New studio Maze Theory wants to bring ‘evolutionary storytelling’ to VR

You don’t see many new virtual reality studios popping up nowadays, so it was refreshing to see the recent announcement of Maze Theory, established by industry veterans from publishing giants Sony and Activision. Mark Hardy (pictured right), ex-marketing director at PlayStation, and Geoff Heath, ex-European managing director at Activision, have set up the company in an attempt to explore the storytelling potential of VR games.

The pair have partnered with creative business collective Output Group, with which Hardy has worked in the past on projects for PlayStation, specifically its creative marketing outlet Studio Output. Ian Hambleton (pictured top right) was a founding member of Studio Output and is now working on launching Maze Theory, which has spun out from the agency. This organic growth built on established relationships within the industry can only be a good thing for the studio.

“The team at Output Group has had an active interest in the gaming and VR space since 2013, leading major development projects for big brands like Pernod Ricard, Havana Club and BBC,” say Hardy and Hambleton in a joint statement. “In early 2017 we started to explore concept development of our own IP led by the passion of our creative director, Marcus Moresby.

“The team at Output Group have 15 years of experience producing high-quality content and have been working within film, animation and realtime with Unity 3D for many years. At the centre of this, Marcus Moresby had found VR as the intersection of his interests: immersive theatre, interactive gaming and high-quality animation production. We have built out Maze Theory’s position around ‘evolutionary storytelling’ – a proposition that will guide all creative, experience and marketing for the company.”

This quest for ‘evolutionary storytelling’ is something we’re seeing mirrored throughout the industry, with new studios commonly putting emphasis on narrative. That Maze Theory sees the evolution of storytelling taking place in virtual reality, specifically, is interesting to see. Especially with the creative director’s interest in immersive theatre as a cornerstone.

“With ‘evolutionary storytelling’ as our starting point, we are focused on building a distinctive niche in the market at the intersection of cinematic film, digital theatre and gaming,” Hardy and Hambleton say. “We will be creating narrative experiences that combine improvisation, theatrics, characterisation and active participation. This will allow us to really push the boundaries of the VR experience. When entering one of our games, a user will start a journey through a narrative maze. This is how we decided upon our name.

“Appreciating the creative team’s passion for the VR space, high production quality capabilities and passion for immersive
experiences Output Group recommended that we set up a separate indie studio. We all feel the tipping point for wider adoption of VR is on the horizon and wanted to put together a team that could maximise on this.”

Betting the farm on VR is something that many developers are reticent to do. Maze Theory seems fearless as it enters the market, however, and the founders feel confident that there’s success to be found there.

“It’s no secret that sales of VR headsets are behind what was expected, but in the last 12 months both Geoff and Mark felt they were starting to see positive indicators in the market,” Hardy and Hambleton say. “Numerous new hardware products have been launched at a more accessible price point, software advancements have improved user experience and reviews with positive gamer ratings are now more commonplace.

“While mainstream adoption of VR has been slow, we feel the fundamental user experience is incredible. It’s quite possibly the most transformational entertainment technology in the market right now. We know the emotional impact on the user can be profound and any user that tries VR for the first time is always blown away.

“We know the industry is still in its infancy but in recent months we have seen major innovations that will drive adoption. Multiplayer is now more commonplace, headsets are becoming more portable and a more accessible price point is opening up the market. This in turn is igniting interest from investors and games companies to ensure they are ahead of the curve to take on the opportunity.

“We want to find a clear lane for the studio and ensure our products not only stand out in the market but also push the immersive capabilities of VR technology to the limit.”

The studio’s first title, The Vanishing Act, is already fairly deep in development, from the sounds of it. In keeping with the company’s ‘evolutionary storytelling’ mantra, it asks the player to solve a series of narrative challenges within the mind of a dead scientist.

Though Maze Theory intends to stay small for the time being, the studio is looking for colleagues experienced in VR as it ramps up the project, finds further funding and begins to think about possible sequels.

“We think there is some incredible talent in the UK from a technical development, animation and production perspective,” Hardy and Hambleton explain. “But solid experience in VR can be thin on the ground for obvious reasons. As the market matures, we know this will become less of a problem.

“The challenge for us will be finding staff that can balance the art and science of ‘evolutionary storytelling’: slick production quality, innovative VR interactivity and narrative atmospherics. This is our sweet-spot.

“Early code for The Vanishing Act reviewed very well. We have started our first round of investment to support the commercial release of the title and subsequent sequel releases. This will ensure the studio is secure as the market matures over the next three years.

“We have the advantage of being able to innovate, be nimble and experimental like a start-up but with the experience and support of the broader Output teams and their specialist resources: design, video, project management, operations… This is a fantastic position to be in.”

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