Nevermind’s Creative Director Erin Reynolds on Indie Game Development

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Erin Reynolds, Creative Director of Nevermind, gives us the inside scoop on a new biofeedback-enhanced adventure horror game that utilizes Intel® RealSense™ technology. In this interview from GDC 2015, Erin and Steve Waskul discuss the experience of collaborating with Intel on this Indie gaming project as well as the exciting possibilities biofeedback technology has to offer.

As the conversation opens, Erin explains how Nevermind uses biofeedback to create a game that will respond to your stress levels and alter the level of play depending on that biometric. Essentially, she says, the game will get harder as your stress level increases, and it’s up to you to overcome those feelings. The stress management techniques you develop as you play, she asserts, help you deal with real life stressors like losing your keys or getting stuck in traffic.

So, Steve asks, “How do you sense what folks are feeling as they’re playing the game?”
We use a metric called heart rate variability that determines anxiety levels in near-real time. Intel’s Real Sense camera reads players’ heart rates while they’re playing, Erin continues, eliminating the need for “wearables.” We market this feature as a unique horror experience, but also want our users to see this as a tool to better manage their stress.

“So Nevermind will be coming soon to health clinics near you for stress and anger management, right?” Steve encourages. “Maybe,” Erin laughs. They actually are looking into developing two versions of the game, one for gamers and one that can be used in a clinical capacity as a therapeutic tool. The availability of biofeedback has opened a world of possibilities in this market, Erin insists.

Considering this, Steve wonders how the collaboration with Intel worked. As Erin explains, the idea for a biofeedback-enhanced game originated in her masters thesis. At that time she used garment chest straps to monitor stress levels. Working with Intel has enabled them to figure out how to make the technology more “elegant and responsive,” Erin continues. We can “mess with the player’s mind at new levels using the RealSense tech,” she laughs.

“So are you also using gesture recognition technology for game play elements?” Steve inquires. Yes, Erin confirms. As horror game developers their goal is to create a totally immersive experience so the player feels like he is in that world. For example, you can push body bags away from you and open doors. “But one of my favorite things,” Erin effuses, is a scene in which the bugs crawling on a lolly pop swarm to form the shape of your face. “It feels like magic.”

At this point, Steve must know, as an indie game start up company, how did they get Intel involved in the project? “We’re living the indie dream in a way,” Erin says. We get to be creative and flexible while learning from the great minds at Intel and enjoying their financial support. Intel actually found us through the kickstarter we launched last year, she divulges. They asked if we were interested in utilizing the RealSense technology. Obviously the answer was yes! Erin smiles.

It seems like a lot of the people at Intel are really appreciative of the world of gaming, Steve continues. More than to make a profit, their goal is to really improve the experience of gaming. “That’s exactly it,” Erin agrees. The Intel team not only gives them feedback on the RealSense component but also savvy insight into the playing experience as well. “It’s working with a team of people who are interested in making Nevermind the best game it can be… it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Did your Master’s thesis help you in getting the project off the ground? Steve wonders. Laughing, Erin admits that yes, it was helpful as a proof of concept. “You say biofeedback and gaming and people kind of raise an eyebrow.” But, Erin continues, the thesis proves that this concept can work. If you play the game and allow stress to overcome you, “it will react like that.” And conversely, she continues, thinking of beaches or kittens prompts the game to respond more positively. For any kind of experimental tech like this, she insists, it’s so important to first prove it works and then improve on it.

So this is similar to what you might find in film? Steve asks. Yes, she agrees, but in more of a practical way, especially because the biofeedback in RealSense is so subtle. You can imagine, Erin continues, this might be helpful in a situation where you’re alerted to get up from your computer before sending an angry email you might regret. This technology just opens up so many doors.

Yes, Steve agrees, “For years Intel has been talking about perceptual computing.” The RealSense is a parallax camera embedded into the device, correct? So it can tell distance along with detecting other characteristics? “Right,” Erin says, and I’d like to think that myself and the other developers are working toward this. “We have all this power,” she comments, and now they have to figure out what to do with it. “It’s a great place to be,” Erin enthuses.

What other features have you found particularly exciting? Steve wonders. One of the things they’re really curious about, Erin replies, is emotion tracking. Basically, emotion tracking measures arousal, how excited you are about the content in front of you. Combining this with stress level measurement would enable the development of a four point axes in which the “in between emotions” could be tracked, enhancing the experience for gamers. Biometrics really takes analytics to a whole knew level, she explains. You can really track when a player is bored or excited in the game. Or on the business side, you can track how they’re feeling right before they make a game purchase.

Drawing the interview to a close, Steve asks, “What’s next?” After Nevermind is fully launched around Halloween this year, Erin hopes to work toward the clinical applications for this technology. She is also excited to begin development on their next biofeedback-enhanced game.