It’s Halloween and the stars are right, dear reader. We’ve managed to line up none other than Frictional Games, the developer of the acclaimed horror title Amnesia: The Dark Descent for this month’s Developer Focus. While the studio’s journey began some years prior to that with cult hit Penumbra: Overture, Amnesia was a much more mainstream success due to its innovative take on the genre and its pointed focus on evasion rather than combat. Founded in 2006, this year marks Frictional’s ten year anniversary and it’s definitely come a long way since then, their latest success SOMA having been released just over a year ago. Join us this Halloween evening as we try to dive deep into the mind behind the studio and see what makes them tick.
As hiring interviews go, Frictional’s initial sales pitch was particularly strong when we asked them to convince us to work for their company. In the words of Thomas Grip, Creative Director at Frictional Games: “It depends a lot the position you were applying for, but I think the most basic thing is that we give everybody a lot of freedom. You get to plan your days yourself, and we always try and make sure that everybody gets to take a lot of creative decisions. And since you would be working from home, you could be working in your underwear!“. As someone who occasionally dabbles in the forbidden arts of working from home, I can confirm that this is one of the biggest perks a person could want.
That Frictional managed to deliver some landmark video games in the horror genre while taking such a laid back attitude is impressive and one of the company’s most notable achievements. This sentiment was shared by Thomas: “That we make games with pretty high production values, and yet everybody works from home. I think that is pretty rare. Our games are also overall pretty rare. While there are a lot of horror games, there are very few that have the coherent mix of narrative, puzzles and encounters that we have.”
It’s been about a decade since the studio was founded. We were curious how the team evolved during that time and Thomas was more than happy to indulge our curiosity. “When we started out we were only 3 people and we are now at 16,” he tells us. “The biggest difference is that communication, especially when it comes to the direction of the game, is much harder to get across. With only three people, you got synced almost naturally, and it didn’t take a lot of effort. I remember there could be weeks where we barely spoke and everybody just did their thing. But now that we are a larger team we have put greater effort into syncing everybody up. This can often be quite hard. For instance, when making SOMA it took over 2 years before the team was a 100% on board with what type of game we were making.” If we may add, this only makes SOMA that much more impressive. Thomas goes on to detail their plans going forward “As for the future, we might expand to 20 people or so. I am wary of growing larger than that, but it all depends a bit on the team structure. Right now we are working on having 2 projects going at the same time, and if we could get two truly autonomous teams, we could perhaps grow as far as 30 people. But that would be quite far into the future.”
We’ve spoken to developers that handle their work remotely before, but never on the scale that Frictional does it. As such, we were curious what a regular day looked like for someone working there. Thomas gave us a nice bullet point list for one of his.
“It depends so much on the day and who you are asking. If you ask me here is an overview of the sorta stuff I do:
– Go over e-mail and answer questions such as yours. There can also be emails about discounted sales, new partners and so forth that I have to take a stand on. Our producer, Fredrik, handles most of this, but as the owner, I usually have to be part of decision taking.
– Have meetings with various people on planning, strategies and general design stuff.
– Code stuff for the game. This ranges over a lot of different things: Basic tech stuff (eg. a data message system), gameplay code (eg. how the player moves) and level scripting (eg. a puzzle in the game).
– Write documentation for our game outlining the basic story, themes, what mechanics we want and so forth.
– Write detailed level design documents on how the narrative, puzzles and so forth should be for a map.
– Deal with very basic company stuff like talking to our insurance company and bank.
There is even more than that, but should give you an idea.”
Crunch time being a recurring theme in the game development industry, it also winds up being a regular theme in our Developer Focus pieces. On Frictional’s part, Thomas had this to say: “We always set deadlines, but also make sure to move them when we feel we cannot deliver the quality we want at that point. But as we get closer to release, the deadlines get stricter. For instance, if we announce a date in a trailer, we do all we can to stick to it. We never plan for crunch times though but see it as a failure of management instead. In the end, we might have to do some crunching, but our goal is to ship a game without it at all.“. It seems like this is the case for a lot of smaller companies. While not ideal, it’s better than hitting crunch on a regular basis. The workload, however, is spread out a lot between full-time employees and external contractors. “We outsource tonnes. Art, voice overs, music, sounds, testing, porting, and so forth. This is all part of being a small company. And since we are used to working over a distance with everybody, outsourcing comes very naturally.” Thomas tells us and he probably has a point, in regards to outsourcing, blending well with remote work.
Frictional Games have recently taken a step towards consoles, with SOMA having released for PS4 and the Amnesia Collection heading to the Sony console soon as well. We were curious why neither title had appeared on the Xbox yet, and Thomas explained: “The only reason is that we simply haven’t had the time or the manpower. For all new future releases, the goal is to release on all three platforms on launch day. We will also try and get our older games out on Xbox One. The only obstacle is making sure we have the time and that we probably need some extra content for the games (as this is standard when releasing a game on the platform if it is already out on console).“. As to finally having the landmark title Amnesia on a console platform, spirits seem to be high for the occasion. “It is great! We have wanted to get Amnesia on consoles for several years and it feels really good to finally do it. The response we got from the announcement has also been amazing. We never expected that people would be this excited for a port of a 6-year-old game!“. A pretty phenomenal game, we might add.
And while we’re on the topic of landmark games, we were also curious to see what Thomas thinks of having a body of work that is widely regarded as a sort of gold standard for contemporary horror games. “Glad to hear you think so highly of our games! I think having a well-regarded pedigree is essential for a game studio as it makes it a lot easier to do PR for our games. We can get people excited by a new release by simply saying that we are making it. This is obviously really important to us, and also allows us to try out new and different things.” The themes explored in SOMA seem to be a testament to this.
Speaking of themes, we decided to probe deeper and ask Thomas a bit about the influences that went into making Penumbra, Amnesia and SOMA. “There were so many it is really hard to list, but can make a super brief summary. Penumbra: Games like System Shock, Resident Evil, Half-Life and Silent Hill were crucial. It was also inspired by a wide range of movies and TV-shows, like Tremors, Lost and The Thing. Amnesia: Influences were a bit more classical with books like Dracula and movies like The Haunting (60s version). Also, non-fiction like early scientists was quite foundational to the story, as well as games like Clock Tower and Hell Night. SOMA: Very inspired by neurology and philosophy of mind in general. Sci-fi from Greg Egan, Peter Watts and Philip K Dick were also greatly influential.“. There you have it, aspiring game developers. This is the kind of research that needs to go into just the theme of your game if you want to make something meaningful.
We asked Red Barrels a while ago whether working on horror games designed to scare makes one more or less susceptible to horror. We saw no reason not to recycle our question here with Frictional Games and this is what Thomas had to say: “You learn a lot of the tricks of the trade and because of that you can anticipate how games work, making them less scary in the process. However, part of being a developer is making sure you can put yourself in the mind of the player. Because of this, it is essential that you can still get scared. This means that I try to put myself in the right mood and make sure to get as much from the experience as possible. Because of this, I am often quite terrified when playing horror games.”
On the topic of current and future projects, Thomas had precious little he was willing to say: “One major thing I want to try and do is to get away from the “run and hide from monsters” horror gameplay. It feels like it is getting a bit old, and for one of our coming projects, we will diverge quite a lot from it. Exactly what we will do I cannot say at this point.” so we decided to ask what Frictional’s take was on the semi-next-gen consoles from Sony and Microsoft and how they would affect development. He seemed fairly optimistic: “Since we are used to dealing with the diverse PC market, having two different console versions is not really much of a problem. There is usually a lot of extras that you can easily cram in; higher framerate, better resolution, higher detail on particle systems, greater draw distances and so forth. We already have those sorta settings for the PC, so as along as the basic workings are the same, it doesn’t pose much of an issue.“.
We did manage to get a much more detailed take on the topic of VR. “We will be looking into it and there is a bunch of cool stuff to be done. However, we have managed to establish a pretty good basic control system for our games and I would like to evolve our games on a more deeper level. A more reactive world, better narrative integration, more interesting ways to do gameplay, utilising the player’s imagination further and so forth. If we do games for gamepad/mouse+kb we have a great foundation and can put all focus on these deeper aspects. If we do VR, we don’t have that foundation. We have to start from scratch again. This means that we are not able to put as much focus on the depth of our games, but have to spend most time just trying to fix very basic issues, like how to move around.” however, all is not lost “This doesn’t mean we will never do VR. It just means I feel we have so many interesting things to explore with what we got that I don’t see any urgent need to adopt new technology. If we do VR the first thing would be to do some smaller experiences. We have a bunch of ideas for this and it is not out of the question we will use it for PR for an upcoming game.”
While Frictional Games has no central HQ, they do try to hang out every now and then to get a sense of the team, and in Thomas’ words, last week was one such occasion where they met up, talked about their games and just generally hung out. And this week being Halloween, we asked him for some recommendations: “If you haven’t already, give Five Nights at Freddy’s a go! The game goes old quite fast, but it can be incredibly tense while it lasts. There is also a cool, free, game called “The House Abandoned” that is worth checking out! While not true horror, Thumper is a bit like a fever dream with lots of Lovecraftian undertones, making it very fitting for Halloween.” as for his plans on how he’s going to spend this evening, Thomas is going to keep it quaint. “No special plans for Halloween other than to finish up carving a pumpkin I am working on. I watch horror movies on a regular basis, so will not be much change in those routines.”
We’d like to thank Thomas and Frictional Games for their cooperation. We hope you enjoy this Halloween. This goes to our readers as well. Don’t get too scared out there tonight.