#93: Sergio Hidalgo on Dreadhalls & tips for developing VR horror experiences

Sergio Hidalgo is an indie game developer who developed the Dreadhalls horror experience, which received an honorable mention in the Oculus VR game jam in 2013. He’s in the process of making a full commercial version as well as a mobile version for the Gear VR.

Some of the things Sergio talks about are:

  • Designing horror experiences that go beyond jump scares
  • Being able to experience a physical presence of the creatures in VR
  • Using procedurally-generated maps in order to keep the user surprised
  • Triggering the movement of creatures based upon the movement of your head is also unique to VR
  • The change blindness mechanic and playing with a peripheral version mechanic
  • Pitfalls of building a developer building tolerance of their horror experience & tips to help with this
  • Design approaches for when a player breaks through walls with positional tracking
  • The tradeoffs for supporting various input controllers
  • Lighting considerations for Gear VR optimizations

Sergio also mentioned how the first VR game jam provided a lot of inspiration for him in terms of exploring different VR gameplay mechanics.

This morning Oculus just announced that there is a Mobile VR Game Jam 2015 happening specifically for the Gear VR. You can sign up for it here.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.955] Sergio Hidalgo: I am Sergio Hidalgo. I am the developer of a horror game named Dreadhalls. I started developing the game for the VR jam last year, and I won an honor mention for it. Now I'm trying to turn it into a full commercial game. That's what I'm doing right now. I'm making a VR version as well.

[00:00:32.683] Kent Bye: I see and so what were some of the keys that you were trying to do in terms of creating a virtual reality horror game experience that went beyond just jump scares or creating an ambience that when the jump scares happen were more effective?

[00:00:50.160] Sergio Hidalgo: Yeah, I think it's not about having jumpscares. You are going to have those, of course, but the key point here is that in VR you have new textures of horror that you can work with. For instance, you can work with the idea that a creature has a physical presence. And you can feel a different kind of horror that is not possible to experience in a traditional screen, or in a movie, or in a game. So this is a new terrain that we are going to explore in the following years. That's very exciting for me as a creator, as a horror developer.

[00:01:25.114] Kent Bye: And so what were some of the things that you did differently in Dreadhalls that made it more of a success of a horror game VR experience?

[00:01:33.727] Sergio Hidalgo: One of the things is it has a procedural generator so every map is different, every time you play it's a different map, so you never know what to expect and what you are going to find in the next room you enter. That's one of the things. The other thing is I try to relate the gameplay mechanics with things that you can only do in VR. like looking at a creature or moving your head. These kind of things that in a traditional screen you cannot have that kind of gameplay. In VR it's very natural.

[00:02:05.801] Kent Bye: And one of the things I've noticed in terms of a gameplay mechanic is exploiting the change blindness where you look and it's in one place and you look away and you look back and it's suddenly in a different place. Maybe you could talk about discovering that type of mechanic.

[00:02:19.975] Sergio Hidalgo: Yeah, it was a bit of prototyping and iteration and trying to find things that could work well with what the first dev kit could do. Playing with the idea of your vision and what you can see and your peripheral vision and I played with that. I think I got some interesting results. I think there's more room and to explore and you can do more with that. And that's what I'm trying to do with the next version. But I think it's very interesting to have this kind of mechanics in a VR game because it makes it different from what you can do in a normal horror or traditional screens.

[00:02:53.823] Kent Bye: I see. And so when you play Dreadhalls, do you still get scared?

[00:02:57.207] Sergio Hidalgo: I get scared sometimes when, you know, I still get jump scares. I don't feel the tension. I'm playing, I feel normal, and then there is a jump scare. That scares me. Then I keep playing. It's very difficult to judge the intensity of the horror because you get used to that. So that's one of the challenges.

[00:03:16.612] Kent Bye: I see, yeah, so you kind of get your own tolerance that you build up so you don't know how intense your experience is for people who are using it for the first time, it sounds like.

[00:03:24.167] Sergio Hidalgo: Yeah, that's one of the things that you have to keep in mind because it's very easy to get into this mindset that you have to change things because you're no longer afraid or scared by them. But a new player will find it scary. So you have to keep that in mind as you are developing. One of the things I did that at least helped me was to disable the creatures. So that way I can play with the map and debug the problems, but I don't get used to seeing the creatures.

[00:03:51.737] Kent Bye: I see. And so you had written an article about having an early prototype of the DK2 and some of the issues that you had in terms of design with the positional tracking and moving through walls and how to deal with that. Maybe you could talk about some of the insights that you had and outcomes that you had from that.

[00:04:09.848] Sergio Hidalgo: Yeah, one of the things that you can do in DK2 is track the position of the player. That allows the player to push his head through a door or through a wall. And the game has to respond to that some way. There are some possibilities that you can, for instance, clip the position so the player cannot push his head through the wall. But I think it's more interesting to respect the movements of the player and try to adapt to that. One of the things I'm doing is fading to black when you push the hat through the door. That works, but I think, as with the other question, there is a lot of room to explore here. For instance, you could play as a ghost that can move through doors and move through walls and explore what kind of gameplay you can build on top of that.

[00:04:55.028] Kent Bye: And what kind of VR input devices have you considered implementing for Dreadhalls?

[00:05:00.852] Sergio Hidalgo: I considered implementing support for Hydra, but the problem with that is, you know, it's not easy to get one. I have one, but if you are going to support it, you have to keep in mind that not many people will have access to that. So it's not so cost-effective to customize your game, because to do it well requires changing the design and integrating it into a deeper level. And that's one of the problems. I hope that there is some better input device, because right now the gamepad is working, but it feels like there is more ground to explore and more things to do here.

[00:05:36.476] Kent Bye: And you've also had a demo on the Gear VR. So tell me a bit about your experience for adapting Dreadhalls for Gear VR.

[00:05:45.287] Sergio Hidalgo: It's been a very fun experience because I hadn't worked at that level of optimization for a long time, so going back to that was very fun. It's also very difficult to get a game that was originally designed for PC, strip it down so it can work on a mobile phone. I suppose if you start with the idea that the game has to work on Gear VR, it will be easier. For me it was challenging, but fun and rewarding.

[00:06:09.954] Kent Bye: What were some of the things that you had to strip out or change?

[00:06:12.748] Sergio Hidalgo: The main change is the lighting. Dreadhalls has dynamic lighting and per-pixel lighting, dynamic shadows. All of that had to go away. When you remove all of that, the scene looks very different. So I had to rework and redo the same ambient style with lower resources, with less intensive shaders, with less lights, and so on. I think I've done a good work at that, but if you play the game side by side you are going to notice that difference.

[00:06:43.395] Kent Bye: In the process of being in the virtual reality community, I'm curious if there's other VR experiences that you've experienced that you think are a pretty big influence on you and what you're doing with VR.

[00:06:53.644] Sergio Hidalgo: Yeah, I was influenced by most of all the VR jam games. There was an explosion of games there that explored many different mechanics. It was very interesting to play those and see what other people were doing with the device. And since then, I've been playing not all, but many of the games that come out that have support for the Rift. I think that games like Titans of Space, the possibilities of education is very exciting. And yeah, I'm really looking forward to see what people are going to create with this.

[00:07:27.884] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential for what virtual reality could provide?

[00:07:33.425] Sergio Hidalgo: It's hard to see so far away into the future. I think that when the VR is easier for the average people to get in and it doesn't require so much of a setup, people can jump in and experience good quality, good immersive VR. You can do things like virtual tourism, virtual education, you can meet with people even if you are hundreds of miles away. I think it's going to maybe change the way we look at media. It's hard to see exactly how it will develop. But yeah, it's going to be exciting.

[00:08:08.398] Kent Bye: Great. And where can people get more information about Dreadhalls and keep in touch?

[00:08:12.721] Sergio Hidalgo: You can go to dreadhalls.com. You can sign up for the newsletter there. And I will be publishing updates on the newsletter there. Great. Well, thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

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