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Interview: Dene Waring

Team Shadowshifters
The core of the ShadowShifters team: Dene, Tobias, Pamela and MacKenzie Waring. (photo courtesy Dene Waring)

As a boy, Dene Waring was the monster in the haunted house. Literally.

Now at age 55 and a father of six, Queensland, Australia-based game developer Waring knows better than most how to put on a horror show to a live audience. It’s little surprise, then, that today these experiences are part of the inspiration behind his first video game, Huntsman: The Orphanage.

Waring grew up in the 1960s as part of the traveling circus and sideshow circuits in New Zealand. With his parents, he formed The Lavengro Gypsies, a sharpshooting act. As part of the show’s haunted house crew, he would hide in a corner, wearing a fake gorilla’s arm. When visitors walked by in the dark, Waring would grab the backs of their necks with a hairy arm, scaring them senseless. His everyday travelling companions included sideshow attractions such as the dog-faced boy and the giraffe-necked woman, sights that wouldn’t be out of place in Waring’s game.

The Orphanage is currently in the top 10 list of games on Steam’s Greenlight service, which gathers votes and feedback from its 4 million-plus userbase to choose which indie games will become full-fledged releases on Steam.

Created by Waring’s indie start-up studio ShadowShifters, The Orphanage is a first-person horror adventure game. The protagonist explores Grimhaven Orphanage, a decrepit abandoned building in Illinois where, in 1898, a dozen orphans mysteriously disappeared. Rumour has it that something, or someone, named “the Huntsman” is responsible. You play as a character with unspecified connections to one of the missing orphans, armed with only the camera and ‘flashlight’ of his cellular phone.

If parts of this scenario sound familiar, it’s not a coincidence. Huntsman: The Orphanage was originally called Slenderman Stories: The Orphanage, starring the eponymous, silent antagonist whose myth has been slowly built up through a remarkable crowdsourcing of information and creative input on the internet.

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Slenderman’s origins date back to 2009 on the Something Awful forums. In the ‘Create Paranormal Images’ thread, users were challenged to Photoshop weird or creepy instances into existing pictures to make Blair Witch Project-like oddities. A user named Victor Surge posted images of children (in a playground, for example) with the indistinct image of a creepy, tall man with elongated limbs possibly stalking the children. It became an instant hit and Slenderman was born.

Slenderman’s origins and methodology for stalking his prey evolved into a full-blown meme. He was the subject of a multi-chapter YouTube series called Marble Hornets, and a handful of independent games including Slender: The Eight Pages.

Waring saw Slenderman as the perfect game antagonist, and the perfect way to use a character that already had a built-up, known mythology — and as a figure in the public domain, distribution wouldn’t be an issue.

“You had this myth thousands of people had contributed their own individual pieces to,” said Waring. “And yet there was still so much scope to take the character, because you have the seeds of hundreds of thousands of more wonderful stories that can be told with that character.”

But things got complicated for Waring when Victor Surge sold the Slenderman option rights to an unnamed third-party. Steam’s parent company Valve couldn’t publish a game using the character with this new legal roadblock. Rights issues regarding Slenderman had also turned into a roadblock for one of Greenlight’s other top-rated games, Faceless.

Waring found himself in a dilemma, made especially difficult because he had never made contact with the character’s creator “Victor Surge” (real name Eric Knudsen). Unable to use Slenderman, he instead took this opportunity to flesh out another character concept he and his team had been working on – the Huntsman.

What was once Slenderman had grown a horrific chitinous carapace with another set of hind legs. The design was inspired by Waring’s life in and around New Zealand and Australia, where the Huntsman spider reigned. Every new house his family moved into probably had a Huntsman lurking beneath the floorboards.

“They move like greased lightning,” explained Waring. “They don’t build webs. They just sit and wait and when something crawls past, they leap on it in a split second. They move faster than you can see.” His sons’ fascination over the years with the Huntsmen sealed the deal: he was the new antagonist.

Slenderman’s metamorphosis into the Huntsman wasn’t the only influence Waring’s family had on the game – in fact, the Waring family made up a major portion of the development team. Dene’s wife Pamela, their 17-year-old son Mackenzie and 12-year-old son Tobias are listed as story advisers for the game. Pamela contributed to the script and Mackenzie to some of the 3D modelling work. Along with working on the music, Tobias also played Charley, one of the 12 orphans around which the story revolves.

For Waring Sr., having his sons on board provided some quality family time as well as direct feedback from his primary target demographic. “They know the game world, “he said. “They know what they would love to play. Without their creativity and their vision, The Orphanage would be half or a third of the story that it is at the moment.”

Even though he already had the seeds of a development team with his wife and sons, the newly christened ShadowShifters studio (the name came from a story written by Tobias) wasn’t immediately on the path to success.

For one, Waring had never worked on a video game before, having spent the last six years designing the interactive environments for theme park rides such as the Green Lantern and Batman roller coasters at Warner Bros. Movie World in Queensland. “There’s a whole building that you have to walk through – a recreated Arkham Asylum – that you have to walk through before you even get to the roller coaster cars, and go for your ride,” explained Waring.

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The transition to creating an interactive world inside a video game, such as The Orphanage, seemed a natural extension of his work, especially combined with his previous roles in actual haunted houses and his love of horror literature from Edgar Allen Poe and Ray Bradbury.

Enter Steam Greenlight, which accepted his application prior to its launch last summer, and included it in the initial list of 860 concepts for users to browse. The games that receive the most votes would then be released for purchase at regular intervals.

“The number one thing that holds every creative indie back is distribution,” said Waring. “If you can’t get through the gatekeepers of those massive, monolithic distribution companies – if you can’t get past the receptionist – you’re never going to get your project out there. It’ll never be distributed on a scale that would give you any kind of viable financial return so you can then make your second project, or your third.”

When the first statistics for Greenlight were released, Waring was astonished that The Orphanage ranked #32 out of 860. “I couldn’t believe it. I had no inkling of where we were before that. I thought we’d be like, 832.”

The deluge of comments gave him a huge body of feedback to work on, thanks to the informed community of gamers who knew what they wanted and frequently knew more about the recent canon of horror games than Waring himself.

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At press time, The Orphanage was ranked #8 on Greenlight with more than 145,000 “I’d buy it” votes and 1,700-plus comments.

The Orphanage also marked Waring’s entry into the independent video game scene in Australia. He received a warm welcome from the Game Developers’ Association of Australia (GDAA), which gave him its support and contacts for others in the field who could join his team.

“[Brisbane developer Morgan Jaffeit] met me for coffee, and talked about the project and how to move ahead with it,” says Waring. “He was just so generous with his time. He said, ‘if an Australian game developer succeeds, the Australian game development industry succeeds.’”

In a few months, ShadowShifters grew into more than just the Warings. The team now numbers 20, including programmers and artists whose credits include such games as Silent Hill, L.A. Noire and Sanctum. With crew of volunteers and part-time contractors scattered around the world, Waring hopes to raise funds on the international Kickstarter-esque GameLaunched to pay them full-time salaries for the final push.

“The indie battle is a tough one and no more so than with the first game,” he said. “We are grateful for the massive, talented input we have from volunteer artists of such high calibre. Couldn’t have got where we are now without them.”

Waring isn’t under any illusions that Huntsman: The Orphanage has an easy path ahead up until its eventual release, currently slated for the first quarter of 2013. But with a tumultuous cycle that included the loss of Slenderman and jumping into the indie game scene without any previous experience, things seem to be looking up.

“I thought, if I could marry those great old ghost stories, with what feels like a real world walk-through experience, I’d be a happy man,” said Waring. “That isn’t a revelation for any gamer. But as a creative, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to create. It just gets my juices going.”

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