More than a week after my almost-10-year-old daughter met Quill, she’s still talking about her. They spent only about an hour together, but she misses the tiny, sword-wielding mouse that stars in Polyarc‘s virtual reality game, Moss.
It’s just the effect that the game designers at this Seattle startup were hoping for. Because while some games are focused on shooting or sports or solving puzzles, the aim for Moss is to have players feel something deeper, making connections with a character like you do when watching a movie or reading a book.
“VR is going to help accelerate the notion that games can be emotional as well,” said Tam Armstrong, CEO and engineer at Polyarc.
Moss players can form a relationship with Quill, working alongside her, immersed via VR in her world’s damp Northwest forests and “Lord of the Rings”-worthy ruins and cottages. The big-eared mouse looks at you, can be startled if you sneak up on her and allows you to pat her on the head.
“That’s a pretty exciting way to broaden the emotional depth of the games that we make,” said Armstrong.
And it’s a definite change from the sci-fi, first-person shooter games that Armstrong used to build as an engineer at Bungie, developing the popular games Destiny and Halo: Reach. In 2015, he launched Polyarc with fellow Bungie veterans Danny Bulla and Chris Alderson. The year after, they landed a $3.5 million investment round, and haven’t taken any additional funding since.
The trio set out to do something different with their venture, “to push the boundaries of our craft at the intersection of art and science,” Armstrong said. “We want to use this advanced technology to create, play and tell stories in exciting new ways.”
That meant creating small characters that players could physically interact with using VR controls. The Polyarc team considered populating their world with aliens, robots or toys, ultimately settling on tiny animals.
And why make Quill a girl mouse?
“We saw these other studios paving the way, featuring female lead characters,” Armstrong said. They decided to follow suit.
When playing the game, you rarely get to see your own character navigating the mystical world. But catching a glimpse in a pool of water, you’ll see that it looks something like the masked spirits with wide-set eyes in the Miyazaki movie “Spirited Away.”
While Quill is meant to tug at a player’s heartstrings — my daughter was considerably troubled when she let the mouse drown multiple times after missing a tricky jump over a waterwheel — the game includes plenty of excitement, problem-solving and adventure, battling with beetles and other foes.
But what if Quill does her job too well, is too irresistible? Already there are many people who struggle with gaming addictions, and a lovable rodent will make it even harder for parents to wrest VR controls from their kids.
“We do think about those kinds of things,” Armstrong said. He didn’t offer a solution to this problem, but emphasized that they’re working to create an experience that is fun and “honest,” suggesting that it’s not intentionally manipulative.
Moss is available for $30 on Vive, Oculus, Windows Mixed Reality and PlayStation VR. This month, Sony released a PlayStation VR hardware bundle that includes Moss. The Quill figurine is not for sale, but you can buy a mug or an enamel pin with her likeness for $15 each through Amazon.
Armstrong predicts there could be three or more adventures to come for the heroic mouse, adding, “Quill’s story has just started.”
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: Polyarc builds games for technologies that bring its characters to life. We want you to directly play with and relate to them.
Inspiration hit us when: Our first inspiration hit us when seeing prototype VR hardware at Valve. The possibility of immersing ourselves in the games we loved was very exciting. New input methods meant new exciting possibilities for interaction. The notion that we could build on the fundamental experience of physically playing with our toys was too compelling to miss.
Our second inspiration hit us when we saw the first player cry meeting Quill during an early prototype of Moss. The experience of meeting Quill produced an immediate emotional response and it became clear just how much closer players could feel to our characters in this new medium. The combination of being in the same physical space as another living thing that can also acknowledge you directly and look you in the eye changes everything.
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Polyarc has gone from bootstrapped to VC over the course of its existence. We chose this path so that we would have the resources we need to execute on our vision, as well as the flexibility to adjust our plans as we go based on what we see happening around us.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Polyarc is intensely focused on the experience the player has while playing our games. We are making games, worlds and characters because that is what we love to do. We are making these games FOR our players. With this laid out as our foundation we try to establish clear pillars for our work. The most fundamental pillars we follow for our development in XR are that physical interaction and emotional connection are two of the things that the medium can do better than any other. Everything we do here is built on top of these ideas.
The smartest move we’ve made so far: The smartest move we’ve made so far is trusting our gut on people and relationships. We’ve been fortunate to work with amazing people both here at the studio and externally as business partners.
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Early on we were consistently underestimating the time it takes to do most things on the business side. We tried to be conservative but were still off the mark. Recently we’ve become a bit more realistic about this.
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner? I feel like I have to say that we’d be lucky to have any of them in our corner with their incredible business minds! Along which axis would we differentiate them? If Gates represents productive technology, Zuckerberg represents social connectivity, and Bezos represents customer experience… I would say Bezos, as the one of the three who most closely relates to our focus on player experience.
Our favorite team-building activity is: So far it has been cooking! Occasionally folks on the team make food for the whole company. We’ve had breakfasts a few times, and most recently a home-made hot wing sauce tasting event. Cooking together and sharing the food has been a wonderful bonding experience.
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Cultural contribution. Accepting a requisite combination of skill and experience, the way we select from the remaining candidates is how we perceive their ability to bring something unique and positive to our collaborative work. It is important to have unique contributions to challenge existing ideas and generate new ones. If we are not testing and iterating on all our work — including fundamental ideas — then we will inevitably become stagnant.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Build genuine relationships. Running a company is a long commitment and you will depend on other people to see it be successful. Self-interested networking and deals can only get you so far, but truly seeking opportunities where everyone feels good about the outcome is holistically the best way in the long run.