“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.“
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!
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.
Of course the Big Business Journal acknowledging us would make top news, are you kidding me?
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+.
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:
In a first-person shooter you shoot things from a first-person perspective:
In a Match 3 game you match three thingies:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
Today, the 16th of July 2018, Simon Jarrett would have turned 30. He never quite made it, the proposed treatment for his brain damage proving ineffective.
And yet he did. A Simon Jarrett made it to the ARK, facing eternity among the stars. Another(s), infinity below the sea, at least as long as the batteries last. But he didn’t just live, he left a legacy. His scan, for a generation of programmers to use. The ARK, preserving humanity until the Sun burns out.
Simon lives on in every fanart, every mixtape and cosplay. He gets a different story in a fanfic, be it finding a cure, finding love, sometimes dying, yet still living on through those moments. You have taken him well beyond 4.0, and for that we are thankful.
As a small celebration we have collected 30 of some our favourite fan works of Simon, one for each year since his birth. In all honesty 30 is an arbitary number, a cutoff point to keep this post from being far too long. We love each and every one of your fan creations, as well as mods, meta commentary and even just coming together as a community.
From us, and from Simon: thank you!
PS. If you want to see more fan creations from SOMA, Amnesia games and Penumbra, we have an official Tumblr blog where we have collected your works from Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram and Deviantart. The blog updates daily! (We might not have found your work, so please tag us on social media, or send us a message!)
Cosplay and art by Zerachielamora
Zerachieamora is one of the top creators in our community, having done cosplays of all our protagonists, as well as having time to run ask blogs and make art. Their stuff always has top-notch detail and creativity. We certainly hope our next protagonist will be cool enough to inspire them to make another cosplay!
Lumipaiio’s forté is drawing incredibly dynamic Simons and Catherines. Just look at him go! It is so hard to pick a favourite!
Lumipaiio have also drawn an incredible concept called Leggy Catherine, among other things.
Plushie by DonutTyphoon
Animation by Rabbitintheheadlights
Rabbitintheheadlights is asking the right questions. Note how we don’t have mirrors in the early game?
Art by Bardicles
Bardicles draws the cutest little Simons, and keeps us entertained with their shortcomics!
Art by Shaidis
One of our favourite levels deserves some love, and Shaidis delivers! This piece is beautiful, and it is no wonder it shows up whenever you search for SOMA fanart.
Art by Rennerei
Is it a screenshot? Nope, just Rennerei working their magic!
This pick might be biased as our community manager has followed Rennerei since the early TBFP/Motorcity/TF2 days. It is truly inspiring to work on something, and then receive fanart from someone you admire.
These are some good, chunky boys – thank you Wachtelspinat! Knowing Simon, he would probably own that hoodie.
Cosplay by that-handmaid
The creatures at Pathos-II might be terrifying, but that carpet is even more so! But this Simon is braving it like a champ.
Art by Blenderweasel
Simon is an obviously unreliable narrator. He could have been a Roomba the whole time for all we know!
Cosplay by Essi.cosplay
Ess and her brother did an amazing job on the diving suit, down to the glowing eyes, WAU-infested trousers and even an Omnitool! And Simon eating pizza with a kawaii Reaper is the crossover we didn’t know we wanted, but have now been enlightened.
Doll by Sadunacc
Sadunacc has created a lot of lovely fanarts, including some more beautiful Leggy Catherines. But this doll is so unique we had to share it – just look at it! A pocket-sized Simon!
Art by Piranyeaah
It is always cool to see artists’ work progress – and for this work you can also see the progression shots! Piranyeaah did a lovely job capturing Simon’s confusion.
Art by Snuffysbox
They are friends! They are on an adventure! And nothing bad will happen!
If you’re Simon and I’m Simon… then are there also other Simons, possibly disguised as Roombas? Let’s not think about that, and instead think about how nice it is to see all of them together.
Animation by Articlerotten
This is the smallest walk cycle of all time. And it’s adorable.
Art by Talondoodle
Is this a Simon, or is this a squirrel? He sits silly, but we still love him.
Art by starchild_hiroto
If this won’t make them get along, then nothing will.
Cosplay by Steampoweredwerehog
Inspiring people to push their limits and make something awesome is great! Steampoweredwerehog – if you’re reading this, we’d love to see the final cosplay!
Art by S.paceheart
Original post has been removed.
These were the good times! Glad to have them captured in a picture, forever in a state of “:D”.
Animation by Cprartsalot
You can find all the SOMA pieces by Cprartsalot in their SOMA tag! But if we had to pick our favourite, it would be this one.
Minecraft skin by IcarianPrince
Just look at that Minecraft boy go! Just don’t stay underwater for too long, we can’t guarantee this skin will make you into an actual diver.
Art by TigerSpuds
And to end things off, we present this piece of art. We can let Simon have a happy ending. At least for this one day.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
I’m Max, and I do gameplay programming and design. I joined Frictional about a year and a half ago, and I’ve been working on one of our super secret projects since.
For the first nine months or so I, like everyone else, worked from home. Last summer we got an office set up in the heart of Malmö. Since then the amount of days I spend working from home has reduced greatly, though I still do it from time to time.
These are my two workspaces, the first one in the office and the other one at home (which is rather bare bones right now, moved in just a couple of days ago!). They’re quite similar; both the computers and the chairs are the same kind. I wanted to be even more consistent and get the same type of desk as the office one at home, a decision that was ultimately overruled by my better half (apparently it doesn’t go with the rest of the decor).
Games have always been a big part of my life. Most of my time growing up was spent either playing games or talking about games. But, for quite a while, my family didn’t have a PC. Which meant I was stuck playing all sorts of old, weird games on rapidly aging Apple computers. One of my earliest gaming memories consist of repeatedly failing at air-hockey, losing to a hideous pig-man in Shufflepuck Cafe on my dad’s old Macintosh.
Eventually I scraped together enough money to put together my first PC, in front of which I would stay rooted for the following years. In addition to playing, I spent a lot of time creating custom content for games with my friends. It was always quite basic though, as I hadn’t learned any programming yet.
For a year or so I studied film and media studies at the university, with a diffuse goal of wanting to work in games down the line. One night my girlfriend gave me a push, and I applied for a three-year game development program at Blekinge Institute of Technology (BTH).
My years at BTH were a mixed bag. On one hand, we had a lot of freedom and got to work on tons of small projects, which was very fun and super rewarding. On the other hand, some courses felt like they were only marginally related to game development. Working on side-projects during your spare time was crucial. I got through it all by finding a good group of like-minded students that I stuck to for the entirety of the education. Our final project was a side-scrolling adventure game called Far Away – you can watch the trailer for it on Youtube.
Perfectly in sync with graduating, I stumbled across a job opening at Frictional and sent in an application. Over the following weeks I answered some additional questions, did a work test and finally had an interview. A couple of days before I would hear from Frictional, I got a job offer from another company in software development. I clumsily explained to them I was waiting on another offer and asked for a few more days. Finally, I got an email from Fredrik and Thomas offering me the job. It was a no-brainer, and I happily accepted.
What I do
My first few weeks at the company consisted of completing a list of introductory tasks, to learn more about the tools and the engine. This was a lot of fun, and culminated in the creation of a silly mini-game where I got to put everything I had learned to the test.
After I had completed the introductory tasks I got to work on Safe Mode for SOMA, which was something I was really excited about — contributing to a game I truly thought was great. From the get-go, we felt it was important to maintain the monsters’ threatening presence in order for their new behaviours to gel with the overall tone of the game. We couldn’t just disable their ability to harm you; doing this would end up breaking immersion (imagine repeatedly throwing a toolbox in Akers’ face and him just standing there, taking it). Instead, we tried to focus on how to best tweak each monster’s behaviour in a manner that suited that particular encounter. For instance, some might eerily walk up to you and size you up, and can even bluff charge you if you’ve strayed too close. To further enforce the behaviours fitting with the world, we decided that if you were to actively mess with monsters (like invading their personal space for too long, hurling trash at them and so on), they should still be able to hurt you, just not kill you. Overall it was a very worthwhile experience, and I’m quite happy with how it all turned out.
Now I’m working on one of our secret projects. As the gameplay programmer/designer workflow has already been described in previous posts I won’t go into detail, but my days in general are spent designing and scripting events and scenes, as well as programming gameplay systems.
Additionally, I thought I’d talk a bit about the differences in working from home compared to working in the office. We’re also gonna do a proper office tour later on, so stay tuned!
This is our office! Currently, we’re around seven people occupying this space, probably with more to come. It’s quite seldom all of us are here at once though, but there are usually a few people around. And on the off chance that you’re here by yourself one day, fear not; there’s always the noisy, seemingly stiletto heel-wearing, tap-dancing travel agency crew upstairs to keep you company (seriously).
So, it really isn’t all that crowded here. But, seeing as most of us don’t work from the office, we often have meetings over Slack. It can easily get annoying for your desk-mates if you keep babbling on and on in various meetings throughout the day, which is why we’ve set up a separate meeting room. It also moonlights as a test room, complete with a TV, some dev kits and a monster webcam.
The fact that the company is split into people working from home and people working in the office could potentially lead to complications, such as communication issues. In order to prevent this we’ve made sure that all important decisions and discussions still happen over Slack, to keep everyone in the loop. So far this policy has worked well, and the transition has been quite smooth.
In the end, a typical day of work in the office is very similar to one at home. There is of course the added social aspect of working in the same physical space as you colleagues, which is great, but if you one morning feel like you’d rather stay at home and work, you can. Having this option every day really is quite luxurious.
Other than this, and the requirement to wear pants, the routines of working in the office and and working from home differ very little.
Some links in this article have expired and have been removed.
On the last day of the cold January Will from Extra Credits sat down to stream SOMA, and for the first few hours of the game he was joined by his friend and Frictional employee Ian Thomas. Ian worked on scripting, coding, and level design for SOMA, and is now the Story Lead on one of Frictional’s two upcoming projects. During the stream he answered some questions from the viewers, ranging from what type of pizza he thinks Simon had in his fridge, to ways of minimising dissonance between the player and the character in a narrative game.
In this blog we’ve compiled the best questions and answers into an easily readable form. So go get a beverage of your choice and dive into the everyday life at Frictional, narrative game design and tips on networking in the industry! Or, if you’re not the reading type, you can also watch the whole video on Twitch.
Have some other questions? Hit us up on Twitter and we will try to answer the best we can!
(Picture commentary from your favourite community manager/editor of this blog, Kira.)
Q: Does the Frictional team scare each other at the office?
We didn’t have an office until recently, and even now most people are still remote, so not really!
The thing about being behind the scenes in horror is that it’s very difficult to scare yourself, and each other, because you know what’s going on. We do play each others’ levels every other week, and it’s always brilliant to get a decent scare out of a coworker.
Otherwise we don’t hide in the office cupboards or anything like that… regularly.
Q: Is it true that developers don’t actually play their games?
No – we play our games thousands of times, and most developers do!
It does depend on where you sit in the development chain. If you work for a very big company and only do something like facial models, you might rarely play the game until it’s close to completion. But in a team the size of Frictional everyone plays the game all the time. That’s how we get our primary feedback and develop our levels before the game goes anywhere near alpha testers.
Q: How about after they’re released?
Probably not that often. For me personally there are two reasons, which both have to do with time. Firstly, I’m probably already working on a new thing. Secondly, during the short downtime after a release I’m trying to catch up on games I had to put aside during development. But it depends: for example, when I worked on LEGO games I would later play them with friends, because they’re so much fun to sit down and co-op play.
For a couple of years after the release you might be fed up with your game and not want to see it, but then you might come back to it fresh. With SOMA I sometimes tune into livestreams, especially if I’m feeling down. That’s one of the kicks you get out of this stuff – knowing which parts of the game people are going to react to, and getting to watch those reactions! That’s the best payoff.
Q: Did the existential dread of SOMA ever get to the team?
It’s a little different for the dev team, as the horror is a slow burn of months and months, whereas for the players it comes in a short burst. The philosophical questions affected people in different ways, but I don’t think we broke anyone. As far as I know we’re all fine, but given that a lot of us work remotely, it could well be that one of us is deep in Northern Sweden inscribing magical circles in his front room and we just don’t know…
Q: Why did SOMA get a Safe Mode?
SOMA was originally released with monsters that could kill you, and that put off some people that were attracted to the themes, the sci-fi and the philosophy, because they saw the game as too scary or too difficult. Thomas and Jens had discussed a possible safe mode early on, but weren’t sure it would work. However, after the game came out, someone in the community released the Wuss Mod that removed the monsters, and that and the general interest in the themes of the game made us rethink. So now we’ve released the official Safe Mode, where the monsters still attack you, but only if you provoke them – and even then they won’t kill you.
The concept of death in games is a strange one. All it really means is that you go back to a checkpoint, or reload, and all the tension that’s built up goes away. The fact is that game death is pretty dull. It becomes much more interesting when it’s a part of a mechanic or of the story. We at Frictional have talked about it internally for a while, but it’s something we’ve never really gotten a satisfactory answer to.
So, all in all, even if you turn on Safe Mode, it’s not that much different from playing the game normally.
Q: What type of pizza does Simon have in his fridge?
Meat lovers’, definitely.
Q: What was the funniest or hardest bug to fix in SOMA?
There were so many! You can find some of the stuff in the supersecret.rar file that comes with the installation.
I spent a lot of time fixing David Munshi. His animation really didn’t behave and he kept leaping around the place. He was so problematic, especially in this sequence where he was supposed to sit down in a chair and type away at the keyboard. We had so much trouble with that – what if the player had moved the chair? We couldn’t lock it in place, because we want the player to be able to mess with these things. We went around trying to come up with an answer for ages.
And then someone on the team went: “Standing desk!”. Problem solved! It’s silly little things like this which tie up your time.
Another similar element was the Omnitool. It was a fairly major design thing that we came up with to connect the game characters, and to gate scenarios. We were struggling trying to tie these things together, and then it was just one of those days when someone came up with one single idea that solved so many problems. It was a massive design triumph – even if we realised later that the name was a bit Mass Effect!
Q: Why does using items and elements in Frictional’s games mimic real movements?
This is one of Thomas’s core design principles: making actions like opening doors and turning cranks feel like physical actions. It binds you more closely into the game and the character, on an unconscious level. We’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about ways to collapse the player and the character into one and make the player feel like a part of the world. It’s a subtle way of feedback that you don’t really think about, but it makes you feel like you’re “there”.
There’s an interesting difference between horror games and horror films in this sense. You would think that horror movies are scarier because you’re dragged into the action that moves on rails and there’s nothing you can do about it. But for me that kind of horror is actually less scary than the kind in games, where you have to be the person to push the stick forward.
We try to implement this feedback loop in other elements of the game too, like the sound design. When a character is scared it makes their heartbeat go up, which makes the player scared, which makes their heartbeat go up in turn, and so on.
Q: Why didn’t SOMA reuse enemies?
It obviously would have been much cheaper to reuse the monsters. But in SOMA it was a clear design point, since each of the enemies in SOMA was trying to advance the plot, get across a particular point in the story, or raise a philosophical question. Thus, the enemies were appropriate to a particular space or a piece of plot and it didn’t make sense to reuse them.
Q: Did SOMA start with a finished story, or did it change during development?
The story changed massively over the years. I came on to the game a couple of years into development, and at that time there were lots of fixed points and a general path, but still a lot changed around that. As the game developed, things got cut, they got reorganized, locations changed purpose, and some things just didn’t work out.
Building a narrative game is an ever-changing process. With something like a platformer you can build one level, test the mechanics, then build a hundred more similar levels iterating on and expanding those core mechanics. Whereas in a game like this you might build one level in isolation, but that means you don’t know what the character is feeling based on what they’ve previously experienced.
You don’t really know if the story is going to work until you put several chapters together. That’s why it’s also very difficult to test until most of it is in place. Then it might suddenly not work, so you have to change, drop and add things. There’s quite a lot of reworking in narrative games, just to make sure you get the feel right and that the story makes sense. You’ve probably heard the term “kill your darlings” – and that’s exactly what we had to do.
A lot of the things were taken out before they were anywhere near complete – they were works in progress that were never polished. Thus these elements are not really “cut content”, just rough concepts.
Q: The term “cut content” comes from film, and building a game is closer to architecture or sculpting. Would there be a better name for it?
A pile of leftover bricks in the corner!
Q: How do you construct narrative horror?
Thomas is constantly writing about how the player isn’t playing the actual game, but a mental model they have constructed in their head. A lot of our work goes into trying to create that model in their head and not to break it.
A central idea in our storytelling is that there’s more going on than the player is seeing. As a writer you need to leave gaps and leave out pieces, and let the player make their own mind up about what connects it all together.
From a horror point of view there’s danger in over-specifying. Firstly having too many details makes the story too difficult to maintain. And secondly it makes the game lose a lot of its mystery. The more you show things like your monsters, the less scary they become. A classic example of this is the difference between Alien and Aliens. In Alien you just see flashes of the creatures and it freaks you out. In Aliens you see more of them, and it becomes less about fear and more about shooting.
It’s best to sketch things out and leave it up to the player’s imagination to fill in the blanks – because the player’s imagination is the best graphics card we have!
There are a lot of references that the superfans have been able to put together. But there are one or two questions that even we as a team don’t necessarily know the answers to.
Q: How do you keep track of all the story elements?
During the production of SOMA there was an awful lot of timeline stuff going on. Here we have to thank our Mikael Hedberg, Mike, who was the main writer. He was the one to make sure that all of the pieces of content were held together and consistent across the game. A lot of the things got rewritten because major historical timelines changed too, but Mike kept it together.
During the development we had this weird narrative element we call the double apocalypse. At one point in writing most of the Earth was dead already because of a nuclear war, and then an asteroid hit and destroyed what was left. We went back and forth on that and it became clear that a double apocalypse would be way over the top and coincidental. So we edited the script to what it is now, but this has resulted in the internal term ‘that sounds like a double apocalypse’, which is when our scripts have become just a bit too unbelievable or coincidental.
Q: How do you convey backstories, lore, and world-building?
Obviously there are clichés like audio logs and walls of text, but there is a trend to do something different with them, or explaining the universe in a different way. But the fundamental problem is relaying a bunch of information to the player, and the further the world is from your everyday 21st century setting, the more you have to explain and the harder it is. So it’s understandable that a lot of games do it in the obvious way. The best way I’ve seen exposition done is by working it into the environment and art, making it part of the world so that the player can discover it rather than shoving it into the player’s face.
Q: How do you hook someone who disagrees with the character?
It’s hard to get the character to say and feel the same things as what the player is feeling. If you do it wrong it breaks the connection between the player and the character, and makes it far less intense. Ideally, if the player is thinking something, you want the character to be able to echo it. We spend a lot of time taking lines out so the character doesn’t say something out of place or contrary to what the player feels.
With philosophical questions there are fixed messages you can make and things you can say about the world, but that will put off a part of the audience. The big thing when setting moral questions or decisions is that you should ask the question instead of giving the answer. If you offer the players a grey area to explore, they might even change their minds about the issue at hand.
Q: How do you write for people who are not scared of a particular monster or setting?
In my experience the trick is to pack as many different types of fear in the game as you can, and picking the phobias that will affect the most people. If there’s only one type of horror, it’s not going to catch a wide enough audience. Also, if you only put in, say, snakes, anyone who isn’t afraid of snakes is going to find it dull.
Q: What’s the main thing you want to get across in games?
The key thing is that the players have something they will remember when they walk away from the game, or when they talk about it with other people. It’s different for different games, and as a developer you decide on the effect and how you want to deliver it. In games like Left 4 Dead delivery might be more about the mechanical design. In other games it’s a particular story moment or question.
In SOMA the goal was not to just scare the players as they’re looking at the screen, it was about the horror that they would think about after they put the mouse or controller down and were laid in bed thinking about what they’d seen. It was about hitting deeper themes. Sure, we wrapped it in horror, but the real horror was, in a way, outside the game.
Q: What does SOMA stand for?
It has many interpretations, but I think the one Thomas and Mike were going for was the Greek word for body. The game is all about the physicality of the body and its interaction with what could be called the spirit, mind, or soul – the embodiment of you.
The funniest coincidence was when we went to GDC to show the game off to journalists before the official announcement. We hadn’t realised there is a district in San Francisco called Soma, so we were sitting in a bar called Soma, in the Soma district, about to announce Soma!
As to why it’s spelled in all caps – it happened to look better when David designed the logo!
Q: Does this broken glass look like a monster face on purpose?
I’m pretty sure it’s not on purpose – it’s just because humans are programmed to see faces all over the place, like socket plugs. It’s called pareidolia. But it’s something you can exploit – you can trick people into thinking they’ve seen a monster!
Q: What is the best way to network with the industry people?
Go to industry events, and the bar hangouts afterwards!
It’s critical, though, not to treat it as “networking”. Let’s just call it talking to people, in a room full of people who like the same stuff as you. It’s not about throwing your business cards at each other, it’s about talking to them and finding common interests. Then maybe a year or two down the line, if you got on, they might remember you and your special skills or interests and contact you. Me being on Will’s stream started with us just chatting. And conversations I had in bars five years ago have turned into projects this year.
You have to be good at what you do, but like in most industries, it’s really about the people you know. I’m a bit of an introvert myself, so I know it’s scary. But once you realise that everybody in the room is probably as scared as you, and that you’re all geeks who like the same stuff, it gets easier.
Another good way to make connections is attending game jams. If you haven’t taken part in one, go find the nearest one! Go out, help your team, and if you’re any good at what you do, people will be working with you soon.
Q: Can you give us some fun facts?
– You can blame the “Massive Recoil” DVD in Simon’s room on our artist, David. A lot of the things in Simon’s apartment are actually real things David has.
– We try to be authentic with our games, but out Finnish sound guy Tapio Liukkonen takes it really far. We have sequences of him diving into a frozen lake with a computer keyboard to get authentic underwater keyboard noises. It’s ridiculous.
– Explaining SOMA to the voice actors was challenging – especially to this 65-year-old British thespian, clearly a theatre guy. Watching Mike explain the story to him made me think that the whole situation was silly and the guy wasn’t getting the story at all. And then he went into the studio and completely nailed the role.
– There’s a lot of game development in Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden and Norway, because it’s dark and cold all the time so people just stay indoors and make games. Just kidding… or am I?
Tomorrow we will be releasing SOMA for Xbox One and along with this comes Safe Mode. This is a new way of playing the game that will also be available via Steam and GOG at the same time.
Since we announced Safe Mode there have been a lot of questions about it, so we thought this would be a good time to answer some of those and to clear up a few things. Here goes:
What is Safe Mode?
It is a version of the game where you cannot die – you are safe from harm. The game’s various creatures are still there, they just won’t attack you. If you’ve heard of the SOMA Steam mod “Wuss Mode”, by steam user The Dreamer, then you should know the basic idea. The important thing to point out is that we don’t simply turn off the creature’s ability to attack and harm you. Instead, we’ve redesigned their behavior. Our goal has been for Safe Mode to not feel like a cheat, but for it to be a genuine way of experiencing the game. So we’ve considered what each creature should be doing, given their appearance, sound, and voice.
You can pick between Safe Mode and normal mode when starting up a new game.
Is the game still scary?
This obviously depends on what scares you, but the short answer is: yes, the game is still a horror game. However, since you can explore without a constant fear of failure, you will no longer have that type of tension. For people who aren’t great at handling that aspect of horror gameplay, their journey through SOMA will be a lot easier in Safe Mode. But if it is the overall atmosphere that gets to you in a horror game – and, above all, the central themes – then game will still have plenty to be scared of.
What is the major difference in gameplay?
All of the puzzles, events, and so forth are still there. The big difference is that you’ll no longer have to sneak past enemies. You don’t need stealth in order to complete the game. Monsters might sound and act more threatening if they spot you, so there is still an incentive to being careful, but it’s no longer mandatory to keep hidden. This will also allow you to explore some of environments more carefully.
Why release it now?
We actually considered releasing something similar at launch, but chose not to because we felt it would make the core intent of the game too unfocused. As people started to say that they really wanted to play the game and experience the philosophical sci-fi narrative, but couldn’t because of the monsters, we started considering doing something about it. People liking the “Wuss Mode” mod was a good sign that we could solve this. However going back to a game you have already completed is not tempting so we put it off.
What eventually tipped the scales was the Xbox release where we wanted an extra feature to make the launch more interesting. Adding some sort of no-monster mode felt like the best option, and so Safe Mode was born! It also felt like it had been long enough since the original release, and the intended version of the game had been played and evaluated enough. Adding a new play mode wouldn’t be a problem.
Will it come to PS4?
Yes! We hope to have it ready about 2 months from now. Sorry for not releasing it now, but a couple of issues have kept us from doing a simultaneous launch of Safe Mode.
I hope that clears things up! Let us know in the comments if you have any other questions!
It’s over two years since we released SOMA, so it’s time for another update on how things have been going.
First of all, let’s talk about sales. As I’ve said many times before, sales are not straightforward to count, and the number you come up with is reliant on many different factors. For instance, SOMA was part of the Humble Monthly Bundle, which meant that everybody subscribing to that service was able to download a copy of SOMA. These are not really “sales”, so should we count them? It’s also worth noting that pricing differs a lot between different sales. A single unit sold at full price means more than one sold when the game is 75% off. I think it’s important to think about these things, and remember you can’t directly compare the sales of two games.
With all that said, what I’m going to do here is to basically take every single download of the game as a sale. Doing so gives us a total of 650 000 units, a 200 000 units increase since the the same time last year. This is a very good result.
It’s interesting to compare how sales have changed across the two years for SOMA. The normal day-to-day income, when there are no discounts or anything, is 33% of what it was the same time last year. However, when the game is at a discount (such as a Steam summer sale), the generated income is about 75% of what similar events generated last year. This means that discount events are extra important this year.
Taken as a whole, the sales that we make from all our games will cover all our expenses every month, and even make us a profit. This is quite amazing. Given that we currently have about 16 people working with us full time, we have a pretty high burn rate, and to still be able to support all that on your ongoing sales is great.
This means that we still have a good buffer from our launch sales. While it will by no means last forever, it gives us peace of mind and lets us take the time we need. While we’ll continue to generate income next year too, I’m not so sure it’ll be enough to cover all our costs. This is when that initial buffer comes in handy, and will let us continue working on our projects without any monetary worries. To put things in perspective, it is worth noting that most companies start using up their buffer just a few months after release, so we are in no ways in a dire situation right now – quite the opposite!
However, this also makes it very clear that we need to be able to release games at a more regular rate. We were lucky that SOMA was a hit, and that the money is easily able to sustain us for the time we need to complete our next project. Had SOMA been a flop, the situation would have been a lot worse now. That’s why we are focusing on becoming a two project studio, and the goal is to be able to release a game every two years. Had we managed to set that up prior to SOMA, we would be in the process of releasing a game right now. Needless to say, it would makes us a lot more financially stable, and able to handle a less successful release. In turn this should allow us to take greater risks, which I think is a key element in being able to create great games.
This leads me to another thing that’s been on my mind. A few months back someone asked me: “How do you get people to buy your game?”. This is a fairly basic question, but it really made me think. When it comes to sales made during launch, the answer feels quite self-evident. We generate a lot of buzz, there are reviews, let’s plays and so on. There are a number of fairly obvious ways that people learn about our game.
But what about the customers that buy our game two years after release – why do they do it? That’s a much harder question. I think most of this is via word-of-mouth recommendation. When the right circumstances arise (e.g.: “I feel like playing a game tonight”) and when external influence (e.g.: “your friends said they liked our game”) is strong enough, that’s when a sale happens. I know that Steam and other stores have some forms of discovery tools, but I don’t think they play a major factor. What really matters is not a single source, but the slow build-up of good will around a game – eventually this will make a player consider buying it. Discovery tools, such as “you might also like”-adverts, surely help, but they are just part of a much larger process .
Because of this, and considering the sheer number of games that are currently being released, I think the best strategy is to focus on unique experiences. You want to create the type of experience that is not only hard to get elsewhere, but also leaves a mark on those who play it. This is now a core philosophy here at Frictional. I guess we sort of always had it unconsciously, but we have now made it official. Our goal is to create games that are more than forgettable escapism. We want people to come out of their experiences feeling changed. A lofty goal? You bet. While it’ll be impossible to make sure every single player has this type of experience, it feels like the perfect thing to strive for.
Now I will round of this post with a brief discussion on the status of our current projects.
The first project is in full production, and about 80% of the team is currently working on it. The focus for most of this year has been on creating the first few maps of the game to create a solid vertical slice based on our experiments last year. However, we recently came up with some new avenues that we wanted to explore. The stuff that has come out of this recent detour is feeling really great and I am certain it’ll make the game feel very special. All of this came out of what I just discussed: our focus on making games that leaves a mark on the player. I’m not sure we would have gone down this route if we hadn’t explicitly stated that goal, which makes me confident it’s a really good way of thinking. I’m afraid I can’t go into any details on this, other than to say that the project will be horrific in nature. There will be no release this year, but we hope to announce something during the first six months of next year.
As for the other project, that’s also going well. We’ve been a bit delayed due to new tech taking longer than anticipated to develop . The upside of that has been that the game has had more time in pre-production than any of our previous games. This has been incredibly valuable, as the things we aim to tackle in this game are quite difficult, and allowing it all to brew for a bit has meant many of the basic aspects are clearer for us. This game will be less about direct, visceral horror, and more about the player gaining an understanding of different concepts. This can, as we know from working on SOMA, be quite tricky to get right and requires a slightly different approach than when working on a more direct horror game. Release for this game is quite far off though, so don’t expect to hear any concrete details in the near future.
That’s it for this update. I’m incredibly excited about the things that we have planned, and I’m very eager to give you all more updates. I also want to thank everybody for the support over the years, and rest assured that while we might not reply to every single mail, tweet, etc. that you send us, we make sure to read every single one!
1) For games that are heavily based around online communities, such as a Rocket League, I think things work slightly differently. There is still a word-of-mouth zeitgeist going on, but a lot of it comes from your game become a habit for your players, something that they participate in on a daily basis. This forms a feedback loop that helps drives new buyers, which I think is quite different from how our games work.
2) We are currently working on the fourth iteration of our HPL engine for this game, and due to some of the things we need to be able to do for the game, we’ve been required to make some major adjustments. These things take time, but luckily we have most of it done now.
There is something about unclear options which make choices a lot more interesting. This post goes into the reasons behind this, and various ways of achieving it in games.
Warning: this post will include some spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line.
The typical example for a choice in a game is something like this:
The situation is clearly set up and you are explicitly told what your options are. While they are most common in interactive movies, these sort of choices existing in just about every genre. They are easy to setup and can easily give a sense of moral drama. However, they miss out on a really important aspect of making real-life choices: that you are almost never aware what your options are or what they lead to.
Here is another example of a choice:
The player could avoid the incoming bullet by going down, or they could do it by going up. This is a choice very much in the same vein as the one from above. However there is no explicit prompt that asks the player what direction they want to go in. Instead the choice is implicitly stated through the use of the game’s mechanics. And in contrast to the explicit choice, it is unclear just what the options are. The choice might lack the ethical implications from the previous one, but the choice itself is way more interesting. It also feels like an ingrained part of the play experience instead of something that is an obviously designed situation.
Super Mario derives this choice purely from the functioning of its basic mechanics. Simulation is another game genre that does this, but manages to add a bit more philosophical depth to the choices. For instance, in a simulation game focused on survival you might not have enough food for all your party members and have to make a decision on who lives and dies. When these things work well it can have a tremendous impact – but more often that’s not the case. Letting your simulated party members starve to death very rarely give rise to the same strong feelings as a scene in a game like The Walking Dead. Let’s unpack why this is so.
In order for a choice to be made, the player need to understand that they are making one. The cornerstone of this is the player’s access to affordances. The player must have a robust mental model where they understand how the various aspects of the world work, and what abilities they can use to affect it. A choice then arises when it becomes clear to the player that there are two or more separate ways in which they can progress. Basically, the player understands that are at least two distinct plans for them to make, and they need to chose one of them. When this is crystal clear, the player has a choice on their hands.
Most games feature these sort of choices all the time. “What ammo should I use?”, “What path should I take?”, “Should I sneak or just attack?”. As I explained in an earlier post, the selection of plans is a fundamental part of gameplay. What makes a choice carry depth is that there’s something major at stake. So not only does the player need to understand that a choice is happening, but also that a major decision is happening. And in order to elicit the correct emotional response there needs to be a particular setup and framing.
A game like The Walking Dead has an easy time of it setting up all of these requirements. First of all, the game is explicitly stating that a choice is happening. It is impossible to miss. Secondly, since there is so much focus on the choice, it is quite clear that it is of major importance. Finally, The Walking Dead is heavily plotted and the designers have a great deal of control over what happens before the choice. It is relatively easy for that game to make sure the player is in the right frame of mind.
Things are much harder for a simulation game. Here the player takes part in choices all of the time and it’s harder to work out which ones are crucial and which ones are minor. The player might miss entirely what their choice is about. For instance, take the choice where the player needs to choose whom from their group to let die. It might be that the player doesn’t understand that they are running out of food, or thinks that they have some ways to survive. So at the crucial moment when the player decides who lives and who dies, they might be thinking about other things entirely. On top of that, even if the player grasps what the choice is about, it might be lacking proper build-up. The player might not be in the right mood, or have a suitable level of affection for the characters and so on.
It may of course be possible to improve the simulation to take things like this into account. However, this is very likely to run up against the complexity fallacy which I wrote about last week. Chances are that these additions to complexity will not be noticeable and instead just make the game harder to design and code.
Instead, there’s a middle ground here. Instead of explicitly stating the choices, it is possible to set up a situation that is driven by established gameplay mechanics. Since the setup is not something that happens dynamically, it’s possible to properly signpost the scenario. That way you can make sure that the player is in the right mood. But when the actual situation arrives there is no menu popping up that flags a choice moment. Instead the instruction to choose can come from the story mechanics (e.g. a character can speak), or, better, arise from how the situation is designed. The actual options are then chosen, not through an abstract menu, but through interacting using standard gameplay mechanics.
The best example of this sort of design is a scene from Spec Ops: The Line. Late in the game the player finds themselves surrounded by civilians. These people are not too happy that you are here and start throwing rocks at you. It is a very dangerous situation and it is clear that you need to get out of there. At this point, the player basically only has a single verb at their disposal: “shoot”. So what can you do? You really don’t want to shoot civilians, but you also don’t want to die. The player really has two options here. One is to shoot at the civilians, killing a few of them and making the others run away. The other option is to simply shoot in the air and scare them off, killing nobody.
The thing is that, since the game doesn’t tell you what your options are, shooting in the air is not obvious to a player. And that is what makes this choice so interesting and makes it feel like a real choice. Had a prompt popped asking you to choose between “fire at civilians” and “fire in the air”, the situation would have been radically different and would have lost a lot of its impact. But since you select the option with a gameplay mechanic, it not only feels like a proper part of the playable narrative, it also means that you are uncertain of what your options are.
Having choices like this makes the game feel analog. Under the hood the choice is just as discrete as the ones you would make in The Walking Dead, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like there are a spectrum of choices to be made, a continuous space of options, and not simply “this way or the other”. This concept of choices feeling analog is really important and I’ll talk about it more later on.
Spec Ops: The Line features half a dozen or choices of this kind. For instance, there is one where you are to chose which of two prisoners lives or dies by shooting one of them. But what the game doesn’t tell you is that there is a third options, which is to target the men that are holding the prisoners captive. Another scenario has you deciding whether or not to kill a war criminal. And again, it’s unclear just what your options are. The game simply puts you in a situation where it is possible to kill him. That there is a choice to be made is something you have to make up your own mind about.
Another interesting aspect of Spec Ops: The Line is how it handles the consequences of its choices. The solution is that it simply doesn’t. It just sets up the situations in such a way that either choice makes sense for what happens later in the story. While I don’t think it is possible to always shy away from showing consequences, it can be very helpful in maintaining the analog feeling. Because the moment you show a consequence, it makes it clearer that there is a discrete aspect to your choice. But if you keep consequences hidden, the possibility space is larger and the player is free to fantasize more just about what took place.
It’s worthwhile digging a bit deeper into this. What is it that makes the choices in Spec Ops: The Line different from a game where the options are explicitly stated? The key difference is that in the former, the player is in a position of uncertainty. There’s no clear-cut information to go by and the player is forced to fill out informational gaps using their imagination. When the options are explicit there is no need for this. The brain always wants to optimize, so any concrete piece of information will remove any mental guesstimation. This leads to Spec Ops: The Line having a much more vivid mental model of the scene. Remember, we play the game based on what is in our heads – not what is in the actual systems – so that means the game itself becomes a more interesting experience.
This is what the “feeling of analog” is all about. By having situations where not everything is clearly cut and where the player is free to imagine a wide range of freedoms. The goal is for it to seem like there are a continuous space of possibilities. This makes the situation feel real and organic. It lessens the feeling of there being a designer guiding your every step, despite the experience being just as guided as in the more explicit case.
It’s worth noting that there can be drawbacks to this approach. Just like in the pure simulation case, the player might misunderstand what the choice and its implications are all about. An explicit approach with a prompt laying out all the options will always be better at this. But it will also never feel analog. So there may very well be situations where an explicit choice is the right way to go. As always in design, one shouldn’t get hung up on the manner of implementation, but to focus on what the end results are.
In SOMA we tried to make all of the choices feel analog, and used a similar approach the one in Spec Ops: The Line. We presented a situation and then used common game verbs to let the player make their choice. The idea was to make the choices feel embedded in the game experience, and judging from feedback we have gotten, it feels like it worked out very well.
The only choice in SOMA that didn’t work properly was when you decided the fate of Wau. Here we failed create a proper emotional setup, and didn’t spend enough time on implementing consequences. A lot of this was due to this choice coming quite late in design, and it feels like it shows. It is a good reminder that you can’t just casually throw in these sort of choice-moments. One needs to make sure that the player is in the right mental state when they occur, and that you follow up on them in an appropriate matter. Just because something is supposed to feel analog doesn’t mean it doesn’t require a strict, and guided, implementation for it all to work out.
It is not only moral choices that can take advantage of becoming more analog. There are a wide range of other types of gameplay where it is worth considering if it can be made more analog. A good example of this is in interactive fiction (ie, good old text adventures). Normally these are controlled by simply typing commands into a parser. The type of commands are things like “pick up lamp”, “look under the carpet”, “remove dust from the table”, and so forth.
So, normally, there is no explicit prompt saying what sort of commands are possible. You have to infer the space of possibilities by reading the descriptions you get as you explore the current environment you are in. You are building up a mental model of the place at hand, and the character you are playing as, and using that to build a sense of what is possible to you. When this all works out, it feels great. It really feels like there is a living, breathing world for you to interact with. It feels analog.
This system comes with issues though and the most common one is the “guess the verb” problem. The player might know exactly what to do, but can’t figure out the right commands that allow them to do it. This is really frustrating and it breaks down the sense of immersion. A way to fix this is to make it clear exactly what the various verbs at your disposal are. This solves the problem, but it adds a new one: the game loses its sense of being analog.
I think it’s worthwhile to give this a test yourself. First try a normal interactive fiction game. I would recommend something like Lost Pig as it allows a lot of commands and, especially in the beginning, shows just how engaging it is to play something that lets you type whatever you want at a blank prompt. After you have done so, try out Walker and Silhouette and only use the highlighted words to play. The two experiences are very different. Sure, the latter makes it a lot easier to progress and removes some frustration. But on the other hand, it removes a lot of what makes the medium interesting in the first place.
I think this is a really good example of just how important the feeling of analog is. Implementation-wise, these two interactive fiction games are really similar, to the point of basically being the same. But the way that they chose to do their user interface radically changes the experience. By forcing the player to build an internal mental model of the game’s world, the experience becomes so much richer.
There are lots of other instances where the feeling of analog can be useful. Another good example are puzzles. I recently played through 999 which has “escape the room”-like puzzles. While these can be quite fun to play, the way they are set up it is incredibly obvious that the game wants you to reproduce a specific number of steps. You are basically trying to read the designer’s mind to find a very specific chain of actions that lead to a success state. This doesn’t feel very analog.
A big reason this is so is because the game will only respond to very specific commands. Most of these commands are not part of a generic verb-set either. For instance, you only ever use a screwdriver in a specific place and so forth. So you never really build a mental model of how the world functions, because such a model would basically be worthless. It is much better to think of each object as a specific case of “what does the designer want me to do with this?”. As such the world becomes stale and never gets a rich mental model. This is a very common problem with puzzles.
However, there are puzzle games that manages to work around this. One of the best examples is Portal. In this game is rarely feels like you are following a set path. Instead it feels like you are discovering a solution. It feels analog. And this is despite the solution being no less designer-directed than your average escape-the-room game. A core reason why Portal is different is that it always uses a foundational set of mechanics for solving the puzzles. You have your portal gun, the ability to pick up certain objects and to move around. That is it. Nothing else is used in order to progress. On top of that, there is a coherent design to all of this encouraging you to build a mental model around it.
There might only be one specific sequence of events to solve a puzzle. But when playing Portal you are not as aware of this. Much of the time it’s not even clear after you have completed a section. Because the puzzles are based on foundational verbs, it is much less clear whether there were other possible solutions available. There is often the sense that you could have completed it in another way.
This consistency in actions also means that you can mentally simulate a number of possibilities. You know up front the type of interactions that are possible and can use that to work out the sort of things that you can do in order to progress. And that without needing to interact with the world at all. What this means is that you are able to make plans. You can think about what steps to take in advance and be fairly confident all of these are possible to execute. As discussed earlier, making plans is a core part of what makes gameplay engaging. This is another reason why making choices feel analog is good – it also makes it feel more like proper gameplay.
The consistency in actions is not the only thing that makes Portal feel analog. The level design itself also plays a big role. By just giving the right number of hints, the player never feels pushed along a certain path, nor are they completely bewildered about what they are supposed to be doing. By not pushing the player too much, the game makes sure that the player comes up with ideas on their own. This gives a much greater sense of picking one solution out of many, instead of going along an intended route. And by making sure the solutions never feel too obscure, players refrain from trying to brute force a puzzle. Brute forcing can be quite damaging to the feeling of an analog world as this forces the player breaks down the world to its basic components, revealing the non-analog nature of it all.
Getting the level of handholding right is not an easy task and how to achieve it varies a lot from game to game. The basic idea is the same, though: you want to make the player understand what to do without revealing what your preferred route is. There needs to be enough uncertainty for the player to start building a vivid mental world around a situation. But there can’t be too much uncertainty as that means there is nothing to build a world on.
Another example of crafting analog worlds is the closet-hiding in Amnesia. We chose to simulate this using a physics-based interaction system. We also tried to make the behavior an implicit part of the gameplay, and never directly state how it is supposed to work. Despite this, a great number of players still entered closets to hide and opened the door slightly to see if the coast was clear. We could have just had an explicit prompt and some specific controls when you are hiding behind doors, but it doesn’t feel like that would have been the same kind of experience. This way, the world has a much great sense of being an analog one.
There are bound to be tons of game mechanics that could make good use of becoming a bit more analog. One obvious example is dialog response, where I think there would have been a lot more to gain if the options could be chosen by using core mechanics instead from an explicit menu.
How could you go about making a scene more analog? I think there are two main aspects that you need to implement:
The choice selection must be made by using a set of core mechanics. The number of ways in which these mechanics can be used must also be so large that the player can’t easily grasp the options available. For instance, if the player can only punch red objects, and you enter a room with a single red object, the situation doesn’t feel very analog.
The hints on how to complete the scene can’t be too direct. There needs to be a certain level of vagueness so the player feels that they have come up with the solution themselves. It’s also important to teach the player (through play if possible) how the core mechanics functions. The idea is that when they encounter a choice moment (be that a puzzle, moral choice, etc.) they have an intuitive understanding of they ways they can approach it.
It’s also important to not just focus on the interactions at hand, but to think of it as a multi-scene setup. In order for the player to be in the right state, and to have the right mental model, there’s a lot of setup required. It is really important to think holistically about these things.
I think there’s a lot to be gained by thinking in terms of making a world more analog. I also think that it’s something that hasn’t really been explored enough. It is quite common to just take something that works through explicit means and stick with it. Crafting scenes in an analog way is a lot more work, but I also think it can be really rewarding. It’s also a very good concept to have in mind when trying to merge more standard narrative approach with proper gameplay. Analog worlds are a core part of evolving Interactive Storytelling.
In this post I dig into planning, and how it is a fundamental part of what makes a game engaging. Planning affects many aspects of what is so special about games and why we enjoy playing them. This post will go over the reasons behind this, and explains why planning is so important for narrative games.
I think we can all agree that there is a difference in how certain games feel to play. There are just certain games that feel “gamier” than others. Just compare playing Super Mario to something like Dear Esther, and I think it’s clear that the former feels like it has more gameplay than the latter. What is it that causes this? My hypothesis: the ability to plan.
The more a player can plan ahead in a game, the more engaging that game will feel to play.
Before I cover some evidence of why this is most likely true, I will need to get into some background information. In order to understand why planning has such a prominent role in games, we need to look into the evolution of our species and answer this question: why are fish so stupid?
This is how the world looks to the average fish:
They can really only see 1-2 meters in front of them and often it’s even worse than that. This means that a fish can’t do much planning. It just reacts to whatever pops up in front of its face; that’s really what their lives are all about. If a fish’s life was a game, it would be a limited version of Guitar Hero played to random noise. This is why fishing works. Fish don’t think like us, they’re mainly just driven by hardwired responses.
For a large part of earth’s history this was what life was like for organisms. But then 400 million or so years ago something happened. Fish started to move on to land. Suddenly, the view looked more like this:
This changed their world. Suddenly it was possible to plan ahead and to properly think about your environment. Previously, smart brains had been a waste of energy, but now it was a great asset. In fact, so important was this shift that it is probably a big factor in how consciousness evolved. Malcolm MacIver, who as far as I can tell originated this theory, writes about it like this:
“But then, about 350 million years ago in the Devonian Period, animals like Tiktaalik started making their first tentative forays onto land. From a perceptual point of view, it was a whole new world. You can see things, roughly speaking, 10,000 times better. So, just by the simple act of poking their eyes out of the water, our ancestors went from the mala vista of a fog to a buena vista of a clear day, where they could survey things out for quite a considerable distance.
This puts the first such members of the “buena vista sensing club” into a very interesting position, from an evolutionary perspective. Think of the first animal that gains whatever mutation it might take to disconnect sensory input from motor output (before this point, their rapid linkage was necessary because of the need for reactivity to avoid becoming lunch). At this point, they can potentially survey multiple possible futures and pick the one most likely to lead to success. For example, rather than go straight for the gazelle and risk disclosing your position too soon, you may choose to stalk slowly along a line of bushes (wary that your future dinner is also seeing 10,000 times better than its watery ancestors) until you are much closer.”
To showcase the above, he has the following image:
This images nicely shows the conceptual difference in the processes involved. In one you basically just use a linear process and “react as you go”. In the other one you scout the terrain ahead, consider various approaches and then pick one that seems, given the available data, to be the best one.
It is not exactly the same, but there is a striking likeness to the following image comparing old school and more modern FPS design:
I know that this is not a completely fair comparison, but the important point here is that when we look at these two images, it feels pretty clear which of these two designs ought to have the best gameplay. The image on the left represents a more complex and interesting landscape, while the one on the right represent a linear sequence of events. And just like the worlds of a fish compared to that of the world of land animals, this means a huge difference in our ability to plan.
There are other interesting connections with the ability to see far and to plan. Malcolm MacIver replies to a question regarding the intelligence of octopi:
“It’s incredible what being an unprotected blob of delicious protein will get you after eons of severe predation stress. They, by the way, have the largest eyes known (basketball size in the biggest deep sea species). Apparently, they use these to detect the very distant silhouettes of whales, their biggest threats, against the light of the surface.
The theory is committed to the idea that the advantage of planning will be proportional to the margin of where you sense relative to where you move in your reaction time. It then identifies one period in our evolutionary past when there was a massive change in this relationship, and suggests this might have been key to the development of this capacity. It’s interesting that octopuses and archerfish tend to be still before executing their actions. This maximally leverages their relatively small sensoria. There may be other ways, in other words, for animals trapped in the fog of water to get a big enough sensorium relative to where they are moving to help with planning.”
Sight is of course not the only reason for us humans to have evolved our current level of intelligence and consciousness. Other important factors are our upright pose and our versatile hands. Standing up meant that we could see further and allowed us to use our hands more easily. Our hands are the main means with which we shape the world around us. They allowed us to craft tools, and in various ways to change parts of the environment to optimize our survival. All of these things are deeply connected to the ability to plan. Once we learned how to reshape the world around us, our options opened up and the complexity of our plans increased immensely.
It doesn’t stop there. Planning is also a crucial part of our social life. Theory of mind, our ability to simulate other people, is both a reason for and a product of our planning abilities. Navigating our social groups has always been a careful activity of thinking about various paths of action and their consequences.
Planning also underlies two other phenomena that have been discussed recently on this blog: Mental Models and Presence. The reason why we have mental models is so that we can evaluate actions before we make them, which obviously is crucial to planning. Presence is a phenomenon that comes from us incorporating ourselves into our plans. We don’t just want to model what happens to the world, but also to ourselves.
So, to sum things up: there are lots of evolutionary reasons why planning would be a fundamental part of what makes us human. It’s a big part of who we are, and when we are able to make use of these abilities we are bound to find that engaging.
So this background is all very well, but is there really any good evidence that this is actually a thing in games? Yes – in fact, quite a bit of it! Let’s review the ones that I find the most important.
There is a model of player engagement called PENS (Player Experience of Need Satisfaction) which is quite rigorously researched. It uses the following criteria to evaluate what a player thinks about a game.
Competence. This is how well a game satisfies our need to feel competent – the sense of having mastered the game.
Autonomy. How much freedom does the player have and what options do they have to express it?
Relatedness. How well is the player’s desire to connect with other people satisfied?
Measuring how well a game performs on the above metrics has been shown to be a much better indicator of various types of success (sales, how likely people are to recommend the game, and so forth) than simply asking if the game is “fun”.
And, more importantly, two of the above factors are directly related to planning. Both Competence and Autonomy heavily rely on the player’s ability to plan. Let’s go over why this is so.
In order for a player to feel competent at a game they need to have a deep understanding of how the game works. Sure, there are games where mere reflexes are enough, but these are always very simplistic. Even in most rhythm games there are certain rules that the player needs to learn and understand in order to play well. A big part is also learning the melodies that make up each level. Why? In order to optimally place your inputs (be that fingers or feet) to hit as many beats as possible. All of these aspects boil down to one thing: being able to predict the future.
You see the same thing in most games. You get better at Darks Souls when you understand how monsters attack, how levels are laid out and how your own attacks work. Learning how a world operates and gaining the ability to predict is a cornerstone of competence. Sure, you also need to develop the motor skills to carry out the required actions, but this is almost always less important than understanding the whys and whens of the actions. Simply being able to predict is not enough, you also need to have a sense of what goal you are trying to achieve and then, using your predictive abilities, to carry out the steps required to reach it. Or in other words: you need to be able to plan.
Autonomy is also highly dependent on the ability to plan. Imagine a game where you have plenty of freedom, but have no idea how the game works. Everybody who has booted up a complex strategy game without understanding the basics knows that this is not very engaging. In order for the freedom to mean something, you need to have an idea what to do with it. You need to understand how the game’s mechanics behave, what tools are at your disposal, and what goals you want to achieve. Without this, freedom is confusing and pointless.
So in order to provide a sense of autonomy a game needs to not only provide a large possibility space, but also teach the player how the world works and what the player’s role in it is. The player needs to be able to mentally simulate various actions that can take place, and then come up with sequences that can be used to attain a specific goal. When you have this, you have freedom that is worth having. It should be pretty obvious that I am again describing the ability to plan. A world in which the player is not able to plan is also one with little autonomy.
Similarly, if the game only features a linear sequence of events, there’s not much planning to be done. In order for the player to be able to craft plans there need to be options. This is not the case if only a certain chain of actions is possible. This scenario is a typical example of having no freedom, and unsatisfactory in terms of autonomy. Again, planning and autonomy are intricately linked.
One could make the case that Relatedness also has a connection with planning. As explained earlier, any social interactions heavily rely on our ability to plan. However, I don’t think this is strong enough and the other two aspects are more than enough. Instead let’s look at evidence from a different angle.
One trend that has been going on for a long time in games is the addition of extra “meta” features. A very common one right now is crafting, and almost all big games have it in some way or another. It’s also common to have RPG-like levelling elements, not just for characters, but for assets and guns as well. Collecting a currency that can then be used to buy a variety of items also turns up a lot. Take a look at just about any recent release and you are bound to find at least one of these.
So why do games have them? The answer to that is quite easy: it makes the game more engaging. The harder question is why that should be the case. It can’t solely be because it gives the player more to do. If that was the case you would see games adding a random variety of mini games to spice things up. But instead we are seeing certain very specific types of features being used over and over again.
My theory for this is that it’s all to do with planning. The main reason that these features are there is because it gives the player a larger possibility space of plans, and more tools to incorporate into their planning. For instance, the act of collecting currency combined with a shop means that the player will have the goal of buying a particular item. Collecting a certain amount of currency with a view to exchange it for goods is a plan. If the desired item and the method in which the coins are collected are both connected to the core gameplay loop, then this meta feature will make the core loop feel like it has more planning that it actually has.
These extra features can also spice up the normal gameplay. Just consider how you need to think about what weapons to use in combat during The Last of Us. You have some scrap you can craft items from, and all of those items will allow you to use different tactics during combat. And because you cannot make all of them, you have to make a choice. Making this choice is making a plan, and the game’s sense of engagement is increased.
Whatever your views on this sort of meta-feature are, one thing is certain: they work. Because if they weren’t we wouldn’t be seeing this rise in them persist over such a long time. Sure, it’s possible to make a game with a ton of planning without any of these features. But that’s the hard way. Having these features is a well-tested way to increasing engagement, and thus something that is very tempting to add, especially when you lose a competitive advantage by not doing so.
Finally, I need to discuss what brought me into thinking about planning at all. It was when I started to compare SOMA to Amnesia: The Dark Descent. When designing SOMA it was really important for us to have as many interesting features as possible, and we wanted the player to have a lot of different things to do. I think it is safe to say that SOMA has a wider range of interactions and more variety than what Amnesia: The Dark Descent had. But despite this, a lot of people complained that SOMA was too much of a walking simulator. I can’t recall a single similar comment about Amnesia. Why was this so?
At first I couldn’t really understand it, but then I started to outline the major differences between the games:
Amnesia’s sanity system
The light/health resource management.
Puzzles spread across hubs.
All of these things are directly connected with the player’s ability to plan. The sanity system means the player needs to think about what paths they take, whether they should look at monsters, and so forth. These are things the player needs to account for when they move through a level, and provide a constant need to plan ahead.
The resource management system works in a similar fashion, as players need to think about when and how they use the resources they have available. It also adds another layer as it makes it more clear to the player what sort of items they will find around a map. When the player walks into a room and pulls out drawers this is not just an idle activity. The player knows that some of these drawers will contain useful items and looting a room becomes part of a larger plan.
In Amnesia a lot of the level design worked by having a large puzzle (e.g. starting an elevator) that was solved by completing a set of spread out and often interconnected puzzles. By spreading the puzzles across the rooms, the player needs to always consider where to go next. It’s not possible to just go with a simple “make sure I visit all locations” algorithm to progress through the game. Instead you need to think about what parts of the hub-structure you need to go back to, and what puzzles there are left to solve. This wasn’t very complicated, but it was enough to provide a sense of planning.
SOMA has none of these features, and none of its additional features make up for the loss of planning. This meant that the game overall has this sense of having less gameplay, and for some players this meant the game slipped into walking simulator territory. Had we known about the importance of the ability to plan, we could have done something to fix this.
A “normal” game that relies on a standard core gameplay loop doesn’t have this sort of problem. The ability to plan is built into the way that classical gameplay works. Sure, this knowledge can be used to make such games better, but it’s by no means imperative. I think this is a reason why planning as a foundational aspects of games is so undervalued. The only concrete example that I have found is this article by Doug Church where he explains it like this:
“These simple, consistent controls, coupled with the very predictable physics (accurate for a Mario world), allow players to make good guesses about what will happen should they try something. Monsters and environments increase in complexity, but new and special elements are introduced slowly and usually build on an existing interaction principle. This makes game situations very discernable — it’s easy for the players to plan for action. If players see a high ledge, a monster across the way, or a chest under water, they can start thinking about how they want to approach it.
This allows players to engage in a pretty sophisticated planning process. They have been presented (usually implicitly) with knowledge of how the world works, how they can move and interact with it, and what obstacle they must overcome. Then, often subconsciously, they evolve a plan for getting to where they want to go. While playing, players make thousands of these little plans, some of which work and some of which don’t. The key is that when the plan doesn’t succeed, players understand why. The world is so consistent that it’s immediately obvious why a plan didn’t work. “
This is really spot on, an excellent description of what I am talking about. This is an article from 1999 and have had trouble finding any other source that discuss it, let alone expands upon the concept since then. Sure, you could say that planning is summed up in Sid Meier’s “A series of interesting choices”, but that seems to me too fuzzy to me. It is not really about the aspect of predicting how a world operates and then making plans based on that.
The only time when it does sort of come up is when discussing the Immersive Sim genre. This is perhaps not a big surprise given that Doug Church had a huge part in establishing the genre. For instance, emergent gameplay, which immersive sims are especially famous for, relies heavily on being able to understand the world and then making plans based on that. This sort of design ethos can be clearly seen in recent games such as Dishonored 2, for instance . So it’s pretty clear that game designers think in these terms. But it’s a lot less clear to me that it is viewed as a fundamental part of what makes games engaging and it feels like it is more treated like a subset of design.
As I mentioned above this is probably because when you take part in “normal” gameplay, a lot of planning comes automatically. However, this isn’t the case with narrative games. In fact, narrative games are often considered “lesser games” in the regard that they don’t feature as much normal gameplay as something like Super Mario. Because of this, it’s very common to discuss games in terms of whether you like them to be story-heavy or gameplay-heavy, as if either has to necessarily exclude the other. However, I think a reason there is still such a big discrepancy is because we haven’t properly figured out how gameplay in narrative games work. As I talked about in an earlier blog post, design-wise, we are stuck at a local maxima.
The idea that planning is fundamental to games presents a solution to this problem. Instead of saying “narrative games need better gameplay”, we can say that “narrative games need more planning”.
In order to properly understand what we need to do with planning, we need to have some sort of supportive theory to makes sense of it all. The SSM Framework that I presented last week fits nicely into that role.
It is really best to read up on last week’s blog post to get the full details, but for the sake of completeness I shall summarise the framework here.
We can divide a game into three different spaces. First of all we have System space. This where all the code is and where all the simulations happen. The System space deals with everything as abstract symbols and algorithms. Secondly we have the Story space which provides context for the the things that happen in the System space. In System space Mario is just a set of collision boundaries, but then when that abstract information is run through the Story space that turns into an Italian plumber. Lastly, we have the Mental Model space. This is how the player thinks about the game and is a sort of mental replica of all that exists in the game world. However, since the player mostly never understands exactly what goes on System space (nor how to properly interpret the story context), this is just an educated guess. In the end though, the Mental Model is what the player uses in order to play the game and what they base their decisions on.
Given this we can now start to define what gameplay is. First of all we need to talk about the concept of an action. An action is basically whatever the player performs when they are playing the game and it has the following steps:
Evaluate the information received from the System and Story space.
Form a Mental Model based on the information at hand.
Simulate the consequences of performing a particular action.
If the consequences seem okay, send the appropriate input (e.g. pushing a button) to the game.
A lot of this happens unconsciously. From the player’s point of view they will mostly view this sequence as “doing something” and are unaware of the actual thought process that takes place. But really, this always happens when the player does something in a game, be that jumping over a chasm in Super Mario or placing a house in Sim City.
Now that we understand what an action is, we can move on to gameplay. This is all about stringing several actions together, but with one caveat: you don’t actually send the input to the game, you just imagine doing so. So this string of actions are built together in mental model space, evaluating them and then if the results feel satisfactory, only then do we start to send the required input.
Put in other words: gameplay is all about planning and then executing that plan. And based upon all of the evidence that I showed above, my hypothesis is: the more actions you can string together, the better the gameplay feels.
It isn’t enough to simply string together any actions and call that a plan. First of all, the player needs to have an idea of some sort of goal they are trying to achieve. The actions also need be non-trivial. Simply having a bunch of walking actions strung together will not be very engaging to the player. It’s also worth pointing out that planning is by no means the only thing that makes a game engaging. All other design thinking doesn’t suddenly go out the window just because you focus on planning.
However, there are a bunch of design principles that go hand in hand with planning. For instance, to have a consistent world is crucial, because otherwise it isn’t possible for the player to form a plan. This is why invisible walls are so annoying; they seriously impede our ability to create and execute plans. It also explains why it’s so annoying when failure seems random. For gameplay to feel good, we need to be able to mentally simulate exactly what went wrong. Like Doug Church expressed in a quote above: when a player fails they always need to know why.
Another example is the adventure game advice that you should always have several puzzles going at once. In planning terms this is because we always want to make sure the player has ample room to plan, “I will first solve this and then that”. There are lots of other similar principles that have to do with planning. So while planning is not the only thing that makes a game engaging, a great number of things that do can be derived from it.
Let’s quickly look at some examples from actual games.
Say that the player wants to assassinate the guy in red in this situation. What the player does not do is simply jump down and hope for the best. They need to have some sort of plan before going on. They might first wait for the guard to leave, teleport behind the victim, and then sneak up and stab them. When that’s done they leave the same way they came. This is something the player works out in their head before doing anything. It isn’t until they have some sort of plan that they start acting.
This plan might not work, the player might fail to sneak up on the guy and then he sound an alarm. In this case the plan breaks, however that doesn’t mean that the player’s plan was totally untrue. It just meant they didn’t manage to pull off one of the actions of. If presented properly, players are okay with this. In the same way, the player might have misinterpreted their mental model or missed something. This is also okay as long as the player can update their mental model in a coherent fashion. And next time the player tries to execute a similar plan they will get better at it.
Often this ability to carry out your plans is what makes the game the most engaging. Usually a game starts out a bit dull, as your mental models are a bit broken and the ability to plan not very good. But then, as you play, this gets better and you start stringing together longer sets of actions and therefore having more fun. This is why tutorials can be so important. They are a great place to get away from that initial dullness by making the experience a bit simpler and guiding the player to think in the correct manner about how the game works.
It’s also worth noting that plans should never be too simple to carry out. Then the actions become trivial. There needs to be a certain degree of non-triviality for engagement to remain.
Planning doesn’t always need to happen in the long term, it can also be very short term. Take this scene from Super Mario, for instance:
Here the player needs to make a plan in a split second. The important thing to notice here is that the player doesn’t simply react blindly. Even in a stressful situation, if the game works as it should, the player quickly formulates a plan and then tries to carry out that plan.
Now compare these two examples to a game like Dear Esther:
There are a lot of things one can like about this game, but I think everybody agrees that the gameplay is lacking. What’s harder to agree on, though, is what’s missing. I’ve heard a lot about the lack of fail states and competitive mechanics, but I don’t find these convincing. As you might guess, I think the missing ingredient is planning.
The main reason that people find Dear Esther unengaging is not because they cannot fail, or because there is nothing to compete against. It’s because the game doesn’t allow them to form and execute plans. We need to figure out ways of fixing this.
By thinking about the planning in terms of the SSM-framework we get a hint at what sort of gameplay that can constitute “narrative play”: When you form a plan in Mental Model space it is important that the actions are mostly grounded in the data received from Story space. Compare the the following two plans:
1) “First I pick up 10 items to increase the character X’s trust meter, this will allow me to reach the ‘friendship’-threshold and X will now be part of my crew. This awards me 10 points in range combat bonus.”
2) “If I help out X with cleaning her room, I might be able to be friends with her. This would be great as I could then ask her to join us on our journey. She seems like a great sharpshooter and I would feel much safer with her onboard.”
This is a fairly simplistic example, but I hope I get the point across. Both of these describe the same plan, but they have vastly different in how the data is interpreted. Number 1 is just all abstract system-space, and the number 2 has a more narrative feel, and is grounded in the story space. When the gameplay is about making plans like the second example, that is when we start to get something that feels like proper narrative play. This is a crucial step in evolving the art of interactive storytelling.
I believe thinking about planning is a crucial step in order to get better narrative games. For too long, game design has relied on the planning component arising naturally out of ‘standard’ gameplay, but when we no longer have that we need to take extra care. It’s imperative to understand that it drives gameplay, and therefore that we need to make sure our narrative experiences include this. Planning is by no means a silver bullet, but it’s a really important ingredient. It’s certainly something that we’re putting a lot of thought into when making our future titles here at Frictional Games.
1) If anyone has other concrete resources describing planning as a fundamental part of games I’d love to hear about them. Please post about them in the comments if you know any.
2) Steve Lee had an excellent lecture called “An Approach to Holistic Level Design” at this year’s GDC where he talked a lot about player intentionality. This is another concept closely related to planning.