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On Pioneering Virtual Reality With Broken Window Studios

Developer Focus

On Pioneering Virtual Reality With Broken Window Studios

A tiny company of four, Broken Window Studios was founded in 2014 along with the Kickstarter campaign of the open-world survival horror game Grave by spouses Tristan and Aby Moore. Initially started as a Global Game Jam demo in 2013, the game had started to gather some interest, so the studio was born. With Grave still awaiting publication, Broken Window has put out an off-shoot named Grave VR which I think is a pretty self-explanatory title, going for a more action-focused experience. It has also produced the award-winning and charming-looking Reflections which is, as of this writing, in Early Access. With two games in development and a tiny team, they’re bound to have some interesting stories for us, so we caught up with co-founder Aby to hear more about their company.

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We began, as we often do, with the elevator pitch, the hiring hook. We asked to be convinced to join their studio and this is what Aby offered us in response: “Broken Window Studios has developed two successful IP’s, and has remained in control of development processes without the input from a publisher. We’ve developed relationships with Microsoft, Sony, Oculus and Valve, along with many others, allowing us to set the course and explore projects we feel would be interesting for players and that can also add to the variety Independent games bring to the table”. It’s always a challenge for small studios to remain independent, but thankfully, in this day and age, it’s becoming less of a problem.

Of course, for a studio of this size, some work ends up getting outsourced. Broken Window, Aby tells us, occasionally works with some great freelance professionals for things like character art or audio engineering. They’ve developed relationships mostly through networking locally and by staying in touch with former colleagues from their school years. “[…] if there is a good fit and similar work ethic or mutually beneficial goals, we’ve worked with those individuals.

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Reflections was well received on Steam after its release in 2015

With both Grave and Reflections in development and Grave‘s VR spin-off out, work can tend to get a bit hectic at the studio. However, juggling between titles adds a bit of excitement, according to Aby: “The organisation is tight, but it keeps the team enthusiastic to see so much progress happening across the board; it feels like a lot is happening in a small development studio – It’s energizing!”. Excitement or not, Reflections’ upcoming full release is bound to feel like a bit of a relief.

It’s at this point that we usually ask studios if they occasionally end up crunching time. We’ve gotten varying levels of admission to this from past studio’s we’ve interviewed, but Aby was very upfront about it when we inquired about their release schedule: “This has been something we’ve had to adjust over the course of the Studios life; We initially had very ambitious goals in terms of deadlines and output, but we experienced a change in team members and setbacks in development that have held up the planned release dates, specifically Grave. As a Studio, we’ve had to constantly be flexible in terms of release dates, because we promise to only deliver games that demonstrate, effectively, the things we feel are important. A key area for us is player agency. We want to make sure that the games we release now and further down the road demonstrate this in their gameplay- We want the player to have an effective, varied and personal experience with our games. That being said, Grave VR had a fixed deadline and release and we crunched for around 3 weeks to release, with a 6-day delay.“. Definitely not an ideal situation to find one’s self in, but we appreciated the honesty.

Barring any major setbacks, Reflections and Grave will be out soon, and with that, the fine folks at Broken Window will have to look to the future. We, therefore asked what the future held for them, in their opinion, “We would love to expand the team if there is a good match there. We have a lot of games planned and the ability to bring on different skillsets will just achieve more from the potential that we feel the studio and its projects have. We have plans for an AI directed narrative, an ode to Tristan’s love of Metal Gear with a stealth game and also a revisit to another old title that we have shelved.“. Ok, no joke: “AI-directed narrative” sounds like an amazing concept, so here’s us rooting for the studio.

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Grave VR

During 2016 Broken Window’s work was featured at various shows, with Reflections showcasing at the Blobal VR Challenge at ChinaJoy in Shanghai where it won first place and the Tokyo Game Show in Japan. “Being able to put the games in front of audiences like that and really see how people respond to them is so valuable and incredibly rewarding. We’re able to test the designs and gameplay on projects that are still in development, so more people can benefit from iterations, with the goal of the games reaching, and satisfying a wider audience. This applies internationally as well. It’s also a great experience meeting other developers from around the world at these events.

2016 was definitely a challenging year for Broken Window with what Aby tells us felt like very slow progress. “ We’ve had a lot of soul searching and tests of faith that ultimately resulted in a difficult part of Reflections development being resolved and with Grave VR as a release that we had otherwise not planned on doing this year, so yes, you could say it has exceeded our expectations. We’ve seen a huge amount of progress in the second half of this year, feeding both Grave (and Grave VR) and Reflections, which has definitely meant that we’ve built momentum and we’re looking to see that work and development really pay off next year, for Broken Window.” Thankfully they were able to get over that rut and while they weren’t willing to disclose release dates just yet, Aby did tell us that with the help of experimentation and feedback from Kickstarter backers they now have a Grave release for all three major platforms.

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We usually ask studios a question about a possible delve into VR, but this time around, Broken Window was one step ahead of us with Grave VR so they were able to share more than optimistic enthusiasm or scepticism with us. With that being said, I’ll leave the next few paragraphs to Aby, her being the bonafide expert on the matter: “VR and immersive game play is something Broken Window Studios has been hugely interested in since the release of the Oculus DK1. We’ve wanted to see how this integration can really add to the experience overall, so making a VR specific release for Grave felt like the right move to make. We are keen to see how VR evolves and how we can utilise this technology to create a more fulfilling game experience.

As for issues encountered, there were a handful of those, as can be expected: “A polarising issue is player movement! We’ve had to have conviction in our production decisions because it seems that what works for a large number of people, is not enjoyed by another large number of people. The decisions we made about how the progress through Grave VR in terms of movement were based on both how we wanted to set the pace and from the direct feedback we’ve seen from players becoming disoriented or just not connecting with the experience.

We also asked for her opinions on not only emergent VR but also 4K gaming entering the console market via the .5 generations of the PS4 and Xbox One: “There’s a lot of mixed opinions about whether VR is going to become a major part of how we progress in terms of development as an industry, and obviously there are other areas with appeal like AR. It’s reassuring that Sony are now joining the market with PSVR, plus the huge amount of R&D that Valve has contributed, along with the Oculus Rift- It’s promising that VR is being explored. With consoles becoming more powerful, artists are able to create more impressive assets, with realistic lighting, which means players have a richer and more representational experience compared to early video games. It feels like we’re rapidly approaching a peak for the amount of visual fidelity games can achieve, so development branching into alternative ways of interfacing with the game and new ways of experiencing games is pretty unexplored by comparison. That’s super exciting and as a studio, we’re keen to see where the next few years leads us.“. We definitely do live in interesting times, uncertain as they may be.

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In terms of inspiration, Aby confessed to us that they admire Valve talks at Steam Dev Days. “They really do hire some very experienced and intelligent people who are working on back-end development, as well as full releases and maintenance of Steam. They strive for excellence in many fields, particularly evident in their work with VR. That level of knowledge and experience being utilized and valued within a company like Valve is definitely something to try and emulate.“. As for games they like to play to relax, there’s a wide array of titles they play, with VR titles being used for fun as well as research, but the classics seem to be the most effective when trying to unwind. Specifically, Aby named Zelda and Metal Gear 2 for us.

We appreciate the time taken by Aby from what sounds like a very busy schedule in order to talk to us and we wish them nothing but the very best of luck with their current and future projects. Because I, personally, want to see what AI-directed narrative looks like.

Profile photo of Paul Policarp

Paul is mainly a PC Gamer with an affinity for interesting or unique gameplay styles or mechanics. He prefers a good story and engaging gameplay over polygons, and frame rates. He's also going to make a game one day, just you watch. Just as soon as he gets some time. Any day now.

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