Oculus vice president of content Jason Rubin said that the virtual reality platform was looking for “bigger, deeper” projects in 2018 — and that’s just what Stormland is. It’s the latest from Insomniac Games and Oculus Studios, an ambitious open-world adventure starring a robot who must save its planet from invaders called The Tempest. It’s slated for a 2019 release for Oculus Rift.
The heart of Stormland is your journey up into a sea of clouds to fight The Tempest and rescue your people. But along the way, you decide where to explore and what items to craft. As you soar from island to island, you’ll discover new flora and fauna and scavenge resources that will give you a boost in your battles ahead. In combat, a few different strategies and weapons are available. Players can choose to storm in with shock grenades, or they can sneak around the back of their robotic enemies and take out their batteries. Folks can also choose to tackle this as a solo adventurer or as a multiplayer experience.
“The big idea of the game is that we’re presenting a world that changes over time to reveal new playgrounds of movement and combat and loot,” said Insomniac’s chief creative officer Chad Dezern in a phone call with GamesBeat. “Then we turn you loose to explore this world freely with a set of android movement abilities we created for VR. You can fly just above the slipstream and boost along. You can make a ramp for yourself and then kick off it to launch up a cliff. You can hurtle up a cliff and glide back down, controlling your descent with your outstretched hands.”
Insomniac has developed a number of VR games, like the spell-slinging The Unspoken and the horror adventure title Edge of Nowhere. It drew on these experiences — as well as its traditional game titles like Ratchet & Clank and Spider-Man — when designing the movement mechanics and layout of the world.
Stormland’s lead designer Mike Daly says that, to start with, they avoided overloading players with too much stimulation. People can explore at their own pace, and as they glide through the world, they’ll glimpse islands through the clouds and get a bird’s-eye view of potential areas to explore. When designing the traversal mechanics, Insomniac focused on empowering players with “expressive” movement. It first anchors movement to intuitive hand-tracked actions like climbing. Once players get used to climbing, the game shows them other ways of exploring, like pushing off of a wall and gliding.
“You’re enabled to traverse in an even more in-control and expressive way than before,” said Daly. “Then, once you get into the air, rather than just having physics-controlled motion, being able to stretch out your arms to kick in your own control, all this precision and nuance of dips and glides in your controller corresponds to bobbing and weaving and throttling back and forth. That level of player control not only helps a lot with the immersion and the comfort, but it gives the player a ton of expressiveness in where they go and how they land and what they’re doing.”
Stormland’s world isn’t procedurally generated, but Daly and Dezern say that the world will be “ever-shifting” with plenty of new content that Insomniac’s designers have handcrafted.
“It’s not like the world is constantly shifting to something new and maybe homogenous, but rather, when you go into the game, you’re going to find all sorts of exciting things that feel hand-crafted because they are,” said Daly. “Then, when the next week rolls around and you’ve played through these islands and found the bosses and fought them and found the secrets, a new world will reveal itself that’s just as deep and engaging as the previous one.”
A VR open-world experience is just the kind of ambitious project that Rubin and Oculus Studios were looking for. It fits both the “bigger” and “deeper” descriptors because of its potential for a wide variety of experiences from player to player and from session to session.
“When things are open, you don’t know what the player is going to do next. You don’t know where the player is going to go next. Many different areas can be traversed in different ways,” said Rubin. “So yes, that’s the bigger part. The deeper part is, when it gets bigger, more open, and there are more options, everyone has a different experience. Even continuing to play over and over again, you have different experiences. It gives you this feeling of reality that you don’t get from a shorter, more linear, more scripted game. This is one way that you can add depth.”
Getting people into VR headsets is still a big challenge for platform holders like Oculus. However, Rubin says they’re seeing some positive data from people who are already playing VR. He and his team have seen that the time between finishing one game and buying a new one is shrinking, meaning folks are playing more games than ever.
“There’s a lot more stuff there. Someone who likes one genre, in the old days when they finished a game they were lucky if there was something similar out there,” said Rubin. “Now there’s a lot of similar stuff. Additionally, as you said, we’re starting to see some unique made-for-VR experiences like Beat Saber that are just killing it.”
Dezern says that Insomniac has “whiteboards that are full of more ideas” than they could ever execute. In Stormland, they see a project that builds on a lot of concepts and mechanics they’ve explored in previous titles, like the open-world obstacle course of Sunset Overdrive.
“We’re kind of dipping into that well, thinking about how we can take these things we’ve always wanted to create and adapt them to VR, to Stormland specifically, and put a brand new twist on them so it works with the new game world we’re making,” said Dezern. “We really do get a big kick out of experimenting. We think a lot about what it is to build brand new mechanics. It’s this big challenge, where — when we start, we’re not actually sure where we’re going to end up. We just love that. We’re thinking of the goal. We try new things. Those eureka moments that we have along the way propel us to the finish. They give us this high, almost, that drives us along. That’s why we develop games, in many cases.”