Working on blockbuster games like Destiny and Halo may be a dream of many, but for co-founder of Polyarc, Chris Alderson, the freedom to create his own visions is more important. Jem Alexander talks to him about the creation of Moss, a VR title about developing a bond between the player and the protagonist
A third-person action adventure game with a strong narrative is not something you’d necessarily expect to be the next VR darling, but new studio Polyarc’s first game, Moss, is exactly that. Announced at Sony’s E3 press conference, the game has decades of development experience being funneled into it and looks to explore new areas of VR game design.
Chris Alderson, co-founder of Polyarc, spoke about the formation of the company and why he left his job at Bungie to create Moss. After all, jumping from a huge title like Destiny to a relatively niche PS4 exclusive VR game is a risky plan. Too risky for some, but not for Alderson.
Since VR was a new medium we thought the answer had got to be something new
Chris Alderson, Polyarc
“I worked on Destiny and a few of the Halo games,” says Alderson. “It’s been terrifying. Leaving a place like Bungie, which is such an amazing studio – it was very scary. But when you’re in the middle of starting a thing from nothing, you get an intimacy that I hadn’t felt as a developer before. There were just four of us in a room talking about ideas and the way we fed off each other felt really good.”
Alderson worked at Bungie together with Polyarc co-founders Tam Armstrong and Danny Bulla for several years before deciding to try their own thing. “We’d talked about possibly doing something like Polyarc for five or six years,” says Alderson. But it was new technologies and the way that opened up new gameplay mechanics and limitations that was the real catalyst.
“When VR came around we felt like it was the right time to do it. It’s definitely been a crazy ride but it’s been really rewarding,” Alderson adds. “We have a team of very talented people and we decided that our first team of 15 should be industry veterans. In doing so we wanted to hopefully create the future leadership of the company, so we averaged out at a little over ten years experience. We have people that came from Bioware, Epic, ArenaNet, Bungie and Rockstar.
“It’s been an amazing experience to work with people that are not only very experienced in their field but also excited as the next person to work together and create something new and unique. Our pedigree gives us a triple-A quality bar, but were still a small team still so the scope will still be pretty compact. I think we’re all craftsmen and we want the game to feel as solid as possible.”
Most developers are still tentative about VR. A low install base, split across three different platforms, means it will be a while before mass market VR games become financially viable. But that isn’t stopping Polyarc from creating a niche, boutique game out of a passion for the medium.
“We were really excited about VR from the very beginning,” says Alderson. ”We felt like our approach to designing a VR game first rather than bring an existing one over to VR was a better fit for us. It’s risky, but we feel like without risk there won’t be any reward.
“We’re very excited about the technology and that excitement overshadows the risk factor. If VR goes away or doesn’t reach its full potential we’ll all leave very proud of what we made, because I think we’re making something that’s hopefully unique and exciting and fun to play.”
Moss is a game built around Polyarc’s newly established core values. When developing for a relatively new technology, with no real industry-wide best-practice in place, these become an important blueprint for your game. Especially for a genre not usually played in VR.
“We took a few months to just explore and see where it brought us and what kind of ideas were created,” says Alderson. “We created some core values, we knew we wanted a comfortable experience. We wanted it be that everyone that put on the headset would have a great time, no matter how susceptible they are to motion sickness.
“That fed back into the environment and the world. We want to make sure that if [protagonist] Quill’s story is in a happy spot that the environment feels warm, inviting and comfortable. Maybe when she goes to darker scarier areas we can pull on those emotional queues. So, when she’s in a darker colder part of the story and she’s acting emotional or scared, hopefully it will make you feel uneasy. And again when she’s happy or giving you positive feedback hopefully it will make you smile and feel good.
“Another core value of our game is taking you to cool places. You may have noticed that the places feed into comfort and all of these thread into our third, which is physical interaction. Not only interacting with the environment and world but also interacting with Quill in interesting ways. That physical interaction also turns into an emotional interaction, as you’re able to heal her and hold her.”
Moss stars an adventurous mouse named Quill, who the player not only controls, but also cares for by guiding her through the environment and healing and protecting her against the hazards of the world. Quill can see the player, who takes up physical space in the world, and will develop a relationship with them as the game progresses.
The development of this bond is an important part of the game’s narrative.
“Over time, Quill being scared and worried fades away, and you form this bond and this relationship and friendship,” says Alderson. “This is gonna be a really interesting story arc not just for Quill, but for the player experiencing it as well. I equate this to you seeing a stray animal and feeding it, but they’re not gonna let you give food straight to them. You have to put the food down and leave and once you come back you see the food is gone. Over time you and this stray become friends and you want to care for it and you don’t mind it living in your home. I think that’s a good comparison and I really enjoy those kinds of stories.”
In their quest for this level of experience, the developers at Polyarc explored a few different healing mechanics before landing on one which requires the player to reach out and touch Quill to salve her wounds.
“The healing came about from one of our early on prototypes,” Alderson says. “We wanted a special way to heal Quill, and we had a couple of ideas. One was that you found health out in the world, but we felt that broke you out of the experience. We wanted to make it so that everything Quill does feels natural. We thought she could eat food or put it in her backpack, but those animations took a while and you couldn’t really do that while in combat.
“Then we tried a self-healing method, so that over time you gained it back, but it just didn’t feel right and something about it seemed off. Since VR was a new medium we thought the answer had got to be something new for a new system.
“Finally the healing came out of you reaching in and holding Quill. It’s great because it fed back into the whole bond with Quill and the player wanting to protect and take care of her, but also you could do it in the middle of combat and it just felt right.”
This is Polyarc’s first game, but with the years of experience and the care for both accessibility and storytelling it’s bringing to its first VR title, Moss is shaping up to be something special. Stepping away from career security and branching out on their own may be risky, but it allows Alderson and his co-founders greater freedom and autonomy. And from that, a strong sense of pride in their game. “Even with the pedigree of some of the games that we’ve made,” he says. “I know this is the project I am the most proud of.”