There are a number of VR titles with their share of mystery but if there’s anything that gives us the vibe of Dennis Kelly’s Utopia, it would be nDreams’ The Assembly. The story involves a mysterious organization called The Assembly working in the shadows and seemingly holding a number of secrets. From the perspective of its two protagonists, the game will seek to answer whether the ends justify the means (along with explaining what exactly is going on).
GamingBolt had a chance to speak to senior designer Jackie Tetley and code department manager Richard Fabian about The Assembly including challenges facing its narration, its uniqueness with so many first person VR titles in the market and working across multiple VR devices.
"The game’s story revolves around The Assembly, an enigmatic collective that has hidden itself from the world so as to conduct its experiments outside the constraints of government scrutiny and society’s morals."
Making the leap from Wonderbook to The Assembly is interesting. What prompted the decision and what was it about The Assembly‘s concept that was so enamouring?
I’m afraid that we didn’t develop Wonderbook, so we can’t really answer this question. For info on what drew us to the gane’s themes, please check out this blog on our website: Building the Foundations of The Assembly
What can you tell us about the story for The Assembly and how personal it is, despite the different character standpoints?
The game’s story revolves around The Assembly, an enigmatic collective that has hidden itself from the world so as to conduct its experiments outside the constraints of government scrutiny and society’s morals. As a series of seemingly unconnected events threatens to put The Assembly’s very existence on the line, two individuals – each with their own perspectives and motivations – are offered a chance to shape its future. Cal, the long-term member, uncovers a troubling conspiracy, while Madeleine, the new initiate, faces a challenging introduction to The Assembly. For better or worse, the near-impossible choices they both face will transform not just their own lives, but also shake the foundations of this secretive organisation.
Although the story is not a direct parallel for anyone’s experiences here (that I know of!), its exploration of scientific development and the laws affecting it definitely taps into a current trend. As a player, you also feel very personally engaged in the narrative due to the immersive nature of VR. You inhabit Cal and Madeleine, see through their eyes, and live through their experiences.
Of the many first person adventure titles heading to Oculus Rift (and other headsets), how would you best describe the main hook of The Assembly?
We are very much a narrative led title. We want the player to feel immersed in the story and the world of The Assembly. Our dual protagonists present the player with two different perspectives of the same organisation – how The Assembly wishes to be seen as well as its true face – while allowing them to explore and draw their own conclusions.
In addition, we’ve intentionally designed The Assembly to be a perfect introduction to VR, with pacing and environments designed to ease players into VR, without them feeling overwhelmed or inducing any adverse affects (i.e. simulator sickness).
"We’ve injected as much detail and life as possible into the world, to entice the player into unfolding not just the main plot, but also the various incidental story threads which give depth to The Assembly as an organisation."
What can you tell us about the gameplay and puzzle aspects? How difficult was it to craft unique scenarios that still fit within the realm of believability?
The Assembly are at the forefront of scientific development. However, narratively, they are a real world contemporary organisation, so all the puzzles and experiences you encounter are within the realms of the possible… although some may venture a little into fringe science! Due to the organisation’s secret nature and immense resources, along with their drive to develop new and unusual recruitment practices, meant we could have loads of fun creating really interesting and experiences for the player that still feel like they could happen.
What are the key differences in the two protagonists?
Madeleine is a potential new member. As such, The Assembly simultaneously wants to test and impress her. As Madeleine, you get to experience elaborately orchestrated puzzles in specially tailored spaces, facing widely varying challenges. Cal, on the other hand, is an established member of The Assembly. As Cal, you get to see behind the scenes and into the day-to-day life of The Assembly. You learn about the intriguing people who work there, the startling projects underway, and you gradually expose a mystery that reveals the darker side of The Assembly’s work.
From a practical perspective, the characters are different heights, which gives you a subtle yet noticeably different experience as you switch between them. And, of course, they have different voices, personalities and goals.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Assembly seems to be to take normal people (like the player) and place them in larger than life scenarios which extend beyond your typical action scene. From a gameplay standpoint, what aspects of immersion do you focus on to ensnare the player?
We plunge the player into a gripping narrative and an environment that just begs to be explored. We’ve injected as much detail and life as possible into the world, to entice the player into unfolding not just the main plot, but also the various incidental story threads which give depth to The Assembly as an organisation.
The real keyword for us is authenticity, not just in the environments, but also in the events which the player experiences – for example using natural and familiar ways to convey information such as conversations, computer terminals and phone calls rather than relying upon complex HUDs or menu screens. Even in Madeleine’s most elaborate trials and Cal’s most troubling moments, we maintain that human element which makes the story relatable, and keeps the player connected to the experience.
"As an exploration-focused title, it is also very much up to players how long the game lasts – it is very easy to get lured away from the main story by intriguing side discoveries!"
Is there a morality or karma system in the game, influencing player decisions or somewhat guiding them towards different play-styles?
We very much want the player to make up their own minds about The Assembly. We have avoided categorising choices or actions as good or bad, instead letting the player decide for themselves what they want to do in each situation, and where they draw the line.
Will there be multiple endings for The Assembly?
Yes! The endings which the player receives will be influenced not just by the decisions they make, but also by the way they play the game.
What length of time were you targeting for The Assembly? How did you effectively pace the story to offer a worthwhile experience without really padding anything?
We didn’t have a specific game length in mind when developing The Assembly. We knew we wanted to split it up into chapters, enabling players to take breaks as needed. Aside from this, to ensure the best experience possible, we let the story and gameplay dictate the length of the game. As an exploration-focused title, it is also very much up to players how long the game lasts – it is very easy to get lured away from the main story by intriguing side discoveries!
When can we expect The Assembly to release?
The Assembly will be coming out on Oculus Rift and HTC Vive this summer, and will release on PlayStation 4 following the launch of PlayStation VR.
The Assembly is coming out on all major VR platforms. What kind of differences can we expect from the Vive, Oculus and PSVR versions?
We are actually aiming to have as few differences as possible – we want players to have an equally great experience whichever platform they play on! To this end, The Assembly will be a seated, face-forward experience across all VR platforms.
"Any game that doesn’t hand off a frame of data 60 times a second is going to reduce the immersion. When that is reprojected up to 120hz, we get a lovely comfortable world to play in, so we’ve been on board with that decision right from the beginning."
PlayStation VR is the weaker but the cheapest VR headset that is going to be available on the market. Do you think visual fidelity will be somewhat compromised given that Rift and Vive are actually technically better headsets?
A lot of the best games are not going to be about precisely how may VR pixels we can fit in per frame, and this, frankly majority of VR games, are going to find a comfortable home on PSVR as much as they do on Rift and Vive. You’ve also got to remember that with increased pixel density, the PCs driving the Rift and Vive have to be even more powerful to achieve the same framerate guarantees, which might even lead to situations where the PSVR has the edge in comfortable viewing experience.
Roughly speaking, how powerful is the Oculus Rift or Vive is compared to PSVR?
When we talk technical specs, the PSVR is constantly considered as a less powerful machine, but it’s not really, it’s just different. At 120hz refresh on the screen, but fewer pixels, it’s a different beast, not a superior or inferior one.
What are your thoughts on PS4’s Graphics API and the possible changes that Sony’s GPU team may have done to it to support VR?
Anything we could say here would probably be NDA blocked, but I can say the Sony API group have made our lives a lot easier.
With the PS4 unlocking the 7th CPU core for developers, what kind of benefits this has resulted for the game?
I think the benefits are pretty obvious. We got more, we can use more, that means there is more for the player. For us, this has been the chance to add in more audio effects to push the binaural audio harder in VR.
Sony are pretty strict about rejecting any game that runs below 60fps on its VR headset. What kind of challenges this has bought while developing the game on the PS4?
Any game that doesn’t hand off a frame of data 60 times a second is going to reduce the immersion. When that is reprojected up to 120hz, we get a lovely comfortable world to play in, so we’ve been on board with that decision right from the beginning. The main challenge we have with frame rate has been one of consistency, as different areas of games run at different framerates, which is why we build in-house tools to check every area of the game to make sure we haven’t got some corner of the world that runs too slow to maintain the feeling of presence.
"Traditional console development, both triple-A and mobile, now seems to be driven entirely by marketing and customers demands. It seems that outside of indie studios, traditional development mostly boils down to profit directed development."
We have heard rumors that Sony may be launching an updated version of the PS4 with better specs. From a developer perspective and theoretically speaking do you think such an update could help on the VR front on PS4?
A move of this scale has many implications, both positive and negative. Market fragmentation is of particular concern to most developers; adding on another required platform for your QA can be costly. A new, higher power PS4 would be interesting, potentially leaving the Rift and Vive with no market, but nothing is set in stone until you have a unit on the shelf with a price tag attached. VR needs more games, though possibly not more hardware. Leaving the PS4 to have its highly accessible VR experience seems like a better plan for the future of VR, until we get new technology that changes VR, such as tetherless, or foveated rendering.
How does developing a game a traditional console differ from developing a game in VR?
Traditional console development, both triple-A and mobile, now seems to be driven entirely by marketing and customers demands. It seems that outside of indie studios, traditional development mostly boils down to profit directed development. In VR, there’s a lovely excitement about making games for the love of it again. We’re making games because we want them to be made, and for people to experience them. Because of this different drive, we spend more time thinking about mechanics for joy, experiences, fun, and spend more time experimenting.
This does mean we have a few projects started that we’re not going to finish, and some that we’re hanging on to until we have the time to take them further, instead of diving deep into a project only to surface once the product is in beta. It’s a good time to be a game developer again. The industry is about to change, and we’re at the forefront.
Is there anything else you want to tell us before we let you go?
There’s a lot yet to discover, and we’ll have more to share in the run-up to the game’s launch. In the meantime, keep an eye on The Assembly’s Facebook page, Pinterest board and YouTube playlist for the latest updates.
If you’d like to know more, you can also find us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, reach us on Reddit, or check out our YouTube channel for all our videos.