A Pre-Release Design and Product Audit
Heliophobia, the first-person horror/mystery game by Dave Gedarovich of Glass Knuckle Games, creates a unsettling and intriguing experience as the protagonist runs for their life while decrypting arcane messages scattered around a dark yet familiar world. While still in early development, the alpha provides an initially entertaining, tense, and enjoyable hour or two until it is abruptly stopped at a captivating cliffhanger. At the time of writing, Heliophobia is in active development following an initial limited alpha release.
Heliophobia is not available for purchase as of February 2017, but a release date this year is expected. Based on the existing alpha, with no knowledge of work done following the build, we expect that to be an ambitious yet realistic goal, assuming work is done on a part-time schedule. We expect the game’s success to hinge primarily on how well is makes itself unique in comparison to similar existing titles, as well as the final level of polish and attention to detail. Based on build we studied, we expect financial success to be attainable.
Because of the mystery nature of the game, some content below may contain spoilers. We will make an effort to limit specific references whenever possible, except when it detracts from the quality of feedback.
Heliophobia presents itself as a “dark first-person horror/mystery presented with a non-linear narrative”. With some noticeable similarities to existing titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Heliophobia faces the challenge to differentiate itself in the marketplace, perhaps more so than usual. Thankfully, Heliophobia creates a unique, detailed atmosphere from the ground up that not only keeps the player interested from level to level, but has them passively imagine their own world outside the playable areas. Because the game appears to take place in a unique hybrid of psychological manifestations and physical locations, it makes many elements throughout the game more enjoyable and believable, ultimately aiding in immersion.
Heliophobia only offers a single-player offline campaign, which is standard for the genre and experience. While a multiplayer option could offer interesting opportunities, it’s rare and exceptionally difficult to manage with this particular experience.
Gameplay is ultimately enjoyable, despite suffering from being somewhat inconsistent. Bouncing back and forth from puzzles to horror, crouching to sprinting, and bedrooms to bridges is a great and unique way to effectively keep players engrossed in the overall experience, but on multiple occasions (as detailed in the Playtest Report), the slow moments are more prone to contain points of frustration or confusion. This can result in more active areas losing their luster when immediately following“dips”. It’s important to note the attention to detail and sense of humor scattered throughout the game, leaving the player with little surprises as they work towards an overarching goal.
While most levels have a clear cut objective (i.e. go to Chinatown), several areas leave the player thinking “what was I doing again?” and without an easily referenceable UI of some sort (an overlay, a note, etc), they are left to blindly follow what “looks like the right direction” without knowing why. Enemies scattered throughout most of the levels introduce a tense and occasionally thrilling challenge, although they suffer from the“blindness” found in many first-person horror foes. While there is no explanation for their existence in the alpha, the introductory level does a good job demonstrating their ability to “phase” into existence, as well as the visual and apparently psychological effect on the player. Interestingly enough, a new type of enemy is introduced midway through the alpha, but fails to return in later levels. Some of the playtesters hoped these enemies would replace the more common variant, as they are more visually unique and unsettling than their generic “brethren.”
Accessibility is a challenge for any game in the genre, and Heliophobia faces the same issues found in most of its competition. On-screen text is the primary method of communication, which bodes well for hearing-impaired players, but on several occasions there is unprompted narration with no on-screen visual accompaniment. Another recurring element in several levels is the use of red and green lights to indicate success (or completeness, in some cases). Puzzles and notes are primarily done with high-contrast colors, like black on beige, and the minimal crosshairs change both size and shape when looking at an interactive item. While there are available settings to customize controls, it seems they aren’t yet functional. The game is configured to work with controllers as well, although one was not utilized during our playtest.
Polish is an interesting aspect of Heliophobia, as it simultaneously feels highly polished, yet certain elements noticeably unpolished. The attention to detail, as previously mentioned, is fantastic for an alpha build. Hidden messages tucked away purely for atmosphere and player experience add a surprising amount to gameplay. There are tons of items to interact with in every level, and the visual effects when interacting with enemies is fantastic (if the rest of the game was as visceral as the effects of looking at a nearby enemy, it would be overwhelmingly intense, in a good way). However the enemies themselves appear somewhat roughly modeled and poorly animated, which we assume is simply a priority issue as the game is in active development. The use of what appear to be default Unity particles is also effective in some areas but detracts from others (such as the menus or when floating around the “mystery” character).
Visibility isn’t one of Heliophobia’s strong suits at the moment, however it is early enough in development that it shouldn’t have a strong negative impact on the game (or be a priority during active development). While Glass Knuckle Games has a dedicated social media presence between social media and streaming, the lack of a dedicated social media pages for the game or studio is a missed opportunity to build a fanbase early on. No results were found on major gaming subreddits as well, or IndieDB.
Sociability does not have a huge place in the current state of Heliophobia, as the game is still in alpha stages. It’s worth noting that few games in this genre rate particularly high in sociability, with the biggest exceptions possibly being Five Nights at Freddy’s or another horror game that gained immense visibility due to mass distribution. One of Heliophobia’s unique elements, the mystery and dynamic content, should provide players with a variety of experiences that provoke discussion and natural dissemination of content through social media.
Monetization should be a low priority aspect of Heliophobia. Other than playable DLC, there are few options to naturally integrate paid content into the existing game. With a fair price point (we would expect something around 15 USD, +/- 5 USD based on how dynamic the content ultimate becomes) and substantial variety in playthroughs, Heliophobia should see solid sales without reviews noting disappointment for limited gameplay for the cost. Regardless of dynamic content, players generally like to spend under three dollars per hour of gameplay, which should be kept in mind when pricing the final product.
Our playtest session included four participants who played through the entirety of the alpha twice (data in this demo covers the first playthroughs, not the second). Playthroughs were staggered (A-B-C-D-A-B-C-D), and without observation. Participants were encouraged to write their thoughts at any given moment, but not required to. None of the players had prior experience with the game, but were familiar with first person gameplay within the horror genre.
Early stages in the game were generally praised for effectively setting the scene. While little proved to be particularly difficult, the game starts off with a seamless combination of horror, puzzles, tension, and intrigue. While random elements in the second level hinted at the deeply varied and unique player experiences, little to no content changed between playthroughs. Playtesters were aware the game is in active development, but all noted disappointment in that fact due to restricting replay value. Surprisingly, hiding in level 2 was one of the favorite moments for most playtesters in either gameplay, due to the random nature of the key position as well as the mostly non-obvious options for hiding spots.
Specific highlights included the note puzzle in level 3 (for being most cleverly designed) and the basement sequence in level 4 (for being the most tense and intriguing). Moments that forced the player to utilize the audio and visual cues from enemy location and proximity had the most significant positive effect on player experience. The peak moment across the board was level 7, where a new variant of enemy is introduced.
Initially, alpha gameplay was described as lasting around 1–3 hours. As first-time players, none of our testers faced moderate difficulty when progressing through the game. Other than the occasional confusing moment, none of the playtesters encountered areas that posed a serious challenge. The completion times for each player ranged from 111 minutes to 139 minutes. However, due to the aforementioned static level structure (as well as a couple issues to be noted in Proposed Improvements), players going through their second playthough completed the entire alpha in a mere 29 to 41 minutes.
In it’s current state Heliophobia offers two hours of unique and enjoyable gameplay. Casual gamers may not pick up on similarities between this game and it’s competition, but the intrigue offered in puzzle and mystery elements definitely introduces a two-tone atmosphere that sets the game apart. Currently, the biggest drawback to the game simply appears to be the early stage in development, as many elements of the game feel unfinished or generally rough around the edges. For being in alpha stages, however, the game offers a ton of captivating content for new players to truly enjoy.
Thank you for taking the time to read our first abridged demo audit. If you want to share your thoughts or have any questions, feel free to reach out to us for questions, comments, and business inquiries. If you found this interesting and informative, please share it with your friends and colleagues. We plan on releasing more audits like this on a variety of games to show how no two projects are alike and that for the highest quality service you need to hire an expert, like Pilone Consulting.