Local VR developer Greg Aring brings you horror in Hellicott City

Imagine your hometown. You know it like the back of your hand— every back road, shortcut and small business. But what if it had changed; as though the things you thought you knew were suddenly distorted and eerily different in a way you couldn’t grasp? That which was once a slice of home would be suddenly strange and unfamiliar.

This fear is what virtual reality (VR) game developer Greg Aring tapped into for a Halloween project at an Ellicott City art festival last year. Using topography from Google Maps, as well as his own personal knowledge, Aring created a virtual copy of the town with a spooky theme, aptly called Hellicott City for the Oculus Rift.

Skeletons blow bubbles and ravens swoop by; lightning crackles in the background and zombies drag their feet towards you. In a hay-ride-type tour, the player gets to experience a spooky, warped version of Ellicott City’s downtown area, through the sit-down experience.

“The downtown area is picturesque and I thought it was a very recognizable scene, especially for people who live in this area,” said Aring, who created the game in just under a month.

Aring quit his job in September to focus more on game development and VR. The project, which Aring describes as a “dark ride,” came into focus as a replica of the town shortly after development started, but he had originally planned for it to be a haunted house. The shift to a warped downtown area was a drastic change that Aring said he is happy he made. “I wanted to incorporate some aspect of the town into the project; there are lots of local legends around here, so it felt right,” he said. 

Seven Hills Games by Greg Aring

Aring’s major concern with the project overall was diminishing the chances of motion sickness for players who experienced the hay-ride type game. Because of the short amount of time he had to work on the project, realism had to take the backseat to playability.

Aring used this setback as an opportunity to incorporate fictional landscapes and eerie distortions to Hellicott City, relying on his own skills with the Unity game engine to personally shape out the terrain of a haunted graveyard beyond the town that Google Maps couldn’t fill.

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Hellicott City isn’t the only VR project that Aring is working on; his studio, Seven Hills Games, is also working on VRolleyball, which his site describes as “a combination of volleyball, baseball, karate, and pong in a virtual reality game.”

VRolleyball, which Aring is working on with  Hadar Silverman, another VR developer and 3D modeler, is a room-scale experience which is played standing up, but Aring said they are working on a sit-down version as well. “It’s very much still in the early stages— we’re planning on incorporating different court designs for a new visual experience. For now, it’s still at the beginning of its development.”

When Aring doesn’t have a new virtual experience in tow, he’s working on contract with VR-hardware developer Sensics and gaming hardware creator Razer Inc. on Open Source Virtual Reality, a headset with open source software that enables development and programming for almost any VR hardware.

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“If you want to develop on the Oculus and Google Cardboard, you’d have to have separate projects for that, and yet another if you want to target Morpheus,” Aring said.

“That’ll be cumbersome later on. Open Source Virtual Reality is a project for developers who will be able to spend more time coding for the game and less time accommodating for hardware your customers might not even plug into.”

For Aring, the attraction to VR as a medium is the same thing that keeps him working on it: an element of surprise for an industry that needs change. “There are always a flood of games, but the VR market offers experiences no one’s ever really expected to see” Aring said. “there’s limitations to what you can do when it’s only on the screen, and it’s getting harder, at least for me, to get wrapped up traditional games.”

Aring’s advice for up and coming VR developers: “The thing about software development and game development is that everyone’s terrible when they start. It’s really a matter of failing so many times that you eventually get it right. Just take it one small skill or small game at a time.”

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As for next Halloween, Aring said he has no current plans, but if he were to return to development on Hellicott City, he’d focus more on realism and an authentic experience.. “I think it needs a more realistic model for the buildings. The first time around, I was more worried about playability. I think I’d like to aim more for replicating the area better… The project was a lot of fun, and it’s definitely worth returning to.”

You can learn more about Hellicott City and Seven Hills Games here.

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