Hailed by Tom’s Guide as “VR stealth done right” and named Best of Show for E3 2019 by UploadVR, Espire 1: VR Operative from Digital Lode and Tripwire Interactive launched today on Oculus Quest and the Rift Platform. But it’s a story that stretches back to 2016.
“Development of Espire was spurred on by an episode of the UploadVR Presence podcast in 2016,” recalls Game Director Michael Wentworth-Bell. “In that episode, a listener asked, ‘Why aren’t there any realistic stealth games in VR?’ I was transfixed by this question and began planning and development of what would become Espire.”
Fast forward to early 2017, when Wentworth-Bell’s short teaser video showcasing an early prototype was covered by UploadVR after being upvoted on Reddit—and ultimately caught the attention of Tripwire Interactive Community Manager Jared Creasy, who showed it to President John Gibson. “This was the start of a mentorship that has turned into a deep friendship, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and a publishing deal,” Wentworth-Bell says.
Espire 1 started out as a solo project, which meant all-nighters and a lot of learning.
“I come from a completely different industry, offline 3D animation, where you’re rendering one frame every 90 minutes, not 90 frames per second,” Wentworth-Bell explains. “This shift to real-time, immersive interactive design was a huge seismic shift but extremely exciting. When John Gibson asked for a game design document, I would spend all weekend scrambling to make one and put it together. When he asked for an NDA, I would google what that meant and try to get a template from my friends.”
Thanks to the help of Gibson along with Wentworth-Bell’s friends and a few other key mentors, a small team began forming around the project, while outside investment including funding from Film Victoria allowed development to continue toward a vertical slice. “This was our test as a young team to see if we could execute on our game design within budget and an established timeframe,” Wentworth-Bell says. “The end product also had to run at 90FPS on VR’s minimum spec PC. This was a very big undertaking, but we established our core team, codebase, mechanics, and production pipeline and helped build Tripwire’s confidence that we could deliver the full game.”
Today, the dream of Espire 1 comes to fruition. We sat down with Wentworth-Bell to learn more.
What’s the elevator pitch for Espire 1?
Michael Wentworth-Bell: Whenever our team speaks about Espire, we always try to pitch it as “GoldenEye 007 meets Metal Gear Solid in VR.” For me personally, these are my absolute favorites and huge inspirations for Espire. I was inspired by GoldenEye for so many reasons beyond the game itself. Like Espire, it was developed by a small team, and for many of them, it was their first commercial project. With GoldenEye, the team was also trying to create a 3D f for a console generation that was unlike any before it, trying to make this FPS fun with an analog stick controller. That has been a huge inspiration for me as we tried to build our game.
As gamers who are enamored with VR, our game design process involves asking how we can take cool mechanics and translate them into VR. Can we do it in a unique way that requires positionally-tracked head and hands? This is how we developed ideas like Espire’s detachable “hand cameras” and the “repair tool.” When Espire is damaged, you need to grab the repair tool off your chest and physically fix up the impact points on your body.
How has the game changed over time?
MWB: There’s only been a few things that have really changed over time. Our original scope for each mission was to have the difficulty level drastically alter the mission objectives and level layout, much like the games we’ve been inspired by. In the end, though, it meant that three difficulty settings for a mission would necessitate three times as much work per mission, and this is a feature we had to cut back on. Another thing that changed was the technical challenge. We started out focusing on Rift, but now support all VR platforms, with Oculus Quest as our personal favorite. Supporting a device like Quest necessitated complete rewrites of much of the game’s codebase, but it was the perfect opportunity to revisit and evolve existing mechanics as we went through this process.
How did you get the look and feel just right?
MWB: This was an aspect of the game that took a while to come together. For a long time, Espire was developed by only a handful of people, and when we grew to two handfuls of people, we finally began to form a visual identity for the title. Nearly everyone on the team was involved with this, but the main drivers were Level Designer Alex Floate, Art Lead Darren Wallace, and 3D Lead Alf Kuhlmann.
What about the core mechanics?
MWB: Many core mechanics were developed during the prototype stage and evolved further when Tripwire funded our vertical slice in 2018. Some of the core team members were spread out across the globe, so we actually workshopped our unique mechanics like “repairing the robot,” “hand cameras,” “Espire Vision,” and “quick reloading” inside VR! We used Facebook Spaces and were able to demonstrate how we wanted these mechanics to work. I’ve never met our narrative lead in real life, but I know how tall he is thanks to the early mechanics meetings we had in VR.
Any cultural references players should be on the lookout for?
MWB:M We have been extremely lucky to have Dr. Doak, one of the developers of GoldenEye 007, cameo in Espire! Dr. Doak appears as part of a mission objective in the game’s campaign. If you’re a fan of GoldenEye, we hope you enjoy seeing Dr. Doak again. Beyond his cameo, he helped a tremendous amount with game feedback and as a mentor.
Espire is set in Australia, developed by a primarily Australian team with a lot of the cast voiced by Aussies. Our narrative lead is in Glasgow. We hope you will enjoy (and not get annoyed by) these influences sewn throughout the game!
What’s the best reaction you’ve seen so far when demoing the game?
MWB: The absolute best moment we had was seeing John Romero play Espire at E3 2019. Watching one of the inventors of the FPS genre let off his trademark laugh while blasting around base dual-wielding weapons or knocking out enemies to then throw them into large rubbish pits was an extremely surreal moment for us.
We’ve had many opportunities to demo the game in 2019: GDC, E3, Gamescom, PAX West, PAX Aus. It’s been so exciting to see people ask, “Can I do this?” and discovering they can.
What influenced the character design and overall art direction?
MWB: We have taken inspiration from all types of entertainment that we grew up on. I think chiefly, Neill Blomkamp’s movies (Chappie, District 9, Elysium) and other sci-fi movies like The Terminator, Alien, and 2011’s Source Code were major inspirations not only visually, but with their narratives. Darren Wallace was the sole designer of all Espire-related equipment in the game.
Who did you work with on the soundtrack and sound design? What was that experience like?
MWB: The soundtrack was created by a childhood friend of mine, Christopher Lisati. We’ve worked together on multiple video and animation projects for over 15 years, and Chris is incredible at translating a bunch of scribbled notes into the perfect music sequence. Like our favorite stealth games, Espire’s soundtrack reacts to the player’s actions, increasing in tension as enemies get closer to detecting the player. Chris had heaps of fun and creative control while creating the various musical variations for every game level.
For our Espire release trailer, Tripwire gave us the unbelievable opportunity to work with Daniel James, who composed the soundtrack for Metal Gear Solid V! Daniel seems keen to collaborate with us again in the next iteration for Espire, and we’re trying to get our jaws off the floor in response to that.
We also had a guest appearance by the insanely talented Steve Whetman (Hitman 2, Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, Wolfenstein II) who created sound effects for Espire’s signature moves—Espire Vision (x-ray) and Espire Instinct (slo-mo). This, and many of the other great collaborations including Dr. Doak, were made possible thanks to Rob Yescombe, who was impressed by our game at E3 2019 and has since then given a lot of support and direction on audio, narrative, and game design.
The rest of the game’s SFX were handled by Kpow Audio here in Melbourne and with the help of Tripwire’s audio directors.
What’s your favorite part of the game and why?
MWB: For the majority of the team, it would have to be our leaderboard and scoring system. This is designed to push your playstyle and creativity. Every single thing Espire does in the game costs the Australian Government money. At the end of the mission, you’re shown your expenditure, and depending on how you play, a cost of $660M is not uncommon. To make things interesting, we have three leaderboards:
Another thing we love about the game is the cheats. We’ve fit 21 cheats into the title, and they’re all inspired by the ’90s, where every game seemed to have the most ridiculous cheats. You can enable a bunch at a time, such as Zero Gravity (Echo VR inspired), Tiny Espire (where the player is 60cm tall), and Neutron Bullets (where bullets apply 100x force on impact sending guards flying), and have a ripper time. You could also apply many anti-cheats such as One Hit Kills Player, Army Men (where guards are 60cm tall), Turbo Mode (the whole game plays at 3x speed), and Bullet Sponges (where guards have 5x as much health) for the ultimate challenge.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
MWB: We’re a small team that’s had big ambitions to create the VR game of our dreams. We’re indebted to our friends and family, our publisher Tripwire Interactive, and Film Victoria for giving us the chance to make this a reality! We’ve poured our heart and soul into this game for three years. We hope it strikes a chord with gamers looking to live out their stealth action fantasies in VR. We hope we can form a community around the game and continue to develop it for many years into the future.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Michael. We can’t wait for the Oculus community to get hands-on with the game.