Insomniac Games creative director Marcus Smith has a problem. He and his team at Insomniac Games are working on a third-person open-world virtual reality game for the Oculus Rift. And they've been running into lots of little challenges nobody has considered yet.
Of course, open-world games, as a genre, aren't anything new. In fact, Smith and Insomniac already made one: Sunset Overdrive for Xbox One. But that game was on a 2D screens, and the freedom to look around a 3D environment in VR means a lot of old conventions need updates.
Feral Rites is Insomniac's Oculus-exclusive "exploration brawler." Smith described it as mixing elements of latter-day games from the Legend of Zelda series, like Ocarina of Time, with the action of a game like God of War. In it, players explore a jungle island and they can transform into giant beast-people to shred their enemies.
Feral Rites draws its inspirations from adventure novels from the turn of the 20th century, such as H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and works by Edgar Rice Burroughs, like At The Earth's Core. Exploring the setting of Stone Fang Island is central to the game experience, as is ripping bad guys apart — and while Insomniac is known for crazy weapons in its games, Feral Rites is going hard in a new direction: no weapons at all.
"So for the core idea of this exploration brawler, we started thinking about what would that world be like. And I've been reading a lot of those books lately, going back to the source," Smith told Polygon. "And you know, some of them are pretty dry — they're 100-year-old novels or something — but some of them are really just visceral and brutal. And I figure they come out of that time period that was pretty Victorian, everything was getting more buttoned up in terms of progress. So hearing about the unexplored Congo and everything was probably pretty awesome for someone who worked in a sweatshop or something all day. Those books really did embody that idea of adventure and exploration, and they were really brutal and way over-the-top. There's no irony in any of what's done. And so, just reading some of those, it just came about that that style would be perfect for an adventure brawler."
But with virtual reality still in its infancy, the really interesting thing about Feral Rites is the medium through which it's played. And since nobody has made quite this kind of game for VR just yet, Insomniac has had to figure out how to solve some new, interesting problems.
A New Game Design Vocabulary
With exploration being a major focus, Insomniac is using VR to drop players into Feral Rites in a way that works to capture that feeling of adventure novels, making them feel as if they're in a hostile, unknown place. But the trouble with doing a third-person open-world game in virtual reality basically boils down to the fact that the camera is the player's head. You control where you're looking with the movements of your body, so the game can't accommodate third-person game conventions like spinning the camera around a character to see in another direction — because it'd likely make you barf.
"What we said in the beginning was we want to make an open-world VR experience — how does one do that?" Smith said. "And what we ended up settling on was a camera cut system, like the old Zelda games, or more recently on Oculus, Chronos. The point is that you basically are cutting the camera at certain areas; so you walk through a doorway, you cut to the other side. So that way we're not transitioning the camera anymore, so there's pretty much zero discomfort, and your camera position is your head."
That solved the discomfort problem while making it possible for players to still feel like they were a part of Feral Rites' world through VR. But with the camera following the player around to show them what was going on, and then cutting to new angles to avoid discomfort, Insomniac stumbled onto another trouble: Now players were getting lost.
"People get turned around pretty easy and they forget where they are," Smith explained. "So that became our big challenge that, frankly, where we are now, we're still tackling. We've got a map that helps, but there are some people who just don't know how to read maps. And we're making this really dense jungle, so we can't just throw up a big point of interest somewhere because there's a good chance you won't be able to see it. So we've been developing a few other ways, like rules for camera cuts ... that have minimized a lot of those navigation issues."
Another problem: enemies. Feral Rites is a brawler that's all about combos, with players getting benefits for keeping their attack strings as they ravage one enemy after another. But again, you can't rotate the camera around to follow enemies as they move, because a lot of motion in VR is uncomfortable. And of course, not being able to see enemies can make it tough to fight them.
Smith said the team on Feral Rites is solving the problem with a number of little tweaks that will work together to keep fighting fluid, but feasible, in VR. And it comes down to more than just positioning the camera.
"We had a lot of issues because we're making a brawler, you want a lot of enemies on screen," he said. "So we have cameras that are pulled back more for certain circumstances, and I would say that those are where you start to break down in VR. Because VR looks great when you're close, and you have things that give you that depth. When you start to pull back further, the focus really is on gameplay at that point."
That meant creating different camera locations for different situations, pulling in close or widening the shot depending on the circumstances.
"But then there are all kinds of little things," Smith said. "Like when you have a lot of guys on screen, we'll have the artificial intelligence of those guys make sure that they're kind of in front of you — they tend to stay in front of you. There are certain areas where if guys get behind the camera, we won't have them come back in so you're not being penalized by what you can't see. A lot of rules that kind of have come up as we've moved forward. Some of them come from the 2D era, but a lot of them really were just learning a whole new vocabulary of game design."
Not that solving little problems no one expected isn't par for the game development course, Smith said. Everything is always changing, and any hard-and-fast rules eventually get broken. With VR, it's just that many of those problems are all about doing familiar things in a whole new medium.
A Lost Open World
Feral Rites' story starts with a beloved chieftain who led the denizens of the game's island — until he was murdered, and the land descended into chaos. His wife and child were able to escape the island with their lives. Now, 20-some years later, that child is back for revenge.
But there's more to it than a straight revenge tale, Smith said. "Once you're there, unlike those stories that I talked about, we want a lot of intrigue and change and twists and gotchas."
And magic, too. There's some kind of magical underpinning for that whole societal collapse that kicked off with the death of the chieftain. It probably has something to do with the fact that players can strategically transform themselves into animal-people. Smith said that'll be ideal for getting the most out of combos, allowing players to lengthen their strings and do even more damage.
There won't be any weapons in Feral Rites, but players will spend a lot of time finding and upgrading armor. And the game will have open-world trappings, like side quests that will allow players to gather the stuff they need to further advance their characters, or discover more story background. And of course, there will be collectibles. Though it's not a fully open-world — Smith said Feral Rites is more divided into several open zones that aren't contiguous — it sounds as though this is an entry into the genre with lots the conventions players will recognize.
In an era with plenty of open-world games, many of which are bursting at the seams with capital-C Content, Smith said Insomniac's approach is to try to remember that not everyone will want to approach the game in the same way, and to accommodate each kind of player.
Insomniac is also trying to avoid "throwaway" open-world content, Smith said. He specifically pointed to the hundreds of collectible colored flags of the original Assassin's Creed — and Insomniac won't be forcing players to do minigames or side activities they don't want to do, like Red Dead Redemption's "Five Finger Filet" minigame.
"I didn't want to play that! If it wasn't for that cool outfit, I wouldn't have done it," he joked. "So yeah, we always consider, ‘OK, the people who are going to go 100 percent this game are a particular type, and they're not going to be the ones who want necessarily to be min-maxing their character and everything.' So we have sort of our primary path, and those people who want to get everything, and we design distinctly for those two. And there's a lot of times where you're thinking about the progression chain and it seems like we've made an error where we've mixed those two audiences a little bit. ...That's one of the things about these types of games: We're several generations in and we know how people tend to play them."
Insomniac is looking to launch Feral Rites exclusively on the Oculus store in fall 2016. It will also be playable later this year at E3.