Ready to battle it out in the gritty, back-alley world of urban magic? Become a powerful sorcerer and cast interactive spells with your own hands in The Unspoken.
A few weeks ago, pro esports players got a chance to try out The Unspoken at ESL One in New York. This week, we’ll demo The Unspoken at Intel Extreme Masters: Oakland. Make sure to check it out if you’re in the area. You can also download Silver TV from the Oculus Store to watch the action in VR.
Today, we’re excited to go behind the scenes with Chad Dezern, Insomniac North Carolina studio director.
How did you get into the game industry and end up developing The Unspoken?
Chad Dezern: My obsessions with book illustration, role playing games, and my Commodore 64 segued neatly into a career in game development. I joined Insomniac as an environment artist in 1998 and worked my way up. In 2008, Shaun McCabe and I opened Insomniac’s first expansion studio in Durham, North Carolina. We work with a disturbingly talented team, and most recently developed Edge of Nowhere for Oculus Rift.
For a long time, we wanted to create a game with an urban magic setting. We were intrigued by the atmospheric potential of a mysterious other world that sits just below the surface of a real location. We’d talk about this between projects, but we never quite got the idea off the ground mechanically. That changed when we got our hands on Touch. We knew immediately that we wanted to make a game about spellcasting with your bare hands.
What’s unique about designing for Touch?
CD: The sense of immersion with Touch is transformative, in a “you have to see this to believe it” way. We built The Unspoken around this.
We want you to feel like you’re tapping into your inner archmage as you fight in secret duels. You get to use natural hand movements—pointing, gripping, swiping—to cast gesture spells. You can also manipulate powerful artifacts by assembling, folding, and tracing glyphs. We put a lot of thought into how each spell felt—from igniting a fireball in your bare hand to levitating massive objects with your outstretched arms.
To make sure it felt amazing to cast spells, we had to take a lot into consideration. Take movement within the game setting. After a ton of prototypes, we chose a teleportation scheme that felt the most intuitive and mage-like: just point your finger where you want to go. When we prototyped different throw types, we initially modeled a physically accurate, baseball-like throw. But as it turns out, real-world accuracy doesn’t work well in a game that sets out to feel other-worldly. We ended up with a throw that balances skill and natural hand movement with supernatural levels of control over aiming. We actually shared some great lessons with Sanzaru (the VR Sports Challenge team); they gave us the sage advice that the player’s look direction is as important as the hand vector when modeling a throw. As a result, even former Commodore 64 hobbyists can throw like other-dimensional beings.
What specific insights can you provide on bringing a competitive game to life in VR?
CD: Your opponent’s avatar is controlled directly by the human player’s movements, so all of the little head and hand adjustments that you’d see in real life come across in the game. The result is an incredible sense of presence. You can see and feel what your opponent is doing.
We use that in the game extensively. It’s about casting, but it’s also about countering and choosing the right spell for a situation and performing it gracefully, while keeping a laser-focus on your opponent’s movements. We designed the game for depth and extensive replayability. There’s a high skill cap, but at the same time, we use matchmaking to ensure players duel against similarly experienced players. There are practice arenas, too, with AI opponents to give players a chance to hone their skills.
What’s your favorite gameplay element for The Unspoken, and how deep is the skill cap?
CD: We’ve put a lot of effort into making a game that’s fun to watch. There are surprising momentum shifts, epic escalating events, and thrilling last-minute victories. You can learn new tactics by watching other players. What’s the best counter for a volley of pyrotechnics? Is it better to use a guard gesture before casting a push spell? When’s the best time to reach for the Dispelling Censer? Spells have complex relationships with each other, some of which we’re still discovering ourselves.
To further elevate the competitive layers, The Unspoken is class-based. Each class has a unique play style. But we keep classes balanced so there isn’t a dominant strategy. It’s more about player preference. We playtest every day, and we gather data to back up our assumptions. We listen to our community of QA and beta testers and work hard to keep the game deep, responsive, and fair.
What challenges arose from VR that you didn’t expect?
CD: We were surprised by how much the experiential elements figured into a competitive game. When you think of competitive games, you think about the rules, the metagame, the drive to win. Given our console game heritage, we tend to design mechanics with very fast cause and effect—you shoot a rocket launcher, you see the explosion almost immediately.
But in VR, focus is everything. Your perceptions are heightened, so events can take time to unfold. Casting a spell can feel like crafting an experience for your opponent. Sure, you’re trying to dominate in the arena, climb the leaderboard, and perhaps even gloat about it, but in the process, you’re also enveloping your enemy in a fireworks show of arcane effects as you try to one-up each other with increasingly ludicrous spells!
Thanks to Chad for the spellbinding interview, and to Insomniac for the Touch launch magic!
— The Oculus Team