How FNAF: Special Delivery Uses AR To Reinvent Horror

How FNAF: Special Delivery Uses AR To Reinvent Horror
November 5, 2020
Illumix founder and CEO Kirin Sinha discusses the origins of bringing Five Nights at Freddy's into the AR world and teases what's to come.


One of the most popular horror video games around is Five Nights at Freddy's, a franchise centered on hapless individuals menaced by murderous animatronics in pizza parlors after hours. While the latest installment is poised to arrive on the PlayStation 5 this month in Five Nights at Freddy's: Security Breach, AR game studio and developer Illumix has launched the mobile title Five Nights at Freddy's AR: Special Delivery, bringing the fan-favorite robotic monsters right into real-world environments around players for both solo and communal experiences.


In an exclusive interview with CBR, Illumix founder and CEO Kirin Sinha explains the innovative AR and Mixed Reality experiences that she and the company wanted to bring to the franchise and teases what fans can expect next.


How did Five Nights at Freddy's AR: Special Delivery first come about at Illumix?

Kirin Sinha: I've been passionate about the Computer Vision AR space for almost ten years. I started on Computer Vision twelve years ago now -- which is terrifying to say out loud -- but ended up specializing in Computer Vision and got really, really excited about the potential of AR. I was working on my graduate degree and, all of sudden, you could run all these advanced ML models on your phone. And, in case it's not obvious from this story, I'm a giant nerd and always have been.


I grew up on Star WarsHarry Potter, every Mario game; that was my whole life. So it became clear to me that we had this huge opportunity to potentially bring those kind of fantasy worlds into our own worlds, deepen our immersion in our own space, and I thought that was so exciting and so interesting and something that had really never been done before.


So we started working with this space even before Apple and Google got into ARCore and ARKit; we were testing bringing Yoda into the world and doing all of that five or six years ago. And early on, when we thought about what titles it would be interesting to do, Five Nights at Freddy's was always on our shortlist.


It was a game I was certainly familiar with, with the YouTube audience, and I thought it would be really interesting to kind have this nightmare come to life scenario and I think AR created this really interesting vehicle to express horror in a way that's not traditionally considered horror which is usually about enclosed spaces, fewer options kind of closing you in versus giving you a whole, open-world to deal with. We definitely felt that there was something really interesting to be done with even the psychological idea of these horrifying animatronics alive and in your house coming for you.


That concept ended up holding a lot of water and I actually ended up meeting and getting introduced to Scott [Cawton]. I guess they heard that we were very interested in AR. They had been looking explicitly for someone to develop the AR game, I know he had been talking to big AR game developers and I think they really wanted an innovative approach to the AR mechanic, so not the type geo-locational game "Go into this grocery store or corner and pick up this animatronic."


It just doesn't make sense for the franchise. But something that felt like they were coming to you, something more home-based, something that people could really enjoy anywhere, that's what we specialize in and there's not really any other player in the market that specializes in that kind of immersive, adaptive AR. It was just a really good match, Scott and I hit it off, and since then, we've been working together since the end of 2018.

More than just AR, you've got this patented Mixed Reality component to the game. How has it been bringing that to the franchise?

Sinha: That's been really exciting! That is just happening, going live! We're always looking for ways to increase the user experience while keeping them the center of the action. I think one of the really cool things you get out of AR is that it's like this inherently first-person experience. You are the trainer or you are the security guard, the protagonist of whatever story you're acting out, and I think with Mixed Reality, it gets us another way to put you at the center of the action but in a different environment.


It gives us more tools and abilities to do what we do and, ultimately, we're content creators as well as technologists and we really started to ramp up against what was possible using existing tools -- using ARCore, ARKit, Unity -- they're great tools but they have some pretty strong restrictions especially if you're building something very immersive, very interactive, film-quality graphic that we've created. It pushes the bounds of any device and what we were looking to do too much.


And we went through the very long, grueling task of building our own engine and our own API that ties into Unity, so we can use it as a 3D content creation engine, but now all the AR is running through own engine and we've seen massively increased performance, it's letting us run way more immersive modules and it's what's enabled us to do this sort of new Mixed Reality gameplay which is even heavier than typical AR.


You were alluding to Five Nights at Freddy's being a claustrophobic kind of experience though, with this app, you can interface with other players. How has it been creating that shared experience?

Sinha: Yeah, this is the first app that's really leveraged into social, all the other ones are kind of premium, single-player designed games. It was something that was really clear that we wanted to tap into: Five Nights at Freddy's has a vibrant community. I think our AR portion is the most active part of that franchise: It's a live game constantly giving them new content and new updates but I think a big part of the design of the game that people really engage in is sending animatronics to your friends.


You can capture these monsters and send them along and that is a lot of how we got our initial traction, we saw a huge amount of sharing scares going on and that's been tremendously successful and how we've done a lot of vital growth. We've done over 7 million downloads without spending a dime on UA or marketing.


For the teaser trailer, you guys got Markiplier! You mentioned being a fan of the YouTube community but how'd that come about?

Sinha: I am a fan of the franchise so I think it was probably a little different perspective than the original creator or a general game developer going in thinking "What is the dream here?" We have this AR title, we have the opportunity to emphasize this is live-action, this is happening in the real world, all the other trailers for this franchise have been CG. Filming that trailer was one of the more wild nights of my life and it was just an incredible experience.


It's like the game, you just control every single frame of what someone walks through: What does this world looks like come to life? What really creates that patented Five Nights at Freddy's sense of fear juxtaposed with that cheesy, happy Chuck E. Cheese Land kind of approach?And Markiplier, there's no doubt he's the king of FNAF, that's his unofficial title. And we got in touch with him saying "Hey, we're making this AR game. Would you want to get involved?" And I met up with him in LAX, because he's so busy. [Laughs] I met him at LAX, showed him an early build of the game, he loved it and that's when we started to come up with ways for him to be a part of the franchise, be a part of the trailer.


Which is your favorite animatronic?

Sinha: I used to be able to answer this so easily but now I feel like it's choosing a child where it becomes a lot harder since I spent so much time building these characters. There's something about Baby that I really quite like. I don't think she's the scariest interaction for me -- if I had to go into who's the scariest in FNAF, in particular, I think there's something about Balloon Boy that just really freaks me out; Balloon Boy and Bonnie. I like the girls in the franchise! I like Chica and Baby and Ballora. Baby is a larger-than-life character and the terrifying face opening up. I think that, for me, is one of those moments where I remember that style of jump scare and it stuck with me; I very vividly imagine that moment.


What can we expect from Illumix as we close out 2020 and move into 2021?

Sinha: We still have some pretty massive gameplay updates this year so I think fans can look for what I think will be one of the biggest kind of opening up of gameplay for the game and the franchise, frankly. I think that the best is yet to come, I think that from a fan and franchise perspective, there's something even more exciting that'll be coming before the end of the year. So lots more to come on this title and, as a studio, we have a lot of things under our wing at the moment.


We're certainly going to be releasing new titles in the future and we're working on that in the background. We're also very actively engaging third-parties with the AR platform that we've built and so that's also something to look forward to sometime next year; there'll be other AR content built on our platform but not by us, so that'll be a very interesting and exciting moment for the company!

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