"We want to be the masters of our own fate"
Gunfire Games on its new VR title From Other Suns, the upcoming Darksiders III and surviving in an industry which sees studio closures all too often
From Other Suns, a co-op space game that some have said feels like a mix of Borderlands and FTL, was just published by Oculus this week. It marks the fifth VR title from Austin-based Gunfire Games, a studio that rose up from the ashes of Darksiders developer Vigil Games only a few years ago. Given that the core team saw how hard the games business can get while at Vigil, it's perhaps surprising that Gunfire has pursued VR - a nascent market that's not very lucrative yet - as its bread and butter.
And yet, thanks to Gunfire's creative passion, desire to innovate within the burgeoning field of VR and, importantly, a great relationship with Oculus that has removed most of the financial risk, the studio has been able to thrive, more than quadrupling the core team of 13 that it started with. According to design director John Pearl, in the wake of THQ's dissolution and Vigil being shuttered, independence offered new hope. It was liberating.
"That was definitely a big impetus for us when we started the studio," he tells me. "We actually got together with Crytek after Vigil shut down and we were Crytek USA for a year and a half or so and then they went through some financial problems, so we were like, 'You know what, we've done this long enough that if we just keep working for other people, this is constantly going to keep happening. We want to be the masters of our own fate.'
"[We wanted to] basically live and die by our successes and our failures as opposed to someone else's that we have no control over"
"[We wanted to] basically live and die by our successes and our failures as opposed to someone else's that we have no control over. So definitely that's a key tenet of when we make business decisions. I wouldn't say we wouldn't sell out for any amount of money, but [independence is] kind of our goal now. It allows us to do cool things. Because we're not owned by a publisher, we can work with Oculus and make really cool VR games but we can also work with Nordic and make a Darksiders 3. So it really keeps the door open for a lot of opportunities that, if we were under a single publisher umbrella, wouldn't be there."
Indeed, while working with a publisher can be a huge boon for some, it comes with a massive amount of pressure. It doesn't take much for one executive to decide that things need to "go in another direction." Just ask the folks who used to work at Visceral for EA, or anyone who had to answer to Perfect World while at Runic or Motiga.
"I definitely think we try to hedge our bets as a younger studio," Pearl says. "We are doing VR. We are doing a single-player story game. We've got another project going internally that's different than both, so it's just kind of trying to hedge our bets and make deals that are good for the longevity of the studio more than anything else, just trying to not throw all our eggs in one basket."
Vigil's core team that's now at the heart of Gunfire has experience and plenty of time working together. That goes a long way when you're in the middle of the arduous task of developing games.
"A lot of us actually worked together going on 10, 11 years at this point, so we do have that advantage. Our leadership has been through the trenches a long time together, so we can make deals that maybe a studio of our size that's just started up wouldn't be able to make because we know what we're capable of, what we can deliver, so I think that's one of our advantages as a studio. We're able to quickly change and modify direction on something and then turn out something of a high caliber because we've kind of gone through the ringer several times now."
Darksiders was never a franchise that sold like Call of Duty or GTA but it has its own loyal following nonetheless. At a time when people are scrutinizing the legitimacy of single-player titles since EA shuttered Visceral and canceled the single-player Star Wars game, it's interesting to see Gunfire standing by the genre. Pearl reminds me that that's yet another advantage of not having to answer to a corporate publishing behemoth. Expectations are tempered.
"I think that the issue with a lot of the big single-player games is that from a business perspective, it's cost versus profit," Pearl notes. "You always hear, 'Oh, the first Tomb Raider reboot was not a financial success because it didn't sell 8 million copies' or something ridiculous. And I'm like, 'Wow, that seems really high for anything that doesn't have the zeitgeist kind of like PUBG or something crazy that just blows out of the water.' I think that's an unreasonable assumption at that point. Darksiders was never a 10 million [units] seller or anything like that. I think it's always found its footing and it did well for THQ and I think our publisher also has realistic expectations going into the release of it, what's reasonable to sell to be successful. I can't really share any of those numbers, but I do think it's much more modest than I think what you'd tell me for something from Visceral."
"We wanted to find a way to make a game that you could keep coming back to that didn't feel like it was static or stagnant after multiple playthroughs... the obvious answer was really random generation"
Pearl comments that Darksiders III will benefit from not being a strictly linear experience, since it's going to offer "a lot of options for exploring the world" but it's ultimately "still very much a single-player story based game."
In the more immediate term, Gunfire is watching to see how the gaming world reacts to From Other Suns, which innovates as the first procedurally generated co-op space sim in VR. Learning to make compelling VR games is hard enough for a studio, but building something that leverages procedural generation only adds to the complexity.
"We entered [the VR space] with Chronos, Dead and Buried, and the two Herobound games. Those are very much traditional games. You set them up and you build the levels out. In almost all those cases except for Dead and Buried, they're linear experiences. The big thing we started thinking about after Chronos was the replayability in VR and the fact that you have that level of immersion and being there. It gets kind of repetitive seeing the same thing over and over again," Pearl notes.
"We were thinking then about making a game that has more longevity than just a single playthrough kind of game... We wanted to find a way to make a game that you could keep coming back to that didn't feel like it was static or stagnant after multiple playthroughs. For us, the obvious answer was really the random generation of the levels as well as random generation of the missions and that whole procedurally generated aspect sounded really cool, and it also sounded like something that wasn't done in VR previously or hasn't been done to this degree that we know of in VR."
Level designer Cindy To adds, "I think from a level design standpoint, a lot of it was trying to narrow down certain rule sets and define what we wanted to do within those levels... So we had to learn to define what we wanted to do if that makes sense. So once we started to get our initial system, we used an overall layout of the system, the tile set of what we're using. So I'll define a set world to be X amount of tiles long and then, within that, it calls a series of various levels that get plugged in and therefore you get your randomly generated world."
Random generation is great, but Pearl remarks that it still needs adjustments from the "watchful eye of the level designer, making sure the flow makes sense" or else players could run into problems fast.
"[The level designer] basically sets up a start and end point and makes sure within there there's a logical path and there's not like five dead ends and no way to get out of a level. It's kind of like when the chaperone experience comes in. Overall, a lot of it was like, 'Hey, set up some templates and then within those templates the system populates based on what possible visual sets it could drive from'," he explains.
Gunfire just recently completed a beta for From Other Suns prior to release, and Pearl and To both found it be hugely beneficial for some "easy wins." Things like game pacing and balancing aren't always apparent until you see players in the world. Moreover, sometimes something like a visual effect can make a bigger difference than the design team may have imagined.
"A lot of it ends up being perception," Pearl says. "Like, 'Hey, this gun isn't very strong.' And I look at it, and maybe it's the effects. The effects don't look very impressive. So let's go back and boost some of our effects. It's actually doing more damage than any other gun in the game, but sometimes it's a perception thing, especially in VR where it's all right there in front of you and you can look at it point blank. This gun doesn't feel impressive but being able to tweak those things and get feedback has been super great for us."
He adds, "The biggest thing I think was the balance and realizing that people weren't seeing a good loot cycle so we did a huge overhaul on the loot system. We made it much more like a Borderlands or Destiny, or a WoW loot quality level that's very obvious."
As Cloudhead Games recently commented on, VR game pricing can be a delicate subject when gameplay length and complexity is factored in. Some VR customers have expectations of lower prices on VR titles compared to traditional console or PC projects. Pearl explains, howvever, that development timeframes and budgets are definitely on the rise, and obviously teams need to charge a certain amount to recoup costs and pay employees.
"The time table has definitely grown," he says. "I want to say Herobound Spirit Champion was like a six-month project, but Chronos was a year and From Other Suns, I think is about one and a half years at this point. So it's definitely a much longer timetable because the games are getting way more complex. With From Other Suns, obviously we're doing so much more now. It becomes a bigger game so it does take more time. The systems that we put in and all the aspects of it make it a longer process.
"I think there's still a lot more out there that we could play with that we might do before we'd even return to one of the existing [games]"
"From Other Suns is coming out $39.99, so it's definitely not the console/PC $60 price tag. We kind of looked at the prices of games that come out and, obviously, the reaction to those prices, and we've tried to find a sweet spot. Obviously everything's not going to be free on VR - but we want as many people to play as possible."
One of the benefits of Gunfire's independence has been total creative freedom. You may have noticed that, apart from the next Darksiders, the studio continues to take on totally new projects.
"We like to jump around and do different things that are a challenge," says Pearl. "We could have done another Chronos, but then it would be like, is this another third person game or is it first person? Is it still the same game if it's first person? Is it truly a sequel? ...It's definitely not a case of not wanting to do it. We have kicked around ideas of what we'd do with a Chronos 2. With Dead and Buried, that was a project we worked on with Oculus, so it's kind of up to them at that point what they want to do with it. If they want to bring it back in for more content or if they want to do a sequel. That one's a little more up in the air."
At the end of the day, Gunfire would rather explore what new innovation it can come up with next, whether that's procedural generation or anything else.
"I think it's definitely something where it's like, VR has such an untapped potential and experiences... It wouldn't be as cool exactly to make a true sequel like you would on a console game," Pearl comments. "There's so much to do in VR versus the established things in a traditional console or PC gaming space. Where it's like, 'Hey, what would it be like to fly a spaceship or what would it be like to be in this weird medieval fantasy world like in Chronos or what would it be like to be in the old west?' I think that just makes unique experiences. I think there's still a lot more out there that we could play with that we might do before we'd even return to one of the existing ones. That being said, I just don't know. It depends on the market and where the VR spaces are."
For Gunfire, the studio has been in the enviable position of being funded by Oculus. But Pearl says he and his team would still have pursued VR in some fashion even without the financial help.
"I definitely think we'd still be interested in VR," he says. "When we started up [Gunfire], we looked into where we want to go, what do we want to do as a new studio three years ago now. The Oculus thing came up and it was like, 'Wow, virtual reality. That's really cool. That's new. No one's done this before.' There's no standards of like 'This is what you have to make and this is how you have to do it.' Obviously, them publishing the game made a huge impact on what we decided to do. If we weren't funded by them, we'd probably be a little bit more hesitant, but we'd probably do something, maybe not on the scale that we've done so far. There's definitely an interest internally. There has been since basically the beginning."