Clothing retailers better listen up, because Jens Nilsson and his team at Frictional Games have discovered a way to make a good chunk of gamers go out and buy a new, unsoiled pair of trousers. The indie developer’s previous effort, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, is regarded by some as one of the scariest games of all time, and the Penumbra trilogy that preceded it shares its innovative control scheme and focus on realism and physics-driven puzzles. Spurred by Amnesia’s unexpected success, the team is already hard at work on their next project, and the next iteration of their “HPL” engine.
I almost didn’t manage to speak to Jens at our arranged time on Tuesday; I had issues with our Internet connection and wasn’t able to keep our Skype appointment, and it was merely by the stroke of luck that I managed to get his telephone number and call him at his home in Helsinborg, Sweden. He’s currently the CEO of the eight-person team, handling both audio and scripting for their games’ development process, as well as “all the boring stuff with the company”, like administration and so on. He’s one of the team’s two original founders, and his passion for video games is obvious.
“I’ve always been making games, or trying to do modification of games, for a very long time, since I was a young teenager,” he tells me. “When I was probably eighteen, I started to try and write music for games, so I freelanced as a hobby, and then eventually tried to make sound effects for games. I had a small company doing that, music and sound effects, and we did a lot of testing to try and find out how to do the fine things for a few projects for a couple of years. And then I studied games development at university for four years, and that’s where I met Thomas, and it was Thomas and I that started Frictional Games.”
thanks to making
the Mac and
that we were
able to survive as
“We did a Penumbra tech demo – we started it in 2005, and finished it in 2006 – and it was basically an idea for a horror game that was first-person without violence, and it had physics interaction,” Jens continued. Physics interaction is apparently a major focus for the team; they developed their own game engine emphasising physics-based gameplay, and the team’s name is derived from a portmanteau of “friction” and “fictional”, highlighting the team’s efforts to marry physics with storytelling. The engine which was developed for the tech demo was known as “HPL”, named after H.P. Lovecraft, whose short stories were a major influence. Thomas Grip remains the team’s lead programmer today.
“Thomas is an eager programming fellow,” Jens tells me, explaining why the team chose to develop their own engine, rather than license an existing one. Developing a game engine from scratch is a daunting task, particularly for a small team. “For him, making his own engine was part of the challenge, because he was a programmer, and that was our main reason for making the demo in the first place, to create our own engine. We were planning on making a living in the future, and in 2005-2006, if you wanted to have some kind of pre-made engine, they were quite costly. The only way for us, we figured, was to have our own engine.”
“Later, we continued to use our own engine, but that’s mainly because there are no other engines that have the physics interaction, for example.” Another perk of the HPL engine is its cross-compatibility, running on Windows, Mac, and Linux platforms. It’s uncommon in large-scale productions, so I ask whether it was an important factor. “Yeah, it was,” Jens immediately tells me. “When I freelanced, I did a lot of Mac games, so I was nagging on Thomas a lot that I thought it would be a good idea back then that we should try and be cross-platform.”
“We only wanted to have to make a Windows game, but if we had cross-platform support, it would be easy for us to do Mac and Linux as well, so we tried to have that in mind when we made the first game. Then later, when we released Penumbra, we had a guy that did the ports for Mac and Linux, and then it turned out that it’s basically thanks to making the Mac and Linux versions that we were able to survive as a company. When we started out and released the first game of Penumbra, we got screwed by the publisher of the Windows version, so we never got any money.”
Pictured: Penumbra: Overture, the first game in the Penumbra trilogy developed by Frictional Games.
It was a bad enough experience for the team that they decided to self-publish Amnesia, instead of entrusting the game and its rights to another publisher: “I know from experience, we sort of learned that publishers will always do the bare minimum agreed upon, so it’s very difficult to actually rely on publishers.”
“You don’t get payments on time, and you have to nag a lot to get payments. We were basically very tired of spending a lot of time nagging on people, so we decided to do everything ourselves instead, and if you do that, then the good things are that you get a much larger amount of the payments that the end-user makes, and you get them very fast compared to if it has to go through a publisher first, because there’s always a very long delay. Usually they say ‘we’ll pay you quarterly’, so if somebody buys the game in January, the developer does not get paid until after March.”
your own, or you don’t
do a game at all: that’s
basically our view”
“Self-publishing’s a big job, it takes a lot of time to do marketing, and it takes a lot of time to come in contact with people who want to sell your game and arrange those deals and everything, but if you spend the time, then it’s possible,” he tells us. Should indie developers take the time to go through the business of self-publishing? “I think, if you’re a developer, self-publishing’s the only way to go. You do everything on your own, or you don’t do a game at all: that’s basically our view.”
Unlike a lot of developers in the UK, though, Jens isn’t a proponent of games tax relief. Despite Sweden’s curious increasing relevance in the games industry, he says starting a games company there is like starting a games company anywhere in Europe, but he doesn’t believe in the tax relief approach. “If we’re going to talk about things like that though, there is currently in the European Union a lot of changes to do with value added tax, especially if you look at the latest addition. This is from a couple of years ago, but it’s not until now that it’s actually getting changed in reality.”
“They have changed the way they decide what kind of taxation they will add to a purchase when a person buys a game. What that means, the simple version, is that since we are a Swedish company, if you are in the European Union and you buy the game online, you pay the Swedish tax. You don’t pay it, but we pay the Swedish tax. And since we have the highest tax in the European Union, that means if we were in England instead, we would have less tax to pay compared to being in Sweden. So if you look at that, then I would much rather have that it’s the same kind of value added tax for all countries in the European Union. Those sort of changes are a lot better than doing the sort of industry-specific tax changes, because no, that’s not a good approach.”
spend time or resources
on trying to make a
As a self-publishing indie developer, console development is a fairly distant concept. Jens calls it an “interesting idea”, but points out the difficulties in needing to license the game, score a development kit, and get all the contacts necessary. Releasing a console game is a “much bigger undertaking” than releasing a computer game. “We definitely have the option to do a console game,” he clarifies, “but it’s basically that it would take time and it would take resources, and at the moment, we don’t want to spend time or resources on trying to make a console game. We want to concentrate the whole company on making our next project.”
The team haven’t said much about their new project so far, but he’s told us this much: “it’s the same sort of game, but it’s not a horror game… but then, it’s still definitely a horror game”. It’s confusing at first, but he explains himself. “If you take Penumbra or Amnesia, those games were games that when we were working on them, we were definitely thinking all the time ‘this is a horror game, this is a horror game, this has to be scary’ and we concentrated very much on the horror bits, but this time, for the new game, for us to get a fresh approach, it’s not the horror at the centre.”
Pictured: A piece of concept art from the Penumbra trilogy, showing one of the in-game enemies.
“We’re trying to make a similar type of game, but instead of trying to have this need to push in as much horror as we want, we’re aiming for less of it, but hopefully better horror parts.” Amnesia’s success doesn’t mean they’ve changed the way they approach games development, though; at least, not too much. “It’s definitely the same approach we always had with the other games on how we do the design and so on,” he assures us, “but the change is definitely that we can take a longer time with this project.”
“We also have the capability to come to the conclusion that something doesn’t work. In the past, when something didn’t work, we always decided ‘well, okay, let’s throw it out, we’re not going to have that in the game for whatever reason’, because if something doesn’t work, it’s better to just remove it than keep working on it. This time, if something doesn’t work, but we feel we can rework it in some way, for the first time in our company, we feel like we can spend the time to make it work. So the difference is we have more time and we don’t have to worry about the bank accounts going to zero in a week like before.”
worry about the bank
accounts going to zero
in a week like before”
I do my best to press more details on the new project out of Jens, but to little effect. Despite the obvious influence of H.P. Lovecraft on Penumbra, Jens says the horror author’s “a little bit less of an influence than before”, suggesting that the team have “maybe moved on just a little bit from that”. Instead, the team are saying the new project has “a bit of a wider span of inspiration”, drawn from many different types of media, not just from the horror genre like before. Jens’ concerns about talking too much are very valid though; as he says, “if we talk about something and it’s not sure that it’s the way it’s going to end up, it might lead to strange assumptions about the sort of game we’re working on.”
Some of the updates the team have made in the latest iteration of the “HPL” engine could point to certain elements of the new game, though. “On the technical side, it’s capable of doing outdoor environments, it’s going to have terrain and things like that,” Jens tells us, hinting that there could be outdoor portions to the new project. “With the previous games, they were all inside and we didn’t have those type of capabilities in the engine. I think there’s lots of small but very nice improvements; it’s not the biggest, greatest, newest game engine ever created, but the important changes for us are those that let us make a better game in a shorter time period.”
Amnesia, I was worried
about not being able to
live up to expectations”
I ask if the team feel under pressure to create a game that lives up to the expectations created by Amnesia, and Jens laughs a little. “That’s funny, because when I was working on Amnesia, I was worried about not being able to live up to the expectations from Penumbra,” he explains. “It’s sort of silly now, a year later, because there wasn’t a problem. The Penumbra games were not very famous, but they still managed to find a core audience, and got a reputation for being good horror games, so when we were working on Amnesia, we definitely thought that people would be expecting too much from us, but it turned out I was wrong. I think for this game we’re not going to worry about it. We’ll do the best we can, and then we’ll see how it ends up.”
Their team’s now three people bigger than it was when they were working on Amnesia: The Dark Descent, so before I call the interview to a close, I ask, more out of curiosity than anything else, how he’d like to see the team five years from now. “Well, not that much different from now,” he tells me. “I mean, we don’t grow because we have the idea that you have to grow to make bigger projects and make more money, we grow because we think ‘okay, now we can bring in some more people, and we can probably do a bit better a game’ or ‘we had this idea, and to do this idea, we need a couple more guys’.”
“So, in five years, we’re probably – hopefully – perhaps around ten or twelve people, because I think that’s the kind of company we want to create. A ten or twelve person group that makes the sort of games that we’re making now. We don’t have any plans to become a big studio that throws around a lot of money.” We don’t know much at all about the next project from the Amnesia developer, but even if it’s a different kind of horror, this is almost a guarantee: it’s going to be scary as shit, and we’re looking forward to hearing more.