The Brookhaven Experiment
“The Brookhaven Experiment” is a virtual reality horror game for the HTC Vive. Phosphor Games

“The Brookhaven Experiment,” a horror game for the HTC Vive developed by Phosphor Games, will soon terrify large groups of players in China with a partnership that places the VR game in 100,000 internet cafés.

The move, announced last week, is the latest step by a major game developer to integrate virtual reality into the industry and get everyday players used to the technology. While VR is being touted as a revolutionary step forward for games, it still has limited mass potential due to high-priced entry barriers. Purchasing an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, for instance, means having a PC powerful enough to handle VR. A new user will end up spending upwards of $1,500 before ever purchasing a single game.

To get as many people as possible to experience “The Brookhaven Experiment,” Phosphor Games is looking to license the experience to VR arcades, gaming cafés and — in the near future — casinos.

“We’re getting approached by upstart VR arcades from all over the world,” said Justin Corcoran, the company’s CEO. “We’re getting approached by groups who want to take it and turn it into a potential casino floor experience because the casino floor might need to transform into more of an arcade over the 20 years.”

For “The Brookhaven Experiment,” the China deal made sense: The country’s $24 billion gaming market is the largest in the world. And unlike in North America where gaming is spread out across mobile, console and PC, Chinese gaming is dominated by mobile and PC, with gaming cafés playing an important role in providing access to games. Instead of purchasing a high-end PC, gamers can go to a café, spend a small amount of money, and get the best gaming experience possible. Even Atari founder Nolan Bushnell told IBT earlier this year VR arcades will be popular because, like video game arcades of yore, they offer an experience that can’t be replicated easily at home.

By placing “Brookhaven” into internet cafés, it reduces that entry barrier. “With VR cafés popping up around the world, they’ll be very valuable for the west to get exposure to VR,” Corcoran said.

Horror was the perfect genre for Phosphor Games’ first VR experience, Corcoran said. Whereas other virtual reality gaming efforts may have fallen flat, it’s much easier to understand the appeal of an immersive experience that transports you into a post-apocalyptic world where you have to survive a terrifying ordeal.

“We have a history with horror, in the form of tension and atmosphere. Not so much jump scares, but visuals, environments and storytelling,” Corcoran said. A few team members came up with an idea for a VR horror game, which led to a concept. After the prototype proved to be a lot of fun, Phosphor Games began developing “The Brookhaven Experiment” in the fall.

Phosphor has been working quietly with VR for a few years. The team has played around with the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Gear VR and Google Cardboard, but it wasn’t until the recent crop of headsets that a game became a viable option for Phosphor.

Creating a VR game is different than traditional development due to the multiple ways of playing the game. VR can provide a 360-degree experience, with the action happening around the player or a 180-degree experience where it’s mostly centered around a player’s head movement. With the HTC Vive, VR can be a full-room experience. Future ports of “The Brookhaven Experiment” would have to take into consideration the capabilities of the Oculus Rift or the PlayStation VR. Unlike the HTC Vive, the Rift and PlayStation VR provide experiences where the player is seated. That requires additional time for development to make sure it’s as terrifying an experience as it was on HTC Vive.

In “The Brookhaven Experiment,” players may expect something to creep out from the left, but the threat has actually been tracking them from the right for the last 30 seconds. The next time a player is in a similar situation, there's in a heightened state of awareness that the game can exploit by messing with a player’s expectations. Misdirection, music cues when there are no threats or the introduction of a new terrifying element are just a few ways a game can ramp up the experience. All of these elements have led to “Brookhaven” becoming a viral sensation with more than 12 million views on YouTube.

Horror is perhaps the best game genre to convert VR skeptics into believers. One of the big drawbacks for VR is the isolating effect of putting on a headset and slipping on a pair of headphones. The player is completely removed from the surrounding space. That sense of detachment makes a player acutely aware of everything. The user is unsure of his or her surroundings, which lets the imagination run wild. With the player doing most of the heavy lifting, a horror game just needs to complete the experience.

“It’s nice in VR to explore a beautiful vista, but you can also do that in real life. You can see a more beautiful landscape in real life,” Corcoran said. “We haven’t reached the point where we could make something better than the real Grand Canyon. But, you can’t in real life have the presence of a post-apocalyptic horror shooter experience.”

As the level of terror intensifies, the game must provide players with the proper tools to overcome the horror. If “Brookhaven,” or any other horror game, were simply about an unrelenting wave of scares, it would quickly lose its appeal. “At first, people feel very overwhelmed by the whole experience,” Corcoran said. “But, then you get some head shots. You start to survive a few more rounds, you get the sense of competence that you say, ‘OK, I’m feeling pretty good. I’m getting better at shooting and my accuracy is up.’ You go from the character that dies in the first five minutes of ‘The Walking Dead’ to the character who survives a few episodes.”