Celebrating 10 years of creativity at Firesprite with our project teams
The Persistence is a brutal sci-fi horror rogue-lite which challenges players to survive aboard a stranded, malfunctioning starship caught in the inexorable pull of a black hole. Blood-thirsty horrors await in the shadows of an ever-changing labyrinth in the form of your mutated former crew mates who you must attack or evade in order to fix the ship and make your escape!
Originally released as a PS VR exclusive in 2018, the teams were also proud to develop a Complete Edition in 2020, releasing to new platforms and making the game available for the first time on the flat-screen. Later, in 2021, an Enhanced Edition of the game was released, with lighting and UX enhancements and Raytracing, dialling up the atmosphere and tension to new levels of immersive terror!
In celebration of our 10 year anniversary this November, we’ve been reflecting on our journey so far; chatting with our project teams who have been sharing fond memories and development insights into our projects throughout the years. Today we’re catching up with Senior Storyboard Artist Darren Douglas, Senior Programmer Dimitri Xitas, Senior Development Manager Gareth Delve, Programmer Matthew Jenkinson, Senior QA Tester Duncan Tyrer, and Principal Programmer Tom Vernon to discuss the development of Firesprite’s The Persistence!
What was your role on The Persistence, how did you help bring the game to life?
Darren: I was Freelance concept artist for the initial PS VR game. I was herded into the early, bare bones version of what was to become the game, where I was instantly killed by space zombies. I think the zombie trauma was about equalled by the daunting thought of detailing all those endless corridors and rooms!
Dimitri: I was part of the team making The Persistence ports on PC and Nintendo Switch and The Persistence Enhanced on PS5. For me, it was mainly plenty of bug fixes and trying to make the game run smoothly across both the Switch and across the many needs of PC players with ultrawide support and uncapped frame rates.
Gareth: I was Lead Producer/Development Manager across all versions of The Persistence. I worked tirelessly with Stu (Game Director) and the Production team to ensure we finished the game and shipped on time.
Matthew: I worked as a Programmer on the Map Client, the Switch Port, and the Enhanced Edition (PC and PS5). On the Switch version I was mainly improving performance to make the game feel more responsive and immersive. On the PC and PS5 versions I added dynamic lighting and ray-traced reflections to add realism.
Duncan: I had different roles across all of the different versions of The Persistence. I started on the conversion from PS VR to flat-screen and essentially helped maintain the quality of the title, and suggested ways to improve it for the new platforms it was brought onto. Given my level of involvement on the title after its PS VR release, I had quite a lot of knowledge on how the game worked from an in-game perspective. It helped to shed light on current vs. expected behaviour when speaking with staff who were working on adapting the title for its different platforms.
Tom: I worked on the original PS VR version as Gameplay Programmer initially, Lead Programmer towards the end. I think I touched almost every system and mechanic we had in the game at some point during the three years I worked on it.
What were some of the tools that you worked with every day?
Darren: Pencil, pen and paper, Painter and Photoshop!
Dimitri: For The Persistence Enhanced, I really enjoyed using the PS5’s vibration designer tool, which allows you to import audio files and modify them so that they can be “played back” as Haptic Feedback on the DualSense. And then figuring out how to get it to work in Unreal, since I don’t think there was much documentation on this at the time for this.
Matthew: Visual Studio, Unreal Engine and Razor GPU.
Tom: The Persistence was my first exposure to Unreal Engine, which was great! Over 7 years after starting I’m still working in Unreal daily and still learning how to get the best out of the engine; it’s quite some beast!
What are some of your most memorable moments from the game’s development?
Darren: I remember coming back in a while after seeing the bare room version and putting on the PS VR headset to find it transformed into a fully detailed environment, often it was so close to the drawings that I found myself looking at the back of objects that I’d only drawn two or three sides of to see what the other side looked like.
Dimitri: I was very happy to get the chance to work with a Nintendo Switch for the learning experience. I enjoy learning how things work and learning how to develop for a different platform is always exciting.
Gareth: I think, personally speaking, getting the game finished and shipped on time was a massive thing for me. Volunteering to take over at a late stage of development was a risk, but it was something I really wanted to do as I’d been involved at the very early stages of the project, before moving to look after AirForce Special Operations Nightfall, and wanted to see it through when the opportunity arose.
Also, I was very lucky that I got to travel to Milan, London and LA twice promoting the game at various events and it was always great to see people’s reactions when they got smashed by the Berserker or they were unleashing all sorts on their friends using the map client.
Matthew: The task of dealing with the translations, there are so many extra considerations when implementing Chinese and Japanese fonts to ensure they displayed correctly.
Duncan: Getting some really good speedrun times when I was verifying issues at the tail end of the title are up there in my memories – finally getting the understanding of how everything in the game worked. Likewise, being able to see long-awaited work finally implemented, or seeing the game’s progress through the different platform checks.
Tom: It sounds a little twisted, but there’s definitely a strange satisfaction in seeing people get caught out by jump scares you have helped to author, both the scripted and procedural ones, and so watching let’s plays when the game first released was a blast.
What detail were you most proud to have contributed to The Persistence?
Dimitri: For The Persistence Enhanced, it was awesome to be able to implement the new features that the PlayStation 5 has, such as the new haptics, trigger feedback, the new Trophy system and Activities. I also implemented gyro aiming. Ever since I tried this feature in the original Splatoon, I always look for it in shooters I play. Sadly, not a popular feature.
But my most proud feature would be the haptics on the DualSense. I spent quite some time creating some reusable waveforms for this. I went through plenty of the player’s animations (the knife finishers and weapon equip ones in particular) and did my best to make the haptics match what the character’s hands were touching at every frame. We also went slightly above and beyond in terms of features; we added a one-way save data transfer from the original PS4 version to The Persistence Enhanced. This did mean that we had to patch the original PS4 version, which itself ended up being a bigger pain than anticipated. But I hope people who got both versions found this feature useful.
Matthew: The lighting in the Enhanced version, it took a long time to get it looking right once we stopped using the light field and started using RTGI.
Duncan: Not really something I contributed per se, but a few of the suggestions I made during the port to Xbox and PC were implemented, so I’m happy that I had could communicate my thoughts with the dev team and for the feedback to be taken on board.
Tom: Some key highlights for me were; prototyping, implementing and fine tuning the stealth gameplay centred around the stem cell harvester weapon and coming up with the framework for managing the procedural placement of enemies and loot around the generated levels. Also, changes to the procedural level generation logic to give level design more creative freedom with the building blocks they created that were combined to create the rooms in the levels, and to the logic that placed all of these generated rooms in sensible and interesting configurations to make the final generated levels.
What is something that the team taught you?
Darren: Not to cut too many corners in the drawings, they actually have to build that stuff!!
Gareth: At the late stages of the project when the pressure is on, your people skills are just as important as your ability to predict and manage workloads.
Matthew: That teamwork makes the dream work.
Duncan: A strong team bond can be developed regardless of the size of the team.
Tom: I think by biggest take away from The Persistence thanks to the team was the importance of spending time iterating and fine tuning the core moment to moment gameplay. We spent a lot of time on and made many iterations to the core ‘stealth, stem cell harvest, shield block and then flee’ loop, but I think this shows in the end result and is a big part of what made the game so fun to play.
What unknown facts or easter eggs can you share with us about the game?
Dimitri: This is where I end up getting a trouble, but here goes. We were a team of mainly programmers and UI artists, so making the game look different than the original release was difficult (props to Matt for doing a fantastic job with the lighting!) I wanted there to be some noticeable difference to the version from the moment you booted it. So I… changed the title screen scene. Instead of The Persistence itself, you now see the beautiful yet threatening black hole.
But I wanted more.
Originally, I thought the black hole in the title screen could become bigger as you complete each objective, but that didn’t end up looking great. I spent some time looking at the rooms of each floor where the main objective is and made a title screen for each objective. The title screen changes based on your progress in the game, and acts as a little teaser to what you’ll be seeing soon. It’s just something I implemented because I wanted to. I mentioned it in our meetings and no one said anything about it or against it. I don’t know if anyone even noticed. But it’s there. Please forgive me, Lee!
Duncan: A small fact to help with gameplay - if you ever get stuck trying to fight a Weeper, you can actually draw other enemies into her line of fire to take the damage for you.
Tom: We had many iterations of a bumbling medi-bot who use to float around the levels generally doing a bad job of not bumping into things. I don’t remember exactly when or why he ended up cut, but I was sad he never made the final game.
How about some of the game’s challenges and how you tackled tough moments?
Darren: I think the trickiest thing was rewiring my brain from the mischievous energies of THE PLAYROOM to the serious tone of space horror, not that THE PLAYROOM bots wouldn’t make terrifying adversaries en masse!
Dimitri: I believe this was when Unreal 4.25 was just released, with a 4.25+ which had some features that we needed. When this was released, there was something really wrong with the rendering on PS4.
Sometimes meshes would just move to the position of something else, sometimes the mesh of the room you were in would flip entirely. Objects would phase in and out. UI text would appear in different places in the world. It made the game scarier sometimes, like a jumpscare that you can’t predict and probably wouldn’t happen on your next playthrough! But this was something that Epic eventually fixed after a few days.
Tom: Coming up with rules to try and ensure the generated levels were fun to play was a really interesting challenge, but I really enjoyed prototyping lots of the fun weapons and pickups we implemented, like the Grav Hook, Valkyrie and Swarm Drones and doing my best to polish up the enemy AI to make the enemies behave sensibly and predictably, to create satisfying stealth gameplay.
Tell us about some memorable successes and how they felt?
Darren: it was surreal walking round the game where it so closely resembled the drawings and I love how some of the weapons turned out, real, nasty bits of kit and very functional looking!
Gareth: I was lucky enough to be asked to represent the game, alongside Stu Tilley on a stand at PSX in LA. I can remember the buzz when we realised we had a queue of more than 2 hours of people waiting to play the game. We had the secret weapon of the map client so we could take a tablet or phone to people in the queue and let them sabotage the people playing in VR to add some extra fun to it.
Matthew: My way of optimising the light field so it only loaded for a few rooms (the one you were in and the ones you could go in instead of all of them) for Switch, that was pretty good. It was a relief to get some frames back. That and finding the right option for compression to get it under our 4GB target.
Duncan: Getting the first platinum trophy or unlocking all achievements for the first time on each platform. It’s always good to see the expected behaviour for most features working together.
Tom: I really enjoyed the post-release work we put into adding some additional game modes. These came together really quickly and easily, which as a programmer is always nice validation, that you did a half decent job of keeping everything sufficiently decoupled and generic. These modes were super fun to play too, which I think was testament to how solid our core gameplay was.
How did it feel release the games and see the community and players response?
Dimitri: I’m going to be very selfish with this answer but seeing both projects done and released, and receiving the shipped copies afterwards was very surreal; my first credits on a video game, and I’m holding them in my hands! It was a great feeling.
Gareth: It was great to see the response of the community, it was still quite early for VR and we were one of the first games to try and do full locomotion in first person, we got some great feedback from the community on this when a lot of people were saying it would just make everyone feel sick. The patch we released with new accessibility settings was also well received.
Duncan: Really good. It’s always a bit nervy working on something for 6 months, a year, 2 years or more not knowing what people are going to think about it, but the feedback towards the game and our own reflections have helped in how we approach other projects.
Can you remember your first real jump scare and what the moment felt like in VR?
Gareth: I think it was probably the first time I was exploring one of the early test levels and unknowingly someone else on the dev team had used the map client to set a Berserker loose in the level, and I jumped out of my skin when I turned around and it was right there.
How did it feel to make the game available to a whole host of new players across new platforms when developing The Persistence Complete?
Duncan: Aside from the good feeling I think/hope we all got, it was actually quite an insightful experience, being able to see the different reactions and feedback from people playing on multiple platforms outside of the original PlayStation VR space.
Dimitri: More people getting to play the game is always a good thing.
“When everybody plays, we all win.”
Can you tell us more about the technology of The Persistence Enhanced and how you used that technology to heighten the tension and immersion of the game?
Matthew: We used Unreal’s built in ray-tracing tech to add ray-traced reflections, shadows, and global illumination to the game. This was before lumen was a thing, so it worked a bit differently.
Adding the god rays added a lot to the aesthetic. It makes it more realistic; light moves more like it does in real life. It just takes away a distraction that serves as a little reminder that you’re playing a video game.
Also, the dynamic lighting and shadows can make for some more spooky scenarios, maybe you can see an enemy’s shadow before they come round the corner, or maybe you see their reflection in a monitor or a pool of blood.
Duncan: I think the simplest explanation is that it allows more depth – the lighting has a chance to give more… life-like accuracy, so (one of the more noticeable places for me) the dark areas match the darkness that lends itself to being an atmospheric horror title.
Do you have a special message to any of your teammates of the time as we’re reflecting back today?
Matthew: It was a blast working with you, it was a great team, and a great time!
Gareth: I still have really fond memories of early development on The Persistence. When we first got the map client system up and running, a certain member of the art team took great pleasure in sabotaging anyone playing/testing the game by unleashing Berserkers on them at every opportunity. All you would hear is someone swearing as they died, followed by the chuckling from the guilty party in the corner. Happy days 😊