Welcome to Britsoft Focus. This is a weekly series from Kotaku UK that focuses on the British development scene, from single-person projects to world-straddling studio blockbusters. You can find previous entries here.
I’ve said it before, but the more traditional VR experiences don’t really do it for me. There’s something about putting on that headset and just playing a shooter that I don’t enjoy. I like climbing mountains in VR; hang-gliding over great vistas; seeing stuff I’ll probably never get close to in real life. Not having my face eaten by a snot beast. So it was rather a surprise that The Persistence, a VR horror title, ended up both taking me out of my comfort zone and showing that — with some smart changes to what it expects of players — a more traditional experience can take a new form.
The Persistence is being developed by Firesprite, one of several studios to rise from the ashes of Sony Liverpool. “We knew we wanted to do a VR game,” says lead designer Alex Moore. “The studio has very close ties to Sony from when it used to be Sony Liverpool, and when that got closed... is that the right term? Then some of the directors split off and founded Firesprite, some of them made Playrise and few other splinter groups.”
VR is still in its earliest stages as a consumer product, and many developers are working on their first title, but Firesprite was able to get in early with PSVR and develop one of the launch titles. “Graeme Ankers who’s our managing director continued closed ties with Sony,” says Moore, “got talking to Sony Japan, we did launch title The Playroom for PS4 to promote the camera and continued that work into Playroom VR [...] and then from there on we just sort of found ourselves stationed as people that knew VR and we wanted to just see what we could do with our own IP.”
As well as Playroom, Firesprite had developed Run Sackboy Run on mobile and Vita, and this gave the studio something of a runway to develop and pitch various ideas before choosing one as its next project. “We got about six months to ourselves,” says Moore. “This whole group of us just to do a load of prototypes, and The Persistence was the one that stuck.”
Lots of VR titles don’t do especially well in screenshots, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Persistence looks like a ‘normal’ firstperson horror game. In fact I found the experience much more like a cross between a board game and a video game, thanks to an unusual mix of styles. First of all, this is a slow-paced game that’s more about sneak-attacking enemies than confronting them, and avoiding dead ends. Secondly, you’re doing this with the verbal assistance of up to two other players who are following your game on an app that shows a top-down view of the ship. And third is that the ship is procedurally-generated anew for each playthrough.
We’ll go over all of this but the decision to make the ship’s interior procedural is immediately going against the grain of much current VR work. Developers really want control in VR, and for good reasons like being able to direct a player’s eyes, knowing what they’re looking at, and being able to serve-up visual set-pieces that run like clockwork.
"Yeah but at the same time procedural affords us the ability to focus on making new systems behind the game,” says Moore. “So how the other systems work, terminals and door systems and the like, it allows us to ensure that a fairly small team can produce a game that can be very varied for a lot of different players.”
“It’s a very lite rogue-lite,” Moore laughs. “We don’t want to be Dwarf Fortress or anything like that. More a game that would be able to be played over and over again. We wanted to look at something that could be a fairly short experience, time and time again, fifteen minute playthroughs – at that point we weren’t a hundred per cent sure how long people wanted to spend in VR in one go. I think as the kits have come out and people have gotten hold of them, they’re starting to want more longform experiences which does help steer us a little bit.”
To clarify, Moore’s referring to individual levels as fifteen minutes, and says they’re aiming for the final game to be between four and eight hours long. We’re talking about the couch nature of it when he references movies, which raises this slightly odd industry-specific issue. Four to eight hours is obviously a guesstimate that is subject to how playtesters respond over the rest of development, how the devs themselves feel about it, and so on. Some might consider four to eight hours ‘short’ for a video game whereas, for a movie, that would be exceptionally long.
“Yeah but the idea being that we’re purposely making it quite difficult,” says Moore. This seems an odd counter-point to me but, as Moore explains, it’s all about encouraging personal interplay. “Obviously there’s the fact you can stitch a player up if you want to have a go yourself – the idea that you can take the headset off and think it over as a group, actually talking as you’re trying to work your way through the game as a team.”
This leads us neatly onto The Persistence’s mobile app which — even though it’s nothing like it really — immediately brought to mind Duskers. This is a superb game where you control salvage drones in old spaceships, but it creates an unforgettable atmosphere through the player’s lack of knowledge and the consequences of failing to plan ahead. This app is much more modest than Duskers of course, but in its way is tapping into some of those same veins.
The players using the app can see what’s in the ship’s rooms. They can tap the items to find out exactly what they are, identify enemies, and temporarily shut down dangerous parts of the ship that the in-game player may not see. They’re supposed to be talking all the time: when I took a savaging and needed health badly, one of my companions took over like a marine commander and barked precise instructions to the nearest top-up. They can open doors, stun enemies, and even tell you which way the monsters are looking — which in a stealthy kind of game is beautiful.
Oh, and if they get bored they can open the doors at the wrong moment and send multiple bad guys tearing after you.
“We really wanted to push the ‘social’ VR aspect,” says Moore. “I know that sounds a bit bizarre because out of the door everyone was afraid VR was going to make people more and more isolated. We just felt like there were more opportunities, because of what we were doing and seeing and experiencing with Playroom VR. You can do couch co-op and actually it can be really good fun to be giving other players a slightly different experience and root it into the game that somebody in VR is experiencing.”
“The app developed quite organically, and it was part of the reason that we ended up getting moved forward, but yeah – it very rapidly or organically grew into much more than we originally intended to ship because it turned out to be really good fun.”
It’s this app that gives The Persistence that board game feel. This is a sci-fi horror video game but, at the same time, you’re in the ship and constantly being fed information. “Not that way.” “Ammo over to your left.” “Enemy turning his back… now, go go!” When using the app, I felt like some benevolent protector — until I got bored and started opening doors to let the bad guys roam.
Here, The Persistence had another angle. The other app player started helping the VR player, stunning the monsters that got close, shutting off the doors, and shuttling him towards health as fast as possible. The next few minutes were our own little game as two players tried to get through while I played the ghost in the machine, luring enemies to ambush points and waiting for my prey.
The Persistence is VR-only, and one last thing I want to mention is the walking speed. It’s quite slow and, normally, this would drive me crazy. But something about it actually suits VR, grounds this sci-fi world in recognisably human proportions, and builds tension rather than dissipating it.
“In the six month period when we were prototyping we learned a lot about the things that make you feel ill quite quickly,” says Moore. “You want the checklist? Everyone says the same things: acceleration, standard first-person shooter turn speeds can make you feel really quite iffy, going down slopes, undulation…”
Oddly enough, the horizontal turn speed is quite fast in The Persistence.
“Yeah,” laughs Moore. “We tried so many things to counter it – from really, really slow to insanely fast and then we settled for a medium that you control and it doesn’t... as I say we tested it on a lot of people coming through the door having a look, and so far our success rate has been really, really good. So fingers crossed!”
The Persistence, then, brings its own flavour to VR. Singleplayer-ish, firstperson shooter-ish, stealth-ish, and social-ish, this slight blurring of lines that runs through its design is what makes it interesting. I don’t know anything about the game’s lore but when I’m in that ship I know I’m not the Master Chief or some other roided-up clown. I’m a person trying to survive, using whatever tools I come across, trying to avoid fights, and listening desperately to any scrap of information my friends can feed through. The Persistence shows that traditional genres can work in VR: it’s just that they need to change a little more in the process.