In Lone Echo II, Captain Olivia Rhodes and the android Jack are stranded on a strange spaceship near the rings of Saturn. They have to explore the environment and find a way to safety amid mysterious biomass.
I checked out a demo of the narrative adventure game from Ready At Dawn Studios. The virtual reality title is coming out in the first quarter of 2020 on the Oculus Rift and Rift S. It is a sequel to Lone Echo and Echo VR, which debuted in 2017 from Oculus Studios. Oculus will publish the new title as well.
I talked with Ru Weerasuriya, the CEO and creative director of Ready at Dawn, about what it’s like to make the studio’s third major title in VR, even as virtual reality is still struggling to take off in consumer markets. In this game, you play as Jack, and you try to solve various puzzles as you make your way through the dangerous space vessel. The goal is to make repairs, get around barriers, and find out what the heck is going on.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Which part of the game are you showing here today?
Ru Weerasuriya: It’s pretty early on, in the first act of the game. It’s a moment where, as I talked about before, we’re revealing the connection between you, the player, and Liv.
GamesBeat: This is right after the previous demo?
Weerasuriya: Right. There’s still a portion of it after Jack gets repowered and what we did for the announcement, where you actually see him being repowered and she says, “I have so much to tell you.” There’s a part of the game that happens afterward where you learn a lot about what’s going on and what’s really at stake here. But then this part happens, where you’re navigating through the station we see here. You finally get out of that and you realize what’s going on in the world that you’re in, in the 26th century.
GamesBeat: Can you remind me where we are?
Weerasuriya: We’re in the rings of Saturn. The first game leaves you in the rings of Saturn, but 400 years in the future. After you finish Lone Echo you’re thrust into this future and you have no idea what’s going on. You arrive there and look around, and I think Jack’s last words are, “What are we going to do?” “Well, we’ll improvise.” The beginning of the game is understanding what’s happened, what this future is about, and what’s going on. You’re still in the rings of Saturn, and over the course of the game you’ll find out what’s been happening.
GamesBeat: What is the biomass?
Weerasuriya: The biomass is something that started in the first game. If you remember after the big alien ship arrives in the first game–it appears about two-thirds into the game and destroys the Kronos station. Out of it comes this bioengineered weapon that was found on the ship. What they found out is that somebody sent a torpedo with this biomass into the ship to try and destroy it. That caused a temporal anomaly, which caused this ship from the 26th century to appear in the 21st century. When that happens, the biomass started spreading. It destroyed part of the satellites in the first game. It goes all over the place. Liv went inside the ship had this moment where she was threatened by it, and Jack saved her.
In the end, the biomass is the thing that makes them jump again into the 26th century. When you come to the 26th century, you’ll realize that the biomass you found in the first game is still there. That’s what you have to discover – why it’s there and what it’s doing.
GamesBeat: Do you have an estimate of how many hours the game will take?
Weerasuriya: It’s definitely longer than the first game. Time estimates have been really hit and miss for us. We’re trying to target a game that’s going to be about eight or 10 hours, but the reality right now is that it’s growing. I’ll probably be able to answer the question better a few months from now, when we have more of an understanding of the flow. We’re targeting release sometime early next year.
GamesBeat: It’s for the Oculus S and the Rift, but not the Quest, right?
Weerasuriya: Not the Quest, no. We’re pushing the platform as far as we can. As a studio, that’s been our approach to the platform, trying to break it in any way possible. [Laughs] This game is getting to a point where we’re really pushing it.
GamesBeat: Are there particular functions in the game that drove that kind of decision?
Weerasuriya: It’s pretty heavy on the CPU and the GPU right now. On the PC it’s running well, but we’re pushing the boundaries of what we can do as far as rendering. We’re taking a look at the Quest right now, but we’d need to really gauge whether or not this experience could be replicated on a platform like that before making any decisions.
GamesBeat: Is the storytelling going to be very similar to the first game, or different in some ways?
Weerasuriya: There are many similarities. We definitely want to build on what worked in the first game. We’re happy with how people perceived that connection. In the beginning, a lot of that was risky, because we didn’t know where people would connect – not only with the narrative, but with what the narrative does to the connection between you and Liv. We’re doubling down on some of that stuff to build a stronger bond. But there are also differences. The cast, you’ll see, is very different in the second game. We’re trying to explore more around what we can do with the relationships between the characters. The third character you met in the demo here is central. We’re understanding what kind of dynamic we can build with more characters.
GamesBeat: How are you handling the Oculus S sensors? Do those work for things like turning around in a circle, or putting your hands behind your back?
Weerasuriya: The predictive stuff is pretty good. If you play the demo, there are plenty of times where your hands move all around. We’ve been able to mitigate a lot of the things people would foresee as problems. The game plays amazingly well. We’re developing on S, and it’s definitely a learning experience, but the advantages have been amazing. Just to be able to have that freedom of movement, without cameras to set up, has been amazing. From what we’ve done with the demo and the other games I’ve played, it’s working really well.
GamesBeat: Are there some things that are still more challenging? Is this a more difficult game to do?
Weerasuriya: It’s been more difficult because of the scope of what we’re handling. On the Rift S side, there are things like—we don’t have that reliance on cameras that see everything, so there’s more work to be done. We’re working with the Oculus hardware group to get a better understanding of what the future holds, how to use the controllers.
In the game side itself, it’s definitely more ambitious. The first game was a foray into space exploration. It’s a pretty large world. You can keep going and exploring space, doing all that stuff. This game is even bigger. There are challenges in rendering, challenging in loading. How big do you make the environments? How complex can they be? We’re doing more work on the facial side, on the acting. Troy and Alice are back, the two actors from the first game, and we’re exploring a lot more about their relationship in the writing. There are new challenges that we’re tackling, and we’re expanding on the old challenges that we’ve already worked with.
GamesBeat: Is it getting easier, doing your second or third VR project?
Weerasuriya: It’s our third VR title, after Lone Echo and Echo Arena, and then the second one was Echo Combat. I won’t say it’s getting easier, because we knew there were certain things in the first game we needed to improve on. There are new challenges. But knowing more about the hardware makes some things easier. The first time around we had to relearn everything.
Understanding that immersion, it’s something that’s hard to break away from now. We’re working on a triple-A console title right now as well, something we’re developing internally, and funny enough, a lot of the lessons we’ve learned about narrative and immersion and gameplay mechanics, we’re taking some of those lessons into console. It might not be the same display device, but the play agency we learned to do in this game—you’re always there. You can never expect the player to do what you want them to do. They’ll do whatever they want. That’s something we’re carrying with us to the console.
GamesBeat: Are you announcing that one any time soon?
Weerasuriya: No, not yet. It’s incubating internally. It’s in the prototype phase, where we’re building a lot of things internally. We’re funding it ourselves right now. It’s been a lot of fun taking some of those lessons and bouncing them back and forth between the two projects.
GamesBeat: It’s The Order 2, right?
Weerasuriya: [Laughs] That’s a bigger question. Soon enough we’ll be able to talk about it, hopefully. As you might imagine, we get that question quite a lot.
GamesBeat: What else is going on for you?
Weerasuriya: We’re growing. We’re moving studios. It’s an interesting time. We’re a month and a half away from moving into our new home. We’re growing and splitting into Ready at Dawn VR and Ready at Dawn console. It’s a weird time, but it’s a good time. We realized that although we were fixated for a long time on console, having the two balance each other out has been very healthy for the company culture. We’re about 135, 140 people, and we’re moving into a space that can accommodate upwards of 200 or 250 people. We’ll see where we go with this. It’s an organic growth.