Henrique Olifiers is the co-founder of Bossa Studios, the creators of Worlds Adrift. The studios first game, Monstermind, won a BAFTA award and was nominated for another. Prior to forming Bossa, Olifiers served as head of games for Globo TV and Head of MechScape/Stellar Dawn at Jagex. At D.I.C.E. Europe 2016, he’ll be discussing how the creation of simulated worlds is changing. In the conversation below, he touches on the topic, as well as the influence that Minecraft and Pokemon Go has had on world building.
You’ve said that Worlds Adrift is "a means to an end." What did you mean by that?
What I meant by "a means to an end," is that as a game designer, I've always looked at what could be the perfect online experience. That was never something that was possible because of technology restrictions and game design paradigms that we have to deal with. If you look back at the history of online interactions, ever since the first MUDs -- multiuser dungeons -- came along, up to today where you have massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft, EVE Online, World of Tanks, and so on, there was always this progression curve going upwards in terms of what you can achieve and how you could interact with your friends. All of a sudden, we seemed to have hit a wall in that the same tropes and same design mechanics have been repeated, essentially with a new coat of paint.
Some terms came up, such as "amusement park," from the players. They feel like the worlds that they're playing in are on rails and that the experience is very scripted. Which is a shame, because as a big fan of MMOs and online interactions on a large scale, I always expected this to go all the way -- into virtual worlds where people are free to do what they want. And so, this is what I mean by a means to an end. For me, it's about being able to show people that we don't have to be restricted anymore. There's technology today that's available to us and that will allow us to continue that trajectory. This is how I see Worlds Adrift -- being part of a puzzle, if you will, and part of the evolution of online interactions.
That's fantastic that you mentioned MUDs. For the people that created those experiences, how can the technology in Worlds Adrift help them? Can they realize the visions they had in the '70s and '80s through better tech?
They can, they absolutely can. There were three elements missing from the puzzle. The first one is persistence. Meaning that, when I do something to the world, that something is done forever and for everyone. This is a stark contrast from what you experience online today in that I go to a spawning point, where I know a particular creature is going to spawn. I just wait for them to appear out of nowhere. I kill them and I just wait again. Whatever I do in that game, I just walk away and someone else comes along, and they have the same experience, because I haven't changed anything in the area. This contrasts massively with our image back in the '80s of what simulated worlds could be. We, as actors, should make our mark and leave our mark in a simulated world. If you look at some single-player games, and even some multiplayer games like Minecraft, that's what the game is all about. You're changing the world, creating your own meta objectives, and setting your own goals within the game. That hasn't been reflected too much, yet, in massively multiplayer games, except when it's more detached from the game, such as the political game you see in EVE Online and games with territory control. Still, in games like that, if you want to split something in half and you want everyone to see that you've done that, the developers have to jump into the game and make that change to the world. You cannot do that yourself. This was the first element that was missing from the equation.
The second one is physics. If you look at how we grew with games like Quake, Wolfenstein, and so on, there's a lot of know-how of gameplay ability that takes place within the player himself. He learns how to aim better, he learns how to rocket jump, and he learns how to best make use of the environments surrounding him. You couldn't do that with an online world, so we referred back to the old spreadsheet levelling-up XP approach. It's "I am better than you because I have been playing the game longer than you have," rather than, "I'm a better player than you." Of course there are nuances to this -- which groups of spells I cast, how my party or guild is organized so that we perform better as a group, and so on. Essentially, it's a game about you levelling up your character rather than you having the skill yourself as a player.
The third one is the ability for people to drive the storytelling of the game themselves. What is the point of being a great adventurer or a great hero if you're not leaving your mark on the world or if you're not changing the narrative? The people that arrive after you need to know that the world used to be different before you altered it.
Those are the three pillars that you cannot find very easily or at least not in association with online multiplayer games. I think that they are, today, possible. Today's technology can enable that pure -- that very original -- spark of creativity and vision that we had back in the day of what online worlds could be. Today we are able to start building those worlds.
You mentioned Minecraft earlier. That game really changed the perception of what an online gaming world could be. What contributions do you see that game having in terms of creating online worlds?
Minecraft is massive and I don't think people realize how profound its contributions have been. We have a whole generation of gamers that have grown up with Minecraft, so it's not conceivable for you to assume that someone that has played that game with two or three friends -- running their own server -- would play a traditional MMORPG today. They cannot go up to an NPC and be entertained by bringing him 10 tails of a scorpion or whatever. That's not the way they grew up as players.
The other element that Minecraft brought in was permadeath. It really gave a sense of loss that most games were getting away from. The risk-and-reward concept was abandoned in favor of interactive narratives where you couldn't fail. Minecraft makes players find smart solutions in order to stay alive. A whole generation of games has been empowered because of that. All of a sudden, we have games that are about survival, like H1Z1, Ark, and Rust. All these games are huge on PC right now. They have the elements that people that have graduated from Minecraft seek. They're all about building, collaboration, and devising your own strategies to deal with the world around you. And they all have in common the fact that if you screw things up, you're going to lose a lot. There's permadeath and you'll have to pay for that. That balance of taking risks and not doing something foolish because you know the stakes are high, that was lost and has now been rescued through Minecraft.
What kind of potential do you see with VR and AR in terms of building simulated worlds?
They're very different things. VR has a lot of potential for multiplayer social interaction. If you play a VR game and you see another player that you know moving as an avatar, you know who that person is by their body language. The way they move their hands or move their head is familiar to you. That's very powerful.
AR is, perhaps, even more interesting. It's a much more social experience. We can experience things in real life and in virtual environments as well. There's a tradeoff between immersion, which you get a higher degree of in VR, versus social interaction and physical worlds shared amongst friends.
So VR is more immersive and has the potential to evoke stronger emotions. AR is more social and easier to get into, because the devices are less intrusive. They don't weigh you down. They're things you can enjoy for a few hours instead of a few minutes because your eyebrows don’t start to sweat. I didn't even know that eyebrows could sweat until I tried playing VR for hours. [laughs]
What do you make of Pokemon Go's use of AR and the world it has built in a short amount of time?
I find it amazing. It's great to see, because so many people said that location-based games couldn't be successful and that AR games didn't have a future. All of the sudden, those people have been proven wrong. The lesson is that it's not about the technology. It's about the content and the users. You cannot judge a technology because the content wasn't crafted in an entertaining way. Pokemon Go isn't the best use of AR or location-based technology, but it doesn't matter. It's great because it uses those technologies in the right doses in the right context with the right game mechanics and has a fantastic IP. It's a beautiful symphony that has drawn millions and millions of gamers into that universe.
Are you and the people in your office playing Pokemon Go?
Everyone and their grandmother is playing Pokemon Go. [laughs] There's a Pokestop near us that's always lured. I think the local coffee shop is using the lures to attract clients. For us, that means we can get a crazy amount of Pokemon without having to go very far.
Who are some of your favorite Pokemon?
Of course Pikachu is a classic. It's the electric Pokemon that everybody loves. I particularly like Cloyster, especially at the low level when it's still Shellder. For some reason, its tongue sticking out like that always makes me laugh.