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