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Interview with Frictional Games' Jens Nilsson, developer of Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Richard Naik's picture

Amnesia: The Dark Descent Screenshot

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is highly likely to be my 2010 game of the year, and is the proud recipient of only the second perfect 10 that I have given out. Jens Nilsson, one of the developers at Frictional Games, was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about Amnesia and the future of Frictional.

Tell us a little bit about Frictional. Who are you, what are your backgrounds, and how did you get started making games?

We are a small company, consisting of 6 full-time working fellows (or to be exact, 1 is only part-time) and we also work a lot with contractors and freelancers to produce our games. We had the official launch date of the company the 1st of January 2007, the same year we released our first game Penumbra: Overture. Back then we were three people in the company, but using external contributors, one of them being Luis whom later began working full-time with us, followed by Marc which also had previously done contributing work for us.

While working on Amnesia we had a cool intern (literally, he lives quite far up north in Sweden, while the rest of us are very southern based) that got hired full-time as his internship ended. Lastly we have gained the addition of Mikael, the guy that worked on the story for Amnesia, he is now the part-time addition to our in-house crew.

Originally the company was started by Thomas & Jens, so that should sum up all the people nicely (yes one too many if you kept count, but the original artist Anton went on to live the happy life in Norway instead). For the two of us, we have worked on games for a long time, as a hobby and for freelance. We started to work on projects together during the last years of university studies, building the base for the technology that was to power Penumbra: Overture.

Where did Amnesia come from, and how did your earlier work with Penumbra inform its creation?

Amnesia came from Unknown, which in turn came from Lux Tenebras. Those are the working titles we had during the three years it took from original idea to final game. We re-worked the original idea a lot during the first two years, originally aiming for something more "gamey" than Penumbra, to later go for something with a bit more action and combat for survival oriented, while eventually ending up with the more "to be experienced" based game that Amnesia is.

The technology for the game was developed with the aim to allow for prototyping as early as possible, so we had opportunities to do short tests of various type of gameplay very early on. The funny thing is that, when we started to drop the idea of making a game based on gameplay and rather concentrate on "What do we want to tell with the story? What do we want the player to experience and feel while playing?" all the pieces started to come together.

Penumbra gave us a great source of experience and tons of data to analyze, to think about what worked and what did not. We also had a couple of threads in our Forum where we had asked questions to the users on several topics regarding Penumbra, so we could go over that and see how well/not so well parts of the Penumbra design had worked.

We had also noticed that we needed a powerful suite of tools, to ease the development of the game, so that we could spend more time crafting the experience rather than struggling to create the actual game. So we basically set out to create a tool, that would work like a 2D based tile level editor we have had in an earlier platformer game. The great thing about that editor, was that the whole team could work on levels and easily adjust, improve levels in steps. In the end the Amnesia editors definitely met that goal, so we also released them to the community to make "custom stories" for Amnesia.

There are numerous videos online of players' fearful reactions to events in Amnesia. I myself had to drink to get through the game. While you were making it, did you or anyone else ever think it would be this intense or get the kind of reception it's gotten?

Haha, no not really, in our dark and hopefully dreams, yes, but not actually thinking that it would be like that in reality!

Amnesia: The Dark Descent Screenshot

Give us a brief description of the processes involved when trying to make a particular segment or area "scarier". How did you determine when something was frightening enough?

It's very difficult to know when something is frightening as you really know everything about the situation and how it works. Mostly you have to try hard and imagine how you wish something would be in another game or when watching a movie. Also to analyze and think about movies and games you have played that have had scenes or parts where you have felt they were really great. For example, it is quite easy to take Aliens (or Alien) as an inspiration, where they have a lot of parts where you do not see anything, but only hear that "beep beep" noise and seeing on the radar screen how something approaches, leaving a lot up to the imagination of how that thing actually looks and what it will do.

A final test is of course to user testers that have not played the game before, but there are a couple of problems there as well. First it is hard to have enough new testers all the time, you have to re-use (ask very politely) if the same tester is interested in testing the game one more time. The second is that when you test a game, you know this is for testing and you are not really playing the game in the same way you would if you only did it for the pure enjoyment. When reading the feedback from a tester you have to decide that if the tester thinks a section was sort of scary, what are the chances that the section is actually really scary for the final player?

What was the hardest part about making Amnesia?

Just making the game was quite problematic for us. Originally we had a publisher, then we had to terminate that contract as payments did not arrive as they should. We really did not have many months left of cash to live on, but then we sold a ton of games on Steam and we had a bit more of a buffer. So we decided to lower our already low salaries as much as possible, to make that cash last as long as possible. Then after a while the money started to drain, but then we had a great Linux sale and sold a second ton of games, making us last a bit longer. Finally we were part of the Humble Indie Bundle, which sold 10 tons of games, at which point we were home free!

So during the whole development, except the last year, we always had the problem of how to be able to finish the game. This took a lot of time as we explored all the possibilities we could think of, there were periods when we spent more time seeking funding opportunities than we spent time developing the game.

Recently you wrote a blog post about Amnesia's sales figures and the reasoning behind not including any kind of copy protection. How big of a problem do you think protection-based design is in the industry right now? Also, since Amnesia does not have any DRM,  how much do you think piracy has impacted your bottom line? How will it affect your development philosophy in the future?

It's problematic to use systems where you punish the people buying the game and making the pirated copy a much better choice due to its simplicity. The goal must always be to create something that makes the bought product an experience better or on par with the pirated copy. It's very easy to find an excuse as to why you do not buy something, so why create the opportunities to come up with all those excuses?

We are not on the side of those that think 1 illegal download = 1 lost sale and we are not on the side that thinks 1 illegal download = 1 free marketing campaign. We don't see ourselves as being more affected by pirates than anyone else, but we do think it is important to discuss it. The main problem with piracy is the lack of facts, all sides of the matter just like to through out "this is how it is!", with little grounds to validate the claims.

With Amnesia we tried to make the game available, meaning that we made sure the game can run on computers as old as those made in 2005/2006 (as long as they have an actual graphics card), that it has a low price (and that we are always positive to put up the game for heavily discounted sales), that it runs on Windows, Mac & Linux, that it has support for 5 languages and that there are several options to use when buying the game (our own store with credit card, paypal or mobile phone payments, or any of the major popular online stores). The only puzzle missing is the retail box, but we are working on that. In short, we have tried to limit the number of possible excuses as to why you would not buy our game if you actually like it.

For future titles we aim to continue this work of availability.

All of your games so far have been horror oriented. Why horror games? Any plans to branch out into other genres? Why or why not?

Originally, simply because it was a genre enjoyed personally by us. Then later we identified it to be a popular genre, but with limited competition, so we saw an opportunity to create a space for ourselves in the genre. We were also interested making first person games that were not about shooting or bashing on things, the horror genre has a lot of adventure elements that worked as a starting point for making a game about something else. It all continued with that the physics interaction works really well when you want to drag the player into the game world, which is the main goal of a horror game and also that in the horror genre you can sacrifice gameplay in order to emphasize the emotions you want to create.

Yes, at the moment we have a plan to branch out a little bit into other genres. It's a mixed bag of reasons, but mainly that we have worked on horror games for so long and with Amnesia: The Dark Descent we really did our best to create a unique horror experience, so it feels very difficult to just do it all over again. We need a bit of a fresh start, the next project is definitely a game with horror, but not a game made for the sole purpose of being a horror game.

Apart from your own work, what's the scariest game you've played, and what made it scary for you?

I think that must be the first Alien vs Predator, playing as a human and just getting to walk in the dark with the radar was such a boy dream come true that it was extremely scary.

Any final words you'd like to share?

Sure! As the end of the year comes closers, if you have not had a chance to try any of our games, I am certain that there will be a lot of bargain opportunities to do so!

Category Tags
Platform(s): PC  
Developer(s): Frictional Games  
Genre(s): Horror  
Articles: Interviews  
Topic(s): Business   Piracy & DRM   Game Design & Dev  

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Great interview, and I have

Great interview, and I have to say thanks to you Richard for talking about this game in a recent podcast, or else I would have been completely oblivious to it. I don't even usually go for survival horrors, let alone some obscure indie-pc title on Steam, yet your words on how truly terrifying the game is compelled me to see if you're words were genuine or if you were just being a big girl's blouse!

Needless to say, I'm perhaps the biggest douche on the planet since I could barely even finish the demo! I honestly never thought games could evoke such genuine fear in me, but wearing headphones and playing without the lights on (as the game suggests) is just unbearable for me.

It's bittersweet because on the one hand I can't buy the game because there's no way I could ever finish it, yet for that very reason the game 100% completes the task it aims for. In that regard your 10/10 score is justified.

The developers of Amnesia definitely deserve massive recognition for their achivements; they've done something with the horror genre that no other developer has in the entire existence of gaming, at least as far as I can tell (and I've been gaming a very long time).

@Crofto I feel exactly the

@Crofto

I feel exactly the same way. If you can somehow power through it I'd recommend doing so, especially since it's on sale (this weekend only) on Steam for $10.

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