When it first launched for PSVR a couple years ago, sci-fi horror roguelike The Persistence was met with great reception from critics and audiences alike. As is the case with most VR games though, it was limited by the hardware’s smaller install base. Now, however, developers Firesprite have turned their game into a non-VR experience and brought it to all active platforms in the industry- and the results are interesting. Curious to know about the process of taking a VR game and turning it into a non-VR one and what changes they had to make in the process, we recently conducted an interview with the developers of The Persistence. You can read our conversation with game director Stu Tilley below.
NOTE: This interview was conducted prior to the game’s launch.
"The Persistence was exclusive to PlayStation for a period of time, but having such favorable feedback from players and reviewers was a crucial factor in deciding to bring the game to a much wider audience."
When The Persistence first came out, it was met with great reception on the whole, with particular praise being given to its strong atmosphere. That, of course, is something its VR-centric nature was hugely responsible for. In dropping VR, how have you ensured that the game retains that strong atmosphere and sense of place?
This was one of the key questions we asked ourselves when making the decision to bring the game to consoles and PC. We were 100% insistent that the game had to be full of tension and scares as this is part of the fun of the game! We had additional horsepower available in non-VR, so we were able to look at lighting and post processing effects to create really atmospheric environments and tailor those to the various platforms. If you couple that with the excellent sound design and music from the original VR release which really added to the sense of dread and foreboding as you made your way through the decks of the somewhat doomed starship, we felt confident that we could deliver an experience that was worthy of the original. One thing we would like to clarify is that we haven’t dropped VR in this massive update; The Persistence is coming to the all major VR platforms on PC too! We’re really happy to bring the game to as many players as possible.
Was it always the plan for you to eventually release a non-VR version of The Persistence, or was it something you only started considering once the game had released and was out in the hands of players?
We had always believed that the core stealth and action gameplay, the ‘live-die-repeat’ gameplay loop, and atmospheric setting should still be able to make a brilliant and unique sci-fi horror game irrespective of the platform the game was released on. The Persistence was exclusive to PlayStation for a period of time, but having such favorable feedback from players and reviewers was a crucial factor in deciding to bring the game to a much wider audience.
How much adjusting and rebalancing have you had to do for the game to ensure a smooth transition from VR to non-VR gameplay?
It has been something we’ve worked really hard on as it wasn’t as easy as one would think! Adjustment has mainly been in the areas of visuals, controls and UI. Our goal was to maintain parity between VR and non-VR for the players, so a lot of the work involved was around rebalancing controls, movement, environmental and combat interactions along with UI elements and presentation. For example, some of the VR controls were based on a “look at” system based on player head tracking in VR which we had to unhook. We also had to redesign UI elements so that they were tuned for non-VR interactions as we have a lot more virtual space to play with in VR, so we had to redesign these areas to fit a flatscreen area.
"We set ourselves a lofty goal at the start of level development of “a procedurally generated ship that feels hand crafted.” It turns out this is a massively difficult thing to actually achieve!"
The duality of scripted horror and procedurally generated environments both having a big role to play in The Persistence is an interesting one- how does the game maintain a balance between those two while ensuring that the two elements don’t feel like they’re clashing with one another?
We set ourselves a lofty goal at the start of level development of “a procedurally generated ship that feels hand crafted.” It turns out this is a massively difficult thing to actually achieve!
We implemented the procedural level creation system as early as possible in development and we continued to iterate and polish it throughout to get that balance right. We made sure that the designers had all variables to do with the level generation, enemy and item population at their fingertips, enabling them to iterate and test it as much as possible.
Each deck needs to have a believable flow to it, you can’t have a scientist’s bedroom connected directly to a mining facility! As such, a deck would have an agreed flow, for example it might start in the Personal quarters, then journey though recreational, and relaxation areas before reaching functional areas that give a sense of progression but also make that journey believable.
Over the top of the procedural generation we then layered in a few hand-crafted areas – such as the IRIS room on deck 1 – which allowed us to add in the key story beats where we were confident the game would benefit as a whole.
The Persistence’s sci-fi horror setting gives off strong Dead Space and Alien vibes- how much of an influence did those two – or other similar media properties – have on you during development?
Both Dead Space and Alien are very close to our hearts, and both influenced us in terms of gameplay, visual style and audio design – as did classics like System Shock. But the influences are varied and broad – we are sci-fi geeks as the end of the day!
We have strived to carve out own niche in the genre, adding new twists with the roguelike loop in a high production values game, and bringing other players in to the action with the companion app (available for Android or iOS devices), where you can have your friends help or hinder the action!
With this re-release, are you also taking the opportunity to rework or fix any issues that may have been brought to your attention by players or critics when the game first launched?
We updated the game a number of times in the past to fix feedback we have received from players and critics, but bringing the game over to other controllers caused us a number of issues which needed addressing for this release. With all the sticks on the controllers being very different – in terms of the dead spot, the range of travel, and accuracy of data we have had to make individual modifications for each platform to get the authentic experience.
For those who will be experiencing the game for the first time, roughly how long is an average playthrough of the game?
Typically, a playthrough tends to be 8-10 hours, but it we have found that it can vary quite significantly as the game is pretty challenging. A point of pride within the dev team is being able to go from new game to end credits in less than 1 hour! Speedrunners, take note.
"Both Dead Space and Alien are very close to our hearts, and both influenced us in terms of gameplay, visual style and audio design – as did classics like System Shock. But the influences are varied and broad – we are sci-fi geeks as the end of the day!"
Obviously, having a non-VR version of the game means that more people get to experience it- do you think that barrier of entry is one of the biggest challenges the VR medium faces?
I think the beauty of VR is that if offers some entirely brand-new game experiences for players, and it’s up to individuals to decide if they want to invest in the hardware to give them these all new adventures. There are plenty of cost-effective ways to experience VR and decide if it’s for you.
The concern that nausea might be an issue is something that developers have been increasingly good at reducing or eliminating for players, through clever implementation or the style of games which we make. In The Persistence, we were insistent that the character movement would be familiar to lovers of FPS games, so we spent a solid year working on creative methods to reduce motion sickness – which I think we did a tremendous job at. Not all our experiments were successful though, at one point we gave the player a 3D ‘nose’ to try to help ground you in the game, but people just thought it was weird!
If you were to recommend one of The Persistence’s two versions to someone who has access to both, which one would you pick? Would you say the game retains all its strengths to the same degree as what it delivered in VR?
I think it depends on your playstyle as to which version you should try. The game was designed to give you regular opportunities to take a break and to come back for another push. In VR the game is a little bit more intense, so you might want to enjoy that for a shorter time than if you were to play on console/PC.
We think the game is great fun either way, and with VR being optional on platforms which support it, you can continue you save game progress in regular or VR play!
Will the game will feature Xbox One X and PS4 Pro-specific enhancements? Is 4K/60 FPS on the cards?
Yes, we’re pleased to say that the game runs at 4k/60fps in Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro hardware and we have enhanced lighting, post processing and VFX for those platforms.
"We think the game is great fun either way, and with VR being optional on platforms which support it, you can continue you save game progress in regular or VR play!"
How is the game running on the original Xbox One and PS4, in terms of frame rate and resolution?
The game runs at 1080p/60fps on the original Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in non-VR. It was very well optimized when we developed it for VR.
What are the docked and undocked resolution and frame rate of the Switch version?
On the Nintendo Switch platform, it runs in 720p at 30fps undocked and in 1080p docked with a variable resolution to ensure the 30fps is constant. The Nintendo Switch version looks incredible – we have pushed to get the visual quality as close to the original PlayStation 4 release as we can.
Given that next-gen consoles are right around the corner, have you given any thought to next-gen ports for the game?
Of course, we’d love to look at this, but we’re focused on this release right now. Watch this space!