Moss developer Polyarc on the hurdles of narrative in VR

We speak to Polyarc’s co-founders Chris Alderson and Danny Bulla about the challenges of self-publishing and creating an indie studio, and why story-driven and accessible titles are the future of playing in VR

As a company, Polyarc is still relatively unknown. But as individuals, Polyarc’s co-founders Chris Alderson, Tam Armstrong and Danny Bulla have contributed to some of the most renowned games from the last decade. From Red Dead Redemption to Destiny, they have helped shape the future of some of today’s biggest triple-A franchises.

But while some developers can only dream of working on such titles, Polyarc’s trio of founders chose to close this chapter of their lives in May 2015.

“A couple of years ago when we decided to leave, we had just finished Destiny and we had gotten early demos of new VR hardware that was coming out, specifically the ones with tracking controllers,” design director Danny Bulla (pictured below, left) recalls, having worked at Bungie for three years as a senior gameplay designer. “We saw an opportunity to create content for a new way to play. We have always wanted to tell our stories and that’s why we were working at those companies, to help tell those stories. We had learned a lot, so this was an opportunity for us to create stories and worlds of our own, but also on a platform on which we felt like we could take the time to grow our expertise and a platform that needs content right now.”

Art director Chris Alderson (pictured below, right), who also worked at Bungie as character art lead for seven years, continues: “VR provides a lot of room to create something that feels new and exciting. But we’ve also been doing shooters and violent games for a while, so it’s really fun and refreshing to work on something that is good and pure and nice.”

"VR’s a small market and we’d love the opportunity to reset expectations."

Danny Bulla, Polyarc

These feelings are the cornerstones of Polyarc’s debut title Moss, a PS VR exclusive coming this winter. Here, players embody the companion of Quill, an adventurous mouse in a fantasy world. It’s a breath of fresh air compared the usual VR fare, which so far has tended to favour first-person perspectives and the horror and walking simulator genres. So a story-driven, accessible and colourful third person action title like Moss really stands out.

“So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” Alderson enthuses. “I’ve never worked on a project that everyone liked as much. On the artistic side, there’s something a bit magical about creating an environment, being inside of it and feeling it rather than just seeing it on the screen, to have a character you can actually interact with and look at in the eyes. That emotional response between those environments and those characters, what you can create, was just an exciting opportunity for us.”

Bulla is just as enthusiastic, emphasising just how different Moss feels compared to other VR titles right now: “It might just be the right time, the right place, the right team and where gaming’s at in general,” he says. 

The story and the emotional bond between the player and Quill are both instrumental to Moss’ gameplay, says Alderson:

“We love stories and characters and that’s what we want to bring to life. And I think that’s something that’s kind of lacking in VR at the moment. So I think it’s a good opportunity for people like us to come forth.”

Bulla continues: “To double down on that point, I don’t think it’s that VR can’t do stories. But the reason we set out to do it is because it’s part of a good game to us. People want to be immersed in a world, they want to be immersed in a story. It’s the fantasy they’re diving into and VR helps us to immerse them. 

“Telling a story is just as difficult in VR as it is in gaming, comics, books or movies. Making a game for VR is no different than making a game for consoles, which is no different than making a game for mobile – your constraints are just different. So it’s just about embracing those constraints.

“The reason Moss exists is because we asked ourselves, ‘What would be a good game for VR?’ and not go the other way around, not try to bring a game to VR. So a lot of the challenges we faced were just finding out what VR was good at. And by doing that, we found out what it wasn’t good at.”

"Moss is going to be a digital-only title, and then we're going to see what's the best decision possible for Polyarc."

Danny Bulla, Polyarc

Polyarc also wanted to create a title that would appeal to a large audience, as the future of VR lies in its increasing accessibility, the studio believes.

“If you look at where VR is, it’s a very small market and we love the opportunity to reset the expectations of VR games,” Bulla says. “It’s also very important for us that anyone who has a VR headset can play the game. Because it’s such a small market, we want the accessibility there. We talk about our audience being people who are trying VR for the first time.”

Alderson agrees: “We don’t want people fumbling around. You use three buttons and a joystick and that’s all you need, on top of the headset. We wanted to bring on as many people as possible and that’s why we asked ourselves, ‘Who are we alienating and what would be exciting for most people?’.”

Chatting about accessibility in VR leads us to talk about Resident Evil VII: Biohazard’s VR demo, Kitchen. The VR horror experience was a big win for Capcom, and the finished game was both a critical and commercial success. But it’s certainly not the most inviting and accessible way to try VR for the first time. Polyarc wanted to take the opposite approach with Moss, Alderson explains:

“We want to bring people in, we want to be very inviting for everyone. We made a lot of decisions that way, like the lighting and the colour palette. Maybe people are attracted to Resident Evil, you can see videos of people reacting to some of the scares [in the Kitchen demo]. We wanted to do the same thing, but to the other extreme. We tried to make a warm world with one character, and you want to be a part of Quill’s world and take care of her.”

That also meant pushing the boundaries of development, with Alderson highlighting the “new ways of doing things” that came with developing in VR, like the importance of spatial audio and good animation: “You need to make sure that a character is convincing enough to make you want to bond with it and grow some sort of relationship with that character. If the animation is not convincing enough, then the character feels static and almost robotic and it gives the opposite effect of what you’re trying to achieve.”

Despite their extensive experience in development, creating a new kind of VR experience like Moss didn’t come without challenges, Bulla adds.

“We’ve gone through so many challenges and learnt from them and it hasn’t always been successful in terms of the actual features or the art or the game design or the code, but we’re always learning from it.”

But the difficulties weren’t just on the development side, he continues: “Tam [Armstrong] started a company before, but it was [Chris’ and my] first time creating a company so there was a lot of business challenges and networking. We built our developer relationships throughout the years, but we were starting from scratch for the business side of things. A lot of our time early on was spent just networking and learning that side of things.”

Polyarc also had to decide whether it wanted to partner with a publisher for Moss, as the title has benefited from an impressive word-of-mouth buzz since it was first unveiled.

“As it stands, Moss is going to be published by us,” Bulla says. “It’s going to be a digital-only title and then we’re going to see what’s the best decision possible for Polyarc. You can see that we take our game development really seriously, but we’re also trying to be responsible and make the smartest decisions for the business side of things. 

“We think the future of Polyarc will be the cohesion of both of those. If, down the line, we stumble upon things that make the most business sense for the project that we’re doing, then we won’t turn it down. But it has to make sense.”

"We have another couple of ideas for other games that will be set within this world and we also have other IPs in other genres. We don’t want to be a one IP, one genre, one game company."

Chris Alderson, Polyarc

Going down the self-publishing route does, of course, afford the team more freedom on key decisions like the release date, for example. 

“Being a small studio, it’s a benefit that we get to choose this kind of stuff,” says Bulla. “But it also means that we need to make that smart decision of when is it going to reach the most people, when are they going to have the time to play the game and when are they going to be ready to play a game like this, so we have it nailed down to winter time but we’re still working out the exact date.”

The developers also have to carefully consider Moss’ price, which can be tricky due to the novelty of both the platform and the title.

“We definitely don’t want to take advantage of anybody who has a headset. I do feel that it’s a novel thing that may be a bit priced up,” Alderson says. 

“We bring in a lot of people to play test the game and we also ask them, ‘What kind of value would you find in this game?’ and we’re narrowing it down as we go. Everyone we ask gives us a better idea of what to expect.”

Bulla agrees: “We talk about it a lot. Again, being independent means we have a lot of flexibility on what’s it’s going to be and we’ve totally been on the other side as players. We appreciate that when you play a game sometimes you’re like, ‘I would have paid more for that’ or ‘I wish I didn’t pay this much for that’. 

“So there’s this balance to find and our decision making process at the studio has been that, when the game is done, we’ll be looking at it and thinking about how much value we are providing versus how much do we need to continue to be who we are. So it’s really going to come down to trying to find that place right in the middle.”

After shaping the future of triple-A shooters, the Polyarc team seems to be on track to shape the future of playing in VR too. Or at very least change how VR games are perceived and open up virtual reality to a new audience. Despite this, Alderson and Bulla remain down to earth about their ambitions:

“In the long run, if we can keep making games, if the company Polyarc survives, I’ll be happy,” Alderson smiles. “We have this IP, we have another couple of ideas for other games that will be set within this world and we also have other IPs in other genres of games. We don’t want to be a one IP, one genre, one game company. We love to work on different games at a time, but still keep the team really small.”