Originally posted on the Escapist.
The story of Amnesia: The Dark Descent starts just as we were hard at work with Penumbra: Black Plague, a project that had been close to doom only a few months before. After various financial problems, Paradox Interactive had stepped in to provide the funds needed to complete the game.
We knew that in order to keep the company stable we had to make sure our entire work force (four of us at the time) would be be able to start working on a new project as soon as Black Plague was completed. Because of this, we started doing the basic tech work for what was to become Amnesia several months before Black Plague was done. We did not have any solid ideas on what to do next, but we were sure of one thing: The process of making our previous games had just been too hard for a small company like us and we were set on doing things a lot more simply in the future.
The release of Black Plague came and we were not nearly ready enough to start on something completely new. We had some basic technology working, but it was still far too much in its infancy to let the non-tech part of the team work. At this point Paradox approached us and wondered if we were keen on doing some sort of expansion for Black Plague. This was a great opportunity and a way to keep the entire team occupied until the basic tech got more mature. We were pretty fed up with creating Penumbra games though, and decided to make the expansion, subtitled Requiem, into a more puzzle-oriented experience instead.
In the Beginning
While Requiem was in full production we started brainstorming ideas for the next big project. An early decision was to do another horror game, as it was a genre we felt confident in. Similarities to our earlier games stopped there, though, and focus was instead turned on making a simpler and more casual experience. There was also a major emphasis on coming up with a design that would be easy to pitch – we had already had enough financial problems and were set on doing something we could get stable funding for.
Mechanically, we started focusing on making the horror game equivalent of Super Mario: short levels, simple gameplay, repeated mechanics, easy to understand goals and an experience well suited for bite-sized chunks of entertainment. “Torture-porn” movies like Saw and Hostel were very much “the hot thing” at the time and lent themselves nicely for a thematic hook. Paradox Interactive liked the idea but despite initial interest, both sides agreed to wait on formal agreements until Requiem was done and released in August.
Around Spring 2008 we settled on a game set in the 18th century, which would provide an uncommon time period setting and open the possibility of using a lot of levers, large cogwheels and the like, allowing us to more easily create interesting physics puzzles.
We sent in an application to the Nordic Game Program, a government program that grants money twice a year to game developers. The game was titled Lux Tenebras, very kludgy Latin for “light and shadow,” a name we chose to make the game sound more simplistic and less violent (making an NGP nomination more likely). Also set at this time was an “afraid of darkness” mechanic: The idea was basically that the darkness itself should be an enemy, and the title of the game was a reference to this. We were immediately dissatisfied with the name though, especially since it was nearly the same as Penumbra (which essentially means the area between light and dark).
When summer came along we found out that we had been approved by the NGP! We got about 40,000 Euro in development support, which helped enormously, and with this money we knew that we would easily be set for a while. Despite our current satisfaction with Paradox, our goal was to build a prototype and shop it around. We did not want to settle for a publisher before checking what other opportunities might be available.
During the summer of 2008, we went into crunch mode with Requiem in order to make it ready for release. By the end of August the expansion was done and we were free to focus our full development time on the new title. At this point we had the core engine features, very basic gameplay mechanics, and a simple version of the level editor done. The game’s design had low-level mechanics similar to Penumbra (the physics interaction, basically), but a very different high level design. For example, the game was divided into several hub areas that connected all of the game’s levels. By solving certain quests, new levels would become accessible and eventually lead the player into a new hub. Each level even saved stats such as quests completed, items found, and best completion time. The whole setup was very similar to Mario 64.
While we had the lowest and highest levels of the design done, we were quite unsure of the middle ground. Exactly what kind of easily repeatable gameplay should the player engage in? This proved to be a harder nut to crack, and the things we tried ended up not working. We backed up a bit and revisited a more Penumbra-like approach (where levels are like mini-games), and also added weapons and other tools to the features.
Work on the story also picked up pace and we outlined a story about a secret society doing strange things in a castle. Our intention was to tell the story not only through notes and voiced monologues (like we did in Penumbra) but also using direct dialog with characters.
During the fall we had started discussions with various publishers. We were mostly involved with Paradox, but we made sure to keep our options open. The biggest decision we had to make was whether we wanted a full-financing deal (which meant no IP and lesser royalties) or if we could finance it partly ourselves. This would mean some kind of bank loan, which would obviously be very risky. In order to figure out more exact details on these two kinds of deals, we slowly started some negotiating.
As 2008 was drawing to a close, we changed the game’s name to Unknown, moving away from the awkward Lux Tenebras. It still wasn’t great, but we thought it would suffice.
Entering the Unknown
In December of 2008 we were done with the prototype originally pitched for the Nordic Game Program, marking a major milestone. We had worked out the basic pipeline for making content and had implemented most of the basic gameplay needed. However, the game just didn’t feel engaging. While this raised some worries, we convinced ourselves that adding more features would fix the problem.
We also started running into issues with the publisher hunt. While we did find some interested parties, the terms were very hard to pin down. We felt we had to go with something, so at the start of the year we decided to explore the option of securing a loan in addition to getting funding from Paradox. Paradox was pleased with this, as it meant lower risk for them. Nothing was officially determined, but we informally agreed this was the route to take. However, pressed for funds and finding it impossible to secure a loan, we eventually had to renegotiate with Paradox. This made them quite upset and we were close to getting no deal at all. Eventually we did agree to some terms with a now increasingly annoyed Paradox.
In the spring of 2009, we added weapons to the game and spent a few weeks testing and tweaking the system. It didn’t go well. We intended for combat to be a used as a last resort only, but this kind of gameplay proved extremely hard to accomplish. Remembering Penumbra Overture (our only game with combat), we recalled that very few players used the combat as intended. We also felt many would see the combat as sub-par compared to other games, which finally convinced us to scrap it. Removing the combat also simplified the design of the game substantially.
Looking back at the state the game was in at the time, it makes me wonder how we could have believed that we were on the right track. I guess that is partly because things look so much simpler in hindsight. When you are in the middle of something in which you have invested so much time and effort, it is extremely easy to fool yourself.
To Hell and Back
In April 2009, rapidly running out of funds, we signed a contract with Paradox to create Unknown. Finally, we could relax and not worry about funding anymore. Or at least so we thought.
Less than a month after we had signed the contract, we were forced to break it. Hard choices needed to be made as our money had been nearly depleted, the worst of which was probably that we had to dismiss our employees as we had only money for another month’s salary. This meant they would still be working for a month, but unless we could get more funds somehow, that would be it.
Things were looking very dark indeed, and we saw only two choices: either we quickly make some kind of game with what we had or try to get money to complete what we had started. We first started looking at making the game simpler. The idea was to change the control scheme so that it was entirely controlled by mouse and create some kind of “escape the room” game, hopefully allowing us to reach a more casual market. Unfortunately, it did not work as we hoped and the idea was scrapped.
Finding some kind of financial backing did not go much better. Banks were still skeptical about the project, angel investors did not understand the project, and publisher interest was low. I actually started to prepare my CV to look for job opportunities.
At the start of June, things changed for the better. Steam had a sale of the Penumbra Collection at 75% off. While Paradox owned the digital rights of the Penumbra games Black Plague and Requiem, we had retained the complete rights to Overture. This meant that we would be getting more than a third of the profit from the sale. Our hopes were pretty low, but amazingly the weekend-long deal sold more units than the combined lifetime of all Penumbra games. We were overwhelmed to say the least.
We knew this was our lucky break, and with salaries cut in half across the board we were able to maintain staff and keep things going. Still, we knew it was not enough money to complete the game, and we had to take matters into our own hands. Boosted by the popularity of the Steam sale, we made our own sale of Penumbra with Linux and Mac versions of the game included, and the income from that matched our profits from the Steam sale.
Encouraged by these sales and a renewed popularity of our previous games, we shifted our focus to making a game that was much closer to Penumbra. The entire Mario 64-like hub design was scrapped and we focused on a more linear experience. We could not redesign everything, of course, and reused as much of what was done already as possible.
With the focus shift, the story also needed to change in scope. Where previous inspiration had been on fringe scientists, the story now took a little nastier turn, focusing more on torture and human evil. The time period was also changed to 19th century. Unfortunately, the new direction was not something that our current writer was interested in, and we parted ways.
At this point, we also did a huge turnabout with regards to the kind of gameplay we were aiming for. The game shifted from “fun Mario-like bite-sized torture porn horror” to “slow-burning-psychological terror.” We decided that our motto would be, both internally and for marketing, “like Penumbra, but better.”
As we first ventured in this new direction we decided to keep most of the new, more “Mario-like” features we had already implemented, but as the project progressed we cut out almost all of these simply because they did not fit. It took a lot longer than expected to shed these negative features, in part because of the bias one gets when putting a lot of time into parts of the game. It is quite easy to overlook blatant flaws simply because you invested time in them.
The End Is Near
The release of the game was slowly closing in at the start of 2010, and we had come far enough to set a preliminary release date for early fall. The only problem was we did not have enough money to pay our expenses for that long. We needed to find a publisher that could give us a big enough advance to cover costs.
In January 2010 we also felt the game needed a new title, as the name Unknown was proving unpopular. To determine a name, the whole team simply voted for a number of different suggestions, finally settling on Amnesia: The Dark Descent. We’re still not entirely pleased with the name, but we’ve never felt naming things was a strong suit of Frictional Games.
A few weeks before release of the teaser trailer, we had reached one of our most important milestones during the entire project – alpha. This meant that we had a pretty much all of the required features implemented and that we could try out the first third of the game as it was intended. With a proper demo, we could now resume shopping around for publishers. We also set the final release date to September 8.
By February, cash flow became a problem yet again. We knew we had to come up with something in order to survive, and after tossing around many ideas, we ended up doing a discounted pre-order. We promised extra content in the form of an in-game developer commentary feature if we got 2000 or more orders. Armed with a teaser trailer and what we felt was a tantalizing offer, we took it to the public. The reaction was positive, but pre-orders were sluggish.
We signed a deal with the Russian publisher Snowball/1C in the middle of March. We were getting all of the funds we needed to complete the game, but we would be almost completely broke when we handed in the finished version.
The previous year we had gotten involved with the “Humble Indie Bundle,” a pay-what-you-want game package where part of the earnings went to charity. I personally was pretty skeptical about the business model, but since we would only contribute our old title Penumbra: Overture, it felt like a good experiment to try out. The package eventually launched at the start of May 2010 and it turned out more successful than anyone would have dared to imagine. We took advantage of the boost in PR and offered Penumbra: Black Plague and Requiem at a lowered price to anyone who had bought the bundle. We also lowered the pre-order price for Amnesia by 50%, helping us to finally reach our pre-order goals. When the bundle offer was over, we had more than enough to sustain development until release and a few months beyond.
At the start of 2010, we revisited some of our design goals, and made changes to the game elements accordingly. We felt that if we wanted to make a game that was all about delivering certain feelings to the player, we should focus solely on that. With this frame of mind we started to slowly change the way we viewed the game and skipped features that did not directly contribute to the type of experience we were aiming for.
Many features got cut at this stage. A progress bar showing things done in a level vanished, the heavily used coins disappeared, and the number of items per map was decreased. Our new line of thinking also had an effect on the sanity design. Instead of seeing it as a standard game mechanic, we focused on making it atmospheric. We even automatically regenerated sanity if the player had been insane for too long. We felt it would cut down on player frustration and improved the overall experience.
One of our first priorities during the months before release was to get a preview ready. Without any marketing budget, we had put all our bets on the press liking the game. The preview was released in June with mostly very positive results, but we learned that the sanity potions were apparently “ruining the atmosphere.” Thinking it over we agreed and decided to remove them completely, despite the late date.
As we got even closer to the final deadline, another fun task popped up – mailing reviewers. The responsibility for this fell on me, and I started naively by just copy-pasting and mailing. As we had never done this ourselves, I greatly underestimated the amount work that went into it. Eventually, I ended up filling a huge spread sheet in order to keep track of all the review-related information.
As we started sending out the actual review copies, we were quite paranoid that someone would leak them. We gave each reviewer a special serial number and kept track of who got what, and for the most part this kept things under control. However, a day before release, a pirated version of our game started to appear – it was of course, one of the review copies. While the leak was disappointing, most of the things happening around us were extremely joyful. Personally, one of my own favorite moments occurred five days before release, when the IGN review went out. The game had scored 85% and was also given an Editor’s Choice award. For the first time I felt that these three years of hard labor might actually amount to something.
Early on, we had decided that if we did not sell 24,000 units during the first two months we would close down Frictional Games. Anything less and we would not have enough funds to properly sustain the company. A month after release we had reached 34,000 units, which was a quite nice, but not a spectacular, result. We had hoped for a bit more given the initial positive response by the media. Fortunately, we were part of some excellent holiday promotions that greatly boosted our sold unit count. By July 2011, we had sold almost 350,000 units, which was really surprising for us all. We can now, for the first time in our lives, get proper salaries – the future looks very bright indeed!