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How Espire Created One Of Australia’s Leading VR Game Studios

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Things are changing for fast-growing Melbourne-based VR game studio Digital Lode.

team just started Espire 2a sequel dedicated to Quest 2 in 2019 Espire 1: VR OperativeFor the first time in a long time, Digital Lode founder Michael Wentworth-Bell has been thinking about the studio’s future beyond the Espire franchise.

“It may sound strange, but the real goal is to actually act like a company,” he told me sitting in Digital Lode’s Footscray office just days before the Espire 2’s launch. . it has nothing [Digital Lode] branding on it. Espire had him in second place, so so far he’s only been thinking about Espire. ”

As we discuss how the Espire (and hence the Digital Lode) came to be, the shelves behind us proudly display a collection of classic video games and consoles. Many of these titles guided the team while working on the Espire franchise. It’s clear that the studio respects and understands the shoulders of the gaming giants they stand on.

Digital Lode founder Michael Wentworth-Bell

With a team of 23 people today, Digital Lode is one of Australia’s largest VR-focused studios, alongside other studios like Toast, developers of Ritchie’s Plank Experience. But the story behind the Digital Lode and Espire 1 is one of humble beginnings.

“2017, 2018 and 2019 were the three years of Espire 1. [development], and those were three fundamentally different years,” recalls Wentworth-Bell. In 2016, he devoted himself to his 9 o’clock to his 5 o’clock job as an animator, working in his space in the same office that would later become Digital Lode HQ. In his spare time, he started experimenting with his VR.

“I would wake up at 6am and then basically every day from 6am to 9am I would just work. [VR] Do the experiment, then at the end of the day do it for an additional 2-3 hours. Ultimately, he landed on the idea of ​​a VR stealth game called Espire, inspired by Metal Gear Solid. Over his 12 weeks he We produced a concept video detailing his vision for Espire. In February 2017 he posted it on YouTube. There was only one catch.

“It was all fake,” he says with a laugh. “I had absolutely no technical skills, so I basically just downloaded a ton of marketplace stuff and put together test scenarios and recorded videos. pulled out and threw it to demonstrate that you can use voice commands to raise your hand. [but] None of these features really worked. ”

“Basically, I knew how to animate, so all I had to do was kick off a little animation clip.” In the end, it didn’t matter – the video (embedded above) had unexpected proportions. Within the same day, Wentworth-Bell was approached by a number of people who were interested in the concept and wanted to see more. Several publishers also contacted me immediately.

“Espire was this two-minute video, but it was a lie. In fact, a lot of people asked me to send them my prototype,” he recalls. “People wanted a prototype, so he spent three months getting it playable.”

A month after posting the video, it’s still going viral online. Surprised by the amount of interest, Wentworth-Bell went into darkness for several months to continue developing the game. By April, he had a playable one to send to the publisher.

Among the publishers that reached out was Tripwire Interactive. The publisher, known primarily for its flat-screen releases, Stepping into VR for the first time later in the year, with Killing Floor: Incursion. After discussing his Espire prototype with Tripwire’s then-CEO John Gibson, he gave his Wentworth-Bell some food for thought. “He said, ‘Look, I’m just not ready yet. There’s a commitment to that, but you don’t even have a team. You’re alone. But keep in touch.’

But there was one early feature that kept Gibson particularly interested. It’s Espire’s Comfort Theater. A staple of both his Espire releases, this feature is an immersive vignette that limits the user’s field of view by layering a virtual room around them. This grounds the player with the artificial movement of VR, greatly reducing nausea and motion sickness. “He played the prototype and said, ‘Everything in this prototype is pretty subpar, but this is the first time he’s been able to circle a security guard in VR without throwing up while going down the stairs. It’s amazing.’ That’s it.

Eager to move forward after a discussion with Tripwire and encouraged by others, Wentworth-Bell soon took the risk to quit his job and devote himself full-time to Espire. By May 2017, potential investors made it clear that he would need to form a company to go further. Digital Lode began to take shape primarily from a pool of talent who contacted him about the initial concept his video. “On that day, many people who reached out to me [the concept video released] I ended up becoming an employee. ”

By the end of the year, the small team had created another playable prototype that pretty much lived up to the promise of the original Espire concept video. “It was still very crappy, but you could send it to anyone and they could play it.” From there, the next challenge was the big one. It’s fundraising. If 2017 was about building a prototype, 2018 was about getting the green light to turn that prototype into a full game.

Discussions continued with Tripwire, which is willing to fund the development of Vertical Slices, but only if another funding partner is also on board. Wentworth-Bell also said he had been discussing potential funding options with VicScreen, an Australian state government agency, but neither VicScreen nor she wanted Tripwire to commit in the first place. “So it was another fake. [moment]i was just saying [to Tripwire]”Yes, that’s right, it has VicScreen.” [VicScreen] If we have a participating American publisher [they] say yes And neither of them said yes. So I lied and said to both of them, yeah, the other said yes.

Both VicScreen and Tripwire then signed funding, and the Digital Lode team quickly grew from just two people to five to work on a vertical slice of what would become the Espire 1. When it was ready, Wentworth-Bell flew to United States to demo the Espire to several big tech companies at the time, including Facebook (now Meta) and Sony.

The team hoped to develop Espire exclusively for the PC VR platform, but Wentworth-Bell soon realized that Facebook wasn’t funding PC VR content for the Oculus Rift headset. . Facebook told him he had to turn it on if he wanted the game to be greenlit santa cruzis the development codename for what will be the standalone Oculus Quest headset.

He was sent back to Australia with two early Santa Cruz prototype devices and into 2019, Simultaneous release on PC VR, Quest, and PSVR“As a first-time team, joining every platform was seen as risk-averse,” says Wentworth-Bell. “That means there was really a chance of recouping the cost of making it.”

Ultimately, launching on multiple platforms made our small team too cramped and required more work than we expected. The PSVR port was outsourced to another studio, but even getting his Espire ready for both Quest and PC VR proved to be a challenge for Digital Lode. “Trying to be great on PC and Quest was too hard, so he literally made two copies of the Espire 1. It was a nightmare.”

Espire 1: VR Operative Releases For Quest, PC VR, PSVR November 2019. Despite recovering its development budget within weeks, the game initially fell short of expectations.it didn’t help PC VR and PSVR versions weren’t up to scratch Negative reviews have lowered user ratings on these platforms. “We kept saying, ‘We spent too much time making this game rather than actually making it fun.’ A lot of our development time was just loading up on Quest and I just loaded it on PC and loaded it on Steam…”

However, the Quest release didn’t suffer from the same problems as PSVR and PC VR. On Quest, the Espire 1 found an audience and received more positive reviews compared to other platforms. [in 2019], the game had been out for about six weeks, and we were talking to Oculus about doing another one. When the pandemic hit a few months later, his Espire sales at Quest actually increased to levels higher than they were at launch.

Digital Lode was pitching a range of game ideas and experimenting with other projects in the first few months of the pandemic until Facebook resumed discussions for a sequel. By offering another funding round, they encouraged the studio to “swing hard” toward a full-blown sequel to Espire 1.

This meant Digital Lode had to scale up again, this time from 12 to 25 people, bringing with it a new set of challenges. “From eight he never expected how difficult it would be to get out of a small team of twelve. [people] ‘ admits Wentworth-Bell. “The moment I turned 18 [people]It all fell apart, because we were like, ‘Oh my God, the company needs a completely different management structure with policies.

Over the next two and a half years, Digital Lode grew to 23 people. The team tackled the pandemic and implemented lessons learned from the development of Espire 1 to create a full-fledged sequel with a new campaign and additional multiplayer modes.

Earlier this month, Digital Lode Espire 2 released exclusively for Quest 2Now, after two big releases, the company’s focus has shifted again. “What we’re trying to challenge is that instead of being a company built around Espire where he only has one game at a time, try to grow, two or he does three things. That’s it. [games] Over several years.Enter recruitment mode [in 2023] Build your team. We want to grow his Espire team and grow the team for another IP. ”

After a series of successful post-launch updates for Espire 1, we are providing similar post-launch support and updates for Espire 2. However, Digital Lode is also working on another unannounced game from mid-2022 onwards. “The next game will have similar DNA [to Espire]It won’t be a stealth game, but it will be a shooter. And that’s the big thing that came out of our sequel, so we’ll look to co-op. ”

Digital Lode Team, November 2022.

The past five years have been a roller coaster ride for Wentworth-Bell and the entire Digital Lode team, but as a result, the studio has been able to pave the way forward for Australian VR developers. With ambitious plans to tackle more projects than ever before, Digital Lode’s trajectory will be interesting.

“Espire has allowed us to build a brand. It’s a niche, it’s a stealth game, and with a lot of luck and just the right timing, it’s become a recognizable brand,” he said. increase. “Espire is kind of sci-fi [and] serious.However [for the next game] We want something completely different. something fun ”

Espire 2 is now available for Quest 2. You can do the following. Read our full review here.

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