“When he asked for an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), I would Google what that meant and try to get a template from my friends,” he says.
Wentworth-Bell cobbled together some financial investment from friends, family and even a former boss, so he could work on the game full time. Eventually with the help of a grant from Film Victoria he was able to hire what would become the core members of the team to develop a vertical slice; a playable portion of the game that showcases what the full version would be like.
Tripwire Interactive matched Film Victoria’s funding and flew Wentworth-Bell to Facebook’s headquarters to pitch the vertical slice of Espire 1 directly to Oculus, the Facebook-owned VR platform. It was a meeting that secured the full development of the game.
“VR is still a small market and we are a first-time development team in Australia. The risk for this project was high and we could not have been more lucky,” Wentworth-Bell says.
The team’s next trip was to E3 earlier this year, where the received an overwhelmingly positive reception, winning the show’s award for best VR title.
What began as a one-man-band side project has transformed into a full-fledged game studio called Digital Lode, and now the team is hard at work putting the finishing touches on Espire 1 before it releases sometime later this month.
Digital Lode want as many people as possible to play the game, and so the team is making a conscious effort to release Espire 1 on all major VR platforms from the PC-based Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Windows Mixed Reality headsets to the console-based PSVR and standalone Oculus Quest headset.
Wentworth-Bell thinks the Quest is a game changer for mainstream VR adoption and the team has made the platform its core focus, but fitting the game onto a mobile platform has proved difficult.
“PCs have 500 or more watts of power, the Quest has 5 watts. PCs can draw about 2 million triangles per frame, while the Quest can draw 160,000,” he says.
“The difference between the two platforms is so immense and there have been, and still are, huge challenges in getting the game to run well while looking good on the platform.”
Digital Lode describes Espire 1 as Goldeneye 007 meets Metal Gear Solid in an immersive VR environment. Playing a preview build of the game on Oculus Quest, there are definite nods to those classic titles throughout but it’s also clear that Epsire 1 is very much its own thing. By leveraging the head and hand-tracked capabilities of VR, players can sneak around the environment and climb any metallic surface to reach a higher vantage point, tap into “Espire vision” to see enemies through walls and use small hand cameras to peek around cover and mark enemies.
The player can even use their voice in the game to sneak up behind guards and hold them up by saying “freeze”.
The main campaign mode consists of six objective-based missions that take 30 to 90 minutes each to complete, but there are also Goldeneye 007 style cheats to unlock and virtual challenges which are inspired by Metal Gear Solid 2’s VR missions.
Wentworth-Bell says the team plans to support the game post-release with a host of free content updates that add new virtual challenges, features and game modes.
Early versions of Espire 1 have been praised by critics, but Wentworth-Bell says the team are still pushing as hard as they can to make a finished product that VR gamers will latch on to.
He says the biggest morale boost came when one of the lead developers behind Goldeneye 007, Dr David Doak, gave his seal of approval after trying out Espire 1 recently for the first time.
“He gave us some great constructive feedback, but overall he liked it,” he says.
“For us, it was the biggest boost of confidence we’ve ever had!”
Krishan is a multi-award-winning Australian technology journalist.