There’s a slowly growing niche within a niche of scary games on VR, and The Persistence is no different. Set aboard a mutant infested space ship trapped in the gravity well of a black hole, it’s dark and tense, but gives you powerful guns that make you feel awesome.
It’s coming out tomorrow, and having played the first hour of the game last week, we sat down with Stuart Tilley, Game Director, and Lee Carus, Art Director to talk about its creation.
TSA: Is it difficult convincing people that playing horror games in VR is a good idea? Some people are going to be up for it, and there’s now the proof of it working from Resi 7 as well, but a lot of people are going to be like, “No, no, no, no, no….”
Stuart Tilley: I don’t think that’s the case for us. We talk about creeping dread and tension, rather than all out horror and fear. We’re not necessarily there to completely terrorise people, I think the idea is to give them a thrill ride in the game. One of the reasons why we introduce the weapons and why they’re so powerful is for when the player goes of their way to get the weapons – like the Stormfury, which is pretty powerful, right? – it means that what could be a scary situation, we give you the lighter moments where you have the power.
We talk a lot about the journey of fear and tension being relieved. Sometimes we give the player power, sometimes we have rooms where it’s lighter and the music softens. It’s that kind of emotional beat that you get to take it a little bit steadier.
I think you [Lee] did a bit of that with the art style in the recovery room, right?
Lee Carus: Yeah, the recovery room has a completely different vibe altogether, so we’ve got woods in there and different surfaces, so as soon as you’re in there you know you can take a breath, go and admire the view, appreciate how awesome VR is and then go again.
TSA: Speaking of the art style in general, how have you tried to make this science fiction world feel distinct? I think it’s safe to say that sci-fi space ships that aren’t working properly have been done a few times in the past!
Lee: Yeah, absolutely. The big challenge there was how to make it distinct, but not too out there. I think that’s what a lot of games and a lot of films fall into the trap of doing, of just going so abstract that there’s nothing for the viewer or the user or the player to hang onto.
So in our game, all the machines and things are built with some actual thinking into the backstory of each individual item. So in the lower decks, the machinery will have recognisable components. It’s not just wall to wall neon for an overwhelming sense of “Oh, it’s a neon sign, therefore it must be Sci-Fi.”
Stuart: Or if there’s a hexagon somewhere…
Lee: Exactly. We’ve got an anti-hexagon rule going on, which is a good thing to have.
TSA: I actually quite like hexagons though…
Lee: I’m OK with them, funnily enough, but some of the lads on the team have an absolute affliction to them!
Stuart: You occasionally just hear a “What’s this?” echoing across the office.
TSA: [laughs] One of the things that you talked about is how you’ve made the game comfortable to play in VR, and there’s just so many options to choose from and find the happy sweet spot. How have you gone about making sure getting defaults that feel right?
Stuart: A lot of it’s down to testing with different types of players. We basically came up with three obvious sets of defaults. Initially we put in what we thought was a really good comfort setting with really fast rotation, but we had players saying they just wanted standard controls with regular first person shooter settings, and we had some people that really struggle with discomfort, so we want to make them comfortable as well.
That’s how we went about it for the defaults, but there’s so many different subtle options in between. Even something like when you teleport, by default it blinks the screen, but for me I don’t like that because it gets in the way of my flow in combat, so there’s an option to turn that off. There’s the amount of vignette on the screen for when you’re moving forwards… There’s loads of settings in there.
We changed the UI right at the death. It just used to be this big long text list of all these things and everybody kept adding stuff so it was getting hard to use.
TSA: You could just give people a text file to edit on their PC? [laughs] One of the things you talked about was the “Comfort” default with the fast rotation, but that isn’t the one that appears in front of you in the middle of the screen. I find that interesting when it’s what you felt was the best setting, so is that just because of the sheer number of people wanting something else?
Stuart: Yeah, basically we took it as a gameplay decision. When we released the demo in VR Demo Disc 2, we only had that one setting with the fast rotation and a lot of the primary feedback was asking for more regular controls, so that is to do with that.
I think people that own PSVR tend to buy a lot of content, and my view was like, if they’re buying content and they’re going to buy a first person sci-fi horror game, they’re going to be proper VR gamers. A lot of the guys took the view that they’re just the most vocal ones, so they’re the ones asking for the standard controls and so we put it front and centre. It did create quite a debate, but one of the good things about Sony is that before you release a game, they put you through a consultation period and give you advice on extra consumer tests they’ve done. Their feedback was that it’s OK to do that, but there was certainly quite a bit of debate!
TSA: These days, especially with the wealth of indie games over the last few years, there’s a bit of eye-rolling or even negativity when you hear “roguelike” or “procedural generation” mentioned. How do you get past those buzzwords and try to show the quality of what you’re developing?
Stuart: Yes, there is, but the reason why we decided on this for the structure of our game was particularly because we wanted to design it for VR. One thing we learnt from previous games was that some gamers like a slightly shorter playtime, so we thought that with a faster live, die, repeat loop it would give more natural breaks between lives where you can take a breath.
That was why we did it and I think it works well, but we’ve gone quite a long way to try to make our rooms and areas feel like they’ve been handcrafted, even though they’ve been procedurally generated. The boys on the art team have done a ton of work to make the graphics really high end and stand up with the best PlayStation games that are out there. I think we’ve carved our own little niche within that space.
TSA: So, how have you tried to avoid having the feeling of repetition within the rooms?
Lee: Incredible amounts of work, basically! It’s not a case that we’ve got a suite of 50 rooms and corridors that hook them all together, it’s literally down to floor pieces, wall sections and the annexes between walls.
It’s funny, I was playing the other day and I asked, “Who made this room?” And it wasn’t a designer, it was the regeneration system that had constructed it, and I thought it was a bespoke one.
TSA: I was hoping the answer was going to be that you’d made the room and just forgotten! [laughs]
Lee: [laughs] Yeah, somebody should have taken credit for it, really!
But we’ve got this incredible level of complexity when it comes to the procedural generation, and at the same time we’ve got this layer of code over the top of it that makes it feel like it’s carefully constructed. it does this incredible job of making it feel like it’s got a flow to it, so it’s like it’s still a ship and the numbers on the decals change the further you get. It’s not just randomly plucking things from different parts. The layer of code on top of that is pretty special, actually.
TSA: It’s a stealth game, but as you mentioned before, you do get to feel powerful thanks to the guns. Can you talk a little about the variety of weapons we’ll see?
Stuart: So there’s two things: the stealth and the action, which are a bit counterintuitive and people generally like one thing or the other. So we’ve worked really hard to pace the game so that when you don’t have weapons, you benefit from the stealthy approach, but when you do have weapons, we’ve intentionally made them overpowered but with slightly less ammo, so you have these brief moments of power and then back to being weaker again.
We always said it was ‘press X for fun’ as our motto for the weapons. Press a button and it’s like, “Oh! I’ve got this dude and I can now smash him into the ground!” We actually made thirty weapons as prototypes, and then only kept seventeen in the game because some were a bit too complicated or just weren’t as much fun as we like. We tested them all ourselves and some didn’t make the grade, which is really depressing…
TSA: [laughs] Well, you know, it’s fodder for DLC.
TSA: Turning to the idea of co-op and the tablet app, were these ideas that spawned from your work on The Playroom and The Playroom VR?
Stuart: I think partly so, yes. When we did The Playroom work, there was a lot of importance placed on social and friends, and I think it’s a cracking game for that. I always said through development of The Persistence that the best thing about VR is it can pick you up and transport you to a new world, but when you’re playing with friends on the sofa, you’ve left them behind. So we talked a lot about how we should do this, and basically everyone’s got a phone or a tablet, so anyone that’s old enough to play can play this game.
We wanted to make the interactions be second to second interactions instead of anything strategic. So they’re moderately simple, but they’re super powerful, whether it’s luring enemies, opening doors or, in the worst case, turning the lights, spawning an enemy and making it attack you!
That was where it came from, the motivation to make it so if someone’s playing VR in the house, everyone can play together.
TSA: Do you think this is where you as a studio get to step out of the shadows? You’ve worked with Sony and that’s given you lots of great opportunities on The Playroom, Run Sackboy! Run!, but there’s something different when it’s your own IP.
Stuart: It’s the first one as Firesprite. Obviously when we were at Sony [in Studio Liverpool] we worked on some big franchises, but I think as Firesprite it’s the first one that’s wholly ours. That’s not to that we haven’t worked in conjunction with Sony [on this] and they’ve been brilliant as well, they’ve really helped out on user research and kits…
TSA: Oh, and it’s obviously not a negative, but this is the first time I feel you get to say this is us, this is our identity.
Stuart: Yeah, I think that’s right. We’ve put lots of time and effort into this one and we’re really proud of it – a bit nervous coming up to launch time, you know? – so I think that’s absolutely the case for us.
I think we’ve learnt more from each iteration we’ve done on VR. We’re not the only team in the world doing it, but we’ve done a number of VR games now and as we get better, the lessons we’ve learnt on every game are applied. The lessons we learn on this one will then get applied to the next one, and hopefully we’ll be making bigger and better VR experiences going forward, and I know that’s something PlayStation are completely committed to.
And it’s really good fun making VR games as well!
Thanks to Stuart and Lee for chatting to us about The Persistence. Be sure to check out our preview from last week and keep a beady eye out for our review when the game releases tomorrow.