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Golem is the brainchild of Highwire Games, a Seattle startup from video game industry veterans who hope to create one of the flagship games for Sony’s PlayStation VR platform coming next year.
Sony showed off a trailer for Golem at the PlayStation Experience (PSX) event over the weekend. In the demo, a young woman confined to a room makes various motions with her body. It becomes clear that she is controlling a creature, known as a Golem, in a fanciful world. It’s not much of a revelation, but Highwire Games has been working on the PlayStation VR exclusive for some time.
Highwire’s founders include former Bungie music and audio chief Marty O’Donnell, former Bungie game designer Jaime Griesemer, and former Airtight Games techie Jared Noftle. They’ve put together a small team to build VR games, and they showed up at PSX to offer a glimpse of what they’re working on. I was one of the first game journalists to try out the new game using the PlayStation VR platform. I donned the VR headset and was transported to the room in the video.
At the outset, I was a tiny creature on the floor of the room. I leaned forward in my seat, and my character moved forward. I leaned to the right, and my character turned right. Then I was transformed into a big Golem. I stomped forward into an arena, where I met a much bigger sword-wielding Golem. I proceeded to have a sword fight with the creature, blocking his moves one for one with by waving around a PlayStation Move controller. The game has something to do with the Jewish tradition of the Golem, but the team isn’t saying more on that yet.
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Afterward, I interviewed O’Donnell, Griesemer, and Noftle. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Marty O’Donnell: I feel like it’s a really fun new world for us, but it’s not going to be for the faint of heart. The first adopters are going to have an interesting time.
Jared Noftle: It’s going to build up. We’re not going to throw people into fighting golems like that right away.
O’Donnell: Well, I mean for VR in general. It’s going to be hardcore people at first, and then it’ll start to spread.
GamesBeat: How long an experience are you thinking about?
Noftle: We’re shooting for hours of gameplay.
GamesBeat: Something more like a normal console game.
O’Donnell: It’s not a super long story, but it’s going to be story-based. We’ll be gentle about the VR especially. We’re not explaining everything it’s going to be yet. For instance, there’s a character in the game who’s a woman, but you’re not necessarily playing as her yet. You’re playing as a character who we’d say is genderless. If you want him to be a boy, he’s a boy. If she’s a girl, she’s a girl.
Noftle: But the other girl you saw in the trailer is your sister, in the fiction.
GamesBeat: Is it single-player for sure?
Noftle: Single-player for sure, yeah.
GamesBeat: How much did relearning did you have to do as far as how to make a game for VR?
Noftle: There’s a couple of ways to answer that. We’re developing in Unreal Engine 4 and a lot of the guys hadn’t used Unreal before, so that was a learning curve for a lot of us. I have a lot of UE experience, so it wasn’t as big a deal for me.
From a design standpoint, the good thing about Jamie, and to a certain extent Marty, is that they approach design – especially Jamie – from a very controller-specific point of view. We’re in VR-land now. How is that going to control? That was his first thought as far as how to develop a VR game. That’s what helped us get the initial navigation implemented.
O’Donnell: All of this stuff is going to be fine-tuned as we develop, but the reason we stop you as you lean too far forward or do too many violent moves with your body—We’re concerned about people’s safety. You’re completely enclosed. You can’t see anything else. We don’t want you standing up and walking around the room and stepping on your cat or crashing into the couch. We want you to be comfortable in a chair or on the couch and be able to play this game.
The guy today, the London Heist guy, was saying that people take the two controllers that are their guns and then they put them back on the desk in front of them. Of course, there is no desk there. What’s good about that is that people start to believe this stuff is really there. But safety is a concern.
GamesBeat: What do you think of the startup life?
O’Donnell: The cool thing for us—just making a trailer like this. “What’s the idea? That’s a cool idea. Let’s start moving down that road.” There’s no committee. There’s no hierarchy.
Jamie Griesemer: No approval chain. No everybody putting in two cents.
O’Donnell: No outside marketing team.
Griesemer: Everyone on the team is a veteran. They’re the best at their job. It’s pretty effortless.
GamesBeat: Did you start with VR in mind, or did you experiment for a while and decide this was the way to go?
Noftle: Right from the earliest conversations, we had our sights on VR.
Griesemer: My thought process, at least, was that I need new design challenges, or else I get bored. You don’t want to play a game designed by a guy who was bored. We were also interested in being the game on a platform. That’s our background — being on the game everyone associates with the platform, being in the launch mix.
VR was where all those things intersected for us. It’s the future. It’s not going to be an overnight takeover. You’re not going to be seeing a bunch of living rooms with no TVs and three headsets by the couch, not for a while. It’ll be a slow burn. But when it does grow, we’ll be there growing along with it.
GamesBeat: Do you have more freedom? [O’Donnell clashed with his superiors at Bungie and Activision over the publishing of a trailer and the music from Destiny, which he worked on before getting into a legal fight and then resigning to start Highwire].
Griesemer: Too much freedom. Freedom definitely comes with a bit of uncertainty.
Noftle: You have to be disciplined.
Griesemer: If somebody says, “Do this and here’s the money to do it,” that’s one thing. But if you’re going to do your own thing, you have to find some way to pay for it.
GamesBeat: Did you go in thinking that you’d have a learning curve to get through on VR before you’d start making the game?
Noftle: The way it played out was fortunate for us. We were given a period to do some experimentation initially. We were able to try a lot of different things.
Griesemer: Probably six months of prototyping in a lot of different directions.
Noftle: Whether or not we planned it that way, it was very valuable to have that playtime, so to speak.
O’Donnell: Sony’s been great for us. They’ve been very encouraging.
Griesemer: They know it’s not a solved problem. They don’t come to us and say, “We know how to do it,” because nobody knows how to do it. They don’t say, “It’s gotta be done right now,” because they know it takes time to polish it and make it great. They’ve been the best partner we could hope for.
GamesBeat: Did the sword-fighting idea come to mind quickly?
Griesemer: Sword-fighting is an example of the interactions in the game, but it’s more that one-to-one control the Move gives you. As soon as you have a hand, you want to put a stick in it. As soon as you put a stick in it, you want to hit something. It’s a natural first progression, but we’re thinking of other things as well.
O’Donnell: The way I like it, anything you can hold, we’re going to do something cool with it. I’ve played tons of games that have swords, but they never seem to actually—I’m really excited that I have to block it like this. Once we have force feedback and everything gets a little smoother, it’s going to be a blast. I always wanted to be able to feel like I’m really doing something with a sword, instead of just a big slash and tons of people die. I’m blocking and parrying.
Griesemer: The specificity of the control is cool.
GamesBeat: Was the 3D audio important to you?
Noftle: That was in our sights from day one.
O’Donnell: The VR environment is the perfect way to show 3D audio. Now we know where your head is. We know where your ears are. We know where every object is. If you’re holding something that makes noise, like the candle—The candle can actually go behind your head.
Griesemer: It’s not just 3D audio. It’s HRTF.
O’Donnell: Eventually I don’t know if people will even think about it. This will just be the way the world sounds and it makes sense. It’s a game, so we’ll give you objectives and things to do. The virtual reality part of it will sort of disappear, because you’ll just be absorbed in doing this cool thing. We want it all to feel believable.
Griesemer: And more than believable. I don’t know what your emotional reaction was like when that guy walks up and starts swinging his sword, but—Some part of you had this visceral reaction. “I’m in danger! This thing could hurt me! It’s way bigger than I am!” We want to capitalize on that.
GamesBeat: I thought it was bigger until I realized, “Wait, I’m one of these things, too.”
O’Donnell: When you’re the small golem and you see the giant bug, it feels like you’re small. Scale is another thing we’re having fun playing with. The sense of scale is going to be a game mechanic. You might at one point be in an environment while you’re really big and you’ll spot a crack in the wall that you can’t fit through. But if you become a little tiny golem, you can go through that.
Griesemer: Or if you’re the tiny golem and you see one of those giant monsters coming after you, you’re not going to pick up a sword and try to fight him off.
It’s all a balance between just how much possibility there is and how much a 10-person team can realistically execute on. We’re still finding that balance.
GamesBeat: It seems as if your platform is going to be changing. With future iterations you’re going to have more body control and things like that.
Griesemer: Yes. The hardware is a moving target as well. Even this headset that you played on, we just got that a few weeks ago. It’s a huge visual upgrade from the previous version. The hardware is getting pushed all the time and we’re getting better at using it.
O’Donnell: There are a lot of things to consider – what the final ship date might be, how many Moves we can think about, the headphone and speaker situation. That’s fun for us. We were there with the Xbox. I still remember, with something like a month to go, they said, “We’re not going to put the 5.1 surround chip in.” It was cancelled. And I was like, “NO!”
Griesemer: “Hey, we’re adding a cheapo headset in every box, so everyone online is going to be able to blather in your ear all the time.” We’re used to hitting moving targets.
O’Donnell: It’s fun. It keeps me young.
Griesemer: What’s great about it is that we get some influence on the moving target. When I was working at Sucker Punch, we got to see all the prototype Dual Shocks. We gave them all this detailed feedback on the stiffness of the thumbsticks and the placement of the triggers. When you’re part of that feedback loop, both products end up improving. You don’t just have to take what you’re given.
GamesBeat: Did you consider being cross-platform? Are the different VR systems compatible at all?
Griesemer: Of course we considered it, but—Sony’s a great partner. The PlayStation VR is a great piece of hardware. We’re happy to be making a game for it. Nobody knows what’s going to happen in even a year with VR. As I say, it’s a moving target. But this is a great gadget. A big part of the appeal to us is that you just plug it into a box you already own.
Noftle: What I enjoy right now about the PlayStation VR is how many tens of millions of PS4s are already out there. When the head-mounted display (HMD) comes out, it’s a peripheral for something that already exists. You don’t have to go buy anything else. We feel like that’s a good play, especially for Sony.
Griesemer: All those PS4s have the same hardware. One thing that’s very important in VR—If you drop frames, you’re making people sick. Having standardized hardware where you can predict all the variables lets us push a lot farther than we would otherwise. If you’re plugging it into your old PC that can’t handle it and you’re getting five frames per second, you’ll just turn it off. We can control the experience a lot better with a console.
GamesBeat: Is this the kind of game that needs to hit a certain performance level? Are you pushing the edge of what the PS4 can do?
Noftle: Yeah. You want to hit 60 frames per second at minimum, and ideally 90 frames per second. In VR you have to render to two eyes. There are lots of inherent technical hurdles right out of the gate.
Griesemer: There’s a floor, and that floor is a lot higher than 30 frames per second. That’s one of the reasons why we’re careful about how we present the visuals. If we just release a widescreen screenshot and somebody put that next to Uncharted 4—We can’t compete with that. We have to render four times as much, as fast as they do. A lot of it is leaning on the art rather than on the tech for rendering. We just hire really amazing artists and they do a lot with half as much.
GamesBeat: Did that influence the art style you chose?
Griesemer: It’s a sort of stylized realism. If you go too cartoony, then you’re in a cartoon and your brain says, “I can’t accept this.” You never get that sense of presence. If you go too realistic, your brain is picking at the little tiny details that aren’t right. We’re shooting for somewhere in the middle.
Noftle: It also ties into the technical art and how the content affects performance. We have to be very wary of how those play together.
GamesBeat: Jason Rubin spoke at our conference and talked about how this is still the experimentation phase. You may have to financially fail with more than one game before you end up in a position to take advantage of the gold rush. Did you also go into this thinking that you might have to have a longer path to success?
Griesemer: We know it’s going to be a slow burn. That’s another reason to partner with Sony. It’s more important for them to have good content on their hardware than it is for any one game to be financially super-successful. We know it’ll be a slow start, but hopefully we can then stay at the front of the pack.
O’Donnell: We’re all veterans. From a business standpoint, we’re not trying to—it’s not like, “Yeah, we got a bunch of money! Oh, wait, we blew it!” We’re not doing that. I feel that if we can make a game that solves a bunch of issues and is aesthetically pleasing and compelling, it’s going to be successful. Maybe it’s not wildly financially successful, but—
Griesemer: There are two ways to be financially successful, too. One is, you sell millions of copies. The other is, you make the game on the cheap. You’re as efficient as possible and you don’t go in for extravagances. This is a startup-ass startup. I get splinters from the floor of our studio. It’s 10 guys.
GamesBeat: You make it small, but you learn enough to make more out of another swing at the bat.
O’Donnell: Somebody asked me the other day if we’re building a studio or building a game. I said, “Yes. Actually it’s both.” We’re building a game in order to build a studio that builds games. You can’t have one without the other.
It’ll be interesting. There is no installed base. We can’t say that there are 30 million VR machines out there. Right now, commercially, there are zero. Even Jason Rubin—We’ve talked to Jason a lot. He’s been a friend for years. It’s a tough thing. Everyone is trying to figure out what VR’s place will be. Jason wants there to be a giant game component and so do we. But we’re all having fun.
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