When we launched Hello Neighbor on Xbox One back in 2017, the biggest requested fan feature was the ability to play as the creepy Neighbor. The game’s premise of sneaking into your creepy next door neighbor’s house lent itself to that idea perfectly, and we spent two years making that idea into a full-on game. And we went a little further than that.
In Secret Neighbor, a group of friends are trying to get into their creepy neighbor’s basement. Up to six players work together making their way through a bizarre house filled with traps, scattered loot, easter eggs, and basement keys as they try to unlock the door. Only problem is one of the players is a traitor in disguise – it’s the Secret Neighbor.
The whole team has always been into board games. We love playing social games like Werewolf where the gameplay comes from actual social engineering, reading people’s reactions, strategy, and ultimately betrayal.
So we started prototyping what would eventually become Secret Neighbor – we’d have six-player playtests, during which one of the players would have the ultimate agenda of betraying everyone, and socially engineering themselves into being trusted as they take out players one by one without knowledge. The main tool is voice chat. Almost instantly we knew there was something special about the core loop. In an early prototype, one of the players got eliminated early, and the whole group became suspicious of 3 players that were close by. The whole session just stopped for a detective-style investigation: figuring out who was where, and whom the group could trust. I was leading that detective session, shifting blame between a few other players. Issue was that I was the traitor. And I somehow convinced the whole group to eliminate a player who wasn’t the neighbor, only to run off laughing.
It’s a social horror game at its core. There are actual “horror game” elements where you’d have jump scares, traps, and more — the real horror though comes from actual social interaction with your (possible) friends, and knowing that you can’t trust anyone around you.
With the core gameplay done, we headed off into production – figuring out how to make the game varied enough for replayability while also keeping it fresh. The biggest challenge was preventing the Neighbor to immediately taking off the mask and going full Rambo on other players, while they also can’t quickly get all keys scattered through the house and win. Earlier playtests showed that everyone loves the core loop, and after 4-5 matches figure out the optimal route for scavenging through the house, not leaving the Neighbor player much room for setting up traps and gaining trust.
The first thing we did was add randomized walls in the house. Some doors are permanently walled off during the match, forcing players into using alternate routes. The second was adding more items for the Neighbor, for example a smoke bomb or the ability to turn into any object. This shifted the balance in favor of the Neighbor.
Iteration number three revolved around mid-match progression. We added player classes, allowing for different playstyles — and a progression system for the Neighbor. In the release version of Secret Neighbor, the Neighbor needs to level up and explore the house with all other players — and it makes sense for him to go into attack mode only once he reached a certain level. All of this is happening while the house is logically locked off with keycard doors, so players explore through the house in search for loot and the precious basement keys. The Neighbor does the same, searching for his own special items that boost his abilities. The end result is very unpredictable matches where you don’t know when the first confrontation is going to happen.
Imagine a Neighbor player choosing from skillsets such as throwing smoke bombs, turning into creepy pumpkins (with mustaches!), laying down beartraps, and more — my personal favorite is that satisfying sound of a beartrap catching someone. And the screams of the caught players as they realize they’re about to go into spectator mode!
The scariest part about working on projects like Hello Neighbor and Secret Neighbor is that we’re doing something different. Social Horror hasn’t been done this way before, and I am both excited and terrified to watch people play starting today on October 24, when Secret Neighbor launches on Xbox One and with Xbox Game Pass!