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From Civ and XCOM to cute monsters: How Firaxis went casual with Haunted Hollow

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.

Will Miller and David McDonough from Firaxis Games

Above: Haunted Hollow designers Will Miller (left) and David McDonough.

Image Credit: Firaxis Games

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].”

Haunted Hollow rooms

Above: Combing the same type of rooms results in a larger version. It’s better to build up into the sky to make the most use of your space.

Image Credit: 2K Games

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

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