“From the Devs”: Scaring Your Players: How to Design Enticing Horror Games, by CodingLucas
Horror games are one of the few enticing genres out there that can mess with our psyche in many ways. The adrenaline running through your bloodstream and circulating in your brain gives you a terrifying feeling of wanting to run away, yet keeps your attention until the end, fed by the curiosity and the human desire of exploring the unexplored, for whatever the cost. Horror games have been present in Roblox ever since the Spooky Building Contest in 2007, resurfacing again at the Game Development Contest “Scare us Silly!” in 2014, and since then their presence has only increased in the platform. These experiences have turned out to be profitable, popular, and really enjoyable to play alone or with friends. However, there is still an enormous market gap waiting to be filled by the genre, as only a few games are popular and actively generating revenue to their developers. You might have played some, and might not have felt so impacted by them — this is mostly due to bad design decisions taken in the course of development and/or poor execution. This article will talk about horror design and how you can make your own game experience!
Building a convincing atmosphere
The horror genre heavily relies on disempowering the player and storytelling, because those are critical when delivering immersion to the player. One way most games achieve this is by dimming the lighting so everything turns black. Why are dark environments so effective? When we are suddenly deprived of one of our primal senses, vision, we turn paranoid and our adrenaline levels ramp up to increase attention levels — this leads us to tense moments and sets the perfect mood for story presentation. Pitch black isn’t fun to play in, however, and that is why often lanterns or flashlights are given to us. It is a compromise between a dark ambient and player limiting.
Diminishing the visuals also force our minds to focus on audio cues, so definitely use that to your advantage. Soundscapes are incredibly effective in conveying unease, and almost every successful horror game released in the past two decades has had awesome soundtracks and/or sound effects. There is plenty of research done on how certain noises impact the human mood and emotions, so do check these out and the games which have put these theories into practice. Industrial music and strings are common choices because they hit psychological triggers present in our mind from a very long forgotten past, but that doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with other instruments either: out of tune piano notes, intense scary drums, vocals even! Think outside the box, and work on the bits that really add to your game.
Find also an art style that works best for your game. Convincing does not mean realistic (and you probably shouldn’t be aiming for that if you are introducing unrealistic elements), such that there have been many cartoon, science fiction or retro horror games that have worked wonders in transmitting a scare. Be unique, and work towards the style that matches your plot the closest. The environmental setting also has a part on the spook: entering a cemetery at night does not feel the same as entering a cemetery at noon, and a rainy, foggy and dark night inside an abandoned mansion feels more oppressive than on a sunny afternoon. Adjust your surroundings so they add to your place’s gloom, rather than interfering with it.
Equally important to look-and-feel is storyline. You are mostly free to tinker about with story writing, but consider investing time and effort into it. A believable, well-written story is crucial in ensuring immersion — it doesn’t have to be realistic, but far-fetched or disconnected plots are harder to make players believe. Consider centering your story around the traditional structure of exposition, rising action, climax and conclusion, and clearly define what your story’s conflict is. Is it a vicious psychopath going on a spree? An otherworldly monster? The protagonist/player itself?
Maybe your story’s antagonist is the ambient itself, such as a haunted mansion wanting to keep you inside, or maybe it is time, distorting itself to trap you in an endless loop. Part of what makes terror so special is that it takes the things that we assume we understand fully and flip them upside down, utterly confusing us and giving us uncanny feelings. We, as humans, do not like things that are impossible to comprehend or make patterns of. We try to make sense of everything we see and fearfully avoid the abnormalities that we cannot. Destitute from reason, we feel powerless.
You, as a writer, can use that to your advantage! Build a world that looks and feels similar to the player’s, but change some rules on how it behaves. Design creatures that are physically impossible or rescue fears of the past. Mythology, the occult, the obscure, witchery, fairy tales(!): those may seem ancient and outdated but they are still great plot sources. All of them are remnants from a past when we did not understand how things worked, when life was hostile and you could die by every and each slip you made. That’s the general direction you should go when thinking about horror stories: an oppressive, dangerous and unforgiving world that will leave you anxious at every corner.
If you’re completely clueless on where to start, draw inspiration from existing work (that is not necessarily related to horror): books, films and TV, plays, games, news and even real life. Commonly explored themes are, but not limited to: slasher ploys, crime fiction, thrillers, monster breakouts, cosmic horror, possession stories and many others. Do not be afraid of writing anything that fits into these stories. Bring unexplored subjects to the table if you wish, but yields might be less or more wealthy. But do not let that stop you: go wild!
As a last thing to touch on, remember the golden rule: never break immersion. If the game is not believable to the player, or the player does not feel engaged with it, everything you’ve worked on to deliver a scary and fun experience will just fall flat. To avoid that, be careful with your design — things like keeping abstractions to a minimum and having a consistent art style are fundamental.
The first decision that might not be immediately obvious is to eliminate as much of GUIs you can: boot up any horror game in your library and you will mostly likely see no user interface during your game session. Why is that? UI is, and will always be, as the name implies, an interface — an abstraction to provide you a nice mechanism to see how the game’s mechanics work. In practice, you would not see hovering text displaying you what time it is or how healthy you are in real life. If you really, really need to have GUI elements to indicate health, however, be creative and make it fit the game’s theming. It can be a watch with a heart rate monitor, a candle that gets dim as your health lowers, the moon slowly waning away… be creative!
Something else to make your world feel more believable is to not break your world’s rules consistently. Sure, you need conflict to move your plot towards its conclusion (and a lack of which makes for a boring experience), but in doing that you must not break the player’s believability of the world he or she has constructed over his playing session. A general analogy is that sure, your setting might be wicked, corrupted and extremely weird in comparison to the real world, but in that world, for that setting, what happens in there makes sense to those who live in there.
In our world, rain falls from above, and it would be really disturbing if for some reason that stopped happening; in an imaginary world where rain rises instead of falling, our rain would be disturbing to them. By constructing a consistent world and avoiding abstractions, you make your players’ learning and playing experiences better and more enjoyable.
Generating revenue can be a bit difficult in single player games on Roblox given the average purchasing power of Cosmetics, for example, are completely ruled out since there will are no other players seeing your purchases. Due to this lack of social aspects in the game, fewer players are likely to buy them — and other common mechanisms that apply in multiplayer free-to-play games don’t apply here. For single player games, you will be wanting to sell content.
If your game is story-based and semi-long, you can split it into different chapters and sell access to them, while maybe providing the first chapter for free as a demo: this way, anyone can get a taste of what your game plays is centered on. If they enjoy it, they can then buy access to the rest of the chapters. Alternatively, you can provide the main story for free, but offer extra lore (such as a separate character story arc) in a paid fashion for those who are invested more deeply in your game. Make sure your paid content is long and polished enough if you are going through this way — criticism tends to be harsher on paid games, so make it worth it for your players!
However, if your game does support multiplayer, traditional methods for monetization will suffice. Make sure to avoid atmosphere-breaking elements such as pets, trails and boomboxes. They destroy player immersion and can also turn away potential first-time players from your horror game, leaving them with a bad impression. Offering in-theme cosmetics or non game-breaking advantages are a good choice, but you can also work around round modifiers that apply to everyone (which could be positive or negative). Players have biases against pay-to-win methods, but if you make your products apply to everyone in the server, you will, in general, get greater returns.
I may not be a professional designer working for the industry — I am just a passionate consumer (and producer) of this kind of content — but most of these tips come from features seen in major productions by big publishers and small independent games both inside and outside of Roblox, all of which have managed to convey terror. If the article made you want to try venturing in this genre, or if you already had a story but never had the wits to try it, go ahead! Get some inspiration, and put your heart to it! Dedicating yourself may be hard, but doing it as a side project will certainly be a fun experience. Happy Halloween, everyone, and best of luck in your endeavours!