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With VR making its way to the forefront of the games industry, game developers are looking to immerse players in their games and UK-based game development studio, nDreams, is all about raising the bar when it comes to creating a deeply engaging experience. We chatted with the team at nDreams about the development of their latest VR title, The Assembly.
We are the UK’s largest video game developer to be solely focused on creating innovative and remarkable virtual reality games and experiences. The studio itself is a 40 strong team, 32 of which make up the development team. We were founded in 2006 and we pivoted to VR in 2013. To date, we have published three VR titles, two of which are mobile VR: Perfect Beach and Gunner for Samsung Gear VR, and the other is a high-end VR video game, The Assembly which is for Oculus Rift and HTC VIVE, and it launched on PlayStation VR on October 13th.
It really does depend on what the software is trying to achieve. A game is traditionally something you can fail at. It’s something that normally has an ending. It's something that usually has a set of mechanics about how you interact with the world, with a feedback loop. It’s all very fuzzy because you’ll always find edge cases that don’t have any of these things and they're still called ‘games.’ An experience is much less demanding of the user - there are fewer interaction options available potentially, or maybe more shallow interactions options available, or perhaps it’s not trying to do as much or perhaps it’s trying to do just one thing. The core games and core experiences are very easy to differentiate. Of course, there’s a fuzzy line that comes close together, but certainly in our minds when we set out to make a project, we’re very clear about what falls into the experience camp and what falls into the games camp.
Yeah I’m glad you said that, otherwise I would be worried. [laughs]
Here's the one-minute pitch: The Assembly is about a collective of scientific academics and engineers who have squirreled themselves away from the world in an underground lab where they can conduct their morally dubious experiments away from the world’s prying eyes. They're all about progress for the sake of progress and discovery for the sake of discovery. They don’t like government oversight and they like society’s morals even less. In this mix, you the player are taking on the role of two separate protagonists. First off there’s Madeleine, she’s a neurologist who has had some experience in the outside world and has led her to be abducted by the Assembly. She then undergoes a series of trials to assess whether or not she will join their ranks, the decision ultimately being up to the player.
The other character that we introduce is Cal. Cal is a neurologistas been a member of the Assembly for some time now. He is lately of the opinion that his research isn’t necessarily being used for the benefit for all human kind, so he’s looking for a way out. Even though it’s very tough to join the Assembly, it’s even tougher to leave.
Two characters’ paths criss-cross throughout the gameplay and their perceptions shift, their perspectives alter. The whole thing culminates in one of multiple surprising conclusions.
We wanted to show two different sides of the Assembly simultaneously, which we couldn’t really do with one character. We wanted to show the Assembly that wished to be seen, and that is the side that Madeleine sees. We also wanted to show how the Assembly really is, we wanted the whole nature of it - and that’s from Cal’s perspective.
The reason why is that we are pretty aware that we’re not the only game to do the bulk of their gameplay in a mysterious underground bunker, but we wanted to deconstruct that fantasy, put it in the real world and see how it really works. If you’re stuck in an underground bunker for months on end, what effect does that have on your psyche, how does it affect the relationships with your colleagues? What does the effect have on relationships with people in the outside world? What are the firing practices? What are the commuting practices? Do people stay there for months on end? If you’re entrusted with so much information that is invaluable, what if you decide to go against the company lines? What are the disciplinary procedures? All of these things are the types of things that we wanted to explore. It’s still a very compelling, thrilling plot that drives the player forward through each chapter towards the end.
So we have been very much inspired by some of the themes in the X-Files in particular. However, it’s really based on real world anxiety to help ground the game. As we know, there’s always been talk about diseases crossing over from animals to humans, whether it's H1N1 or swine flu, the bird flu, and if you ask academics, we are long overdue for the next global pandemic. Equally, there’s a lot of distrust against science right now. Lots of the developments that science has been making is in secret. They get rolled out into the world beyond one’s imagining almost.
That was absolutely at the forefront of our minds when we decided to make this game. The Assembly was based around the kernel of logic that VR is an incredible, fascinating but also quite overwhelming place to be. And we really wanted to be very close to the launch of Oculus Rift and HTC Vive and at launch for PlayStation VR. We didn’t necessarily want to be an experience that would overwhelm people.
Certain things that work great in a flat screen are difficult to portray in VR. We wanted to pack our environment with a lot of details and really encourage players to look in every single nook and cranny while you interact with the story, but we also didn’t want to hurry players along or make them feel pressured. You allow them to really soak up the VR environment in all of its glory because, speaking personally, I’ve now given hundreds of people their first VR experience and every single time, they put on the headset, their jaw goes slack, their mouth opens and they just want to spend time looking around. Not that many players are given the opportunity to just go out there and spend time freely looking around. That was exactly what we wanted to do.
Yeah, we had to make sure that in giving the player that time to explore environments, they were all fully realized. We can’t really do like in traditional game development which is sort of cutting back-faced polys and hiding stuff that is not in view. When you have head-tracking VR environments, players can look underneath desks, or behind cupboards or in cupboards so we had to make sure the world was as detailed and as fully visualized as possible which means we had a lot of geometry to get in.
Want to read more on how nDreams takes on the unknown future of VR as it progresses? Check out more of the story on Autodesk's website.
The Assembly is available for the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PS4 VR. The team at nDreams uses Autodesk Maya for geometry creation, UV skinning, rigging and animation to create extremely immersive experiences and games like The Assembly.