Luca Deriu, Founder of PlaySys, talked about their studio and his approach to projects as lead developer, how the image of the digital world and video games is changing in society, and in what way their team and industry in general were affected by COVID.
Although we are a studio working since 2007 in the center of Milan, Italy, our team is pretty international and during the years included people from Finland, India, China, Russia, France, Lebanon, Turkey, and Vietnam.
Game and software development are activities without borders and nowadays the "languages" of design, 3D modeling, and coding became the new Esperanto. Fourteen years ago we started with CGI projects, both static and animated, and slowly moved in the direction of interactivity, virtual and augmented reality, and software development. Our initial arch-viz background and coding knowledge allowed us to create our plugins and proprietary software for lighting in visualizations - Real IES (that has recently celebrated its 5-year birthday) for photometric light creation and Real HDR for image-based lighting. At the moment, we are working on our most ambitious video game for consoles Dreamers, which we started developing in 2019 and plan to release a year from now, in Autumn 2021.
Usually, we have plenty of requests for enterprise projects that require gamification and interactive experiences. Every project always has its own challenges. For example, we have created VR apps for libraries that required scalability and autonomy for librarians regarding the number of uploaded books and languages. Later we have created a Christmas VR game for shopping centers where the players were taking a VR selfie with Santa Claus and in the end, getting a real printed photo through a green screen integration.
At the same time, we are working on our tools for CGI, extending the features we need for our studio, and integrating the ones requested by the community.
Luca Deriu: Maybe it is too early but I can anticipate that there will be two more tools that I have not mentioned before since they are in the R&D phase: Real PBR, a real-time raytracing rendering tool for pre-viz, and Virtual 3D Painter, a visionary tool for texture painting.
What I can share is that we are now working on an adventure game for PlayStation and other next-gen consoles and this ambitious project of ours takes the most of our time. Besides the game itself, we are developing the whole interactive framework that supports the quests and interactions with NPCs as well as the services, such as multilanguage dialogues, the save system, the menu with story log and the map, step sound system and IK, mocap animations, cinematic cameras, and cutscenes. As said before, so far this is our biggest challenge and source of huge satisfaction.
Programming is amazing and I regret not having paid more attention to it when I was younger. Thanks to programming one can really give life to the experiences as we are not talking about characters and NPCs.
That being said, I notice that programming gets more and more accessible but I can't understand if it is really getting simpler in absolute meaning, or if it is getting simpler from a subjective perspective.
Sure, today we have tools that are capable of breaking the intangible barrier of “software”. Speaking of game development, it is not necessary, I think, to mention the names of those engines that we all know today and that are expanding our possibilities. But those engines are arriving from somewhere, not only technically but culturally. Today we accept a commercial game engine, with all its hidden problems and long-term constraints.
How COVID Affected Studio's Work
There is an everyday common misconception where they say, "lucky you! you do not face any changes or difficulties since you are working on a computer". Even though our projects can be virtual, we ourselves are pretty much real. At the moment, one part of our "crew" is in Italy and the other – in Finland and it's difficult to keep the team's spirit up when we can not see one another other than through a webcam since we can not work from the office. From the production point of view, it is necessary to constantly adjust deadlines and production schedules to keep track of all the testing, debugging, and iterations both in code and in art, and always have a very clear picture of who does what, when, and – most important – why. Being an introvert, I am quite surprised by what I am saying, but communication and people are the core of everything and the challenge of this pandemic is to share emotions together even without being together.
There is a constant risk that the 3D models, for example, may lose that special touch and feel, becoming just mere digital assets. And since our goal is to surprise, impress, and awaken certain feelings in our players, the risk of having a bit-mashup is constantly scaring me.
And there is also another problem to mention, that's specific for our new title: animations in motion capture. In our game, we have around 100 NPCs, and each of them has a personality, things to do, and a life to live, and mocap for all of them should be done in our studio that also requires some logistics, besides the skills and technology.
Pandemic's Influence on Film and Video Game Industries in General
I still remember the economical crisis of 2008. I founded PlaySys in 2007 and I was somehow feeling okay being quite distant from the facade of it. The origin of the crisis appeared to be related to real estate but then it hit the banks, corporations, minor businesses, press, and media. I remember that to me the crisis wave arrived in 2010 when our publisher shut down a magazine we were working on and that was the manifestation of the crisis that happened two years before. After that, an advertising company bankrupted because a football team was not paying their advertising debt. That advertising company was my connection with the huge mechanical industry and when they bankrupted I didn't get paid for my work. Again, the troublesome period arrived as a reflection later on.
By the way, we later discovered that the advertising company did a fake bankruptcy just to extinguish the debt before opening a new company, but this is another story.
As a consumer I can add that I love movies and series and it devastates me to see the suffering of the entertainment industry with cinemas and other venues being closed, shooting canceled, and releases indefinitely postponed. And this makes me notice how privileged we are in the video game industry. Our locations and our actors are 3D modeled and for our current game that is a guided open-world we can have as many of them as we want and in various styles. At the same time, we can get benefits of the cinematographic part of storytelling with set construction, lighting, and camera work. Moreover, video games require an active input and participation of the player and, in my opinion, it's good to give people decision-making power at least in some part of their lives when they are surrounded by the feeling that the real world is out of their control. It's difficult to make predictions, but I think that in the video game industry, we are inventing technologies and fruition methods that will be of benefit to many other industries as well.
Defining the Project's Framework
As lead developer, I am defining the whole framework and the whole workflow used later by everyone during the development. I am a passionate video game player and for as long as I can remember I've always wanted to create my own video games. But as I grew up both physically and in my professional expertise, I understood that I like to program the core system more than programming the gameplay. Somehow this is very clear from the two words in my company's name: Play and Sys.
When we have started Dreamers (former Project Dreams) last year, I have faced the longest production in the history of our studio and for sure the most ambitious one, therefore the core task for me was to develop a solid structure that would allow the scalability within the game world and the porting on different next-gen consoles. This approach defined my work and my programming: first I predict what is necessary to make our game work, then I develop the interaction framework to support all the functionalities and create a certain type of gameplay and user experiences, and finally, it becomes the basement of the whole game structure combining every piece of the mosaic. Sometimes delegating certain tasks can be difficult, but the development of the framework allows us not to lose control over the project and what has initially been developed to scale our game size is now essential to scale my team dimensions.
Misunderstandings as a Source of Ideas
Problems and satisfactions are everywhere in this business, and some misunderstandings are opening our minds with (crazy) ideas that nobody would have thought of in the first place. In our work, the best part is to be contaminated by ideas that sometimes might come from excessive freedom or rigid constraints. I have a clear long-term vision of our projects but I have to confess that sometimes I lack specific ideas. So practically, we are positively using the misunderstandings as a source of alternative ideas. I can't say that it is always working but it is something.
Social Image of Video Games is Changing
In my opinion, the mass understanding of the importance of gaming will change forever in the future. Let me explain it with an example regarding my tax consultants. They never understood what my company really does, but during the pandemic, I received a harsh message “I am sure your activity won't have problems since every kid is spending a lot of time with their phones and you work with those devices”. This sentence is the manifestation of pure ignorance toward the digital ecosystem. My generation, geeks, nerds, and digitally acculturated people are pushing so hard against those who keep telling us “I understand nothing in phone and e-mail, my son checks them for me”.
I think the major change is that even if those people have repulsion for our technological and digital progress, they start recognizing it as something big. I am not talking about massive cultural change toward video games yet, that will take more time, but at least we have the satisfaction of the economical interest and of the fact that we are doing something that's not so useless (as it appeared to be when they were telling us to “find a proper job when you grow up” or “no, seriously, what is your profession?”
For too long, there had been a sad tendency to consider video game development as "fun". Yes, we do enjoy doing our work but it still remains a work that requires a lot of effort and a lot of skills and knowledge in design, software, 3D, animations, UV-mapping, texturing, lighting, mocap, programming, logic, user experience, storytelling, music composing, as well as management, budgeting, public relations, national and international law, social trends and cultural backgrounds. It is hard work that also requires the braveness to invest capital and take painful decisions while leaving people doing all this invisible behind the scenes and behind the computer screens.
I feel that with the digitalization of the world and lifestyle that we are experiencing now, we will see the trend of better respect for our occupation and the overall higher value of the professionals that work in this industry.
In Italy, we were always on the front-line among the first studios offering virtual and augmented reality for exhibitions and events and during these years we have faced situations when the market was not ready. Now it's becoming mainstream and our clients are prepared to better understand the technology that we develop.