Wednesday, 28 February 2018

People of Frictional: Max Lidbeck


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.

Yours truly.

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.

Setup at home and at work.

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.


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 where the magic happens.

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.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Q&A with Frictional writer Ian Thomas

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, Kat.)

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.

You can now avoid one of these three death screens!

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.

Schrödinger's pizza! And a Mexicana. Unless they mixed it up at the factory. In which case it's also a Schrödinger's pizza.

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.

For all you thirsty Munshi lovers out there. You know who you are.

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.

You'll meet a tall, dark stranger...

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.

To murder or not to murder, that is the question.

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.

We probably peaked in our first game. What's worse than spiders? (Not representative of the company's opinion.)

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!

This window is out to get you!

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?

Thursday, 30 November 2017

What is SOMA's Safe Mode?

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!

Friday, 27 October 2017

Now Hiring: Community Manager and Event Coordinator

We are now looking for a "Community Manager and Event Coordinator" for our company. This will be a very broad role and we are looking for someone who is very driven and creative. The tasks will range from the simple, such as:
  • Managing our social media accounts and platform-specific communication channels (such as Steam communities and PS4 Game hub).
  • Answering various emails.
  • Coordinating and booking special internal and external events.
It will also include much more complex tasks such as:
  • Planning and coordinating PR for a new game release.
  • Making plans for improving our social media and implementing these.
  • Overseeing a revamp of all our webpages (company and game-specific).
  • Becoming the company’s catalyst for generating interesting posts and events on all of our public channels.

The basic requirements are as follows:
  • It’s crucial that you are a person who is highly able to work on your own initiative. No one will be laying out an exact schedule of things that you must do - you will need to drive your own workload. You will also need to be a creative member of the team, bringing a lot of your own ideas and suggestions to the table and then going on to implement them when possible.
  • You must live in Sweden or be prepared to move here. Note that any employment starts with a six month trial period, and there is no need to move until that is over.
  • You must have excellent writing skills in English.
  • You need good knowledge of how social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, works.
  • You should have a burning interest in video games and an understanding of the market.
It’s worth noting that we do not require any special education or experience. While these are of course good to have, what really matters is that you fit the requirements above.

In order to apply, start by doing the following assignments:
  1. Imagine that SOMA is about to be released. Write a short (at most 150 words) and playful cover letter that will be sent out with all of the review copies of the game.
  2. We really need to become much more frequent in our social media usage and communicate what we do as a company and what we are like as individuals. In 200 words or less, explain how you would try to go about increasing the number of interesting posts on our social media channels.
  3. An angry user has written an email complaining that our games have all become worse since Penumbra, as they no longer have proper puzzles and gameplay. Write a response.
  4. Being proactive and self-starting is crucial for this position. Therefore, write your own question similar to the ones above and answer it.
Compile these into a PDF that has a pleasing layout and send it, along with your CV, to

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

SOMA - Two Years Later

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 [1].

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 [2]. 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.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Illusion of an Analog World

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.