How first-person shooter fatigue led to the serene beauty of Adrift
Serene, thought-provoking, almost meditative at times — the first video game from fledgling studio ThreeOneZero owes its impetus not to the lingering space drama Gravity, of which it bears a striking resemblance, but to a complete opposite: the white-knuckled gunplay of virtual war.
Medal of Honor and its slow descent from the historically-driven, Steven Spielberg-penned originator of the series, to a vague knock-off of Call of Duty helped forge a lasting friendship among a half-dozen of its developers. During those endless reboots and long days of development, they would meet in secret to commiserate and sound off about what was wrong, and how they'd do things differently if they had their own studio, their own game.
It wasn't until nearly ten years later that a social storm of controversy became the trigger for a new game, a new studio and a reason to get the gang back together again.
Adam Orth and his tweet heard around the internet, certainly hastened the leap and provided emotional material for Adrift, a game that explores how a person can make sense of an unseen powerful force destroying everything they hold dear, but those things aren't what form the heart of the studio.
The studio was formed around a single concept, the team of six told me recently in a series of interviews. They want to take the shooter out of first-person shooters and replace that with experiences. FPX, they all believe, will become a powerful new genre.
Already developers seem very interested in the idea, squabbling over the rights to publish Adrift, opening the game to multiple platforms and taking meetings on the studio's next game.
Band of Brothers
"Adam and I worked together from Medal of Honor: Rising Sun," Matteo Marsala, Adrift's producer tells me. "I came on to finish up Frontline on Xbox and rolled right into Rising Sun. We worked together for five or six years on Medal of Honor titles.
"Going through hellish development cycles, we formed this really great bond."
Samuel Bass, senior designer on Adrift, shared an office with Orth at what became EA LA, joining the studio about two months after Orth.
"Those were tough projects," he said. "You tend to form bonds with those people."
Tom Gerber, a designer on Adrift, was brought on at EA LA to work on Rising Sun, helping to finish the writing. He spent the next six years working on Medal of Honor titles. Adrift art director Jason Barajas joined EA LA around the same time, also working on Rising Sun. Omar Aziz, technical lead on Adrift, joined EA in 2004 and became friends with Orth.
"We went through some tough times together at EA LA and it was not easy," Orth said. "We always found ourselves, back in the day, secretly colluding and subverting on the projects we were making because we weren't happy with the way they were going.
"Just the other day we were all sitting around going over Adrift and we started to talk about how when things got rough at EA on Medal of Honor that was what the core group of us would do: Sit in a room and say, ‘How could we fix this.' Or ‘Man, if we ever get the chance, this is how we would do things.'"
Over their time at Electronic Arts, the group began to break up, going their separate ways as they stopped working on the Medal of Honor games. Aziz said it was like people graduating from high school and moving on to different colleges.
But they all stayed in touch.
Left to right: Orth, Bass, Marsala, Barajas, Gerber, Aziz
Bass made his way over to EA's Victory Games where he worked on a new Command and Conquer title. Gerber moved to Blizzard where he worked on Project Titan until that title was shut down. Over the years, Barajas worked at THQ and then Neversoft. Marsala worked at Realta Entertainment. Orth worked at SCEA, LucasArts, PopCap Games and then finally, perhaps infamously, at Microsoft Game Studios where he was a creative director.
It was while he was at Microsoft that Orth tweeted about always-online technology, setting off a fury on the internet. While the idea of leaving Microsoft to start his own thing was already in the works the day of that 2013 tweet, the reaction did hasten his plans.
"Last summer or so [Orth] started calling me," Aziz said, "started pitching the idea of starting a game company. I was working at Treyarch, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 was done and we were working on Treyarch's next project."
The idea of joining forces with an old friend on something wholly originally at a brand new studio was interesting. But Aziz was really excited about Orth's idea for the first game. He wanted to create a metaphor of sorts, a game that drops a player into the space suit of a man struggling to make sense of how the space station he was on was destroyed as he slept, leaving him the only survivor and adrift amongst the wreckage in space.
"The idea was really strong," he said. "The concept got my mind going, got me excited. Getting together with Adam and forming a company, that proposition was really enticing; being able to do your own thing, quit your day job. I saw an opportunity for me to do more varied things, rather than being a gameplay programmer."
So Aziz and Orth formed the studio and began the slow work of building a prototype, pitching it to publishers and tracking down their old friends.
Bass was at a Nine Inch Nails concert in Los Angles when he got a text from Orth. Orth was at the concert too and asked if they could speak. So the two huddled up at the Staple Center and Orth made his pitch.
"It kind of was a slow drop at first," Orth said. "We hired Sam Bass, our game designer, and then we got things up and running with him. About a month later we hired Matteo Marsala to produce and run production, and then we hired Tom Gerber about a month later. Tom was in a place at Blizzard and he was ready to move on. We offered him a job on Thursday, he quit on Friday and started working here on Monday.
"We hired Jason very recently."
The draw for everyone who joined the team was that they had a chance to work together and also not have to deal with a giant corporate structure.
"This is a small core team passionately involved in the day-to-day survival of the company and the game," Orth said. "They were drawn here because of the idea of coming together to work on something small, not really small, but small compared to what everyone else is making. We're all seasoned triple-A game developers. But after a while you do become disenfranchised.
"It was really important to have some kind of ownership and stake in something."
2001: A Space Video Game
When I last saw Adrift in action, it was an entrancing experience. A game that, when experienced using the Oculus Rift headset, caused me to nearly hyperventilate. But that was nine months ago, in a Las Vegas hotel room, playing on a very narrowly focused prototype.
While much has stayed the same about the game, it has continued to evolve.
"All of the core ideas around what the game is are all still intact," he said. "It's the same, but better now. The game is better than I ever could have imagined it, and my bar was set pretty high. I'm really pleased with how it turned out and pleased with the people I get to work with every day."
In February, while watching Aziz play the prototype, that game had you floating in zero gravity inside a space suit. You could move in any direction as you examine the wreckage of the space station you once called home. Oxygen is an important element of the game, you constantly run low, making breathing a mechanic in the game. Players are tasked with a number of duties to allow them to make use of an escape vehicle and hopefully return to Earth.
Much of the prototype is about floating through a maze of debris, looking for oxygen as you explore and finally figuring out a music-driven puzzle. Though at one point he discovered a single piece of narrative designed to describe one of the people lost to the explosion, an audio recording by a mission specialist. In it, the man describes how excited he is to return home after two years in space. How much he misses his daughter. The mistakes, choosing a paycheck over a family, that he's made. The missed recitals.
Later there is a simple puzzle that has to be solved.
The game, experienced with Oculus Rift, is stunning, a beautiful zero-g playscape powered by sweeping views of space and an art aesthetic that captures our current concepts of the future.
One of the biggest changes to come to the game since then, Orth tells me, is in its look.
"The art style we wanted to do was impossible to do for our prototype and what we thought would be appropriate to show," he said.
The new art style is rooted in what Orth describes as the golden age of NASA with a futuristic twist.
"The game has a very minimalist 2001 presentation," I would say it's a 1970s, 1980s vision of the future.
"If you had a scale of 2001 to Mass Effect, this game is nowhere near Mass Effect."
Art director Barajas said the game's smaller scope, the aim is for it to be a roughly three to four hour experience, allows him to focus on smaller things.
"Moving through the world at such a slow pace makes it really inviting to explore and look around," he said. "So the material, the objects you see in the world need to be taken to another level.
"In a first-person shooter you're just blasting through the world, so you're creating all of these details that people may never notice."
Bringing the team on has helped to evolve the game in some great ways, Orth said.
"This started out as a really personal game of mine," he said. "But it has turned into a really personal game of ours. It's really not mine anymore.
"The nature of open, honest collaboration and allowing people who are talented to do what they're good at has changed the game in incredibly ways."
The concise nature of the game allows the team to create a high polish title, Gerber said. And, Bass added, the unique nature of the title also allowed the team to start from scratch in many different ways.
"When I was doing a Tiberium Universe game you know you need harvesters, tiberium, a bay to spit out infantry, you know basic rules of the game," he said. "With us, we know we're in space and it's first person. Beyond that it was a giant unknown possibility space. We didn't want to just make a game where you floated around and looked at stuff.
"It has been an engaged process. The bravest thing you can do is look at your game say what we've done is good, not great, let's scrap it and do it until it is. That's something we've done."
Orth says the team is about halfway through the development with an eye toward publishing on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Steam at the same time next year with 505 Games. And things continue to move quickly.
"Last time we spoke, we were just about to sign a publishing deal with 505 Games and it was only four of us on the team," he said. "Now we're up to eight employees and seven contractors making the game."
While the team presented their game on Oculus Rift, that hasn't been locked down as a platform yet, Orth said.
"We're unclear on VR," he said. "We're still making it, but we're just in a holding pattern. We are also speaking with Sony and have a Project Morpheus development kit."
There were many things that seemed to draw this group of developers together to try something new: their friendship, their past experiences, even a bit of fate. But the thing that came up most over the course of these interviews was a sense of fatigue. A weariness driven by too many life-consuming shooters.
"I think for myself," Marsala said, "I've gotten a lot of FPS fatigue over the years, having worked on them for many, many years I've gotten tired of them. I find very few interesting enough to pick up.
"I think there are a lot of people like that out there. People are ready for different experiences then playing an FPS and running and gunning. The same loop that has been demonstrated hundreds of times, but with a different skin. How many games can you play that are run shoot kill and repeat, with different settings, different worlds? After a while it's tiring for me."
Bass says he's been making games for nearly 20 years, often the same type of game.
"As great as those games are, you want to try something different," he said. "And the whole violence and games thing, I'm about as left liberal as you can get, but I make games with a hawkish point of view, so there was always a lit bit of a conflict there. Medal of Honor, that was a little tougher to stomach. I needed a break from triple-A game development."
Even though he still loves shooters and playing them, Aziz said he needed to do something different. And Aziz says he feels like the first-person perspective of Adrift means that there are a lot of the core tenets of an FPS in the game.
"There is a big chance to do cool and unique things in the same sort of space," he said. "There's a couple of things intuitive about an FPS, the gun and how it works, but the other thing is that I point somewhere and go in that direction. Move with one stick and look with another."
With a first-person experience game, Aziz feels that the team is removing the gun and replacing it with a sense of exploration.
"You don't have to worry about so much, like killing things," he said. "You can do different objectives besides killing things which is a huge thing for me."
And now is the time for this sort of game, Aziz says.
Generationally, people have grown up with shooters, they've become such commonplace sorts of games, that some of those gamers are thirsting for something new.
"They want to play games like Gone Home, Journey," he said. "Non-violent, explorative games that are emotive. People are down with that."
And it helps that the first-person shooter market is saturated right now, he said.
"The production value you have to make for an FPS to stand out now is so costly and so time consuming," he said. "The value of trying to do that has gone down."
"We've done a lot of deep thinking about what's next," Orth said. "We actually pitched our next game yesterday.
"Our future is meticulously planned and hopefully we will succeed."
And that future is all about making non-violent, first-person experience games, Orth said. "My experience of trying to sell Adrift showed me that a lot of publishers are interested in this type of thing, or at least seemed interested in Adrift. I had no problem selling a nonviolent FPX. That's our wheelhouse. It's something we're good at, it's not something that we're going to ever stop doing.
"We're never going to go back."
That the ability to create gun-free play experiences is revelatory to the team is obvious, it has opened a whole new world to this group of long-time first-person shooter creators.
But what seems most surprising to the team isn't what they can do without a gun in a game, but what players want to do in a game without a gun.
"What we're seeing is super encouraging," Orth said. "Our goal is to be a leader in this genre, to really kind of set some tone."
They are, essentially, building a studio around that concept. But Aziz says that's not that unusual.
"Treyarch and Infinity Ward were built around interactive shooter games, Rockstar was built around open world environments, we're trying to do the same thing, it's just with a first-person experiential game," he said. "I want to make a studio that does this kind of thing. The Vanishing of Carter, Gone Home, Journey, they're all about walking around looking at cool shit with fun things to do and an emotive story. People have been doing this sort of game already, but we put a name on it.
"If the concept does support FPX you know you can leave out the guns, leave out the killing and still get someone to have a great experience.
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