Above: Stormland has some furious action.
Image Credit: Insomniac
The contemporary version of virtual reality has only been around for a few years, but Mike Daly is one of its veterans. As a lead designer at Insomniac Games, Daly has now helped create three of Insomniac’s four VR games.
That gives Daly a lot of knowledge about how to make VR games the right way. And with luck, that means that when VR game sales finally take off in a big way, Daly and his company will be in a leadership position to cash in. There’s no guarantee this will happen, but Daly is proud of what his teams have accomplished so far.
With Edge of Nowhere in 2016, Insomniac learned that storytelling works a lot differently in VR. People wander around a lot, and they can miss story elements that are embedded in a single spot. In the spellcasting game The Unspoken, Insomniac found that engaging closely with the community matters. Insomniac talked to players a great deal on Discord and it paid off with the players recruiting others.
With the latest game, Stormland, Insomniac is trying to create a larger sense of space in a VR game, and it is also embedding a lot of story in the space. And it is trying to make the best use of full-body avatars, so that you can do things like reach to your side to pick up a gun or load an ammo clip with your free hand. I interviewed Daly at a recent Oculus event in San Francisco, and he’s showing off Stormland this week at the Oculus 5 event in San Jose, California.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Above: Mike Daly is the lead designer of Insomniac’s next VR title, Stormland.
Image Credit: Dean Takahashi
Mike Daly: Recently, I was lead designer on Unspoken, including the single-player chapter, Acolytes. I was also the lead designer on Edge of Nowhere. And now I’m also the lead designer here.
GamesBeat: What’s been interesting you about what you’ve learned over three games now?
Daly: Across three games, there’s a really broad palette of lessons. If I had to boil it down to one major lesson per game, it would be–in Edge of Nowhere, storytelling works a lot differently in VR. The way people focus their attention is more broad and all-encompassing. They pick up a lot more environmental detail, and so environmental storytelling becomes very powerful. But focused storytelling becomes very difficult, because often they won’t look at the character you want them to look at. When somebody’s talking and your brain has this sensory overload from the environment, it just goes in one ear and out the other.
We ended up finding a lot of ways to work around that. It’s a tough lesson about storytelling for a studio that loves to tell stories. You have to do it differently in VR. There are some strengths and some weaknesses.
In Unspoken, the two top lessons there–one, really engaging with the community is super powerful. We did a lot of playtests with the community. We were very engaged in their discussions on Discord. We released a lot of updates to the game that followed their suggestions and used their feedback. The payoff for that was really worthwhile. They carried the game for us. They brought in new players. They taught those people how to play. They evolved a metagame that kept things dynamic and interesting. They participated in events. They formed their own events. It was awesome. For a competitive game, that’s exactly what you need to have success. That’s one thing I value a lot more, having seen how Unspoken played out.
The other thing about Unspoken was that it was a Touch launch title. It’s the first time I’d worked on a game where you had that physicality of hand motion coming into play in a one-to-one direct way. What I realized was that when we asked players to do physical gestures to cast spells, their body–your body gives you that feedback, telling you that you’re casting a spell. That amplifies the experience and the immersion. It’s way different from pushing a button to activate an ability. You feel like you’re doing it. It’s a strong way of getting you involved in what’s going on in the world.
For Stormland, all three of those lessons are present. We want to tell a good story. That means being very careful about how we direct the player’s attention and what sort of sensory input we give them at any point in time. We want to make you feel like you are this android. We built a full-body avatar with moving hands and legs and everything. We ask you to perform gestures and movements that aren’t abstract, that reflect accurately what you’re doing in the world, whether that’s grabbing the front stock of your sniper rifle, throwing a grenade, or activating your abilities in your off hand and seeing that transform.
Obviously this wasn’t present in the demo, but we’re also still committed to engaging with the community, responding to their feedback, being transparent about what we’re doing. We’re designing a game that facilitates them wanting to participate in the game with each other. Giving them things to talk about. Making it an advantage to share knowledge and work together. Once you make that connection to another player, the whole game feels richer and more interesting.
GamesBeat: As far as believing in VR, the market isn’t as big as people once thought it would be by now. Some developers, like CCP, have pulled out of the market. Is there something encouraging about what you’ve seen so far that makes you want to stick with VR and keep on going?
Daly: There are a few things going on that keep me excited. For one thing, very early on–we made some early Oculus titles. Of course we would have been delighted if it was an overnight success and had massive adoption, but we didn’t count on that. Oculus was very up front. They’re invested in this industry for the long term. In the years that have followed, clearly they’ve put their money where their mouth is. They’re willing to make that investment so we don’t have to worry about the floor dropping out, which is a great security blanket to have if you’re interested in pushing this technology forward.
Another big factor going for us is that as more and more VR games come out, you can see that there’s desire for the library of VR titles available to expand in particular ways. That desire is an indication not only that there’s an opportunity to make something that will appeal to people, but also that people want more out of VR. As long as we can meet those desires, the audience is going to expand.
In fact, that was one of the real driving forces behind Stormland. We personally felt the strong urge to play a really liberating, open traversal game. We also got the sense that’s what a lot of other people wanted too, people waiting to dive into VR, the curious people on the periphery.
Above: Stormland is a big VR world.
Image Credit: Insomniac
GamesBeat: Is it the part where you’re flying through the clouds, or is it something else about the game?
Daly: For us, it’s the big picture, the general idea of–you have a suite of hand-driven traversal controls that play into each other to give you the ability to reach that distant peak, to crawl into that cave, to jump over islands. It’s where you’re able to get to in the world, more than a singular mechanic. That’s what enables us to put nooks and crannies and overhangs and arches that are just fun to peek around. It’s exciting to look around and find a valuable chest in there.
Once we had that feeling — now you can move anywhere, and there’s all this stuff to find by moving around and looking around — that was a great foundation for putting this threat of combat and danger in place. Moving around has this other layer of considerations to make. There’s a meaning behind the stuff you find. On top of that, we could layer in the strategy of combat and this interesting terrain, with a variety of enemy compositions and an unpredictable player loadout. It creates a dynamic problem. How can I tackle this and go further?
At the top of the hierarchy was solving this traversal problem. From there I think we built that out into a game where traversal permeates all the mechanics, but it has all the depth you’d want out of a meaty, complete, complex game.
Stormland also has co-op. We have this full-body avatar, as I mentioned before, which helps with immersion all the time, but one of the awesome extra things about it–when you put a second player in there, and they have this fully articulated body, you can read their body language, just driven by their head and their hands. When that voice comes through the game and you can see their robotic face articulate as they talk, it works. You feel like the other person is there. It’s very engaging.
GamesBeat: The movement by climbing and grabbing things–it seems like what works in games like Echo Combat works here too. Is that about controlling some of the motion sickness that can crop up?
Daly: Obviously we want to mitigate motion sickness as much as possible. But I think climbing is something a little bit more primal than that, even. Grabbing on to a surface and having that one-to-one motion is just a naturally intuitive gesture. It works on a lot of levels. It’s intuitive. It affords a great deal of precision and control along every axis. It’s comfortable. Climbing was a win-win for us. We’re really glad we put it in.
That’s not to say that we didn’t discover all these little tiny details that worked or didn’t work in the process. For example, we found that having a buffer between you and the climbing surface is really useful. That distant view lets you take in your surroundings and navigate a lot easier.
Having your hand up against a surface, you just feel the awkwardness of there not being real-world collision there, not knowing exactly where to land. Tuning that buffer, finding the right ranges, figuring out how to communicate it visually so you have an idea of how you’re expected to orient your hands, where the attach point is that you’re supposed to grab on to — whether that’s in front of you or to the side — lots of little things went into making it look and feel good. We did a lot of experiments where we discovered, “Whoops, this is not good.”
GamesBeat: Can you describe the fiction around Stormland, the backstory?
Daly: In Stormland, you’re an android gardener who traveled to an exotic alien planet to help settle it. But you were followed by a malevolent, militaristic organization called the Tempest. The Tempest decimated the settlers and broke your body, leaving you for dead. Decades later, you mysteriously rebooted. Now, in order to try to recover and rebuild, you have to travel up to the Stormland.
The Stormland is a massive, eternal storm, unique to this planet. It hosts the remnants of a skybound civilization. The Tempest are up there trying to exploit the mysteries of this civilization for their own gain. In this storm, there are endless resources. There are mysteries. There are alien technologies. There’s the harvesting infrastructure the Tempest has built, and older structures from the settlers before the Tempest arrived. It’s up to you to travel there, explore the place, rebuild your body, build in new enhancements that take it beyond its original design, rescue and repair the other androids that were originally settlers, and mount an effective resistance against the Tempest. That means delving into the secrets of the world and what makes it tick.
Above: Stormland makes you go through physical motions in VR.
Image Credit: Insomniac
GamesBeat: Is it interesting to have a development like Spider-Man going on at the same time?
Daly: It’s been a lot of fun seeing Spider-Man develop alongside this game. They’re very different in a lot of obvious ways, but there are lots of similarities too, with regard to things like trying to nail the feeling of free movement and the agency of getting the way you want to in a way that’s fluid and exhilarating. Having a game that tells a story and has a deep progression system that keeps you engaged over a long period of time. It’s just fun to have Spider-Man playtests for us and see Spider-Man folks trying Stormland for the first time. It’s always a joy to get that reaction. And we all basically get to share in the good vibes of Spider-Man coming out and getting all these great reviews.
GamesBeat: After seeing how far VR has come, are there things you’re still looking forward to, things you want to see happen with the VR platform?
Daly: Yeah, definitely. There’s a lot of room for improvement in hardware and software. Just thinking about the software, the more we play with the Touch controllers, the more we realize that there is a slowly evolving standard of motions and gestures that we’re interested to see evolve further. I feel like somewhere out there, just a bit beyond what people have discovered so far, has got to be a really awesome set of conventions that let you interact with 3D objects in a quick, responsive, intuitive way.
I sort of equate this to when the mouse was invented for computers. Just the act of being able to move it slightly with your wrist, or macro with your arm, it has a very natural, intuitive feel to it. That enable software to do all sorts of stuff in turn. Now you had spatial arrangement of computer data, rather than linear text arrangement. You could move windows front and back, or minimize and maximize things. Those were the convenience discoveries that took your ability to interact with a computer way beyond what it was before.
There are things like that, things that are empowered by hand-tracking controllers, that are out there just waiting to be discovered. You’re not constrained to the resolution of a screen. It’s all around you. You have the ability to move things in and out of depth. There has to be some sort of gesture language that lets you manipulate that space in a way, once the conventions are discovered and more widely adopted, that software will start being able to work together. VR won’t feel like, “I’m launching this one app and doing it for a while” so much as, “I’m just going to work and I’ll do my thing in VR.”
I was sitting down in my hotel before I came to this event, and I brought a big stack of papers and a notebook that I had spread out on a table. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if I had something on Oculus Go that could do all of this?” Just have all my stuff there where I could rearrange it in space. That may be two or three years in the future, but I think it has a lot of potential. That could be really cool.
The haptics for your hands, I still think there’s a lot of opportunity there. I would love for those sensations to convey a bit more feeling. If you go to an arcade and play a game that has a gun with a solenoid, where it has that kick to it, it’s such an awesome feeling. At the moment, I’m sure it’s not practical to ship a half-pound slug in everyone’s controllers or whatever you’d have to do. But in the future, anything could happen.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like you have a set of VR veterans on the team now, people who want to keep on this track?
Daly: A lot of the folks that worked on Edge of Nowhere also worked on Unspoken and are also on the Stormland team. The maturity of how much thought we’ve put into what we can do with the headset, what we can do with controllers, the impact these decisions will have on players, it’s getting pretty mature, and that lets us come to the right conclusions more quickly, come up with better ideas around how to innovate and drive things forward. By the time it’s done and ready to come out, Stormland will reflect that. You’ll be able to play it and say, “These guys know what they’re doing.”