Bravo Team, the PlayStation VR shooter from Until Dawn developer Supermassive Games, launched earlier this month to a critical mauling and disappointment from fans hoping for another game of Until Dawn quality. Early glimpses looked bland at best, but Supermassive's recent track record suggested Bravo Team could - should - still turn out okay. After all, the studio had turned things around before. But, this time, that didn't happen. Bravo Team launched in a state, and in Eurogamer's review, Ian branded the game "an astonishingly bad VR shooter from a team that should know better".
It's that last part which intrigued me - here was a studio which had form in Until Dawn and other VR efforts like Tumble VR and Rush of Blood. By contrast, Bravo Team arrived riddled with glitches, featuring dull levels, a dreary art pallete and laughable enemy AI. What had gone so wrong here?
Speaking to Eurogamer under condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, Supermassive staff have painted a picture of a project which felt doomed from an early stage, of a studio which feels increasingly overworked, and a management too focused on maintaining the place in the spotlight Supermassive secured with 2015's Until Dawn, still the studio's biggest claim to fame.
It's no secret Until Dawn turned out better than anyone had expected. I played a PS3 build of Until Dawn back at Gamescom 2012 when it was still a PlayStation Move game and it was, to put it kindly, extremely rough. Still, Supermassive was allowed the time to improve things and finally release the game on PS4 some three years later, after around five years development time total. Right up until launch, expectations were low - and then Until Dawn arrived, polished, to rightful praise for its visuals, Hollywood cast and overall cinematic feel. Supermassive had pulled off a stunning turnaround, secured by far its biggest hit to date and won a reputation for suddenly being able to deliver games with a movie-like quality.
But with this reputation established, the pressure was on to maintain it - even with Bravo Team, a very different type of game: a PlayStation VR shooter developed in 13 months, not five years. This pressure impacted the project throughout its development, Supermassive staff told me. "We intended and expected to mimic the established conventions for first-person shooters and, where relevant, VR titles," one person said, "but the studio blocked any design that wasn't 'realistic' or 'movie realistic'." This meant no heads up display (HUD) to relay information on weapons and ammo, not showing your character's floating hands, not showing navigation points, and not featuring a traditional tutorial. Where these things do appear in the final game, staff told me, it was because so much time was wasted unsuccessfully trying to find alternatives that the team was eventually allowed to return to established conventions when time ran out.
"'Hollywood realism' just got in the way of everything," another staff member said. "We didn't have the time or the money to make a first-person shooter in VR, but even then we didn't have a fighting chance because the studio crippled us with these constraints on top. Take [Until Dawn VR spin-off] Rush of Blood, which turned out really well - its team was left alone, which is key, but the interruptions [from management] were the same: 'no music, you have to have a full character body, no floaty hands'. For a long time you didn't have the score displayed anywhere."
The lack of a HUD had knock-on effects which staff struggled to solve in the project's allotted time. One staff member said 10-15 guns had been designed for use in Bravo Team, but only four made it in because it was decided the game could only explain how a small number worked visually without a HUD to differentiate between them. Another bugbear was the replacement of animations created early on in the project - someone climbing a ladder, for example - with "identical" ones created later using mo-capped actors who simply performed the same actions. Work was junked, even minor animations, to maintain a resolute focus on cinematic feel. Staff also wanted to include music, which was kept to a minimum "because players would wonder where it was coming from".
Supermassive leadership wanted a game which looked as good as Until Dawn, but for it to still be a first-person shooter - a task staff who actually worked on the game said felt impossible. Early enthusiasm for a project pitched as "the game which defines shooters on VR" and "the Halo of VR shooters" soon waned when the realities of production became clear.
"We were quite pleased with E3," one staff member told me of the game's public showing in June 2017, "but after that the problems arose". Said another team member: "We did not believe we could deliver the promise from the start, but hoped that our time, budget or scope would change." Staff asked management for more resources, and following a round of mock reviews (where a developer asks external consultants to critique a project as if it were complete) both Bravo Team and The Inpatient were delayed out of 2017 and into spring 2018.
Opinion is mixed on whether this helped. "We had fewer resources than promised," one person told me. "It felt like we would fail, and mock reviews in September confirmed this independently. But the delay from November to March didn't help because the sole focus was frame rate and most of the team were moved off. This 'optimisation' work made the game worse than when we had the mock reviews - we stripped visual effects, reduced enemy numbers, lost behaviour and inserted loading screens." "The team was begging for change," another person told me, "more resource or reduced scope, and no action was taken. And then it was, and everything needed to be torn to shreds."
The project's management and studio leadership bear the brunt of staff complaints - from their focus on a cinematic feel to the amount of staff on each project. I've heard that, at one point in 2017, Supermassive's focus was split over seven simultaneous teams. One project was dropped, while another large project being worked on is in production without a publisher. And yet staff say Bravo Team felt undermanned throughout. "We couldn't get the people," one person told me. "You can see them sitting there, on another project." Said another: "The three Sony projects were starved of resources whilst an unsigned project was not. Around August management finally recognised the severity of the problems and released some resources to help Inpatient - but that resulted in about a quarter of the Bravo Team resources also being lost." At its peak, Bravo Team's staff size peaked around 25 although for the majority of the project's lifespan it was less. "It was a tiny amount of people for what they wanted to do," one staff member stated.
Staff say various team members approached superiors with feedback on the project but that some subjects of discussion felt set in stone. It all goes back to Until Dawn, staff say, and a desire to stick to that same visual quality bar no matter what. The difference there, though, is that Supermassive spent five years on that project - after a prototype for the game had been around for even longer, inherited from Sony London. By comparison, Supermassive's 13 months spent on Bravo Team inevitably feels like a rushed job. "It was rough," one staff member said, "you work the extra hours which you always do, but it's usually for something you feel really passionate about - and that wasn't that case."
So, what next for Supermassive? After its work on PlayStation VR projects, Supermassive staff are keen to return to making the kind of games Until Dawn fans are expecting. When contacted for comment on this piece, Supermassive Games CEO Pete Samuels responded with the following statement:
“We were disappointed by the reception to Bravo Team at launch. Since then we have been reviewing all the feedback and have been working on a patch to address a number of the issues raised. We plan to release this in the near future. Our number one priority is to satisfy fans and create compelling gaming experiences. We were thrilled by the response to Until Dawn and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, and this compelled us as a studio to move forward with a number of projects exploring different concepts, skills and techniques. We have learned a lot from these experiences, and will be putting all of these learnings into practice as we refocus the team and move on to new projects. As a studio we appreciate all the feedback we receive from fans - both good and bad - and we're all hugely excited about the future."
"The people there are really talented and surprisingly buoyant, considering," one staff member told me of the studio in general, and the talent within it. As Supermassive looks to the future - and to games it hopes will better Until Dawn - staff tell me they hope management listens and learns from the mistakes made here.