The launch of Spider-Man for PlayStation 4 may have been the focus around Insomniac Games last week, but creative director Chad Dezern attended PAX West to show off another major upcoming title from his studio.
Dezern was instead at the Oculus Gaming booth to show off Stormland, a VR action-adventure that purports to be one of the first original open-world games in the medium, if not the first.
"We wanted to make an open world game in VR," he said. "We wanted to enable freedom of exploration, and that came from a lot of us working on open-world concept titles and then marrying that to our VR experience that has been built up over... Well, this is our fourth title in VR.""
Insomniac's first three VR titles all released in 2016 for Oculus, though none quite had the scale of Stormland. Edge of Nowhere, an action-adventure game about a man searching for his fiancé after an Antarctic expedition goes wrong, came the closest, but it still didn't throw open its world in the way Stormland purports to.
"We finally felt we understood enough [about VR] to really experiment with some free movement mechanics"
"We made Edge of Nowhere, which was like a baby step for us in a way, because it was still a third-person game, so we got to figure out a lot of VR conventions in isolation without also having to rethink how we handled third person movement, combat, and a lot of other fundamentals," Dezern said. "But every year since then we've evolved our approach a little bit, and at some point we finally felt we understood enough to really experiment with some free movement mechanics. We tried one idea for Stormland: this flight above the clouds which we call slipstreaming, and it was fun almost immediately. Sometimes we feel we've hit pay dirt with a prototype and that was one of those times.
"But from there we've been building pieces and expanding it until finally we have this realized dream of being able to move freely in an open world space."
It may seem surprising that the company's history led to a game like Stormland in a medium like VR. For Dezern and others on his team, working in VR is a logical next step in the studio's experimentation with development on the whole. And, for him at least, it's a childhood dream come true.
"We're all VR fans in the office and we play everything, and for many of us this is like a dream. If you told my 12-year-old self that I got to make VR games, I absolutely would not have bought it. I would've told you to stop talking, that it's not possible. But here we are, and it is possible. We're really into trying out new mechanics and being in a space where we don't know everything about the game we're making. VR is like that for us because we're still figuring out some of the conventions of the medium. At the same time, we're at a place where we understand the language to have a good starting point, and every one of the titles we embark on is a journey of discovery for us too, a little bit like what we're trying to make in the game."
Insomniac isn't just looking to learn for its own benefit. With Stormland, the team hopes to make its mark on the medium with a large, constantly-changing world - the kind that hasn't been seen in a VR game before. There's an element of risk involved inherent with the way Insomniac has designed the game to keep players returning weekly.
"We spend a lot of time usability testing, and a game like Stormland is designed with a lot of options so people can play in a way that's comfortable for them"
"The main thing is that we're enabling free exploration in VR in a world that changes over time," Dezern said. "Week to week, you can jump into Stormland and the world rearranges. It's like a very hand-crafted take on procedural generation. Our artists and designers build everything, and we spend a lot of time crafting rulesets so the world feels nicely composed and easy to move around in. But we're also giving it over to a random element where we're not exactly sure where everything's going to be placed.
"In the story, we have an agent called the Tempest who is a chaos agent that rearranges the world week to week, and an ally called the Satellite that brings order to all of that and gives you curated missions that are your own journey through that space that's always a bit of the unexpected. We think these two things work well together to keep the world always surprising, but always guided enough to give a good experience."
With a complex, shifting world like the one Dezern described can come complex movement, controls, and UI. VR in particular can be rendered inaccessible for players if camera controls and other accessibility features aren't included to assist those who struggle with motion sickness or certain types of movement. But Dezern reassured me that Insomniac had thought that through.
"We do take accessibility into account," he said. "It's important for us. We spend a lot of time usability testing, and a game like Stormland is designed with a lot of options so people can play in a way that's comfortable for them. That's for everyone: for VR players who have different options they prefer from working with a lot of titles, to different sort of movement parameters. You can play a lot of the game turning with the analog stick if you choose, and you can also rotate in the real world playing with a 360 set up. Both of these are good and valid. The game works seated or standing. We try to support a broad number of options that way."
As exciting as VR may be for the Stormland team, it's no secret that the medium is still struggling with widespread adoption. I asked Dezern what he felt needed to happen for VR to become more mainstream, but he didn't see it as an especially Herculean task.
"We just think everybody needs to try VR," he said. "That's why we're at events like this, and that's why every time one of my family members gets a chance to go in I urge them to try it. People see the appeal almost immediately when they get in a headset with a great game, and they turn into purchasers and people who are going to spend a lot of time in a world, getting away from the real world for awhile."
"When we're brainstorming new titles, we lean into whatever everyone gets excited about and that helps our decision making much more than making it a pure business-driven decision space"
Late last year, Insomniac re-branded itself, "blowing up the moon" of its logo in an effort to ensure its company appearance matched the work the studio was doing, especially as it focused less on mascot platformers like Spyro and Ratchet & Clank and more on a diverse array of titles. Stormland, Dezern said, fits right into that rebranding both as a culmination of everything the studio has done so far, and as something entirely new for Insomniac.
"Stormland is about us taking everything we've learned over many years of console development, like the weapon play from a game like Ratchet & Clank, the traversal from a game like Sunset Overdrive, the open world structure from Spider-Man, and then marrying that to what we've learned from several years of VR development," he said. "And we're using the gesture system we created from The Unspoken to influence the way you move around as an android and the way your android abilities work. So everything we make is evolving our core skillset of making really compelling worlds and stories that engage you in places you want to get lost in.
"When it comes down to it, we're in the unique and fortunate position of being able to make the type of games we want to play. So when we're brainstorming new titles, we lean into whatever everyone gets excited about and that helps our decision making much more than making it a pure business-driven decision space. That really comes from the people who started the company: Ted Price, Alex Hastings, and Brian Hastings. They're in it because they love making games. These are all developers who get really close to the games they're making, touching code in the case of Al, designing and writing in the case of Brian; I'm pretty sure Ted still dabbles in modeling whenever he can sneak the time in.
"That pervades the whole company - it's a lot of people who are making games because we want to challenge ourselves, push gaming forward, make the sorts of things we love to see."
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