Pirates. Combat. An upgradeable ship. There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to this rip-roaring game offering a 20-chapter campaign which you can take on in solo or co-op mode plus a Plunder PvP deathmatch for two to 10 players. And it’s a title that’s been years in the making.
“Battlewake’s origin story actually begins before Survios was even Survios, back when Nathan Burba, Alex Silkin, Graham Matuszewski, and myself were developing prototype VR experiences at USC,” says Survios CCO and Co-Founder James Iliff. “One of our first active VR demos was Wild Skies, a cooperative multiplayer airship combat game. We always knew we wanted to revisit the concept of ship battles, and after we developed our Fluid Locomotion Technology with Sprint Vector and honed combat controls in CREED: Rise to Glory, we decided it was time.”
Codenamed Broadsides during development, the game began with a strong steampunk aesthetic, drawing inspiration from Treasure Planet. “The poster still hangs in our studio!” Iliff notes.
Originally, ship-based combat was only a small slice of the game’s overall scope, which included various factions, huge armadas, and core gameplay based on traversing long stretches of open sea spanning multiple biomes to activate puzzle towers. While the vision was awesome, the reality fell a bit flat. As Iliff explains, “We found it to have several drawbacks, with the main one being that it was boring—except for ship combat!”
Rather than burrowing further down the rabbit hole with their open-world concept, the team decided to pivot.
“Although we could have continued exploring the larger open-world direction, we a) had limited resources and b) knew that our ship combat gameplay was a heck of a lot of fun, so we made the choice to drill down on that,” says Iliff. “In revisiting the game’s narrative frame, it was universally agreed that the original multi-faction universe was a bit too massive to fit the game’s new focus (and bold, Sprint Vector-esque color palette). So we brought our captains down to Earth—New Urth, specifically!—and created our interpretations of good, old-fashioned plundering pirates, with our own spin being our quartet of mythical Pirate Lords: figures of yore and legend with killer superpowers!”
Borrowing from the same design principles that informed Raw Data, Survios imbued each of the four Pirate Lords with individual backstories and narrative arcs to complement their unique special and ultimate abilities and custom ships. And that’s just where the legendary tale of Battlewake begins.
We went straight to the source with Survios CCO and Co-Founder James Iliff to learn more.
In what ways does Battlewake build upon your earlier work in VR? How does it deviate from your previous games?
James Iliff: Battlewake marks Survios’s first venture into vehicular locomotion and combat in VR, building upon the locomotion technologies we created for Sprint Vector and CREED: Rise to Glory to simulate the tumultuous thrills of sailing on choppy seas without triggering nausea. We also got to build a super cool Reactive Water System that dynamically changes with all the explosions and crashes and tidal waves generated by your battles. It’s especially fun to sink into the depths, even though that’s not the ideal scenario.
The chapter-based story campaign was new territory for us, because we crafted custom storylines for each Pirate Lord, interweaving them into an overall narrative arc, culminating in some epic boss battles along the way. The dialogue system is also a new implementation, expanding from prior work on Raw Data and Sprint Vector.
Who did you work with on the soundtrack and overall sound design? What was that experience like?
JI: When I sat down with Jeremy Nathan Tisser to craft the direction for the music, I knew we were going to bring a whole new experience to the pirate genre. Jeremy has already proven he's an unrivaled soundsmith when it comes to the unique challenge of scoring virtual reality games. Having developed a variety of synth, metal, and orchestral approaches for our prior collaboration, Raw Data, I knew we had a strong foundation to mashup styles and bring a pulse-pounding, blood-pumping, kick-ass music experience to Battlewake.
Starting with our visual variety as a basis, Jeremy crafted individual soundtracks for Caribbean, Jungle, Arctic, and Volcanic environments into an absolute rush of a score, each evoking a different timbre and culture unique to the region. His knowledge of obscure instruments was profoundly useful, allowing us to craft this genre-bending Battlewake composition into a siren song for the fierce and epic freedom of the pirate's life. We hope it will become the musical backdrop for many a pirate-themed D&D campaign. :)
The illustrious and extremely talented Shane Kniep, co-founder of the Game Audio Network Guild, worked with our audio team to create the unique atmosphere and dynamic environmental soundscapes for the world of Battlewake. That, combined with the sounds of the rush of battle (cannon fire, axe fire, massive storms and volcanic eruptions, and so on), really brought this title to new heights from a sound perspective.
What informed the art style and direction for Battlewake?
JI: Many of our early inspirations came from pirate genre mashups, such as Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Treasure Planet, some Atlantean lore, and Steampunk culture, among many other sources—it’s basically an amalgamation of so many nerd things, our collective heads would explode. We wanted to craft a world that was at least several levels of epic above what you would expect from a seafaring combat game. We wanted the world to bend your mind, hence creating a wide variety of environmental biomes, both on the surface of the planet, and then actually inside the subterranean inner earth. There’s some definite Jules Verne homages in there. As the product gained more focus, we narrowed our environmental biomes to the tropical Sea of Enso, the arctic Lupin Expanse, and then traced Admiral Bird’s flight path through the top of the planet into the subterranean Totec Mire, and finally into the fiery seat of the desired Throne of Shambhala, in the volcanic Ashen Ring.
Once the world was sufficiently established, everything rolled out from there. We crafted individual characters, once again starting with eight wide-pass concepts, and narrowing down to our four favorites, each a satisfying cross section of culture, ethnicity, gender, and creature. From this sprung the visual aesthetics of our final ship designs, the visual effects for the mighty superpowers, and ultimately the final look and feel of the Battlewake brand. It was a massive iterative effort between all our departments, and we are very excited about the end result.
Oh! And Andromalius, your narrator and companion, was actually based on a real demon of the same name, from the Lesser Key of Solomon. There, Andromalius has dominion of the waves and consorts with thieves, so make of that what you will. Having a demon as our featured character has also resulted in our QA department declaring Battlewake to be haunted. (Well, to be specific, it was a bugged build where Andromalius greeted you talking backwards in an unusually deep voice, but it makes for a good yarn when one of your QA leads tears off his headset, declares “Game’s haunted,” and just leaves the room.)
Survios has built a name for itself by incorporating new tech into each of its games. What can you tell us about Battlewake’s innovations to combat motion sickness on the high seas?
JI: Battlewake’s Immersive Vehicle System creates a nausea-free vehicle locomotion experience through a two-pronged approach: the physical/virtual playspace and smooth, fluid vehicle movement and momentum.
What’s the best reaction you’ve seen while demoing the game?
JI: It’s basically impossible not to stand like you’re on a ship while playing it. Watching players plant their feet while dipping and bending with the simulated pitches of the ship never gets old. And we’ve yet to have someone not grin with mad glee upon using Rev’s ultimate power and watching a huge Kraken burst from the depths.
Why pirates? (“Why not?” is obviously an acceptable answer here...)
JI: When we were exploring a subject for our next original IP, “pirates” received universal acclaim internally. It’s impossible not to seize the opportunity to create our own take on this swashbuckling classic, especially when you get the chance to actually become a badass Pirate Lord who can command a Kraken, or summon a tsunami to smash a ship, or have the coolest-looking skeleton hands in VR. It’s that childlike wonder and sense of fun that we’re always aiming to capture, and pirates seem to evoke that in pretty much everyone.
Any future updates or promotions related to Battlewake that you’re able to share?
JI: Alas, I must keep some secrets sealed in the Boatman’s footlocker, but I can say to keep an eye on September 19: Talk Like a Pirate Day! We’ve got a cool community event in the works that we’ve never done before, and we think the V-ARRRRRR community will be stoked to participate (sorry, had to!).
What’s next for you? Any exciting projects in the works?
JI: Late last month, we surprise-dropped our narrative VR title Westworld: Awakening for the Rift Platform. For the past 18 months, our devs worked in close partnership with HBO and Kilter Films to create an original story and in-game world that are incredibly true to the show, and we’re really proud of the evocative, first-person narrative immersion we’ve achieved.
And what’s something people love as much, if not more, than pirates? Zombies—and aspiring hunters and fans of the AMC hit The Walking Dead will have The Walking Dead Onslaught to look forward to soon! We demoed it at Gamescom 2019 in its inaugural VR showcase and players reported feeling “deeply satisfied” with the gory, responsive combat, so we hope it’s a worthy entry into the VR horror genre.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
JI: Thanks for believing in us and following our games for all these years. We love the VR/XR community and are driven every day to create novel games and experiences that blow people’s minds. We can’t wait to hear everyone’s thoughts on Battlewake and appreciate your support and feedback!
Thanks for the amazingly in-depth interview, James! We can’t wait to see what Survios has up its collective sleeves for International Talk Like a Pirate Day...
Mark your calendars for September 19, and storm the seven seas with Battlewake on the Rift Platform today!