Glenn Brace has told us how and when nDreams Studio Elevation was established, shared the bottlenecks behind creating games for VR, and revealed some secrets on how to make a successful VR game.
80.lv: Please, introduce yourself and your team. When did you enter the industry? What projects did you previously work on? Which games are you most proud of?
Glenn Brace: My name is Glenn Brace, I'm a 22 years games dev veteran. The turn of the century kicked off my gaming career, looking back, I’ve spent more of that time as an Art Director than in any of my other roles. After a few forays into the creative direction, pushing the boundaries outside of art, I now find myself stepping into a Head of Studio role, heading up nDreams Studio Elevation.
After spending the 90s educating myself in art, life, beer, and motorbikes, I pretty much got into games at the beginning of the console gaming revolution. The early 2000s was an explosive time in the UK for the gaming industry, with consoles in full swing, the PS2 was set for launch, with Xbox hot on its heels, I was cutting my teeth making racing games at Stainless technologies, (now S’ Games) on the Isle of Wight. Some amazing youthful summers spent decimating cars in creative ways, both in-game and more literally at the Stainless farm!
That set the wheels in motion for several racing titles and motorbike games at Climax Studios, before pivoting to more character action titles, and stints in various studios.
That broad exposure to development left me fortunate enough to be working with world-leading IP, whilst being trusted enough to create original content. This was the sweet spot of games development for me, one I loved and flourished in. This led to a few developments that showed me the potential of innovative creativity, when art direction was folded and neatly woven into a game’s context and experience, beautiful things can happen.
I’m still very proud of Silent Hill Shattered Memories. An oldie now, but an incredibly innovative take on a Silent Hill 1 remake. With some bold persuasion from Konami, backed up with some innovative prototypes, we ended up more of a wholesale reimagining rather than a re-make. The response from players and a notoriously tough, hard-core, the fan base was both incredibly positive and very rewarding.
Assassins Creed Chronicles (ACC) was another memorable dev and personal milestone. It was amazing to take such a heralded, universally loved IP, and have the freedom to create such a vivid and contrasting experience, that wholistically complimented the franchise. Focusing on terms of dev strategy and audience, the path was set for an impressively creative, innovative, and fresh take on both the IP and the 2.5D action genre. Over three installments, evolving per iteration, delivering excellence in hardcore stealth action, each with bold, stark strikingly varied visuals, it was a very special development with a fantastic team.
More recently Phantom Covert Ops represents a very contemporary achievement, one that is still very active and I’m continuing to build upon today. Influenced by previous successes when focus and clarity of mission were crystal clear, Phantom was the accumulation of new VR leanings, AAA dev mentality, fused with the creation of a creative, cross-disciplined group with a shared vision. This foundation project pushed VR boundaries, interactions, genres, and VR marketplace expectations.
There are a lot of "new" and "firsts" in Phantom, from hardware and rendering, team and dev processes, to new marketplaces, it’s the fact we were bold to build what we felt was best for VR. It’s that which I’m so proud of. A development that nDreams has built upon and realized itself as a world-leading VR developer and publisher. So yep, kudus to Phantom and the entire nDreams team that brought it to fruition.
nDreams Studio Elevation
80.lv: Could you tell us how and when nDreams Studio Elevation was established and what was the reasoning for its creation?
Glenn Brace: Elevation officially launched in January 2022. Throughout the first half of 2021, we were considering various possibilities of development team expansion within nDreams Farnborough studio. Towards the latter half of 2021, we saw a steady increase in opportunities and possible collaborations with various exciting IPs, so the planning of a third studio became aligned with our strategy of scale and opportunity.
The larger challenge many new studios face is securing fantastic talent. Amidst a COVID winter, we were all aware of the shifting dynamics in the workplace and creative industries, so the decision to create a "remote first" studio was to increase our reach to new, more, further afield talent than ever before. Recent development processes have proven our confidence in positive remote team practices, ones that encourage culture, support mentoring as much as creativity in software, and studio comradery.
We’ve been busy evolving and iterating our hybrid processes at the nDreams Farnborough studio, the last quarter of 2021 saw some innovative and bold steps, that paid dividends in team health, communication, and project ownership. It’s these learnings that we at Elevation will harness, build upon, and iterate to grow our sense of team, collaboration, and excellence, in a positive, supportive culture.
With this ethos and dedication to the team, and a strong sense of VR development heritage, fused with the strategy of clarity and focus, Elevation aims to always bring the best scenario for success to our team. That’s when beautiful things happen.
So building upon our heritage, maximizing new opportunities, Elevation’s mission is quite clear:
- Redefining the Action-Adventure for the core VR market;
- Immersion through non-abstracted 1:1 action and traversal, delivering heightened emotion and presence;
- Aspirational, fictional teleportation built to support intuitive, expressive, and natural roleplay.
Creating VR Games
80.lv: Please tell us about developing the games for VR. How do you create deep and engaging experiences for players? What are the main bottlenecks here?
Glenn Brace: This is a very common question that keeps coming up, every time it’s answered it tends to expand, be multi-pronged and unlock deep cavernous rabbit holes of further possible dungeon crawls. So be warned!
For me, VR represents truly next-gen development, in the sense that it is new territory. With every new title, often on new hardware, pathing finding new experiences, genres, and execution of traversal, interaction, combat, etc. it’s the wild west of the development, in a very cool way!
So to bring it back to the core learnings of VR, I think we can talk to "best practices for VR", but I believe the execution of those practices is vast, creative, open to interpretation, and barely explored anywhere nearly enough to be considered resolved.
A strong sense of presence is an overarching defining factor, engagement is another. The freedom to explore the agency you have in the world, coupled with an engaging core gameplay loop to give that agency context, will form the backbone of any solid VR game or experience. Essentially intuitive VR roleplay and experience may not always play nicely with traditional gameplay loops and mechanics. You will find traditional 2D (flat screen) dev solutions cannot be exploited the same way in VR when such freedom is so accessible and expected.
With such high agency and levels of intuitive human interaction, coupled with full-body motion tracking, the abstraction of traditional games no longer holds up. The abstraction of movement via a stick, interactions initiated by a button press, is lost in VR. This is not so much a bottleneck, but more a USP of VR, it’s the differentiator that defines VR as a truly next-gen medium, a new way to experience and interact with games.
By embracing the physical performance factor of being in VR, delivering on expectations of being there, as an aspirational character, in a fictional world, interacting as you’d expect, intuitively as a human, you start to tap into the magic, the presence of VR. Then frame and preserve that sense of presence, high agency, and player choice with a sec to sec, min to min, hour to hour core gameplay loop. Then you’ll be well on your way to creating an engaging, immersive, probably emotional, and therefore very memorable experience.
There needs to be enough room to just "be" in VR, moments to just feel the tension or to roleplay and express the behavior of any given hero. Time to explore, play, discover and express, as well as the traditional need or motivation to drive player engagement and progression.
It’s a delicate mix of experience and gamification for sure.
Why Developing VR Games Is a Good Idea
80.lv: Developing a VR game is quite challenging. Why is developing VR games a good idea for publishers and developers now, in your opinion? Is the market in need of more VR titles?
Glenn Brace: VR is a very real and near future, today games are playing a massive part in the adoption of VR hardware and driving the technology forward. There’s a convergence of technology, hardware, games, and services all waiting for a massive and exciting collision. Perhaps even signifying that possible tipping point in time where mass adoption unlocks the potential and maybe even revolutionizes how we work, play, communicate, consume media, and plenty more.
So that’s a lovely bit of future-gazing, but back to today…
We are seeing signs of growing commercial interest and key markers being triggered that all point toward healthy growth in the VR market and investments around it. Of course, the marketplace would benefit from more games, software, and experiences. More choices for varied tastes and consumers help grow the install base, allowing more commercial bets to be taken. This pushes software innovation and development, in turn growing hardware sales, which creates a stronger marketplace for the investments to exist, which over time feeds an ecosystem that evolves and supports an awesome evolution of gaming and beyond.
VR is an inherently unique experience and a new way to consume and interact with content. We perceive VR as a new vertical, a new medium on which an established IP or Product can co-exist, alongside other more traditional means. The unique experience of VR inherently differentiates itself from other mediums such as movies, TV series, console games, graphic novels, books, mobile titles, etc. all of which have a place in the market, that does not detract from an IP enhancing VR experience.
But mostly I’m evangelical about the potential of VR, its ability to shape the future, its power to deliver heightened emotions that deliver truly compelling games, in new genres, that broaden the gaming community through intuitive accessible experiences. So, anything I can do to speed that up and live the dream, I’ll do it.
Making a VR Game Successful
80.lv: You’ve developed such titles as Phantom: Covert Ops and Fracked – shooters that players really enjoyed. Could you share your secret with us? What makes VR games successful?
Glenn Brace: Nope… Oh, go on then, only because I want to see VR explode!
Over the last seven years, nDreams has been focused on essentially discovering and understanding what makes for great VR, as much as where both the marketplace and audience are, at past, present, and future timelines. It’s important to realize what elements are at play when trying to make or strategize a successful VR product.
The combination of development and publishing has without a doubt played a vital part in the shaping of early creativity, to the communication of the final product. Getting that alignment early, working together to inform each other as developments tend to pivot and evolve, to enable very clear communication of our games proposition has been a key element to our success.
With ref to the ingredients that deliver fun, well again it is an adjustable recipe that can be tuned depending on tastes. There are a few core persistent ingredients that we believe when executed well, lean into the essence of great VR gameplay. Certainly not limited to these VR Pillars exclusively, and each genre or game can tackle them in various ways, but serious consideration should go to:
- 1:1 agency and action – making the most of VR’s innate ability and doing it in a physical, human, intuitive way. A natural means of interacting with your world and game.
- Empowerment and wielding – supplying the right tools to the player and experience that gives control, agency, and creativity within their world. Not just binary actions that play pre-determined animations, but a truly analog, real-time tracking, and manipulation of tools, weapons, or features.
- Aspirational fictional teleportation – the ability to immerse the player into fantastical scenarios and settings whilst supporting the dis-belief and meeting player expectations of that fantasy. Manage this well and it’ll make for a truly more than life experience.
- Accessibility – comfort, ease of use, meeting player expectations of interaction, cause, and effect, intuitive controls, delivering on feel and not just simulation are all aspects that need careful balance. A simulation is too dry and real and therefore has friction, too abstract, or too much gamification breaks immersion, mood, and feel. Every decent VR game will need to manage this balance with expertise.
- Roleplay – One of VR’s core USPs. If you can create an experience that embodies a character so much so that the player physically enacts that "hero's" role, attitude, and actions, then you’re supporting a level of expression that’s not been seen before in gaming. Find ways to celebrate and gamify that roleplay and you’re adding to a whole new level of game design, player reward, and expression that’s evolving games and their audiences.
When each pillar is combined effectively, a strong resulting sense of presence tends to prevail. From Phantom to Fracked, both products are of an incredibly different tone and pace, yet each title tackles these pillars head-on, in different genres and ways.
Elevation's Approach to Teamwork
80.lv: You’ve mentioned that the new studio will operate on both a remote and, in the future, an in-house basis. What do you think it is like trying to develop a game during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic? What is your approach to teamwork?
Glenn Brace: We’ve dubbed Elevation as a "remote-first studio". The reason being is we will be creating a culture and process that builds on collaboration and creativity in the remote team makeup. This does not exclude the opportunity to meet up in person, we intend to utilize our Farnborough studio as well as other off-site physical locations to facilitate strategic needs.
Eventually, as we grow, we do intend on settling in a physical studio. The reason being we don’t want to exclude any talent that may require or have wants for a studio space. This helps not just Elevation but extends the reach of other nDreams studios also. There are multiple benefits to having access to another physical studio, it’s an option we want to be able to offer to those who need or want it.
Even with a studio in place, we will be building upon a remote-first philosophy and process in terms of collaboration and creativity throughout development.
We are starting Elevation quite confident in our remote practices, as mentioned previously we’ve had a lot of time to iterate and evolve how we work. We have developed, launched, conceived original IP, and secured brand new business, all under COVID restrictions.
We have seen recent, strong evidence of some of our latest processes not just seeing steps forward in software, but more team exposure, transparency to decisions, and increased team ownership of our products' progress and process evolution.
By running say six or seven agile, feature lead, cross-discipline dev teams, we’re seeing an increase in the adoption of more inclusive chat channels/rooms, over perhaps the more traditional meeting structure that can alienate or miss out on vital team member input. A healthy by-product of this more open channel, streams of work and comms, is an overall reduction in meetings, an increase in mentorship and workshops, more accessible transparency across the entire project, and most importantly, the rekindling of that studio comradery we all took for granted only years ago.
It's an awesome way to work, where we’ve already seen growth and promotion within team capability and responsibility.
It’s so cool we need to give it a name… Elevationism, no wait, Eleborativity – nailed it!
80.lv: What's your current roadmap? What did you plan for 2022? What will we hear again from you?
Glenn Brace: Well, we have a busy few years mapped out, with a healthy dose of growth and loaded with plenty of excitement. We are currently gearing up right now, building the infrastructure, and laying the process and core talent that enables the start of our team's prototyping phase.
Through this summer we will be building confidence in our initial creative vision, by measuring progress in the software we are free to re-aligning our creative or pivot the software based on evidence of gameplay and feel in VR.
Autumn will see the team delve into "Discovery", a prelude to "Pre-Production" where we iterate, fail fast to build certainty into our direction, and to further inform and hone our pre-production goals and needs. This helps us stay "pointy" and focused on our high-level development goals and game pillars.
Pending directions discovered, the first half of 2023 will see us traversing into a production phase where excellence in execution will help build out the studio’s capability, approach, and pace for delivering AAA dev mentality experience for core VR gaming. This is the realization of Elevation’s mission coming into fruition, we really can’t wait!
Along that path, there may be demos, shows, who knows? Either way, we are passionate about Elevation’s direction, and we’ll be incredibly keen to share that with the world as soon as we can.
My eyes are firmly set on 2024 – 2025 in terms of the fast-evolving VR market, what we feel is coming, and where we want to be when it lands.
We’re living amazing times; we just want to accelerate it a bit more!