Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom arrives on Quest and Pico next week. Alongside a new hands-on preview, we interviewed developer Maze Theory to learn more. It’s been nearly four years since Maze Theory released Doctor Who: The Edge of Time, and now, they’re back again with a new TV show adaptation. Swapping time travellers and Daleks for Birmingham gangsters in the 1920s, Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom offers an original story set between Seasons 4 and 5. Teaming up with the notorious Thomas and Arthur Shelby (voiced respectively by their original actors, Cillian Murphy and Paul Anderson), it places you directly inside England’s criminal underworld.
With The King’s Ransom launching on March 9, I attended a preview event in London which saw the game collaborating with Camden’s Peaky Blinders: The Rise experience. Watching a performance in the Shelby family warehouse set the tone well, and seating areas were packed with newspapers discussing the hunt for Winston Churchill’s red box. After a short performance, I went hands-on with the Quest 2 edition for under an hour.
It’s no secret that licensed adaptations have a poor history in gaming, but The King’s Ransom is doing its best to stay true to the main series, theme song and all. It captures the harsh streets of Birmingham well , but the standalone hardware means these character models don’t look great – Tommy looks somewhat off, while character animations feel janky. Still, walking into The King’s Ransom is a pleasant surprise, and Peaky Blinders fans will likely be pleased.
Following a quick walk into The Garrison pub, it isn’t long before you’re reunited with your old friend Tommy, who immediately brings you back into gang life. The pub’s private room hides a man ready for interrogation, tied up and masked with a crude sack. You’re given a gun, hammer and more to make him “cooperate.” Once you’ve got the information, you have a choice: kill him or leave him alive. From what I’m told, these choices have minor consequences but nothing that genuinely affects the narrative.
After heading to the betting shop, I soon found myself in a shootout without a gun, leading into a pretty basic combat segment. All I could do was find some clippers to disarm three bombs, achieved by pulling a panel and hitting the wires, while leaving the shooting to Polly Gray. Creeping from cover to cover wasn’t interesting and even when crouched, I took several hits. I’m hoping combat improves later on as, while this is fine for VR newcomers, veteran players may find this somewhat dull.
Still, I’m enjoying the setting and Maze Theory were happy to answer my questions about Peaky Blinders. Shortly after finishing this demo, I interviewed Russell Harding, Chief Creative Officer. UploadVR: Peaky Blinders isn’t necessarily the first thing many would think of for a VR game, where did the idea come from?
Harding: I did a little bit of gangster VR work with London Heist. Coming off of Doctor Who, I was really keen to think of something that would push us in different directions, but also build on what we’ve learned by working with showrunners. Trying to place people in that experience. We obviously love the TV show and when you break the show down, there’s such an immersive environment.
If you look at it culturally, you can see that it’s almost created its own tribe, influencing fashion. There were lots of these types of live events appearing around and we felt there was something that people really would aspire to be in. It felt natural to take those things we liked. When you break down the world itself, it’s visually rich and VR is so good at taking you to those places…When you look at the stories around the Peaky Blinders, those twists and turns really give some interesting mechanics and dramatic moments for action; it feels really suitable for VR. I also think you don’t need to know the IP. If you’re into gangster or action-adventure experiences, it’s easy to pick up those traits and understand. As soon as you meet those characters, you get where they sit in that world.
UploadVR: How did you approach that with newcomers to the series? How does The King’s Ransom fit into the series? Harding: We’ve been really careful and we felt that there was a great opportunity to go in between seasons four and five. During those in-between years, we don’t really know what happens within the timeline. We felt that the Shelbys as a family are very recognizable as a gangster family, so it’s quite quickly relatable. You don’t need to have a lot of background family information.
We very deliberately chose to flow the player in from the point of view where, you don’t need to know anything about it. You’re arriving in this world and you’re going to meet this gangster, [Tommy Shelby]. We kept the premise really simple in that respect. We allowed you, as you do in any game, to be introduced to a character and not necessarily assume that you know a lot of depth about them.
But it gives you that depth if you want it through things that you find in the world, which includes collecting letters or bios. So, if you come across the character in The King’s Ransom, you have a journal as part of your character. You’re very journalistic, so you record everything. We felt that that also gave a kind of opportunity for people to delve a bit more into the characters and they wanted to.
Upload VR: At the start, you have a choice where you kill a man in The Garrison’s private room. I presume you can let him live but I went for the gun to avoid angering Shelby. Do these choices have a greater impact on the narrative, or is there a set destination?
Harding: We thought about it a lot and we felt that it’s really difficult to control the players’ behavior in VR. You don’t have to kill the guy, it’s down to your behavior. There is a reflection on that within the story; it doesn’t massively change the outcome but it will be recognized. There’s a couple of instances where we do that and I think they’re obvious to players as well. That cause and effect is very subtle but obvious to you, because you know whether you killed him or not.
Upload VR: Things like changing dialogue or something similar? Harding: Yeah. We also spend a lot more time trying to encourage players to break off the narrative path a bit, to go and explore the world of the Shelbys. We use collectibles to encourage you to investigate, find out more about the world and how it’s setup.
Upload VR: I did notice that with the cigarettes and the cards scattered around.Harding: Coming off the back of something like Doctor Who, where there’s more limitations with scale and size, we wanted to try and make more opportunity for players to explore and spend more time in that world. If you play through the narrative, there’s always something to get from the world.
Upload VR: Thinking of Doctor Who, is there any feedback you’ve taken on board from The Edge of Time? Harding: Absolutely. Every game is building on your last game, there’s always things you learn or even things that you just couldn’t do for various reasons. So, one of the things we did wanted to do is give people the opportunity to go back into the world or explore the world more, so that if you go into Garrison’s Lane into some of those side rooms, there is more freedom.
Upload VR: Roughly speaking, how long does it take to get through this adventure?Harding: About 4-5 hours. Having played it more recently, I feel more confident in that now. I think there’s a lot of opportunity and fun in just going back, which is something that we couldn’t really do before. I think it’s something that people will really enjoy. It’s a little bit like being in the immersive venues we looked at when we started off. The storytelling you get by being in a space, it’s quite fun to go back to.
In Doctor Who, we learned that we moved people through that experience too quickly and too restrictive. You lose the opportunity for the player to just play at their own pace. And I think that’s really important in VR. If you want to spend 20 minutes exploring the garage and garrison, you can, and people do. You can just move through it, maybe go back later or find out what was hidden in the back of the garage.
Upload VR: I know you’ve got The King’s Ransom running on Quest and Pico. Standalone headsets are more limited when it comes to hardware, so how did you approach that? Harding: We decided to focus on Quest and Pico first because they are the most demanding. We wanted to create something visually rich, full of interaction and physics, so we felt that if we pushed on that platform the most, then we could keep to the truest experience and balance out where we put emphasis around animation, character interaction. We didn’t want to lose the interaction in the world or characters, so it felt natural to focus on that platform first because it’s the most demanding.
It’s always easier to take high resolution assets and break them down. But from a technical art point of view, those platforms are the most challenging, so that’s where we put a lot of effort. Quest is the largest platform, you need to play to their strengths. We narrowed it down to focus on those two platforms so that we could do those and do them well.
UploadVR: I was also going to ask about Playstation VR2.
Harding: Of course. I think when it comes to future headsets and new platforms, it stems back to what we said. We’re focusing and focused on Quest. If you go onto another platform, we want to do the same and we want to see what we can bring. I think it’s fair to say that all developers look at all of the platforms, all of the time. It’s about evaluating when’s the right opportunity to focus on that platform and in what order, that changes all the time.
I think when you’re a VR developer, it’s pretty hard. You don’t have the audience of the large triple A titles or budgets. You have multiple headsets, different interaction methods and you’ve got different audiences across VR now. It’s quite complex for developers, so I think it really helps if you can just focus on one platform, get that working well…then you utilize those resources again to get it onto the next platform. You do see quite a few teams splitting releases because of that.