Phantasmal is a game that GameCloud’s Paddy Waring looked at during last year’s PAXAus through the splits in his fingers, hands on his face, shielding his eyes from the unrelenting horror and lighting glitches. A year later, the glitches are gone but the horror remains still and with improved Oculus compatibility no less. Phantasmal invokes a Lovecraftian atmosphere with hideously deformed, shuddering creatures that slowly drains your insanity when you look at them in the light. When he was done creeping around in the VR dark, Paddy caught up with Joe Chang about what’s changed in the last year.
While wearing Oculus, people can still hear you scream. You just… Tend to forget that, and then the looks… Those judging looks!
This is your second year at PAX, what has the audience reaction been like?
So far so good, last year I can’t remember what it was like early on, it was pretty light like it is now, but by the Saturday it was intense. We consistently had 20 people lining up on Saturday and Sunday last year waiting to play the game. This year, I think what’s really surprised me is that a lot of people haven’t actually seen the Oculus before, so whenever you show them something like that they’re just like ‘Woaahh!’ People have tended to like it.
So, it’s been twelve months since we last spoke at the previous PAX, what’s changed with Phantasmal since then?
I guess the easiest way to answer that is ‘What hasn’t changed?’ Just about everything’s changed, really! The biggest things though would be the setting of the game at the moment; it was previously based on a kind of haunted house setting. It’s now based on the Kowloon Walled City, that was a real place and has since been destroyed, but it was essentially a den of thieves and refugees and stuff. And at one point about a year ago, we kind of revisited everything and we looked at everything in the game, and one of those was the environment, and we asked “Is the environment too cliche?” Because a haunted house is great, but there’s like a million games that use it currently. One of the guys suggested “How about Kowloon Walled City?” and the more I looked into it, the more I loved it, you know, it’s a really screwed up place.
The reality of it was terrible; there was no police or government regulation inside, it was just this den of chaos, and the buildings inside it were completely haphazard. As a result, it was this kind of weird, Mad Hatter’s vision of a dystopia and because the police were too afraid to go into it, it had its own little, isolated community and it kind of thrived. There was a lot of drugs, a lot of prostitution, but people actually lived in there. That’s where our current plot thread is, it’s based on a real place.
The other big thing is that we’re using the Unity game engine, and we’ve since upgraded to Unity 5, which is a hell of a lot better than the previous one! It looks and runs a lot better now, and one of the best things is that if you alt-tab out of the game now it doesn’t crash! (laughing). We’ve had a lot of graphical improvements, one of them being physically based rendering, so you’ll see a lot more light reflections, surfaces will look more realistic. A bit of a performance hit but graphically it’s worthwhile, it looks really nice. Gameplay wise, there’s been a lot of stuff that’s been fleshed out as well.
“Absolutely, the base story has changed a little bit but the whole Lovecraftian, “horror lurking in the darkness” vibe is still there.”
So the game itself is still based around Lovecraftian horror and mythology?
Absolutely, the base story has changed a little bit but the whole Lovecraftian, “horror lurking in the darkness” vibe is still there. Part of the story thread now is we’ve even incorporated some of Lovecraft’s stories. You’ll pick up notes and things, and anyone familiar with the lore will go “Oh, yeah, that’s part of Call of Cthulu,” for example.
What’s it been like implementing the VR controls?
Last year wasn’t too bad, but it took a bit of wriggling around with it. This year, well, there have been pluses and minuses, pros and cons. The latest SDK’s for Unity support the Oculus, it’s really good, so there’s a whole bunch of native support for the latest version but they’ve discontinued support for laptops. So now I have that beastly PC, which I had to put in my suitcase and bring with me. (laughing) So that side of it sucks, but it runs much nicer; you don’t even have to really do anything, you just import the Oculus SDK, and it just works.
Would you consider porting it to PlayStation VR?
The Morpheus? Yeah, absolutely; I haven’t tried it myself yet, but I’ve heard a lot of good things. It’s like the Vive – I love the Vive, but you really need to spend a lot of time with these things. I think we’ll just focus on getting the Steam version finished before jumping on too many things.
“One of the guys suggested “How about Kowloon Walled City?” and the more I looked into it, the more I loved it, you know, it’s a really screwed up place.”
So, how close are you to finishing development?
We are planning to be feature complete by December this year and have an extended beta period from up to about March to about 2016, just purely for polishing and bug fixing, and we’ll be going for full release from that point. We’re also approved developers on the ID program for Xbox, so we’ll be planning on releasing there. VR’s a big passion of ours, so we definitely want to get that developed and out for release as soon as Oculus is ready. We’ve had a few players come up and ask us when the Oculus version will be ready, so we might have that available at a separate branch for people to download and try out. It’s not something we’ll support from the outset for Early Access, but we’ll put it out there for people to have a go of, but if people get hold of it and really love it, then we’ll put more time into it. Otherwise, we’ll finish the Steam build before anything else.
How are you feeling about the project overall now that you’re close to finishing?
Where do I start? (laughing) Being an indie dev is one of the best things I’ve ever done and one of the worst things I’ve ever done. I love what I do; I’m absolutely passionate about games otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this, but it also sucks being dirt poor (laughing) and having this rollercoaster of emotions. Some days just being like “I love this,” and some days being like “Why the hell am I suffering like this?” Overall though I think it’s great, if I wanted to earn money then I’d go back to IT.