“Stormland,” the next virtual reality game from the studio behind “Ratchet & Clank” and the upcoming “Spider-Man” game, is an open-world, narratively-driven first-person game that drops you into the rusting body of an android gardener out to save its world.
The Oculus game is also the sort of seachange title that could completely alter the way people view virtual reality gaming, Oculus VP of content Jason Rubin told Variety.
“This is one title that could encourage people to come onto the platform,” he said. “This is a title that could radically change their view of the platform.”
In the game, due out in 2019, players take on the role of an unnamed android caretaker on a mysterious alien planet. When an entity called The Tempest arrives, shattering the android’s body and uprooting the world, the android is tasked with journeying up through layers of cloud seas to find out what happened, augment itself, and save the planet.
What makes “Stormland” so unique is that it combines Insomniac’s learnings from years of VR and traditional game development to deliver what is meant to be a AAA open-world exploration game that sounds more like the soundbox of destruction and play found in “Far Cry” than any title that has come to the Oculus to date.
VR Open-World Mayhem
“We’ve been working three or four years to push the state of VR content forward,” Rubin said. Noting that traditional video game developers have had about 10 times that amount to perfect their craft. “It takes a long time to learn about this new medium.”
And Insomniac was there from the start, helping to create games for the Oculus Rift as a second-party development partner with Oculus. Along the way, the studio also helped craft a series of best practices now used throughout Oculus game development.
“This is our fourth VR game at this point,” said Insomniac chief creative officer Chad Dezern. “We have been on a journey.”
That started with 2016’s “Edge of Nowhere,” an action-adventure game, which helped the team get used to some of the general rules of VR game development without needing to shift from third- to first-person. Next came “Feral Rites,” which Dezern said helped the team work on long-term progression mechanics. Then there was “The Unspoken,” Insomniac’s first, first-person VR game. That was also where the studio learned how best to use the Rift’s touch controls. The team started development on its latest game in 2017.
“‘Stormland’ is the culmination of all of that,” he said, plus of lessons learned all along the studio’s more than two decades of game development. “Ultimately, this is about taking components of the open world structure and gameplay from ‘Ratchet & Clank,’ ‘Sunset Overdrive,’ and ‘Spider-Man’ and marrying that to what we’ve discovered in VR development.”
The end result is a game that features a robust climbing system, the ability to free-walk all over the world, to glide from clifftops and along slipstreams, and to discover new islands loaded with tech, augmentations, rare creatures, and enemy strongholds.
“It’s about creating a lot of player choice and not being constrained in any way by the medium,” Dezern said. “We put you in a world where you can go anywhere with a set of traversal mechanics. On top of that, there is a combat model that is free form. You can steal weapons from an enemy, you can upgrade the android’s ability to shoot electricity from its arm, to cloak from enemies, or create a shield. You can use the environment to place traps or blow up enemy munitions. It’s how you want to play, how you want to engage.”
“I think there is going to be a moment at which VR reaches the point where the general consumer base understands it is a long-term value proposition, an inevitable part of the future, an inevitable part of their future,” Rubin said.
And he thinks that moment is close at hand.
“Up until now, we have been building a foundation,” he said. “I believe that over the next few years, starting with titles this year, we are now building that transitionary phase, where they understand that, ‘I’m going to get one of these pieces of hardware.’”
Rubin believes that titles like the long-anticipated “Marvel Powers United VR” (which he said is still due out this year), the unannounced game from developer Respawn, and a few other titles — including “Stormland” — are the sorts of games that will push VR into that transitory phase.
“Software does sell hardware,” he said. “This is a device driven by its content.”
Initially, Oculus focused on filling the pipeline, ensuring that there was enough of that content to both attract buyers and to keep them entertained once they owned an Oculus Rift. But recently that need to deliver new content to a new sort of device has waned. In its place came the desire to master the art of VR game design and deliver bigger, better, more realized experiences.
“We have seen in the past year a radical change,” Rubin said. “People are not saying, ‘What’s the next thing? There’s nothing out there.’ Now they’re saying, ‘There is so much great stuff coming out, I don’t know what to do next.’”
With its fourth game, Insomniac has learned that in virtual reality, sometimes less is more. Delivering story, for instance, doesn’t have to come at the cost of player agency, with major plot points arriving in movie-like cinematics that wrest control away from the player.
“We stay in first-person from start to finish,” Dezern said. “As we have developed games in VR, we have learned to lean more on player agency. We do use some cinematic devices that send objects and set pieces to you, but we never do a hard cut.”
The team also worked hard at giving players a multitude of ways to get around. Movement in VR turned out to be one of the trickier aspects of game development. The disconnect between real-world movement and a virtual reality that tricks your brain into thinking you’re moving can lead some to feel nauseous.
”Stormland” does let players freely walk around its open world with the use of the Rift controllers. Specifically, players use the thumbsticks to move. But there are plenty of options to allow a player to fine tune that movement.
The game also allows the player to leap into a drop and glide around the world. But the movement the team seemed to spend the most time working on was climbing.
In “Stormland,” the android is moving up through a series of cloud seas, essentially levels of floating islands adrift in clouds. “When you travel up the Stormland, you enter in this cloud sea populated by islands,” said lead designer Mike Daly. “Each island has new equipment, powerful enemy ambushes, something to discover about the world. As you go out and explore, you have to get this, ‘Just one more island’ hook. You are continually moving up. There are things you have to do on each layer of the cloud sea.”
In creating the way players climb, the team started with a deliberate sort of movement that was hand-over-hand, but soon they realized players could also just fling themselves up rock faces.
Daly said the more meticulous climbing is sort of like having a vertical 3D terrain to navigate.
“You’re not restricted to any one plane,” he said. “The ability to move precisely in any direction opens up all sorts of new shapes to explore.” For instance, players can crawl into and out of crevices or tunnels on a rock wall, he said.
“Stormland” will also support multiplayer and is built to be essentially perpetually playable.
Daly said they haven’t figured out just how many people can be in one instance of the game, but they know it will support at least two.
“We’ve found that the game plays best when players can coordinate with each other,” he said.
The game is designed in a way that allows the program to piece together elements of islands to create new levels because the team wanted to create a game that “sustains a player’s interest perpetually,” Daly said.
While the game does have an obvious story, it also has a sort of meta-story that strings players along as they try to unravel the mysteries of the world they’re in.
“There is sort of a much longer story arc that people get,” Daly said.
Dezern said he’s looking forward to showing off “Stormland.”
“It is the culmination of so many things, a universe we love crafting, a story we love telling, building on systems we’ve been wanting to bring to the world,” he said. “It’s a world that changes every single week, so you have new playgrounds to get around in.”