May 16, 2018

Futuristic Cold War virtual reality comes alive in Vertical Robot’s Red Matter

By Shawn Petraschuk

It’s easy to see where Vertical Robot took their inspiration from for their upcoming virtual reality title, Red Matter. For most people reading this, the Cold War doesn’t hit too close to home. If anything, it was something their grandparents might have talked about - if they ever mentioned it at all. A time of great political tension between the US and its allies against the former Soviet Union, it’s a jumping off point for this futuristic sci-fi setting on the distant Saturnian moon of Rhea.

A medium that is in its relative infancy for home use, virtual reality has seen steady improvement over the past few years with no small part being played by Unreal Engine 4. Red Matter, which is releasing on May 24, 2018, stands out as a highly detailed entry into the VR space that’s firmly backed up by its strong puzzle-solving mechanics and compelling narrative. As the second VR offering from Madrid-based Vertical Robot, a team that is comprised of industry veterans with credits on titles such as Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow saga, Spec Ops: The Line and Deadlight among many others, it’s clear that they’re intent on crafting quality experiences for players.

There’s no doubt that VR continues its rise in the consumer space and with that in mind, we can safely assume that we have a lot more to look forward to from enthusiastic developers like Vertical Robot. To learn more about the project and the team’s vision for VR, we took some time to chat with Vertical Robot's Design Director Tatiana Delgado about the creation of Red Matter and how Unreal Engine 4 aided in creating their best game yet. 
Vertical Robot is a relatively new studio made up of a team of very experienced developers. What brought you all together to go on this adventure of creating games as an indie studio? 
We’ve all worked together at other studios in the past, in fact, we even coincided at several of them, so we happen to know each other really well and we know we function well together as a team. We’ve been in the industry for quite some time and we really felt like we wanted to, on the one hand, create something we could call our own and face up to new challenges on the other. The arrival of Oculus was the sign we’d all been waiting for and we plunged head-first into the exciting adventure that is VR development, committed to creating quality games that add value to VR while pushing the platform’s artistic, technical and creative boundaries. 
We are a very small studio, but our collective years of experience enable us to be rather straightforward in our decision-making and get right to work. Just to give you an idea, Red Matter was made with a team of just eight people. 

Red Matter is the second game under your belt and also the second VR title you've created. What drives Vertical Robot's passion for developing virtual reality experiences? Are you aiming to be a VR only studio? 
It’s a fascinating adventure to be able to create content for a new medium. Being able to partake in the initial stages of new tech also grants you a clear advantage moving forward, once the tech has become more established. By then we’ll have fought many battles and learned from our experiences. Our intention, for now at least, is to focus on VR development. 
It's safe to say that the shift from Samsung VR for your first game, Daedalus, to the Oculus Rift for Red Matter has given you a lot more power to work with. How did your experience creating Daedalus benefit you in taking on a project with a much bigger scope? 
It’s funny actually because in reality, Red Matter was our first project. However, because it had a more ambitious scope, financial support was a necessity. As we searched for this support, we didn’t want development to grind to a halt. And so, from what started as a locomotion prototype for Red Matter, Daedalus was born. Ultimately, this would allow us to experience a full production cycle of a VR game and gain valuable market insight for the medium. We created it in Unreal Engine as well, and this allowed us to test the engine’s VR tools and potential. It’s been very educational and we’re extremely satisfied seeing how well-received the game was by players and critics alike. 

Red Matter is focused on a dystopian Cold War and has a distinct sci-fi setting but how many parallels can be drawn to the actual US and Russian Cold War that seems to have inspired it? Did you draw on any events in particular? 
There is some basis on the real Cold War but we really wanted to distance ourselves from actual history and invent a dystopian fantasy with two completely make-believe factions. This would allow us to manipulate and create characters and plots that will surprise players. 
Just like in games such as Papers, Please, we leverage historical and visual references to establish a familiar setting for players, but from thereon out, we set up an alternative fictional universe. Volgravia is a fabrication completely removed from the Soviet Republic, although it does share aesthetic and ideological discourse elements with them. You could venture that Volgravia is to USSR what Game of Thrones is to Medieval Europe. 
In fact, concerning Volgravia, we even created a new language as well. Since one of the game’s core mechanics requires the use of a scanning device to decipher text, we didn’t want to spoil the fun for Russian players. The language might appear reminiscent of Russian or Cyrillic but in reality, it has nothing to do with them. 
How did the idea for Red Matter come about? There aren't many games that take on something like the Cold War. 

We wanted to make a sci-fi game, but were well aware that it’s a genre that’s been done to death, so being an indie studio we wanted to have something that would set us apart. Inspiration came from posters for the soviet space race. There was a special, unique appeal to them, and we’re big fans of stories from the Cold War. We figured we could find our niche there. 
In the whole scheme of things, virtual reality is very much in its infancy and Unreal Engine has been around far longer. How intuitive did you find Unreal Engine 4 in adapting to VR over more traditional 3D or 2D type development? 

In general terms, it’s been very intuitive. In the past we’ve had the opportunity and/or necessity to work with proprietary engines on other projects, so we’re used to developing our own tools based on our particular needs. Using Unreal Engine 4 we often found that the way things are implemented coincides exactly with how we would have done so ourselves, or pretty close, and that’s made things very intuitive. The implementation of VR libraries and how the engine exposes their functionality was no exception. 
Is there any particular tool of Unreal Engine 4 that was particularly beneficial to you in development of Red Matter? What was it and why? 

Some of our team members have been using Unreal Engine for 10 years now. Over the years Epic has added more and more excellent tools to Unreal’s arsenal. The new Proxy LOD System present in Unreal 4.19, although still experimental, has proven to be extremely helpful in the optimization of backgrounds and reducing overall draw call counts in order to run Red Matter efficiently on lower spec hardware. Likewise, the polygon reduction tools and the lightmap packer built into the static mesh viewer allowed our artists to save time by reducing the amount of tedious, repetitive work.
One of the biggest challenges of developing for virtual reality is traversal whether it be actual movement (which can make many people queasy) or teleportation style. Is this a challenge you encountered in the development of Red Matter and how did you tackle it? 
Locomotion has indeed posed a challenge, as expected. We decided to offer players as broad a range of options as possible within our technical capabilities being such a small team. We’re lucky enough to have a variety of preferences within our own team, ranging from people who are highly resilient to motion sickness to others that become dizzy almost immediately, so we understand the importance of offering as many options as possible. In Red Matter there are currently three types of locomotion available: teleportation for those who easily become dizzy, dashing, in order to integrate the movement into the game world, and finally the jetpack, that allows you to perform predefined jumps in an arc while manually controlling acceleration and braking. We are also working on a smooth locomotion system that will not be available for launch but will be ready in an upcoming update.
Another major challenge for VR is intuitive controls. Where so many games make the controls difficult to work with you've made mention of how simple your control scheme is for users. Tell us a little bit more about that. 
Presence, understood as the perception of being physically ‘present’ in a non-physical world, is extremely important in Virtual Reality. For Red Matter, we wanted to improve players’ presence by making the control scheme intuitive, as well as visually representing the Oculus Touch controllers in the game. The player is physically aware of holding the controllers in their hands in the real world, so we decided to turn them into actual tools you utilize in order to interact with the virtual world. You simply use the stick to switch between tools and then pull the trigger to operate it; it’s that simple. Both elements also exist in the virtual world, integrating seamlessly into the game’s fiction. For instance, one of these tools is a claw that allows the player to grab objects, turn dials, and pass objects from one hand to another in a very natural way. We even playtested with older people who had never played a video game before and they took to the controls without any problems. 
Thanks for your time! Where can people go to find out more about Vertical Robot and Red Matter? 
You can visit our website at ​​, follow us on our dev blog at or on social networks: Twitter: @Vertical_Robot Facebook: @verticalrobotgames Instagram: verticalrobot.