Low Budget Horror: Can indie developers revive a failing genre?

Cry of Fear

By on December 6, 2012 at 6:15 pm

There is a widespread perception that, much like a test subject sprouting a second limb, the mainstream horror scene has undergone a rather unwelcome metamorphosis. With surprisingly rare exception, the genre has drifted towards relentless action. Alan Wake is the perfect example: It may boast some of the trappings of horror, but it too often devolves into dull and repetitive gunplay. Tellingly, Capcom producer Masachika Kawata has gone on the record with his belief that there isn’t a large enough market to support a big budget Resident Evil title focused purely on horror. If the 600 Ib gorilla has been forced to compromise, is it it time to abandon all hope for the genre? Well, no, actually. There is a glimmer of hope and it resides on the PC, at the opposite end of the budgetary spectrum.

In recent years, independent developers have produced some of the most daring excursions into the unknown. Titles such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Dear Esther have revived the notion that a game can trade predominantly on mystery and suspense, while Day Z has demonstrated that a monstrous budget isn’t a prerequisite for tremendous success.

“Scares don’t have to be about big budget special effects and graphics,” Porter says. “In fact they generally diminish it now.”

With at least six of the games already approved under the Stream Greenlight program falling squarely into the horror genre, the next wave of indie creators has the opportunity to build on this momentum. We spoke to Andreas Rönnberg, Roy Theunissen and Will Porter, three of Greenlight’s earliest success stories, about creating scares on a shoestring budget, the seeming decline of mainstream horror and (of course) their own forthcoming creations.

Rönnberg is asking players to explore the dark and haunted streets of Stockholm in Half Life mod Cry of Fear. Theunissen, meanwhile, is hard at work on The Intruder, a Source engine mod in which players must stay one step ahead of a lone adversary for days on end. Finally, Porter is assembling Project Zomboid, a Java coded isometric RPG in which players must see off roaming hordes of ghoulish sprites.

All three developers work with budgets that major studios would consider grossly inadequate, if not (manically) laughable. How can they possibly hope to achieve their goals?

“Well first of all, Cry of Fear being made on an old engine has saved us a lot of time,” Rönnberg says.  “So in my opinion, if you want to make a great game, don’t concentrate on the graphics, but the entertainment and experience you want to achieve. The atmosphere and making the player come close to the game is very important.”

Indeed, the very production values that Rönnberg downplays could actually work in the game’s favour. There’s just something decidedly unsettling about grainy and indistinct footage. “Scares don’t have to be about big budget special effects and graphics,” Porter says. “In fact they generally diminish it now. Indie games can appear scuzzy and lo-fi, but aren’t some of the greatest horror movies like that too?”

Rönnberg has spent “almost no money” on Cry of Fear, “other than our PCs and maybe digital cameras for creating textures, and microphones for recording audio and voice.” These games aren’t about achieving a multi-million dollar sheen. They’re about tense pacing, unsettling sound design and fear of the unknown. “The scares are in your head and in the situation,” Porter confirms. “You’re all alone, it’s getting dark and you’re in your safe house, but you hear the crash of glass. Is it a zombie that’s broken in nearby? Or might you be safe? Do you go to investigate, raise your shotgun at the door, or just go to sleep and wish it away?”

Even with the head start of an existing engine, games development still involves the production of endless assets. We asked Theunissen to tell us about some of the tricks and shortcuts he has used to bring his vision to the monitor.

“When games like Resident Evil 6 are failing lovers of the undead, it’s great that people like us, The War Z, The Dead Linger and (of course) Day Z are all stepping up”

“Having a small budget doesn’t have to be a problem if you keep it in mind from the get-go,” he says. “I try to design art assets that are versatile and are reusable for different maps, and I even try to come up with reasonably broad gameplay concepts that have enough room for very distinct outings.”

In fact, according to Theunissen, working with a small team offers some distinct advantages. “Being the author of a videogame also means there’s no separation between the people with ideas and the people who make them.”

“As I’m coming up with new ideas I usually know exactly whether they would be feasible or not. Having such limited manpower means you have to keep a close eye on scale, but it also means communication is very efficient.”

Technical prowess and dogged determination notwithstanding, creators are sometimes forced to cut features that would definitely have been included had resources permitted. “There’s this saying called ‘kill your babies’,” Theunissen says, “which basically means to scrap something you were really excited about and you’ve already started working on. As expected from a title like this, there’s a small metaphorical pile of dead babies around my desk.”

One of the most painful decisions involved a feature that his audience had been clamouring for. “Shortly after Greenlight launched everyone showed me that they were very excited about the prospect of experiencing the core single-player gameplay with a friend. I too very much liked the idea, but it just wasn’t technically feasible nor right from a design perspective.” Rönnberg also has his share of regrets, noting that “I had to remove a lot of details that I’ve had put into the levels in order to make it run on this old engine. That has always frustrated me and made me almost rip my hair off. For example the city areas, or the areas that are very large in general, have been reduced on details.”

While larger studios seem to be increasingly reticent to develop titles that rely primarily on terror, the indie community has been leading the renaissance in the genre. Porter for instance is determined to make a “proper” zombie title.

“When games like Resident Evil 6 are failing lovers of the undead, it’s great that people like us, The War Z, The Dead Linger and (of course) Day Z are all stepping up to bat.” According to Theunissen, “commercial horror games quickly end up being a fairly predictable third person shooter because that’s a proven concept. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s still plenty of room for innovation there, but the games that really get to you are the ones that are unconventional.”

Are smaller developers better placed to move the genre forward? Rönnberg believes that the need to guarantee massive returns dissuades larger publishers from backing unproven concepts. Theunissen agrees. “Risky games that might not even work are very much the specialty of the indie game scene due to their smaller budgets and lack of publishers and, as we all know, they have the capacity to resonate with fans in an unprecedented way.”

Theunissen also credits the rise of digital distribution for enabling the smaller projects to find an audience.  By keeping budgets low and teams small, developers can ignore commercial imperatives and  avoid the homogenisation that sometimes comes with decision by committee.

This is why Theunissen is so committed to The Intruder. He wants his game to be “authored”, to feel like the result of a singular vision.  “I want to take responsibility for everything that’s good and everything that’s bad about it and I want to learn from it. I don’t expect I’ll get many chances to do something like that, so I’m seizing this one by the horns.”

Horror may indeed be undergoing a metamorphosis, but if it results in more conceptually ambitious projects, the genre could re-emerge in a stronger, more evolved form. If the likes of Rönnberg, Theunissen and Porter prove that these concepts can work, the big end of town might just figure out a way to sell them after all.

New blood

Let’s take a look at the first six horror titles approved under Valve’s Steam Greenlight initiative.

Afterfall: Insanity (Extended Edition)

This post apocalyptic shooter will challenge you to escape a fallout shelter packed to the rafters with stir crazy survivors.  In order to succeed, you’ll have to keep your fear meter under control. If you don’t, the game will actively hinder your accuracy. Intoxicate Studios is aiming to bring this substantially overhauled version of the game to Steam in late 2012.

Cry of Fear

Already a cult hit in the mod community, Cry of Fear will soon be exposed to a new (and potentially much larger) audience. This bleak urban mystery offers up duel wielding combat and seven possible endings. Team Psykskallar is yet to pin down a date for its debut on Steam, but the game is already available for download from MODDB.

The Intruder

Ransack a gloomy house and explore a “small free-roaming world” as you desperately prepare for the arrival of your diabolical nemesis. You will need to eat and sleep, so you might want to barricade yourself in. The Intruder is due to land on Steam in 2013, but in a possible nod to Valve’s approach, the developer has pledged to “take longer if necessary”.

No More Room in Hell

The creators of this zombie infested Half-Life 2 mod openly acknowledge the influence of cult filmmaker George A. Romero. The fact that weapons and ammo are harder to come will please genre purists but the big ticket item is eight player co-op. A Steam release date is yet to be finalised, but No More Room in Hell can be downloaded from the game’s official site.

Project Zomboid

Enter an isometric world overrun by zombies in this retro RPG from The Indie Stone. After a long period in beta, during which it inspired its own modding community, Project Zomboid isn’t quite at the finish line. The developer plans to release two more public test builds before bringing the game to Steam. You can test drive an unfinished version here.

Routine

Would you be willing to explore a moon base? That doesn’t sound too scary, does it? What if you knew that every living soul in the base had vanished without trace? With its surprisingly high production values and intriguing premise, Lunar Software’s Routine is certain to attract plenty of attention when it arrives on Steam in March/April 2013.

3 comments (Leave your own)

Alan Wake turned into repetitive shooting? Hmm I suppose so but damn its one of the more enjoyable games I have played this year with a good story (which I find is somewhat rare).

I like the fact modders have taken up the task of making scary multiplayer mods which people crave but haven’t been done well in a long time (such as No More room in hell, DayZ etc).

 

I find it odd that the triple-a studios are so afraid of doing anything conventional because of the costs involved, but won’t even consider a low-key approach like a test game that is similar to the work being done by these indie devs. Can’t they even concieve of doing something small-scale, or a mod type thing to gauge interest in a concept? They might be so devoid of ideas or creative thinking that they’re using the indies to do all the work for them, and see the reaction to these nice and creative games that people are making.

 

If it is anything like Duncan Jones’ Moon, Routine will be awesome…

 
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