There’s probably no pocket of Europe that has both the quantity and quality of game development studios as Poland. Home to big names such as CD Projekt Red and Techland, as well as smaller studios like The Astronauts, People Can Fly and CI Games, Poland has a talent pool bigger than Geralt of Rivia’s list of romantic interests. It’s because of this there’s a lot of rubbing shoulders with one another, with developers sharing their hopes, dreams and concerns for the industry as a whole. It’s from these conversations that Poland’s latest studio – Far From Home – was born. Not only did the studio announce its existence, it also revealed its debut game – a survival game codenamed Project Oxygen that is in development for the PS5, Xbox Series X and PC. I had the opportunity to chat with Far From Home’s CEO and Gameplay Lead Andrzej Blumenfeld, as well as Project Oxygen’s Creative Director Tomek Wlazło about the studio’s conception and what players can expect from Project Oxygen.
The Far From Home team keeping it COVID safe
The first question I put to Blumenfeld and Wlazło is just how did the studio come together. I was hoping to hear a story about how the first version of the company’s framework was penned on a beer-stained napkin while the team were sharing a pint at one of Wrocław’s local watering holes, but instead Blumenfeld is a bit more diplomatic with his answer, stating that the studio was born out of a collective desire to do their own thing.
“All of the core members have been in the industry for a while,” the studio’s CEO says. “We worked in many studios and teams and experienced some great moments but equally saw some bad calls being made. So at this stage of our careers, we wanted to take matters in our own hands – try to do things a bit differently.”
The members of Far From Home could have easily have spread themselves out across the myriad of studios in Poland, but rather they all shared a vision for what they wanted to be a part of next, and it’s something that Blumenfeld believes will bring the small team together, as well as giving them extra motivation to push themselves as hard as they can.
You could argue that starting a brand-new studio in the middle of a pandemic is a huge risk, and it is, but while Blumenfeld admits there’s always a degree of risk in starting anything, he informs me that Poland’s game development industry is very supportive of game developers.
“The market is now set up in such a way where getting funding from experienced and gamedev savvy investors is readily available,” Blumenfeld tells me.
“A beneficial and relatively easily accessible stock market now allows us to raise funds to create the budgets we need and still bypass all the hassles that come with things like publishers, crowdfunding or massive bank loans. Even in the time of the pandemic, we were able to secure our project’s initial investors and still keep going with production. So it showed us, if we’re gonna do this, it might as well be now.”
Far From Home is a small studio and we will have to be smart on how to deliver a game with a strong emphasis on survival and high replayability value
– Far From Home CEO and Gameplay Lead Andrzej Blumenfeld
“We wanted a smaller team but with the financial backing to easily allow us to innovate but still deliver a quality close to AA+ or even AAA standards on certain elements,” says Wlazło
Wlazło reveals that the team are using Unreal Engine 4 and are early in the pre-production phase. “There are still a few milestones and potential ideas to test out before this phase is done, but we are moving at a good speed.” Once this part of pre-production is complete the studio will then expand the team and get into the nit and gritty of the game’s development.
But what is Project Oxygen? And why should it be on your radar?
Billed as a first-person, single-player experience, the game’s press release states that “Players will embody a lone scientist, exploring an ecologically ruined and evolved Earth after humanity failed to fight off their own demise,” and will feature a “strong survival game loop.”
On the surface, Project Oxygen sounds like just another survival game in an already saturated genre, however digging a little deeper the game has a number of elements that are instantly intriguing and could easily make it stand out, such as the player’s technologically-advanced zeppelin – an aircraft that will act as the player’s base which is both upgradeable and customisable, as well as being pilotable.
As players will be able pilot their zeppelin, I ask Far From Home just how explorable the world will be. Given the game hasn’t entered the full production phase yet, Blumenfeld and Wlazło are reluctant to give too much away, especially as things could easily change between now and the game’s final form.
“We would love to expand our idea and provide loads of locations and landmarks to explore,” answers Blumenfeld.
“We want to give players a lot of freedom in choosing their own direction and way of interacting with ruined Earth. At the same time, Far From Home is a small studio and we will have to be smart on how to deliver a game with a strong emphasis on survival and high replayability value. So yes – players will be visiting numerous and diverse biomes but it is too early to delve into specifics of how many, what parts of the world we will be setting this in etc.”
Early concept art of our scientist rappelling down from their zeppelin
The second, and perhaps most intriguing reason that Project Oxygen has me excited about its potential is its narrative. Although there are some exceptions, the survival genre isn’t known for deep story-driven games.
The game’s story synopsis reads like this: “At the peak of a global ecological disaster, humanity was pushed towards the sky as the Earth had become increasingly inhabitable. In a desperate bid to survive, people created monstrous, makeshift towers to rise above the inhospitable layer of toxic fumes.”
I mean if that doesn’t pique your interest somewhat then you’re clearly a hard sell. Where it becomes even more interesting is the fact that there is no saving Earth. Humanity tried to salvage the planet but failed. So why is Far From Home giving you a pre-defined character? And why is a scientist venturing below to a forsaken land if not to attempt to save the planet?
“The reason you come back to Earth is actually a bit more personal,” shares Wlazło.
“You’re there because something that possibly originated from the earth is threatening everything that is very close to you. And so you go back to the potential source to try better understand the nature of this threat.”
As the pair continues, it’s obvious that one person isn’t going to reverse the irreparable damage that Earth has taken and reclaim the planet for humanity. Earth is done and dusted. Instead, it’s a mission that could be labelled as selfish according to Wlazło.
“You’re there as a scientist and below you is a newly evolved ecosystem so you can start to picture why and what is the reason for you to venture down below.”
When it comes to how the narrative will be delivered, Blumenfeld says that the team is still deciding on how this will be executed, but does reveal that the game’s world-building will be a key part of the storytelling. Right now the team is more concerned with the quality of the narrative opposed to how it will be presented.
Just how did Far From Home come up with such a concept? Surprisingly, Blumenfeld reveals that the main influence for the ruined world of Project Oxygen is life on Earth right now.
“There is this looming question of where exactly we’re headed and what will actually be the consequences of our collective actions,” explains Blumenfeld.
“It’s a rather bleak and dire muse, but also one that’s still morbidly fascinating. So that’s why we decided to go with the idea of the far future where the world was destroyed by an ecological disaster as the start. And from there we started piecing together a picture of a world that carried on without us under these conditions. What kind of life evolves in our place? What happens to everything we left behind? What kind of potential solutions did we try to implement as a last-ditch effort?”
We have this firm belief that for games like Project Oxygen to stand out in the crowd and be noticed, a certain calibre of visuals and gameplay needs to happen
– Project Oxygen Creative Director Tomek Wlazło
It’s certainly not what I was expecting, but it’s admirable that the team at Far From Home aren’t shying away from humankind’s current predicament and are happy to look at it from a long-term and almost philosophical view, even if it is rather grim.
But really all of these elements matter not if the game fails to deliver in the gameplay department.
Wlazło says that the gameplay’s DNA has been inspired by the likes of Subnautica, Green Hell and The Long Dark. “We have a strong focus on the scientific approach to resolving in-game challenges,” shares the game’s creative director. “We are going to push players into situations where brute force is not an answer. Where they need to think more than twice and prepare themselves to take on dangers they will face.”
The team are working hard to ensure the gameplay loop is well balanced and feels rewarding. It’ll still follow the survival genre blueprint of exploration, gathering resources, crafting items and obtaining information, but players will be thrust into the toxic clouds below to pick the bones of Earth’s remains, as well as discovering and researching new forms of life, environments and other items of interest or use to the player.
When it comes to the zeppelin, Blumenfeld says that’s where players will store and craft their resources, as well as make upgrades to their items. But a player’s items aren’t the only thing that will be upgradable, with the gameplay lead confirming that the aircraft itself will be upgradeable through research modules, which will allow the player to upgrade better tech and more advanced items.
Blumenfeld does confirm that the game will feature combat and says that there will be options as to how you neutralise any threats. Given that players will be donning the lab coat of a scientist and not a futuristic super-soldier, it’s not surprising that Far From Home will be giving the player a choice in how they tackle confrontations.
“You’re not some gun-crazy hero there to tame and re-establish humanity at the top of the food chain,” says Blumenfeld.
“Rather you’ll be fighting to survive, to defend yourself and make it back above the clouds to your zeppelin after each expedition.”
Project Oxygen will feature similar traits to Subnautica
Far From Home are trying to instil the notion that gunplay is a last resort, self-defence mechanism.
“We want to make direct confrontation very exciting and dangerous but not necessarily the best or only solution,” adds Wlazło.
All of what I’m hearing sounds exciting and teeming with potential, but the lingering question on my mind is whether the size of Far From Home will hinder the ambitious nature of Project Oxygen.
Both Blumenfeld and Wlazło admit that the extra hardware resources in the next-gen consoles has encouraged the team to dream big when it comes to the scope of Project Oxygen.
“We have this firm belief that for games like Project Oxygen to stand out in the crowd and be noticed, a certain calibre of visuals and gameplay needs to happen,” says Wlazło.
“Like it or not, players will often compare games or gravitate to titles based on what AAA games have taught them to expect. So any hardware that allows a team like ours to create such worlds close to that level without the constant fear of whether we can make it all run smoothly is going to be quite important.”
It’ll still be a while before Far From Home show off Project Oxygen, with Wlazło and Blumenfeld remaining tight-lipped about when we might see the title in action, besides, the project is likely to see multiple changes along its journey from development to release. But if Blumenfeld, Wlazło and the rest of the Far From Home team can execute their vision and deliver a game that sounds as good as it does, Poland might just have another household name to add to its ever-growing list.
For more info on Far From Home you can visit the studio’s official website.