Ready at Dawn's first original console project, The Order: 1886, may not have been a critical success or a commercial hit, but the one thing most critics agree on is that it was a beautifully produced game. The technological building blocks that Ready at Dawn worked on with its proprietary engine should bear fruit when it jumps into the VR space, but for now the studio is tackling something entirely different: it's announced an arena combat game called De-formers that offers both local and online multiplayer.
De-formers, which has no set release date yet, is the second title to be announced under GameStop's new GameTrust publishing label. It's deliberately quite different from anything Ready at Dawn has ever worked on before.
"It's interesting to see over our history - people might not put a lot of weight behind this - but in 13 years we've been doing this and only once in our history have we repeated the same type of game a second time. And that was God of War," Ready at Dawn chief creative officer Ru Weerasuirya tells me. "We basically jumped from an action game to a third-person shooter to now, what do you want to call it, a social, couch, co-op, combat, melee game?"
Weerasuriya said the idea for De-formers came about quite organically; many AAA studios don't have an opportunity to work on smaller titles, but Ready at Dawn wanted to make sure its employees could decompress.
"When you take on a smaller project, it does allow you a little bit more freedom... Ultimately, with money, also comes pressure and people having fears about the way you're going with a project"
"The team that's working on De-formers stemmed from an idea that we had back as early as 2007 or 2008 I want to say. We wanted to build a... decompression team inside the company that would allow us to kind of take a break, small breaks away from the big AAA titles," Weerasuriya explains. "We actually had done a few prototypes and concepts with smaller games. But when we embarked on the two things that we talked about already, we realized that these specific things needed to live on their own. So as soon as we had enough legs under De-formers we asked internally if there were people who wanted to work on the game who had an affinity for it. So to those guys, we said, look, we invite everyone to kind of jump on what they want to do. And as we needed it, we filled a position and started hiring very specifically for it."
De-formers does not have the team size or scope of big-budget titles, but it's still AAA in Weerasuriya's mind. "We make AAA games. We're a AAA team. It's a weird thing to say, not to toot our own horn, but we make AAA. For us, AAA doesn't mean budget, AAA basically means quality. And that's the way we approach everything we do. So is it a smaller game? Yeah, I mean, the core team is right about 20-25, plus everybody ancillary around it. But as far as quality is concerned, we put as much devotion if not more on the technology side, visual side, as we would for a game with 150 people behind it," he says.
Making a smaller game has been liberating in a way for the studio as well. "In general, when you take on a smaller project, it does allow you a little bit more freedom to think like 'Okay, we're not worried about this massive amount of money.' Ultimately, with money, also comes pressure and people having fears about the way you're going with a project. That can happen with a AAA title. For us, the good thing about having freedom with a thing like this is we have a partner that understands where we are going and what we're about. We understand what they're about. It makes for a very complementary relationship. And for us it allows us to put our best foot forward in every department without the pressures that we normally get from everyone around [us] - expectations from people outside, or the publisher or even the development team. We're able to satisfy all those expectations while remaining true to creative gameplay, which is what is driving this project," Weerasuriya continues.
Importantly for Ready at Dawn, the studio will maintain rights to the De-formers IP as part of its publishing deal with GameTrust. Ever since the studio ceded its IP rights for The Order to Sony, Ready at Dawn has made IP ownership a priority, but Weerasuriya doesn't see that as a hard and fast rule if his studio has an opportunity to work on something truly fun.
"Owning IP as a team is absolutely important but we've never said no to something cool... We never as a team said we'd do a port and we did [Okami for Wii] - purely because it was way too cool to pass up. I will tell you if the right IP is there and we're excited, regardless of how important it is to own IP, we just want to work on fun stuff and have fun doing it," he says. "So a lot of the guys here are excited about things that are out there. And sometimes we do discuss IPs. We go, 'Wow you know what, imagine if we can make this type of [game]?'...and suddenly even internally for a little while we discuss it just to see if there are legs there."
It may sound hackneyed, but fun is what drives Ready at Dawn, and Weerasuriya doesn't seem too concerned about receiving accolades so long as his studio is pushing the medium of games forward. As game creators, they have a vision for a project and they want to stick to it. On that note, Weerasuriya completely agrees with Naughty Dog's creative director Neil Druckmann who said he's totally fine with losing some of the hardcore audience with Uncharted 4 because of the slow pacing at the beginning of the game.
"Sometimes you need to take those risks and do what you need to do to satisfy the game that you're trying to make and the vision you're trying to follow. It might not always satisfy people"
"I totally understand where Neil's head is. Sometimes you need to take those risks and do what you need to do to satisfy the game that you're trying to make and the vision you're trying to follow. It might not always satisfy people. Sometimes you hit it out of the park and people buy and give you the benefit of the doubt for the risk that you take and you do that. Sometimes you don't. Sometimes even the risks that you take aren't even viewed or identified by people when they play the game. That's a really tough balance. The issue always turns out to be - we could all fall into molds of how we should make games and make games purely because they're going to be - it's what people expect. It's how we're going to be successful. It's how we're going to sell copies. And we can take the other approach, which is, each game has its own soul and we push it as far as we can with the resources we have and try to innovate on every single side," Weerasuriya says.
"Sometimes the innovation gets celebrated on the game itself. Sometimes that innovation gets celebrated down the line in a sequel, or by another title that comes out and imitates that stuff you're trying to do. I think that's where, as developers, I think we're looking for fun in different ways. [De-formers] is pure gameplay driven, sometimes [a project is] more aesthetic driven, sometimes it's more story driven, and you make your bets that way. We need room for that in the industry. Without that room, the industry will not grow.
"Whether things are celebrated or not celebrated, it actually allows, at least, internally, for the development community, to see other games, and go, 'Fuck, that was really awesome! Yeah, we should actually take that or improve upon that.' And a lot of teams copying each other in the industry are amazing at doing that, taking ideas that other teams brought to life and then innovating on those and perfecting those and some get celebrated for it and that's worth it. It's worth it regardless of whether the people who create those things are celebrated or whether the people who perfect them are celebrated. But ultimately, all the benefits go to the player. The player will get more in the end. That's why we talk about VR - the same thing's going to happen. There are going to be things that are going to be celebrated. People are going to go 'Oh my god, what is this? Why the hell did they do that?' In the end, maybe one year, five years, 10 years down the line, it's those ideas that spawn so many other things in the future."
Speaking of VR, while the game's not been officially announced yet, it's been known for some time that Ready at Dawn is currently working on an Oculus Rift exclusive. VR itself is already niche, of course, so limiting yourself to just one headset might seem like a very risky proposition, but again, Weerasuriya doesn't view it that way.
"Personally, VR was something important to me purely for what it means to gaming and opening up the gaming world to new things and new branches inside the industry itself," he says. "Maybe the right answer would be that we are worried about it, if you're a business guy... But, honestly, I know it's going to sound cliché, but the reason that it doesn't matter personally to me and also to this team, is that at one point or another with all these new things coming up, somebody has to make the step to build things on it. And, ultimately, we could all wait years until there's an installed base and be like, 'Hey, finally, let's make something cool for the players to play,' and by then, people will have lost faith in the fact that something cool will come out on those platforms.
"I'm doing this because I'm a gamer and I want to see cool things on the platforms I play. I play every VR game under the sun right now. I'm having fun doing it regardless of single platform or on both or multiple or what's out there. I want to do this because that's what I would expect as a gamer to receive. I want developers out there to treat gamers that way and go, like, 'Hey, guys, I know there's not going to be much of an installed base but for the few or for the many that bought this platform [here's this great experience].' Even if it's a few, it's at least doing right by the players and giving them something that we can tell them, look, this is the kind of game that I would expect as a player. This is the kind of fun I want to have. These are the things I want to explore. This is why we're doing this on every platform we have worked on from PSP all the way to VR."
"I'm doing this because I'm a gamer and I want to see cool things on the platforms I play. I play every VR game under the sun right now"
Ready at Dawn hasn't said much at all about its upcoming VR game, but the team is just having fun experimenting with the new canvas that virtual reality presents developers. "For developers, it's exciting on every front, because we're relearning to do the things that we've taken for granted for so many years," Weerasuriya notes. "You kind of rely on a lot of things that are set [from years of game development]. 'Ok, that's the way things need to be done.' In VR the fun part is we're realizing that some things that we thought were written rules about design in games do not apply at all in an environment where you are literally in it. There's so much that we took for granted."
While some developers are concerned about motion sickness in VR, Ready at Dawn believes that players, not just developers, will have a learning period as well. "I remember the first days of first-person shooters where people got really disoriented because the camera was moving a little too fast, and you're like, 'Oh, my god. I can't deal with that.' But, at the same time, we've outgrown that. We've gotten to a point where you have games that whip around with cameras all the time but people are so comfortable playing. We've adapted. I think VR is the same thing. Yes, there's going to be a learning curve for a generation. Then people are going to adapt it. People are going to celebrate the things that today might not be celebrated," Weerasuriya says.
"I think the same goes for what we're doing with De-formers. We're doing things in there that years ago people might go, 'Oh my god. This thing plays way too fast.' It's a fast paced game. Things happen all the time. For a lot of people years ago, that would have been a massive problem. They would have been like, 'Whoa, wait a minute, that's too much. It's overwhelming.' But, funny enough, we play it today and we've had a lot of people play it. It's cool. It's addictive. It's got that kind of frantic feel that oftentimes [you] wouldn't expect would work. The same will happen with VR in the long-term. It's going to be hard in the beginning. There's going to be some amazing new innovation coming up very soon I think. And after that it's going to open the door for that many more developers to go ahead."