Putting scary back in the horror game genre: Phantasmal racks up potential investors on the run-up to release

Putting scary back in the horror game genre: Phantasmal racks up potential investors on the run-up to release
Having won gaming start-up competition KiwiGameStarter, and received high praise (and three million YouTube views) from an international video gaming industry guru, Phantasmal is negotiating with potential investors. And it’s set to make the release date of March 2015.

Dark shadows loom. Your vision distorts. Suddenly, there are creepy enemies shuffling at you from all directions. And you’re dead. Again. Restart from square one.

Phantasmal, a first-person horror game from Kiwi development studio EyeMobi, has been making waves among the indie gaming scene with its emphasis on rogue-like game play. More importantly, perhaps, it’s attracted the attention of potential investors.

In September, the game won first place at the KiwiGameStarter, New Zealand’s first and only startup programme for interactive gaming businesses, launched by the New Zealand Game Developers Association (NZGDA).

The pre-alpha demo of Phantasmal has also been making the rounds on the internet. A review from PewDiePie, a Swedish YouTube video blogger with a following of over 32 million subscribers (the most subscribed channel on YouTube), has attracted nearly 2.9 million views so far.

It’s a culmination of these factors that has seen Joe Chang, CEO of EyeMobi, enter into talks with potential investors as the official launch date of Phantasmal in March 2015 comes near. One investor came to him with contract in hand ready to sign, and there are two more in the wings, Chang says.

Joe Chang of EyeMobi

YouTube commentators say the appeal of the game is in its high scare factor. Chang says the goal of the game has been to “keep the level of terror the same throughout”. It’s been achieved by limiting the ability a player has to defend themselves, as well as using a technique called procedural generation, where the levels of play are generated by the host computer on the fly, instead of being created in advance.

It makes each level and every play-through unique on its own; a player never encounters the exact same sequence of play twice. Reviews of the alpha demo from the online community has been mostly positive around its conceptual design, although some criticise its technical execution.

Chang calls it a haunted house-type of game harkening back to the old school days of horror, focusing on suspense and fear instead of blood and guts being sprayed everywhere.

When he first started, the game was set to be a project that rocked the boat on indie horror games, but then a number of triple-A titles in similar vein were released or announced. It suddenly put Phantasmal in a difficult spot in terms of competition.

“When we started our Kickstarter, a whole bunch of stuff started coming out. Silent Hill’s playable trailer, The Evil Within, Alien: Isolation, and announcements for a whole lot of other games like Bloodborne.”

That meant winning the KiwiGameStarter was a surprise for Chang. However it also brought significant interest focused on his project from people outside the gaming industry.

Part of that was the networking afforded to him from winning first prize – a package worth $25,000 including actual cash, software licenses, lawyer fees, intellectual property advice, and public relations advice, as well as general mentoring from some of New Zealand’s most successful game developers.

New Zealand’s gaming industry

Part of the backing came from Hudson Gavin Martin, a law firm specialising in intellectual property and technology law. Partner Edwin Lim, a board member of the NZGDA, says the KiwiGameStarter competition is “a good chance to give [game businesses] a helping hand,” especially as the burgeoning industry in New Zealand is starting to change people’s perception of games.

“It’s a very big industry, and people haven’t been taking it seriously for the most part,” Lim says. “People need to take it seriously, and realise it’s not just for kids anymore.”

The Interactive Games and Entertainment Association estimates the New Zealand video game industry was worth almost $300 million in retail sales in the year to March 2014, with more than 50% being through digital sales

NZGDA chairman Ben Kenobi isn’t surprised.

“With smart digital exports there is no upper limit on how many physical copies you can sell”, and online platforms such as Steam – which, as of September, holds over 3,700 games and has 100 million active users – means that game developers in New Zealand now have a potential unparalleled customer base they can access.

David Brevik, co-founder of US gaming studio Blizzard North, and one of the KiwiGameStarter judges, agrees. “Now there’s no reason any invention can’t come from almost anywhere. It’s a new dawning for video games.

“Being able to reach globally, having a global awareness and being able to distribute your game over the internet to anybody really helps,” he says.

“It’s much better than the days when you had to make packaged goods … The ability to do that [in New Zealand] is very different than doing it in larger countries that have many outlets to sell games at.”

It’s something he would know about, as Brevik was the brains behind the Diablo video game series before he left Blizzard in 2004. The series’ latest iteration, Diablo III, has racked up 14.5 million unique players with 2.8 billion hours of playing time as of May 2013.

Winning awards

Phantasmal drew attention from Brevik in the competition for its unique gameplay, although ironically the game crashed during the demo and Brevik had to help get it working again.

“I didn’t even realise he was one of the judges,” Chang says, “or who he was. So it was a bit of a ‘wow’ moment [when he introduced himself].”

That’s part of the reason why Chang and Phantasmal were able to secure the winning spot, as some of his competitors didn’t have working games even though they were much better technically designed. “You can’t judge something if it doesn’t work,” Lim says.

For NZGDA board member Edwin Lim, Phantasmal was the game he enjoyed playing the most, and the fact that Chang and EyeMobi had a very good business pitch helped them secure first place.

There were 18 total entries in the competition, which for the few months the competition was advertised was a good number of entries, according to Lim.

“It’s something we might want to do again; there’s definitely one next year,” Lim says. “I’d like to see it become a regular thing.”

Phantasmal is currently aiming for release in March 2015, and can be supported on its Greenlight page here.

Download a copy of the pre-alpha here.