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Mindfield Games Make Their Debut with Ambitious Virtual Reality Adventure P.O.L.L.E.N

As virtual reality gaming continues to grow, it makes sense that companies have arisen who intend to make use of the new and exciting technology. One such company, Finland’s Mindfield Games, embarked on their journey to release their first game, Pollen, for VR back in 2013, and their work is now coming to fruition. We chatted to Ville Kivistö, CEO of Mindfield, and Jaakko Kemppainen, a member of the core team working on the game, about the project and how they utilized VR to make an exciting and fulfilling gaming experience.

HOW IT BEGAN

Way before Mindfield, Ville and Jaakko started their careers in similar ways, but via different avenues. “I programmed as a hobby when I was a teenager” said Ville. “At high school I had to find somewhere to work before thinking about whether I should go to university and I ended up at this Java applet game company called Mr Goodliving. I ended up staying there for eleven years, thus not going to university, and worked on mobile games before I was able to found Mindfield.”

Jaakko was always interested in building worlds. “I’ve been telling stories and inventing puzzles for my whole life and I designed my first pen and paper RPG when I was 13 or 14 years old,” he told us.

“After high school, I went to study computer science, which I didn’t really enjoy, but I ended up getting a summer job which helped me get some programming experience and when the opportunity came, I decided to start at a company that made games for mobile and television which was really unique for Finland in 2002. I’ve been doing quite a lot of things in the gaming industry since and now I’m here.”

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Mindfield was born when the mobile gaming company Ville was working at hit upon hard times. Ville, together with his colleague and Mindfield co-founder Antti Laitinen, decided to branch out. “The mobile gaming company which we were working at was having a hard time competing in the really harsh mobile gaming industry so they had to lay off some people” Ville explained.

Luckily, they had a game idea that they had been talking about for over a year. “We decided that it was a case of now or never and we decided to start working on the game. Since this was 2013, the Oculus Rift was still in its DK1 phase and running a campaign on Kickstarter. We had a chance to try DK1 and it was so mindblowing that we knew we wanted to take our idea to virtual reality because we had had enough with the mobile games, since that platform is very limiting.”

“There were also a few other people who were in the same circumstances as us and we got five of them together and founded the company with the help of some private investors who believed in VR. The game has now been under development for two and a half years, which is actually quite a long time for a VR or indie game, so it is nice that we’re releasing it very soon.”

The gaming industry in Finland is quite strong, boasting companies like Rovio, who are famous for Angry Birds, their massive hit for mobile phones and tablets. The problem, Ville explains, is that mobile gaming dominates the industry in the country.

“Finland has a really thriving game industry right now, but the thing is that it’s very mobile-centric. With Supercell and Rovio leading the pack, but only a few people making PC or console titles like Remedy or Housemarque. We are pretty much the only gaming company which has more than a couple of people working for it who is focused on VR, so in that way we are sort of pioneers in Finland.”

This status as pioneers could have made it difficult for Mindfield to make the game they wanted, but Ville told us that there were some in Finland that were keen on breaking in to new ground.

“We managed to secure all the funding from within Finland. It was difficult to get funding because VR was in such an early phase that investors didn’t know much about the industry” Ville explained.

“A year after that the situation had changed completely and now there is a VR boom going on so these days it’s a bit easier. Additionally, because we are a Finnish company, TEKES, the national agency for technology funding, has been a great help for us providing some funding from the government.”

As a result of the funding they managed to get together, the team never had to consider Kickstarter, which Ville believes was a good thing.

“We thought about Kickstarter but because our game is quite a linear and story-based game, it may not have been suitable. Kickstarter often requires you to have alpha versions of gameplay and they aren’t suitable for games where you want to tell a story because it’s impossible to play a story properly with parts missing” said Ville. “It’s like asking someone to read a book with lots of pages ripped out. It doesn’t work for our kind of game and we want to give the players that full experience when they get their hands on the game, that’s why we wanted to make it so that players get it when it’s ready.”

The original idea that they had eventually became Pollen, and Ville explained to us the process that the company went through to get to the final iteration.

“After we got the company up and running, we started to prototype various ideas and game designs that worked well in VR and considered what sort of game we would need to make to create a proper VR experience. We also decided the game needs to work without the VR headset as well because we want to make a proper game not just a VR prototype which is fun for five minutes. It had to be a well-rounded experience.”

Over the course of the development of the game, Mindfield has expanded, adding new team members like Jaakko to work on perfecting it. “I’ve been at the company for just about a year now so I don’t belong to the founding group” Jaakko explains, “but since the beginning of my journey, I have been doing a lot of narrative design, which is coming up with lots of different items that tell the story or writing dialogue and audiotapes and thinking about the people who lived in the station and so on.

“This has been my main role in the process but lately, as we are moving closer to the release, I have also been making some video material and screen capturing, directing and scripting behind the scenes videos.”

Ville’s role, meanwhile, has stayed roughly the same as the early days. “I’m the CEO and also responsible for our game’s technology, so I’m also a graphics programmer. I still do roughly the same things as back in the day but initially, I had to do a bit more work to get funding for the company. But now we’ve hired people to do those things I’ve been able to concentrate on the game.”

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WHAT IS POLLEN ?

Pollen is a game that takes the player to Titan, a moon of Saturn that represents an entirely new experience. With the added feature of virtual reality, it was important that the game utilized the medium’s strengths as well as it possibly could to maximize the effect of the setting. The team realized that a particular style worked well.

“We found out that first person exploration is really a great genre in VR because it has many benefits” Ville said. “You are able to advance at your own pace, you can explore the surroundings and environment as you wish, and we found that inspecting objects up close is really fun because they feel so lifelike. We decided to take that and make it one of the main features of Pollen and made the environment so interactive that you can pick up almost any object in the world and do whatever you want with it.”

This interactive way of telling the story allows Pollen to make use of its novel setting while also ensuring the player gets the most out of the headset. Jaakko explained that the story was enjoyable to work on for this very reason. “For me it has been really interesting, I really enjoy subtle storytelling and giving people a lot more than they can understand at first glance, meaning that when they come back to the game and look at the world more closely they can find more details and understand more about the world.”

“It also gives the possibility of allowing the player to advance at whatever pace the player wants to go. We rarely push the player, which means there is no rush and the only way you can do that is via this kind of environmental storytelling.”

Despite this free-roam exploration style, Jaakko explains that there are a few areas where certain tasks must be completed in order to advance. “There are a couple of areas where you have to solve puzzles to get to new rooms where you can continue your exploration, but most of the time you can go back to the rooms you’ve been to already and search for more clues and try to understand the bigger picture.”

Not only can you go back to rooms you have already been in before, but you may also have to Ville explained to us. “You actually need to backtrack at certain points in the game. In a way, you can compare it to a traditional adventure game in the sense that you have this open area in front of you but you have a puzzle that you have to solve to advance further in to the game.”

Since Pollen is so reliant on the exploration feature that makes use of VR quite heavily, it’s interesting that the game is also playable without a headset. Jaakko assured me that there’s no disjunct between the two, and the VR focus actually helped the other version of the game.

“I think the two versions match really well. The game is exactly the same but because we made it ‘VR first,’ it’s obviously best played on VR, and it also meant that a lot of the details and interactions that we have put in to the game are there because it feels good on the VR side.”

That, however, doesn’t take anything away from the other version.

“The regular side I would say benefits quite a lot from the fact that the game has been developed that way. I think you can enjoy the game on the PC without VR too, it plays just like many other first-person adventure games where you look around and explore the surroundings. VR just adds a lot to the immersion and feeling of the game.”

It’s interesting to consider the challenges when making a game like this, particularly when the story and the visuals are so interlinked. Ville explained just what the studio had to make sure they got right for the game to work.

“Of course one of the main considerations is how to keep the player immersed in the experienced the whole time so that we don’t shatter the illusion of the player actually being on the moon of Titan. This meant we had to take extra care of every detail, from the visuals to the audio to the scaling of the world and the textures and models,” Ville told us.

“We really needed to go in to detail to make everything feel and work like we wanted. It’s one of the reasons why we concentrated so hard on the interactions and interactivity in the world, so that in VR it did not feel like your usual static game environment where nothing reacts to what you do, like a  prop or a set piece on stage. It takes away from the illusion that you are actually there. It’s more like it’s just a set built for you. That’s why the interactivity in the environment becomes so important.”

Creating that sense of interactivity meant doing a lot of testing and during that time, the team noticed that some things just don’t work, as Ville explains.

“We always say that you don’t have a single big thing that you need to take care of to make your game work properly in VR; instead, you have hundreds of smaller things that can really ruin the experience or make the players feel nauseous. Lately, we’ve noticed that there’s a close correlation between real movements and VR movements regarding whether or not they make you feel bad. For example, we noticed that players ran through rotating stairs backwards and up and down all the time. If you imagine what that would feel like in real life, it would make you feel sick. You have to make sure that the player isn’t rotating with massive speed so that they don’t feel horrible.”

Rotating stairs, then, were out. But what the game lost from its intense focus on virtual reality, it gained in many other areas, and the team made sure they never lost the connection they intended to have with the player.

“The inspection of the environment is so natural in VR,” Ville said. “For example if you had come to our office you would want to scan what is on our tables and have a look around. The same thing happens in our game, where you can scan the environment and then decide what you want to look at more closely. It’s actually part of the game mechanics that at some points in the game when you have a puzzle to solve, you might find them too difficult until you look around and find some hints in the surrounding environment.”

And that’s not all. Jaakko explained how every item in the game has been meticulously placed for maximum effect.

“It’s not only the items that tell the story but also the placement of the items. We have really thought about every object in the world and why it is put where it is,” he explained.

“For example, if you go to a character’s private room, you can start thinking about why there are things by the closet or beside the bed. There are hidden meanings everywhere in the game so it’s not just a case of picking up some papers and reading them, but also looking at where those things are.”

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Unlike some VR games that guide you through until the end, it seems that Pollen provides you with so much material it may be impossible to get through it all in just one playthrough. Jaakko elaborated on that point.

“At the beginning of the game, we give the player quite a lot of information that they can’t possibly understand completely. If they start the game again, they can start to figure more of the bits out because they know why those particular things are there and what they mean. All the bits and pieces fit better together on the second and on the third run.”

This means that while the game obviously has certain points the player must pass in order to progress in the story, there is plenty of time to gather information and thus, understand more about what is happening around you, particularly when the focus stops being about finding out what’s next in the tale like it would be the first time round. This means playthroughs could theoretically take completely different amounts of time, and Ville agreed.

“A lot depends on how you want to play the game,” he tells us. “I think the second or third playthrough would be slightly faster because you’ve already solved the puzzles, but if you’re searching for more story elements and secondary items, then it could also take more time. Some of the puzzles in the game also have more than one solution, but it would be a case of finding the remaining items that you missed the first time around that piece the story together better.”

“Or you could  just mess around on Titan for a while,” he quipped.

Unsurprisingly, the team consider the interactive aspect of the game their biggest triumph. “I find it the most impressive part,” Ville said. “Almost every other game in VR doesn’t have the interactivity to the same level, and I really miss it because it takes away from the experience if the environment isn’t as interactive. It’s still quite unique. I cannot remember if I have played many games that have interactions that are on the same level as in our game.”

Even though Pollen may be unique in many ways, the creators still drew inspiration from both games and movies that came before it, both from a narrative and a visual perspective.

“In terms of narrative and gameplay, we have had quite a few inspirations,” Jaakko told us. “Gone Home was one quite big inspiration. At one point we were saying that this game was Gone Home in space,” he joked,  “but the game has really developed since then. We were also inspired by old adventure games like The Dig, which most of us played and enjoyed, which meant it affected us at least on a subconscious level. The old classic Myst has also been an inspiration.”

“We want to make an experience that would be similar to 2001 and Solaris, with slow-paced hard sci-fi,” Ville elaborated.

They also, however, want to continue trying to be unique. “We wanted to create realistic environments to make something that players cannot experience outside of VR. Not only that, but something totally different.”

The game’s visual sensibility is undoubtedly beautiful to look at, but somewhere like Titan, which is so far away from and different to Earth, must have been difficult to imagine.

“Titan’s look came from our artist’s imagination. I’m not the art director or anything but our artists were doing lots of concept sketches and trying to find inspiration from other mediums,” Ville told us. “But then we started to test work on something different since we wanted to create our own style instead of copying other games or movies too much. We wanted to have a look that is unique to us.”

The look of the game, no matter how unique, is only part of it. Ville stresses that sound design and music is also an incredibly important aspect that contributes to making a VR game work.

“One of our co-founders is actually a musician in his free time, so we have lots of sound design and audio knowledge in-house” Ville told us. “He really pushes us to use audio and tells us how many other developers might think that audio is secondary, so for us the sound and audio have been really important from the early days. We hope that the audio will stand out when compared to the audio of other games. When you consider VR gameplay, it’s really important that your audio is as good as your visuals because it’s 50% of the whole experience in VR. If either of those doesn’t work, it takes away too much from the whole experience and the immersion.”

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THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

With the game coming out for PC tomorrow, Mindfield are at the very end of the development process. That, however, doesn’t mean that there isn’t still work to do, particularly in making sure that the virtual reality aspect of the game works to the best of its ability.

“Once we release the game, the VR will have beta level support where we want to get feedback from VR players regarding how they would like to play the game. We are fully committed to make VR support even better and hopefully improve it for later on in the game’s lifetime,” Ville explained. “We will provide updates, especially regarding VR performance and work on supporting other platforms, for example the PS4, which will be released later.”

Mindfield have been around conventions with the game and have managed to accrue feedback, both at those conventions and with beta testers. It helped the team to ascertain both what needed improving and how audiences were finding the experience, Ville said.

“Showing demos of the game at expos gave people first hand experience, meaning we could test how our VR implantation works. We’ve had good feedback generally and have been able to look at some of the things that didn’t work for players and then we’ve made some changes, like with the stairs.”

Both Ville and Jaakko elaborated on what they wanted the audience to get out of the game and any feedback they’ve had on the effect the game had on those that have played it already.

“We want them both to enjoy the VR element and be captivated by the story. The story has multiple branches in it so hopefully, the community would start to think about the story together and discuss what different things mean and find all the different bits of the story in the game and put things together as a group. It might be difficult for one person to work it all out so maybe together, people can work out what we mean by all the things in the game,” said Ville.

“One of the best things I heard from the 20 or 30 beta testers of the game was that after playing through the game it stayed in their mind and they were thinking about the mystery of the game for days afterwards and that I think is exactly what we want,” elaborated Jaakko.

With this game so close to the finishing line, are future projects on the team’s mind? Ville explained that they are, but Pollen remains the focus for now.

“Of course we have other productions planned for the company, but they are in the concept or planning phases. Nevertheless, we have lots of ideas that we can start working on after Pollen is released. Whatever we do, VR will continue to be a big part of it.”

Pollen’s impressive visuals and interesting premise are just a part of a game that looks like it will take virtual reality gaming to the next level, providing a level of immersion as yet unseen in a medium that is still largely finding its feet. It makes its way to PC with VR support tomorrow (April 20th), and will be getting a PS4 release later in the year.

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