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An Interview with Danny Bulla, Co-Founder of Polyarc Games

An Interview with Danny Bulla, Co-Founder of Polyarc Games - Article

by Jackson Newsome , posted on 08 June 2018 / 4,094 Views

I had the opportunity to interview Danny Bulla, co-founder of Polyarc - the studio behind 2018's Moss. I was able to learn more of Danny's insights regarding the game's development and VR, among other topics. I hope you enjoy reading the transcript as much as I enjoyed the interview!

Would you like to introduce yourself and your role at Polyarc?

I’m Danny Bulla, and I’m the design director at Polyarc.

Can you talk a little about the inspiration for the setting of Moss, as well as for Quill herself as the main character?

Yeah! When we started in VR, we started everything not with a specific game idea in mind but with the idea that we wanted to develop a game for the medium itself. A lot of our inspiration came from us asking the question: “What would be good for VR?” The experience is just much more heightened in this medium rather than other media which led us away from other things. We were really excited about physical interaction and the way you could reach into the world and grab things. We also knew that comfort was a big issue for VR and wanted to pick something that was more familiar and not as intense, but we wanted to use intensity where we needed it at certain points in the game. We could bring it out, but one of our goals was comfort.

The setting came from that, in terms of where we thought this world would take place. We wanted a character that you could reach out and interact with and manipulate the world. That limited us to a couple different things. We could be a giant, and you could manipulate smaller sized creatures or humans, relative to you, but we didn’t think that would feel very tactile and physical. So, we went for a small character, and that left us with a few options.

We could be a mouse, a rodent which we ended up on, but it could also be a toy, or it could have been an alien or small creature. It was four of us at the time, and we all felt good about rodents. There’s a lot of history with anthropomorphic characters. We have a lot of that in our history. That’s how we ended up with Quill. The setting is where we started asking, “Where did she grow up?”, “Where is she from?”, “What’s in this world?” That was just part of the world building that happened over time, but we didn’t know exactly what the world of Moss would look like as we began the project.

You actually answered a couple of my follow-up questions already! I was going to ask why you chose a fantasy setting, given that some of the team’s AAA development experiences have been quite different (e.g., science-fiction).  

I think also, as creatives, you can grow by working on things that are different than what you have been doing or where you’ve been. For us, it was an opportunity to grab some other things that inspired us and apply it to the game. We didn’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over, especially when we had this opportunity with the new medium.

That makes a lot of sense. This next question is just to satisfy my own curiosity. Did you study actual rodents for the game?

We did measure a lot of different things like bricks and leaves because we found that it was so important that the scale of things in the virtual world matched what we expected in the physical world. We didn’t bring a mouse in here to measure it, but we looked through Google Images and at various artists to determine which rodents we’d have in our world. It usually boiled down to, “Oh, that’s cute. We should use that one.” [laughs] Really, it was just matching the tone of the personalities of the characters. It all happened organically.

In trying to avoid spoilers, one thing that really struck me in my playthrough of Moss was the tonal shift toward the end. Was there any concern that it may be too frightening for those who are inexperienced with VR or for younger audiences?

No, I don’t think we had any concern. In fact, I think it was our intent. The market isn’t very large right now. We wanted to make sure we made something that as many people as possible could enjoy. Right now, in VR, that means there’s a whole wide range. We’ve gotten emails from 60-year-olds, and we know there are 13 and 14-years-olds playing. It’s a good question because VR really can spike the intensity in a lot of different things. It can bring out different kinds of feelings. It can be sad, it can be fear, it can be joy.

We knew that the world would come off as something for younger audiences, but we wanted the narrative, the depth of the story, and the characters to really grab us as an older audience, so that’s the balance we get to do as developers, right?

We can try to do things that we think will appeal to most of the audience but also do things that are creatively satisfying. We wanted to test your relationship with Quill and solidify that bond. Sometimes you need sad moments to do that, and sometimes you need exciting moments to do that. Sometimes you just need to be walking through the forest. It’s really the cadence among those that give the texture to the narrative. I would say that, towards the end, the tonal shift was important. It’s our way of saying that this world is not just one tone. Everything isn’t all happy. There’s some dark stuff going on, and we’re just scratching the surface.

I thought it was a perfect way to cap off the game. It really helped build momentum. On a different note, and in being a new studio, what was it like for the team to see Moss debut to near-universal praise?

It’s hard when you put so much energy into something for such a consistent amount of time to have enough perspective to really take everything in and appreciate the kind words. Something we said around the studio is that there are a lot of people we haven’t talked to, or met, who have been touched by this world. That was really fulfilling for all of us to know we were making an impact because I think that’s why a lot of us here are making games.

I just skimmed through your review again, because I read it early on, and you said some really cool things toward the end about it that I appreciate. Thanks for writing that!

Absolutely. Thank you! Due to the nature of VGChartz, I feel I have to ask the next question. Can you comment at all on the game’s commercial response?

It hit exactly what we were aiming to do with Moss. As you know with VR, the VR market is nowhere near as large as the console market, right? So, if you look at it like that, you can create different expectations. For us, as a new IP and first release for our studio, what was important for us was people’s investment in the world. As the market grows, we’ll grow with it. To see people establish that relationship with Quill and the world itself… that was success to us – that people know about Polyarc and people know about Quill. We are proud of that.

I was a day-one PlayStation VR adopter. I thought about holding out, but I couldn’t resist and felt I got my money’s worth at launch. What would you say to any gamers who are reluctant to dive into VR? Why buy a headset now?

I’ve spent a year-and-a-half or two years in VR development. I just put my pen down and said, “I can’t convince people verbally. They’ll just have to try it.” I think when it comes to skeptics there are so many ways to try PSVR and other virtual reality headsets… tour buses going around, etc. The best thing people can do is research the content they’re interested in. Make sure it was made for VR, not just a port. Then, try to find a place to try it out. Once you get inside VR and experience good content that makes you feel something that traditional gaming can’t do at this point…that’s when you really understand the importance of VR, but I don’t think anyone will verbally convince people. My suggestion is for people to try it, and don’t feel pressure until you find that there’s the right content for you.

It’s interesting that you mentioned the opportunities to demo VR because I first tried it at a Best Buy the summer before PlayStation VR launched. I was hooked after one try.

Yeah, it’s what it takes. It’s something new that we really haven’t had access to. With new technology, it’ll take time until everyone’s in it – if that ever happens. I think it’s important for everyone to try it and to think of what cool things we can do with it that we couldn’t otherwise. That’s where you find gold.

Speaking of other VR headsets, can you speak to why Moss was designed for PlayStation VR instead of the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, for example?

For us, as an independent studio, we had to choose one platform upfront that we really wanted to focus our energy on. That turned out to be the PSVR. Sony saw an early prototype of Moss and was very supportive pretty much since the moment we showed it to them. We said, “Okay. We’re going to work with these partners. They’re going to help us.” They were so nice to put us on the E3 stage, which is a great exposure for us. That was where we focused our development energies. We want as many people as possible with VR headsets to experience Moss. That’s our goal.

Interviewer’s Note: Polyarc revealed during this conversation that Moss would launch for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive today. It’s available now!

I’m currently making my way through God of War. Which games are people playing around the studio?

The topic of conversation in our studio is God of War, but I tell everyone to stop talking because I’m really far behind [laughs]. A lot of us in the office play Hearthstone, but a lot of the team plays different games. When God of War came out it made a big splash, and it’s cool to see the different reactions to such a different kind of game than what we’re working on. That’s the best time to be playing these games – when it’s something that’s different. People around the office are obviously playing Fortnite as well.

I don’t know… I kind of feel bad that I don’t have more games to throw at you right now [laughs]. Actually, what I just picked up and played was Stardew Valley and Darkest Dungeon on the Switch. Just kind of checking out those and they are really different from what we’re doing. It’s cool to just try different games. We keep a close eye on VR. Oh! That’s the other one. Beat Saber. A lot of people are checking that out as well.

Any final thoughts you would like to share with fans of Moss, Quill, or your work in general?

The big thing is to follow our Twitter and social media pages. That’s our channel to everyone, and it’s the best way for people to ask us questions and get more information. If we are fortunate enough to tell the next chapter in Quill’s adventure, we have what we want to tell. We’re just looking forward to the opportunity to tell that story. There are some really cool things that will be fun to experience with Quill but with VR, too. As we learn more about VR, we are learning new ways to take advantage of the medium. For fans of VR and fans of Moss and Quill, we have a lot more we want to do. Keep poking us, and keep talking to us.

We’ll let you know what we know when we know it!

Thank you so much! Have a great E3!

Thanks for chatting!


Interviewer's Note: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity and length.

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Machina (on 08 June 2018)

Interesting interview (and that as someone who doesn't own a VR device). Glad they've found success with their debut game.

  • +4
Errorist76 (on 09 June 2018)

One of the most charming and memorable gaming experiences I've ever experienced. Really happy about their success.

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