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Frictional Games

I have been sitting on some technical/art books for awhile now, compilations of things I was teaching and running the Game Art department at RMCAD. However, in the last few weeks a favorite game company of mine, Frictional Games, has released a new title : Amnesia : A Machine for Pigs.


So since my brain has been elsewhere lately, and because I feel it is timely to discuss Frictional Games right now, I thought I’d put my chapter about Frictional out into the world, because honestly I have no idea when i’m going to finish my books. The goal of the book of course was to be a companion to programs at art schools where students were studying making video games. The idea was to talk about budgets, stories, design, all based on the program I created at RMCAD. In the book I also planned interviews, the first one I did was with Jens Nilsson of Frictional Games.

It isn’t just for students of video games that I have this in mind, but for friends who are in transition in the wake of the collapse of VFX/Animation around the world. You see, one reason I’m a fan of Frictional is that their games are awesome and scary. Another is because I believe that the paradigm of big companies is not the only paradigm, and that indeed more interesting stuff is being done by small creative teams like Frictional. Additionally Frictional does something that I used to do, they telecommute. Something that places like R&H were one of the first to try, but later became hesitant about. However smaller teams can do this because it keeps overhead low.

I’m all about keeping overhead low, and creativity the priority.

Okay, here is the chapter thus far.

I wrote to Jens Nilsson at Frictional Games, the game company behind the Penumbra series and Amnesia to get some quotes for this book but Jens’ responses were so grounded and open I decided to print the interview completely here in a chapter by itself.

Frictional in my opinion are one of the most creative and insightful companies regarding games and well worth listening to for any indie developer, and probably worth paying attention to if you are one of the big companies burning piles of money.

Daev : Is it true that you all went to school together and developed a game engine in school ?

Jens : More or less, to not go into too much of the details: I studied at one university and a friend in my class came in contact with Thomas over the Internet. Thomas was then studying at another university.

A year later the three of us did a thesis and game together called Energetic, the first version of the engine was created by Thomas for this game (I think he used some parts from an earlier project of his). The next year Thomas and I were part of a group that studied over the Internet and part of those studies were to do a game modification, instead of doing a modification, a second version of the engine was developed by Thomas and was used to what would eventually become the penumbra tech demo.

Three people from that group continued working with a new game, Penumbra Overture and this is when the engine was updated once again and finally became the HPL engine that was used to create the three Penumbra games.

Daev : Assuming you went to school for programming what lead you to video games?

Jens : It is the other way around I would say. While I am not a programmer, rather one of the things I do is scripting (or perhaps gameplay programing some might call it?). My interest in video game development was there long before I did any studies related to it. The same is true for Thomas. Both of us have experienced the urge to create something of our own when playing various games growing up. In Thomas case it meant that he started programing and doing projects on his own with a tad help from others. In my case it was doing modifications to games and eventually sound and music for games in collaboration with others that eventually created the know-how and interest for all sides of game development.

Daev : The story goes that three of you worked remotely and met everyday online for meetings and to review progress.   Is this true?

Jens : Yes, we were three people that worked full-time on Penumbra Overture. We did this from our homes and communicated mainly through text on, I think it was, MSN. We used a SVN server (still do) for the development process, so we could easily work together on the project and constantly experience the progress.

We were not only three people, we had help from contributors that did for example music, story writing and audio programming on the promise that if we got the game completed and managed to earn any money on it they would get paid (as we had no money except our own saved money we lived on while working). We did manage to get the game completed and we did manage to make deals with the game, but unfortunately not all of those deals were with serious companies, so we had problems earning money on it. We did eventually pay everyone the promised amounts but it took almost a year after the game was released, while not an ideal situation we did manage to keep the company going.

Daev :  How big is Frictional now, does the same paradigm still hold?  Three guys working remotely?  Six?   25?

Jens : We are now 10 people that work full time at the company, but it is the same structure of remote work from our homes. We also have outsource people like in the past and work with larger outsourcing companies for certain bits (such as producing lots of filler objects for levels). We have often talked about getting an office, but the problem is that the 10 of us are spread out over Sweden, Spain and the UK. We are quite happy were we are and not too eager on having to move all to the same city…

Daev : How long did it take you to develop Penumbra, and was it just the three of you?

Jens : We began on Penumbra Overture at the end of the summer in 2006 and it was released in February 2007 (if memory is correct), we started planning Penumbra Black Plague during the development of Overture. Due to the publisher problems we had Black Plague development stalled, but eventually picked up again and I think it was released in March 2008. Then we quite directly had a plan for Penumbra Requiem and got started on that right away and that eventually got released in August 2008.

After that we were back to publisher problems, but we managed to keep going (thanks to not putting all eggs in the same basket, we controlled Linux and Mac versions and always had a secure income from them and we had the online rights to Penumbra Overture so had some security there as well). In 2009 it looked very bad, we even had told the employees this was the last month we could manage to pay salaries.

Then there was a Steam sale of the Penumbra Collection and thanks to us having the online rights to Overture we shortly there after got the biggest single payment we had ever received before, with more coming later through the publisher and the Black Plague/Requiem sales going through them. We saw an opportunity and took it, we asked everyone to work for as little as possible and to work as fast as possible and that lead to the release of Amnesia in September 2010, under total control by us to avoid any further publisher fiddlings.

We were 3 to 4 full-time people for all the Penumbra games + the outsources who’s combined work hours would equal to about one more person.

Daev : How long did it take you to program your engine and come up with the game mechanics?

Jens : I think I covered the engine aspect in the previous answers (First engine in end of 2004, beginning of 2005. Then reworked during 2005-2006 and engine used for first proper game pretty much developed during the whole development up to the release in Feb 2007. Then from there the engine has been in an constant continued development) . The game mechanics has been a constant development and tweaking process that is continuing even today. If we look at the physics interaction it is still something we discuss, test and try to improve for each game. If we look at what we think we should occupy the player with in the games that difference heavily from game to game as we examine and rethink previous attempts and try new things. We are quite set on trying to change how story driven games are experienced, yet as everyone else, we struggle with the past of growing up with games being games.

Daev : How successful have you been?  I don’t need to know how much money your games have made but can you estimate how many games you’ve sold since you began making games?

Jens : We spent four years being very unsuccessful. Or rather we did pretty good games, at least unique games and we managed to get quite good coverage and reputation with those games. The publishers did a good job making the game available for purchase in stores as well as through digital download. But even so it was very difficult to earn enough to support even a small company like ours with very modest demands for what a monthly salary had to be.

I think these years are those that are the most important to consider if you are an aspiring developer, to keep costs low, to avoid time and resource hungry events (don’t visit shows to “make connections”, it is not worth the cost) and to think about how you can reach the potential customers with as few middle hands as possible. There are lots of unknowns and if you keep it all as simple, small and effective as possible you increase the chance of being able to follow through.

It is also important to not forget about marketing your game while you are making it, lots of lots of games are released by developers and publishers that do surprisingly little to get the word out. If you do get a publisher, don’t rely on them doing all the marketing, do your own marketing as well. By marketing I am not thinking of anything that costs anything other than time, so all ideas you can think of to spread the word.

Since the release of Amnesia we have been very successful. With the history we have had we know the fortunate situation we are in now and so have concentrated on making sure we have a financial stable company. This has meant that we can assure the employees they have solid jobs, as well as being able to do projects like the new Amnesia game, where we fund the development made in collaboration with another company.

If we add in all bundles and such were Amnesia was bought as part of a package, I think Amnesia has sold about 1.5 million copies.

Penumbra series have over time sold quite well, but we have sales we have never seen properly reported or paid for so the actual number is hard to know. But probably around 200 000 copies, not counting the humble indie bundle sales of Penumbra Overture.

Daev : A Man’s Got to Know His Limitations :  I often quote Clint Eastwood from Dirty Harry to my students and say they have to know their limitations.  They can’t come up with ideas to create MMO games or games with co-operative AI if they can’t themselves actually do that programming.  So I have them consider what they are capable of and what do they really want to show off as art students (they are not programming students).

The question is, If Clint Eastwood asked you what your Limitations are, could you answer us and you don’t have to imagine he’s holding a gun or calling you “punk”.

Jens : The art department has always been our number one limitation. It is the most resource demanding part of game development and it is not possible to compete in that field with the large companies. This limitation has led us to always try and come up with alternative ways of describing an event, which could be through sound or text instead, in an effort to build up a base for the player’s mind to kick in and do a nice job imagining how it would look like visually. It is also the cause for the physics interaction that has been more or less unique to our games through the years. We could not afford creating animations and specific models for all objects to be found in desk drawers etc, so the idea to use physics as a replacement was born from this limitation.

Daev : What made you think that you could start up a small Indie game company and compete with the likes of games that have millions to tens of million dollar budgets as well as deep marketing budgets?

Jens : This was never a driving factor for us. We simply wanted to create our own games and make a living out of it. I think it might be important to realize the effort behind it. We did not study and then got into making games and running a company. We spent a life time of interest in doing game development and running small companies and freelancing. Then as we were in our twenties we studied at the university, while at the same time continuing doing game development projects in our spare time and finally when we were around 24-26 years old we started Frictional Games. So we came in with a lot of experience and know-how, with work experience doing projects for some larger companies and even then we had four years of struggle before having anything that remotely had a base to support us as an actual company with OK, but modest, salaries.

So in short, what made us start a small game company was our long interest in doing game development, not working in the game industry. I don’t think we would have worked with games today if we had not started our own company.

Daev :  Do you have a budget for marketing or do you rely on Word of Mouth, the internet, and sheer luck?

Jens : We have not really had any budget for marketing. We have spent time doing the marketing the old fashion way, sending our PR, videos, demos and so on. Then contacting all sort of media asking for interest in previews/reviews, then keeping track of their replies (or no replies) and repeated the inquiry if needed and finally been able to secure most of them doing articles on the games. With Amnesia we also burnt simple DVDs, printed out a cover letter and sent the snail mail way to publications we could not find any online contacts to. For example  Game Informer was one of these we managed to get a review from by doing this and their very positive review I believe helped spark the interest in the beginning.

We hoped to get some sort of viral thing going, but any attempt to artificially create that does not really work, but as time passed after release more and more reddit posts and youtube clips appeared. We have tried to keep track and do fun things with them and be very open to sending review copies to anyone that asked for it.

I don’t believe in sheer luck, but I do believe in being able to create as many opportunities as possible for being in the right spot at the right time.

Daev :  Where do you see the Indie game market evolving to over the next decade?

Jens : Probably that there will not be an indie game market, rather it is simply how you do digital game distribution. If you look at smartphones, I’m not sure you think much in terms of this is an indie game and this is a publisher game, the difference in quality or type of game does not seem to be linked to a specific type of company where you as a user have to define it as indie or not. So the majority of all games will just be plain “games” and then there will be a specific label for the big budget games instead, rather than the other way around as we have today.

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