Stu­dio Pro­file

The UK out­fit that made its mark in Play Sta­tion Home is bet­ting the farm on VR

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY CHRIS SCHILLING

Why nDreams, the pi­o­neer­ing UK stu­dio be­hind The As­sem­bly, is bet­ting the farm on vir­tual re­al­ity

There is no short­age of peo­ple in the videogame in­dus­try who believe in the vast po­ten­tial of vir­tual re­al­ity, but few com­pa­nies are quite so heav­ily in­vested in it as nDreams. Its fu­ture prod­uct slate is fo­cused ex­clu­sively on VR plat­forms, from Ocu­lus to PSVR, HTC’s Vive to Google’s forth­com­ing Day­dream. So what prompted an es­tab­lished UK stu­dio to go all in on a niche, nascent sec­tor like this? CEO Pa­trick O’Lua­naigh, an in­dus­try vet­eran for­merly of Code­mas­ters and SCI Games, was al­ready ex­cited by the prospect of VR – he en­thu­si­as­ti­cally re­calls his Vir­tu­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ences at Lon­don’s Tro­cadero all those years ago – but it was a more re­cent in­ci­dent that con­vinced him this was where his com­pany’s fu­ture lay.

“One mem­ber of the team, a real hor­ror fan, played a basic [Rift] DK1 demo,” O’Lua­naigh ex­plains. “And he found it ter­ri­fy­ing, just be­ing im­mersed within that world.” If a man with such a strong nerve could be turned into a quiv­er­ing wreck, he reck­oned, then it was ob­vi­ous this tech­nol­ogy was some­thing spe­cial. The com­pany be­gan to play around with the early hard­ware, pro­duc­ing a se­ries of demos that never saw the light of day (O’Lua­naigh refers to these quick­fire ex­per­i­ments as “minia­ture play”) be­fore re­leas­ing

SkyDIEv­ing in 2013, a free Rift tech demo on that at­tracted plenty of at­ten­tion, partly as a re­sult of prom­i­nent YouTube chan­nels.

NDreams has cer­tainly earned its mo­ment in the spot­light af­ter sev­eral years of un­her­alded work; in­deed, this year it’s cel­e­brat­ing a decade in the videogame busi­ness. Fol­low­ing its found­ing in 2006, it was in­volved in a num­ber of mi­nor projects be­fore it en­tered into a part­ner­ship with Sony, set­ting out to cre­ate games and other fea­tures for PlaySta­tion Home. Sony’s vir­tual world didn’t have too many vo­cal champions at the time, but nDreams quickly be­came one of its big­gest and most suc­cess­ful pub­lish­ers.

It was a pi­o­neer else­where, too, re­leas­ing the world’s first con­sole-based al­ter­na­tive-re­al­ity game, Xi, in 2009. It ran for over three months, at­tract­ing more than five mil­lion vis­its, as play­ers col­lab­o­rated to de­code clues and solve puz­zles, both in the game and out­side, with clues scat­tered across a net­work of web­sites. It was, O’Lua­naigh says, “a bril­liant ex­pe­ri­ence,” but by the time it was over, nDreams was al­ready look­ing to try some­thing dif­fer­ent. It built themed apart­ments and minigames for Home own­ers, and by 2011 it hit new heights with Aurora, a float­ing ar­chi­pel­ago which was vis­ited by al­most two mil­lion play­ers. By the time Sony called time on Home in March 2015, it had proved very prof­itable for nDreams. “Home was ahead of its time, re­ally,” O’Lua­naigh says. “It was painted as a flop, but we did very well out of it. And it had a very loyal and pas­sion­ate fan­base.”

The clo­sure of Home could eas­ily have been a sig­nif­i­cant set­back for a com­pany that had come to rely on the ser­vice; in­stead, O’Lua­naigh saw it as an op­por­tu­nity. With such ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence with vir­tual worlds, nDreams found it­self par­tic­u­larly well po­si­tioned to pivot to VR. Af­ter SkyDIEv­ing, it set to work on two Sam­sung Gear VR prod­ucts that were al­most di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed. The in­tense tur­ret shooter Gun­ner used an in­tu­itive look-to-aim sys­tem, as play­ers gunned down en­emy ships; Per­fect Beach, mean­while, was much more sooth­ing, a med­i­ta­tive trop­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence de­signed to sim­ply let you sit down and soak up the am­bi­ence of a bliss­ful vir­tual par­adise. Such dis­parate re­sults weren’t nec­es­sar­ily by de­sign, O’Lua­naigh tells us – it was sim­ply a case of “try­ing things out to see what worked and what didn’t”.

The stu­dio’s cur­rent plans are am­bi­tious, and very soon it will re­lease its big­gest game to date. The As­sem­bly is a first­per­son, nar­ra­tive-led ad­ven­ture for Rift and Vive (and PSVR when Sony’s head­set launches in Oc­to­ber) which casts you in a dual role as a pair of in­ductees to the tit­u­lar estab­lish­ment, an un­der­ground or­gan­i­sa­tion of sci­en­tists con­duct­ing morally du­bi­ous ex­per­i­ments. “It’s a story told from two sides,” O’Lua­naigh ex­plains, “with two very dif­fer­ent types of game­play. Cal’s [tale] in­volves a lot of de­tec­tive work, while Madeleine has to pass elab­o­rate ini­ti­a­tion tests”. The game has been writ­ten by Tom Ju­bert, the pen be­hind ti­tles such as The Ta­los Prin­ci­ple, Driver: San

Fran­cisco and FTL, and should be avail­able to buy as you read this.

While prof­its from Home have kept the com­pany buoy­ant, nDreams wouldn’t have had the time and space to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties of VR with­out the help of in­vest­ment firm Mer­cia Tech­nolo­gies. O’Lua­naigh recog­nises the role Mer­cia in­vest­ment di­rec­tor – and for­mer CEO of Sega Europe – Mike Hayes has played in fund­ing its re­cent ex­pan­sion: “He knows the games in­dus­try, he’s very sup­port­ive of us, and be­lieves in what we’re do­ing.”

As a re­sult, the stu­dio’s head­count has grown from 20 to 45, which has helped to fa­cil­i­tate the cre­ation of more ex­pan­sive projects such as

The As­sem­bly. Yet the process of build­ing an ad­ven­ture game in VR hasn’t been easy. For VP of de­vel­op­ment Tom Gillo, one of the big­gest chal­lenges has been solv­ing the is­sue of world tra­ver­sal. “It’s kind of the holy grail, be­cause ev­ery­one wants to play their favourite FPS in VR,” he notes. “But tra­di­tional twin-stick move­ment in VR is nau­sea-in­duc­ing, and straf­ing is a com­plete no-no.” And yet it’s clear he finds the lim­i­ta­tions of the tech in­vig­o­rat­ing rather than frus­trat­ing: “The con­straints of VR force us as devel­op­ers to look at cre­ative and in­no­va­tive ways of solv­ing these ob­sta­cles.”

Gillo’s ex­pe­ri­ence has held him in good stead to pro­vide the an­swers. Prior to join­ing nDreams, he was a game di­rec­tor at SCE Lon­don Stu­dio, and grew fa­mil­iar with the early Mor­pheus tech be­fore it be­came known as PlaySta­tion VR.

“THE CON­STRAINTS OF VR FORCE US TO LOOK AT CRE­ATIVE AND IN­NO­VA­TIVE WAYS OF SOLV­ING THESE OB­STA­CLES”

“[Games] like Street Luge where the player lies hor­i­zon­tally on a luge-board, or Lon­don Heist where in a sec­tion of the game the player is a pas­sen­ger in a car, would not have come about if we hadn’t been try­ing to solve move­ment and world tra­ver­sal in VR,” he says.

For The As­sem­bly, that process has led to a move­ment sys­tem the stu­dio is call­ing Blink Mode, which en­ables play­ers to project a marker and then ‘blink’ to it – not en­tirely un­like the sim­i­larly named power in Arkane’s Dis­hon­ored. Just don’t call it a tele­port. “It’s not a tele­port!” Gillo in­sists. “It’s a very fast move­ment that just reg­is­ters on the brain, but so fast [that] it doesn’t cause nau­sea – some­how it just feels right and doesn’t break im­mer­sion in the same way a straight tele­port [would].”

It’s a so­lu­tion that works for The As­sem­bly and is in­creas­ingly com­mon in VR games, but Gillo’s well aware that it won’t nec­es­sar­ily fit ev­ery­thing, and nDreams is in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­ter­na­tives such as ‘tun­nelling’ for fu­ture ti­tles. “If play­ers’ field of view in VR is par­tially oc­cluded with a vi­gnette at the pe­riph­ery of the head­set,” Gillo says, “it can re­duce or maybe even elim­i­nate nau­sea when us­ing stan­dard move­ment sys­tems.” He hasn’t yet ex­plored the so­lu­tion – pre­vi­ously in­cor­po­rated most notably in Three One Zero’s space ad­ven­ture Adrift – and isn’t cer­tain about the ef­fec­tive­ness of the ap­proach, but it’s ev­i­dently some­thing he’s look­ing for­ward to test­ing. “We’re con­stantly evolv­ing [our ap­proach] and look­ing at in­no­va­tive ways of overcoming the ob­sta­cles that the tech­nol­ogy throws at us,” he ex­plains. “That’s [part of] what makes VR de­vel­op­ment ex­cit­ing and en­gag­ing – it’s a new medium with new rules for us all to help de­fine.”

In the mean­time, nDreams has been fo­cused on en­sur­ing The As­sem­bly doesn’t leave any­one clutch­ing their stom­ach or their head: af­ter all, O’Lua­naigh says, play­ers will be bet­ter able to im­merse them­selves within its world as long as they’re com­fort­able. The blink me­chanic helps, but the struc­ture is equally cru­cial – the story is told in man­age­able chunks, with chap­ters of around 20 min­utes each. He hopes play­ers will be ab­sorbed enough to play for longer, but recog­nises that’s not fea­si­ble for ev­ery­one.

As VR con­tin­ues to evolve, so does nDreams: it’s big­ger now than it’s ever been, and it isn’t about to stop grow­ing just yet. Its rep­u­ta­tion within the in­dus­try has made it rel­a­tively easy to at­tract staff, though O’Lua­naigh isn’t in­ter­ested in ex­pand­ing for the sake of it. “It’s not just about hir­ing more peo­ple,” he says. “It’s about the cal­i­bre of em­ployee.” The stu­dio has re­cruited ta­lent from a num­ber of ma­jor devel­op­ers, with the CEO ad­mit­ting his aim is to match the likes of SCE Lon­don Stu­dio. Once it’s fin­ished work on The As­sem­bly, nDreams will turn its at­ten­tion to the two projects it has in the pipe­line for Google Day­dream, though it won’t be drawn on what they might be. We prod for more in­for­ma­tion, and learn they’re orig­i­nal prop­er­ties rather than ports, and very dif­fer­ent from one an­other.

This year is set to be the com­pany’s big­gest by some dis­tance, then. In one re­spect, it’s the be­gin­ning of a new era for nDreams, but it’s also a cul­mi­na­tion of ev­ery­thing it has been work­ing to­wards since its in­cep­tion. O’Lua­naigh sees it as a land­mark mo­ment for a com­pany that in some ways feels like one of the best-kept se­crets of UK game de­vel­op­ment; he doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily sub­scribe to the no­tion that it’s a rel­a­tive un­known, but is hope­ful that The As­sem­bly in par­tic­u­lar will help put nDreams on the map. “It feels a bit like we’re ex­it­ing stealth mode,” he says. And while the ex­pe­ri­ences the stu­dio is work­ing on might ap­pear very dif­fer­ent from one an­other, they share the same driv­ing prin­ci­ples. “We’re just try­ing to cre­ate dif­fer­ent kinds of ex­pe­ri­ences; what they hope­fully have in com­mon are qual­ity and in­no­va­tion.”

Even in the un­likely event The As­sem­bly flops, it should still turn out to be the most prof­itable 12 months of nDreams’ decade in op­er­a­tion. The com­pany’s fu­ture is bright, O’Lua­naigh as­serts, and he’s con­fi­dent the same will be true of VR. “It’s go­ing to grow and grow,” he says. “The head­sets we’re us­ing now aren’t go­ing to be the ones we’re us­ing in five years.” He en­vi­sions vir­tual re­al­ity be­com­ing more so­cial and in­clu­sive, as op­posed to the more soli­tary ex­pe­ri­ences be­ing cre­ated at the mo­ment.

That vi­sion of in­clu­siv­ity ex­tends to the com­pany it­self, with a new re­cruit­ment pol­icy that demon­strates an ad­mirable ef­fort to pro­mote di­ver­sity among its work­force. Forty-two per cent of new hires to the stu­dio this year have been women, with two al­ready ap­pointed to se­nior po­si­tions. O’Lua­naigh ac­knowl­edges that this can only help from a cre­ative per­spec­tive, too: a wider va­ri­ety of voices should be par­tic­u­larly valu­able for a com­pany that’s al­ready look­ing to ex­pand its hori­zons with the games and the spa­ces it’s build­ing in VR’s brave new world.

“WE’RE CON­STANTLY LOOK­ING AT IN­NO­VA­TIVE WAYS OF OVERCOMING THE OB­STA­CLES THAT VR THROWS AT US”

O’Lua­naigh is keen to en­sure nDreams em­ploy­ees don’t burn out, with an of­fice cul­ture de­signed to avoid heavy crunch

Thanks to Mer­cia’s in­vest­ment, nDreams will turn pub­lisher next year, co-fund­ing the de­but VR ti­tle from Ch­ester-based indie Paw Print Games. Known for its ges­ture-driven ti­tles for iOS and An­droid, the stu­dio was founded by for­mer Trav­eller’s Tales pro­gram­mers

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