Those of us who love being scared witless have had pretty slim pickings recently. Yes, Resident Evil made us jump when the dogs smashed through the window and Eternal Darkness had that bit with the bathtub - even Condemned had that alarmingly unnerving level with the shop dummies…but those highlights were all ages ago. Very few companies seem willing or able to make really scary games anymore, especially on PC.
Which makes Frictional Games, a small indie studio operating out of Sweden, all the more notable.
‘It started out with Jens helping me out with a hobby project of mine, the unfortunately canceled Unbirth,’ said Thomas Grip, co-founder of Frictional Games. ‘After that we worked together on other projects and ended up creating the Penumbra Tech Demo during a school course. The tech demo became such a success that we started planning a commercial version with another guy named Anton. On January the first 2007, Frictional Games was officially born.’
Penumbra, for the uninitiated, is an episodic first person survival horror title with a bit of twist. The in-house developed HPL engine gives the experience a much more real and visceral energy, with in-game actions having this unnerving ability to, well, feel real. Where most games assign player actions to a single ‘Use’ button, the HPL engine forces you to make physical movements that correlate with what you expect to happen on screen; if you want to open a door you have to reach out and grab the handle. It allows the sublime physics system to be utilized for some ingenious puzzles, and some incredibly brutal combat.
Frictional don't make very pleasant games, we admit
Though the series has now found fame thanks to the Humble Indie Bundle, and various Steam sales, things weren't too rosy to start with.
‘I think we sold 2000 Overture units online and 3000 Black Plague online units during the first month of release,’ said Grip. ‘The initial online sales were not very good and retail was taking a lot of time to get anything from, because we would first have to pay back the advance. I’m not sure if we’re up on the retail costs yet, actually.’
Despite the sales figures there’s a sense that Frictional is pleased that the series even made it to completion; the team had an especially torrid time with their second episode in the Penumbra series, Black Plague. Having suddenly gone from students working in their spare time to a professional development team, Frictional was hurt by a lack of experience.
‘[For Black Plague] we used the money we earned from Overture to fund the game, but ran out of cash half-way because of the retail publisher continuing to be unreliable,’ says Thomas. ‘They pretty much scammed us on 2/3 of the money we should have had.’ It was only with the aid of established PC publisher Paradox Interactive, which provided a much needed cash injection, that the series was able to move forward.
In fact, sometimes they are just downright nasty
The episodic releases that Frictional had planned proved troublesome too, as the idea of selling games to audiences in chunks seemed alien and off-putting to many. Back in 2007 – only a few years objectively, but an eon in the fast-moving games industry – Frictional was very positive about the idea. Thomas especially thought it was a model that was worth trying out on the basis that ‘by making a good first episode you could get gamers hooked and then easily release more episodes instead of starting on a new game.’
Unfortunately, the episodic structure didn’t go down as well as Frictional might have hoped – though the series was properly finished for series fans.
‘Because of money issues it pretty much failed directly, like so many other episode based games. We decided to just re-work the two final episodes into one final game, which would become Black Plague, and get it all over with.’
It was a tough decision for the team, but few could really begrudge them from refocusing their skills elsewhere in search of more financial stability – the developers still hope to one day pay themselves ‘a normal wage’. It’s especially hard to feel bitter when you consider the quality of the project they refocused on, the spine-chilling Amnesia: The Dark Descent…