Jens Nilsson, Thomas Grip, TJ Jubert

Frictional Games

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 25 December 2007. Last updated on 30 January 2014.
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Jens Nilsson, Thomas Grip, TJ Jubert
Jens Nilsson is a member of the development team for Penumbra: Overture.
Jens Nilsson, Thomas Grip, TJ Jubert
Thomas Grip is a member of the development team for Penumbra: Overture.
Jens Nilsson, Thomas Grip, TJ Jubert
Anton Adamse is a member of the development team for Penumbra: Overture.

Frictional Games is an example of a classic story of an indie game developer's struggle and triumph in the gaming industry. Founded by a group of eager gamers from Sweden with a dream to become game developers themselves, the company attracted much media attention in 2006 when it released (initially with little fanfare) a tech demo that was disguised as a game called Penumbra. The game surprised many critics and fans with its innovative 3D engine and decent gameplay. The success of Penumbra eventually opened an opportunity for Frictional Games to secure a deal with a game publisher to develop the demo into a full commercial game title. The new game, aptly called Penumbra: Overture, is now in full production and will be released in episodic format as part of a planned series. The first episode, Episode 1, has already been released in March 2007 to good receptions.

We are pleased to have an opportunity to interview the team at Frictional Games about its latest game. In the interview, Jens Nilsson (Sound/Level Scripter), Thomas Grip (Programmer), and TJ Jubert (Writer) speak of the challenges of being an indie game developer, the history and development of Penumbra: Overture, how this game differs from other survival horror games, and what gamers can expect in the future for the Penumbra series.

Penumbra: Overture started out as a tech demo which was originally developed for a game development competition in Sweden. What was the competition about? Why did you feel that the judges' reaction to your game in that competition was so different from the fans' reaction in the gaming community?

Jens Nilsson: The competition is an annual event held each year by the student driven SGA group, During the year they have developer events for the industry and students, which reach a climax during the actual competition where students enter and compete by creating games. The games are judge by a panel of industry and media folks.

We developed the technology demo Penumbra during a masters course in game modification and production, and as the end of the course cohered with the SGA competition quite well we entered into it as to have a defined goal to work towards.

The judges overall reaction seemed to be that the game was not that polished, not that unique and more importantly too difficult to develop into a full-fledge game. The gaming community on the other hand seemed to not be bothered by that and more simply enjoyed a free game.

Thomas Grip: I think a major reason for us not doing that well (we got a nomination for best idea after all) was because the judges thought that it would be hard to make it into a full product. Also the controls can be a bit hard to get into at first and since the judges needed to play A LOT of games during two days it is hard to really get into the game (which were not made any better by some judges not reading the manual).

What you want to learn from this is that game competitions are based on subjective judgment by a few people. While I think competitions are great fun, good motivators for finishing projects and a nice time to get media attention, they are not some absolute judgment for a game. The main success criterion for a game is whether or not you can gain some fans.

When was Frictional Games founded? Who made up the core development team for Penumbra? How many were involved in total in the game's development? How long was the added development time to turn the demo into the full game?

Jens Nilsson: We founded Frictional Games during the fall of 2006 as we were working on Penumbra: Overture. For Penumbra: Overture we were 3 people in the core and we had an additional 9 people helping out in various areas. In addition to Thomas and me we also had Anton Adamse in the core team, Anton created the majority of all the visuals you see in the game.


TJ Jubert - Writer

Luis Rodero Morales- Audio Programmer

Edward Rudd - Linux/Mac Port

Emil Meiton - Additional Graphics

Troy Gustler - Additional Graphics

Marc Nicander - Additional Graphics

Mikko Tarmia - Music

Mike Hillard - Voice

Niklas Mattisson - Logos

Penumbra: Overture took about 7-8 months to create and it's not really that linked with the original tech demo. For those that have played both I think it's quite clear that they tell different stories at different locations, yes it's the same names for some key characters and basic introduction story but that's about it.

At first glance, the name Penumbra appears to have little to do with the backstory of the game. Why is the game called Penumbra?

Jens Nilsson: Overall the idea for the game is that nothing is ever simply black and white, it's a difficult world of shades of gray. Hopefully after completing Penumbra: Overture you are not any wiser than you were when starting out.

Thomas Grip: To be fair, it simply was just a name we could all sort of agree on at the time. All other explanations are ad hoc. But do not tell that to anyone...

Penumbra: Overture features an innovative 3D engine that carries an interesting development history itself. The engine is, in part, based on a 2D engine from an earlier game of yours, which is then heavily modified to incorporate a free but closed source third-party physics engine. What is your engine? What parts of this engine are developed internally and what parts are not? What have been the challenges in deciding what hardware platforms (such as graphic processing unit or GPU) to support, since your engine is inherently hardware dependent?

Thomas Grip: I could talk for hours on the creation of the game engine, but I will try to keep it short here and not get too technical.

The engine is built from an engine created when making a thesis job which resulted in the platform game Energetic. Before moving into the 3rd dimension I made some cleanup of the engine (which was quite rushed in some places) and started to add a base for 3D rendering. I would not say that the original 2D engine was modified to add 3D, but rather a 3D layer was added so all of the 2D stuff is still there. It is still possible to make a 2D tile game using our engine.

Right now all of the engine is made internally except for the physics engine, some helper libraries (XML, shader loader, etc) and the base libraries (OpenGL, OpenAL, etc).

To decide on hardware requirements we made some research on what kind of cards people had and then we discussed what capabilities we wanted in the game. Then it was a matter of trying balance number of people that could play the game versus graphics quality. It was also a question of what hardware we had to work with. It was very hard to create support for the lower end cards since they require quite a different approach and we did not own the cards ourselves. So we tried to do our best by letting other people try test programs and then getting it to work.

All the hardware stuff has really upset us during the development. There are so many different configurations that it is an impossible task to get it working on all the computers you want to. We are getting more and more tempted to work with consoles instead.

Critics of Penumbra: Overture have been most impressed by the creepy ambiance of the game which emphasizes more on psychological horror than physical gore. What is the secret to creating horror in a game? Without any spoiler, what scene in Penumbra: Overture is the scarcest for you?

Jens Nilsson: For us it has been a goal to have the horror in the unknown, not only because we believe it's a good way to create horror but also because of financial limitations. We simply do not have the funds to create complex visual scenes so we try to replace that with more subtle insinuations. Having the player as defenseless as possible and adding looping eerie sounds seems to work well to create a constant horror effect in the game.

Thomas Grip: Scariest scene? Hard to say since nothing is really that scary after 100 iterations. I would probably have to say that when the AI behaved unexpectedly intelligent and sneaked up on you when you have no idea is one of the scarier things during production.

During testing, how difficult was it to discourage the player from playing this game as a simple first person shooter (FPS)? How tricks did you use to nudge the player away from playing this game like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or Half-Life?

Jens Nilsson: Very difficult, as soon as the player gets something that can be used as a weapon the majority will have an urge for bashing everything even if all signs says do not bash the monkey. We tried to battle this by doing everything from not calling objects "weapons", making tutorials that says it's not a good idea, difficulty based on defensive abilities and other non-battle positive effects. After the release of the game we have come up with some other ideas that we might or might not use in a future game.

Thomas Grip: It was all really annoying cause we wanted to have weapons, because it felt lame not being able to pick up things to defend yourself with. But at the same time we did not want the game to become a hack and slash eliminating a lot of tension and suspense. This made us work out a "cumbersome" fight system, but this in turn lead to bad reactions from people still wanting to fight and instead of discouraging them from fighting, the melee system annoyed them. And at the same time some people who got hold of the system thought fighting was too easy!

Red is a complex character whose identity and motive have never been fully explained in the game (even at the end). How deliberate is this ambiguity? What do you consider to be essential in character development for a game? How different is this from character development for a fiction novel?

TJ Hubert: We made a conscious decision in Penumbra to adhere closely to Lovecraft's adage, 'The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown'. This is an episodic adventure, and it was important to give the player just a few less answers at the end than they really needed. So yes, the ambiguity is intentional, but it will gradually unravel in later installments.

In terms of character development... well, I think a strong character is a strong character no matter what the medium, so the same things are essential in interactive characters as they are in characters from film or literature. As a result, the actual creative process behind Red was not dissimilar to any other – he started out as an observation or inspiration (maybe a crazy guy on a bus, or a character from another title), and was shaped to serve his purpose in the narrative (here, to guide, scare, and entertain the player, and to provide narrative momentum, among other things.

The actual implementation obviously differs quite dramatically. Once I'd produced the sample scripts and character designs, it was a case of slotting him into the level designs, selecting and directing voice acting, and shoring up the script. When you're dealing with an interactive character, it's a lot harder... a player who doesn't bother to search through Red's room at the end of the game gets a completely different perspective on him, and we have to take thing like that into account. With a linear character in a novel or film, you have complete control over the light in which he is seen by the audience… interaction makes things a lot harder – but so much more interesting.

How big was the struggle to strike a deal with a publisher to distribute the game? How much influence did the publisher have on the game's development, especially with its episodic format?

Jens Nilsson: It was somewhat challenging, but once we had a working internal demo of the game along with proper screens, videos and documents it was easier to find and discuss possibilities with publishers. Knowing what we know now we would have waited a bit longer and found a more reliable publisher for the boxed version of the game, but we were a bit nervous about not getting someone to publish the game. As long as you have an OK game it should not be a problem finding a publisher willing to publish it as long as they do not have to finance the actual game creation.

The publisher had close to no influence at all on the development or the episodic format.

Thomas Grip: Only thing that was discussed was some elements of the game that might give the game a too high rating. This resulted in a change of some names (apparently you can not teach kids to make bombs) and removal of one quite sexual explicit object.

Most indie game developers do not have much experience in dealing with the business side of game development. In retrospect, what have you learned about running a game company as a business? What are some of the pitfalls you have fallen into or managed to avoid?

Jens Nilsson: Maintaining good relations is key, both to publishers, media, file hosts and similar related companies. Plan for spending a great deal of time doing tasks that has nothing to do with game development, it's quite obvious but important to remember. Better to plan for spending very much time on it and than have some time over to do more game development than the other way around.

Do proper research on companies you enter into agreements with, slightest sign of problems and it's probably not worth it. Other smaller developers has also recommended that often making one time payment deals is a good idea when dealing with small publishers, I think we are joining that group of believers and recommended it as well. Perhaps not for online sales, but for a boxed retail game the chain is so long from purchase to getting the cash into your account that the risks are too high. Not to mention that very small publishers will have a difficult time making use of the rights that you give them, the more rights they get the less means they will have to actually exploit them to the fullest.

We managed to protect ourselves somewhat from uncertainties while trying to sell the game by dividing the rights, the more you can the better I believe. Give rights only for specific territories and avoid having the online and retail rights in the same deal.

Thomas Grip: I just want to quote the good Dr House on this: "Everybody lies". This is especially important in the game business. Never trust anyone no matter how sincere or nice they seem. If a promise is not on paper chances are close to nil that they will go through with it!

When was Penumbra: Overture conceived to be an episodic trilogy rather than a single game? How much was this choice just a business decision to generate revenue?

Jens Nilsson: It's mainly a decision that is not related to generating revenue rather it's related to development costs. By making a shorter game we were able to finance the development on our own, which gives a better platform when negotiating. Not to mention it gives the possibility to make deals to begin with, if you only have an idea and need funding as well you will most likely have a very hard time finding a partner.

We also wanted to create a game where we could listen to user input and make the next game better. We do not listen to everything people have to say but it always spawns an internal discussion and from that we believe many great ideas and improvements can be made.

Thomas Grip: Episodic games can also be quite hard to go through with, especially if you want to release the episodes on a regular basis (which is kind of the idea). If I could do it all over again I am not sure I would have wanted to do our game episodic.

How satisfied or unsatisfied are you with the reaction so far from the mainstream game press about your game? Is it fair that an indie game developed by a small studio be judged by the same standard as an AAA title by a top tiered developer? Why?

Jens Nilsson: Very satisfied, we have managed to get so much attention and reviews that considering our budget and in particular our PR budget is quite remarkable. We have several larger publications giving the game a very good score and positive comments, we were hoping for an average around 60-70 and at the moment our own internal list is at 75 and on sites like come it says 73 as an average. We think that is really great and are very happy about that!

A game should be judged against other similar games and as such we believe it to be fair to rate our game against the big titles. As long as some thought is put into the review and it's not all about the 100 million budget spent on graphics we feel we have been reviewed very fairly.

Thomas Grip: As long as the game is not only rated on its "special effects" and other things that can only be done on a big budget I see no problem with using the same ruler for all games in the same genre. Actually I think it is very bad not to do so! I am quite annoyed at reviewers who give a good grade for a game only because it was made by a small indie team.

Notwithstanding the claim which you have previously insisted that Penumbra: Overture is not an adventure game, what needs to be done by developers of adventure games to reinvigorate the genre? How much do you see your game as a vision of the future for this genre?

Jens Nilsson: I really do not feel that I am in a position to say what would be needed for the adventure genre as I do not play that sort of games much these days. Sure, I have recently finished Zelda and RE 4 for Wii and not that long ago I played through Beyond Good & Evil as well as The Shivah on the PC. But that more as a pure enjoyment and not for spending much time thinking about what should be changed or what could be improved.

As for the very hardcore adventure genre with point and click on pre-rendered images I do have some ideas. Again, it's not a genre I have spent any time with since the original Myst. But I think it could be interesting to see that type of game but with real-time rendering for each scene and combine that with physical properties for all the objects in the scene. It would still be controlled by using the mouse only but you could be more hands on when searching for clues and exploring the environment. As I do not play these sorts of games I am well aware of the fact that this might already be the case in many titles...

That would allow for the same story telling and basically the same gameplay system but with the added immersion from being able to much more life-like interact with the environment. To me that sounds like a key feature for a genre that's very much about examining and exploring each scene in the story!

Thomas Grip: When people say that the adventure genre needs to changed I think most people think of some revolution in how the games are played. I am not sure that is what is needed; rather the style of the games should be changed instead. Currently most point and click games have a standard detective formula to it. There is some kind of mystery and it is up to you to solve it. I would love to see some more variation on this basic setup instead!

For example in Interactive Fiction there are lots of cool ways in which the games are played. In one game you try to guide a person on a malfunctioning spaceship over a radio (here bad commands are not heard because of static by the other person). Another game has the player captured and the whole game plays out as an interrogation. That is just some quick examples of what could be made to spice up the genre without any revolution in how the game is played.

You are a classic success story of an indie game developer. How much has this success changed your personal life? If your life has not taken on this turn, what will you be doing now instead?

Jens Nilsson: Not sure how much of a success we have been. It's been great to get the attention and appreciation for the work we have done, but on the financial side I think we can only sum it together as a failure to be honest. At the moment we keep pushing onwards but we have a bit of an urge to up the living standard a bit and spend less time in front of a computer these days...

Thomas Grip: Well, we are not riding in any Ferris yet, actually I cannot even afford to get a drivers license! Having been a student my personal life has not changed that much in terms of economy at least.

Not sure what I would have been doing if Frictional Games was not. Probably some other programming related stuff.

How far currently in the development of Episode 2? Episode 3? What can gamers expect in future episodes of Penumbra: Overture? What are the tentative release dates for the other episodes?

Jens Nilsson: The original plan to do three episodes has been canceled due to extensive problems with our original publisher Lexicon Entertainment. There was a time when we thought there would be no more games in the series, but thanks to our new arrangement with Paradox Interactive we are now working on the new Penumbra: Black Plague.

This game will continue and end the story that was begun in Penumbra: Overture. Penumbra: Black Plague will also work for new players, the game has been designed to be enjoyable without any previous knowledge of the story.

We are behind the original schedule to release the next game in October/November due to our major publisher problems. The new date is set for a quarter one 2008 release, at the moment we are confident we will be able to deliver on that date.

In Penumbra: Black Plague we are concentrating on adding more ambience, more horror and more adventure with less action. We have redesigned the game to have less action and moments were the player might have to defend himself. We have concentrated on adding more puzzles and more importantly puzzles that are powered by the physics interaction we developed for Penumbra: Overture.

What can we expect from Frictional Games over the next 5 years?

Jens Nilsson: Most likely a "We are closed" sign! He, he just kidding!

Thomas Grip: Hopefully more games and perhaps something for the consoles. We have some ideas for future projects but we are pretty much focused on completing Penumbra first.

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