Seattle gaming startup Polyarc grows team as it brings ‘Moss: Book 2’ to Oculus

Quill and the Reader, from Polyarc’s Moss: Book 2. (Polyarc Games Image)

Seattle-based VR developer Polyarc Games is bringing its recently-debuted adventure game Moss: Book 2 to the Oculus Quest 2 headset at some point this summer.

The announcement came courtesy of Moss‘mouse heroine Quill, who made a virtual appearance at the Meta Quest Gaming Showcase livestream on April 20. Moss: Book 2 previously debuted as a timed exclusive for PlayStation VR on March 31.

I had the chance to play Moss: Book 2 and speak with its principal engineer and design director, Josh Stiksma, about the new game’s expanded team, the future of VR, and ongoing plans at Polyarc, started in 2015 by veterans of Bungie.

A brief critical interlude

As in the original game, you play Moss: Book 2 as the Reader, an anonymous figure who’s connected to Quill via a magical storybook. In-universe, you’re a spooky, mute ghost that hovers above Quill.

It’s an interesting balance between more traditional 2D game design and the opportunities you get from VR. You control Quill directly with your gamepad, but you see the game through the Reader’s eyes, which gives you a wider perspective than she’d ever get.

In addition, as the Reader, you can manipulate the environment around Quill to help her navigate obstacles. This can mean opening doors, moving objects, taking direct control of mechanical enemies, or healing her when she’s injured. It can be a lot to juggle at once, but Moss handles its dual control schemes with a surprising elegance.

With Book 2, Polyarc has refined Moss’s general approach, but hasn’t really changed it. Book 2 can be charitably described as more of the same, but better, with cleverer puzzles, cooler enemies, and more colorful and varied environments. Very little about Moss was broken, and most of that have been fixed.

It’s still got a few VR-specific quirks, like how it’s difficult for you as the Reader to interact with background objects, but most of my petty irritations with the original Moss have been ironed out in Book 2. It’s a better overall take on a formula that was already pretty good.

(Polyarc Games Image)

The story so far

Book 2 picks up minutes after the original Moss left off. With your help, Quill has defeated the fire-breathing snake Sarrfog and rescued her elderly uncle Argus. That’s only left the job about half done, however.

Sarrfog wasn’t the only danger in Quill’s world, and his death has put her and Argus in a new, different danger. She sets out on a quest to try and get help, through journeying to other kingdoms and finding more pieces of magical Glass.

I’m being vague, but one thing that’s important to know about Book 2 is that it’s got some serious plot twists. Aside from maybe taking the time to play the original Moss, it’s worth going into Book 2 as cold as you can.

Book 2 officially went into pre-production at Polyarc about three years ago, according to Stiksma, and was in full development for a little over two years. Moss‘s overall success led to an expansion of the team for Book 2going from 12 dedicated developers to as many as 20 at a time.

“We’re really excited that we could actually have a bigger team because the game’s a little bit more ambitious,” Stiksma told GeekWire. “We have a little bit more leeway.”

Moss offloads a lot of its storytelling sequences to still images, via the pages of the Reader’s in-game storybook. With Book 2however, more of the action occurs in fully-animated sequences that feature Quill and her supporting cast.

“As a small studio, we have to make calls about where we have capacity,” Stiksma said. “Having a little more bandwidth means we can bring a few more things in-game. The book is a very powerful experience in virtual reality, but seeing these animated characters move around you is also very strong. We want to try to strike a good balance of that. ”

What’s next in virtual reality

A few years ago, VR was picking up enough hype and high-profile investment that it was safe to describe it as the next big thing. With the introduction of the metaverse into the community conversation, however, VR has been forced to share some of its spotlight with other tech like XR and AR.

“I think a lot of developers are taking a look at the landscape, because it’s changing,” Stiksma said. “You can see that the user base is still growing, when you look at the numbers of people adopting the newer headsets, like the Oculus Quest 2. You can see that there’s large companies making big bets on the future of VR, which gives me a lot of confidence. ”

The VR gaming space is still growing in 2022, with the NPD Group reporting that VR / AR hardware was a strong seller in the 2021 holiday season. The next big investment in space outside the metaverse is likely to be Sony’s planned follow-up to its PlayStation VR headset, the PSVR2, which is currently planned for release in late 2023.

Polyarc concluded a Series B venture round in the summer of 2020 that’s fueled its current expansion. It currently has mutiple projects in the works, including ventures into alternate / mixed reality, while looking for opportunities to contribute to the metaverse as it develops.

“Polyarc has a bunch of stories that we want to tell,” Stiksma said, “and we’re excited to keep doing that as long as people are excited to keep playing our games.”

[Errata, 4/29: Corrected the spelling of Josh Stiksma’s name.]

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