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YBI Company Creates ‘A Haunting’ Virtual Reality

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio –In the late 1600s, a woman in a town called Shady Hollow is accused of being a witch, betrayed by the man she loved – a minister – and hanged. This tale stretches to contemporary times with the appearance of a creature known as the Hollow Creek Witch.

What sounds like the plot of a gothic horror novel is the storyline of a virtual reality video game being developed at the Youngstown Business Incubator. Enyx Studios, which became a YBI tenant last September, is developing “A Haunting: Witching Hour” for the Sony PlayStation 4 system and, eventually, other platforms.

“We’re looking to shape the future of interactive storytelling through virtual reality,” says its CEO, Don Hileman, who started Enyx last year.

Hileman, who has a baccalaureate in public relations and marketing and a master’s degree in organizational management, says he has been programming games since he was 9 years old, first working on a Commodore 64 system. He looked into the games industry after a friend had asked that he develop a mobile app for him.

“After doing some research, I saw that the games were making a lot more money than the mobile apps were,” Hileman says. He began working with programming, 3-D modeling, animation, “basically trying to learn everything I can about every aspect of the business,” he says.

In “A Haunting,” the player assumes the role of one in a group of present-day documentary filmmakers who arrive in the community to investigate a set of murders that a descendent of the 17th-century minister is accused of having committed in 1975. The player is transported through time to various connected periods, where the main threat is the Hollow Creek Witch herself.

After an early version that focused on a witch possessing a girl, Hileman went with the current version because he found the stories of the Salem witch trials interesting and because a game based on the trials would distinguish it in the marketplace.

“The way we’re writing it, it’s very much like a TV show,” Hileman explains. “Each episode ends with a cliffhanger that leads you into the next episode.”

EnyxFoundersDon Hileman is CEO of Enyx Studios. Noah Johnson is lead programmer for “A Haunting: Witching Hour.”

The objective is to discover what happened and make it out of Shady Hollow with the film crew – without dying, he says.

Alex Puncekar, a graduate student at Youngstown State University, wrote the game. He works with YSU professor Christopher Barzak, a published author and the first person approached to write the game.

Barzak didn’t have the time but asked Puncekar, a video game fan, if he would be interested.

Puncekar felt writing the game presented a challenge he wanted to pursue.

“It’s not like you’re writing a novel or a screenplay where you have everything in front of you,” he says. “With a game, it’s a bit different because you’re working with the player. You don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Another challenge was writing horror, a genre in which he had little experience working until he wrote the game and which “comes with its own trappings and what people expect,” he says.

Hileman describes “A Haunting” as “more of a puzzle-type game” where the player searches for clues to unlock more of the story.

“We don’t want the traditional jump-scare-slasher type of thing,” he says. “We really want to play with the psychological part of terror.”

The game will be episodic, with five to seven episodes each “season,” Hileman says.

He likens crafting a videogame to making a movie “because there’s so many pieces involved.”

Actors’ movements are recorded by a motion-capture suit, and those data are fed into Enyx’ computer system so the characters move more realistically. Voiceover artists record dialogue in an onsite recording booth.

“You have all the programming and then, of course, you have the story. The games have to have a great story or no one will want to play them,” he continues.

“The fact that it’s in virtual reality definitely makes it a very different game design-wise from a lot of the stuff that I’m familiar with,” says lead programmer Noah Johnson. “I’m having to come up with solutions to problems that wouldn’t really exist in other games because you’re fully immersed.”

The Youngstown Business Incubator is excited to be working with a virtual-reality company for the first time, says Barb Ewing, chief operating officer.

“Virtual reality is really going to be the hot new technology. It’s certainly what everybody is talking about today,” Ewing says. “It’s got a lot of different applications for education and workforce opportunities, but what the kids are excited about is, of course, gaming.”

Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor recently took a look at the game during a visit to YBI. “It’s very gratifying to see such fascinating and innovative creating being done as a direct result of YBI’s efforts,” she said following her visit. “Virtual reality is the gaming wave of the future, and I look forward to seeing the finished product.”

During the visit, Taylor donned the VR headset and sampled the game.

“It was jarring when something would jump out at you due to the VR technology – frightening, really – which I suppose is great, considering the genre,” she remarked.

Following the PlayStation launch, the plan is to prepare the game for other systems, Hileman says.

“We’re shooting for a fall release. So far we’re on track for that,” he reports. “We’re just putting it all together now.”

There are plans for other games in the “A Haunting” line.

Pricing for the game remains under study, he notes.

YBI’s Ewing praises Enyx’ “unique model” for delivery of the product in installments. “It allows them to change the content on the fly to accommodate feedback from gamers and it also makes it a much more affordable way of both purchasing and delivering the product,” she says.

Hileman recognizes the technology developed for the games “can easily be transitioned” into educational, medical and training applications.

“The fact that we’re doing virtual reality here in Youngstown, Ohio, and doing a game for large console companies like Xbox and PlayStation is just amazing,” he says. “Normally things like this are done over on the West Coast.”

Pictured at top: A screen capture shows one of the environments in “A Haunting: Witching Hour.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.