An interview with StellarVR's Mark Taylor, the self-taught developer behind PSVR's strategy gem - Korix.
You’ve heard the story before. A regular guy, working a regular day job, gets an idea for a game. After spending some time toying around with a prototype, the guy realizes that he might be on to something. He starts spending more and more time developing the prototype. The guy sends an early build of his game out into the world, and it gets some attention. Before long, the day job goes by the wayside, and the game becomes a passion project. Soon, the guy is working all hours, staying up late, waking up early, crunching to finish his game in the face of impossible deadlines.
You’ve heard the story before, but this isn’t that guy, and this isn’t that game. This guy is Mark Taylor, and the game is PSVR’s Korix. What makes Taylor’s story unique is that he taught himself how to code, and instead of a sprite-based RPG or arcade game, Taylor decided to create a 3D online multiplayer VR RTS title. Because he found the fledgling technology of VR fascinating, Mark Taylor took on a challenge that many people would consider to be insurmountable. And by overcoming every obstacle, Taylor delivered my favorite game this year.
Korix seems simple enough. Up to 4 players set up bases near their respective starting power resource and start building workers to collect energy. On the other side of the grid-like play area, other players are doing the same. With gathered energy, players can build defensive turrets (lasers, artillery, etc.) to protect their territory, and offensive units (tanks, airships, “megabots”) to go harass other players and attack their bases. Before long, players are battling over remaining energy sources, and lobbing nukes at each other. The last player standing wins. Games can be over in a matter of minutes, or last for hours, depending on the patience of the folks playing.
What makes Korix so special is that, unlike other RTS games, players can see each other. When you look across the field of play, you see the other guys over there, floating above the play area as disembodied heads. Their controllers hover in front of them, and you can watch them setting up their defensive walls and artillery turrets. Swinging to the side of the board to try to sneak in some surprise defenses? The other guy sees you do it. Trying to build up a secret army behind a wall? Other players can switch to your perspective and figure out your plans, giving them time to respond accordingly.
VR lends an immediacy to the experience that is difficult to describe. Taunts and moans of defeat mean so much more when you can see the person doing the taunting and moaning.
“The main focus of Korix was the interaction between players,” says Taylor. “Could Korix work outside of VR? Yeah, it could, but I think it would be less compelling. I think Korix is a nice addictive game, but I think when you throw in the social element where you see each other, it adds a completely different dynamic. It makes it ten times more fun.”
Taylor knows how engaging the game can be first hand. “On launch day, and several days afterwards, I was joining into online play. It was a lot of fun. It’s kind of like jostling around the table with your friends down to the pub, at the foosball table. People are saying “Hey, look over there, what’s that?”. The [other guy] turns around, then they launch a nuke. They turn back, and their base is nuked. There’ll be people trying to distract each other, throw each other off, shining their lasers in each other’s eyes. I had two people chase each other around the board. Another guy was hiding. I turned around and when I turned back he was gone. I was like ‘Where are you?’ and he was like ‘Can’t find me!’ He had ducked down, and he was hiding under the level somewhere.”
“It’s kind of like the game is there to provide some entertainment,” Taylor continues, “but it’s almost an excuse to interact with people and have fun.”
Korix was not Taylor’s first swipe at game development. His company, StellarVR, previously had a project under development on Steam Greenlight, Eridanus Wars. Eridanus Wars was conceived as a multi-player co-op space battle title, also in VR. However, the extremely ambitious scope of the title (60-player dogfights, a complicated in-game economy) eventually became too much for a one-man development team. He put the title “on ice”, but was not done with game development.
Taylor hatched the idea for Korix while stuck on a delayed flight, playing a simple mobile strategy game. He had been teaching himself game development as a hobby for a few years. He put together the prototype for Korix on his own. “I created the first four levels. The first four levels in the release title are pretty much the same as what I originally created.”
Taylor shopped his prototype around, and quickly came to the attention of Sony, who provided him with a Project Morpheus dev kit and funding. Soon, he was turning in his notice at his day job. He shifted the attention of StellarVR to Korix, and began focusing solely on its development.
Taylor soon realized that he could not develop the title completely on his own. “Once I got funding, I found an artist to help me develop the graphical style a little bit. It was always going to be that low-poly stylized look, but they certainly helped it look a bit better.”
Taylor also knew that if he was going to get the title out the door, he would need some help with the networking code. “After funding, I was like ‘I’m dealing with the big boys now’, releasing on PlayStation. I didn’t know where to start. I went out and found a guy named Simon Evans, who I hired for about ten months to help me out. He had about 15 years of experience in the industry. He did the networking, the matchmaking, and the integration there. I went into it thinking that there was no way I could do it on my own. I needed someone who’s ‘been there, done that’ to help me. Making a networked title is insane. A crazy amount of effort is required.”
Taylor was operating under some serious time constraints. “It was about six months of developing the concept and messing around. Then when I got the funding, from funding to release it was probably another year.”
There was no time between the completion of the game and release. “There’s a thing called crunch,” Taylor says, “which is where you work all the hours that you are able to keep your eyes pried open through caffeine and other stimulants to try to get the game ready.” Taylor was unable to elaborate on Sony’s quality assurance process due to a standing Non-Disclosure Agreement, but he was able to say that “the hardest thing that an indie has is passing FQA (Final Quality Assurance). That’s the trickiest bit. You’re working hard to get through that. Once you’ve got through that, then you’re technically able to launch.
“I wanted to launch originally for Christmas, but it got delayed. We had to work an extra three months to get it finished. Partly to pass FQA, but partly because there were features that I felt that it had to have. Otherwise I wouldn’t be happy with myself.”
While many titles released during these early days of VR have been derided by the press and fans as little more than tech-demos, Taylor was committed to releasing a full-featured game. Korix includes a 3-5-hour single player campaign, as well as 2-4 player co-op and versus play, with leaderboards and matchmaking. “This was the minimum I was happy releasing. I wanted to release a real game that people could play, and if it’s your thing, you could get many, many, many hours of enjoyment out of it. I did not want to release some cut back, short experience.”
Given unlimited time, Taylor would have added even more features. In addition to “a load more” levels and better matchmaking, he would have included an internal camera, designed specifically for streamers. “I wanted to get a really nice spectator mode for YouTubers. There is a secret bit of code in Korix, actually, which if you know how to do it, you could get a spectator mode. I like the idea of having competitive multiplayer, like leagues and tournaments. I thought that - at the moment - the industry is missing a trick, in that there’s no film studio within the game. So, when you watch StarCraft tournaments or MOBA tournaments, all they’re doing is screening a copy of each player’s screen. I love the idea of having a camera inside the game, so that the people commentating over the action actually have their own camera. They could zoom around and get good shots of the action.” Taylor says that many of the controls for a third-person camera are already built into the code of Korix, but turned off. “Maybe in the next couple of months, in an update, I might be able to enable it.”
Taylor never considered making Korix in a standard screen format, and never doubted his decision to develop for VR. “I got into development for VR. I was lucky, in that Sony provided me with a Morpheus prototype. I had my hands on a kit, and I knew as soon as I put it on that it was pretty damn good. It’s hard staying quiet when everyone is debating over Reddit over if it’s going to be any good, and inside I’m going ‘You know, actually, it’s really compelling’.”
That doesn’t mean that developing for VR is easy. However, Taylor enjoyed the challenge. “For someone who has recently taught himself to develop…it was really exciting, but there weren’t a lot of other people out there. It was a new territory. I was starting from the ground level, but so was everybody else. Other people out there had a lot of experience in the industry building other types of games, but a good number of things you have to chuck out the window and start again.
“You have to completely start again and think about how you do control schemes. And how are you going to approach concepts like UI (User Interface) design? It’s completely different. You go from having a HUD and a menu system where you click on things or you select them with your thumb stick. [In VR] you can’t really do that. You’re in a virtual space in three dimensions. What are you going to do, stick it to their nose and have it follow them around? That’s shoehorning an old-style system into a new medium. So, for me, it’s all about exploring a new medium and figuring out how we can do things differently.”
In the era of micro-transactions, where many players are becoming disenchanted with what they consider to be predatory practices, Taylor took a refreshing approach to DLC. While it is helpful to the financial success of the title, StellarVR did not want to gouge players. Korix offers a series of unique heads that players can purchase for 99 cents, changing the way they are represented in-game. “I wanted it to be purely cosmetic. I was massively against DLC personally. I wouldn’t want to release a game where there was DLC that actually had real content. People were saying ‘You should do downloadable maps, or units, or extra weapons’, but no. I think that’s unfair for those that don’t [purchase it]. It’s an online game. You can’t give players an edge just because they spent 59 cents on something. I wanted some DLC, because with an indie game looking like Korix, you need to price [the game] at a low-ish level. If I charged 39 bucks, no one would buy it. I had to price it at a reasonable level. But then there will be some people who really like it and want to support the title. Having cosmetic DLC allows people to show their appreciation or customize a character. So, if you want to get a cheap game, you can, and if you want to spend a bit more, you can.”
Currently, Taylor is back to working alone, plugging away to port Korix to PC, supporting both Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. He anticipates a release date in early 2018. In his “spare, spare, spare” time, he is also assisting another studio with coding on an as-yet undisclosed project.
As for the future of StellarVR, Taylor says that he might be willing to re-enter the fray as soon as the inspiration strikes with a new idea. “I’ve got lots of different ideas. There’s always the possibility of a Korix 2. But also, I like to design games based on the feelings I generate in the player. For Korix, it was addictive gameplay with the social element. I work back from the emotion, the feeling. I’m toying with two or three ideas, but none of them are quite there yet.”
Korix is currently available for purchase in the PlayStation Store.