Enyx Studios – behind the scenes with Unholy

A couple of weeks ago, i shared some news about Enyx Studios, a video game development company created by Don Hileman and Andrew Pavlick. With an office at the eCenter @ LindenPointe, a technology incubator in Hermitage, Pennsylvania – not too far from me – the entrepreneurial pair of software startuppers invited me to visit. Don and Andrew are naturally very excited about their planned launch title “Unholy.” The game, which they’ve been hard at work on for the last couple of months, is aimed for multi-platform release in about four months, according to Don, and will be available on PC, Xbox, PS4 and Steam.

Concept cover art for Enyx Studios "Unholy" game
Concept cover art for Enyx Studios “Unholy” game

Unholy is a horror survival game that starts with some of the staples of the genre – creepy atmosphere the blends haunting sounds and moody lighting to cast familiar surroundings in a dark, decayed and formidable manner. But there are a few things that lend a unique identity to this property.

The most prominent aspect of Unholy that should intrigue gamers is Enyx’s build for the game that utilizes Oculus Rift VR. Gamers without the rapidly-proliferating Oculus Rift headsets will still be able to enjoy Unholy, but the gameplay experience will certainly be enhanced through the immersion offered by virtual reality.

“We’re going  to push the boundaries of the genre,” Don explained during my visit to Enyx Studios. “The whole point is to scare people and make them jump.”

Don let me try out the game using one of the studio’s headsets, and although the demo environment consisted of just a walled-in courtyard with a greenhouse in the center, it was definitely an experience (it was my first time using a VR headset). Viewing the game on a screen, the graphics are very clean and crisp thanks to Andrew who Don endorses as the best artist he’s ever worked with. Translated into the VR version, those graphics take on a deeper quality, with the lighting effects in particular heightening the tension. Although there were no other characters in the demo environment i tried out, the feeling of immersion was intensified and i can definitely understand how jumpy this sort of game could be. Back when the first Resident Evil game came out, we used to play at night with the lights off, and that used to make us jump from our chairs so i can only imagine what it would be like with the game world inhabiting your whole range of vision.

The in-game story of Unholy is another pillar providing strong support for the product. Both Don and Andrew take the narrative of their game very seriously, having worked hard to develop a thorough mythology to provide a framework for their vision. Likewise, they continue to bounce ideas off of each other throughout the process, coming up with new twists and turns to move the property forward.

Without giving too much away, since Don graciously shared some of the game’s critical details, the story centers around a protagonist who is invited via postcard to Whells Town. The invitation comes from the characters estranged mother, and the town has become something of an urban legend due to some unusual events that took place there. Of course, things don’t go smoothly and the visit turns into a struggle for survival.

As to the game’s antagonists, i did not learn what form they will take. Perhaps monsters of a supernatural variety or simply crazed humans i’m not sure. But as the pair of developers explained, they want their game to be less about the player’s character doing battle with enemies and more about the business of getting to safety. What i imagine is a sort of puzzle atmosphere, perhaps like Myst but with a huge leap forward in game design thanks to the technology available. This sounds pretty cool to me, and we talked about how a normal, real-world person might not immediately make the leap to becoming some sort of slayer of evil in the face of danger – at least not at first.

Which leads me to what i feel is the most innovative aspect of Unholy’s game design philosophy. The game is somewhat modeled in the same way as a great television series, planned to be released episodically over time. This design choice is actually practical for Don and Andrew as well, enabling them to put content out much quicker than if they built an entire full-length game for launch. Since at this time it’s just the two of them, building a game meant for 20/30/40 hours of gameplay would be Herculean to say the least. Working in smaller chunks, or episodes, affords them the opportunity to get a product out every few months, and then build upon that foundation.

We talked quite a bit about how the episodic facet to Unholy has several benefits, for both them as designers and the gamers who enjoy their product. For one thing, a single episode of the game is planned for pricing in the $5-10 range. For a startup company, this means gamers should be more willing to take a chance on their game without having to shell out $50 for a full-length game.

Another practical point to the model is that the developers can react to new technologies as they continue to emerge, and therefore include different features and new techniques in later builds and episodes. Based on our conversation, and the many different story ideas Don and Andrew have, this could mean that future episodes feature different kinds of gameplay perhaps. For example, there could be an episode that features more fighting, or different kinds of puzzles. In a full-length game, that might seem clunky if the gameplay style changed throughout the playthrough, but taken as a single episode it would fit.

What i think is coolest about the episodic model, though, is that it cleaves closely to what we’re seeing these days in terms of televised (or streaming) programs. Well-received programming is often praised for being more like 12-hour movies, and something like Unholy should have that same effect. Each episode, while self-contained, is paced well and leaves you satisfied through a mix of action and story development, while at the same time teasing just enough to bring you back for more. It will be interesting to see Unholy once there is a complete “season” released, and gamers can play through the whole story. Perhaps, like televised programs, gamers who took in each episode can go back and binge through the whole season for a different kind of experience.

To create Unholy, Don and Andrew are using the award-winning Unity engine, a cross-platform game design engine. Unity 5.0, which was just released in March, is a complete engine available to developers for free that includes all features except source code and support. For the graphics, Andrew uses Blender, another free and open-source software product. Blender is 3-D graphics software used for animation, modeling and visual effects. He also uses Autodesk Maya, or just Maya for short, another 3-D graphics application.

On the personal side of Enyx Studios, both Don and Andrew feel that one of the most important parts of game design is building a community.

“There is a major business side to it,” Don said, but explained further that for them, one of the most important things is “reaching out to followers and letting them see what we do.”

To that end, Enyx Studios is very open to giving gamers a peek behind the scenes as they continue to develop Unholy. More than just creating a great game, Don and Andrew hope fans connect with them along the ride and grow right alongside them. Trade shows and conventions like PAX East and E3 notwithstanding – which of course offer huge opportunities for developers to connect with fans – the guys at Enyx plan to share things like developer logs as they work, giving gamers an inside peek at how indie studios get the job done.

It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to accomplish something you passionately believe in, Don explained. Both he and Andrew went all-in for this project, foregoing the regular jobs they had to pour their energy and attention – and bank accounts! – into creating something they both believe adds something unique to a gamer’s library. While they certainly hope to grow and expand Enyx Studios with additional titles and personnel, right now they’re just two guys putting it on the line for their dreams.

“There’s no such thing as an overnight success,” Don said. Instead, there are people who go the distance to meet their goals, and that’s a takeaway anyone can believe in.

Enyx Studios

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Thanks for visiting The Long Shot!

Please follow/like/share this if you enjoyed it or any of the other content you find here, and keep an eye on Enyx Studios for more news about Unholy. Don and Andrew may also share developer notes right here at The Long Shot, which would definitely be awesome. i’m getting close to 500 followers, a milestone i hope to reach this year. Thank you so much to everyone who already follows this blog, it means a ton and i appreciate each and every one.

Thanks to both Don and Andrew for inviting me to Enyx Studios and letting me in on some exclusive stuff like Unholy’s plot and some of the surprises they have in store. Meeting with and talking to people like these guys, doing things on their own the way they want to, is just as much an inspiration for me to keep plugging away here myself!

Thanks also, once again, to Bob Sopko from CWRU’s Blackstone Launchpad, who connected Enyx Studios with me. Bob is a tireless voice in technology in the area, helping all sorts of people share their work and words to help drive technology forward..

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