Interview with Rodrigo Pascoal of Orbit Studio, Developers Behind Atari’s Haunted House Reboot

BIG Festival 2023 wasn’t exactly full of surprises, but it did have one somewhat notable announcement: Atari decided to unveil a brand new take on their Haunted House franchise at the event, now being helmed by Brazilian indie team Orbit Studio, and now being a roguelike. It was intriguing, to say the least, even though the demo was too short for any other opinion to be properly formed.

We were able to have a quick chat with Orbit Studio’s Rodrigo Pascoal, the game’s lead art director, shortly after the event. Given how the demo itself (and the announcement, for that matter) had actually raised more questions than answers at first, that was the perfect opportunity to find out more about the developmental history behind Haunted House, as well as Orbit’s partnership with Atari.


Rodrigo Pascoal

Haunted House will boast over 200 room designs.


WayTooManyGames: I’d like to start off the interview by asking about Haunted House‘s development. When did the project begin? How did you end up partnering up with Atari in the first place?

Rodrigo Pascoal: The project began in early 2022, and I do believe Atari may have heard of us through BIG Festival itself. Our first game, Retro Machina, had been previously nominated for a “Best Brazilian Game” award at the 2021 iteration of BIG, and we ended up winning the away. We eventually got an email from Atari, stating they wanted to sit down and have a meeting with us, so we obviously accepted the offer. Atari has always been very kind to us, from the very beginning, stating their appreciation towards Retro Machina; they wanted to make another game in same isometric perspective. We were really happy with their approach, so after signing the appropriate paperwork, we began working on a prototype to validate our ideas. We then began full-time development shortly afterwards.


Haunted House has received many reboots and reimaginings over the past few… decades. The franchise underwent several tonal shifts, ranging from cartoonish to mature / gory. There was even a new version of it included in the Atari 50 collection, released in late 2022. I’d like to why did revert back to more cartoonish vibes, and if your team has had access to previous iterations of Haunted House in order to draw inspirations to your project.

RP: Yes, we did take a look at these previous iterations, but our main source of inspiration ended up being the 1982 original, but with our own twist. Nowadays, roguelikes are clearly very popular. The gameplay loop and procedural generation are appealing, making you replay games over and over again, making you learn their mechanics, in order to progress further.

With that in mind, we thought it was a good opportunity to fuse elements from the Atari 2600 classic with modern gaming characteristics, with the objective of trying to revitalize the experience of playing that game in this day and age. Our biggest hurdle, however, was the fact that roguelikes tend to favor combat, and we wanted to focus more on stealth. The challenge was to come up with a gameplay loop in this format, whilst still being fun and replayable. As a result, we tried to come up with a gameplay loop focused on looting, rewards, and character upgrades, as well as many different rooms in order for the player to always have something new to face against.


You have opted to turn Haunted House into a roguelike, but you have also mentioned a lessened emphasis on combat. We are so used to playing combat-oriented roguelikes that I’d like to know the thought process behind this decision, and how the team is designing the game’s overall gameplay loop and lasting appeal.

RP: Every time the player starts a new run, the entire mansion’s layout is revamped. That applies to room orders, item positions, enemy placements, and so on. I would like to clarify that each individual room has been manually designed; what differs between runs is the order in which they appear. We have actually designed over 200 different rooms in order to ensure variety.

At the beginning of the game, you will only have access to a single playable character, with individual stats. You will unlock more characters along the way, each of them having their own strengths and weaknesses. There might not be a big emphasis on combat, but you can defend yourself against enemies with your magic lantern, which can emit a beam of light that damages foes. The lantern can be upgraded, and you can even acquire different lanterns with gameplay-modifying powers. At the end of a run, you can spend gems in permanent upgrades, but can also upgrade your stats temporarily during a run.

The lessened emphasis in combat can be seen when you start off a new run. You are unarmed, weak, and are encouraged to look for as many traps hidden inside chests at first. Fighting against enemies right from the getgo isn’t a smart choice, so traps can be used to stun and weaken foes, and then proceed to sweep them one by one. There is also a stealth element; if you can get behind an enemy without getting noticed, you get knock them out in one hit.

You will also be able to meet up with NPCs during runs. They will ask players for favors of sorts, triggering sidequests. One example, which is also my favorite, is being tasked with looking for classic Atari cartridges scattered throught the mansion. Each cartridge tells a bit of the story of the game contained in it.


Rodrigo Pascoal Puzzles

An emphasis on puzzle-solving and exploration, not so much on combat.


There is a big emphasis on solving puzzles in order to acquire the necessary items to defeat the big main foe in Haunted House. That has been stated as the endgoal in each gameplay loop. Considering this is a roguelike, meant to be replayed over and over again, what is the team doing to ensure these puzzles will always feel fresh?

RP: Puzzle-solving was something we came up with in order to generate an actual difference between rooms. They mostly follow the same structure, but given how room layouts constantly change, there will always be something new for you to tackle.


Is there any element from Retro Machina (Orbit Studio’s previous release) that influenced the development of Haunted House?

RP: Lost of elements in fact! Our experience developing Retro Machina was actually quite difficult. We had to come up with lots of solutions during that game’s development cycle, to the point of us considering to never develop another 2D isometric game ever again!

But to be fair, this whole “trial and error” (emphasis on error) helped us during Haunted House’s development. We learned from our mistakes, ensuring that we’d avoid making them again when developing our new game. We took new approaches in order to ease our development process.

An example is our usage of 3D character models in the game. In Retro Machina, characters were also displayed in 3D, but we had to render them with 2D sprites at first, in all 32 directions a character could move. That bloated each spritesheet’s size, and it also hindered any further modifications we had to perform, as we would have to generate a full set of sprites once again for every single change. In Haunted House, that wasn’t an issue, for every single character was completely assembled and rendered in 3D from the very beginning.


I could notice one interesting thing in the demo available at BIG Festival. There were lots of nods at older Atari franchises, but also funny jabs at… “famous flaws” from the company’s history, to put it mildly. Did Atari give you complete freedom to mention these historic events, as well as letting you use their classic library of titles as in-game references?

RP: Yes, this was something that actually surprised us. We had this idea of including as many Atari-related references in Haunted House, but we obviously had to ask permission first and foremost. Atari actually really liked our idea and gave us complete freedom to include these references in our title.


Rodrigo Pascoal Retro Machina

Orbit Studio’s past experience with Retro Machina helped them during the development of Haunted House.


Very rarely, if ever, do we see games from global publishers like Atari being officially unveiled at more regional events like the São Paulo-based BIG Festival. Was the decision behind announcing Haunted House there something that came from you or Atari themselves?

RP: This was a great thing because it was a decision that came straight from Atari. We were able to create an excellent work relationship with them from the very beginning. More than just simply giving us a lot of creative control whilst developing Haunted House, Atari also saw our origins as a Brazilian team as a creative advantage. As a result, they were the ones who came up with this idea of unveiling Haunted House at BIG Festival. We loved the idea, so we proceded with the announcement as planned.


Finally, do you have a tentative release date or window for Haunted House?

RP: If everything goes according to plan, we would love for the game to be released during Halloween season. We firmly believe everything will be done by then, but we’re still doing some extra polishing and additional developmental work, so we have to be cautious with a proper release date!