Stormland Interview — Insomniac Dev Talks Designing an Open-World VR Game for the Core Audience
We recently spoke to Insomniac's Chad Dezern to learn more about Stormland, the studio's upcoming open-world VR title slated to release in 2019.
I played Stormland a couple weeks back at an event in parallel to PAX West and was thoroughly impressed by how it was making use of VR. As I said in my preview, it finally seemed like the hardcore experience in VR that I know many have been asking for in this space and Insomniac Games’ top-notch gameplay design was once again on full display.
Following my demo, I was able to speak with Insomniac’s Chad Dezern to learn a bit more about Stormland. Over the course of our conversation, Dezern explained more of the basics of what to expect from Stormland along with discussing how Insomniac plans on continuing to support it well after launch.
Logan: I didn’t know much about Stormland when I came here today other than having seen the reveal trailer but one of the aspects that I was aware of was that this was an open-world VR game, which hasn’t been done a whole lot in this space. How challenging was it to create that sense of freedom and openness in VR?
Chad Dezern: Yeah, that was the kernel that we built around. We wanted to make an open-world game with exhilarating movement mechanics, in VR, and then turn players loose to explore the world and discover new things. That started with us thinking about the open-world structure that we’ve developed for games like Sunset Overdrive and Marvel’s Spider-Man plus a lot of the traversal mechanics that we’ve developed for those games to see what we could translate into the VR space.
One of the first things we developed was the Slipstream mechanic where you can fly above the cloud layer and kind of point with your hands to direct yourself. That one was relatively straightforward and went quickly. From there we experimented with a climb mechanic that eventually developed into the climb that you got to experience today. You can climb slowly and deliberately or you can fling yourself up cliffs. We added a glide almost as a happy accident. We needed a way to get players back down and we started to ask what if we let players push off, turn loose, and then kind of direct themselves with their hands and even control their descent. That felt really good when we tried it out. It was a bit of a surprise but we saw that we could string all of these mechanics together fluidly and really let players take in the world at their own pace.
L: Was that slow glide ability also added to make things more comfortable when dropping, as well? Speaking personally, no matter how much I love a VR game, if it makes me feel queasy with jerking movements, I just have to stop playing. How much did you try to focus on that comfort factor when making all of these mechanics?
CD: Extensively. We’re always thinking about comfort. The good news is, we’re starting to see a set of conventions developed for VR. We understand that some players use look-relative movement with the stick and others use body or hand-relative movement so we can build in all of those options. We know that some players like a steep turn, others like a smooth turn — we at least had a really good foundation of basic walking around to start with. From there, we could experiment with the really exotic things like the slipstreaming, the climbing and gliding.
L: So I want to dig into how Stormland is actually going to work from moment-to-moment. The demo sort of began in this hub before I was then transported into the larger open-world area of the game. Will you be going into the open-world as a means of doing missions and finding gear and then coming back to that hub afterward?
CD: You begin in a campsite. In our story, you’re an android gardener and a malevolent agency called the Tempest has uprooted your habitat, shattered your android body, and scattered your friends in the Stormland. You’ve got to journey up above to that mysterious civilization and repair yourself because you’re not really equipped to handle combat and find your friends.
So you start down at the campsite, you journey up above, and from there you progress through layers of the Stormland higher and higher until some time in the far future you confront the Tempest in his homeworld.
L: You mention other androids, so will there be multiplayer elements in Stormland?
CD: You can jump in with asynchronous co-op with friends and it’s kind of like a raid set up. You can also play with the community at large. Some missions are designed for the community experience. If a certain percentage of players complete the mission, we all benefit and we all get a new reward like an upgrade or we all get a buff that lasts for some time.
One thing to know is that the world changes from week-to-week. It’s [made of] handcrafted elements but we put them together procedurally. We change up the layout for brand new combat types and traversal types. You might see an enemy one week and then the next week you find something brand new like the debut of a new enemy. We give you new upgrades, we might have one very rare object that is out there in the Stormland and the player base has to explore and try to find it.
L: So for lack of a better comparison, it seems like you’re trying to do something along the lines of Destiny but in the VR space.
CD: There are some similarities, yeah.
L: We’ve talked about traversal but I’d also like to ask about combat. How much of a focus is combat in the overall scheme of Stormland? Is shooting up other enemy robots going to be what you’ll spend a majority of your time doing in the game?
CD: It’s kind of up to what the player wants to do and how they want to solve problems. Combat is there and there is an antagonist in the form of all of these Tempest agents. You might choose to sneak around, sneak into an enemy’s stronghold unseen, steal some enemy batteries to take them down or plant traps — operate sort of like a passive stealth agent.
You might choose to find a good vantage point, steal weapons from your enemies like a sniper rifle and take them out from a distance. Or, you could choose to put a lot of effort into upgrading your android body and then gliding into enemy strongholds guns blazing. It’s up to however you want to play it. It’s about exploration and discovery first, but combat is a massive element and a big part of the upgrade loop.
L: How important was it for you to give players choice in that regard like with all of those situations you mentioned?
CD: It’s one of the main principles we’re building around. We really wanted this to feel like you could surprise yourself by thinking a tactic through and executing it — seeing that what you imagined might work, does work.
L: I assume you have some sort of roadmap planned out after you launch since you’ve already been touching on how there will be weekly updates. Just how big and expansive do you expect Stormland to be?
CD: The main thing is that because the world changes over time and you get new missions week-to-week, it’s designed to be a really long play experience. We’ll give you some custom story content to get you ramped up and trained up to get you into the narrative and we’ll also play out story threads over time. If you’re really into learning about the backstory of the world and that’s your focus, you’ll get that experience. Ultimately, we’re building for the long haul. Something that is rewarding and mysterious every time you go back.
L: Touching on the VR aspect of the game, I know that stable multiplayer communities with VR games are sometimes hard to accumulate, especially when you’re only confined to releasing on a single platform. Is that anything that you are worrying about internally?
CD: We’ve had great experiences with the VR community with games like The Unspoken. We’ve had a passionate group of players who jump into tournaments and know each other and play competitively. The community has been great in terms of trying new things and sticking with it and we expect that to continue here.
Ultimately, we’re making something that if you choose to play solo, you can. If you get really into playing co-op, you can do that. If you love all the tie-ins to the community, the social aspect is there for you as well.
L: You mentioned The Unspoken and I wanted to actually bring that up. What were the things you learned from working on that game that you brought with you into Stormland?
CD: The main carryover was the basics of our first-person avatar system that came from The Unspoken. We learned quite a bit about modeling third-person IK [editor’s note: IK stands for inverse kinematics] systems where just with your head and hands we can make sure your avatar looks really good in a lot of situations. We learned a lot about gesture-based combat mechanics.
The Unspoken is all about casting spells with your bare hands and we were able to pull some of those into new android abilities that we would not have been able to create if we were starting from scratch. The Unspoken also had a teleportation movement mechanic and at the time, we didn’t want to focus on movement. We wanted it to be all about spell casting. That was incentive though for us to make traversal a focus this time around and really dig into it and try a lot of things — make it one of the main focal points of the whole game.
L: Insomniac is a studio that works on a variety of different games and I know you specifically have worked on a ton of non-VR games in the past. Is it hard to then transfer over to working on something in the VR space from a previous project like, say, Ratchet & Clank?
CD: We were fortunate because we had a good, steady progression. Our first VR game was Edge of Nowhere which was third-person and controller based. We were able to pull a lot of what we knew from third-person action games like Ratchet & Clank into the world we crafted. From there, we made Feral Rites and it was another third-person game but that was about figuring out longer tail progression systems. By the time we rolled into our first first-person VR game, The Unspoken, we had amassed this backlog of understanding how HMD works and the way tracked hands work. That’s only evolved from there into Stormland. Its been a good way for us to start with our console roots and then evolve the way we handle VR from game-to-game.
L: You guys have partnered with Oculus to create Stormland and I’m curious, what have been the benefits of working with them on this project?
CD: They’re very publisher-friendly at Oculus from Jason Rubin to everyone in the organization. They really understand game mechanics and how you build games with a solid foundation. As developers, they’re simply fun to work with and fun to talk to and that’s what you hope for.
L: What’s the one broad element or pitch you’d make to people who aren’t really familiar with Stormland and want to know more about it?
CD: This is an open-world game in VR where you can build yourself from a humble android gardener into a capable, combat-ready, synthetic machine. You explore a world that changes every single week so you find brand new playgrounds of movement, combat, and loot. You can play by yourself or jump in with friends or tap into the bigger community game. We’re making a deep, full-featured game for VR and evolving a lot of what we’ve learned from our console heritage.
Stormland is scheduled to release at some point in 2019 and will be available exclusively for Oculus Rift VR headsets.