While VR isn’t exactly new, it’s fair to say with the launch of PlayStation VR this week that the medium just made its first big push into the mainstream. There’s a lot of buzz in the air right now, and all eyes are on creators to prove that this isn’t going to be another fad which goes the way of motion controls and 3D. For several years now, Perth-based developers Stirfire Studios have been dabbling with VR, starting out two years ago with an Oculus DK2/Kinect tech demo for a previously commissioned project. At PGF this year, however, they brought along a much more ambitious VR project to showcase, Symphony of the Machine—which is an environmental puzzle game set to launch on Vive and PSVR early next year. Just before the show, I got a chance to try it and chat with Studio Director, Vee Pendegrast.
For those who are unfamiliar with Stirfire Studios, could you tell us a bit about yourselves and your previous work?
We started in late 2010 with the intention of becoming an incubator and mini-publisher for games in WA, but over time we have morphed into more of a traditional game studio. In 2014 we released our first real major title which was Freedom Fall, and we did super well with reviews and critical response at the time, and by now there are something like 80,000 copies in circulation. It was an exciting project to work on because we were the first West Australian game on Steam (that we know of) and we grew quite quickly. We have also worked on other contract projects and have an increasing business in serious games.
Symphony of the Machine is your most ambitious project yet. How did it feel showing it to the public for the first time?
Well, Freedom Fall was quite ambitious in its scope too! We have shown Symphony in its various states at Playup Perth events, but it’s first real outing in its current incarnation was at Perth Games Festival, and it felt great to be able to show off a new in-house project. After Freedom Fall, we got stuck with contract games and trying to find finance to work on another big project, so finally being able to come back to our fans with something new, and particularly visually stunning as Symphony has been a dream. We are really excited about this game.
For those who have yet to experience Symphony of the Machine, could you give us a rundown on what the game is about?
You enter a blasted landscape, and, in the distance, you see an ancient tower. You travel to the tower and go up an elevator that takes you to the top of the structure that looks and feels like a kind of a giant mechanical flower. In the tower is “The Machine,” where you have to manipulate the beam and redirect it into Glyphs around the structure to manipulate the weather in an increasingly difficult series of puzzles, which ultimately grow the vegetation back on the landscape surrounding you.
Symphony is an immersive, serene, zen-like VR puzzle game which is designed to be a nice place to be. There is no time pressure, so it makes it an ideal introduction into VR. The feedback we have had is that it is beautiful, fun and takes you to a different and much nicer place.
I understand this game actually started out as a Game Jam project earlier this year. Could you tell us about that?
The theme of the Global Game Jam was “Ritual,” so the ritual became a kind of mechanical rain dance in the first prototype of the game. The original machine felt like kind of a console that I always felt was reminiscent of the TARDIS console from Doctor Who. Game Jam games can normally be like a test bed for when our developers want to work on specific concepts or tech, but when the game was done, we felt the concept was so strong, and the game was so much fun we could not leave it, so we parked our other project at the time and started refining the prototype. We took that prototype to our partners at Sony who were particularly excited about it as there was nothing slated for that particular market segment on their PS VR platform. They did come back to us with several pieces of key feedback which we have integrated into the game- things such as making it more tactile, so you really touch and feel the controls of the Machine. And the feedback has been great ever since.
VR is a relatively new technology that is still on the cusp of taking off in the mainstream. Why is your game a good fit for the platform?
Symphony is a game that can really only exist in VR with motion controllers, like the Playstation Move or HTC Vive provides because you as the player need to be able to physically manipulate and position the mirrors, filters and pipes to make the Machine work and solve the puzzles. The positioning is part of the puzzle and such a big part of the game that you cannot really do that with a 2D and controller interface. Particularly with Sony’s feedback, it really is a game built around what VR does well- tactile immersion.
What would you say some of your primary sources of inspiration were when designing Symphony of the Machine?
Well, the Ritual becomes the starting point and also there is a backhanded environmental message in the game as well. We also wanted to reflect a philosophy of complete non-violence. The other thing is the game is called “Symphony of the Machine,” so the soundtrack had to be amazing and reflect the serene, lush nature of the game. We have been super-impressed with what the team at Syntone has come back to us with.
What do you think makes Symphony of the Machine unique, and how do you feel it will stand apart from other VR titles?
It is very much the peaceful, zen nature of the game. We wanted to create a place where you have no time-pressure and that it was simply a nice place to be. It is one of only a handful of puzzle games that we have seen announced for platforms like the PlayStation VR and a very unique beast, as we wanted to create the game that you went to when you had been through other, more intense experiences, and then come back to relax.
Did you receive any helpful feedback during the festival that you think might influence the development of the game?
We have received a lot of little points to polish from the public playtesting we have done. The game is well on its way now, so we do not need to change core concepts, but it is really useful seeing how long different players take to solve puzzles, how they interact with elements in-game (like the Robot) and generally watch how people behave. Of course, we are adding to the puzzle content of the game over time as well, so seeing how people explore with the different elements of the Machine has been great observational feedback.
Can we expect to see more of Symphony of the Machine at local playtesting events such as Playup Perth in the coming months?
Yes! And we are exhibiting at PAX AUS 2016.
What platforms will it release on and how can our readers support your games and continue to follow their development?
We aim to release on PlayStation VR, HTC Vive and other VR platforms that support motion controllers. We have a new website coming soon, but in the meantime, you can find us at: