Monsters, mystery, and medieval mayhem collide in the latest title from Sólfar Studios. The team behind critically-acclaimed Everest VR is back with In Death, a procedurally-generated VR shooter that combines stunning visuals with roguelike elements—now available on Rift!
We sat down with Sólfar Studios Co-Founder Thor Gunnarsson for the inside scoop on this unique vision of the afterlife.
What games did you draw inspiration from for In Death?
Thor Gunnarsson: We’re big fans of the classic roguelikes like Rogue Legacy, Enter the Gungeon, and Darkest Dungeon, but also dungeon crawlers and action RPGs like Dark Souls, Diablo, and Path of Exile. And, of course, we’re informed by earlier games we worked on like sci-fi MMO EVE Online, which is known for being just a little bit punishing.
Why did you decide to incorporate roguelike elements in a VR shooter?
TG: When we were thinking about our first VR game, we felt the community was ready for a core game with high replay value—an experience you could jump into for an intense 20 minutes or for hours on end (as many of our closed beta testers have been doing over the past few weeks). We knew that we wanted to develop an intense first-person action game, but also that it should have that arcade sensibility that ramps the difficulty up once you’ve mastered the core mechanics of the game. As such, the roguelike genre was super attractive to us, with its hallmarks of permadeath, procedurally-generated worlds, and high-stakes runs where death has consequences—so no save points! At the same time, we wanted to develop a core game loop supported by a deep achievement-based progression system that gradually unlocked new gameplay options and greater challenges for the player from one playthrough to the next.
How does In Death differentiate itself from similar titles on the market?
TG: If we had to point to one unique point of differentiation, it would have to be how In Death integrates your combat stance with your movement mechanic. In our first playable prototype in late 2016, you had a bow, a shield, and two types of arrows—one arrow to kill enemies with and one arrow to teleport with.
The “a-ha” moment came when we realized how impactful and rewarding it was to weave these simple mechanics together to beat tough situations. Since the player only moved once the teleport arrow made impact, it meant that they had a moment to block, retaliate, or ready their next arrow while the teleport arrow was still in the air. Upon a successfully aimed teleport, a skillful player could already be lined up perfectly for the next shot when the movement happened to score a point-blank headshot in the back of their enemy’s skull. On the other hand, a poorly aimed teleport arrow could trap the player in hellish situations. We think that tight integration of combat and movement is pretty cool and can’t wait to get some player feedback on it.
But you didn’t stop there. How did you build out your ideal locomotion system?
TG: We don’t pretend to have cracked that design challenge fully. Some players experience no discomfort with free movement, while others might feel ill—as a game developer, we need to cater to both extremes. Smooth locomotion is an additional movement option that you can switch on in our game, and we think it compliments the underlying teleport arrow and shard, which remain available to players using Touch even though they may prefer smooth locomotion. We’re continuing to iterate on smooth locomotion, and though it’s flagged as an “experimental feature” in the game settings, we feel pretty good about the current implementation. That said, we would love community feedback on it during our Early Access phase.
What’s the craziest reaction you’ve seen from someone playing the game?
TG: Screaming, cowering, testers breaking our VR rigs—and then demanding to go again. From our closed beta, which we’ve been running since mid-December, probably the craziest thing we’ve seen are the run durations for some of our top 10 players on the global leaderboard. One of those top 10 scores was the result of a single six-hour play session. We didn’t even think that was possible when we set out to make this game. Maybe it’s not hard enough yet?
How did you transition from a title like Everest VR to In Death?
TG: When we founded Sólfar in late 2014, we were working on multiple prototypes for our first VR project. As luck would have it, our friends down the street in Reykjavik at RVX were working on the visual effects for the Hollywood film Everest. They had created an amazing digital model of Mount Everest, and after some R&D and technical tests in Unreal, we determined that we could bring the mountain to VR—in real-time and with visual fidelity that we felt would allow us to create a wonderful first-time experience of VR that would appeal to a broad set of first-timers. Everest VR also afforded our studio the opportunity to arguably achieve deep immersion visually and to experiment with some of the ways in which interface design contributes to that elusive sense of presence.
But at heart, we’re game developers, with many people on our team having worked in the games industry (for probably too long) as MMO, mobile, and console developers. We love core games, and once we felt we had mastered the art and science of achieving immersion visually and at 90hz, it was high time to get one of our game prototypes into full production and prove to ourselves that we could make the style of game we love playing—hence the transition from a casual, visually impressive experience like Everest VR to a core, arcade roguelike game like In Death.
What do you love most about developing games for VR, and what unique challenges have you faced?
TG: For us, the initial challenges were probably similar to many developers coming from the AAA PC or console space. Timelines are short, budgets are smaller than you’re used to, but that’s kind of the point. Many of us came from large teams where we spent too much time in meetings, directing game development rather than rolling up our sleeves and making them again. That’s what we love most about VR—necessarily smaller teams, but the creative pay off or epic fail comes sooner. Hopefully the former.
What best practices/lessons learned from Everest VR and In Death would you share with other VR developers?
TG: As a VR developer, disciplined development practices are everything. Stay on the main branch of your engine of choice, which in our case is Unreal Engine. VR development is hard enough without branching off mainline into flights of coding fancy to get one more cool visual effect into your game. Stay focused during development, and test constantly for performance, beauty and fun. Then you can't go wrong.
How would you describe a day-in-the-life at Sólfar Studios?
TG: Right now at the end of January in Iceland, a day-in-the-life feels incredibly short—about five hours long to be precise. The rest of the time, we toil in darkness. The long winters are actually one theory for why game development is a thing in Reykjavik. It’s a way of staying out of the harsh conditions up here. So we went ahead and a made a harsh game. Go figure.
Thanks for shedding some light on Sólfar’s production process, Thor. We can’t wait to see how the game continues to evolve on the march toward full release.
We’ll meet you on the other side.
— The Oculus Team