17 Feb 2009

INTERVIEW: Frictional Games

In honour of the imminent release of The Penumbra Collection this month, the developers of the series, Frictional Games, have been kind enough to answer a few questions regarding their impressive back catalogue. For those of you who aren't aware, the Penumbra series of games combine elements of horror, survival, puzzling and storytelling in equally compelling measures.

Frictional's Sound Director, Jens Nilsson and Lead Programmer, Thomas Grip provide the answers...

Much of the gaming media hailed the Penumbra series as a reinvention of the adventure genre. Was this your intention when you were creating the games?

No! We only wanted to make a survival horror game with less violence, more puzzle solving and exploration as gameplay elements. We never really viewed it as an Adventure game and we had a hard time understanding some problems we had early on when trying to communicate with the Publishers/Press when releasing Overture. They all seemed to think the game was a point-and-click adventure game and we thought it was obvious this was a first person horror game – having previously released the Penumbra Tech Demo.

For the creation of a psychological-horror game, how do you gauge
whether something is likely to be scary? Fear in the Penumbra games doesn't tend to come from cheap frights so much as a build up of tension, or even a lack of anything occurring. Is it hard to tell whether you've hit the right mark for the scares during development?

It's really hard. We have all the ideas and we do all the design, then when we implement it you never get the feeling that “oh, this is really scary stuff”. You always have the problem of having faith in that it will be scary for the actual player later on. Even in testing it is not easing the worry about not being scary, the people testing are never like a 'normal' player so they don't think the game is scary either. For them it is only a job so to speak, so they don't really set their mind to the right mood.

We try to keep it simple, ask ourselves what we think is scary and what sort of horror we enjoy and then try to create that as well as we can. Spending a lot of time analysing and thinking about what it is that we like and why/how that feeling is created.

Overture was criticised for the combat mechanics which were then
removed completely from the sequel, Black Plague. Do you look to player and media response for guidance in the development of your games or was the combat something you were already not fond of? Did the subsequent changes get in the way of your initial vision for the series?

The whole idea with the episodic format was from the beginning to be able to take the feedback from the first game and adjust in the second and then again adjust in the third. It only got to be two episodes so we didn't get that third chance to adjust the game further based on the feedback.

With Overture we really wanted to make sure there was a last line of defence for the player, a weapon to use when in a tight spot. We tried really hard to make the combat difficult and cumbersome so that the player would seek out other solutions as a first choice, the problem was that we didn't expect the need of the player to hit things when they get something to hit with to be that strong! This in combination with how the combat was handled to be made difficult was perhaps not the best, there might be other ways to do a game with weapons but yet keeping them at a very low usage rate. We have some ideas that we are to explore in the next project!

The changes we made didn't really change the vision for us, on the topic of the weapons, removing them was not a big issue for us. That particular change was more welcome than anything as it changed the game more towards our goals of minimal player violence in a horror game.

The puzzles in the games generally have practical, believable solutions, such as reading a manual to get a generator up and running or spreading your weight over thin ice. Were you intentionally trying to steer away from the abstract puzzle solutions that you typically tend to find in adventure games?

Yes, we always wanted to have hands on, believable solutions to the puzzles. When the physics turned out to work so well for controlling doors, drawers and such we also started to try and come up with practical puzzles, that could be solved with a mix of items and physics usage. The idea with having believable solutions was to further enhance the players feeling of being part of the game, using physics and believable items to make the gameplay more hands on and exciting.

What were your reasons behind going for a puzzle-centric expansion with Requiem?

We had finished the Penumbra series with Black Plague and there was an opportunity to do an expansion, with less budget and development time than a full game. We discussed a couple of options of what would be possible to do as an expansion, basically we had two ideas. One was to re-use most levels and content from Black Plague but to play as a different character. The other was to do a puzzle game with much more new content, where we had levels with concentrated puzzles and everything made with physics to really try and explore how far you could go with physics in game. We decided to go with the second idea as we really felt that would be the most fun to create, be more exciting for us as it would be more new grounds to explore and solve and also that the end user would get more actual new content and gameplay for their 10 USD.

I understand that you're keeping a tight lid on the development of your currently untitled next project. Are there any details you are willing to give out?

We have been working on the game for over a year. At first only at around 10%, with ongoing discussions and early planning of the project, since around May 2008 at about 40-50% and since September 2008 we have been almost 100% concentrating on the new project.

The engine has been revamped and improved in all areas possible, tools and editor have been developed, the graphical style of the game has been tested and discussed and of course the whole design has been hammered on.

We are now at a point where everything is planned, the idea is settled, we know how the game will look and how the technology is ready to be used for implementing it all. It's very exciting as we have not had so well developed tools before, we used to only have 1 programmer in the company working full-time, but now we have had two and one has been working solely on tool/editor development. This will, hopefully, result in a game where we can concentrate a lot on making much more fun and intriguing content due to saving so much time we previously spent on the implementation of it all.

The game itself will be a 18th century survival horror experience, where you as the player will explore and old castle to learn its mysteries and unravel its terrors. There is no connection to Penumbra, it’s a brand new game and idea but much of the gameplay will be similar. There are the physics, exploring and damp ambience but there will also be a bit more interaction with enemies and continued efforts from our side to explore how to tell stories and to make a fluent gameplay.

The Nordic Game Program has provided you with a grant of 300,000 DKK (around 35,000 GBP)
for the new project. Recent titles to benefit from this funding include Kloonigames' recent hit, Crayon Physics Deluxe. In the future are we likely to see a much larger quantity of Nordic games entering the mainstream markets for the rest of the world?

Hopefully! If we recall correctly the NGP funding will continue until 2012, each year with two events where funding are up for grabs. Usually 5-6 games gets funding per event, so it should result in a nice collection of additional titles that has the opportunity to get finalized and released. The funding is usually not enough to develop the whole game, but enough to get the technology and content developed so far that it is possible for a prototype to be created and demoed.

It's a great opportunity for developers to get enough money to try out their ideas and it is really good for them to be able to show either a publisher that they have the idea and competence to do a game, or come so far that they are confident they can on their own finalize and sell the game.

The Penumbra Collection is out on 27th February in the stores and, if you like to try before you buy, the demos can be grabbed separately from Fileplanet.

No comments: