Cloud gaming: How Insomniac’s VR game ‘Stormland’ is elevating action adventure

Cloud gaming: How Insomniac’s VR game ‘Stormland’ is elevating action adventure

In 2014, Insomniac’s Durham studio was buzzing – it was time to start prototyping a new project and the canvas was enticingly blank. Peering out an airplane window while mulling over the possibilities, the project’s Lead Designer Mike Daly was struck by an idea: What if there were something hidden in the clouds? And what if that something were an alien world brimming with mystery and adventure?

“I wanted to explore up close and peek around the corner to discover ruins nestled in the clouds,” says Daly.

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Years later, this idea would grow into a new VR action-adventure game called Stormland, where players assume the role of a robot hero and explore an exotic world shrouded in clouds. It’s the fourth that developer Insomniac has built exclusively for VR and, like the developer's previous outings, Edge of Nowhere, The Unspoken, and Feral Rites, Stormland promises to retool immersive gaming through a combination of technical wizardry and experiential storytelling.

“From the beginning, we were inspired by the sense of adventure and discovery of the Legend of Zelda series.” Mike Daly, Lead Designer, Insomniac Games

The game was revealed in the summer of 2018, and early showings of the game have impressed gamers and industry pundits alike, with publications like PC Gamer saying “There's a sense of physicality in Stormland that most VR games strive for but don't quite reach,” and “It strikes that ideal video game balance of being guided but feeling freeform and natural, the way good environmental design usually does.”

As you might have guessed, creating an alien world full of things to see and do isn’t easy. Traditional game development is hard enough; in VR, where a player can stick his or her nose into every nook and cranny, it gets even harder. “The presence (and absence) of certain details in the environment is much more impactful in VR,” says Daly. “We knew going in that we needed to achieve a high level of density and richness to make the environments feel real.”

Fortunately, sweating the details is precisely what Insomniac is known for—ask anyone who has spent time in the developer’s re-creation of New York in 2018’s award-winning Spider-Man. You’re not whipping around Manhattan in Stormland, but the latter game has a fresh movement style all its own, one that lets you fly like Superman and bound from ledges like a robotic lemur.

Senior Animator Ryan Palser working on virtual objects, like switches, buttons, and levers, to ensure that the most basic in-game actions look and feel real. The “Vesper” head on Palser’s desk, a 3D-printed custom creation, involved 140 custom parts and 100 hours of print time.

Performing impossible feats of heroism is nothing new for gamers. There’s plenty of that in Stormland, albeit it feels closer to reality than in your average game because all of that derring-do requires 1:1 human input—if you want to climb a ladder or open a drawer, you basically need to perform those actions in reality.

We recently chatted with Daly to hear more about Stormland, how the game’s development began, and what it took to reshape action-adventure games in VR.

Stormland has such a unique premise. What helped inspire the game’s core ideas? 

Mike Daly: For me personally, the earliest notions of what would become Stormland came from spending an airplane flight looking out the window at all the different, amazing shapes that clouds make. I wanted to explore up close and peek around the corner to discover ruins nestled in the clouds.

From the beginning, we were inspired by the sense of adventure and discovery in the Legend of Zelda series. As Stormland evolved, we wanted to create a diverse cast of expressive, relatable characters, like Wall-E. Despite the fantastic premise, we wanted a setting that felt grounded and believable, so we also looked at Neil Blomkamp’s movies District 9 and Chappie. We also regularly cite Solaris for creating a feeling of surreal mystery.

“We knew going in that we needed to achieve a high level of density and richness to make the environments feel real.” Mike Daly, Lead Designer, Insomniac Games

 Can you talk about Stormland’s robot gardener protagonist and what makes him a different kind of hero for VR? 

MD: The androids of Stormland were designed for decades of hard labor in a harsh alien environment. They are both rugged and highly adaptable. Players supplement their android bodies by physically attaching new parts and literally removing and replacing their own arms with enhanced ones. Upgraded arms can transform and activate useful abilities like deploying a support drone or releasing a burst of electric discharge.

Years ago, an army of hardened military robots descended on the colony and wiped it out, destroying the hero in the process. At the start of the game, the hero miraculously reboots to find an alien sprout in its chest. You come to learn that this sprout seems to understand your android anatomy and can grow stronger and supplement your body with a host of exotic alien abilities. Understanding the mysteries of this strange plant leads players to the titular Stormland where they learn more about the alien ecosystem and how they can protect it from malicious robot intruders.

Can you recap Stormland’s development timeline for us?

MD: Our earliest prototypes for Stormland were in 2014, when we created an internal, non-VR demo featuring a world in the clouds you could explore. This was around the time we started talking to Oculus about creating titles for the Rift, and when we showed them this demo, they challenged us to think about how that experience might translate to VR.

Most of Stormland’s production team worked on Edge of Nowhere and The Unspoken. Throughout these projects, the early Stormland demo and the idea of free VR traversal was always in the back of our heads, so we built up a laundry list of things we wanted to try. In 2017, we started prototyping VR traversal mechanics for Stormland, and by the time the larger team rolled on from The Unspoken: Acolytes, the game had a functional foundation that proved the concept worked—we could create an open-world VR game where you could fly through the clouds.

Senior Animator Ian Wilson editing one of Stormland’s animation sequences. These animated shorts introduce players to the game world, its NPC inhabitants, and what’s at stake.

What were important findings about player interaction in VR—what they like and don’t like—that Insomniac worked to address during Stormland’s development?

MD: Since Stormland is so focused on traversal, we made plenty of  discoveries, both large and small, on how to make movement feel comfortable and fun. One important lesson is to ensure all player movement is expected. Mostly, this means that players need to drive all motion intentionally and they shouldn’t be moved by external forces, like explosions. This was especially true for rotation, as player-driven rotation prototypes didn’t work because not all players assumed the same result; someone was always uncomfortable with it. More subtly, this means we need to keep our walking space clear of little bumps and dips that may not be in view as the player is walking around since this can lead to unexpected bumps and drops.

Grabbing and pulling things in the game world using the grip buttons is a lot more intuitive than mapping functions to the face buttons. We rely on this heavily to make the controls easy; most operations you need to perform in the game are done through touching and grabbing. For example, your inventory is holstered on your body and you just physically grab whatever you need. Most of the game’s UI consists of tactile buttons that you reach out and touch.

“Players supplement their android bodies by physically attaching new parts and literally removing and replacing their own arms with enhanced ones.” Mike Daly, Lead Designer, Insomniac Games

How did you iterate and play test the different movement systems in the game?

MD: We prototyped many forms of movement early in Stormland’s development. Prototype builds were available to the studio for testing and everyone was invited to share feedback and discuss ideas. Most of the implementation detail came from our traversal designer and programmer pair who worked together closely to refine ideas and discuss playtest results. Once we had new schemes resolved via quick team iteration, we’d bring them to senior Insomniac leadership and Oculus for an additional layer of feedback.

From working on hand-driven interactions in The Unspoken, we knew going into this process that the most engaging forms of movement would be driven by players’ hands since Touch controllers offer a lot of precision and learning the motions is largely intuitive.  Early on we discovered that keeping hand motion 1:1 with your real-world hand motion felt the best for most players. This meant allowing movement on all three axis and not exaggerating hand speed, like we do for throwing. To facilitate three-axis motion and to improve visibility and comfort, we allowed a buffer between the player and any climbing surface; you can hang out in mid-air and grab a wall from a distance.

For slipstreaming and gliding, the incarnation that was most intuitive to players was orientation-agnostic, meaning that when you extend your hands in a direction, you’ll go that direction regardless of how your torso or head is turned. By contrast, when we tried turning the hero based off how far from center they were moving their hands, we found that different players had a different understanding of where their center was and how to adjust it, leading to inconsistent results.

Character Artist Kerry James modeling objects in Stormland’s android arsenal. Players can upgrade their character’s synthetic body as the game progresses. Using the Rift headset and Touch controllers, Stormland measures the distance between a player’s head and hands to ensure a “proper fit” for the in-game robot avatar.

How did the The Unspoken and Edge of Nowhere help you build Stormland’s world? 

MD: Edge of Nowhere featured vast and beautiful environments. Achieving this level of visual fidelity meant the art and engineering teams had to learn some new tricks for performance optimization and diligently keeping our art efficient. This discipline was crucial for creating Stormland’s world as it’s much larger than our previous titles but still needs to run smoothly.

In VR, the depth composition of a scene is even more impactful than in traditional games. We learned a lot about using depth and hierarchy in the foreground, midground, and background in Edge of Nowhere and The Unspoken to create an environment that feels full and real. Because the scale of Stormland’s world is much larger, and because you can move through the environment freely, this meant focusing both on the composition of individual play spaces--like the sky islands--and also how we space and arrange islands relative to each other. 

The presence of (and absence of) certain details in the environment is much more impactful in VR. We knew going in that we needed to achieve a high level of density and richness to make the environments feel real.

“I glided down and found myself in an underground cavern with flowing lava and bioluminescent plants hidden under the island.” Mike Daly, Lead Designer, Insomniac Games

Can you describe a moment players will encounter in Stormland that’s perhaps unlike anything they’ve experienced in VR before?

MD: As an open world game, each player will have their own stories about amazing moments or discoveries playing Stormland. For me, I was when I was gliding down from a ridge and spotted a hole in a dried-up volcanic field. I glided down into it and found myself in an underground cavern with flowing lava and bioluminescent plants hidden under the island.

This sort of experience is enabled by the freedom to easily travel and explore wherever you want. Stormland’s diverse palette of beautiful environments uses a new system to remix the layout of the world in ways that will continually surprise the player.

How did you go about creating a real sense of “presence” for players in the game? 

MD: We have a fully articulated body that calibrates to your proportions. We use a middleware technology called IKinema to help solve where all your joints should be, given the position of a player’s head and hands. You can look down and see your whole body. As you begin to walk, or adjust your orientation in the real world, you can see your avatar’s legs taking corresponding steps.

Reaching out to interact with the world by pushing buttons, twisting handles, or pulling levers makes the world feel real; but it needs to look real first. We make sure a player’s avatar uses accurate hand poses and remains connected to the world via IK (inverse kinematics). 

Audio, of course, play an important part in achieving immersion. As your android body articulates, subtle servo sounds emanate from your joints. As you approach trees, you hear their leaves rustling in the wind. Distant gunfire has a long echo.

Characters in the world need to respond to the player believably, which means having dynamic head turning and eye orientation to lock eyes with the player during conversations.

Insomniac QA testers, Lauren Ng and Brandon Sieprawski, putting the game through its paces by engaging in multiplayer combat. Testing and iterating on Stormland’s myriad systems and mechanics, from simple interactions to complex puzzles, is of vital importance to the final product.

Stormland is set to launch later this year on the Rift Platform. If you live in the Seattle area or find yourself in town later this month, you can experience the latest Stormland demo at PAX West between August 29 and September 2.