Adam Orth, the former Microsoft developer who became the victim of a maelstrom of internet hate following a tweet about Xbox One policies, is getting closer and closer to the release of Adrift, a space adventure from his new studio Three One Zero. While Adrift was intended to shine a spotlight on internet toxicity and the impact it had on Orth's life, it's morphed into something much more while still serving as a metaphor of sorts for Orth's "redemption."
"Adrift is going to be different than I think people are expecting, based on what the narrative themes are. Ultimately it's a story about action, consequence and redemption," Orth tells me before I play his latest demo.
It's easy to see the parallels with Orth's online experience based on that description, but for Orth Adrift is far more personal. "The themes and the narrative deal with things like addiction, parenting, relationships, growing as a person, cancer... when you say it like that it sounds heavy but it's not intentionally heavy. I purposefully wanted to write these character stories that were real. A lot of this stuff is taken from my real life. These are some of the things I went through and experienced and I just kind of got to the point where I didn't want to have another heroic 'save the world' game," he explains.
"There's nothing wrong with those - I play them and I like them - but I don't want to make one. I have things to say and I don't think I can say them in a Michael Bay movie, not that there's anything wrong with that because I quite enjoy Michael Bay movies!"
"There's nothing about Adrift that isn't a giant risk. The entire thing is a giant risk ball. But after my experience with the internet, I didn't feel like I had anything to lose"
Like any serious art form, Three One Zero's first title, Orth hopes, will make you stop and think (even briefly) about your own life experiences. "It's kind of neat because I don't think people are expecting the narrative they're going to get out of Adrift when they strap in. I'm excited and also terrified to see what people's reactions are. My ultimate goal, when you're done playing Adrift, is to hopefully have a moment or two of introspection about your own life... we're trying really hard to tell different, compelling stories, and hopefully we succeed," he says.
Three One Zero is aiming to introduce what it calls the First-Person Experience or FPX. What does that entail? Its main tenets, Orth says, are AAA quality, immersive, single session, narrative-driven, non-violent, innovative gameplay and emotional stories with meaningful themes.
"When you talk about FPX, the X is the kind of new thing. Right now for us, the X is VR. We're experimenting with how to add something unique and different to a first-person experience, and VR is exciting for us and I think it's going to be huge. I don't necessarily believe that gaming is the killer app for VR but our goal is to make a killer app for VR with Adrift," he says.
Three One Zero is launching Adrift on PC and consoles as a traditional game first, and then once VR headsets are actually on the market, they'll be ready. The excitement around VR is so high right now, that people often forget about Adrift being a traditional title first.
"We're kind of in a tech purgatory. We work so much and so hard to make Adrift the best traditional game possible but it's really hard after you see it in VR to be like I just want to go play it on a regular TV again," Orth remarks.
"It's frustrating because - I repeat this over and over in the press - most people don't understand that we're making a traditional game first, they think it's only VR. I say it every time I give an interview. The message of VR is so strong that people sort of stop listening once they hear it and it's just 'ok you're a VR game.' Even my colleagues are like 'oh I didn't realize,' and it's frustrating since we're launching our game in the summer and as far as I know [VR won't be out then], so that sucks for us. In some ways it's good too, because we'll have time to really hone the experience after we're done working hard to get the console and PC versions out there; we've been developing for VR since day one."
The game puts you in the role of an astronaut in a perilous situation - you're floating around space wreckage, running out of oxygen, and at the same time, you can use that oxygen to propel you forward to make it into a new area (and hopefully a oxygen canister refill). It's an interesting mechanic that forces you to carefully consider your precious resource. I'm too busy coming to grips with the controls, and then later in the VR version being mesmerized by virtual space renderings, to get absorbed the way I would in my own living room. But the experience is engaging even at this early point. That being said, similar to a Quantic Dream title, I could see it polarizing audiences. Orth acknowledges that success is hardly guaranteed.
"There's nothing about Adrift that isn't a giant risk. The entire thing is a giant risk ball. But after my experience with the internet, I didn't feel like I had anything to lose. It's been liberating, honestly. And then satisfying when people say they like it. My hope is that when this game comes out it's just meaningful to people and also fun. There's no bigger goal; it's just this is what I have to say at this point in time. We'll see what happens in the next one," he says.
Orth admits that the game won't provide 10-15 hours like a traditional AAA title, but that's a deliberate decision. "I think there's a market out there... people want to play a high quality, meaningful, 3-4 hour game in a single sitting. I think it's important. We look at Adrift like going and seeing the director's cut of Interstellar or whatever at the best IMAX you can. It's the evening of your life, it's 30 bucks and you've had a great time... We're trying to straddle the line between film and game but not in a 'trying to create film in game' way, but more about the experience and feelings about what you get out of a movie that meant something to you when you go see it," he continues.
While there's plenty of risk involved in the project, Three One Zero has mitigated some of that by being a "v-company" with a small team size, and it's using Unreal Engine 4, so costs are being contained. "We have a core development team of six, plus an operations director and business partner, and then we contract out, normally six or seven contractors going at once," Orth says, adding that his team has AAA pedigree with franchises like Call of Duty, BioShock, Star Wars, God of War, Uncharted and more.
As interesting as the concept for Adrift might be, if you surf comments on the web about the game, you'll undoubtedly come across some of the same negativity that Orth encountered during the Twitter hate campaign before he started work on the title. Some people won't let go, and you have to wonder if that could have any impact on the game's reception when it does ship. Orth isn't concerned, however.
"I don't worry about that at all. I don't even think about it because 1) life's too short, and 2) I have talked about it extensively and I've made my peace with it. I would love to say it's not part of my day to day life, but it is and it will be for - I'm sure - ever. But it's a lot less terrible than it was," he says.
"And lastly, I'm not worried about it because we're making something really good. People seem to really like it and there's always going to be people who are going to be negative about me. 'Don't buy this guy's product, don't have anything to do with this guy,' but I can't really identify where that comes from because it seems really misplaced, especially in the post Gamergate world. That kind of attitude just seems so outrageous now - Gamergate definitely shined all those things in a different light."
"I find myself in a real awkward position. We're a small company and I need to be able to have a presence in social media to promote what I'm doing... But I don't want to do any of that"
Of course, Orth was subjected to death threats and outrageous vitriol long before Gamergate started up. He tells me that someone once labeled him the grandfather of social media fuck-ups, but he wisely did his best to steer clear of the Gamergate controversy in the last year. "I didn't get involved in Gamergate at all because a) I'm doing stuff and b) I know better. But I was definitely worried about getting dragged into it and it never happened... I'm focusing on being creative," he says.
As much as Twitter and social media have been a force for good and have fostered more open and direct relationships between developers and gamers, the Gamergate movement highlights the obvious downside of having such an open environment. And if you're a developer looking to get your game noticed, there's no avoiding social media, not even for someone like Orth.
"I find myself in a real awkward position. We're a small company and I need to be able to have a presence in social media to promote what I'm doing, not for self promotion but I want as many people to know about our game and play it as possible. But I don't want to do any of that," he laments. "It's a weird thing - do you hire someone to do it and you're once removed from it and it's not authentic?"
Orth doesn't foresee the online world changing dramatically anytime soon. It's sad, but cases of online harassment are probably never going away. "Make no mistake, it's going to keep happening to other people. I've not seen anything outside of Gamergate that was anywhere on the level of what happened to me and I'm grateful for that because I know when I went through that everyday I thought, 'man I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy.' It was really bad, but you learn from life. It's what got me to this point. It was painful but in some ways necessary," he says.
At the end of the day, Orth is at least encouraged that for every bad comment he sees about Adrift, he tends to also see a positive statement.
"We have almost 2 million YouTube hits on our trailer since it came out in December. I don't generally read comments but now as more and more comes out about our game I do read them a little bit more. There's always somebody negative about it but the really heartening thing about it is almost the next one after the negative post is like 'Hey man, I didn't like what this guy said either and he's talked about it and he's doing something productive with his life. We can't just hold on to this stuff forever.' Some people will, some people won't. I can't control that. It's like I'm sorry you feel that way about what happened. You are entitled to your own opinion if you don't agree with me. That's fine. I made a mistake and I've moved on and maybe you should too," he says.