Last month, the Kyiv-based game studio MiroWin announced Bureau of Contacts, a horror game that actively uses generative artificial intelligence. In fact, MiroWin loves new technologies and experiments, the company has already released 6 VR games and continues to develop new ones. We decided to talk to MiroWin developers about AI, VR, and the studio’s creative path.

Oleksiy Ivashchuk, Business Development Director at MiroWin, answers our questions. He has been with the company since 2018 and is responsible for several areas, including work with publishers. Prior to gaming, Oleksiy worked in various fields – banking, transportation, local government, etc.

MiroWin Studio was founded in Kyiv in 2017 with the aim of creating primarily VR games. What did your founders do before that, and what exactly and why did they get into gaming and VR?

The studio was founded by Volodymyr Kozynyi and Mykhailo Shkarednyi, who agreed that the virtual reality niche has potential for development in the coming years, and they quickly assembled a small team.

Volodymyr came to the industry from the financial sector, while Mykhailo came from IT. Today, Volodymyr Kozynyi is the head of MiroWin studio.

How many people were in the studio at the beginning and how much have you grown over the years?

We started with 4 people, and then varied the number and professional composition according to current needs. We continue to do this today. For some time, we even worked with 2 teams within the studio to cover 2 projects at the same time.

VR, AI, and a love of experiments. Interview with Kyiv-based game studio MiroWin
The first staff of MiroWin studio, 2017

Today, the team is optimized to the minimum sufficient level (10 people), and if necessary, we engage highly specialized specialists for the necessary time to cover a particular competence.

How much more difficult is it to develop games for VR than to develop regular PC and console games? Is it difficult to convert a 3D game to VR, or is it necessary to develop a project with a specific VR device in mind from the very beginning?

As for the complexity of development for a particular device, a lot depends on the complexity of the project itself, and each device has its own characteristics.

VR, AI, and a love of experiments. Interview with Kyiv-based game studio MiroWin
MiroWin’s participation in DevGamm 2018 (Kyiv) with Guns’n’Stories: Bulletproof VR

If, for example, it’s VR, then before starting development, you need to get a dev kit (Game development kits are specialized hardware and software used to create video games for game consoles, ed.) of the target device if it doesn’t exist, and familiarize yourself with it if it’s a new VR headset. Each VR device has its own technical requirements that need to be adjusted to the finished game, sometimes cutting the finished project “live”. You need to work out things specific to this particular device, such as tracking settings, minimizing the feeling of seasickness.

And finally, each VR device has its own requirements, path, and timeframe for obtaining permission to place a game on the official marketplace of the device, which should also be taken into account when planning.

MiroWin is not the only studio in Ukraine trying to create VR games. Do you communicate in any way, share experiences? Or do you compete for specialists?

We have never perceived any of our colleagues as our competitors. Metaphorically speaking, everyone has their own way in the sea, where there are many large and small ships, each with their own cargo and their own destination.

With very few exceptions, our colleagues do not play dirty, including in the area of hiring specialists. On the contrary, we have cooperation agreements with some studios, and we already have joint projects underway with some of them.

VR, AI, and a love of experiments. Interview with Kyiv-based game studio MiroWin
Participation in DevGamm 2018 (Kyiv) with the game Guns’n’Stories: Bulletproof VR 5. On the right: Mykhailo Shkarednyi, one of the founders of MiroWin

As for the exchange of experience, in the good old days, it was nice to meet colleagues live at gaming conferences. However, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have moved online, participating mainly in foreign gaming events, and sometimes giving lectures ourselves.

Until 2022, all your games were exclusively VR. In five years, from 2017 to 2022, you managed to release six VR games, and this is a really impressive performance! How do you achieve this?

You could say that we’ve gotten the hang of it, because although the games are different, they are made in roughly the same genre – VR shooters. Or you could say “strike while the iron is hot” (i.e., while VR is popular), because after we collected a number of awards with our first game Guns’n’Stories: Bulletproof VR (2018), everything pointed to the fact that we could and should give the market something right now, while it’s still warm.

At the same time, with each project, we strive to reduce production time – not by sacrificing quality, but by clearly dividing what will be really important to give to players and influencers from the very beginning and what can be implemented later.

It doesn’t always work out for various reasons, because each project is an individual case – sometimes it takes time to write a unique script, as in Boiling Steel (2020), sometimes it takes time to learn something new or do deeper market research, as in the case of Bureau of Contacts, and sometimes something else. But the task of minimizing the development time is really worthwhile.

Your latest projects are no longer VR. What happened, were you disappointed in the technology? Because from the outside it seems that it hasn’t really taken off. Is it hard to make money in VR? It seems that your VR games have very good reviews and Steam ratings, but what, if you don’t mind me asking, are the sales?

VR started its growth on the WOW effect a little less than 10 years ago. We managed to tap into this effect when we were born as a studio in 2017. Everyone who wanted to and could buy VR devices at their hefty prices did so, but as many see, including giants like Microsoft and Ubisoft, the market is still not big enough to make a satisfactory profit from it. On the player side, some people are still put off by the price of headsets, or the discomfort of nausea, or short gaming sessions. Developers have their own difficulties as well. So yes, this market cannot be called easy to work and earn money.

Various forecasts predict growth for the VR segment in the next 10 years, but there are also markets for other gaming devices, such as PCs, which are much larger in terms of target audience.

Therefore, in order to reach a wider audience, we decided to make our extreme games for PC, while remaining faithful to the engine with which we started our journey – the Unreal Engine.

This does not mean that we are saying no to the VR market. It would be a shame to abandon the skills and experience in working with a wide variety of VR devices that we have gained over more than 5 years. To this day, we remain high-level specialists in creating full-cycle VR products, including non-gaming ones (medical, cultural, tourism, etc.), and we still respond to our clients’ requests for custom development of such products.

But when creating our own products, we are guided primarily by the task of maintaining business viability. Therefore, when we saw the trend that each subsequent VR game earns less than the previous one, we decided to adapt to the realities and current market needs.

Two of MiroWin’s latest VR projects, Federation77, originally called RU77, and Desperate: Vladivostok, are set in Russia. And they were released after the full-scale invasion began, in the fall of 2022. We understand that game development started much earlier, that it is almost impossible to redo everything that has already been done, but… do you have any regrets about the release of these games?

We started developing the RU77 project in 2020. When its teaser became the most popular video on our YouTube channel, it was a signal to us that the idea of bringing the Brother/Brother 2 dilogy to VR could potentially be of interest to the audience.

However, we first decided to offer the project to publishers and eventually reached an agreement to continue working on it together with the American publisher PM Studios to release the game on Meta Quest 2 and PSVR 2.

In this regard, the initial concept was slightly modified, the city of the events was changed from Russia and the United States to the “post-Soviet space” of the Perestroika era, a new plot was written for the project, and American and British voice actors were involved. The title was also changed – our proposal was to rename the game Desperate, but at the request of the publisher and taking into account the choice of a port city for the plot, Vladivostok was added to make it more personable – our colleagues liked the sound of the name.

At the same time, we still had a lot of work on the original RU77 idea, significant (about 50% progress) and enough to make it a shame to just abandon it – indie studios don’t have that luxury. So we decided to finalize them and release them as a separate product.

Of course, we had to make changes here as well, because it was already 2022. In addition to renaming it, we moved away from the original idea of adapting the work of Oleksiy Balabanov, which under the best of circumstances could hypothetically give the project additional attention, and decided that it was not the right time. So as a result, we have a VR attraction called Federation77, set in the criminal 1990s in the post-Soviet space, presented through the prism of cyberpunk, whose purchase is funded by a Ukrainian game dev.

Your new projects Redemption of the Damned, Wandering Wolf, Eternity Guards, and Bureau of Contacts are already regular games without VR support. As you can see, MiroWin is already acting as a publisher for some of these games. Are you going to develop this component of your business, or are these one-off actions?

For us, experimenting and trying to do something for the first time is probably already a habit. We have tried our hand at developing and publishing our own games, from concept to release, more than once. At the same time, we have released two projects and worked with publishers to understand how such a scheme works – so far, we have not been very disappointed.

For some time, we engaged and studied the ideas of solo developers to select a possible project in which we could act as publishers. In particular, this was the multiplayer shooter TinShift – the project was finalized and released in Steam Early Access in 2021, but the events of February 2022 interfered with its fate, after which the developers were no longer able to ensure stable operation of the servers.

This did not discourage us from publishing third-party projects, but right now we want to do something of our own, where we have thought everything through from the very beginning, where we know what is under the hood and why it is arranged this way. All this gives us more confidence that the project we are creating will be playable and attractive to the audience. Therefore, confidence in the supported project gives us confidence in the future.

We still receive offers from developers to publish their games – maybe if we see “the one”, we’ll think about it again…

You position your recently announced horror game Bureau of Contacts as one of the first games to widely use generative AI. How exactly does the AI study player behavior, what actions are taken into account, and how does it fundamentally differ from traditional game AI with a database of options for reactions to player actions? Or some AI Director who worked in Left 4 Dead 15 years ago.

Coincidentally, the moment when we were working on the Bureau of Contacts concept and thinking about possible game features coincided with the growing popularity of generative technologies (Chat GPT, Midjourney, etc.), which gave us the idea: why not use something like this in a game?

As of 2023, games that used generative technologies could be counted on one hand. However, we have also seen from the existing examples that the neural network works quite well as an interlocutor without going beyond the plot.

And then we thought: “Okay, so this mechanic works. What else can we squeeze out of the neural network?” We had to figure out how else it could be appropriately used in our game, given that it’s a horror game, a genre where all the elements should help create a tense atmosphere and complement it. During the team brainstorming session, we came up with what we thought was an interesting solution to make the neural network influence the course and outcome of the game session, acting as a kind of hidden scriptwriter.

The slogan of Bureau of Contacts is “we taught a neural network to kill”, and this is true, because unlike traditional AI, it is thanks to generative technologies that the neural network determines the behavior of ghosts in the game, taking into account the words and actions of players.

The player may or may not communicate with the ghost by voice. In the end, only the player is responsible for what the result of this communication will be for him or her – in this way, you can either get information from the ghost/neural network that is useful for the successful completion of the session, or you can get on the horn (provoke, be rude, do what you were asked not to do, etc.) and get an adequate reaction in the form of an early start of the ghost hunt for the offender.

VR, AI, and a love of experiments. Interview with Kyiv-based game studio MiroWin
Still from the game Bureau of Contacts

In addition, there are several types of temperament for ghosts, which players also need to take into account. One type of ghost needs to be able to talk to you; for another, it is better to be a psychotherapist to calm them down and find the right approach; with the third, one wrong word can work like a match.

The developer creates a certain framework (biography, temperament, etc.) and places a ghost controlled by a neural network within it, but within this framework, quite a lot of amateurism is allowed.

As developers, we can, of course, assume with a high probability what the response/reaction to certain actions and words of the players will most likely be, but not 100%. For us, it is more important that the communication does not go beyond the plot, that the ghost acts within the framework of the image given to it, and that the reaction to the words and actions of the players is adequate.

While the aforementioned Left 4 Dead uses the usual classical AI (a set of conditions, randomness, and probable actions), we use a full-fledged LLM that can analyze both content and meaning, analyze the given context, simulate mood or attitude, simulate decision-making of its own free will and discretion, parading human behavior and “cause and effect”. And it does this to the best of its ability due to its training and the power of the neural network itself.

In other words, AI Director won’t be able to respond to any request in a meaningful way, and then do something to you if it doesn’t “like” what you say. And in the Bureau of Contacts, they can kill you for that.

What other aspects of Bureau of Contacts were created with the help of generative AI? How do you think AI can be used now and will be used in the near future in game development and in games?

In addition to the above, interaction with generative AI technologies helps us, if not with some ready-made solutions and ideas, then at least with pushing us to think of good ideas, whether for game design, marketing content, or something else. For example, it was the idea of AI that formed the basis of the game’s main art, which the audience on Discord and Reddit decided to take apart piece by piece, trying to find references to movie and gaming industry characters in the banner.

VR, AI, and a love of experiments. Interview with Kyiv-based game studio MiroWin
The key art for Bureau of Contacts was also created by AI

I cannot say that we will limit ourselves to the current scope of AI application for this project. After all, the frequency and regularity with which we learn about new AI features (in my case, almost every week) suggests that the technology and its possible use in gaming are far from being exhausted. So, we keep our finger on the pulse and watch for new developments, and there will definitely be new developments.

Your next game is an open-world survival game called Redemption of the Damned. Will generative AI be used there as well? Tell us a bit more about this project.

We were working on Redemption of the Damned before the wave of popularity of generative AI technologies, so they are not in the project.

This survival horror for PC was based on the Slavic theme (mostly the works of Nikolai Gogol) and Western European mythology, European occultism of the seventeenth century. The main concept was a monster hunt with elements of hardcore survival in a cursed forest built on the principles of metroidvania. The main idea was to combine the structure and principles of Diablo I with the combat mechanics of Resident Evil 7/Village.

With this project, we first participated in the Digital Dragon Accelerator, after which the game caught the interest of the Australian publisher Blowfish Studios. Under their supervision and with their support, the project was brought to the demo stage last fall (2023) with some changes in the initial concept. We even took part in Indie Cup Ukraine’23 at the end of last year, where the Ukrainian audience had the opportunity to try the game for the first time.

As of now, the publisher has paused the transition to the final stage of development. We do not lose our plans and hope for its completion, but in the meantime, we have taken up Bureau of Contacts.

VR, AI, and a love of experiments. Interview with Kyiv-based game studio MiroWin
Still from the game Redemption of the Damned

Recently, everyone has been worried that AI will take jobs away from game developers, and a series of layoffs in the industry is partly due to the expectations of big studio executives from AI. Have you been affected by the layoffs, and how do you think the introduction of AI will affect the number of jobs in the industry?

This year, we optimized the studio staff, but it had nothing to do with the influence of AI. On the contrary, we are making the game because of the popularity of AI.

From what we can see today, AI helps specialists of certain specialties to simplify or speed up the solution of certain issues, for example, game design. Sometimes, it even allows saving money on third-party services, such as 2D art, SMM, or even audio design. However, it does not seem that AI technologies will be able to 100% replace humans in the near future where human approach, ingenuity, and resourcefulness are required.

However, the use of AI will definitely grow, and it will be interesting to see what can be achieved with this technology in a year’s time.

Among the services offered by MiroWin is gaming outsourcing. What share of your business is custom development, what services do you offer, what projects have you already worked on, and do you plan to expand this business?

This is where we come back to our love of experimentation. For example, we tried to spend 50% of our studio time on third-party outsourced orders, and for a while we even worked exclusively on such orders.

We can’t characterize ourselves as a 100% outsourced studio today, because we value the stability of our work, while outsourcing orders is characterized by a certain irregularity.

That’s why we always have a project of our own in the studio, but at the same time, we are open to and consider third-party offers that we can switch to partially or completely. And then we return the resources that were outsourced to work on our own game.

In general, our main outsourcing service is the development of PC, VR, and console games on a turnkey basis, including the creation of game documentation according to the customer’s vision. Among the projects that are not under the NDA, I can mention such projects in which we participated in the development as AfterLife (Poland), Guildford Castle VR (UK), Patagon: The Forbidden Island (USA).

In addition, we are open to promoting VR games, as we have been familiar with this challenging market for many years. In this area, for example, we are pleased to be involved in bringing the survival shooter Into the Radius (Estonia) to the top VR games.

You currently have four projects in development that are due to be released in 2024 and 2025. Are these realistic dates or are they more like aspirational?

We are currently planning to bring Bureau of Contacts to Early Access in the summer of 2024. The success of the release and the interest of the audience will show the further path and steps for this project. Of course, we hope for a favorable outcome, so for the full release, we plan to increase the number of locations, ghosts, tools, a skill tree, character customization, and possibly even VR support.

As for the other projects, they are still in the pipeline, but without clear dates – we hope to return to them over time.

VR, AI, and a love of experiments. Interview with Kyiv-based game studio MiroWin
Final presentation of the Redemption of the Damned demo at the Digital Dragons Accelerator (Poland), September 2023

We wish MiroWin to receive positive feedback from players on new projects. We have already played some of them, such as Redemption of the Damned. The game looks interesting, so we hope to see it on release. We wish you all the best.