The future of immersive sims is independent — can it be bright?

Immersive sims were born and flourished during the 90s and early 2000s, and arguably, it was a period when they were a part of the mainstream games industry. Sure, these games have always been niche, but they were still using advanced tech, significant budgets, and made by teams that were not that much smaller than the AAA go-to hits of the time. Looking Glass were constantly pushing the AI, physics, sound design and systems envelope with Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief series, and all of these games have been built by not-so-small teams of dozens of employees and brought to market by AAA publishers such as EA or Eidos. Deus Ex by Ion Storm and Arx Fatalis by Arkane, while not being the glossiest and shiniest games on the market, didn’t look too budget compared to Unreal Tournament or Return to Castle Wolfenstein. BioShock had significant production values across investment into art, scripting, voice acting, and more. Immersive sims were not consistent top sellers, but they were a part of mainstream industry conversation.

Fast forward to today, and the current and future of immersive sims looks independent. Sustainable future for immersive sims seems to be small teams, modest budgets, and limited production values compared to the mainstream industry. The latest entries into the genre are all made (or are being developed) by those small teams — Underworld Ascendant and System Shock 3 by OtherSide Entertainment, Void Bastards by Blue Manchu, The Blackout Club by Question, let alone even smaller (or even one-man-army) indie studios such as Minor Key Games (Eldritch, NEON STRUCT, Slayer Shock) or NewBlood (Gloomwood). Ghost Story Games, the successor to Irrational Games led by Ken Levine, is another much smaller team working on a game which might be an immersive sim (Ghost Story Games, however, is still owned by Take Two). And just recently, Raphael Colantonio and Julien Roby, veterans of Arkane Studios, announced the creation of WolfEye, another small-scale independent studio working on Weird West.

There is clearly a trend here — immersive sims have an increasingly harder time remaining a part of the mainstream, AAA-industry. There are exceptions though, with a few last bastions left. Eidos Montreal, owned by Square Enix, reportedly struggled with the sales of their latest immersive sim games Thief and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, but there is still a chance they might make another Deus Ex game in the future. Arkane Studios, owned by ZeniMax Media, reportedly didn’t enjoy great sales with critically acclaimed Dishonored 2 and Prey, but thanks to the publisher’s interest in this type of game, Arkane keeps running studios in Lyon and Austin and is now working on Deathloop and possibly another unannounced project. A few months ago, 2K announced the formation of a new AAA-studio Cloud Chamber that develops the new BioShock game.

As Colantonio mentioned in his interview to GamesIndustry.biz, the market can’t support this type of niche, difficult, demanding games if they keep growing production budgets and teams — so it seems natural that immersive sims are taking a less costly route to sustainability. There is clearly the target audience (and publishers not always aiming for blockbuster profits) that can cover the development costs — for example, Underworld Ascendant was partially financed by Kickstarter backers, as well as 505 Games. But what do smaller budgets and modest production values mean for this type of games?

A quick note here that my definition of immersive sims is arguably narrower than some critics (for example, Robert Yang) define. For me, immersive sims are direct successors to Looking Glass, Irrational Games and Ion Storm games — first-person, narrative driven, level design driven games with significant production values. I outlined what I consider five pillars of immersive sims in this piece. If we include games like My Summer Car or Epic Mickey, which I personally don’t consider immersive sims, the conversation would be completely different.

As I argued in one of my previous pieces, I believe immersive sims ultimately to be about the feeling of space. Environmental storytelling and world building is what makes or breaks immersive sims and enable them to be truly impactful and meaningful. Thief: The Dark Project was not the most graphically impressive game of the time, but the design of The City and various locations in the game, the cutscenes, and sound design blew away anything that was available on the market. Half of the appeal of BioShock was the visual impressiveness of Rapture, the voice acting, and direction. Dishonored 2 is awesome because it is such a beautiful, technically astonishing, artful game that makes the world of Karnaca and Dunwall alive and vibrant with sharp textures, abundance of small world-building details, and deep characters brought to life by top-class voice actors. None of these games would’ve probably been so impactful and artistically triumphant if they were built on much tighter budgets and with significantly smaller teams.

Massive amount of work went into the creation of the interiors in Dishonored 2.

Believable, immersive spaces are very expensive to build — from graphical fidelity to level design, art direction, sound design, scripting, voice acting and much more, significant investment is required. In retro shooter games or top-down Action RPGs, lower quality textures or not so fluent animations might not take away much from the experience. In immersive sims though, if environment and game world are not detailed, believable, convincing enough, the game might start to fall apart or become boring and repetitive after a while. On top of all that, one could argue that the new frontier of immersive sim design innovation would be advanced physics simulation and more sophisticated AI — none of these things are cheap to develop and properly implement.

However, the recent advancements in both the technology and business models allow developers to do more things with less people than a decade or two ago. Popular game engines licenses are now affordable for most teams, and these engines come bundled with advanced features that many developers had to research and create from scratch back in the day. “The tools used to make games have jumped significantly since the ’90s. All of the games made at NewBlood are made in a common, mainstream engine; Gloomwood, DUSK and Maximum Action are in Unity while Amid Evil and Unfortunate Spacemen use Unreal,” says Dillon Rogers, the creator of Gloomwood. “These games would have required many more people in the ’90s, but that these tools allow us to bypass writing renderers or physics engines by hand means one or two people can pull off a 10–15 hour long game now.”

Tools themselves are not the saving grace, however. Underworld Ascendant could be an example of a recent immersive sim that might have not done well within the limitations of scarce resources. I have zero visibility into the development process, which, according to the people from the studio, was very difficult — perhaps limited resources was not the only reason for struggles. But from the outside it feels that OtherSide simply bit more than they could chew. Their initial ambition was to create a big, groundbreaking immersive sim set in a sprawling ever-changing world — but as the development went on, the ambitions were scaling down. At launch the game was met with lukewarm reception even from the most devoted fans. While playing the game, I felt that the ambition of it was just unbearable for such a small team that worked on it — and to be honest, I had felt so from the very first alpha builds. Underworld Ascendant was supposed to be set in a vibrant world, but the result was somewhat empty dungeons with little detail and almost non-existant environmental storytelling. It was supposed to be a game about groundbreaking physics-based gameplay, but in reality physics there are not fun to play with and irritate rather than entertain. Could a really small team with a tight budget build a large scale, ambitious immersive sim set in an engaging, believable space? Underworld Ascendant is a “no” answer to this question — and I’m saying this as a backer, with love and respect to the OtherSide team.

One would have hoped that System Shock 3 would be the “yes” answer — the OtherSide team at Austin, led by Warren Spector, sure seemed to be building a more focused, tighter game. But alas, according to recent rumors, the development team was disbanded. An anonymous person claiming to be a part of the dev team states that they were making “a much smaller game than what people were expecting and inevitably disappointing for a sequel to such a beloved franchise”. Indeed, the first two games — as I mentioned above — were a part of the mainstream conversation, published by Origin and EA respectively and pushed the technical envelope in all but high fidelity visuals. System Shock 3, however, just can’t compete with what is considered mainstream today. How can it possibly push the genre forward after such a monument of a game as Prey, built by a huge team at Arkane and published by Bethesda? The anonymous person continues, “We were a small team and knew we couldn’t compete with current immersive sims in production quality and breadth, so we had to be creative and clever and weird. And we were on our way to make something unique and possibly fun, but probably not what the audience was hungry for.”

System Shock 3 exists in the world where Arkane’s Prey has redefined expectations for the immersive sims.

If there is one learning from the struggles of the various teams at OtherSide, it is that the expectations for modern immersive sims are defined by the games from Eidos Montreal and Arkane, but the teams that can sustainably make them just can’t meet these expectations — as long as they are actually taking a shot at competing with mainstream games or aiming at their target audiences.

“No one wants to ship a janky game, but smaller teams have to accept that their games will have more rough edges, fewer features, or both, compared to a similar AAA game”, David Pittman (senior engineer at Question, previously Minor Key Games, 2K Marin) told me. “That doesn’t mean it’s not worth making the game, or that it won’t find an audience; there are many other ways to different a title on the market. But trying to compete with AAA games on quality and quantity of content is a fool’s errand.”

Dillon Rogers thinks that focusing on a few key things can go a long way. “I personally try to focus on what my design goals are rather than follow what modern AAA games are doing. For example, I integrated my systems following one of the ways that I interpret the Looking Glass philosophy: make the player feel as if they are an inhabitant in the world. That typically meant I tried to avoid relying on waypoints, minimaps and indicators, and instead convey information based on what the protagonist would have access to.”

Focus sometimes means compromise for small teams. “In my Minor Key Games titles, I wanted “good enough” AI and stealth models, but I was fine with having virtually no physics sim,” David Pittman says. “I was in the somewhat rare position of being a solo developer who was also writing the game’s engine, so I had to be especially selective. It made sense for the games I was making to un-ask some of the harder or more expensive problems of a system-heavy game in places where I didn’t feel the system would be especially beneficial for the game as I imagined it. And not every player will agree; one Eldritch playtester wanted to be able to pick up boxes and stack them to get over obstacles, and that’s just something I didn’t have time to support.”

Void Bastards is a good example of a focused game not trying to shoot for the AAA stars. Built by a small team at Blue Manchu, it is a game where you fight through a set of partially procedurally generated space ships interiors, solve emergent puzzles and try to survive. The game doesn’t even pretend to look realistic — the art direction is a comic-book style using 2D objects, which are charming and done really well. The game is a critical success and very fun — but it mostly focuses on pure mechanics and does not break any new grounds in world building and immersion. I just can’t compare the world of Void Bastards with Rapture from BioShock, Dunwall from Dishonored, or Talos I from Prey.

Gloomwood, an indie immersive sim currently in development by Dillon Rogers at NewBlood, is a survival-horror first-person game based in a haunted Victorian town, and make no mistake — its art direction and level design are heavily influenced by the classic Thief games. The visuals are, however, fairly basic, and it remains to be seen how complex the AI, physics and stealth would be, and if the environments would be able to immerse.

Robert Yang writes in his blog: “God, I love that wood floor [from Dishonored 2]. Look at that subtle sheen!… However, this is also a fancy floor that would probably never find its way into your typical 2-person indie game. If you are an indie and you try to work under this “shadow of production values” from an Arkane tradition, then you will probably never finish your game.”

Is high budget indeed required to build a truly immersive, artistically ambitious, genre-defining game — similar to what Thief or Deus Ex were in the 90-s or 2000s, let alone the modern Arkane Studios games? Do compromises, such as those mentioned by Rogers and Pittman, limit the potential of immersive sims? Optimists would say that it’s not true — by saving on AAA production values and visuals the teams could instead invest into level design and writing, experiment more, and be more creative. Colantonio says about his new studio and approach to game design: “It was what we wanted to get back to rather than being constantly distracted by the complexity of doing games which are technically more involved, and little by little your focus in development moves away from the actual experience toward technicalities which in the end don’t change the experience much… In a world where making games is all about innovation, R&D, and trying things, that heaviness of graphics and production prevents flexibility, coming back on ideas, trying something else. Because everything is so expensive, the team is unhappy because you’re changing direction.”

High production values and visuals might not be the most important aspect of creating believable environments that would suck players into them. David Pittman thinks there are other ways. “Sound design can go a long way toward compensating for a simpler visual style. I believe this is a big part of why Thief and System Shock 2 hold up as well as they do, and it’s something I tried to replicate in the music and sound design in my Minor Key Games titles.” In fact, David argues, opting for a more abstract visual style might even make a game less jarring and thus more immersive. “A level with gorgeous high-fidelity art will feel artificial and may break the player’s immersion if objects lack collision or physics, or don’t animate in expected ways. For better or worse, a simplified visual style tends to un-ask this question by making the visible world reflect the invisible collision world much more closely.”

Dillon Rogers agrees. “Abstraction can actually be quite a useful tool in that the human brain is quite good at filling in detail, so you get these games with low-poly models and low resolution textures, but the creatures still strike fear in the player.”

NEON STRUCT pays homage to the classic Thief games without using high fidelity visuals.

“I can still play classic immersive sims and enjoy them as much as ever despite the rough edges”, Pittman says. “But that AAA polish is undeniably necessary to sell games to a broader audience, and it makes for a stronger, well-rounded experience. The visual design and audio design and voice acting in BioShock 2 create a mood that you can’t get from almost any other game, and that’s another type of immersion for sure.”

As time goes on, quality production becomes more affordable for smaller teams. In the interview with PC Games N, Harvey Smith said: “You’ll notice that the production values in indie games are going up, so we’re right around the corner from maybe like a Cambrian explosion of the ‘walking simulator’ getting to the next level where it’s like one step more dynamic, in a sense that things are happening in the world.”

Curiously, Colantonio’s new game, Weird West, is not first-person — a change from his previous works. While WolfEye describes it as an immersive sim, the game features a top-down camera view, and the gameplay mechanics remain a mystery at this point. Perhaps the camera is the best possible fit for the particular type of gameplay WolfEye are crafting — or perhaps the founders of the studio made a deliberate choice of moving away from the first-person perspective knowing all too well how expensive it is to build a game and environments of Dishonored’s and Prey’s caliber and meet high expectations of the immersive sim crowd?

I can’t shake off the feeling that “subtle sheen of the wood floor” in Dishonored 2 is instrumental to that game’s ambition and appeal. As a fan and evangelist of immersive sims, I would always crave for AAA, beautiful, expensive games from Eidos Montreal or Arkane that would move forward not only the genre, but the entire industry. But those games would not be made every year, and in the meantime, the non-mainstream immersive sim scene is keeping the genre from dying. With focus on narrow budgets as the path to sustainability, I wonder if future immersive sim games are not going to be breaking new grounds all too often anymore, technically or artistically — or would die trying. According to some of the key designers of today, I don’t need to worry — even with limited production values, the games can still immerse with careful worldbuilding and systems, and ultimately, those things are more important than the quality of textures or voice acting.

As we have entered the new decade, small but extremely talented indie teams are more than ready to carry the immersive sim flag forward, not afraid of cutting corners here and there. Only time will tell if their efforts are going to be enough to push the envelope for this type of game, as the mainstream industry is looking elsewhere.

Interview with David Pittman and Dillon Rogers

David Pittman previously worked at 2K Marin and Minor Key Games, having created BioShock 2, Eldritch, NEON STRUCT, Slayer Shock and other games; currently he is a senior engineer at Question, working on The Blackout Club. Dillon Rogers is the creator of Gloomwood at NewBlood.

David, you have worked on various immersive sims in a big AAA-team (2K Marin and BioShock 2), as a one man army (Minor Key Games), and something in between (Question and The Blackout Club). What are the key differences between working with various levels or resources when it comes to making immersive sims in particular?

David: Working with a large team on a AAA game, it’s easy to take for granted how much work is being done. Every day I could sync to latest and find new things that a hundred other people had added to the game. None of that was “free,” but it could feel like it to me because I didn’t always know who was responsible or see the effort they put in. As a solo developer, nothing was free. If I wanted art in the game, I had to pay someone to make it, or learn how to make art myself.

As a specific example, in my Minor Key Games titles, I chose not to use voice acting for various reasons. NEON STRUCT in particular might have benefited from voice acting, but I couldn’t afford it and I didn’t know where to begin looking for voice actors or how to direct them. Coming back to a team, even a smaller one like Question, has been refreshing in that regard; I’m working with people who have experiences and backgrounds that complement my own.

Sometimes, a smaller team size has its own benefits. Working with a team of 100+ people means you often don’t know who you need to speak with about any particular issue. There’s a lot more overhead and process and requests being filtered through various producers and leads. It’s a necessity at that scale, but it can make it difficult to take initiative instead of waiting for approval.

Part of BioShock 2’s immersion came from the game’s high production values.

BioShock 2 was an AAA game with high production values across the board, including graphics fidelity, AI, level design and attention to detail in environmental storytelling, sound design, voice acting, and more. How important do you believe those factors were in BioShock 2 being an immersive and innovative game?

David: For me, one of the defining attributes of an immersive sim is feature richness: lots of things for the player to do, and interesting ways for the world to react to combinations of those actions. Feature richness is the enemy of that other big AAA game value, polish. It takes a lot of time and money to make a polished game with as many things to do as BioShock 2 had. (To be fair, we had a head start by building on an excellent first game!)

Eldritch, NEON STRUCT and Slayer Shock were all clearly inspired by classic immersive sims of the 90s such as System Shock, Thief and Deus Ex. However, those games were built by the teams of dozens of people, whereas you were the only developer in Minor Key Games working on these titles. How do you believe such small teams can build immersive sims that would find its own place on the market?

David: Doing anything new and unproven is a big risk, and following a proven template can greatly reduce that risk. Eldritch was an attempt to mix the movement and combat of Dishonored with the core structure of Spelunky. NEON STRUCT was a very conscious homage to the classic stealth flavor of Thief. Both of those games are indebted to the work of prior immersive sims (and other games), but I don’t feel they lack creativity or are clones. They are games that only I could have or would have made.

I think immersive sims differentiate themselves in the market by their narrative context and content instead of any one unique mechanical idea. So, this advice probably doesn’t apply to all smaller developers, but for small teams making immersive sims, I think it’s important not to spend too much time searching for a completely unique or innovative mechanic. There are obviously many non-immersive games which have had success experimenting with original mechanics. But immersive sims imply so many other expectations, a small team has its work cut out just getting to a baseline.

David, Dillon, some of your games visuals are very minimalistic. Compared to modern mainstream immersive sims such as Prey and Dishonored, one might say that NEON STRUCT, Slayer Shock or Gloomwood look too abstract. Is there a risk with losing a certain level of immersion and believability of the game world with such minimalistic approach to graphics? How did you try to overcome this risk?

David: I’m not sure the low-fidelity or abstract nature of the visuals harms the experience when a player settles into it, but it definitely makes it harder to sell the game. First impressions are everything, and graphics sell games. Personally, I think the simpler styles of Eldritch and NEON STRUCT arguably worked better than the higher-poly but amateurish art of Slayer Shock, but none of them were likely to attract customers on visual design alone.

Dillon: We mostly own it at NewBlood since a lot of our games are retro-looking. The last few years has seen a large revival of the lo-fi look between retro-shooters and PS1-style horror games. We just recently signed the ‘Faith’ games by Airdorf and it greatly used those gaps in fidelity to capture people’s imaginations and pulled them into the experience.

Immersive sims are traditionally very system-heavy games — games like Thief and Deus Ex pushed the envelope for AI and stealth, physics simulation, sound design, and other areas. How challenging is it to create a system-heavy, complex game with limited resources and very small teams?

Dillon: Quite challenging, but I imagine that’s the case with much of game development. Some of the difficulty is mitigated by the fact that we learned a lot of stuff doing DUSK (which had some immersive sim elements like the fire/cooking system) while other stuff has been the good will of developers to write their own post-mortems. For example, the basic idea of the sound propagation system in Gloomwood comes from a public presentation from a Looking Glass developer explaining how it works in Thief. Much of what I’ve done has been done elsewhere (mantling, object interaction, AI senses, sneaking, etc.) but it’s carefully combining these elements into a singular and stable program that forms much of the work.

As a small independent team making an immersive sim game, do you feel any pressure to compete with top-league players such as Dishonored, Prey or Deus Ex? Do you feel there is a certain level of expectations from modern immersive sim players in terms of systems design and attention to small details in the world building? What do you think could be the unique path for more niche, more abstract and stylized immersive sims such as Gloomwood?

Dillon: First I’d like to say that I love what Arkane does and actually enjoy AAA immersive sims a lot.

Early in the Gloomwood, we wanted to teach the player the various AI alert states (unalerted, alerted and combat). In many games, this is typically conveyed with an indicator over the enemy’s head. However, our goal was to try and seamlessly tie player information to the world. So, one of the earliest enemy types is a hunter who wears eyegoggles that change colors based on their alert status.

Another example is that the inventory is a physical object you place into the world and sort through, and can be placed on tables or the floor. The firearms don’t have ammo indicators, and instead the player opens them and visually count the remaining unfired cartridges. We’re trying to cohesively build a world where much of the player’s information is part of the environment itself.

Gloomwood is the modern take on the classic Thief and System Shock gameplay formula.