In many ways Moss is a fairly traditional, even old-school, game: a third-person action adventure with a cute mascot character, set in a fantastic world. With that said, the fact that this is a virtual reality game (exclusive to PlayStation VR) means that there was nothing traditional about the development process. With Moss, the developers at Polyarc were entering uncharted waters.
As the studio’s first project, with many of the founding members of the studio having left established positions at triple-A studios, the devs knew they needed a strong core idea on which to base the game. They had plans for the ratio of puzzles to combat within the action adventure world that they were building. But beyond that, some experimentation was required. The team started with a prototype and then launched into a full-length exploration of the idea, eschewing a small vertical slice build in favour of building the game twice from scratch, learning on the fly.
“Taking a small 15 minute prototype and turning that into a game that’s a few hours long has its individual challenges,” says Polyarc’s art director and co-founder, Chris Alderson. “We spent six months of trying to make a version of the game that was like a full game, with everybody putting in what they thought was important. We did a playthrough one day and we played the game pretty much all day, taking a few breaks here and there. We had made a full version.
“It wasn’t great but we knew there was something there. We all met up and started saying ‘okay, what’s working, what’s not working?’. We would star the things that were duplicates and those things became the core principles of our Moss game design, which gave us the information we needed to make our E3 demo. And I think that process worked out really well.”
Despite spending so much time on a full-length prototype, very little of this first attempt actually made it into the final version.
“There were probably 12 rooms out of 70 that we kept and built and evolved from,” Alderson says. “But we basically made the game and then we learnt from it, failed a little bit and found out what we succeeded in and started again.”
The risk of democratised game design, with everyone in the team putting ideas into a pot, is a strong chance of feature creep and overscoping. Particularly for a new studio. With so much triple-A experience on the team, however, Polyarc was able to sidestep this issue with ease.
“I think something that can happen that bites teams in the foot is trying to be over ambitious and we definitely had to scale it back sometimes,” Alderson says. “But other times we put a lot into the game and said ‘Okay this is more important than another feature, so we’re going to have to cut this thing there’. We did have these intense conversations, but we pretty much met our deadline.
“It wasn’t easy and I feel like in any creative project you’re always going to be putting your heart and soul into it until the very end. I would say it was definitely an intense process, but we did a really good job of scoping and making sure we were putting everything into the game but that people who were in the studio were still able to enjoy their lives outside of the workplace.”
THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER
An aspect of the game that rose to prominence during discussions of Moss’ core design was main character Quill herself. The advantage of using VR is the sense of immersion and its ability to build a bond between the player and the protagonist on a level flatscreen sometimes can’t. But it was Polyarc’s E3 build and watching the public react to Quill that really cemented the team’s decision to focus on the character.
“We knew Quill was going to be a really important aspect of our game,” Alderson says. “Something that’s new and unique. A character that you really feel like you can care for. But the reaction from E3 was overwhelmingly positive and that sort of changed our focus to concentrate more on Quill. What VR affords us is the ability to connect with a character and we thought it would be so fun to meet this character and go along this emotional journey with her.
“If we’re fortunate enough to make another one we have a lot more things that we want to do to embellish that experience of being a friend. What happens when you and loved ones are separated and what happens when you’re reunited and all that is stuff that we really want to explore further.”
But creating such a connection between the player and the protagonist isn’t easy, and comes with many pitfalls.
“I think VR characters in general are a challenge,” Alderson explains. “If you don’t have a believable character it could feel lifeless and actually give you the opposite effect of what you’re trying to achieve.
“Like a character that looks at you in the eyes: you can easily make a character that’s supposed to be cute and adorable really frightening, if it doesn’t feel like it has a soul behind those eyes. Making Quill feel like a living, breathing character – especially with our small team and our scope – was a challenge, but an exciting one for sure.
“Building Quill isn’t just up to the character artist. It’s a lot of back and forth and teamwork and it definitely helps to have a world-class animator who’s helping Quill move around. In our first prototype, Quill had three animations and already you could see that she was special. She had a run, she had a swipe and I think she had a death animation and we made the entire game like that, but we also had look targets on her face so that she could actually look at you. And even with that little bit of work, with the help of the animation and really smart designers and engineers, with everybody working together, you could tell from the very beginning that she was a character that people would really gravitate toward.”
Quill really becomes a fully fleshed out character with the help of the game’s strong world-building. As an interloper in Quill’s world, the player experiences it not through her eyes, but as an observer watching as she lives her life in her familiar setting. It’s a strangely intimate feeling, and one which gives way to joint apprehension as both the player and Quill enter new, unfamiliar areas.
“When you go through Mousetown and you see Quill run through there and you see that she has a hometown, the feeling of her leaving it, of that town maybe being in danger, gives you more of a bond,” Alderson says. “If that part was left out, you wouldn’t feel like there was much to fight for. Everything that we’ve done, the mood settings, taking Quill from one area to the next and letting you rest and take in this environment… It’s all supposed to exaggerate and accentuate that mood that you’re feeling. It all ties back into how you are connecting with Quill and her world.”
SAME QUESTION EIGHT WAYS
Collaboration was key during the development of Moss, not just within the team itself, but with the help of external playtesters. People were often brought in to feedback on the game and asked questions about their experience – even if most of these questions were actually very similar.
“External playtests were mostly about ‘Okay, how do people feel when they play? Do they like it or not like it?’,” Alderson explains. “At the end of playtest we would ask the same question eight different ways. The question is really ‘What didn’t you like?’, but we would ask it differently: ‘What pulled you out of the experience? What took you out of the headset? If there’s one thing you could change what would it be? If you had two weeks to finish the game, what would be the thing that you’d fix?’
“Those help bring a playtester into their comfort zone, because no one wants to play something that people put a lot of care and love into and then turn around and say ‘This is what I didn’t like about it’. So it takes a little while to get the playtester comfortable, and we found that finding different ways to ask the same question means you eventually get the really good stuff after the fourth or fifth time you ask it.
“I don’t think anyone in our studio has ever made a game like this, so I think it’s important that you trust the process. You trust playtesting and you make sure that you allow yourself some time and freedom to try something and then keep going. Try something new and branch out, but also use your experience from games that you’ve made before and you’ll be fine. As long as you’re having fun too! We enjoyed playing Moss throughout the entire process and I think that really helps.”