Virus Popper, an educational and recreational virtual reality game developed in response to the novel coronavirus, was created by the indie VR gaming studio Starcade Arcade and released in April.
When the world went into lockdown in March, videogame developers Alexander Clark and Brandon Haist, cofounders of Starcade Arcade, asked themselves, “How can we help?” The answer came quickly: create an educational virtual reality game about staying safe in the time of Covid-19 and release it at no cost to users.
Five days later, the pair had fully created Virus Popper, an arcade-style virtual reality game about personal hygiene and safety. As of early May, less than a month after its debut, Virus Popper, averages some 200 downloads a day and users can play for free on the Oculus, Steam, and Viveport platforms.
Here’s how the game works: Donning a VR headset, the player assumes the perspective of a green alien equipped with sanitary weapons such as disinfectant spray and a toilet brush. After washing their hands virtually in the game for an entire 20 seconds (it’s a literal game requirement, you cannot proceed without doing this), the player can then zap viruses with their cleaning supplies as they hurl toward you from a clear blue sky.
The game’s viruses look a lot like ARS-CoV2—the formal name of the novel coronavirus— if interpreted affectionately by a cartoonish hand. The more googly-eyed germs you kill, the more points you earn and the quicker viruses fly at you. The game ends once you are “infected”, which happens when a virus slips past your defenses—or if you touch your face.
PW chatted with Clark and Haist to learn more about how Virus Popper was developed and why VR is an ideal space to explore the ways we can interact virtually with the world.
Publishers Weekly: How quickly did you develop Virus Popper?
Clark: I showed Brandon a build for Virus Popper not long after we went into quarantine in early March. The idea was to create an educational title that worked in the messages we were hearing from the CDC about hygiene, but in a friendlier manner. Brandon was 100 percent on board with the idea, so we went into full sleepless mode for a week creating it.
Haist: We started work on the game March 15. We finished polish on the game around March 20th.
The game is on Steam, HTC Viveport, and Oculus. How do these platforms differ in terms of bar of entry?
Haist: Steam is the most open about allowing users to quickly get content out to gamers. They have early access programs for beta testing that are a great place to incubate content. HTC's Viveport offers the next level curator, with them carefully playtesting all content thoroughly before allowing store uploads. Oculus has the highest standard for performance, demanding the strictest criteria of their developers to push for a good experience.
Did the platforms offer any feedback?
Haist: HTC Vive reached out to us and spent a lot of time discussing ways to improve [Virus Popper], with full support of the solution. They had both their marketing team as well as development test teams represented from three different countries.
Clark: Yes, that was interesting. Normally the game would just go through review and they would come back saying if it needs work, but in this case HTC asked for a Skype call. They said they thought it was amazing, and wanted to know about us which was pretty cool. They actually escalated the approval process on their end. Oculus also gave us feedback through the Oculus Start program, intended to help upcoming game developers.
Why do you think HTC took special interest in Virus Popper?
Haist: HTC was getting a lot of Covid-19 related games that were jokey and crass. They wanted a game that touched on the virus, because it is such a relevant topic, but it’s also a sensitive issue that affects us all very much. I think they wanted a game that was educational as well as positive.
Virus Popper features aliens—not humans. Why?
Clark: We thought it would be interesting to use aliens instead of humans because of all the xenophobia going around. Additionally, we wanted to go for a sci-fi feel loosely in the same way we did with our other game, Starblazer, a VR strategy game set in space. The virus is already scary, so we definitely didn’t want to add to that. That’s why we made it look vibrant and friendly.
This game seems like it would be great for kids, but is it that your target audience?
Virtual reality really is intended for audiences aged 13 years and older, as they are technically developed enough at that age to handle the intense effects of VR. However, we recognize that many younger players are exposed to the medium by watching other streamers, YouTubers, and influencers. Our goal is that even if the kids don't play the game, they can still absorb some of the positive message by watching those that can.
What fascinates you about virtual reality? Why do you specialize in this gaming medium?
Clark: Brandon and I always want to be working on the newest technology, as that’s the most exciting for us. When we started out three years ago, we were seeing studios and developers building out VR games like they were 2D games, as well as 2D games being made into 3D games. But VR requires you to think about gaming differently. In VR, the user really believes they are in this environment. That’s a lot different than if they were sitting down with a controller in their hand looking at a screen. You have to ask yourself questions about how the mind processes interactions. Brandon studied cognitive psychology and is big into this aspect.
Haist: Yes, people do random things that they don't even realize they’re doing when interacting with an environment. VR lets you explore that. It’s such a challenge and there’s still so much to figure out, which is why we love it. It’s kind of all one big experiment.