A list of lists about games of the decade, and the Frictional Games games on them

“Early on, we had decided that if [Amnesia] 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.“

~Thomas in Amnesia: Post Mortem, 2011

At the beginning of 2010, Frictional Games was five guys who had made a mildly successful game, working off quickly dwindling resources.

At the end of the decade, Frictional Games had grown to be 25 people across two projects, supported by steady income from a cult hit and an indie darling.

There was no way to predict the combination of hard work, luck, and meta trends surrounding Amnesia that would help us sell, well, way more than 24,000 units, and put Frictional on the map of reputable game developers. Aside from being a financial success, Amnesia has reportedly been influential on the gaming industry at large, from affecting the horror genre to helping kickstart the Let’s Play scene (with no small thanks to the modding community and their numerous contributions of custom story content).

The success of Amnesia: The Dark Descent let us further develop our craft in SOMA. Though not as financially successful, it has found its niche among the gaming community.

We are mostly from Northern Europe, so it’s not our style to toot our own horn. But finding our games on lists wrapping up the decade with “best” or “most influential” in the title has been exciting, considering the thousands of games released over the past 10 years. It’s the best kind of inspiration to push us to do better.

So we will toot our horn a little bit, with a small list of lists covering the past decade that one of our games made it on. We would like to thank every publication that has found our games worthy of being featured, regardless of ranking. And sorry for non-English publications for not finding you – if there are articles out there in other languages, do link them in the comments!

As a fun coincidence, if not ranked, Amnesia: The Dark Descent opens a lot of these lists. There’s upsides to releasing in the first year of the decade and starting your game’s name with the first letter of the alphabet!

GND-Tech: Game of the Decade Awards: 2010’s

Game of the Decade Awards: 2010’s

At the top of our list of lists is GND-Tech, who graced us with three wins and three nominations – a whooping six mentions total! There’s SOMA for best sound effects with Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs as a nominee. There’s Best Story, Writing Quality for SOMA. Again SOMA as the Best Horror game, with Amnesia: The Dark Descent as a nominee, as well as SOMA as a nominee for Dark Horse. Soma-one at GND-Tech sure loved SOMA!

Sadly we didn’t get awards for Best Racing Game or Best Multiplayer Shooter, but we’ll count our losses.

The others are listed in no particular order.

Forbes

The Decade’s Most Influential Video Games
Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Of course the Big Business Journal acknowledging us would make top news, are you kidding me?

EDGE Magazine

Games of the Decade
Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Amnesia was featured in the print version of Edge as one of the 12 games of the decade, earning it a place as one of the collectors’ covers. You can read about the covers on their sister site GamesRadar+.

The Gamer

The 20 Most Influential Indie Games Of The 2010’s
Amnesia: The Dark Descent

We see all the articles you write about us, The Gamer! Appreciate it.

The Gamer

The 10 Best Survival Horror Games Of The Decade, Ranked (According To Metacritic)
SOMA at #9 and Amnesia: The Dark Descent at #7/10.

Case in point.

The Washington Post

The most influential games of the decade
Amnesia: The Dark Descent

The Washington Post had one of the funniest interpretations of Daniel we’ve ever seen. The illustration by Senne Trip.

Red Bull

10 Best Games of the Decade
SOMA

This really gave us wings.

Shacknews

Community Top 100 Games of the Decade #75-51
Soma at #71/100

An entire community coming togetherto vote can’t be wrong!

IGN

The Best Games of the Decade (2010 – 2019)
Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Aaaand I’ve run out of (arguably) funny things to say. Sorry!

Headstuff

The Best Horror Games Of The Millennium So Far…
Amnesia: The Dark Descent

NDTV Gadgets

Ten Most Influential Games of the Past Decade
Amnesia: The Dark Descent

TechRaptor

15 Best Games of 2010
Amnesia: The Dark Descent at #15/15

The Next Web

The 10 video games that defined the 2010s
Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Den of Geek

100 Best Games of the Decade
Amnesia: The Dark Descent at #100/100

The Game Theorists

Game Theory: 2019 Game of the Year? More like Best Games of the DECADE!
Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Thanks to every outlet once more, and congratulations to all other favourites out there! And here’s to another exciting decade of gaming.

The website is dead – long live the new website!

Almost exactly two years ago I screamed as an email titled “Frictional Games: Job Offer” dropped in my inbox. I continued screaming as I called my mother to tell her the news. Half an hour later she sent me a follow-up text.

“I looked at the website you sent me. Are you sure it’s a real company? I’m worried.”

Since that day, my life has never known peace.

Once I infiltrated the company, one of the first big questions I dared shoot at Thomas and Fredrik (after “Hey, is Catherine Chun a lesbian?” (the response: she is if you want her to be)) was “Hey, can we please do something about the website?” They said yes. In my foolishness I posted the first blog in 3 years, stating we were still alive – expecting to hype people up for an imminent release of a new website.

The release wasn’t imminent. Instead we were met with… well, let’s call it a Series of Time-Consuming False Starts.

As 2020 grew closer, some passive superstition started gnawing at me. This time the screaming was internal, and kept me awake at night at the thought of entering the new decade with an old website (a perfectly normal reaction, right?). Our fans making fun of the site didn’t help either, dealing further damage to a project I now considered the measure of my pride.

Fuck it. I’ll make it myself.

And I did. You’re looking at it! The monument to my mediocre design skills, superior patience, love for colour orange, and some help from the rest of the team (as well as our IT partner Vessinge).

Gregor, Kira, and Alex, sharing between them about 2,5 brain cells worth of WordPress experience.

So, what’s new?

The main new thing is that I’m nuking the concept of posting content on separate platforms. All future news and blog posts (previously on our Blogspot) will be posted here and here only. I have gone through all (376) past blogs and news articles, as well as posts on our forum and mysterious third-party platforms, and hunted down the images and videos, fixed or removed all broken links.

Other new things, in no particular order, include:

What’s coming?

There wasn’t quite enough time to finish everything before winter vacation. Here are some things you can expect to see in 2020:

  • A press kit page for media
  • Additional information for prospective employees, both about working at Frictional and working in Sweden
  • People of Frictional posts (including mine and the people who have started before me who I’m waiting on)
  • Make early Frictional-related games (Fiend, Unbirth and Energetic) available, if we can find them
  • Design improvements (if any fans out there know WordPress, hmu)
  • More good old tech and design blogs

And now Frictional Games is off for a winter vacation! (Great timing considering all that clicking has driven me to the edge of yet another carpal tunnel.)

Here’s to a great 2020!

PS. Is something broken? Should we add something else? Let us know in the comments!

9 Years, 9 Lessons on Horror

It has now been over 9 years since we released Amnesia: The Dark Descent. That is a bloody long time, and feels like we should celebrate that by talking about the craft of horror games.

Horror games are quite a different beast when it comes to the game industry at large. Most other genres revolve around what the player does. In a turn-based strategy you take turns doing strategy:

Into the Breach

 In a first-person shooter you shoot things from a first-person perspective:

Doom

In a Match 3 game you match three thingies:

Candy Crush: Soda

In a horror game, the activity is not at all as important. What is important is that the experience is a spooky one. This makes designing horror games different from designing within other genres. Many times the standard industry tricks just won’t work, which makes one think about game design in a different light.

In the past 9 years we have learned a great deal about horror games, and to celebrate the occasion, I wanted to share 9 lessons we have learned over the years.

That being said, I don’t see these lessons as only useful for horror games. There’s quite a bit of overlap with other genres, especially any games that aim for a narrative-heavy experience.

And finally – this is by no means an exhaustive list. Still, the lessons here are at the core of the craft of making scary video games.

Lesson 1: Horror is not enjoyable

The basic emotion of horror is not a pleasant one – yet people play horror games wanting to experience horror. This is the paradox of horror as entertainment. This paradox requires game developers to be careful in how they deliver the experience to the player.

You could draw an analogy between horror games and rollercoasters. The basic purpose of a rollercoaster is to simulate the sensation of falling. Under controlled circumstances the experience of falling is thrilling and fun (at least for a good portion of people). But if you put someone in a barrel and push them down a cliff, chances are they will not find the experience fun at all. Even if they survive unscathed, the whole ordeal would be a horrible experience.

The same is true for horror games. If you have a game that only relies on jumpscares – figuratively throwing people off a cliff in a barrel – few people will consider that fun. This became apparent in certain maps in Penumbra. We thought it would be good enough for a scary gameplay section to have a maze and some monsters. Instead of becoming mazes of fear, they instead became mostly… annoying. Amnesia: The Dark Descent had similar issues towards the end, where the monster encounters were just that, not supported by any other aspects. At that point the game no longer felt as entertaining.

Well, a familiar face.

Lesson 2: Players are working against you

For a horror game developer, the worst enemy is… the players. Seriously, if we could sit around and make games without having to worry about what the players will do and think when playing the game, life would be so much simpler!

As mentioned before, being scared is not a pleasant feeling. Therefore the players will try to optimize the feeling away, often unconsciously. In the end, the players will ruin the intended experience for themselves.

Take the demon dogs from our first game, Penumbra: Overture. The game takes a bunch of time to build them up as creepy monsters that stalk the dark mines. However their AI has some weaknesses that some people are very quick to catch. Hence the dogs become easy to defeat, and are no longer scary.

Can’t get me. I’m on a box.

And the crazy thing is that the players complain when this happens! They probe the system for flaws and choose to exploit them, yet want the dogs to remain scary. So their behaviour ends up going against their will.

Some games solve issues of player exploitation simply by making the enemies extremely hard (think Dark Souls): they make sure the monsters are just as hard to beat as they look scary. Another approach is to instead skip much of the gameplay (think Dear Esther): if there are no mechanics, there’s nothing for the player to exploit – problem solved, right?

I don’t think either of these solutions is optimal. Instead I think one should aim for a third route: making the players think about actions in a more narrative fashion. More about that later!

Lesson 3: Scares alone won’t make a horror game

Horror is like a spice that defines a dish. You cannot do without it, but you can’t cook a dish solely out of spices either. That would be just gross.

As an example, let’s take three horror movies I consider to be at the top of their genre: Alien, The Exorcist and Ringu. All three movies deal with very different subjects, have different styles, and are overall different from one another. But there is one thing they have in common: they all have very few scares in them!

Instead each movie is mostly about the characters, the discussions, the anticipation of the horror – building up the atmosphere and the dread of things to come. Very little time is spent actually facing the horror.

Let’s get back to our roller coaster analogy. When you think about it, the actual roller coaster ride lasts a very short time. Most of the time is spent doing things like buying a ticket, standing in line, and hearing other people scream. All these actions are not superfluous extras – they build up for the actual ride, and are crucial to the overall experience.

When we first made the study section of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, we implemented a ton of jumpscares. Books fell down from shelves, doors banged, pianos started playing and so forth. But as the map became more complete, it felt like something was off. So we reduces the scares to just a couple, and instead focused on letting the player learn the castle’s mysteries. At first we were afraid this would make the level too boring – but as it turns out, spacing the scares apart made players much more scared than previously.

In horror, less is often more.

Lesson 4: Fun gameplay is just too… fun

In a horror game more than any other, the players go in expecting to have a bad time. And as designers we want them to feel anxiety, despair, and a whole array of negative emotions. But gameplay – because it’s so damn engaging – tends to counteract all these juicy emotions.

Let’s use Dead Space as an example. When I started playing it, I was really scared, walking around slowly and peeking around every corner. Then, about an hour in, I learned how to kill the monsters, and what tricks I needed to survive.

Dead Space 2 promo art
All of the fun, none of the horror!

Not only did I get good at killing the monsters, I thought it was great fun! The things that used to terrify me now became a source of amusement. Instead of dreading the monster sounds they now made me excited – oh great, another necromorph to dismember!

So where did the fear go? It was simply overshadowed by the rewarding gameplay.

Us humans tend to have this thing called attention, and we only have a limited amount of it. If the game is constantly engaging the player with thinking about their aim, checking ammo, and looking for loot, there’s no room left for much else. In other words, the players’ brain will lack resources to frighten themselves.

The early designs of Amnesia: The Dark Descent included genre-typical weapons, and even guns. We also experimented with very elaborate puzzle set-ups, everything from swinging chandeliers to redirecting rays of light. All these caused the same issues as Dead Space. They were too fun, and took attention away from what mattered: getting scared.

Eventually we decided to reduce the “fun” elements the gameplay had – and it paid off.

We saw this very clearly when watching Let’s Plays of the Amnesia games. Since players didn’t have things like combat to pay attention to, they reacted to things they might not have even noticed in other games. A vague sound, almost like a footstep, was suddenly a reason to look for the nearest cupboard to hide in. Had the players minds been filled with thoughts of loot boxes, they would have never reacted like this.

Lesson 5: Narrative is a core element in good horror

So if engaging gameplay can be counteractive to the horror, and you need to be careful with the scares, what do you fill a horror game with?

While no silver bullet, narrative is a big part of the equation.

By building up a narrative, us game designers can make game worlds bigger and more intricate than they actually are in-game. We can prime the player into doing a lot of the scaring for themselves.

In order to explain this, let’s take a random image let’s take a random image of a quaint town:

Aww, I wanna go there. 🙂

This feels like a great place for an evening stroll, right?

Now let’s give this image some backstory. Put on some spooky music, like the Amnesia soundtrack, and read the following:

It has been two weeks since a huge storm cut the town from the rest of the world. All means of communication are down.

Today, our emergency services received a call – it just started out as static, a joke that kids would play, but then the screaming started. The screaming of people, then an otherworldly roar, nothing a man nor beast on Earth could make. I had to find out what happened to these people up the serpentine road from us. 

I am now here, yet no one else seems to be. It’s like everyone vanished. But as the cold sun sets down over the mountain, I get a sense of unease…

…And now look at the picture again.

The worst monster of all is leaving the lights once you’ve been murdered horribly.

Not so cozy anymore, right?

A new context leads to re-interpreting the environment based on this information, and get into a different mindset based on it. While you previously admired the view, you are now scanning it for signs of danger.

A big part of horror takes place inside a player’s head. And by fueling their imagination, we can turn a cozy village into a place of terror and despair.

Looking back on which areas worked in Penumbra, this component became apparent. The most loved environments were those where players could use lore and environmental clues to fantasize what happened… and what could happen. The expansion, Penumbra: Requiem, lacked a lot of this background information. So despite us designing some of our best puzzles and implementing interesting visuals, Requiem was received quite badly. Without a strong narrative component, the players didn’t get the experience they wanted.

Penumbra: Requiem, or as we call it, The Marc Game.

Lesson 6: The world must feel real

In order for a horror narrative to have proper impact, the world it takes place in must be taken seriously by the players. But what does “serious” mean? Grey and brown tones with no cartoonish elements? Not quite.

Let’s draw a parallel between real and imagined worlds. If you suffer from nightmares, there’s a trick to that: make a habit out of knocking on walls, tables, or whatever is closest to you. Eventually you will start doing the same when you’re asleep. However, when you knock on walls or a table in a dream, your hand is likely to go through the surface – that’s how you’ll know you are in a dream, and no longer need to be afraid of the world around you.

Making horror games is basically a business of creating nightmares. But it’s hard to be successful when you have a bunch of players (those damn players again!) constantly doing the equivalent of “knocking on surfaces”, simply by playing the game. As soon as they discover some sort of glitch the immersion of a terrifying world breaks, and it takes a long time to build it back up again.

Let’s look at an example from Penumbra again. In Penumbra we want the players to imagine that the demon dogs are “real”, implying all the traits (demon) dogs possess. So, we want players to be worried about encountering a dog, and hiding from it. However, some players “knocked on surfaces” by messing around with the environments, and figured out that the dogs can’t reach you if you camp on top of a box. So, whereas a real dog could jump up on the box and chomp the player up, the AI dog cannot. Therefore the fantasy of dogs as “real” is lost, and the game loses a bunch of its scariness.

Penumbra: Overture by IsisMasshiro on DeviantArt
The intended reaction when encountering a demon dog

Because of this effect, game developers have to be careful about how they construct environments, and what tools they give to the player. There should be enough things to do to make the place feel real. But not so many as to aid players in breaking the illusion.

Lesson 7: Keep it vague

You know creepypasta and scary photos you can find on the internet? Almost always the thing that makes them scary is that they leave a lot to the imagination. Seeing a silhouette and glowing eyes out in the corner of a photo feels threatening. A close-up glamour photo of the same monster does not.

AAH! What IS that?
Oh, just our good friend Terry bringing us a gift. (by ThiccBoiMyers on Discord)

As mentioned before, much of the horror comes from simply not being sure what the hell you’re looking at. It’s when there is a gap in our knowledge, a certain amount of uncertainty, that horror can really shine. This is especially true when you combine it with some sort of danger element.

It is quite common in games to make sure the player understands the systems in place as clearly as possible. This often results in some really daunting tutorials. Of course for some games, like fighting games, it’s important to have in-depth knowledge about the systems to be able to optimise the game. In horror games we actually want the opposite!

A vague and uncertain game system is like a creepy photo. You can make out enough to get an idea of what’s going on, but there’s still room for the imagination to go wild. Let’s use the health meter in Resident Evil as an example. Internally it is an analog property, a decimal number from 0 to some value, but the player will only ever know that it has “three” states. This strikes a great balance between giving information and being vague, and helps crank up the tension.

The sanity system in Amnesia: The Dark Descent is similarly vague. You know scary things – whatever those are – lower your sanity, and bad things – whatever those are – will happen if it drops too low, so you don’t want to risk it.

This was not always the case. We started out with a pretty straightforward gameplay system, hoping players would play along with it. However, people either game it or got frustrated by it. When we tweaked it so it was much less clear how it worked, it sparked player’s imaginations and it was much more enjoyable.

Alex isn’t looking so good.

Lesson 8: Players need a role

All stories are driven by the characters that are contained within it, and how a plot plays out is determined by the characteristics of these characters. Just imagine how different Jurassic Park would be if the annoying lawyer guy was replaced by Judge Dredd! So, in order to get the most of any narrative, it is crucial to establish roles.

Games are no different. The role that a player inhabits will determine what actions they have at their disposal, what their goals ore, and so forth. Knowing the character is a vital component in order for the player to be an active part of the story.

Yet this is one of those components that many horror games forget. You are often thrust into a story as some generic character. Often the thought behind this is that the player would “play as themselves”, but this is not how any narrative really works. In order to properly parse a story situation, you need to understand what kind of person is dealing with it.

Say that you come across a corpse. You are playing as Sherlock Holmes, a corpse means a case! You will want to search for clues and try to solve the mystery of how this person died.

Now imagine you’re playing as a flesh-eating ghoul. Now the same corpse is suddenly dinner – yum!

An alternate universe where Daniel is turned into a ghoul. Bon appetit!

In most areas, horror games are well beyond your average game in terms of narrative. But for some reason, a large portion of horror games just fail to set the player role properly. It’s strange, relying on a narrative backbone, yet losing so much of the atmosphere by not defining the player role.

Another big reason for defining roles is that it can help with some of the issues addressed earlier. For instance, it can limit the number of actions the player feels is rational to take. For example Penumbra’s protagonist Philip is a physics teacher, so while he could perhaps fight some demon dogs, it would be more logical to run and hide from aggressive humanoids.

This lesson we clearly learned in SOMA. At first we thought about having a non-speaking Simon with very little character. However, this made player distance themselves from the events. Things got a lot more personal when they played as a character who was reacting to what was happening. While players previously wouldn’t ponder the strange events in-depth, Simon pushing them in the right direction it worked much better.

Lesson 9: Agency is crucial

When I talk about agency, I’m not talking about the CIA. What I mean is agency of the free will kind. A game that has a lot of agency lets the players make decisions and feel like an active part of the narrative.

This is closely tied to the previous lesson. Not only do we want to give players a role, we also want them to own that role. They need to feel like they really inhabit the character they are supposed to play. A game can achieve a lot by combining agency with keeping things vague – and letting players decide to take uncertain decisions.

Say that you are faced with a dark tunnel – dark tunnels are pretty scary!

Now imagine that the game explicitly tells you that your goal lies beyond the tunnel. There’s no choice, you gotta go in. And if the game forces you do something, it will also make sure you do actually have the means to complete this quest – in this case get to the other side of the tunnel.

What’s the worst that could happen? 🙂

But what if entering this dark tunnel was voluntary, or at least presented as such? The game vaguely tells you that there might be something important there – but you don’t know, and might also be a certain death. All of a sudden the tunnel feels a lot less safe. By adding agency and making entering the tunnel an uncertain choice, all sorts of doubts pop up in the player’s mind.

There’s also a number of other ways to add agency. Say the player needs to do something unnerving, like Amnesia’s Daniel drilling into a corpse to get blood out. In the game it is clear that there is no other option. Overall reactions to this was not very strong.

Just petting a guy’s head while the drill drills a hole in it.

Compare this to similar moments in SOMA, where intended course of action is much less clear. Here players are forced to actually think through what they need to do, and get emotionally involved in the process of it.

While SOMA did do this part better, it also had its shortcomings. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the game was divided into hub maps, so there was no one path or right order to do things. These choices increased anxiety. Whereas maps in SOMA were way more streamlined, and we noticed a considerable drop in scariness due to this.

In closing

And them’s the rules! As said before, these are not the only ones, but I believe these come out on top when listing the most important ones. You could also go into them with a lot more depth, but I wanted to keep this blog concise. A lot of my previous blogs in the design tag dive deeper into related subjects.

Finally, I want to close by saying that, because of all these special requirements for horror games, I don’t think you can approach them like other games. Instead of “finding the fun” and iteratively building upon that, horror game design needs to start with some strong principles.

When designing a horror game, you want to hone into what you’ve chosen as your core principles, be it atmosphere, theme, or something else. Then, as you progress in development, you don’t want to evaluate the game on how “fun” or “nice” it is to play – but in how well it fulfills its set core principles. And a cornerstone for being able to do that evaluation is to keep the above lessons in mind.

This in itself is a huge topic of its own, and will need to be dealt with in some future post. Stay tuned for more!

We’re launching an official Discord server!

Join our server here!

Frictional Games is a distant and cryptic game developer, quietly tinkering with unspeakable horrors in the darkest depths of Europe. Yet over the past while we have been chipping away at that image, exposing a softer core. And now we’re ready for the final nail in the coffin of mystery: an official Frictional Games Discord server, where you can talk directly to us, or to other fans!

We hope that having a fluid, shared space like this will help casual and hardcore fans alike connect over topics that interest them, from lore conversations to sharing the cutest K8 plushie sewing patterns, from best uses of AddUseItemCallback to fanfiction tips. And, of course, anything and everything Frictional Games.

Aside from community-centered involvement, we hope to bring us developers closer to you with events like Ask Me Anything threads, and an occasional casual chat. Who knows what else the future will bring?

Upon launch the server includes channels for:

– Frictional’s news, sales and patch notes,
– Discussions about SOMA, Amnesia games, Penumbra games and Frictional Games in general,
– Showcasing your mods and other fan creations like art, cosplay and videos,
– Connecting with peers and discussing modding, creating fanart, or how to avoid overheating when wearing a Grunt suit,
– Social media feeds,
– Buying our games directly from Discord.

To celebrate the launch, all our games are heavily discounted at the Discord store pages.

Welcome!

Writing the best application for a Frictional Games job

So, you have decided to apply for a job here at Frictional Games? Great, we would love to hear from you!

…But before you hit that “send” button, you want to make sure that you are showing yourself and your talent in the best light possible. We have already written a blog post on how the recruitment process works, so you can mentally prepare for that.

In this blog we will help you construct a good application, consisting of a CV, a cover letter and the portfolio, and even get down the nitty-gritty of the email. While we hope you apply for our positions, you are obviously welcome to use the tips when applying for other jobs too.

Just remember the most important thing: Always customise your application for the position you’re applying to.

A job application is like a love letter. You have to show interest in the recipient, and tell them why the two of you could be a good match specifically. You can write a letter about how great you are and send the same version to different recipients, but be warned – that’s pretty transparent, and will not likely land you a (business) relationship, no matter how good you are.

In this economic situation it might be tempting to say fuck it and cast a net as wide as possible (yes, we have moved on to fishing metaphors now). But the best fish will slip through the loose holes of a haphazardly set net. Instead, try finding one good spot and throwing in a hook with a juicy bait – the juicy bait being your best application. If you are good enough, a fish will definitely bite, and a love letter recipient will definitely swoon.

Frictional is a small company with little turnover. We’re not looking to burn through talent, but to find the right applicants who will stay with us for a long time. That’s why we want the applicants to be interested in and motivated to work with us specifically.

Do you love us? We love you too! Now let’s go write that application!

1. Read the job posting

This might sound obvious, but start by reading the job posting. Then read it again.

If you’re exactly what the posting is looking for, then great. You can use your previous work as examples of why you’re a good match. Are you a generalist? Pick your strong points that you would use in this job.

Feel like you don’t quite fit the criteria? Do not despair. Especially women tend to not apply for jobs they don’t feel 100% qualified for. Think about your best qualities. Think about the hobby projects that you’ve done. Those count too.

(But be realistic about it. If your skillset is wildly different from what the job would be, you might want to wait for another opening. Otherwise you are mostly wasting your own time.)

Now compare your skills to the job’s requirements and get ready to use those points in the next steps.

2. CV

The CV is all about you, dearest. It’s your dating profile where you can show your best angles, or that really big fish you caught once.

When the perfect job comes along, you don’t want to spend hours digging out when exactly you interned at that one place. Keep a meta-CV of all your experience, skills and achievements. This can be a document, or it can be a website or LinkedIn page you can link in the CV. An accessible online CV especially good if you have gaps in your relevant experience because you were helping out at your cousin’s ice cream business or similar.

Remember the previous step where we looked at the job requirements? You can now cherrypick the most relevant points from your meta-CV and put them in your tailored CV. Quality over quantity and all that. Start from the most recent relevant one.

A good CV is 1–2 pages long. If you only picked the most relevant experience, you should be able to keep it tight. But do write in detail about the relevant experience. If you only gloss over your experience in big strokes, the employer will not be able to tell what you have actually done and achieved. Share specific tasks and examples, list your best achievements.

If you have skills outside your field, such as multiple languages or software, you can list those too. Just keep them tight. But, despite being your so-called dating profile, listing hobbies might not be very relevant. But if you’ve done game jams or similar, go ahead! They are relevant and they count.

Do:

  • Keep a meta-CV.
  • Always customise your CV based on the position.
  • Start with the latest relevant experience.
  • Write in detail about your relevant experience.

Don’t:

  • Send the same CV to every position.
  • List every job you’ve ever held.
  • Start your CV with the first job you ever had.
  • Start with education instead of work experience (unless you’re a recent graduate).

3. Cover Letter

If the CV was your dating profile, the cover letter is your love letter. And a love letter cannot just be a glorified dating profile.

Picking relevant experience for the CV already shows that you put thought into your application. But the cover letter gives you an opportunity to show that you truly care about the company, their games and the position – or at least have knowledge about them. It’s incredibly easy to spot if someone sends the same cover letter to everyone, because they only talk about themselves. You can reuse lines you’ve written for similar positions, but make sure to keep them relevant.

The cover letter is also a great opportunity to talk more about why the skills you have acquired would translate well into the position advertised – especially if your experience is moreso from hobby projects. Convince the company why you would be a good match for them.

It’s easy to get lost in profound expressions of love, but a good cover letter is half a page to 1 page long. Being concise is also a skill.

If the job posting mentions expected salary, this is a good place to mention it.

Do:

  • Talk about why you want to work with this company specifically.
  • Talk about your skills in relation to the job’s requirements.
  • Tell the company why they should hire you. Be bold.

Don’t:

  • Send the same cover letter to every company. It’s easy to spot.
  • Only change the name of the company in the letter. Generic wording is also easy to spot.
  • Only talk about yourself with no relevance to the company or the position.

4. Portfolio

For better or worse, looks are important. In this case your dating profile pictures are your portfolio. The portfolio is a way to back up the claim that you’re as good as you say you are, for both artists, programmers and other folks.

While a good portfolio looks different depending on whether you’re an artist, a designer or perhaps a communications person, there are still good general practices when it comes to putting one together. In this segment we will use artists as an example, but you can use your imagination to apply the tips to other fields.

Just like with a CV, keep a master portfolio. For artists it can be sites like Artstation or Behance, or perhaps your own site. Pick the pieces you are most proud of, but are varied enough to show off your versatility.

From the master portfolio, you should again pick the pieces most relevant to the position and create a tailored portfolio. If the company is looking for a props and environment artist, those are the things you should be concentrating on. Also look at the stuff the company has previously done. Have they only done high-poly? Their next product will probably not be low-poly.

There is no rule to how long the portfolio should be. The key is making it easy for the recruitment team to immediately see if you are a good or potential match. For an open position you can choose some pieces relevant to the position and put them in a PDF, or link them from the master portfolio. For an open job query, pick a few pieces that are most in line with what the company is doing.

It is also a good practice to mention what you actually did for your works. Here at Frictional we wear all of the hats. The artists do everything from whiteboxing to textures. We need to know if you know how to do those and didn’t just make others’ textures and assets look good.

Do:

  • Keep a master portfolio of all your work.
  • Send a portfolio or links to a few relevant pieces.
  • Mention what you worked on for the pieces.

Don’t:

  • Send the same top picks to every company and every position.
  • Send all the portfolio pieces as separate files (links are ok).

5. Email

Chances are, there are also other jobs you have or will apply for. It’s good practice to have a professional email account for official business. Something with a neutral email handle and your real name as the sender. It makes it easier to find your application later. Having a signature with your contact information and links to your master CV and portfolio is also handy.

Some email platforms will show your profile picture, so make sure you at least know what it is. You might want to think twice before using a topless beach pic or a dank meme. The recruiter will probably have a chuckle, but might not be left with the best impression.

Make sure you include some sort of cover text in the email. It can be pretty generic, informing of your interest in the position and the attachments you have provided. This is also a good place to mention your master CV and master portfolio. Even better if you get a short elevator pitch in.

Do:

  • Use your real name in the email.
  • Have a signature with contact info and links.
  • Write a short cover text, like an elevator pitch for your application.

Don’t:

  • Have a shirtless profile picture. No, seriously.

6. Personal Information

Getting a feel of a person is important, but not all information you provide will help us with that. There are some things the employer is not even allowed to ask (family relations, religion…), and being upfront about them puts the potential employer in an uncomfortable position. Emphasis on the potential part. If you get hired, we will ask you for the details we need.

What a potential employer DOES need to know:

  • Real name
  • Email address
  • Country of residence
  • Links to your master portfolio and CV
  • Phone number (we don’t need it but most companies do)

What a potential employer DOES NOT need to know:

  • ID number
  • Birthday
  • Home address
  • Marital status and/or children
  • Ethnicity or nationality, gender, religion. disabilities or similar

7. Think of the recruiter

The recruitment team might get hundreds of applications every day. Sometimes the recruitment team is just one human being, who also does other things.

Just like with life in general, the key word is empathy. So send the kind of application that you would like to receive.

Make sure the application easy to go through, and that the attachments are easily accessible and in proper file formats. Be sure the relevant links are easy to find, and that they work. If you want to make a recruiter happy, include your own name in the attachment names (so it doesn’t become CV(69).pdf on the recruiter’s computer).

Do:

  • Save your CV, cover letter and any other files in PDF format
  • Make everything easy to find

Don’t:

  • Save your text files as doc/x, rtf or txt, or especially png or jpg.
  • Send your portfolio pieces as multiple separate files.

8. Afterword

There is no sure-fire way to make the perfect application. But the more tailored your application is, the better your chances are.

And lastly: even in an application, feel free to let your personality show. If the company doesn’t like your genuine application, you wouldn’t be happy working with them anyway. If they do… they will remember you.

Good luck!

Thoughts on Detroit: Become Human

Quantic Dream learns with each game, and adresses their issues with new features. But with new features come new issues, and lots of juicy design lessons. In this blog post I will talk at length about affordance, then touch upon branching and themes.

Intro

It has been a while since my last design blog, and I felt it was finally time to write one again. And since I just played through Detroit: Become Human, that’s what I decided to write about.

First off, let me say that I quite liked the game. I had issues with how they tackled some of the themes (especially in regards to robots), and felt they could have taken some aspects of the world they created more seriously.

What made up for the so-so narrative bits were the production value (such as some very cool environments), and the myriad of exciting scenarios. It’s not an easy feat to create scenes that are not just narratively compelling, but also engaging play-wise – especially not in the sort of story that Detroit tells.

On top of this, the branching and the choice possibilities in Detroit are insane. It is a lengthy game, taking well over 10 hours to complete, and yet as the story unfolds there is a constant stream of differences that all depend on your previous choices. Everything to how crime scenes change to how characters make remarks depending on how you played some previous scene is amazingly well done. The scenes are constantly constructed from a wide array of options, but everything flows together into a coherent whole. Other branching games, such as Hidden Agenda, have a much more jarring presentation where the inserted lines and cuts in the flow are obvious. In Detroit, flow flaws are basically nonexistent.

So, it is fair to say that production-wise Detroit is quite a achievement. However, the game starts to stumble as it tries to be just that – a game.

Just like with previous titles from Quantic Dream, Detroit tries to be what is essentially a playable movie. Mixing film and games gives rise to all sorts of interesting design decisions and issues – issues that are hard to see in other games. It is clear that Quantic Dream are aware of the flaws they have had in their previous games, and there are a bunch of new feature that try to address the issues.

But with new features come new issues, and lots of juicy design lessons. In this blog post I will talk at length about affordance, then touch upon branching and themes.

Affordance

The first topic of this blog is how Detroit: Become Human handles affordance. The game takes place in one of the most challenging environments there is design-wise: inhabited real-life spaces. Spaces that contain a bunch of everyday items, such as drawers, pictures, tools, televisions, coffee cups, keyboards, clothes and so on and so forth. These are all objects we are not just accustomed to interact with – we also have expectations of their usage. As a player, you need to be able to figure out what objects you can interact with and in doing so you are constantly battling your ingrained notion of how these objects ought to work.

In Heavy Rain (2010), Quantic Dream’s earlier game, the only way to figure what you can and cannot interact with is to carefully check your surroundings and see if an interaction icon pops up. There are some objects that signal pretty clearly that you can interact with them, such as a corpse at a crime scene that you are able to examine. A design goal for a game should be to be able to use your intuition to figure out what sort of items you ought to be able to interact with – but the Heavy Rain never lets you train that intuition. Obvious objects are more an exception than a rule, and thus the player’s optimal strategy ends up being doing a brute force search of the room to try and locate all the hotspots.

So why is this bad?

There are two main issues with not being to identify points interaction. The first one is that it lessens the game’s sense of immersion. The second is that it doesn’t allow you to properly “play” the game. Detroit has some tricks up its sleeve to reduce both of these, but before we get into that it is worth to discuss just what is so problematic with these issues.

Immersion

Let us first go over the issue of immersion.

In order for a player to feel immersed in an environment, they need to internalize the surroundings. This is something I have covered in other posts, but basically it means that players need to actively take a part in the fantasy. And in order for a player to feel present inside a virtual world, they need to have what is called internal representation.

While it may not seem like it, real life also operates on internal representation. You don’t simply “see a chair”. The act of seeing a chair triggers all sorts of data about chairs: what their physical properties are, what you can do with them, what are your available actions and so forth. All of these combine into the actual sensation that there is a chair in front of you.

Here comes the issue. If you play a game where looking at a chair lacks any situational data, the player’s mental representation is empty. They fail to build any vivid fantasy for the virtual scene that the game tries to build. In turn the player is unable to place themselves, as in their actual selves, inside the game world. When games fail to take this into account it results in a world that doesn’t feel very immersive.

Play

Secondly, the gameplay issue with affordances is that the player lacks the ability to plan. I have gone over player planning and why it is so important for good gameplay in a previous post, but let’s do a quick recap: we don’t play games by just reacting to stimuli that the games send our way – instead, most of the gameplay takes place inside our heads. We survey our environments, go over long- and short-term goals, and decide what set of actions are the most optimal to reach said goals. The longer and more accurate plans a game allows the player to make, the better it will feel to play.

As a clear example, let’s compare a moment playing Dragon’s Lair (1983) to a moment in Civilization (1991). Civilization is filled with possibilities and room for planning. Dragon’s Lair on the other hand is just a linear path where you can only get good by memorizing a specific sequence. This is not the most fair example, but should illustrate the primal differences.

Games like Heavy Rain and Detroit, as well as classic adventure games, rely on putting the player in a real-life situation and making that the core of planning one’s actions. Taken at face value, it’s somewhat easy to understand what your options are when trying to find shelter for the night, because it is all based around elements that we know from real life. It’s much harder to know what to do during a laser-wielding vampire bat robot attack.

The issue is that the real world is incredibly complex, and a game cannot possibly recreate all the alternatives that a person could think of. This means that even though you might intuitively make up a certain plan, you can’t be sure whether the game will actually support it or not.

Solutions?

The main trick of Detroit, and Heavy Rain before it, is to simply make each scene feel like a movie scene. It gives the player a feeling for how the scene ought to evolve next, and how the character(s) ought to react. So the player gains their affordances not from how they view the scene, but how they imagine the characters (and to some extend the director) doing it. On top of that, the very cinematic structure pushes a narrative that makes up for the lack of immersion.

The player’s feelings here depend a lot on how they play the game. If they play as if they are the protagonist, these problems can become quite severe. It is a lot less damaging if the player views their role as a director. Then they are distancing themselves from the game and viewing the whole experience differently. Most of the discussions I bring up in this post are mainly centered around the former playstyle where you actively take on the role of a certain character.

Therefore, imagining yourself as the character in Quantic Dream games doesn’t really hold up – especially when the player is supposed to have a more lengthy interaction. In Heavy Rain it is easy to fall into optimizing behaviour and do brute force search to see what you can interact with. This sort of searching turns what is supposed to be a realistic environment into an abstract play field. Heavy Rain also has real trouble giving you a sense of your options. So, most of the game is played based on moment-to-moment reactions rather than deliberate planning. More Dragon’s Lair than Civilization.

It is clear that Quantic Dream know about these issues, as Detroit does quite a lot of things to try and fix this. The two major ones are explicit hotspots, and quest lists. The hotspots that pop up make it feel like a “batman mode”, where the time stops and the environment gets a line-mesh overlay. When in this mode, all nearby possible interactions display glowing icons. On top of this, all of the character’s short term goals are displayed as well, including those that haven’t been unlocked yet. Detroit also shows various goals, and even characters’ feelings, as big in-world text throughout the game. This gives the player a better idea of what they are supposed to do, and what are the available tools to achieve their goals.

Problems

The problem is that these new features don’t really try to fix the underlying problems of affordance. They are more like crutches, propping a flawed system. In a perfect world, these systems should be used as a sort of tutorial for the player. Once they get a better sense of how the game works, they should be able to stop relying on them, and instead rely on their intuitive understanding.

What happens instead is the opposite. The further you get into Detroit, the more prone you get to use these systems. In my playthrough of Detroit I used the “batman mode” quite sparingly for the first few hours – but as time went on I used it more, to the point where I almost stopped trying to intuitively parse the environment at all. Why? Because if I didn’t use it, I was more likely to miss hotspots and tasks, and therefore not get everything I wanted from the scene.

In the end, this style of play actually made me plan more. But all of this planning was happening in an abstract realm. I was playing a game of “choose from explicit options given to me by the game’s designer”, rather than actually making decisions based on the world that was presented to me. This often lead to weird situations where I did tasks that I didn’t know existed (eg. go look for a bag I didn’t even know was there).

Worse still, it made me act less like the characters I was supposed to be playing as. Detroit features a fair bit of detailed crime scenes that I was supposed to search, but because of the crutches I never tried to analyze the scenes as an actual detective. Instead I was simply searching for abstract hotspots. To make matters worse, the game often told me just how many hotspots there were to find, making me feel and thing even less like a detective.

The important takeaway here is just how important it is to find a way to create a game that actually makes the player engage in the game as it is. Detroit is not the only game that uses this kind of crutch, it’s quite common. And it is not always bad, either. For instance in Metal Gear Solid you have exclamation points pop up over soldiers’ heads when they spot you. However, they key difference here is that it adds information to the scene that is already in front of you. There are actual character models, sounds and so forth that play into the scene.

When you try to design crutches, you need to make sure that they supply something extra to the fantasy. They shouldn’t act as a substitute for the game’s actual world.

The magic of narrative

It might seem like I didn’t like the gameplay in Detroit – but the fact is that I found it quite engaging. I think this is really interesting. Despite all of the apparent flaws in the system, it still felt like I was part of the narrative. This was especially true for the detective work. The same was also true in the 2018 Call of Cthulhu game. There the detective scenes were even more simplistic, almost like playing a basic “hidden object” game, and yet I found them strangely compelling.

How is this possible? I think a lot of this is in line with the 4-layer approach that I’ve written about before. The foundational thinking with the 4-layer approach is that when you put any gameplay in the context of story, doing that gameplay feels like playing a story. Detroit does a lot of things right when creating this sort of merger between systems and narrative.

First of all, Detroit is very good at setting up the context. A scene always starts with some sort of cutscene (“cutscene” feeling like a weird word in an interactive film game, but working as a distinction in this context), that lays out the story reasons as to why you are doing the investigation. So when you are essentially searching for hotspots, the whole setup makes it feel as if you are doing detective work, even if you are not mentally embracing the detective role.

Secondly, when you find a hotspot, you always get information that has something to do with the narrative. The actual value of the information varies a lot: sometimes it’s useful and sometimes it’s just techno babble. But in all cases it feels like narrative feedback. When this is combined with the explicit – and very gamey – feedback that says you just found one of the three clues, it feels more like progressing a case than fulfilling abstract game requirements.

Finally, when you manage to find all the clues, the abstract (game-y) accomplishment always comes with some sort of narrative reward. For instance when searching a corpse, you get to view a reconstruction of what happened to this person. In many other cases you may unlock a new dialog option. And in every case you feel like completing the tasks makes you progress the narrative. So, even though the gameplay is abstracted, you still feel like you are inside a story.

The power of holism

On the surface all of this feels a bit like cheating. But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. Instead it’s something to be embraced.

In fact, on our journey to progress the storytelling potential of games as a medium, I am of the position that trying to do it without any form of “cheating” is a dead end. All entertainment is based on fooling your audience. Illusion is an essential part of the craft. The trick is just to cheat in such a way that it goes unnoticed.

What feeds into this illusion is the fact that humans tend to be bad at understanding why they’re feeling something. As an example: one tends to find a potential partner more attractive when drinking something hot while around the person. That is because hot drinks activate responses similar to arousal, eg. increasing the blood flow. The brain just tends to attribute these responses not to coffee, but to the potential partner, tricking you into thinking you are feeling aroused.

In a similar manner, when you feel accomplished for finding one of the three abstract hotspots, that feeling gets entwined with the detective narrative. These two parts get mixed into a single whole, and that whole becomes a compelling experience. It is worth to note that both sides can help the other. The narrative makes simple gameplay feel exciting, and the feedback on the other hand can make flawed narrative feel compelling. It is larger than the sum of its parts in the purest sense.

You can get an especially good sense of how this two-way feedback works when the system starts breaking down. I find that this can happen quite a lot in Detroit’s action sequences. There the narrative stops being the focal point, there are less narrative rewards upon success, and the input gets less clear (as it is merely about split second reactions). As long as the goals and actions are easily identifiable, eg. hiding and closing a door, the narrative-system symbiosis remains in place. But once it turns into blocking and returning punches, the player (or at least I) get distanced from the action. It becomes more of an abstract challenge than a piece of interactive storytelling.

So in a way, the increased abstraction actually works for Detroit’s benefit. By showing some numbers going up, and clear objective pointers, the game manages to add a more concrete feedback loop. As explained above, it also comes with issues, but also gives the game more opportunities for narrative-system symbiosis.

Detroit uses the symbiosis to simulate all sorts of situations, often with quite pleasing results. What stood out for me was an interrogation scene with a stressed-out android, and a scene where I had to make sure a police officer didn’t become too suspicious of my character. The success of those scenes came from mixing simple, gamey systems together with narrative in a holistic manner.

If you want to dig deeper into various ways to achieve this sort of merging of elements, Detroit is an excellent case study. Since the scenes featured are quite diverse, the ways of combining systems an narrative vary, and the results vary along with that.

Improvements?

While there are many interesting aspects about the game, it does have lot of room for improvement. I want to discuss that a bit.

Detroit relies heavily on increased abstractions (such as the aforementioned hotspots and objectives), and I don’t think that’s the right way. I find it better to try and achieve the same kind of affordance by using a story-like world. It is not the abstraction per se that allows to combine systems and narrative, but the player’s understanding of cause and effect.

Using abstractions also comes with a lot of issues. In my opinion, the biggest issue is the negative effect on immersion. If the world the player navigates is just filled with simple, systems-specific abstractions, the player can never transport themselves into the world.

At best, the actual rendered world (environments, characters etc.) just becomes narrative background. Instead as a designer, you want the world’s elements to be what the player uses in order to be an active part of the game. The aim should be for the player to gaze at a rendered scene, and have a mental model of all the interaction points and how these can be used for various plans, as I have written earlier.

Just compare a scene from Detroit…

…to a scene in Super Mario Bros.

Editor’s note: this is the 3rd time Thomas has used the exact same Super Mario picture on this blog.

In Detroit, I am not sure what things I can interact with, nor how they would affect me. From just looking at the world as-is, it is impossible to make any sort of concrete action plan. On the other hand Mario is very accessible, at least to anyone who has ever played the game. You can easily see every object, imagine how you can interact with it, and plan your progress accordingly.

The sort of readability that a Super Mario game has is what you want as a game designer. The thing to learn from Detroit is that you don’t need incredibly complex actions in scenes to create an engaging narrative. In fact, the actual gameplay can be simple and “dull” – as long as you are able to combine it with a narrative. However, there would be a huge difference if the interactions you partake in are grounded in the game’s world, instead of just being abstractions.

There are obviously other things to improve, especially the player’s ability to plan. But as a first step, I think having Super Mario level of affordance in the game’s world would be a huge improvement.

Branching

Now before I end this article, there are two more topics I want to cover. The first of these is branching.

Before making Detroit: Become Human, Quantic Dream made Beyond: Two Souls (2013). This game took a slightly different approach to the idea of a game as an interactive movie – especially when it came to branching. The game’s story had a ton of different ways to play out, but as recounted in this article by Press X to Story, it went mostly unnoticed by players.

It feels like Quantic Dream really reacted to this because damn, they are now really pushing the branching angle. There is a node tree at the end of each scene, there’s visual cues when conversation subjects unlock, there are lists of things you could do, the latter scenes obviously change, and so on.

And it really does feel like the open story and the branching matters. Especially interesting are the node maps. In the maps, all the choices you could have made are laid out, but the ones you didn’t make in your current or previous game are blanked out. At first I really didn’t like it, but the more I played the more it grew on me. It seems like it had a certain ad-hoc effect, and I can still sort of feel it. Remembering a scene often feels cooler than actually playing it. To me, the Detroit showing you potential paths I could have taken make my choices seem more compelling, when viewed in retrospect.

This might feel a bit like a cheat. But as discussed before, cheating is how entertainment works. Still, a part of me wonders if Detroit could have handled it in a more subtle way. Sometimes it felt like too much to get all the possible courses of events shoved in my face. I would have liked it if the would have treated the overall branching as it did the special dialog and changes in scenes. But at the same time, I wonder if that would have given across the feeling that the story was indeed open-ended and had tons of options – as Beyond: Two Souls failed to convey.

The best way to get away from the trap of being overly explicit is to, as explained above, up the level of affordance. In a perfect scenario, the player should know about the ways the scene could have gone simply by having mentally analyzed the scene. For instance, Civilization doesn’t need a node map at the end of a round for the player to know that there are many other ways things could have gone. This is not the most fair comparison, as I don’t think it’s possible to make a storytelling game that is as systemically driven. But it does give you a sense of what sort of feeling games could strive for.

Themes

Given that Detroit deals with a few themes similar to SOMA, it feels like I need to say something about Detroit’s themes to close this off. It would be too much to go over all aspects of the game, so I will just focus on one: robot and human similarities.

I think the game would have been a lot more thematically interesting if the robots didn’t look so human. Instead I think it would have been much better if they looked like the robots from the movie I, Robot (2004), or perhaps something out of the Boston Dynamics lab.

Right now it’s just too easy to sympathise with the robots. It would be much more fun if the player started the game thinking the robots did not deserve any rights, and the thinking would evolve throughout the game.

The robots’ thinking is also too human. Again, it would be much cooler if they felt more alien in how they handled their emotions and so forth. There is actually less neurodiversity between humans and robots in Detroit than there is among real humans overall.

For example, right now it doesn’t make much sense for a player to want for Connor to stay an obedient robot. The story pretty clearly pushes the player to want Connor to become a deviant (a robot free from human masters). If the Connor had looked a bit more spooky, or had weirder ways of thinking, it would have made the choice less obvious and forced me to think more about my alternatives.

It would also seem weird that people would want to buy servants that look so human. People can already feel bad for a Roomba, let alone something that looks like a fellow human. It would make more sense for the robots to actually look like robots.

I know that Quantic Dream wanted to show off their facial animation tech, and make sure it was easy to relate to the protagonists. But the point stands: a version of Detroit with robots that are clearly not human would be damn interesting to play.

Miguel Nogueira: Concept Artist

Hi. My name is Miguel Nogueira and I am a concept artist and designer at Frictional Games. My job is to create art for concepts that we might or might not add to the game. The point of concept art and design is planting creative seeds in others through the means of art, to spark debate on the suggestions, and to bring the concepts to life from sketch to product.

I love horror and fiction, so when the opportunity to join Frictional as a freelancer game in August of 2017, I was too flattered to say anything but yes. And in October of 2018, I joined the company as a full member.

As a video games maker, I naturally played a lot of games when I was younger – almost to an unhealthy point. As a 7-year-old kid, this box that I could play on without going outside, or without touching physical toys, was like black magic or voodoo to me. The first game I played was the very first Wolfenstein 3D, released back in 1992.

I wanted to reverse engineer the game. While trying to do so, I broke the computer and got grounded so many times that it wasn’t even funny. Fixing a computer or operating system error was not only hard in the early 90’s, it was also expensive… But I was fascinated by it. The 7-year-old me had a plan to one day master video games.

Besides that, like any true 90’s kid, I owned many cheap consoles that ran Super Mario, Bomberman, Duck Hunt and all that other fun stuff. But they weren’t that inspirational – I thought of them as merely a hobby or a fun way to pass time. It was only when I got back into computer games that the immersion really kicked in. Eventually, I got the desire to be a part of the vanguardist front of the current game making age.

While in college, I was still playing a lot of games. I was studying graphic design and multimedia arts, so video games actually inspired me to come up with shapes, colors and designs. Around that time Dark Messiah and the Metal Gear Solid series were what glued me to the screen. There was something about Dark Messiah specifically, its environments, ambience and designs, that was so magical, but at the same time so haunting. It really drew me into the tales of primordial myth – the ones that make you ask what if?

I got into horror way late. I was just looking for ways to relax with films or, so didn’t get the hype of media that would scare me or stress me out instead. But later on, I realized that there was also good horror out there, like there is in any other genre, full of mystery that unveils slowly. And then there’s, you know, the cheap stuff.

Getting into concept art

Ever since I was that 7-year-old, a part of me had subconsciously wanted to break into the creative field of concept art. I first found out about it when I was 15, and it was thanks to DeviantArt. Back then, around 2005, the site was at its prime, and the only good place to discover and share art. All the art there was mind-blowing, but there was something about concept art that I really loved.

Then in and after college I experimented a lot with fine art, graphic design, graffiti, typography, and other design fields. But it wasn’t until I saw some robot designs by Darren Bartley and Nivanh Chanthara that I stopped and thought: “This is what I want. These people look like they’re having a lot of fun doing those. I want in.”

College itself was tricky for me. When people ask me if it helped me to get a career in games, I’m still on the fence. There was a love-hate relationship going on. On one hand, college provided me with inspirations that I will keep my whole life. It taught me about the European vanguardist artists and how their approach changed the art world, about the importance of the industrial revolution in arts and crafts. I learned about how public installation artists draw attention to their work, and so on. There were classes on graffiti and expression, typography, fine art… and those lessons are priceless. They were a nudge in the right direction. Without someone to teach me about them, I would not have found out about these topics for years.

On the other hand, to get any jobs, I had to lock myself in a room and put hours upon hours into practicing art. It’s something you just have to do to get to the next level of art, and it’s something college just doesn’t quite nurture.

So I cannot give a definitive answer on college. I was either fascinated by the subjects presented at classes or hated myself for being there instead of sitting at home and practicing drawing.

After college, I took a year off to work on and perfect my craft: drawing, painting, designing… After that I took on whatever freelance job I could find, then found work at indie studios, and gradually ended up at more known studios. This was a turning point in my career, because I realized I was playing in the big league now. One day you’re someone’s groupie and the next day you’re working with them.

Every time I connect with a studio or professional I’ve respected for a long time, my energy meter is filled for a long time. I feel the burst of stamina and will to work out of nowhere, like an energy blast. It’s my muse, really. It is the reason I’m fortunate to say that every day may turn out better than yesterday.

And then one day Frictional contacted me because of an email I had sent a long time ago, saying they wanted me for a work test. I passed, and so the journey in Secret Project #1 began. I didn’t know it yet, but it was about to be a wild ride!

My life at Frictional

I started at Frictional as a full-time concept artist. All the briefings were cool, interesting and creatively demanding. Working full-time meant I could work on what I liked all day. There was never a day where I thought gee, I wish I could work on something else instead. Soon I was working on props for pretty much all the levels on the project, then moved to characters, then environments – and now I do pretty much anything that comes my way.

When it comes to my work, I try to bring my sense of graphic design into the aesthetics and my experiences into storytelling. I also like to think in analogies, metaphors and jokes, which I like to sneak into the designs. I feel like every concept has capacity to be something more than just itself or what it looks like at first glance. So I try to add some substance, work on aspects of what the concepts stand for, and make sure they’re not too literal or easy.

Besides that, I love studying and getting all into different subjects, as there is more chance of finding valuable things the deeper you dive. I draw diagrams, study anomalies of human DNA that can be used in monster designs, consume culture and subculture, capture accidents to use in a different context, experiment and drift, love my experiments as I would an ugly child, delay criticism and judgement.

I do a lot of work where I’m focused on details and injecting story elements into the props, environments and other bits of the world. While working, I have recalled some of my memories related to Dark Messiah. In the game there was a statue in a haunted necropolis that you could choose to interact with. It read something like: “Here likes cursed so and so. For his crimes against the king, let his torment be eternal.” It is a really trivial detail and I am probably among the 1% of players that noticed it, but it just added a lot of believability to the world.

A lot of these romantic ideas and memories I have about games are blurry at best and inaccurate at worst. But they are something I gravitate towards when making my art. I study what other games have done well, find out why these things work, then adapt the formula to my own work.

I could go on about my favorite comics, films and games. But to be honest, every time I pick up a new book, game or film, there is a possibility that it will leave me with a long-lasting memory. And for me, that is very exciting.

Like most people at Frictional, I work from home – and in my case it happens to be the sunny Porto in Portugal. Here I have my work sanctuary, aka my office, where all the art making process happens.

My desk and setup are something I’m proud of. It’s just tech, but because I built it myself, there’s another level of affection I have for the tools. It must be a nerdy thing. Besides the obvious hardware my setup sometimes has a book or a magazine on graphic design, a ball or a fidget spinner to play with while I’m analyzing references or trying to focus mid-brainstorming. Simply reading a couple of paragraphs between drawings or throwing the ball at a wall for a few minutes is enough to get all the parts of my brain working again.

Which leads me to my last point: I want to close this with advice to aspiring video game artists. Sometimes us industry people are too serious and forget to have fun. We forget we’re making games. A lot of times artists tend to copy what is popular in the industry, which is fine, but there is also a whole world out there to get influence from. Following in line with the entertainment industry will only get you so far. I find that the art that I actually stop to look at for more than three seconds is the kind of art where the artist is communicating something unique to them, something only they can say – not a copy of a copy of a copy.

The bandwidth of the world is much broader than what you can get through your internet connection or TV set. Get some inspiration from unlikely places: graffiti, typography, furniture design and fashion, nature, travel… Everything has the power to amplify what knowledge you already have and show you entirely new avenues of exploration.

That’s it! Thanks for reading!

If you’re interested in following my work, you can find me here:

insta: https://www.instagram.com/miguelnogueira.art/
twitter: https://twitter.com/ignitionchemist
site: www.miguel-nogueira.com
artstation: https://www.artstation.com/migno

Still alive

Some links in this article have expired and have been removed.

Wha- huh? What’s this? Someone was supposed to update the website? We’ve been too hard at work on our two new games, and kind of forgot there was this thing to upkeep.

Look, we know the site looks like it hasn’t been updated in about 10 years… and that’s because it probably hasn’t. But now we have a person who has time for that, so hopefully it will look nicer soon! Shouldn’t take another decade. But you never know.

In the meantime we are active on several social media platforms that you can follow us on:
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram
Tumblr for fan works
And our Dev blog, obviously!

As always, tech support can be found on our Forum, and we’re slowly adding new stuff, like a Careers page (pretty empty for now). Keep checking back, and maybe you’ll be met with a shiny new site some day!

Gregor Panič: Gameplay Programmer

Who am I?

Hi there! I’m Gregor and I’m a designer and programmer at Frictional, which means I’m responsible for all the fun events in our levels. Okay, maybe they’re fun just for us.

It’s me! And the sign on our door, printed on an A4 and a little crumpled…

I’m a more recent recruit, having joined around September 2016. My job description, gameplay programmer / designer, is purposefully vague. While I mainly work on level scripting, I also spend time on AI, gameplay systems and level design. I also worked on our collaboration with the Tobii Eye Tracker, which I will talk about later. The great part about this is that my work never gets stale and almost none of my days feel the same.

I’m originally from a little known country called Slovenia, but I’ve recently moved to the land of the vikings to become one myself. Or, in other words: I moved to Malmö around two months ago and now work from our fairly new office.

My setup at work – right next to the fanart wall! No deskmate yet, though. :'(

I absolutely adore our office and go there pretty much every day to socialize with and get inspired by my co-workers. I’m also the one who nags everyone with occasional movie and gaming nights, where we usually grab some snacks, relax and watch a horror movie (obviously), or games like FIFA and Jackbox Party Pack!

Background

I can’t really remember the time when I first started playing games. I do know that around the late 90s my dad brought home an Intel 80186 PC one day, thinking he would use it for work. He was wrong. After he showed me a couple of MS-DOS games and I realized I could make things move by pressing buttons, I became glued to that PC. My parents didn’t manage to pry me from it, so I’ve been playing games ever since. Not on the same machine, obviously.

I played a lot of games, but didn’t touch the horror genre for the longest time. I still remember having vivid nightmares and being unable to sleep whenever I saw something remotely scary on television. When I was older, however, a friend of mine bought me Amnesia as a “gift”. It was a dare, of course, but because I didn’t want to disappoint my friend, I played through it. It was just as scary as everyone was telling me, perhaps even more so.

But while I was playing it I also realized that it was about more than just scaring the living hell out of me. It managed to fully immerse me in its world and story, which I had not experienced to this degree before. This is how I got introduced to the horror genre, and to Frictional, which would later impact my life more than I could have possibly imagined.

Making games has been my dream ever since I can remember. Given how much fun I had playing them, I thought it would be great if I could make my own – which is why I always liked messing around with settings, seeing what I could do with cheat codes, and figuring out damage formulas so I could get an advantage. It wasn’t until I got sucked into a game called Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, however, that I actually made my first array into creating my own content. I made lightsaber hilts, maps, and even modified some scripts to make the game play like I wanted to.

Unfortunately, growing up in Slovenia there was no real game dev scene there, so I forgot about my dream. It simply never occured to me that I could make games for a living. However, since I was already using my computer so much, I thought it would be fun to work in IT. So I learned some basic C++ programming in high school, then went to a computer science university where I learned a lot more about programming and software in general.

For a long time I resigned myself to becoming a web developer, taking some summer jobs and part-time work in that field. The job became more and more mundane and boring, until I finally realized that I couldn’t do it long term, and that I had to find something more fulfilling. That is when I remembered my dream of making games, how much fun they brought me and how great it would be to be able to help someone else have the same experience. I already had a lot of programming experience, so I became determined to join the games industry.

I immediately quit my part-time job and started working on my first small game. I wanted to do everything on my own so that I would learn all the intricacies of game development. A year or so of studying and work amounted to Welkin Road, a little puzzle platformer with grappling hooks.

In Welkin Road you use your two grappling hooks to solve movement-based puzzles.

While I was in the process of finishing Welkin Road, I started looking at potential studios I could join. That’s when I saw a tweet from Frictional, mentioning that they were looking for a designer / programmer. I didn’t think I was ready, but I figured this was my only chance to work with the company, so I sent my resume in anyway.

To my big surprise they offered me a work test, to see whether I was suitable for the role. I gave it my best, but after I sent in my project I tried to prepare myself for the inevitable let-down. Instead I got a positive reply and an invitation to an interview. The final decision came a couple of weeks later.

Spoiler alert: I got the job.

Given that I was a big fan of Amnesia and SOMA, the decision to accept was a no-brainer. However, it took me quite a while to properly register that I had fulfilled my lifelong dream. A year and a half later I realize how lucky I am to be one of the few people who can wake up on Mondays with a smile on their face.

After joining, I immediately started working on my introductory tasks aimed at learning the new tools. I joined at the same time as Max, so we bonded over struggling to understand all the new stuff. When those tasks were done, I started working on my first real project: designing and implementing eye tracking features in SOMA, which I will talk about in more detail in the next section.

A while after I was brought on, the company started looking to set up a studio in Malmö. I already knew that if I wanted to make games, I would most likely have to move, so the decision to move to Malmö didn’t take me long to make. Finding a place to stay took a while, but I eventually managed to find a nice apartment and settle in, in no small part thanks to my incredibly kind and welcoming co-workers.

The setup in my new home in Malmö!

FIRING LASERS (more commonly known as Eye Tracking)

As promised, I will now spend some time talking about my adventures in eye tracking. After receiving a unit from Tobii, I first tested it with a bunch of games that already had eye tracking support. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was a particularly useful use case study, since it had a robust implementation and used the eye tracker in interesting ways. I was initially very surprised at how well the eye tracker worked in that game, and how seamless and intuitive it was to use without putting any strain on my eyes. This gave me the confidence that we could use this to enhance SOMA.

Once I got a feel for what the technology was capable of, I read through Tobii’s SDK documentation and code samples to figure out how it all worked. In simple terms, the Tobii eye tracker provides a continuous data stream of screen coordinates that represent the location on the screen the user is looking at. Think of it as firing 60+ laser beams per second from your eyes to your monitor. Bring it on, Cyclops!

After I was done feeling like a superhero, I looked into how we could use this in our own engine, HPL3. Since Tobii’s SDK was easy to use, integrating it into HPL3 wasn’t too difficult, especially with the help of our engine programmer Peter.

With the technical aspects more or less dealt with, I started thinking about the design of our eye tracking features, and how we could best make use of this technology to enhance the game. This included brainstorming sessions, quick prototyping and a lot of feedback from the rest of the team.

It quickly became clear that while controlling and moving stuff around on the screen with your eyes is fun, it becomes tiring and uncomfortable really fast. For a good experience, the player must never be actively thinking about using their eyes. Instead, the game should react to the player’s natural eye movements and try to enhance the experience. A negative side effect of this design principle is that unfortunately quite a lot of features become very subtle and hard for the player to notice consciously, despite having an overall positive effect.

The white circle is where the player is looking.

Another interesting aspect of designing these features was how eye tracking could be used in a very immersive first person horror game. Horror games often rely on where the player is looking to trigger certain events, which always means a certain level of uncertainty about whether the player actually registered what was happening on the screen or not. With eye tracking, this uncertainty became very minimal, which meant that the timing of a lot of the events in SOMA naturally improved.

In the end, we ended up with a number of eye tracking features we were happy with. The most noticeable ones are extended view, which makes the viewport pan towards where the player is looking, and the ability to control the flashlight with your eyes. A number of enemies also react to the player’s gaze, such as the flesher monster becoming aggressive when looked at and teleporting when the player blinks, or the deep sea diver stopping when the player maintains eye contact.

Other features are much more subtle and designed to enhance immersion and mood. For example, staring at creepy and gory scenes zooms the screen slightly, giving the impression that Simon is in a trance or shock-like state and can’t look away. When the player looks at enemies, the screen distortion effect intensifies to further discourage players from looking at them.

Additionally there are some really secret ones, such as Ross’ distorted computer messages appearing exactly when the player blinks, to further reinforce how Ross is inside Simon’s head. My personal favorite, however, is a subtle reaction from K8, the incredibly friendly and helpful swimbot, which gives the player a small opportunity to communicate with it.

The developer showcase of eye tracking features.

In summary, working on eye tracking has been an incredibly fun and rewarding experience both because of the challenge, knowledge gained and the creative freedom. Besides, who doesn’t enjoy firing lasers with their eyes? The end result hopefully enhances the SOMA experience, even if just a tiny little bit. So if you have the PC version on Windows and a Tobii eye tracker, consider giving an even more immersive version of SOMA a go!

The official trailer for eye tracking in SOMA.

Eye tracking is just a small part of my work at Frictional though, as I’m currently working on one of our next projects. I’m already really proud of what we’re creating and I’m happier than ever with my choice to follow my dream of making games. We’re all really excited to be able to share more of what we’re doing, but until then we’ll just keep doing our best. This also reminds me it is time for another gaming night, to keep our spirits up!

Quality Frictional Humour™ from a recent Jackbox Party night.

Alex Camilleri: Gameplay Programmer

Who am I?

Hi, my name is Alex and I am one of those people on this planet who make games for a living. I joined Frictional Games almost a year ago as a gameplay programmer & designer, and I am currently working on [REDACTED].

Despite my warm Sicilian blood, I ended up living in this beautiful yet terribly cold place called Sweden, where I obviously work from.

Background

I got exposed to videogames as a kid, watching my dad playing Lucas adventures (that Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis intro sequence will forever be impressed in my memory) and – like most people these days – I just spent a lot of my free time playing games.

I remember that when I was really really young I would draw labyrinths on paper and let my best friend play them as I was adding moving traps and enemies on the go. It was a complete nonsense but I think it’s the earliest somewhat-interactive thing I’ve ever made. It was pretty fun.

During my teenage years it was really clear to me that I wanted to work with games, so I started doing game journalism and with two friends of mine I would spend nights playing games but also making terrible prototypes, studying some programming in our spare time. My first playable game was obviously an extremely generic shoot-em-up with horrible graphics and some keygen music slapped on top.

Figure 1: On the left: me eating while being bored to death with my new programming book. On the right: me probably being overly excited about making something shoot a bullet into something else. I’m also wearing swimming trunks for some reason.

I eventually decided to move to the Netherlands to study and get my bachelor’s degree in Game Design and Production. Living there was a great fun and allowed me to be part of an active gamedev community. I went to gamedev events, met many developers, expanded my network and opened my one-man-company called Kalopsia (hi Josh Homme!). I also joined a lot of game jams, one of which landed me an internship at Guerrilla Cambridge doing some level design on RIGS: Mechanized Combat League for PSVR (at the time the Morpheus prototype was just a bunch of lenses and cables put together with tape).

I ultimately started my own small but very personal project called Memoir En Code: Reissue, which I eventually released on Steam/Humble/GOG (totally not a plug). I worked solo on that project for quite some time, and after the release I felt the need to change gears and work in a team again. A friend of mine told me there was an opening at Frictional Games, and how could I not apply to the company that made SOMA?

Fun fact: after I submitted the work test I travelled to San Francisco for GDC17, and Thomas and Fredrik were there as well. We did not meet in person though, and I ended up spending most of the conference thinking about the test; it was actually a bit stressful and distracting! I found a partner for a new solo project that I was planning to make in case stuff didn’t work out, but I got a positive response from Frictional and I obviously agreed to join the team.

I’m not crazy after all.

What I do

During the first weeks at Frictional I spent my time learning the tools and the overall work pipeline. This resulted in me creating a short psychedelic game where you put out fires by peeing on them, while Slayer music plays in the background. It’s probably the best thing I have made to this date.

At the beginning there was a lot of stuff to learn and take in. But to be honest that was the entire point why I pushed myself into a new environment; you can’t really become a better developer if you don’t expose yourself to new stuff.

After I was done with the intro tasks I quickly jumped into production, working with Aaron (we are officially called the A-Team). He works from the UK, but we have a very clear line of communication; we are fairly independent, but we are always in sync, which is working out very well for us.

I spend most of my days scripting events, moving a door 0.25 units to the left to improve visibility and making that sound play with 0.5s delay because it just feels a bit better. The rest of the day is spent drinking tea with my desk-buddy Max and mostly hoping that nothing breaks. I have also spent some time making small changes to the debug tools we use, just to make the pipeline a bit smoother or a bit more comfortable. I juggle between working from the office and from home, depending on the amount of isolation my brain needs. Being able to do that is a big privilege that has a very positive creative impact on me.

Figure 2: my workstation at home. I have the same desk at the office and the same type of chaos ruling over it.

Stuff that I like

Since designing games is a complete dream-job, I try to keep myself busy by doing other creative things on the side. I spend quite some time doing photography, which I enjoy quite a lot. When I travel I always bring my a7ii with me, practicing and slowly improving over time. Aside from that, I also very much enjoy making music. Some months ago I got a Teenage Engineering OP-1 which I am having tons of fun with, and I am now playing a bit of ukulele.

I guess I won’t be happy if I don’t mention my biggest love. I have a deep (and almost unhealthy) love for anything Kojima makes. Over the years my love for his games went a bit overboard (I am the person behind the Metal Gear Timeline which you should totally check out if you are new to the saga) and now I ended up with a corner of my apartment being completely dedicated to his work. I keep adding stuff to the cabinet and now I probably need a new one after I got some new loot from my recent trip to Hong Kong. I fill my existential void with Metal Gear stuff, I need a doctor.

Oh, and you can find me on Twitter as @AlexKalopsia!

Figure 3: My babies.