I was immediately curious about The Haunted Graveyard when I found out John Tynes was involved. I was familiar with his work from his time in the tabletop gaming field, as the co-writer of the 1999 RPG Unknown Armies. When I did some more research, I discovered that Tynes was also an early content lead on Magic: The Gathering and a contributor to Call of Cthulhu, Over the Edge, Feng Shui, and Delta Green. It turns out that he’s one of those guys who’s been a quiet influence on a startling amount of the games industry, but you’d never know it without looking him up.
Tynes eventually moved into video game production, where he worked on Pirates of the Burning Sea as a producer at Flying Lab Software, a company he left after that title shipped. Bruce Sharp was an art director on that title as well, and he stayed at Flying Lab after the company became Cryptic North and developed Neverwinter. Following the closure of Cryptic North in 2015, Tynes and several of his co-workers (including Sharp) reformed as Holospark in Bellevue, Washington, where they’ve released The Impossible Travel Agency and Séance: The Unquiet for VR, as well as the co-op humans- vs.-aliens shooter Earthfall for PS4, Xbox, and PC.
On October 9th , Holospark debuted its new virtual reality project The Haunted Graveyard, where you’re placed into the titular cemetery and must explore it in an attempt to escape before the stroke of midnight. It’s intended as a short, interactive experience, aimed at newcomers to VR. You can pick it up for home use via Steam as of this writing, but its intended audience is patrons at VRcades around the world.
I interviewed Tynes, who worked on The Haunted Graveyard as an executive producer, as well as the game’s creative director Bruce Sharp, about their business plan, the technologies they’ve developed over the course of the project, and why The Haunted Graveyard is best called an experience, rather than a game. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
UploadVR: The Haunted Graveyard looks a lot like a theme park. Was that what you were going for?
John Tynes, executive producer: There’s even a song, very much like a Disney ride. There’s a musical performance partway through that’s really fun. We created all of our characters through motion-capture, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. We brought in professional actors from Seattle theater, they did all of their scenes together, and then we digitized all that stuff and put it into the game as performance. It’s fantastic. I mean, the level of performance we got from these people is amazing, and it comes through gorgeously.
Bruce Sharp, art director: We took these canned performances, and what’s sort of special about them is that we’ve layered some dynamic programming on top of that, to give you a feeling like they’re there with you, not just speaking to a camera.
UploadVR: Okay, so you brought them into the recording booth, and now you’ve programmed it so they feel more like they’re reacting directly to you and what you’re doing.
Tynes: Well, more beyond that. We actually captured their entire bodies and their faces and their voices simultaneously. We put our cast into motion-capture suits, which you might have seen from Hollywood movies and behind-the-scenes stuff. They acted out entire scenes on our sound stage and we captured every nuance of their body movement and facial expression, as well as their voice, and put all that information into our animation. So they would actually bring the characters to life, essentially being puppeteered by our actors.
UploadVR: Have you seen how Naughty Dog does things?
Tynes: I’ve seen some of their mo-cap work. They have a similar process.
UploadVR: Okay. I’m just trying to put a visual on it.
Tynes: The delivering on that sense of character presence in VR has been a huge focus for us. We’ve been doing a lot of our engineering over the last two years on that project. Our whole focus has been on really dialing in that performance, the quality of the characters, the art direction, the visual design and the animation process, everything around it to really have that character feel like they’re as close as you would be talking to somebody on the street. To have that proximity and that eye contact and everything else that makes you feel like you’re not just watching something. Like I’m here and this character is right next to me.
UploadVR: There does seem to be a quality to a lot of VR right now where it’s like a really interactive diorama.
Sharp: Right, a lot of environments.
Tynes: We’ve got a beautiful magical graveyard that you walk through, and it’s really awesome, but it’s the characters that bring it to life. That’s really our competitive advantage, that we’ve spent a lot of time
an effort building out this whole approach and technology.
UploadVR: I was talking with somebody at PAX [West] about how, in a lot of ways, it feels like VR right now is speed-running the CD-ROM era [of video games].
UploadVR: It seems like last week, we were all playing shooters, and now everybody’s talking about taking the storytelling up to the next level and really doing a lot with interactivity and empathy.
Tynes: Yeah, we really are going after that emotional response. We want to give you an emotional experience of relating to a character and just feeling like you really are there. It’s obviously a thing in VR, you’re there, you’re immersed, but frankly, when a character connects with you emotionally in a VR experience, you feel more connected and more immersed than you do in just like, as you said, a 3D diorama.
UploadVR: And so this is an interactive narrative where you’re exploring this landscape, to hopefully avoid being trapped forever.
Sharp: [laughter] That’s right.
Tynes: Yes. But crucially, we really made this for non-gamers. You cannot fail. There’s no gameplay that you’re gonna get wrong, or screw up and have to do again. What you’re going to have is that you’re going to walk through this beautiful place, encounter these characters, and make choices to solve a few problems along the way. They’re really there just to connect you to the reality of this magical place. It’s not something where you’re going to fail and die and do it again. It’s not a game at all.
Sharp: You’re going to feel like the term “audience” has been redefined when you see this. You’re still an audience, you’re still watching a story, but you’re also in the story. People are aware of you, but they’re not counting on you exactly, to help them solve the problem. When you watch a show, they’re not really counting on you, the audience, to do much. I think you’ll find this unique.
Tynes: What you’re going to be seeing is how this combination of this beautiful world with these gorgeous characters, and the work we’ve done to give them real presence and connect with you, as well as the music and the songs and everything else, all comes together into a really fun, complete experience that’s really geared for novice VR users of all ages.
UploadVR: To bring them into the medium via VRcade.
Tynes: Yeah, exactly.
UploadVR: Okay. The way you’re describing this makes me think of games like—and I know you said this isn’t a game—stuff like Gone Home and Tacoma.
Tynes: Right. Yeah, there is some of the “walking simulator” aspect to it, because you are moving through a
landscape like this.
Sharp: It’s not really an exploration of that landscape, so much.
Tynes: You’re going to have these great character moments all the way through it, but that’s a good thing to keep in mind. Those are all titles you’re talking about that tell a story over time, as opposed to players making branching dialogue choices or something, and that’s more in the spirit of what we’re doing.
UploadVR: It sounds like you guys have really put a lot of money and work into this. Is the goal to sell this to VRcades?
Tynes: So VR arcades will have six to ten setups at any given retail location, and then they just get the software from Steam like anybody else. Then they can just run it on the computers and play it. When you talk to the VRcade operators, they’ll tell you that they’ve got a handful of pieces of great content, and a bunch of kind of middling stuff. People who are new to VR will often have a frustrating time if they don’t get into something that’s the right approach for them. There are plenty of fairly hardcore VR games.
UploadVR: I’m just trying to get a feeling of how the business end of it works. So you guys are going to provide this to VRcades as a title for everybody who doesn’t want to shoot everything that moves.
Tynes: Yeah. So the VRcade model is mostly based around—this is maybe just background for you—two different kinds of revenue models. One is that they can pay a royalty on gameplay. They sell a customer a 30-minute game time card, for 15 bucks or whatever it is, and the customer plays where they want to for that duration. The software developer of the title gets a per-minute royalty on that game card play. The other is a subscription model where the VRcade pays a monthly licensing fee per station as a flat fee to the developer. Those are the two dominant models in the market right now.
UploadVR: That makes sense. I was curious about the business end, since it’s not something that a lot of users consider.
Tynes: Have you talked to [the guy who runs the] VRcade in Ballard [in Seattle]?
UploadVR: I have not.
Tynes: That VRcade is a prototypical example of what the field is like. He’s got a great setup there. It’s a really nice facility. You’ve got kids’ birthday parties in the daytime, corporate events in the evening, and on the weekends, it’s couples, families… anybody can walk in the door. It’s interesting because the VRcade demographic is just straight-up retail demographics. It’s 50/50 male/female, it’s all ages, grandparents and kids and everything in between.
Sharp: We were told at one point that 50 percent of the people going in say, “I am not a gamer.”
Specifically. “Do you have something that I can see in VR that isn’t a game?”
Tynes: And this is completely different from Steam. Steam is 100 percent hardcore gamers who are there for action or strategy or whatever, and mostly male. It’s a very different market, and the people making titles for that market are basically still making titles for Steam users and not for that mainstream audience.
UploadVR: That makes sense. I’ve tried to show Steam to people who are not members of that hardcore, enthusiast audience. It went over like I was showing a dog a card trick.
UploadVR: The idea of a “gateway game,” so to speak, is underrated at most levels of the market, not just VR.
Tynes: That’s very true. We think of a Steam title like Stardew Valley as being a sweet, accessible, fun little game, but that’s way more complicated than most people are used to. That’s not a great gateway game per se. We’d like to make something that is that kind of an approach for the VR market specifically.
UploadVR: I don’t think Stardew Valley is necessarily a bad choice because of how intricate it is… it’s a question of time management. There are a lot of people in the casual market, like you were saying, who want something where they can get in and get out. Stardew Valley [by comparison] is basically a lifestyle choice.
Tynes: That’s what you get on Steam. A whole lot of lifestyle choices.
UploadVR: I’m curious about Holospark itself. You guys are headquartered in Bellevue, Washington?
Tynes: Yeah. There are about 40 people here.
Sharp: A little bit over.
Tynes: Yeah, you’re right. We’ve got new hires here. Most of our team is not working on VR. They have been working on a PC and console shooter called Earthfall, which just shipped a couple of months ago, and then kind of like a barnacle on the side of that ship, we have a small VR team here and we’ve been doing all this skunk work stuff the last couple of years.
UploadVR: The first title I could find from you guys was The Impossible Travel Agency.
Sharp: That’s right.
Tynes: Yeah, that was our first title. That was a VR project our team did a couple of years ago, which was very much inspired by stuff like Disney’s Fantasia. Kind of a musical experience, really a beautiful experience all around.
Sharp: You’re sort of sitting in the middle of a vague narrative, while the environment around you is reactive to the music in a dynamic way. We shipped it with a track of classical music, but you can actually turn that off and go find your own. As long as you play it through your computer, everything that’s reactive in the product will react to that music.
UploadVR: And then, in 2017, you guys did Séance.
Tynes: That was kind of a short demo we did as we were working on this kind of character presentation stuff we’ve been talking about, as well as storytelling, and how to do narratives that can be reactive to the player’s attention without requiring an onscreen UI for choosing dialogue and that kind of thing.
Sharp: It’s kind of interesting. We thought about doing Séance for the VRcade rather than The Haunted Graveyard, but one of the pieces of feedback that influenced us a lot was… we learned that going in, half the fun is your friends watching you act like an idiot with this headset on. Séance is a seated experience where you’re sitting at a table. So we went back to the drawing board and recalculated what we were going to do.
Correction: After publication we updated this article’s introduction to better reflect the interview subjects’ background.