Co-founder of Frictional Games, Jens Nilsson, talks to Steven Balbirnie about the challenges of being an indie game developer and how to make the perfect horror game
Based in Helsingborg, Sweden, Frictional Games are the developers behind the Penumbra and Amnesia series. This is a remarkable achievement considering that the company was only established in 2006, after co-founders Thomas Grip and Jens Nilsson met in university and worked on a thesis together.
Their first title, Penumbra: Overture, a survival horror set in Greenland, started life as a tech demo but garnered enough attention to be developed into a full game and the first chapter of a trilogy. It was the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent in 2010 however, that really got Frictional Games noticed. A psychological horror set in the nineteenth century, Amnesia draws on such diverse influences as H.P. Lovecraft, the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments, seventeenth-century scientific practices and films such as The Others. The game has chilled and thrilled both gamers and critics.
With Amnesia: The Dark Descent widely considered to be the most terrifying game released in recent years, Otwo takes the opportunity to ask Nilsson what goes into making a truly scary gaming experience. “Less is often more when it comes to horror. Important elements are to let the game build up, to not rush to the horror parts, to pace it well and to allow for dynamic and contrast between horror-filled and horror-free parts.”
Sound design is also a crucial component of any successful horror game, and Nilsson explains why: “Sound design is important for any game; it adds a lot to how you perceive things, regardless [of whether] you notice it or not. It’s important that cars have the sound of the doors closing designed so that it makes the car feel like it has quality and is safe, which is perhaps not something you go around and think about every time you close the door. With horror it is crucial to build up a sense of what is to come, to tickle the imagination of the player, so that it starts working and doing the job for us.”
With so many big budget horror games failing to deliver scares, Otwo asks Nilsson where he thinks the larger developers are going wrong. “They are working hard on following the standards and requirements of today’s game industry; that is to make challenging, fun games that are lengthy and have a lot of collectables or achievements, instead of concentrating on the experience.”
However, Nilsson is quick to point out that not all blame should be placed on the developers. “It’s the gamers’ fault as well, they want lengthy games, re-playability, achievements and whatnot. Yet every time someone collects data and releases statistics it shows that very few actually complete the games. I think a lot of games would benefit greatly from being four to six hours of well-polished, one-time enjoyed the best, type of experiences.”
The polished experience of Amnesia: The Dark Descent certainly impressed critics at the 2010 Independent Games Festival, where Frictional Games won three awards. Nilsson hasn’t let the game’s critical success go to his head however. “It sure was fun and a great moment. But I think we are much more proud of all the awesome community created content we have seen, everything from costumes, to comics, videos, stories and plays. The feeling of having created something that inspired such creations is a much better reward than any prize we could possibly win.”
These achievements are even more impressive when you consider how precarious the existence of an independent developer can be. Nilsson is candid about how the future of Frictional Games hinged on Amnesia’s commercial success.
The company needed to sell 30,000 copies just to break even. “If we did not get this money back fairly fast then we would probably not have been motivated to keep making games under the terms that we had up to that point. It was simply not motivating any longer to work as much as you possibly could for as little money as you could possibly get by on. We were very content at that time to have been able to make four games, running our own company and deciding exactly what we wanted; not many get to do that. But as you get older you might feel an urge to do other things, get a more stable living situation and, you know, all those grown up things.”
Thankfully, Amnesia was well received commercially so Nilsson and Grip can continue to unleash their brand of Lovecraftian horror upon the world. And what’s next for Frictional Games? A new, untitled game is in the pipeline, which Nilsson describes as “a natural continuation of our previous work, where we add some new stuff to the mix that we have not been able to do before and just continue on trying to expand on the ideas that we have on what makes a good game.”
Otwo mentions a rumour that the new game may not feature the puzzles that have been a staple of their previous titles, but Nilsson is quick to correct this. “The game will not have puzzles for the sake of puzzles, is probably a more correct statement. We have had this idea since before, quite a bit in Amnesia, and we try to continue improving it. The idea that puzzles are more to be obstacles to overcome, that can have any shape or form, but should not stand out, be silly, halt progression or any other typical hiccup that puzzles can create.”
Regardless of whatever form this new project takes, one thing is certain; in the years to come, Jens Nilsson and Frictional Games will continue to delight and terrify their audience in equal measure.
The Penumbra and Amnesia series are available to buy for PC and Mac through the Steam store and at www.frictionalgames.net.