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The Era of Virtual Reality Begins With Weather — Symphony of the Machine

The Era of Virtual Reality Begins With Weather — Symphony of the Machine

The world of video games is changing. Emergent technologies like the Oculus Rift, Playstation VR and HTC Vive have rapidly gained traction within a console dominated market and I’m starting to get the feeling we’re closer to having Star Trek holodecks than ever before. Was it really that long ago when we played The Sims and thought their virtual reality ‘goggles’ were too futuristic? In the early 2000’s, when floppy disks hadn’t been eclipsed by novelty USB sticks and computer monitors were still curved, such technology seemed light years away. I daresay fictional. Few could have predicted how quickly virtual reality would become such a significant part of our future, especially in game design and development. Perth based Stirfire Studios is one example of a team who is part of an growing trend towards games that prize virtual reality experiences. Their most recent project, Symphony of the Machine, is a 2016 Global Game Jam entry that comes with an intriguing story and an unconventional gameplay approach. I spoke with Stirfire Producer Matthew Dyet and audio company Syntone about what it’s like developing a VR game, its intersection with traditional gaming and the future of VR technology.

PopOptiq: Can you tell us about your background and how you became involved in game design/audio design for game development?

Matthew Dyet: That goes back a couple of years. I started off with an interest in interactive multimedia, so I was doing a lot of web development stuff. But there was a careers festival in Perth, and I went to it, and at the careers festival, TAFE was talking about the fact that they had this brand new games course. And I had been super interested in games for a long time, I’d been playing World of Warcraft, Halo – that was really when I started to become a gamer. So I decided I want to do this course, and I was lucky enough that my lecturer in interactive multimedia said go ahead, skip the certificate go straight to that course. I did that course, I did a follow up diploma, and then I went to university and did games stuff there as well. Once I got out of that, I was lucky enough to have a GDC (Game Developers Conference) scholarship and they flew me over to San Francisco, to the conference over there which was a fantastic experience. I came back and started working in games. I quit my full time job at that point and was like-no, just doing games now, the ‘struggling artist’ (laughs). And I’ve been doing games ever since. So it’s been 3 years now since I came back to Australia and basically started doing games as a full time thing. I joined Stirfire Studios 2 years ago. Their producer was moving on to go and work at Bank West, and he’s basically managing a team there. So I stepped in to replace him but he still takes part in a lot of the stuff that we do at Stirfire.

symphony of the machine

Image Source: Lisa Rye

Richard Gaynor: Stefan and I met at university. Both of us were studying music composition, so naturally we became good friends. We both quite enjoyed the tech side of audio, and initially started Syntone as a sample library venture. But that wasn’t going in the direction we wanted, so we switched to focusing on music and sound design.

Stefan Pugliese: Having both grown up playing (and listening to) video games, we both had a bank of knowledge of game music and audio to bring into our own work. The game development scene in Perth is very open and collaborative, and through the game jams and other events there have been plenty of opportunities for us to get involved with local developers.


PopOptiq: What does your role as producer of Stirfire Studios involve?

Dyet: It’s a complicated role. I was actually wanting to write an article about the complexities of doing production in small team sizes. The role varies dramatically. In addition to working with Stirfire, I have a company of my own; It’s a team of two and I’m a producer there as well. But my role isn’t just managing our time, it’s also managing clients and doing art, and programming. Basically, wherever there’s a gap that needs to be filled. I take care of multiple roles. Inside of Stirfire, because we’ve got a team of 7-9 people, I can specialise in more. So my job is more about managing clients, speaking with people, having meetings, making sure that the team is freed up to do what they’re best at so their focus can be on programming, art or design. I will give the team information on where they are at in comparison to where they need to be, to actually finish a project on time for instance.

PopOptiq: I can see how your role would be particularly important in something like the Global Game Jam, where you have a limited amount of time.

Dyet: Yeah. Whenever we do Global Game Jam, production wise it’s mostly me saying, “Let’s not do this big crazy idea”, “Let’s instead focus on a small thing that we can really polish off”. That’s basically the extent of my role at the Global Game Jam. After that I’m doing programming and art and getting in the trenches with everybody else.

PopOptiq: Did you do a good chunk of the programming for Symphony of the Machine?

Dyet: No, so Global Game Jam this year I actually decided to forgo. GDC was coming up, I needed to make sure I was ready for that, I was working on other projects. So Stirfire did Global Game Jam this year and I didn’t participate, but I have done it for the past 2 years.

PopOptiq: How long did Symphony of the Machine take to make? Did it take up all the Global Game Jam time?

Dyet: Global Game Jam is always a matter of (games) never finished on time. And I can pretty much guarantee, like a lot of the stuff we found with Symphony was that Global Game Jam finished, the team was super happy with it and they were showing it and everything, and they found a bunch of bugs. Often game-breaking bugs. You couldn’t actually finish the game sometimes because a lot of the symbols that would get generated were random. And if it didn’t generate the right sort of symbols, you couldn’t get enough to finish the game. The team got what they wanted to show done at Global Game Jam, but it’s certainly not complete by any measure.


Image source: Stirfire Studios

PopOptiq: How would you describe the soundtrack for Symphony of the Machine in terms of genre?

Gaynor: That’s a tough one, as we weren’t thinking of any genre at the time of making it. I would say Hybrid Choral? Ambient? Weird Floaty Voices?

Pugliese: I would say the music is very much Ambient in terms of its intent. The game is very much about being immersed in the environment, so creating an involved score would risk imposing on the overall experience. Keeping the music open and ambient also meant we could incorporate it more directly into the world and the gameplay, rather than having a music track layered over the top of everything.

PopOptiq: How long did it take to compose? What were your influences?

Pugliese: In total, it took roughly three to four hours from start to finish. One hour for the initial concept and music composition, an hour for recording the custom samples, and two hours for sound design and tweaking. Very compressed, but that’s the nature of the beast in a 48-hour game jam! The overall sound world was influenced by Brian Eno’s ambient music, in particular Music for Airports. The vocal elements were influenced by my own experiences singing in choirs, even down to the custom samples of my own voice! The samples are a mix of syllables taken from English weather words – the idea was to create a quasi-language of sounds that fitted in directly with the weather-based gameplay. Richard’s sound design for the environmental sections of the track were influenced by the current trends in modern scoring – hybrid instruments and stuttering/gating. This is all over film scores and trailers at the moment, and it was a great way to turn natural voices into a synthetic instrument.

PopOptiq: From my understanding, the story behind Symphony of the Machine involves an old weather machine, and players have to conduct a ritual to figure out how it works to return the weather to its rightful state. Is that right?

Dyet: Yes. So in the game-because we’re working on a full version of Symphony of the Machine now, you’re basically in this world and it has been completely decimated by something and you aren’t sure what. You weren’t awake to see what happened. Either it happened a very long time ago, or maybe it’s very recent. The only indication as to what’s happened to this world is basically you’ve got these cave paintings showing this massive tower, and some sort of cataclysm that wiped out everything. Just a lot of dried up plants, burned out trees, it’s all desert. It’s a wasteland, basically. You end up finding a machine in the distance. You’re placed in a dark room with the machine and you have to figure out how to start it up. Then you have to figure out how to actually make it work. Once you start to make it work, the weather patterns start to change, and they affect plants that you are growing inside the machine itself. So you’ve created this garden inside the machine, but by doing that you also start to fix the world on the outside as well. We want to tell the story in such a way that there’s no dialogue; it’s a fairly lonely kind of experience. You aren’t having text pop up on screen, you aren’t finding recordings on the ground saying, “Oh yeah this happened”. It’s all environmental storytelling. By the end of the game, the big gigantic wasteland around you will have regrown and the weather patterns will be restored.

PopOptiq: Based on your description of the game it sounds like it would best fit the puzzle genre.

Dyet: It’s very much a puzzle game. Right now we’re trying to figure out what kind of puzzle game we want it to be. We’re reviewing the game mechanics we created for the Global Game Jam, and one of the really interesting things that came out of GDC this year was that VR is really the Wild West. There are no rules written. Nobody knows the rules of doing VR games, right? Video games, we’ve had a long time to actually create rules for, but this is something brand new and is literally in your face. It’s an experience that is so absorbing that we need to have new rules for it.

“VR is really the Wild West. There are no rules.”

One of the big things that came out of GDC was that you need to have methods of interaction that make sense to the player. You train them in a single verb of the way the game works, so for example in a golf game, the verb is you putt golf balls. But rather than having a menu screen where you flick through items like In classic video games, you’re actually put in a golf course, and you choose menu items by putting a golf ball into a hole. For Symphony of the Machine it was very much point at buttons, and press a button on your controller to interact with those buttons and make things happen. But in terms of game verbs, pressing buttons isn’t particularly interesting. So for us there’s still exploration happening.

PopOptiq: What are the challenges of creating different game mechanics in a VR game as opposed to a ‘traditional’ video game, where an external controller is the link between the player and the digital world?

Dyet: It’s incredibly hard. Some companies break the rules that other companies wrote. One of the very early rules that came out was that players would get motion sickness if you move them around without them actually being able to move in the place they’re in. For example, with the Oculus Rift, you can move your head around which will change your perspective on things in the game world, but you can’t really move around in 3D space. You can’t get up and walk around like you can with the (HTC) Vive, for instance. That causes a big problem. Because if you’re in a video game where your character can walk, and you’re using a controller to walk but you’re sitting down, it causes a lot of people this incredibly horrendous motion sickness because they’re so immersed in the game. Games where you can drive a car, or you’re flying a jet are all fine because you’re sitting down and it’s the world that’s moving around you. The rule was that you don’t want to have characters performing motions in the game that they’re not performing in reality. And then you have games like The Climb, which involves climbing up cliffsides, and how are they not making players horrendously motion sick with that? This rule has already been broken by companies, they have found ways. We are playing it safe with Symphony and actually teleporting the player around from position to position instead. It’s a terrible challenge because in a normal video game you can just use a controller or keyboard to move around and it’s perfectly fine. But in VR, you want to interact with the world because you’re immersed in it, so it breaks all the conventions we’ve been taught going through school or developing games for 20 years. It’s really interesting and movement is just one of many challenges. Things as simple as, “I want to exit the game”. How do you do that in VR? There’s a game out there called Job Simulator in which to exit the game you have an exit game burrito. One of the huge things you do in that game is eat, and if you lift the burrito and take a bite out of it, you exit the game. That’s a really clever solution to what is a surprisingly complicated problem. It’s exciting, there’s so many things and we might have a solution that ends up becoming an industry standard.


Image source: Stirfire Studios

PopOptiq: Is the process different when making music for a VR game as opposed to a ‘traditional’ video game?

Gaynor: Very much so! With 2D games, all you have to worry about is left and right. With 3D, you worry about placement and ambience, but you’re still working with stereo. At the most, you’d be moving to surround sound. But with VR, you’re working in 3D. Suddenly, the placement and mixing of each and every sound becomes very important. In the case of Symphony of the Machine, we ended up dividing the music up into multiple channels, and having them placed around the room. With the power of Unity’s audio engine, it created a very interesting and believable effect.

PopOptiq: What was the most enjoyable thing about working on Symphony of the Machine?

Dyet: Still working on it, but I would say the most enjoyable thing so far…that’s hard. So for GDC I flew over there this year and got to go to a bunch of VR talks. I’m not a technically oriented person, like I’ll do programming but I’d say that is an incredible experience-actually being able to hear these game developers talk about things like “we haven’t solved this problem, we aren’t sure if this is the solution but maybe you should give it a try and see if you can do it better than us.” I’d definitely say that is the most rewarding thing. VR has really brought the game development community together. Like when we’re working on Symphony, it feels less like Stirfire is sitting in a room developing this thing that nobody else is talking about. We are developing this thing while listening to this massive conversation that’s currently happening and lending our voices to it. It’s a fantastic back and forth of how we’re going to make VR work and that’s been really exciting.

Gaynor: Getting the chance to work on such a fledgling genre. Stirfire are also pretty cool!

Pugliese: It was wonderful to work on a game with such a unique and strong concept behind it. I like to incorporate concepts directly from the subject matter of the game into the music I write, and the world inside SOTM was very inspirational.

PopOptiq: Do you see VR as the future of videogames and gaming in general?

Dyer: That’s a complicated question. It’s really hard to say because I don’t see things as they are going away. There will always be a place for controllers, there will always be a place where you can sit down in front of a screen and have that experience. VR is a new kind of experience that just gets added on top of that. Will it become the be all end all experience someday? Maybe. But I don’t think it will be there until we can take things like our operating systems and put them into VR as well. The moment that Windows releases Windows 15 and you are doing Windows 15 by putting some sort of headset on instead of having it on a physical screen in front of you is the moment that I will say yes, we’re done with TV screens. It’s a new level of experience and it’s certainly looking promising. It may not even be that we end up doing virtual reality headsets. We could do augmented reality headsets like what Microsoft is doing with the hololens. There’s so many pathways we could go down, it’s just a matter of something sticking.


Gaynor: I think it’s on the road to reaching its prime. We’re still in the early days, hence the price tag and power required behind the current builds. As a result, it still feels niche, but if the reactions to the Oculus, HTC Vive, and so on are anything to go by, the moment this tech becomes affordable, we’ll see it flourish.

Pugliese: I feel that through the release of the Oculus/Vive/others, VR tech is moving out of the ‘novelty’ phase and coming into its own as a tool for game development. The biggest teething problems at this point have been around player immersion and comfort, and as more and more games are made for VR tech the experience will only get better. This is particularly true for audio, as we work out what needs to change from ‘traditional’ methods to improve both music and sound design for VR tech.

PopOptiq: We know Symphony of the Machine is available for HTC Vive, Android devices and PS4. Do you have an expected release date at the moment?

Dyet: Nothing I can properly confirm yet, but we’re definitely very interested in the Playstation VR, I’ll say that.

Virtual reality might be a fledgling field without the physical boundaries and dimensions we are used to, but its future looks to be as solid as the teams who continue to refine and re-define it with so much passion and creativity. When Tai Kamiya and Matt Ishida first dived into the bitstream, they made history by becoming the first digitalised humans in Digimon. Maybe VR is similar, and it’s only a matter of time before something extraordinary happens.

PopOptiq extends a huge thanks to Matthew Dyet and Syntone for their time and expertise. Those interested in testing out Symphony of the Machine can do so via this Global Game Jam link. Stay up to date with the latest from Stirfire Studios by following them on Twitter. What are your thoughts on VR? Let us know in the comments section below.