shader looks like (every orange node opens to a sub graph of its own):
Lucky for us, we found Marcin Sobon - a fantastic Polish illustrator with whom I could develop a style that worked in 3D and was replicable to the game's huge amount of 2.5D comic-book illustrations.
UploadVR: When I played the preview build, I could only choose three preset mechs but the finished game features 100+ equippable items. What variety can we expect from combat?
Levy: UNDERDOGS is a roguelike, and the items you buy, steal, earn, or otherwise come by during the game will make or break your run. We have different weapons, status effects, modifiers, and game elements that synergize in various ways, making for a huge pool of combinations and play styles. This is also one of the areas of the game we are most eager to continuously update and expand on once the game is out!
UploadVR: What was the thought process behind using arm-based locomotion over analog stick-based movement, was it a challenge using that alongside throwing punches?
There are two main reasons for our locomotion system (which, for the record, we came up with before Gorilla Tag was a thing). First of all, we don't like buttons and sticks in VR. VR's control strength is movement, and moving increases the sense of embodiment. If I'm pulling myself forward with my arm, not only do I have more control over the motion, but I'm also more present in it.
Secondly, the entire fantasy of UNDERDOGS is that you get to be a rampaging 5-ton metal gorilla! It's about brawling, fighting face to face and being in the thick of it. You are not controlling your mech, you ARE your mech! The first time I tried this locomotion scheme, I was like "holy s$%t… I'm a BEAST!".
UploadVR: As a roguelike, how does each run change compared to your previous attempts?
Levy: There are three levels at which each run differs from the last: First, what did you learn as a player. What did you learn about the game, how much did you improve motorically, what got you dead and you will never let happen again? Secondly, we have a huge amount of content that you slowly unlock from run to run. New items to use, people to meet and patrons to sponsor your fights, offering new challenges and new rewards.
Finally, the run itself is full of random elements. The enemy roster, the people you meet, the items you come by, and all dice you roll throughout the run as you attempt to navigate the streets of New Brakka. A principle of roguelikes we try to live by is "Hero or Zero". Some runs you will just smash through. Other's you'll fall flat on your face.
UploadVR: Considering how many recent Quest games are using it, did you ever consider mixed reality support?
Levy: A big part of UNDERDOGS is the world and atmosphere. It's a VR game, meant for VR - a part of the promise is that we'll throw you someplace else. That said, we have some ideas for spinoffs in MR that we might be looking into once the game is out. Let's talk about it again then :)
UploadVR: It's been mentioned before that UNDERDOGS will have Quest 3 improvements at launch, can you elaborate on what to expect?
Besides the obvious across-the-board visual quality improvements (resolution, particle count, shadow maps, sampling quality, etc.), Quest 3 allows us to use higher-quality assets and additional details in a bunch of places in the game.
UploadVR: Is there any chance we'll ever see UNDERDOGS and Racket: Nx on PSVR 2, Pico or other platforms?
Levy: Next question please :)
UploadVR: Finally, are there any messages you'd like to share in particular?
Levy: I'm at the edge of an event horizon. I've never worked on anything so hard in my life, I've never sacrificed so much as I have for UNDERDOGS, and I have no idea how it will be received. But regardless of how it does, or even if it ends up not coming out at all due to some freak apocalyptic scenario involving pigeons - I'm just incredibly grateful I had the opportunity to work on a game where I feel I pulled no punches, with a team of crazy, talented and dedicated maniacs. UNDERDOGS is the game I wanted to make. I sincerely hope you and anyone who plays it has a great f$&king time of it.
Notice: This article was initially published on January 3, 2024. It was updated on January 11, 2024 to reflect the release date confirmation.