How a tiny team fought off legal trouble and money woes to bring nightmares to life
Sweden’s Frictional Games’ unique approach to creating horror that stays with you
Outlast, Slender, PT: many of today’s horror titles owe a debt to Frictional Games. Founded in Skåne, Sweden, in 2007, the studio has skewed the genre away from guns and upgrades, and towards players relying on stealth and their wits. The Penumbra series came first and was a moderate success, but then followed Amnesia, the game that established Frictional as a dark master of the genre. Launched in 2010, when horror games were largely in thrall to Resident
Evil 4, Amnesia brought terror of a different kind, stripping players of weapons and forcing them to run and hide. It spawned plenty of imitators –
Alien: Isolation, Miasmata and Erie also owe the studio credit – but Amnesia got there first.
But it didn’t do it overnight. Although it now has 15 full-time staff and a new project, Soma, in the works, Frictional has endured almost as much horror as it has created over the past eight years. Thomas Grip is the studio’s co-founder. He started Frictional based on a pet project.
“While studying for university, I was making this horror game by myself, called Unbirth,” he tells us. “I started chatting with someone through a peer-to-peer service called Direct Connect, and he said that he and his friend wanted to help.” Though a playable alpha is available online, Unbirth was never finished. Grip’s new online friend, Jens Nilsson, began a follow-up game design course at Uppsala University, and invited Grip to join him. The two worked together on their thesis, a 3D firstperson horror game. Not long before graduating, the pair released a demo version. The response was overwhelming.
“By the end of that summer, we’d seen over a million downloads,” Grip says. “We knew we had to make something of it, so we started development on a commercial version in August, 2006. Frictional was founded off the back of that, on January 1, the following year.”
The commercial release was planned as the opening part of a horror trilogy, and dubbed Penumbra: Overture. To finance what would be Frictional’s first game, Grip had to get creative.
“In Sweden, you get money for studying, so I took courses that I already knew, such as basic programming, and earned some money to keep the project going,” he says. “I was terrified, though, that they were going to find me out and ask for all the money back. Jens was doing the same thing as well. That, plus some money from freelance work, kept us going.”
Penumbra: Overture launched in March 2007, and was well received, though hardly a commercial hit. Compared to the prototype’s seven-figure download count, the end version of Penumbra: Overture saw only 20,000 sales, digital and physical, inside its first year. Things went sour on the legal side, too: to handle the physical copies of Penumbra, Frictional had signed up with Lexicon, a British publisher. But the company proved unreliable, and the profits from Penumbra’s boxed edition didn’t materialise.
“There were sales in some parts of the world that we were supposed to get 50 per cent of,” Grip explains, “but they weren’t giving us any money. They claimed they hadn’t sold any copies of the game at all. And there was some other bullshit. I remember talking on the phone to one of their guys and him saying he couldn’t transfer our money because of some new law about wiring cash that had come in after 9/11.
“Problem was, we’d signed a lot of the digital rights over to them, so we had to get those deals nullified by the lawyers before we could see much money from the game at all. It was only the Linux rights, which we’d retained, that saved us.”
Using that money, Frictional began work on a second Penumbra game, Black Plague. It also struck a deal with Swedish publisher Paradox, which provided prepayments totalling around 50,000 in exchange for Black Plague’s Swedish distribution rights. Financial concerns aside, development on Black Plague ran smoothly, and it launched in February 2008. Sales were more promising than the original
Penumbra – Grip puts Black Plague at 30,000 units for its first year – and Paradox wanted an expansion pack. Frictional wasn’t enthusiastic.
“Paradox had made a lot of money on expansion packs for the other games it’d published,” Grip says. “The problem with Penumbra, however, was that, considering the way it was made, it wasn’t easy to add on extra stuff. For example, our engine had no level editor, which meant building levels using the 3D editor. It was so clumsy. It was killing us. “Plus, we were bored. We didn’t want to do Penumbra again. We ended up making Penumbra: Requiem, but we did it as a puzzle game, just because it would be more fun for us. It didn’t get a good reception, but the money from Paradox gave us some startup for Amnesia.”
As well as using more freelance graphics and audio staff to create Amnesia, the core Frictional team grew to five people. One of the additions was Mikael Hedberg, a writer who’d done outsource work for Penumbra: Black Plague. He enjoyed the Frictional company culture.
“There are game companies where designers say to the writers, ‘Tell the player to go here, so we can move him on to beating up more monsters,’” Hedberg says. “Then there are places like BioWare, where I get the impression the writers are running the whole show. I’d say at Frictional we’re somewhere in the middle. There’s a good amount of freedom and I’m allowed to make something interesting out of the game, but the process is still an ongoing conversation with Thomas and the other designers.”
Since opening, Frictional has run on a shoestring budget and with a skeleton crew. It’s designed that way not just to preserve camaraderie between staffers, but to keep costs down, and allow the studio to continue taking
THERE WERE SOME TIGHT MONTHS BEFORE AMNESIA’S RELEASE, BUT WHEN THE GAME FINALLY HIT, IT HIT BIG
risks. There is no central office – everybody works from home. And if times get tight, salaries are sliced until the game hits release.
Such was the case on Amnesia. Halfway through development, Frictional’s relationship with Paradox began to falter. The game Grip had originally pitched was very different to the one now being produced. Various problems had forced Frictional to abandon its original vision of a modular, procedural horror game, and go back to something scripted like Penumbra. That put a wedge between developer and publisher.
“I can’t get into it specifically,” Grip says, “but there were some difficulties and we had to terminate the contracts. I think the pitch you take to a publisher sometimes doesn’t end up being the one that’s right for the game. In the original idea we submitted for Amnesia, you’d enter various small areas and instead of lots of scripted horror moments, there’d be various bits of design working with one another. It would be like Super
Mario – very modular. But it didn’t work out.”
Frictional, now without a benefactor, had to rely on its lean infrastructure. Salaries were cut, outsourcing was scaled back, and Grip and Nilsson’s plan not to rent an office seemed prudent. There were some tight months before
Amnesia’s release, but when the game finally hit in September 2010, it hit big. In its first month, sales reached 36,000 units, comfortably more than the 24,000 Grip estimated would be needed to keep his studio open. After one year,
Amnesia had sold almost 400,000 copies. Its 2013 sequel, A Machine For Pigs, developed by British studio The Chinese Room and published by Frictional, cleared 260,000 units in its first 12 months. Frictional had found commercial success, but the studio’s business woes weren’t over.
The Amnesia licence was owned by THQ, and when the company shut in 2013, as part of a last-ditch effort to raise some cash, it sold the rights to Cosmi, a Californian publisher whose roots in videogames date back to the ’80s. Grip, again, had to go to the lawyers.
“Cosmi didn’t have any interest in Amnesia at all,” he explains. “We had to nullify all the contracts. THQ had given us some pretty crappy box art for Amnesia – the creature on the cover looked like a duck or something – but otherwise, they’d always been fine to work with. However, they sold the rights to the game as part of a quick cash grab, and it’s stuff like that that makes us not want to be involved with publishers any more.”
Fortunately, the money from Amnesia continues to trickle in, giving Frictional the freedom to develop Soma without external pressure. Unrestrained by publishers, legal trouble or office politics, the Frictional of today is a hub of creativity, managed by Grip and Nilsson, but driven by its independently minded staffers.
“On Soma, I have much more say than I did on our older games,” Hedberg says. “I’ll basically be handed the setup for something, and I’ll fill in some of the blanks, but I’ll also make sure everything in the game and the script has a purpose. I’ll tie it all together, and find the reason for people to care about what’s going on.
“If I need to ask a question, I’ll jump on Skype and just ask Thomas. Other than that, I get my work on the design document done as quickly as possible, and then it goes to the level designers. Thomas is the director and still sets up the framework, but I feel very responsible.”
“Skype is on all day, and then we use a system called Trello to help schedule things,” Grip adds. “We’ve set it up so that everyone should be online pretty much at the same time, but it’s still quite relaxed. If someone decides to be a little late, we don’t worry about it.
“Plus, when talking via instant messenger, it’s easier for everyone to have a say. People don’t worry so much about typing a line of text as they might about speaking up in meetings, and that’s good, because here there aren’t restrictions on what people can give comments on. In art meetings, in particular, everyone can comment on everything. That would be harder to achieve in a traditional office. You’d end up with a hierarchy.”
Though Soma is a firstperson horror game, its development has been different. It’s not just the first game the studio has made totally solo, it’s a bigger project, overseen by 15 employees, and five years in the making. Grip is happy about the breathing space, and confident the work put into the game will speak for itself, but he’s conscious of Frictional’s expanding ambitions. If the studio wants to keep making the kinds of games it makes best, Grip knows it must stay small.
“The game has taken longer and cost a lot more money than I thought it would, but because of our size, that’s OK,” he says. “We don’t need to expand any more. We’re in a position where, if this sells just moderately, we at least don’t have to fire everyone or shut the whole thing down – we can just cut back. I’m exhausted. But this is a good environment for producing games.”
“IF THIS SELLS JUST MODERATELY, WE AT LEAST DON’T HAVE TO FIRE EVERYONE OR SHUT THE WHOLE THING DOWN”
Thomas Grip (left) co-founded the studio based on his thesis project, later bringing on board writer Mikael Hedberg
Founded 2007 Employees 15 Key staff Thomas Grip (co-founder, design director), Jens Nilsson (co-founder, lead designer)
Selected softography Penumbra: Overture, Penumbra: Black Plague, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs
Current projects Soma
Frictional has no HQ, and the team is split across several countries, so everything from audio design to central management is handled from home offices much like Grip’s (above). When specialist facilities are needed, it turns to companies such as Side (left)