Doctor Who, Until Dawn, virtual reality: the transformation of Supermassive Games

Back in 2012, Supermassive Games released its ambitious Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock.

Working with the BBC, the Guildford-based studio had pitched a multi-part adventure for PlayStation consoles. It was to star Matt Smith in the title role and was being created, lovingly, by real fanatics of the sci-fi TV series.

Unfortunately, The Eternity Clock was a mess when it arrived. It was full of good intentions but it was simply unfinished. A far better PC version launched later that year, but the damage was done. There would be no sequel.

You’ve brought up a title that we try not to talk about, because it wasn’t our finest hour,” says Supermassive Games MD Pete Samuels.

There are a whole lot of reasons how a studio can makea misstep. Some of the issues were internal and others were external, that’s as much as I’ll say. But that period within our evolution was one of massive learning. We had high hopes for the Doctor Who game that never materialised. Partly because of that, we ended up doing a lot of soul searching and change, and that helped us realise what we needed to do to make the studio what we wanted it to be – which is a world leader in triple-A games.

In many ways, bizarrely, the critical reception to the Doctor Who game helped us enormously.”

Many studios would have crumbled under such failure, but Supermassive endured. It looked at what went wrong with The Eternity Clock and ensured its next ambitious title would not suffer the same fate.

The result was 2015’s BAFTA-winning PlayStation 4 horror game: Until Dawn.

We were always pretty confident about Until Dawn in terms of the quality we could hit,” Samuels says.

But there were things about it that were undoubtedly risks. There was a balance of opinion within the previews of Until Dawn, it wasn’t all great. But we were persistent, we took a lot out of those previews, which helped us make sure we were going to deliver what we always intended.”

Until Dawn was another PlayStation exclusive and the eleventh Sony project Supermassive had worked on. Yet the developer is an independent outfit, and now it’s hoping to broaden onto new platforms.

Samuels continues: We’ve worked closely with Sony for as long as the studio has been around. I’ve loved it and they are great to work with. But yes, we are an independent studio and we are keen, going forward, to bring our games to wider audiences than we have in the past. That’s what we are all about right now, and it’s an exciting time for us.”

However, at E3 this week, Supermassive’s line-up remains distinctly Sony flavoured. The firm is showcasing two games for PlayStation VR, one based on its puzzle game Tumble, and the other a sequel – of sorts – to Until Dawn.

We’re actually in a really privileged position because we made our first VR demo back in 2011,” recalls Simon Harris, executive producer on Supermassive’s VR projects. In 2012 we created a demo called Jurassic Encounter, which Sony used when it first showed Project Morpheus to developers at Gamescom.

"We are very actively developing other games that have similarities with Until Dawn, outside of VR."

Pete Samuels, Supermassive Games

That experience was just five to ten minutes. Initially you meet a tiny dragonfly flying around your head, and slowly the creatures increased in size until you see a massive predator, which basically eats you. As we started seeing the emotion that this very simple demo drove within the player, we realised that this was unlike anything we have been involved with before.”

He continued: What’s interesting about our games is that they are at two massive ends of the spectrum. On one hand you have Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, which is a first person rollercoaster game with guns. It is horror-based, violent and incredibly intense. And then on the other side, Tumble VR is a physics-based puzzler that is wonderfully serene.”

Supermassive is known for experimenting with new tech. The firm created numerous PlayStation Move titles, and worked with AR via Sony’s Wonderbook project (it created the 2013 Wonderbook game Walking With Dinosaurs).

Samuels explains: When we make decisions on things, we often ask ourselves: ‘Will this be part of the future?’.

When we worked on the Move titles, we could see that the technology would likely have a place in the future of games, whether it was the Move controller or some evolution of it. As it turns out, you can draw a line from Move straight to AR and then right through to VR.”

In the wake of Until Dawn, Supermassive Games has emerged as one of the UK’s more exciting developers. Yet its investment in two VR projects seems risky. There is no market for VR at the moment and the industry is torn over whether it will actually work.

Samuels, however, is bullish. He insists that Until Dawn: Rush of Blood and Tumble are low risk, and – good news for fans of the original Until Dawn – the studio has more traditional games in the work.

We are not putting all our eggs in the VR basket as a business,” concludes Samuels. We are very actively developing other games that have similarities with Until Dawn, outside of VR. I don’t know how comfortable I would feel if my whole business revolved around how successful VR was going to be.

But we believe it will be successful, absolutely, that is one of the reasons we are involved in it and want to stay ahead of the game in terms of VR learning.”

Supermassive Games has been building VR projects for five years.

So, as it readies two PlayStation VR launch titles, what has the developer learnt about what does, and doesn’t, work with virtual reality?

Simon Harris answers: The first thing we learnt is that when someone stands up and tells you what does and doesn’t work, it should be translated to: ‘we’ve tried this and it hasn’t worked yet.’ I’ve seen commentary which has said you shouldn’t do acceleration and deceleration in VR, because it makes people feel bad. We are launching a game [Until Dawn: Rush of Blood] as a rollercoaster that goes faster, goes slower, it stops… and we are consistently complimented when we take it out to trade shows.

What we do is sit down with our teams and try and solve a problem through experimentation. So acceleration, deceleration and going fast is something we’ve worked out. With Tumble we’ve worked out the representation of controllers and how they interact with virtual objects – that sort of manipulation and control, picking things up and putting things down – that is another area we’ve explored.

We are also continuing to explore other areas such as things around third-person and first-person. Most developers are going with that first-person view, but Oculus has created a third-person platformer as one of its launch titles. People were saying they weren’t sure how it would work, but they got hands-on and realised it was something

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