SOMA has now been out in the wild for 10 day so it felt fitting to write a summary of how things have gone so far. But first a little trailer:
I’m going to start with what I think most people are interested in: how much has the game sold? The current number now is at about 92,000 copies across all platforms (due to legal reasons we can’t give a per-platform breakdown). This is quite good for 10 days (+ preorder time) of sales! The money that we’ve got from this will pretty much pay our company expenses for another 2 years. Sales are still going pretty strongly too, with a total of around 2,000 copies sold per day. This number is bound to drop over time, and it’ll be interesting to see just how fast and where it stabilizes. While a lot of sales obviously come close to launch, a big part of our normal earnings comes from a slow daily trickle over the years of our existing titles. So our average daily sales a month or so from now on is actually more important than all of the units sold up to this point.
How does this compare to our other releases? Well, Amnesia: The Dark Descent sold 30,000 copies in the first month (and around 20,000 the first week). So SOMA’s launch is obviously a lot better than that. Compared to Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, though, the launch is a little bit worse. That game sold about 120,000 copies the first week.
Our goal for SOMA’s sales is 100,000 after a month, and at the current pace it should be able to reach pretty much exactly that with a few units to spare. However, this doesn’t mean that we’ve come close to recouping all our costs. We need to sell almost 3 times that amount to do that. But given that it took us 5 years to make the project, there’s no immediate stress to do so. One of the great things about funding SOMA 100% ourselves is that all money earned goes into our own pockets and is directly used to fund our upcoming projects. So we are under no pressure to recoup immediately so long as we get enough to keep going – which we certainly have now.
Finally, another very interesting aspect is how new titles tend to cannibalize on the previous ones. We saw this with A Machine for Pigs; after it launched the daily sales of The Dark Descent were almost cut in half. That was not that unexpected though, given that they are both from the same franchise, but still a bit weird that the games’ combined sales ended up being pretty much what The Dark Descent sold on its own before. What we didn’t expect was for SOMA to do the same. When the pre-orders for SOMA started, Amnesia sales dropped by about 30% or so and this drop still remains. This feels strange as the two games are not connected apart from being made by the same company, so we wonder what mechanism it is that causes this. It might be that Amnesia’s sales will rise again a bit later on though, so it’s too soon to tell yet just what the effects are.
The critical reception of SOMA has been, overall, really, really great. MetaCritic is currently at 85 and the Steam reviews are 94% positive.
The thing that I worried most about personally was how the themes would be received. It turns out that I needn’t have worried – that’s the thing we have fewest problems with. Even reviews that gave us so-so scores lauded the game for the thought-provoking narrative. This feels awesome, as this has been the core focus during our five years of development.
The most common issue people have had is that they’ve felt the game wasn’t scary enough. This is quite interesting, so I’d like to take a little time to discuss this.
One reason this was so is probably due to expectations. While we’ve tried to be very clear that SOMA will be a different game from Amnesia: The Dark Descent, we have still used the name “Amnesia” as a way to grab attention. This sends a bit of a mixed message, as people might simply assume that because we say “from the creators of Amnesia”, a similar experience will be provided. One idea would have been not to mention the studio’s heritage, but that feels stupid from a PR perspective. Another idea would have been to tone it down a bit, but it’s hard to say exactly how to do that. The fact of the matter is that SOMA, just like Amnesia, is very much a horror game. It’s just that it is presented in a different manner, using slower build-up and more focus on the psychological aspects.
Another reason why some people felt it was not scary enough is because horror is extremely subjective. The reactions to how scary SOMA is range from “not at all” to “the scariest game I have played”, and some of the people in the latter camp are survival horror veterans. We had this sort of reaction to Amnesia: TDD as well, but it feels even more spread out for SOMA. When we released The Dark Descent, horror with no combat was still a very fresh concept, but five years later that is no longer the case, and it has lost its impact for some people. SOMA also employs a riskier approach to monster AI that assumes the player will act in certain ways and reach a certain understanding about how the creatures work. If players don’t do this the experience might suffer. Above all, the main horror in SOMA is supposed to come from the existential dread that’s slowly unveiled as the game progresses. And in order for this to work properly, a lot of pieces need to align, and it will not work for everyone.
So in the light of that, it doesn’t feel all that bad that we didn’t get a more universal praise for the game’s scariness. But it’s taught us a valuable lesson: that one should be very careful in managing people’s expectations. This is a lesson that we thought we knew after A Machine For Pigs (which didn’t turn out to be the game many wanted it to be) but apparently we hadn’t learned enough. Once your studio gets associated with a particular game, it’ll play a huge role in what people expect from upcoming releases. That said, the vast majority of people that had expected another Amnesia ended up enjoying SOMA once they realized the game was different. So I don’t feel it has been a complete failure by any means, but just one of those things that needs more work in the future.
It is interesting that this is no longer a subject brought up much. So I thought I would quickly get into it. And the first thing to note is that SOMA is the first game we have launched without having a pirated version out before release!
Another thing I have noticed is that we get fewer tech support requests from people with pirated versions than we used to have. It’s often pretty easy to spot these people as we issue new patches frequently, so there are lots of telltale signs in the log files. I’m not sure if this means piracy has decreased for SOMA, or if these people find tech support elsewhere, but I felt it worth mentioning.
As for us personally, we haven’t even talked about piracy. The only time it matters to us is when sending out review copies. Amnesia had a pirated version leaked before release, so now we make sure that we at least send out a DRM-protected version of the game to reviewers. But other than that, I don’t think we’ve discussed it for even a second. This is quite different from back in 2007 when I know me and Jens had hours of discussions on the subject.
I’ve already touched upon this above when discussing the game’s reception. However, how to market SOMA in terms of horror was the easy part. The hard part was to explain what makes the game special. When we released Amnesia, showing off the physics and explaining that you couldn’t fight back was more than a enough for the game to stand out. But now the market is filled with these types of games, and more is needed to get people excited.
The main unique feature of SOMA is its exploration of consciousness and what it means to be human. This is also what has been the most celebrated feature of the game after launch. But explaining this to press and gamers prior to release has been exceptionally difficult. This is not some gameplay gimmick that can be shown off during a short demo session, but something that requires hours of build-up. So when you talk about the game, you have to be fuzzy and talk about very high-level concepts. When doing interviews like this I often got the impression that I wasn’t really taken seriously. The press don’t expect any lofty design aspirations to come true and would rather hear about concrete and more easily-digested (and explained) features.
To make things even harder, SOMA is very hard to talk about without spoiling the experience. I could never give an example of exactly how we handle our thematics through gameplay without spoiling a big chunk of the game. This problem of spoilers also makes the game hard to demo and to give to YouTubers. If we just give people a part of the game where you are chased by monsters, that would misrepresent the game (making the expectation problem worse) and fail to explain what is so special about SOMA. And if we show off one of slower sections that are all about build-up, mood and thematics, we have to show off really long segments, which becomes too spoiler-filled and takes way too much time for a demo. (For more discussion on making a demo for SOMA, see here).
We solved the YouTuber issue by only sending it out to a few trusted people, and only allowing a maximum of 15 minutes to be shown. That way we got people to play a lengthy part of the game (around 3 hours) and then show a distilled, and fairly spoiler-free, video to their viewers. We could only do this pretty late in development though, and given how important streamers and YouTubers are for PR these days, it felt like we would have like to do more earlier.
Another issue is that we might have unveiled the game a bit too early. We first showed off SOMA back in October 2013 and the plan was to keep content coming out until release. This turned out way harder to keep up with than what we’d initially thought. Because we were so unwilling to spoil the game, we could provide very little in terms of playable material for the press. Because of this, we had issues getting proper coverage at the end, as most of the standard things like “first playable preview” had already been done over a year back. We’d also had a plan to release a monthly live-action video clip to keep interest up, but because of production problems it got delayed and this plan fell through. (We are however showing them now!)
So it feels like it might have been better to have unveiled the game a year or so later to be able to keep up interest all the way to release and to have a more massive promotion campaign that way. A big issue with that is that it would have been very bad for the team morale. It’s quite hard to work on a project in the dark for several years, and there was a very evident boost in spirit once we had let the world know that SOMA was coming. Added to this is that we got a lot of good feedback from press and fan reactions, which helped us shaped not just our PR but the actual game too. This is makes it much more uncertain if a later unveiling really would have been a better move.
So what is next for Frictional Games? First of all, now just about all of the major post-release issues have been patched up, most of the team will take some rest. We’ll then focus a bit on documenting how the game and engine works, in the hopes that modding will reach the glorious heights it did for Amnesia. After that we are on to new secret projects. But those secret projects are really secret, so we can’t say a word.
Finally a gigantic thanks to all who have bought the game! We love hearing about your experiences so please tweet, comment on Facebook, or leave a comment here and say what you thought about the game!