July 21, 2016

Inside The Assembly - How nDreams is Using UE4 to Bring Its VR Vision to Life

By Daniel Kayser

While the majority of industry analysts are predicting a bright future for Virtual Reality, the common consumer is slightly harder to convince. Their opinions are not formulated from financial forecasts or stellar stock projections that are being built during the VR boom, but rather from the actual experiences that VR itself can provide. For many, this will come down to VR’s ability to elevate two essential elements of the interactive entertainment experience - immersion and storytelling.

More than providing a new visual perspective by which to experience interactive entertainment, the immersion of VR allows the player to explore the moral space in between right and wrong as they grow more closely connected to the characters and scenarios that literally unfold before their eyes. As a result, there will be certain experiences that stand out from the crowd to communicate the value of VR through immersion and storytelling while reinforcing the vision for the medium that many developers hold dear.

Based in Farnborough, UK, and founded in 2006 by former Eidos Creative Director, Patrick O’Luanaigh, developer nDreams is focused on bringing the potential of Virtual Reality to life. After proving out its concepts and refining its vision through projects such as SkyDIEving, Perfect Beach and Gunnar, nDreams has remained focused on an all-new first-person interactive story entitled The Assembly - which recently released on the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive and will be coming soon to PlayStation VR.

In the game, a mysterious organization known solely as the Assembly has been conducting secret experiments underground, their astonishing breakthroughs only made possible by operating outside government scrutiny and society’s morals.

But what is the Assembly hiding?  How far will it go to keep its existence buried?  And what will it sacrifice in the pursuit of progress?

The Assembly allows you to play as two individuals – each with their own motivations – to discover the mysteries of the facility through contrasting perspectives. Well, with this enticing plot to serve as a backdrop, I recently caught up with Jamie Whitworth, The Assembly’s Game Director, to discover more about this truly immersive project that was built from the ground up in Unreal Engine 4.


Considering that The Assembly will be many people’s first experience with VR, how have you constructed it to be both comfortable and compelling at the same time?
JW: Right from the beginning we knew that we were dealing with a new medium, and there was the risk that the wrong approach to movement would stop people from enjoying the game. To counter this, we began focus testing gameplay and movement mechanics right away and set ourselves the challenge of creating a title that could be the perfect introduction to VR for anyone.
This led to the development of our ‘Blink’ movement system, which allows a newcomer to VR to quickly and freely move around our game without the discomfort normally attributed to early VR titles. Unlike teleporting systems, our choice to use a quick movement solution doesn’t break the sense of physical continuity, thus retaining immersion.
The data we gathered from these experiments didn’t just influence our controls, but also served as a basis for the pace and spaces that the player would explore. This then influenced the tone and moment to moment intensity of the story. We truly wanted to give VR newcomers the time to become acquainted with the medium, without compromising on our goal to provide an engaging story to satisfy experienced and new VR players alike.

Did you always have the concept of telling the story from multiple perspectives? Also, why do you feel this mechanic is important to the experience?
JW: The dual perspectives have been an integral part of the story since its initial inception. The Assembly are an organization that strive to push technology and mankind’s knowledge, however, they don’t allow themselves to be restricted by law and ethics. This can result in some questionable actions being undertaken by staff, and large risks posed to those involved. However, we didn’t want to force a story onto the player in which they are simply perceived as either good or bad. Instead, we wanted the player to explore ethics and morals as much as they’re exploring virtual 3D space and then let each player make up their own mind as to whether they would stand with the Assembly or not.
The story in The Assembly seems very interesting. Did the desired gameplay and general VR mechanics facilitate the story or vice versa?
JW: We spent a lot of time prototyping ideas and user testing to define the mechanics and pace that would drive the game forward. This gave us a pool of toys and design pillars on which to build a story that would complement them, which led us to create a title that is narratively driven, engaging and rewards exploration.
How many different endings exist within The Assembly and how will the player’s choice impact the outcome?
JW: There are multiple independent outcomes for Madeleine, Cal and the Assembly itself, as well as side stories going on around you that you can influence, but I don’t want to risk spoiling the total number. Suffice to say, the endings are different enough that we expect them to start a fair few discussions between friends or on forums, and we hope that we pique players’ interest enough to make them want to replay the game and discover more about the Assembly.

How do you think VR will impact our ability to craft and communicate stories moving forward?
JW: VR puts a lot more focus on nuance within storytelling to the player, which extends beyond the core scripts and out into the worlds we build, whether that’s environmental scale or character performances. I suspect we’ll see many other VR titles move away from large physical footprints and character rosters in order to deliver the detail and subtlety that shines in VR.
What are some of the unique design challenges associated with building a VR experience like The Assembly?
JW: The biggest challenge, for everyone, was just keeping up with the pace at which the technology and tools were evolving. We’ve been riding a new technological wave in which developers, hardware manufacturers and the whole VR community have been all feeding off of each other and it’s been an exciting and unique time for the games industry.
Beyond that, it’s been imperative that we bolster our understanding of what doesn’t work in VR so we don’t turn away players before they get a chance to see the potential of the new medium. Prototyping ideas is usually confined to testing amongst the members of staff in a development studio. We’ve been running focus tests on the project since the beginning and also taken an early version of the game on the road last year to make sure that we’re accurately assessing and problems real users are having when navigating in VR for their first time.
The Assembly is coming to Oculus Rift and HTC Vive this month and will arrive on PlayStation VR later this year. How did Unreal Engine 4 assist your team in deploying this project to multiple platforms?
JW: UE4 has allowed us to bring a high quality experience to all platforms and headsets right from the beginning, meaning that our artists and designers could hit the ground running, and immediately begin building locations that are visually on par with its contemporaries whilst the programmers were able to work on gameplay features instead of having to wash the dishes in the engine code.
Following the upgrade path of UE4, as Epic released new versions, meant that we haven’t had to spend as much time creating features, supporting new hardware, and optimizing assets and code, as Epic are doing this for us (and everyone else). Whether that’s instanced-stereo-rendering or character optimizations, it’s ended up in the game via an engine update and a box being ticked. It frees the team up to put more time into refining the game itself so that it can be the best possible experience for players.

How, if at all, has your team leveraged tools like Blueprint to streamline the production process for The Assembly?

JW: Blueprints are amazing! Epic have really set the bar high for new visual scripting tools. We’ve used it to drive the majority of gameplay in the world. It’s not just that it’s quick and versatile, but it’s allowed artists, audio engineers, programmers, and designers, to use a universal language. This is something you rarely see in the past, where everyone has been using domain specific tools. It helps with communication and problem solving significantly.
Are there currently and post-launch plans in place for The Assembly? It seems like there might be additional side stories to tell!
JW: It certainly is a fertile location for future storytelling, and I have more than a few ideas already if ever we were to return to world of The Assembly, but right now we’re putting the final touches to the project and with the goal of delivering it to the best possible standards. Looking forward the VR landscape is new and evolving quickly so our priority is to remain on the creative frontlines and let that influence where we go next.
Where can people go to find out more about the project and to engage with the team at nDreams?
JW: If you have any questions about The Assembly, feel free to send us a message via The Assembly's Facebook page or tweet us with the hashtag #TheAssemblyVR. Make sure you visit The Assembly’s Steam page, get chatting in the forums and add the game to your wishlist. You can also find nDreams on Facebook, reach us via our dedicated subreddit, find our videos on YouTube and check out the game’s board on Pinterest for more screenshots.