Haunted Hollow’s origin story isn’t as grotesque as those behind the mummies, goblins, and zombies it proudly depicts. The turn-based free-to-play strategy game is from the minds of lead designers David McDonough and Will Miller. It’s coming to iOS devices later this spring. But it would take a few years — and some fortuitous timing — before their idea became a reality.
Both men got their start in the industry at Firaxis Games (McDonough as a producer and Miller as a gameplay programmer), a studio known for such hardcore strategy franchises like Civilization and the more recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown. At different points in their careers, they left Firaxis to work at the now defunct Big Huge Games as system designers on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. They barely missed the ax: A few weeks before Big Huge shut down last year due to the (very public) financial collapse of its parent company, 38 Studios, Firaxis asked them to return to work on a new mobile game.
Lucky for them, they agreed.
The original premise, which McDonough and Miller came up with while eating lunch one day, had players running a hotel for monsters, the kind of creatures made famous through pop culture like vampires and werewolves. Gradually, it became more complicated. The hotel full of monsters became a haunted house full of monsters. The player was now a “mad scientist” or “insane count” who’d send their deadly minions to scare the people living in a nearby town.
Soon, they realized the game needed a more clearly defined opponent, so they plunked down a second haunted house that another person (or the A.I.) could control. The blueprint they ended up drawing from this brainstorm featured two “ridiculous” houses casting shadows on opposite sides of a small valley — Haunted Hollow was born.
Taking a family friendly approach
While Haunted Hollow maintains the type of gameplay depth that Firaxis is known for, it’s still quite different from anything else the company has done before, especially with an art style that wouldn’t look out of place on The Disney Channel.
“Civ, of course, is a dead serious game, and XCOM is also like that, especially what the art guys at Firaxis did with it when they rebooted it — they really made it like a sci-fi movie and it feels very tense,” explained McDonough. “But in Firaxis’ back catalog, there are a lot more lighter games: from Sim Golf to Pirates to Railroads. … And when Firaxis asked us to make a mobile game, that’s the direction we thought. We really love mobile games for their sort of whimsical nature, their casual, universal appeal, and for the way this platform lends itself to a sort of board game sensibility, which seemed perfect for a cross-demographic style of game.”
Instead of going for a bloody or spooky take on classic monsters, the developers headed the opposite way. They made them cute so that Haunted Hollow wouldn’t seem scary to kids, but they also made sure that they looked appealing enough for adults to appreciate.
“We got the children of the developers — the lead programmer and lead artists — their sons were sort of the test group for how scary things were,” said McDonough. “We definitely wanted it to be a family game that you can play with your kids, and that they can have [as much fun with it as you are].”
Scaring the townsfolk is tougher than it sounds. To assemble a powerful army of monsters, you have to carefully think about the construction of your haunted mansion. You receive a new room to plop down on your house with each turn, and the type of room you use will determine the type of monster that’ll join you: The vampire’s room is full of stained glass windows, the mummy’s has a golden sarcophagus, and so on. If you place the same rooms next to each other, you’ll create a bigger version of that room and spawn a monster with better stats and attacks.
Haunted Hallow categorizes the creatures in three different roles: Those who can only scare people in their houses (giving you Fear points to buy monsters and power-ups for each match), those who only attack (killing rival monsters slows the other player down), and those who can do a little of both. You’ll have to use all three types to take over the town and stop your opponent — either a local player sitting near you as you pass your iPhone or iPad back and forth, someone online via Apple’s Game Center, or against the A.I. — from doing the same (they can bring your possessed houses under their control by scaring them again).
A third faction, an angry mob brandishing pitchforks and torches, makes the territorial conquest a little more complicated. They descend from a central church when the town’s meter (increasing with each home you control) reaches a certain point, and they’ll attack any monster near them as well as burn down houses that you or your opponent took over. Only higher level creatures can defeat them.
Image credit: Firaxis Games
‘The level 3 zombie looks like Keith Richards’
The all-ages tone doesn’t detract from the gorgeous art. The first 12 monsters available at launch a split into free and purchase tiers: The vampire, ghost, zombie, Frankenstein’s monster, and werewolf are free; the boogeyman, siren, swamp creature, mummy, goblin, witch, and wendigo are in-app purchases. All bear similarities to their iconic counterparts from classic films. So the level 1 vampire looks like he’d belong in Nosferatu more than he would in Twilight.
“One of the principal 2D artists on the team — Mike Bazzell — is an old veteran of Firaxis of many years,” said McDonough. “And I think he lives and breathes all classic monster movies and monster horror culture. His office, his clothing, his car – it’s all just like bedecked. … The other artists on the team mixed it up: The zombie has this sort of skate-punk, ‘Teenage Wasteland’ look about him, and his room is like this rocker room. The level three zombie looks like Keith Richards! We had a lot of fun cherry picking from the artistic archetypes over the years to make all our monsters.”
Their philosophy for designing the creatures is “If everything is overpowered, then nothing is overpowered.” Each monster does at least one specific thing really well, but their powers find counters from the abilities of the others. The werewolf’s fast and heavy attacks are no use against the mummy, who can absorb the damage because of its high amount of hit points. So choosing which set (like choosing a deck of cards) to use before you play is just a matter of what play style you prefer.
With a handful of new monsters as paid content ready to go some time after launch, it sounds like your options will only continue to expand. But to ensure this growth, the team is starting to draw from sources other than film and comic books.
“For the future, we started to look at sort of — a little bit of drifting back to the Civ roots — we started to look at culturally or mythologically significant monsters,” said McDonough. “What if we did a set of monsters based on like Asian mythology, like a dragon or mogwai or something? Or what if we did Arabian Nights and we had like a djinn or an ifrit or something like that? Sort of great monsters from legends across the world.
“And when we started to look in that direction, there are a ton to choose from. We could probably do a year’s worth of content on Greco-Roman [mythology] alone. So that’s where we imagine we could go if there’s enough demand for more monsters.”