Stu­dio Pro­file

How a tiny team fought off legal trou­ble and money woes to bring night­mares to life

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY ED­WARD SMITH

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)

URL www.fric­tion­al­games.com

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)

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