Firesprite might not be a game studio that you’re particularly familiar with, but their work can be found on every PlayStation 4. Since the studio’s founding in 2012, they’ve worked alongside Sony’s Japan Studio on The Playroom and The Playroom VR, and they were entrusted with a foray into mobile gaming with Run Sackboy! Run!. Now they’re branching out with their own title, an independent PSVR game called The Persistence.
However, this studio and the core team’s roots go much, much further back, with the original twenty staff forming Firesprite after the closure of Studio Liverpool. Even with the kinds of projects that Firesprite have released so far, this team have stuck with the same kinds of philosophies that kept Studio Liverpool at the forefront of game development.
Studio Liverpool were renowned, not only for releasing some cracking games over the years – the Wipeout series was often a technical masterclass on whatever console it released – but also being there at the very beginning of a console’s lifetime. As Managing Director Graeme Ankers and Game Director Stuart Tilley think back to those days, they talked working with a “big circuit board black box thing” that was the first PS Vita and the original dev PS3 that they nicknamed the “bread oven”. Graeme said, “What we did at Studio Liverpool was deliver defining experiences on new consoles. That’s a fine art because you’re developing toward something that isn’t a fixed platform, something that doesn’t even exist, so you’ve got to come up with a whole mindset that allows you to sort of hit the moving target as it goes through.”
Though the name is new, this team is about as established and storied as they come, with some of these guys going as far back as when it was still called Psygnosis, working on Shadow of the Beast, Rollcage, and those original Wipeout games. Art Director Lee Carus recalled how a moment of inspiration led to part of Wipeout’s distinctive in-game look:
“It was just super late one night and I was just looking at a way to jazz up the ships. I was wandering around the office seeking inspiration, and obviously in those days the bill from The Designers Republic had just come in on the fax machine. I looked at the top of the fax and thought, ‘That’s just the coolest bit of design’, looked over at the screen and thought that’s just roughly the right proportions. So I scanned it in and threw it on the side of the ships, and thought that works, we had to do that.
“It was originally just going to be a pack shot, but from that point onwards we thought we should use a little bit more of their work in the game [instead of plainly coloured ships].”
Firesprites projects thus far haven’t been as ground breaking, but have remained on the frontiers of gaming technology. They designed the visuals for The Playroom, including the distinctive AR Bots that pop out of the controller and inhabit the real world space. That work then carried through to The Playroom VR, which was naturally one of the first projects underway for the system but sought to break down the inherent isolation that virtual reality brings. With virtual reality still very much a nascent technology, it makes sense for Firesprite to have continued with that work afterward with The Persistence. The idea goes back much further, though.
Graeme said, “It originally goes back to the Studio Liverpool days, when I was the Studio Head there and Stu was the Game Director, we always had these conversations in the corridor about how we want to make a scary game, so we’ve always had a bit of a passion to actually go and do that.”
The Persistence is actually their third game for PSVR, with their second practically unheard of outside of this side of the Atlantic. Developed for the US Air Force, Air Force Special Ops: Nightfall was released solely in North America, with the player taking on the role of an Air Force Special Operations Airman and HALO jumping out of a plane. It was good enough, Graeme told us, that even though it was designed to be fun and engaging, it was still accurate enough that US Air Force flight sergeants enjoyed it for its accuracy.
“It came with its own technical challenges,” Graeme explained, “because if you’re jumping out of a plane at 30,000 feet you can see everything, which is a problem for rendering in VR which has to be 60fps and super optimised to draw everything twice. And two, it would have taken a massive amount of people to build that size of landscape […] so we did this thing with the US Air Force where we had military grade satellite data imported into the game engine. Technically it was actually a rather cool thing to have worked on and to have done!”
Stuart added, “We had data that basically wasn’t available anywhere in the world, because we basically got the US military to point a satellite at this part of the world and scan it for us!” Graeme quipped, “It’s very Bond, isn’t it?”
The Persistence is really a culmination of all their efforts thus far. The Playroom had second screen tablet elements, The Playroom VR sought to invite others in to share a VR gaming experience, Nightfall will have helped develop Firesprite’s methodology for first person VR, and even Run Sackboy! Run! can be seen to have shaped the immediacy of The Persistence’s companion app. The Persistence has been in development alongside those other VR projects, but it will have drawn on those experiences.
Something I’m sure many VR fans would be pleased to hear, Graeme said, “Similar to Nightfall, similar to The Playroom there’s a lot of great short form content out there that’s really cool, but one of our big drives has been to push and deliver a full game that’s designed for VR. An actual full game experience that isn’t short form and keeps you coming back.”
The future looks bright for the company, with The Persistence’s release tomorrow far from the only project they have in the works. From the 20 strong team that the company started with in 2012, they’ve now grown to 75 and area working on multiple projects at once.
“Because of the nature of the type of work that we do, we’ve never really shouted too much [about ourselves],” Graeme admitted. “It’s generally been in the background, like collaborating with Japan Studio on new hardware. It’s not something we can go out and advertise and talk about so much. We’ve delivered a lot of things, but The Persistence is really the first time [we are advertising], because it’s our own IP. It’s been a labour of love that we’ve worked on for three years and we feel that we’re ready to really talk about that now for the first time.”
With Studio Liverpool’s DNA still deeply ingrained within the studio, the question is, which gaming frontiers are they looking to explore next?