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The Persistence Interview – Former SCE Studio Liverpool Devs Spread Wings with a Roguelike Space Horror Game

May 20, 2020
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The Persistence is out tomorrow and you can already read Francesco's very favorable review. The roguelike survival horror set in space launched two years ago as a PlayStation VR exclusive, but now everyone on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch will be able to face the dark and scary hallways of the titular spaceship, again and again.

The Persistence is the first original IP conceived by Firesprite, a Liverpool-based independent studio founded years ago by several key Sony Studio Liverpool developers. After working on The Playroom and The Playroom VR for PlayStation platforms, it's also the debut multi-platform release of Firesprite, and we've talked to founders Graeme Ankers and Stuart Tilley to gauge what went in the development of this project and what lies ahead for this ambitious team. Get comfortable - it's quite the read.

The Persistence Review – Supermassive Black Hole

Of course, one of the big topics right now is how the pandemic is affecting game development. Can you speak to that from your point of view at Firesprite?

Graeme Ankers: It's really a terrible thing, having hit so many in different ways. I think we were always sort of keeping an eye on it from a company point of view in February. A lot of what we do is working on future-facing platforms and technologies, but working remotely wasn't really on our roadmap, not for another year. We were watching what was going on very keenly back in February and the IT/HR guys and all the operations team did an incredible job at Firesprite with how we were going to transition to a remote working environment. Pretty much over the course of three weeks, that team delivered on the plan and I'm very proud to say everyone was safely working from home before the UK Government lockdown that came in at towards the end of March.

They did an incredible job and I'm really proud of the team and what they achieved. Also, a big thanks to the platform holders as well because they were obviously transitioning themselves to the work from home environment, but they supported Firesprite giving us the ability to set up and work remotely as well. I think it was a really big achievement, not just the physical infrastructure, but getting everybody in the culture of working from home and getting a daily calendar out to our developers. We've been using a lot of communication tools and getting into that kind of rhythm of constant touch points with everybody on the teams, checking every day with them. In terms of delivering The Persistence, we've had quite a minimal impact in terms of our production, which has been amazing to see.

Stuart Tilley: It was really interesting, like even day to day stuff, the technology, making sure the VPNs are good, being able to remotely connect to our servers to draw the data down for the games because some of the files are really large. One of the steps we had to do as well was extra security on everyone's machines, because we took everyone's workstations home with them rather than remoting into their workstation. We needed to ensure there are extra layers of security, even for simple things like house fires or burglaries, to make sure that that system is extra locked up and secure.

The Persistence Preview – Dying in Outer Space Never Felt So Good

It was a significant effort. And there was a bit of a lead, driving computers around the countryside, delivering to people's houses wearing face masks and gloves covered in sanitizer, to make sure everything's nice and secure for everybody and getting people connected and building the games. It's been good, but we have deliverables we have to hit, we still have to stay on track. And that's what we've done with all of our projects, it is business as normal for us, we're lucky in that sense, everyone's still making games. We just see each other on the internet rather than in real life. I guess that's the main difference.

At least digital sales are going even stronger now.

Stuart: Yeah, that's right. It's crazy, right? But that's true. I mean, we're gamers ourselves, obviously, and I've been buying lots of games lately.

Can you tell me a bit about Firesprite? I think some of you were previously with Sony Studio Liverpool.

Graeme: Yes, the core team and the founding team all came from Sony's worldwide Studio Liverpool, including myself and Stuart. Going back to those days, it was in our DNA to develop flagship games for new hardware. The team at Studio Liverpool did that successfully for many years, going back to even the PlayStation one in 1996, which makes me feel very old. Some of the guys even go back before that, to the days of Psygnosis for those that remember it, working on titles like Shadow of the Beast. And then when that transitioned to Sony Studio Liverpool, we were developing flagship launch titles like Wipeout that really showcased what the power of PlayStation one could be at the time. We did that all the way through the years really, we delivered Wipeout 2048 on PlayStation Vita, we left the corporate fold in 2012 and set up Firesprite.

That was just me, Stuart, and three other guys. And we took a real roll of the dice, took out a lease on an office, and then just grew from there. Today there are over 140 people in the studio which is an incredible achievement. We had five new starters last week on a single day, so we continue to expand and welcome people to the Firesprite family.

You've kept a close relationship with Sony, though, because you did the first games for them on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR.

Graeme: We are an independent studio but indeed, when we first started, we worked on The Playroom and we were very lucky to be working with Sony Japan studio. That was our first game when we first got going back in 2012. They wanted something that would showcase new features of what the PlayStation 4 console was going to be and we had a hell of a deadline on that, because eventually they liked it so much that they decided to pre-install it on every PlayStation 4, which was an incredible achievement for us as an early stage studio. To have that level of involvement was really flattering, not to mention a real honor to work with Sony Japan Studio on it. We continued that relationship with the team over there and also worked on The Playroom VR as well for the launch of PlayStation VR in late 2016. That describes what we do as a studio, we're very focused on working on and be trusted to work on things that are coming in the future and delivering showcase features and experiences. That's part of what Firesprite is about, showing that creative innovation and technical innovation, but also we work on our own IP, The Persistence being the first example of that. I remember that even very early on, when I was working at studio Liverpool, we'd always had that passion and drive to create something in that horror space. I guess that's something that just stayed with us.

Stuart: Yeah, that's right. Basically, we want to make a scary game. Obviously, we did a lot of racing games, and we always prided ourselves on doing something new and different every time, whether it was a first week DLC, for example, or whatever. We did have a real desire to get do more than just racing, having a really super talented team of devs who had worked in lots of different genres. So it was a big passion of ours to do that. As soon as we got to make our own IP, that was why we were drawn so much into making a game like The Persistence, inspired by Dead Space, System Shock, or even Resident Evil, Alien movies and things like that, that really got us excited. We wanted to build our own little universe with stories, characters, enemies, ships, etc. It was such an exciting thing to be able to do, being the masters of our own destiny and being able to make something we've got so much passion for.

Did you set to make The Persistence a VR game from the start, or was it because of the partnership with Sony to ship the game on PlayStation VR at first?

Graeme: The original intention was to design the game with VR in mind as it plays to survival horror really well as a genre in terms of that level of isolation, putting a headset on. But we also wanted to do something different and came up with this great idea of almost bringing in a social element to it as well, something that you don't normally find in that genre. And I think it was the first time where other people in the room on their mobile phones or tablets could influence and change the experience for the VR player.

Stuart: That's right. Our companion app (available on Android and iOS) was a little bit more than a novelty, it had a genuine upgrade loop in there. The more you helped or hindered the person playing the main game, the more you unlocked cooler, more powerful abilities to affect the second-to-second experience of your game, even to the case of switching off the lights or spawning enemies in behind the main player and set them to aggro so that they chase through the darkness. It was really good fun. It was really fascinating actually, because my original vision for it was co-op, working with your friends to make The Persistence easier because the game can be really difficult. The more we tested it with people, the more people basically said 'The co-op stuff is nice and all, but can you give me something that's really horrible to do, basically can you give me some way to scare my friends more?' So every time we iterated on it, more and more of these things came into The Persistence, even to the point where we ended up motivating some of that behavior because you could get some big XP boosts if you did some terrible things at the right time. This was a really interesting social dynamic as well in the sense that your friends, they're helping you and telling you to collect these weapons here and some resources there, then to watch out for this bad guy there. And you think they're on your side, then something really bad happens and because you're playing The Persistence in VR, you can't see what he's doing on his tablet. Then you find out something really bad's happening, and he's laughing next to you.

It sounds a bit like a Dungeon Master role.

Stuart: Yes. Yeah, it kind of is, right? There's a degree of that. Apart from you can make people scream out loud, which is kind of funny.

Graeme: There were other aspects to the VR space that we wanted to accentuate as well. Some of the key challenges when we were making The Persistence were that it was procedural, but there was very much a stealth element to it as well. Those two things don't necessarily live well together in game design terms, but we did a great job in terms of coming up with that sense of scale. All procedural components were built to a certain height, so you could get behind a cover object and use those sort of Virtual Reality nuances to peek around the corner and see what's ahead of you. There were things we were trying to do inside of that language to accentuate the experience for that platform. At the time, when we launched The Persistence in VR, there was a lot of good short-form content, but there wasn't really a big new IP that you could sink your teeth into that was eight to ten hours long or even longer, having a loop where you could keep coming back stronger and running through the game, always giving you that sense of tension. That was another big goal for us, we wished to deliver something of a decent size, a meaty new IP for that platform at the time.

Are you happy with how The Persistence was received on PSVR?

Stuart: It was really good, we got nominated for a few awards and got a night out for it. We're proud of what we've made, there's nothing quite like The Persistence. You can see there are a few influences in certain sections, but as a package, it's a different type of game experience for people compared to what they may have played in the past.
I was really flattered from both the press reaction to the game and the feedback from gamers. It's really humbling to read very favorable comparisons to games like Dead Space and System Shock. And again, as Steve said, we tried bringing that roguelike loop and that social element to a genre that doesn't normally contain those things. It was great to see how well received it was when we launched it.

And of course, now The Persistence is launching also as a non-VR game, right? How does it change on a 'flatscreen'?

Stuart: I think the core mechanics and the combat system hold together really well. There are a few major differences. One is in the field of aiming the weapons. In VR we use the headset, which actually is a really efficient way of shooting things in a video game. There was a bit of a rebalancing job for non-VR and we spent a lot of time, we had dedicated people on each separate platform whose job was to make sure that the feel of aiming and pulling the trigger or bludgeoning with an iron bar felt as powerful and as satisfying as it did in VR. For me, that was like one of our biggest If challenges and it's not a simple case of making it work, it's easy to make it work but to make it feel right was quite a significant effort to put in.

But I think the boys and girls on the team did a cool job with that. The other thing was the UI, as the weapon selectors and things like that were designed to be looked at with the head mounted displays. We've updated that and redesigned the way that some of the inventories and upgrade system screens work to be a little bit more user friendly for flatscreen. To be honest, that wasn't challenging like making sure that the feel of the guns in your hands is right. For me, that's where the player's visceral connection to the action comes from.

In the VR version we spent a lot of time and effort making sure that when you punched something in the face, the feedback was super, super strong. The accepted wisdom was you don't move the camera for the players in VR because it makes them sick, but we developed techniques where we could briefly move the camera without making them sick to try and accentuate the impact of fighting the monsters in the game. We needed to make sure that the same passion and dedication were applied to the flatscreen versions across all platforms. What's obviously interesting as well being a cross-platform developer is how the joysticks are different on each platform, so simple things like the dead spots, the range of movements, the accuracy of the movement on the sticks all affect the core feel of moving and shooting and fighting and surviving. We have a totally different setup and tuning system for each platform to get it to a point where we're happy to say it's good enough to ship. That was a creative challenge, I guess.

Graeme: There are some other elements to that as well, just speaking to the art side. One of the things when you're developing for virtual reality is you have to be very mindful of how you approach it as you're drawing everything twice and you have to run at a minimum of 60 frames per second. One of the actual advantages we found, because not many games come from VR to non-VR, is that we could put more into the VFX, particularly on the platforms that can do 4K. We can do extra passes and get those shadows really, really sharp, the lighting, reflections. These features actually do feed into the game loop a little bit more. When you're walking into a darkened room and you know, the way that the gets procedural, it breaks up your line of sight, you can't quite see where the next enemy is going to be, but we can give you audio tells, you can pick roughly the direction that the creature is in, and then you can perhaps see a glimmer or a reflection of something. It does all kind of feed into that tension, that ratchets up when you walk through the game.

We're really proud of that. As developers, we're very optimistic and we thought this would be really easy. But to make the best out of every platform, to really bring it out and make it shine across each one...Because we're still a relatively small studio, it's a big passion project for us to actually show the world what we can do. It is incredibly important to try and capture and get those details across the board.

Do you think it's any less scary? Because that's usually the idea when you move from VR to non-VR, that it is harder to make a game as scary as it naturally gets in Virtual Reality.

Stuart: That's an interesting one. I think it will depend on people to some degree. I play a fair degree of horror games and I've got my rules, like, curtains are closed, the lights are off, the volume is very high. I played it through in my little room here and it was pretty damn cool and scary. It's difficult, I'm so close to it that it's hard to say it. I mean, you're not going to get through The Persistence without a bunch of scares!

Graeme: I think we definitely maintained a lot of those tense moments and a lot of the pacing that was built into the VR game. Like I said, even with the visual effects, where we have the extra power to play with on the non-VR versions of the game, we really push to accentuate those and to really immerse you into that world. I think it still holds up really, really well in non-VR. In fact, we even got some comments on the VR side that some people found it too scary in places that we didn't account for, actually, when we were developing the game. I think what we have now is something that we're really proud of.

Do you have any plans to add some content, like DLC, to The Persistence in the future?

Graeme: We've got a big list of stuff we're always keen to be working on and we're constantly looking at. We definitely have plans for that going forward. Also, we're looking at what else we do with the game itself and the universe we've created.

With the IP?

Graeme: Yeah, yeah. It's really exciting for us, it's a real passion for us at Firesprite, The Persistence is our first owned IP and our chance to really, really show what we can do to everybody in the world.

Does The Persistence run on Unreal Engine technology?

Graeme: The Persistence runs on Unreal Engine, yes. As a studio, we work on different engines and platforms, but this is indeed an Unreal Engine game. We wrote a lot of cool code to go with that ourselves in terms of how we handled some of the technical challenges of procedural and getting all the lighting balanced. The Unreal Engine was great, it worked really, really well in this project.

I'm not sure If you follow our website, but we are very much focused on technology. I mean, it's in the name, right? So, Unreal Engine now supports ray tracing and recently NVIDIA released a UE4 build with support for DLSS 2.0, the deep learning super sampling technology. How do you feel about these features, especially ray tracing, which is also going to be supported on next-gen consoles?

Stuart: The general principle is that we're super excited. All game developers are massively into this stuff. We're all super geeks, we read your website and lots of others. Part of what we do is we find all these things really exciting and we look to maximize the absolute most we can get out of the platforms. I keep nagging our IT teams to make sure they get the most powerful RTX cards. We have a technology team at Firesprite and their job is to take new tech and see the most that they can get out of it. As these new technologies come along, we're totally all over it and trying to find out cool, innovative ways to use it to maximize the game experiences we're trying to try to make.

Graeme: We're definitely looking at that, it's really exciting. And yeah, absolutely, RTX is definitely on our list of things that we are actively looking at.

Are you looking at them for The Persistence or maybe for a future title?

Graeme: As a studio, we look at things holistically, as we do have a number of titles in development. But yeah, we do have that as part of the plan for The Persistence going forward.

We also recently got to the official specs for both the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X. What are your thoughts on some of the key advancements that are being made, such as the SSD or PS5's Tempest Engine for example?

Stuart: I think the players are going to be the real winners here. The solid state drive is going to be massive to allow us to create larger worlds that load faster, to move quicker within them. It opens up possibilities for us. The new positional sound stuff is great for like, for games, being able to like play sound effects that feel like they're around you while you're on the couch, it's gonna make another big improvement. I think all the platforms have got a ton that they're offering. And I think it's gonna be a big win for players as far as I can see. It just is super exciting for us to be able to make our ambitions greater, sometimes you might have to discard a feature because it might require a long load, for example. Now, in the future, that may not be a problem. That'll very much directly allow us to make better games, I think that that's absolutely true.

Graeme:  I think especially for a studio like Firesprite, you can probably tell from our history and from our DNA and where we've come from, we love playing with new technology, so it's just a huge time for us right now.

The PlayStation 5 even comes with a new controller, the DualSense, which promises to deliver new sensations through its enhanced haptics. Are you excited about that? It seems like it will open to new possibilities for gameplay as well.

Stuart: Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. We always strive to immerse the player in the world. The immersion comes through how you touch the game, and what you see of the game. Obviously the chipset improvements will help with the visuals and the audio, but controls is a massive part of it. You know, being able to get a much better feel for the surface the character is walking on or the things they're carrying in their hands or whatever. Again, even to be able to start creating some game experiences that perhaps you're not quite used to. It's just great, as a game creator we wait a long time for next-gen stuff to come around, so it's kind of like Christmas in game development land in that sense.

Final question. Do you think you'll be able to release proper enhancement patches for the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 versions of The Persistence when they arrive later this year?

Graeme: We're not making any announcements yet but we're hugely excited about the future and future consoles. We like to be involved with future technologies. Suffice it to say, there will be announcements coming soon.

Fair enough. I'm not sure if you want to add anything about The Persistence or about your studio.

As a studio, we'll be continuing to push forward. This is an exciting time for everybody in gaming, with the new generation of consoles coming soon. We'll definitely have more news on this soon.

We're looking forward to it. Thank you for your time.

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