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Horror Game Design Can Be Scary

"Let's make the most deeply terrifying horror game of all time" I said at the start of this project. Now 1,5 year later, we've been on a hell of ride, and I would like to share some the struggles we faced and still face on designing this horror game.

I can still hear myself speak loudly "Let's make the most deeply terrifying horror game of all time" at the start of this horror game project. Now 1,5 year later, we've been on a hell of ride, and I would like to share some the struggles we faced and still face on designing this horror game experience called Horrinth until now.


(Horrinth's First Concept Art)



The Ambition To Beat Slender Man


I remember it was May or June 2013 me and my brother (Paul) had the idea to create a horror game. We both both love the horror genre in many forms (for example: Books, Movies, Games, Theme Parks). Me and Paul thought we could be a great combination since I was recently majored in game design and Paul majored in audio engineering. It would be a dream come true if we could pull this off.

The idea for "Horrinth" started when me and Paul were frustrated about the popularity of Slender Man. We were astonished by the fact this game was received so well. Slender lacked great graphics, sound, polish and interesting game design. It felt like a rushed prototype. However it did scare people by following a myth triggering a constant pressure and the possibility being caught by the Slender Man. An interesting development within the horror game genre.


Paul and me were convinced we could create something better. We thought it was fun to create a horror game within a "Labyrinth". After we've done some research on existing games taking place in a Labyrinth, we found some poor attempts and we moved on with our idea.


Paul and me had a lot of discussions about the way want to create this game. Paul told me it was impossible for him to create a game without story. Since Paul is not a game designer but an audio engineer, I told him indie games mainly exist out of a fun gameplay loop or intuitive game mechanic that come together as a fun 'toy' (something fun to do repeatedly).

We love horror themes about exorcism, possession and paranormal activities. We decided the game should house these elements, and chose to include them all.




We've Imprisoned Our Creativity From Start


In September 2013 we started our horror project literally from our kitchen table. We formed a team with a programmer, a concept art intern, and Paul's companion in music & sound.


We all were completely convinced the game should be something different compared to current titles. Our ambition was to create the scariest game to date, however we had no idea what we've signed up for at the time.


It was a constant struggle for the right concept. We worked on certain ideas, ditched certain designs and came up with new ones. Every concept felt like it missed consistency, all these aspects in the game were there for a reason, at least that is what we aimed for.


In October we finally had the feeling we were on the right track and decided to ask for contribution for the project.


The Concept

We had a great mechanic, because when you became possessed in the game, you had to keep 'breathing' to stay alive in the labyrinth. Did you fail your breathing pattern? a mirrored labyrinth above would drop down on you bit by bit. (Hereby a constant pressure was present). We also wanted to include Oculus Rift and experiment with a layer of personal information included in the game, that could come off as scary in a different manner.


In our own disbelieve the funding agency decided to contribute and fund our prototype. They thought the idea could broaden the artistic approach on the horror genre and could turn out to be an example of creative dutch game design.


Since we had the funds, we could grow our team and started to accept interns to work on this project with us. We rented a small office and started actual production.


We used a scrumlike framework to achieve an agile approach to this project, which means we had a product after each sprint. That was a great way to have people play our first prototypes and playtest if this game was proving itself to be fun and scary.


The Breathing Mechanic

It was immediately clear the mechanic was extremely annoying. Besides the mechanic our procedural generated Labyrinth didn't help either. People were lost and constantly smashing keys to keep their breathing pattern right, lost in search of the exit.


After some iterations we had the idea we were missing a lot of consistency and story. Especially since our main concept was now funded and we had an official deadline. From that point on we had a major struggle working around our mechanic and labyrinth environment.


A procedural labyrinth was bad because:

- The player was lost all the time

- Noticing randomness in a labyrinth is almost zero

- You can't control your level design

- You couldn't create an interesting environment

- It had a 'dull' ambiance.


The breathing mechanic was bad because:

- Players were constantly busy with their breathing

- Smashing the breath button caused muscle exhaustion

- Puzzling and breathing do not blend greatly together

- Highly annoying breathing sound blurring out the rest of the audio

- Punishment by death (for not breathing) felt extremely unfair.


(Horrinth's first prototype, indie approach)


The Illusive Trap Called 'Research'

After one to two month's of development one of our graduate interns started a research project on the horror genre. We discovered a few interesting facts about horror that sound pretty straight forward but aren't obvious enough.


Great horror games do not lean on a specific game loop or mechanic. Horror games rely on environment, suspense and creepy ambiance. People play horror games because they like the tension and adrenaline rushes. These tensive thrills are most important within a horror game. Therefore completely different in comparison to for example FPS games. FPS games use a simple game loop repeated over and over again (kill, reload, be killed and respawn).


Research showed we had a bad approach to horror game design. The first thing horror games need to do is scaring people out of their wits. Something Horrinth did not do, because we focused so much on this breathing mechanic and procedural generation.


Our research was great, although it led us to the wrong path. Most of these horror games were commercial products, produced and developed by larger teams for a large target audience.


Our deadline was set back to the first of september 2014, and by then we wanted to showcase a fully developed prototype instead of a fully developed feature in a half-baked game. We were blindfolded by a commercial approach on horror games and forgot our indie approach. Logically all elements that were indie-like such as our breathing mechanic and procedural generation slowly started to be a problem in our commercial game design. As an extra we plagued ourselves by setting a deadline for our 'Gameplay Trailer'. What happened next was a rush to the end. Because the project size increased we didn't have time to do enough iterations and playtests.


September 1st resulted in a prototype with just a fraction of the ambiance, gameplay and story we had been working on. We already noticed a lot of problems with the design and had a hard time designing a gameplay trailer without revealing too much of these problems. October 27th was the time to present our prototype at the funding agency for them to see what their money is worth.


We received great and valuable feedback from the agency, and to be fair got slapped in the face. What is the road we were driving on? Are we now making a full commercial game? or are we still going for that remarkable horror game? It was clear we had to make a definite choice what is best for Horrinth.



(Horrinth's in-game Showcase Trailer, commercial approach)




So, What Choice To Make?

It is clear that we are not able to make a full commercial game according to AAA standards. That will cost us years to make perfect and that is a bit risky for a start-up game studio. I have already agreed on the 'remarkable' approach (what we've started with in the first place) however I do like to discuss a few horror game elements coming from commercial titles. Would they fit in a project like this? or do we have to invent different solutions?

Most commercial horror games rest on a few stereotypes. Think about old wooden houses, forests, monsters, flashlight, and jump scares. From recent polls we found that many people think stereotypes like these, are great or do not mind they are present. Most of these stereotypes are used by commercially deploy-able games, and less by (the more serious and small) indie game projects.

Commercial horror games do reach a lot of people, where remarkable indie horror games do not completely reach their desired audience. I would love to connect both of these types by developing an remarkable horror game and implement certain commercial stereotypes, or are these two types not connectable?


To Defend or To Battle?
A big trend within the horror genre introduced by games like Amnesia: The Dark Decent is the fact you can't defend yourself and have to flee to stay alive. By doing this we achieve a fear of getting caught or being slaughtered without doing anything about it, therefore fleeing is the best and safest option available, however it keeps the player on its toes, a constant pressure is present.

Some horror games have guns (mostly with limited ammunition). We can still feel ourselves creeped out in certain moments, but we are completely convinced these guns will somehow make it easier to defend ourselves. The fact that we do not have enough ammunition now worries us. Collecting as much as we can, will mostly be our objective to move on in a safer manner. 

Both these 'types' of gameplay have an interesting effect on the player in a horror game. Research showed that many people feel more fear when they are playing a game without any defense mechanism. However people tend to think games with guns or a defense mechanism are more fun to play.







Its clear we have to redesign the game mainly to bring down the scope. Its our goal to create an awesome and very scary horror experience. We want players to get their money's worth. Its therefore a challenge to create the necessary assets without years of work. I think we have to be more creative with procedural elements and make our mechanic joyful and meaningful, mixed with some visuals and animations you would normally see in a AAA experience. In terms of presentation we would hereby use an commercial approach, but in terms of gameplay we should focus on a more remarkable indie solution by using a well designed mechanic and procedural generation.

We used a 'scrumlike' method for the project, which means the producers were coming up with the product backlog and also planned and assigned items to the team. We did a weekly stand-up which consumed too much time. Also it looked like the team was accountable to the producers and had to back their responsibility to the producers instead of the team. Implementing scrum like this caused massive delays, inconsistency and confusion, in short a lot of pressure and trouble.

We now have a license degree as official Scrum master and understand the scrum framework a whole lot better. We highly recommend daily stand-ups instead of weekly stand-ups. Daily stand-ups will reveal small problems before they turn into big ones. The team is now responsible for their 'velocity' of production. Stand-ups are for the team and do not require a producer/product owner or Scrum master to be present, only at the end of the sprint when they deliver the sprint product.

We are still confident this game will turn out to be something special, we have to bury some old skeletons in the ground and refresh the game with some clear goals, and most of all, focus on making the game extremely scary. Scaring ourselves with our own product would be the best result I believe.

Do you as aspiring or seasoned developer have any great advice for us?


*Update on my 'performative' experiment

Time has not been my best friend the past couple of months. I would love to start my performative development experiment, however I have to put this on hold for the moment. Running your own studio isn't a walk in the park from time to time ;).

Find Me On:

Twitter: @KoenDeetman
Facebook: Koen.Deetman

Company: KeokeNInteractive



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