Friday, 13 November 2015

Thoughts on Until Dawn and Interactive Movies

Before starting Until Dawn my hopes for the game weren't very high. I thought it was going to be a half-baked and campy interactive movie filled with unlikable characters and cheap jump scares. However, it turned out a lot better than I could have imagined and it now stands as one of my favorite horror games ever. Sure, the game can get really campy at times, and it has its fair share of jump scares. But it also features a clever script, an excellent setting, amazing atmosphere and (to my surprise) also managed to be extremely tense and scary at times.

The game knows that it is a B-movie horror, but it takes that at heart and instead of hiding behind satire it's determined to be the best B-movie possible. This works a lot better than I'd expected it to and the result is an engaging ride that channels other (in my opinion) great B-horror like The Descent, Saw, Dog Soldiers and Evil Dead. It takes itself just seriously enough for you to overlook the sillier aspects yet still feel emotionally invested in the fates of the characters.

Until Dawn is not without its faults of course, but it does a lot of things incredibly well. I have grown quite tired of the interactive movie format over the years. Playing through over three seasons of Telltale games have made the experience feel samey, and I am always frustrated with how little I get to actually play, explore and shape the narrative. Until Dawn far from reinvents the interactive movie genre, in fact it's fascinating how alike all of these games are, but it changes just enough to make the experience feel fresh again. This is where I think things get really interesting, because while the changes aren't anything major, they have a huge impact on the end experience. 

Now it's time to take a closer look at the inner workings of Until Dawn, and to do so we have to enter spoiler territory. I will try to stay away from larger reveals, but it will still be enough to ruin a lot of the fun. Until Dawn relies a lot on uncertainty, so if you haven't played the game (which I really recommend you do) and want the best possible experience, go and play it before reading more of this essay.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let's start with the things that Until Dawn does really well:

Multiple Deaths System
First up is the most prominent and possibly the most effective feature of the game: any character can die at any time. Well, to be fair, in practice they can't - but it sure feels like it. Some characters can be killed pretty early on in the story while some can't die until the very end. The trick is that the first time you play it you can never be sure. Whenever things start to get dangerous for a character you always feel that there's a chance that a bad choice or a missed quick time event can lead to their death. And since Until Dawn saves after every important choice, there is no going back. Any death is basically permanent.

Heavy Rain did a similar thing a couple of years back, but Until Dawn takes it to next level. The main reason for this is that death feels like a possibility from almost the start through to the bitter end. In Heavy Rain the scenes that feel like life-or-death-moments are pretty spread out, but in Until Dawn they permeate the entire experience. Early on in the game, most of these turn out to be the characters playing pranks on one another, but because of how it all is setup you can never be sure.

The game also helps to build up this tension by very explicitly telling the player what's at stake. It also uses a lot of filmic tricks, such as showing us, through the eyes of the monster, how the characters are being stalked. Normally I don't like this sort of thing in games as it lessens the feel of it being "my story", but here it works really well. It points out that the characters are now in danger, and together with the game's initial warnings, it makes it very clear that you have to be on alert. 

The final aspect that I think makes this work so much better here than in Heavy Rain is that Until Dawn is a proper horror game. The tension and uncertainty built from knowing that any character might perish goes hand-in-hand with the the game's thick atmosphere. Both of these constantly reinforce one another and do a great job of making you feel vulnerable and under constant threat. A great way to test this is to simply replay the game. Once you know a certain section poses no actual danger for a character, much of the tension dissipates and the scene goes from scary to feeling tame. It's like turning off the music in a horror movie - without all necessary elements in place the effect is lost.

This system is not only a way of making the game scary, it's also a great way of keeping the narrative going. There's almost never any chance of getting stuck and thereby having to repeat the same section over and over. This makes sure that frustration is kept to a minimum, letting players be focused on becoming immersed in the narrative. If players become stuck trying figure out how to progress, immersion is quickly decreased, and lot of the horror along with it.

By not having a game over screen, you also get rid of the feeling of having seen the worst the game has to offer. In Until Dawn it is almost the opposite; once you have seen a character meet a horrible death, you know anyone can be next. Normally the death scene is a relief for the player, but here it raises the stakes instead.

Finally, by letting it be possible for every character to die, you earn your outcome in a way that you usually don't do in interactive movies. Normally, because branches tend to quickly collapse, your choices are more about pondering the decision, and less about the outcome. But in Until Dawn, your choice will determine who lives and dies, which gives you a much more palpable feel to your decisions.

It is pretty clear that this kind of system is close to optimal for a horror game. So why doesn't every horror game use it? The most obvious answer is that not every game is able to support a large cast of playable (and killable) characters, but there's another reason that's much more difficult to get around. In a fully playable game, the number of places where the player can die skyrockets, and it becomes really hard to make sure that each one is satisfactory from a narrative perspective.

Until Dawn gets around this by relying a lot on "successful failures". For instance, if you fail at a quick time event when a character jumps across a chasm, the game can show a clip of the character fumbling and just barely making it across. So you get feedback for failing the challenge, but your character didn't die and the narrative can continue along the same path. In a fully playable game, this is simply not possible. If the player fails at a jump the mechanics says they will fall down. It isn't possible to give the player any help (e.g. a push in the right direction) to make sure they complete it, either. There are simply too many ways to perform an action, and besides it would quickly become glaringly obvious. This means that not only does a fully playable game have to deal with many more possible deaths, it's also a lot less predictable how they will unfold.

Side note: I wrote about this as a potential death system over six years ago. One of my suggestions was to have a Cube-like setup, which is pretty much exactly what Until Dawn does, and it worked much better than I'd expected it to.

Ability To Plan
The ability to make plans is part of what it means to be human, and there are good reasons to think it's one of the biggest reasons for us developing a consciousness (more info here). When we plan we get to flex our most advanced mental muscle: the ability to simulate future outcomes. Thus allowing us to make plans is an vital part of human expression.

Most games allow planning in some form. And not just any sort of planning, but meaningful planning where you can weigh your current data, plot a future course of actions, execute on those actions and then feel like you get a measurable outcome in the end. In Super Mario Bros you need to plan what path to take and how to avoid upcoming obstacles. In an RPG you need to consider how you spend your money and experience points to build up your character to suit your style of play and that character's effectiveness. There are tons of examples like this in games, and most games feature it in one form or another. Allowing for good planning is a one of the core features that make a game feel engaging.

However, in interactive movies, it's all about reacting to the events that unfold. There's not really any planning involved. You sort of live in the moment, and don't have much say in what happens next. For most of the time, the playable characters do what they feel like and let you occasionally take control to react to dangerous events or to make a tough decision for them. Sure, sometimes you can makes up plans to support certain characters so that they'll side with you later on. But all of that is pretty fuzzy, and mostly it won't be very useful to you. It is often hard to get a sense of what you near future possibilities will be at all. You might plan to do A, B and then C, only to have the game take control after action A and do something completely different. This means that, for the most part, it's impossible to plan ahead; in fact if you plan too much you will most likely be disappointed. It is often best to just go along with the flow. I think this lack of an ability to plan is one of the key reasons why many people feel that interactive movies are not proper games.

Side note: I think that the inability to plan and over reliance on reactive play is also why many people feel walking simulators aren't proper games. It is often stated that it depends on fail-states and the like, but I do not think that holds up. I will get back to this a bit more at the end of this essay.

Until Dawn shares the basics of this problem too, but because of the way certain things are designed it's possible to do a certain level of planning. This is something that I can't recall seeing in another interactive movie style of game, and it made the experience a lot more engaging to me.

The first thing that allows this are the totems. These are items that when picked up give you a brief glimpse of a possible future happening. Sometimes they show you how a character dies and sometimes they give you hints on important choices to make. For instance, in one totem you see that giving a certain character a flare gun gave you a good outcome. Now you know that you need to find a flare gun somewhere and make sure that a specific character gets it. It's not much, but what it does is that it forces you to guess how scenes might unfold, and you try to match up the current events with the totem visions you have seen. This forecasting gives the game a certain sense of strategy and forces you to consider current events more carefully. It's not a major game changer, but it's enough to give that extra sense of engagement.

What I found to be even more effective in allowing me to plan was in guessing plot-points which became a crucial part of the decision making. The most prominent of these was figuring out who was behind the torment of the other characters. I theorized quite early on who it was, and could then make a bunch of choices based around that. Connected to this is the fact that this is probably the only game I have played where it turned out to be beneficial to be a skeptic. I suspected that the movements of a spirit board was due to someone messing with it, which (together with a couple of other pieces of evidence) then led me to believe that certain ghost appearances couldn't be real either. All of these conclusions turned out to be true and allowed me to make much better decisions. In the end, the whole revelation is a bit implausible and very Scooby Doo-like. But it went quite nicely with the B-horror tone of the story and more than any other interactive movie I've played it made me feel that my understanding of the story mattered.

This doesn't mean that Until Dawn does planning perfectly - far from it. But it does show that smaller design changes can make a world of difference. It's also very important to note that a big reason why all this works is because of the Multiple Deaths System. Without having the very clear feedback of seeing your characters die or survive, and the tension that comes along with that, the features I've mentioned would have lost a lot of their impact.

Other Good Stuff
Those previous two points are what I feel are the major elements that make Until Dawn stand out from the crowd. But the good stuff doesn't end there. There are a lot of other interesting design choices that have a big influence on the experience.

First, exploration bits feels much better than in other interactive movie games. Often when you're given control over your character, the pacing often gets messed up. But in Until Dawn it just makes the game feel more like Resident Evil without the combat. One contributing factor is that that there're a lot of clues and totems for the player to find. These provide a nice sense of the sort of "item looting" common in survival horror games, and since all the things you can find are a part of the narrative, it never feels out of place either. The other factor is that you never know when you'll encounter danger, so walking down a murky hallway can be incredibly tense. Combined, these two elements make these exploration segments very engaging and make them feel part of the overall narrative.

Second, knowledge of the game's lore can help you survive situations, meaning that you're rewarded for paying more attention to it. For instance, there's one moment where knowing that monsters can't see you if you stand still is crucial when making a choice. And in another, remembering that monsters can imitate the voices of their prey will help you avoid walking into a trap.

Third, each of the characters has meters that go up and down as you make choices. At first it feels like unnecessary fluff, but it actually helps you get a bit more "ownership" over the characters. It's sort of an extension of the "Clementine will remember this"-line from the Walking Dead, giving an indicator that your actions have consequences. But more than that I think it's a way to see that your character changes depending on how you play. And then, the effect is similar to how you get more attached to your character in X-COM as they level up.

Fourth, it constantly varies its environments. This is what I like to call the Super Mario way of location progression. It has long been a common thing in games to let the player linearly progress through various environments. You start up in the forest, then go to the swamps, then to the mountains and finally you arrive at the castle. Super Mario doesn't work like that. Instead it constantly swaps between the environments, keeping the locations fresh. I think this is a really good design principle that far too few games use. Until Dawn does it well, both by having a lot of different locations near each other, and by switching character perspectives throughout the experience. This means that normally kind-of-dull environments, like the mines, always feel fresh and interesting to be in.

Again it's important to note here how much the Multiple Death system plays into all of these things. For instance, much of the dread that makes the exploration and clue hunting engaging comes from the knowledge that any choice could be a crucial one. The same is true for the second and third points too. And the varied environments rely heavily on there being multiple characters to play.

The Not So Good Stuff
Now that I have gone over the good things, it's time to briefly cover some of the not-so-good things in Until Dawn
  • The game often doesn't support a bunch of actions that it should have been possible to perform. For instance, there are doors here and there that it should have been possible to at least try to open. And far worse, at one point the characters turn away from a gate they could easily have jumped over. (You climb far more difficult things throughout the game). 
  • A few of the choices in the game can lead to unfair dead-ends. For instance, one character is bound to die pretty early on if you haven't made a few specific choices earlier in the game. The big problem here is not that it felt a bit unfair, but that you can't see any reason why it happens. If you can just get a sense of what went wrong, you can learn from your mistakes and do better later. But when that's not possible, your sense of being able to plan is decreased, which is a shame when the game builds that up so nicely in other places.
  • The settings in Until Dawn look great, but I always felt that I was unable to properly explore them. One reason for this was the locked camera angles which focus more on making the shot look nice than on providing a good play space. Another reason is that many set pieces are simply not possible to explore. The game just decides that the characters wants to do something else instead and has them leave the area. The game is excellent at building mood in many ways, but I felt annoyed at how the game seemed to constantly hinder me from taking it all in properly.
  • It is very uncertain when the control over your character will end. The best is when a dangerous encounter happens or you reach another character. In these cases the control method switch (from full analog to quick time events or dialog) and the break in control feels natural. But on many occasions the game starts a cutscene when you don't expect it to. For instance, after going down some stairs, the game suddenly decides that your character should go into a home cinema room despite there being lots of other places to explore. From a design point of view I can understand why this happens - you need to make sure that certain plot events trigger properly. But as a player these things deprive me of my agency and some of the immersion is lost.
There are a few more of these things, and what they all have in common is that they are typical of, or even sometimes inherent to, the format of interactive movies. I really liked Until Dawn, but I can't help feeling unsatisfied by this style of games. Despite having gone over all the the things that Until Dawn does right, it still feels like there's something fundamental missing to it all. Most of the story is told through cutscenes, and for much of the game you are more of an observer than an active participant. I want interactive stories that I can play from start to end, not just a little now-and-then.

Interactive Movies And Beyond
I feel I have a weird relationship with interactive movies. As I mentioned earlier, after playing through a bunch of Telltale games I've grown a bit bit tired of the format. But despite that they keep pulling me back. I ended up liking Until Dawn a lot more than I expected. Shortly after I also gave Life Is Strange a go and while it wasn't as good as Until Dawn, I liked it quite a bit too.

So why do I like them? I think there are three major reasons:
  • They have a proper setup that defines who you are and why you are there. I am so sick of games, and it's especially common among horror games, that just throw me into an environment and expect me to care without giving me a reason to do so. Interactive movies (well most of them at least) work hard to provide intrigue and mystery from the get-go, properly setting me up to enjoy the rest of the story.
  • The main focus is on telling a story. I don't mean this just by them being very linear and movie-like, but more that just about every choice is made in accordance to intended narrative. For instance, Until Dawn has collectibles but puts a lot of effort into making sure that they are connected to story. This creates worlds that feel more "real" and are easier to become lost in.
  • They lack the fluff that that is so common in other games. The uninspired shoot-out sections that are obviously just there to make the game longer, extensive weapon upgrading, narrative-wise meaningless collectibles, filler mini-games and so forth. Interactive movies aim at giving you a specific experience and make sure that all of the game's aspects help fulfill that goal.
When other much more gameplay-focused games try to do storytelling it often just gets in the way. I always get annoyed by action games that start with overly long expositions, and just want them to get to the point. In fact, in other games it feels like the more overt storytelling actually gets in the way of the narrative the game is "supposed" to be telling.

It might seem like I'm heading towards the good old "gameplay vs story" discussion here, but the point I'm getting at is a bit different. I don't think that gameplay is something inherently opposite of story. In fact, in the way I see story many of the classically super-gameplay-focused games like Super Mario have a ton of story in them. As you board an airship dodging cannonballs while trying to get one of Bowser's sons, a very rich narrative is created.

Instead, the problem lies in controlling the player's mental model of the game. That is how they perceive the game's virtual world to work, and what aspects that become most important in shaping how decisions are made and emotions evoked. When you want to focus on story you have to cut back on a lot of useful gameplay methods. The biggest issue is that you need to make sure that players do not end up optimizing for best possible progression, but act according to the intended narrative. There are also a bunch of things to consider in order to keep players immersed in the world. (For more information check out this essay). In the end it all comes down to storytelling games getting less gameplay per buck, as you can't rely on a fun and addictive gameplay system being core of the experience.

We found this out when creating SOMA. It's the one of our games that has got the most praise for its story, but it's also perceived as the one lacking the most in the gameplay department. Recently it occurred to me that one of the major things that make people feel the game lacks gameplay is because most choices are made as reactions. This even includes many of the puzzles, which have been designed with the focus to be streamlined and coherent with the narrative. This makes the game lack that proper feeling of being able to meaningfully plan ahead. So despite there being lots of things to do in SOMA, it feels like something is missing gameplay-wise.

The problem here is that we simply cannot increase the gameplay in any trivial manner. That would cause a whole bunch of other, worse, issues. So the way forward is to find other ways in which to increase the sense of "playability". And here I think there are at least two vital things that can be learned from Until Dawn:
  • To find ways to, in a story-focused fashion, ramp up the tension and sense of accomplishment. The Multiple Deaths System in Until Dawn does a fantastic job at this.
  • To allow players to make plans based upon how the narrative unfolds. The player should not just react to events as they occur but be able use tactics and long term planning in a way that feels meaningful.
How to do this in a gameplay-focused experience is far from straightforward. You can't just make a game with multiple characters and call it a day; most likely the effect of the Multiple Deaths System will need to work in a quite different manner. But what I find encouraging is that if we simply focus on increasing the ability to plan, it will allow us to view the problem from different, and probably much more fruitful angles. I feel there is something very much worth exploring here, and it will be interesting to see what can come out of it.

Friday, 16 October 2015

The Voices of SOMA

SOMA has been a long journey. For roughly five years I’ve worked on Simon, Catherine, and the others who in some way inhabits the world of SOMA. The game has changed a lot over the years, not just in gameplay and plot, but in tone as well. I think one of the most grounding and solidifying aspects of creating the characters for SOMA has been giving them an actual actor’s voice.

Not exactly Fallout amount of dialog, but still pretty good

2013 - A Vertical Slice
Voices were first introduced as we were completing the “Vertical Slice” in February 2013. It was to be our first self-contained build that we could show off, test player reactions, and to allow ourselves to make a better judgment on our own work. For me this meant that I would head off to SIDE studios in London and record all the voices needed for about ten levels or so. At the time of the first recording, everything was still very much up in the air. I had written lines for the monsters inside Curie – even the WAU! It was just a mess and I’m glad we cut most of it out.
We haven’t really kept much at all of the material that we recorded during these sessions, but it did raise a very important question – what should Simon and Catherine sound like?

Simon and Catherine are by far the biggest and most complex roles Frictional Games have ever done. Neither Simon or Catherine fill any particular stereotypes found in games, which meant finding the right actors wasn’t going to be easy.

Our initial thought for Catherine was to use her background from Taipei and have her talk with a noticeable accent. In my book, accents are great. Not just because it’s nice to be diverse and inclusive, but because it distinguishes a character and gives them so much flavor. It’s very useful, especially for a game like SOMA where most of the characters don’t have visibly human features to make them stand out. However, what we found after trying a few accents on Catherine was that it actually didn’t work the way we wanted. Combining the voice with the non-expressive visuals made it a little cartoonish, reminding people of Amy Wong from Futurama, a character who is largely comedic. Catherine at this point was even more introverted and it didn’t fit at all that the player should find her amusing like that. Looking back I think we could have made it work, but that Catherine would have been a very different Catherine from what we ended up with. To minimize the risks of making an overtly funny character we decided to let the actress almost completely drop Catherine’s flavorful accent and instead move towards British RP.

Simon’s voice kind of had an opposite journey to Catherine as we ended up finding Jared Zeus right away. However, it wasn’t going to be quite as simple as that.

Jared had taped microphones on his head so it would sound awesome
when playing with headphones - appreciate it!

2014 - The GDC Build
The next recording was almost exactly a year later. This time we were looking at the first version of the game that we could show journalists, mainly at GDC, the game developer conference in San Francisco that same year. This was basically the same part of the game we recorded the year before, but with substantial rewrites, which meant going back to page one and doing it all over again.

A big change from my perspective was that it had been decided that we should try to find a tougher kind of Simon, and so we casted another actor to play that part. It caused some slight weirdness seeing how at the same time I had sort of gotten into the Jared Zeus rhythm and started to write him with that actor in mind. During the last year Simon, along with Catherine, had also become more relaxed. I wanted to adopt a little more comical absurdity than just pure angst. Not to go too deep into style, but basically the changes was meant to move away from the melodrama that is more effective when considering a character like Daniel in Amnesia and try to approach a style of horror with a little levity which would be more forgiving when doing proper conversations. Going with a tougher Simon kind of sidetracked that everyman feeling that I had written and this turned out to be a case of wronging a right.

While we were dealing with Simon’s voice, we still didn’t have a Catherine that we felt comfortable with either. The actress we had was great, but the voice simply didn’t gel with the character we wanted. As a side-note I would say that this is how most of these things work out. When choosing an actor for a part there’s very rarely any question of who is better or worse, it’s much more about the personifying qualities that the specific actor can provide. Auditions are not so much a proof of acting chops as much as it is a question of can we find an interesting take on this character that would serve the story. So it’s not the best actor, but the best suited one that you want.
Anyway, back to casting Catherine. All we knew was that the voice we had didn’t work the way we wanted. We did a regular casting round, but none of the voices really hit home – probably because we didn’t really know what to ask for either.
This was starting to look like a serious problem, we were missing one of the most important characters of the game. I went over all the auditions for Catherine again and again, and then I started to look outside of Catherine and dug into all the other roles we had been casting. That’s when I stumbled on Nell Mooney. Nell had been reading for the role of Alice Koster and there was just something about that voice that made sense to me. She had a warm, likable voice that made me think: if this person says or does something completely insane I might just still forgive and trust her. Which is kind of exactly what Catherine needed to be. Thankfully, Thomas agreed that we should give Nell a shot and we ended up casting her even though she hadn't read any of Catherine's lines. A really lucky break for us considering how incredibly well Nell would come to bring that character to life.

Chuck helps people getting into action mode!

2014 - Building on What We Got
The next recording in October 2014 was meant to complement the stuff we already had. Unlike the jump between the first two recordings, this time it was important that we could get the same actors back to continue their roles. This is the first time we found some logistical problems with recording like this. Unsurprisingly, actors are people that do a lot of cool stuff and they can’t just sit around waiting for us to call them up again. It was really crushing to replace some awesome performances due to the fact that we couldn’t get the actors back that we needed. This meant that we would need to replace a lot of actors and record the old stuff again as well.

Since the last recording it had become apparent that the tougher Simon wasn’t really working the way we wanted, so it was decided that we were going make another round of auditions for that role. Thankfully, I was able to convince Thomas to go back Jared Zeus again.
Even though some of the minor roles still needed to be re-cast and re-recorded, we had our two main characters Simon and Catherine sorted out, which was a huge load off my mind.

Preparing a session of Simon (Jared) talking to Lindwall (Andrea Deck)

2015 - Beta and Pick-ups
I think it is safe to say that the time between October 2014 and February 2015 is when the game finally found its form. A tremendous amount of stuff had been rewritten and in a way this is when we recorded the game. It was a two week recording and it was a blast – probably the most fun I’ve had professionally. Every morning Jared and Nell would come in and record for four hours. They had by far the most lines and there was a lot to cover. After lunch we would continue with some of the smaller roles, since it’s not a good idea to kill the voice of an actor by keeping them for a full day. Having Jared and Nell consistently record every morning turned out to be great idea. I could kind of hear the whole game play out chronologically and I could see them react to my explanations of what was happening in the different scenes in a way that a player would pick up things. A game script isn’t very descriptive, so even though they most likely read through the lines before, it’s not really until I give them the context that they realize what is going on. So I could watch them react to the story as I was telling it. Kind of reminds me hosting pen-and-paper RPGs. And the great part about that was being able to do minor changes to the script so it fell more closely in line with what the actors were expressing. I think this is the time when I finally consciously started to express some of the emotional themes of the game, like hope and denial. It was when talking to Damien, our amazing director, that enabled me to slow down and not think like a content producer and instead discuss and work through the material in a sensible way.
We ended up doing one final round of recording late spring where we filled in some gaps in the story and did a new take on the enemies, but other than that I consider the February recording our definitive and by far the most important recording of the whole game. 

Wine helps Simon and Catherine cope with the horrors of SOMA

Closing thoughts 
I’m not completely sure why I wanted to write an article about the voices of SOMA – I didn't even tell you about all the fun stuff like how Akers' once had a voice as a monster and how we almost flew an actress from Iceland to record for an hour. I like to think this is me just paying a small tribute to all the amazing work I’ve seen from directors, sound engineers, producers, casting agents, and of course the multitude of actors who at some point acted out the lines that I put in front of them. Voice recording is an incredibly fun world to work with and I hope to see all of you again in future projects.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Hiring: Producer / Project Manager

Frictional is looking for a producer / project manager to employ full time.

First up, the two most basic requirements:
  • That you live in Sweden (preferably in Skåne) or can move here.
  • That you speak Swedish.
På grund av detta kommer resten av ansökan att vara på svenska.

Som producer / project manager på Frictional Games kommer du att få väldigt varierande uppgifter. De huvudsakliga sysslorna kommer att vara följande:
  • Sköta stor del av företagets planering och budget.
  • Att överse och förbättra företagets arbetsmetodik.
  • Göra planer för PR och sköta kontakter.
  • Ansvara för kontakten med butiker, förläggare, outsourcers och andra samarbetspartners. 
  • Följa upp och utvärdera diverse förslag från andra företag.
Egenskaper vi vill att du ska ha är:
  • Beredd på att jobba hemifrån. Frictional Games har inget kontor.
  • Tidigare erfarenhet att driva eller vara manager på ett IT-företag. Bakgrund inom spel är ett plus, men inte nödvändigt.
  • Inte rädd för att jobba med kalkylark och liknande.
  • God datorvana.
  • Förstår dig på grundläggande ekonomi.
  • Goda kunskaper i personaldynamik.
  • Självständig, inte rädd för att ta ansvar och god initativförmåga.
  • Inte rädd för att lära dig nya saker.
  • Tala flytande engelska.
Tycker du att detta låter som något för dig, skicka ett mejl till

Thursday, 1 October 2015

SOMA - 10 days after launch

SOMA has now been out in the wild for 10 day so it felt fitting to write a summary of how things have gone so far. But first a little trailer:

I'm going to start with what I think most people are interested in: how much has the game sold? The current number now is at about 92,000 copies across all platforms (due to legal reasons we can't give a per-platform breakdown). This is quite good for 10 days (+ preorder time) of sales! The money that we've got from this will pretty much pay our company expenses for another 2 years. Sales are still going pretty strongly too, with a total of around 2,000 copies sold per day. This number is bound to drop over time, and it'll be interesting to see just how fast and where it stabilizes. While a lot of sales obviously come close to launch, a big part of our normal earnings comes from a slow daily trickle over the years of our existing titles. So our average daily sales a month or so from now on is actually more important than all of the units sold up to this point.

How does this compare to our other releases? Well, Amnesia: The Dark Descent sold 30,000 copies in the first month (and around 20,000 the first week). So SOMA's launch is obviously a lot better than that. Compared to Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, though, the launch is a little bit worse. That game sold about 120,000 copies the first week.

Our goal for SOMA's sales is 100,000 after a month, and at the current pace it should be able to reach pretty much exactly that with a few units to spare. However, this doesn't mean that we've come close to recouping all our costs. We need to sell almost 3 times that amount to do that. But given that it took us 5 years to make the project, there's no immediate stress to do so. One of the great things about funding SOMA 100% ourselves is that all money earned goes into our own pockets and is directly used to fund our upcoming projects. So we are under no pressure to recoup immediately so long as we get enough to keep going - which we certainly have now.

Finally, another very interesting aspect is how new titles tend to cannibalize on the previous ones. We saw this with A Machine for Pigs; after it launched the daily sales of The Dark Descent were almost cut in half. That was not that unexpected though, given that they are both from the same franchise, but still a bit weird that the games' combined sales ended up being pretty much what The Dark Descent sold on its own before. What we didn't expect was for SOMA to do the same. When the pre-orders for SOMA started, Amnesia sales dropped by about 30% or so and this drop still remains. This feels strange as the two games are not connected apart from being made by the same company, so we wonder what mechanism it is that causes this. It might be that Amnesia's sales will rise again a bit later on though, so it's too soon to tell yet just what the effects are.

The critical reception of SOMA has been, overall, really, really great. MetaCritic is currently at 85 and the Steam reviews are 94% positive.

The thing that I worried most about personally was how the themes would be received. It turns out that I needn't have worried - that's the thing we have fewest problems with. Even reviews that gave us so-so scores lauded the game for the thought-provoking narrative. This feels awesome, as this has been the core focus during our five years of development.

The most common issue people have had is that they've felt the game wasn't scary enough. This is quite interesting, so I'd like to take a little time to discuss this.

One reason this was so is probably due to expectations. While we've tried to be very clear that SOMA will be a different game from Amnesia: The Dark Descent, we have still used the name "Amnesia" as a way to grab attention. This sends a bit of a mixed message, as people might simply assume that because we say "from the creators of Amnesia", a similar experience will be provided. One idea would have been not to mention the studio's heritage, but that feels stupid from a PR perspective. Another idea would have been to tone it down a bit, but it's hard to say exactly how to do that. The fact of the matter is that SOMA, just like Amnesia,  is very much a horror game. It's just that it is presented in a different manner, using slower build-up and more focus on the psychological aspects.

Another reason why some people felt it was not scary enough is because horror is extremely subjective. The reactions to how scary SOMA is range from "not at all" to "the scariest game I have played", and some of the people in the latter camp are survival horror veterans. We had this sort of reaction to Amnesia: TDD as well, but it feels even more spread out for SOMA. When we released The Dark Descent, horror with no combat was still a very fresh concept, but five years later that is no longer the case, and it has lost its impact for some people. SOMA also employs a riskier approach to monster AI that assumes the player will act in certain ways and reach a certain understanding about how the creatures work. If players don't do this the experience might suffer. Above all, the main horror in SOMA is supposed to come from the existential dread that's slowly unveiled as the game progresses. And in order for this to work properly, a lot of pieces need to align, and it will not work for everyone.

So in the light of that, it doesn't feel all that bad that we didn't get a more universal praise for the game's scariness. But it's taught us a valuable lesson: that one should be very careful in managing people's expectations. This is a lesson that we thought we knew after A Machine For Pigs (which didn't turn out to be the game many wanted it to be) but apparently we hadn't learned enough. Once your studio gets associated with a particular game, it'll play a huge role in what people expect from upcoming releases. That said, the vast majority of people that had expected another Amnesia ended up enjoying SOMA once they realized the game was different. So I don't feel it has been a complete failure by any means, but just one of those things that needs more work in the future.

It is interesting that this is no longer a subject brought up much. So I thought I would quickly get into it. And the first thing to note is that SOMA is the first game we have launched without having a pirated version out before release!

Another thing I have noticed is that we get fewer tech support requests from people with pirated versions than we used to have. It's often pretty easy to spot these people as we issue new patches frequently, so there are lots of telltale signs in the log files. I'm not sure if this means piracy has decreased for SOMA, or if these people find tech support elsewhere, but I felt it worth mentioning.

As for us personally, we haven't even talked about piracy. The only time it matters to us is when sending out review copies. Amnesia had a pirated version leaked before release, so now we make sure that we at least send out a DRM-protected version of the game to reviewers. But other than that, I don't think we've discussed it for even a second. This is quite different from back in 2007 when I know me and Jens had hours of discussions on the subject.

I've already touched upon this above when discussing the game's reception. However, how to market SOMA in terms of horror was the easy part. The hard part was to explain what makes the game special. When we released Amnesia, showing off the physics and explaining that you couldn't fight back was more than a enough for the game to stand out. But now the market is filled with these types of games, and more is needed to get people excited.

The main unique feature of SOMA is its exploration of consciousness and what it means to be human. This is also what has been the most celebrated feature of the game after launch. But explaining this to press and gamers prior to release has been exceptionally difficult. This is not some gameplay gimmick that can be shown off during a short demo session, but something that requires hours of build-up. So when you talk about the game, you have to be fuzzy and talk about very high-level concepts. When doing interviews like this I often got the impression that I wasn't really taken seriously. The press don't expect any lofty design aspirations to come true and would rather hear about concrete and more easily-digested (and explained) features.

To make things even harder, SOMA is very hard to talk about without spoiling the experience. I could never give an example of exactly how we handle our thematics through gameplay without spoiling a big chunk of the game. This problem of spoilers also makes the game hard to demo and to give to YouTubers. If we just give people a part of the game where you are chased by monsters, that would misrepresent the game (making the expectation problem worse) and fail to explain what is so special about SOMA. And if we show off one of slower sections that are all about build-up, mood and thematics, we have to show off really long segments, which becomes too spoiler-filled and takes way too much time for a demo. (For more discussion on making a demo for SOMA, see here).

We solved the YouTuber issue by only sending it out to a few trusted people, and only allowing a maximum of 15 minutes to be shown. That way we got people to play a lengthy part of the game (around 3 hours) and then show a distilled, and fairly spoiler-free, video to their viewers. We could only do this pretty late in development though, and given how important streamers and YouTubers are for PR these days, it felt like we would have like to do more earlier.

Another issue is that we might have unveiled the game a bit too early. We first showed off SOMA back in October 2013 and the plan was to keep content coming out until release. This turned out way harder to keep up with than what we'd initially thought. Because we were so unwilling to spoil the game, we could provide very little in terms of playable material for the press. Because of this, we had issues getting proper coverage at the end, as most of the standard things like "first playable preview" had already been done over a year back. We'd also had a plan to release a monthly live-action video clip to keep interest up, but because of production problems it got delayed and this plan fell through. (We are however showing them now!)

So it feels like it might have been better to have unveiled the game a year or so later to be able to keep up interest all the way to release and to have a more massive promotion campaign that way. A big issue with that is that it would have been very bad for the team morale. It's quite hard to work on a project in the dark for several years, and there was a very evident boost in spirit once we had let the world know that SOMA was coming. Added to this is that we got a lot of good feedback from press and fan reactions, which helped us shaped not just our PR but the actual game too. This is makes it much more uncertain if a later unveiling really would have been a better move.

So what is next for Frictional Games? First of all, now just about all of the major post-release issues have been patched up, most of the team will take some rest. We'll then focus a bit on documenting how the game and engine works, in the hopes that modding will reach the glorious heights it did for Amnesia. After that we are on to new secret projects.  But those secret projects are really secret, so we can't say a word.

Finally a gigantic thanks to all who have bought the game! We love hearing about your experiences so please tweet, comment on Facebook, or leave a comment here and say what you thought about the game!

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

SOMA Has Been Released!

The day has finally come. What started out as a vague idea back in 2010 has finally become an actual game. It's been quite the journey to get here, and we're all really proud of what we've achieved. SOMA is now available on Windows, Mac, Linux and PS4!

Our most important goal for SOMA was to create a game that delivered a different kind of fear. In Amnesia the horror came from a more primal feeling, from things like being hunted by monsters. This time we wanted to evoke something deeper. We wanted the sense of dread and terror come from thinking about disturbing subjects dealing with consciousness and what makes us human. Achieving this turned out to be really hard, and it's what made the game take so long to finish.

So it's been incredible to get reviews like these:

“In the 10 or so hours it took me to finish SOMA I was hooked for the entire experience, from shocking beginning to one of the best game endings I’ve seen since Portal. SOMA will destroy you emotionally, and that’s a very good thing indeed. - GameWatcher

SOMA succeeds at crafting something much more meaningful in a genre that’s deserving of more than just simple jump scares. - GameSpot

I’ve never played a game that’s affected me as much as SOMA, and to be honest I’m not sure I want to ever again, although I’m very glad I did. It has the DNA of movies like Alien, 2001, Sunlight, and Event Horizon, with a splash of the original Dead Space and Bioshock, but brings plenty of new ideas to the table. It makes you think about what it means to be alive, and indeed how you classify life, and is a brilliant example of just how far video games have evolved.” - TheSixthAxis

“The best horror sticks with you long after the credits roll, an uneasy feeling that lingers uncomfortably in the moments before you fall asleep. I’ve been thinking about what happened in SOMA for days now, especially the game’s closing minutes, and can’t let it go. Just thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach. If that’s not a sign of success, I’m not sure what is.”  - Kotaku

Now we're eager to hear what all of you think of the game! Our aim is to evoke a long-lasting sense of dread, and to leave you with disturbing questions that keep coming back to haunt you. If we've succeeded, please tell us all about it!

Finally, we'd like to say thanks to everybody who has supported us over the years! We hope we can continue to fuel your nightmares long into the future!

Thursday, 17 September 2015

SOMA - Behind The Sound

How do you design sound for a game that takes place miles under the ocean in an abandoned complex with a plot that deals with the perception of reality? The answer is... experimentation!

My name’s Samuel Justice, I’m audio director on SOMA where I lead a team of 6 fantastic folk to help create the audio for the universe of SOMA.

SOMA is an audio designer’s dream. Horror games are well known to give room for sound to breathe and live, which is why sound is so memorable in many horror titles. When you couple this with a rich and diverse universe such as lies behind SOMA, the audio potential is endless. This is something we really wanted to play with.

For those of you who don’t know, SOMA takes place in two very distinct sonic spaces, underwater and the non-underwater world of Pathos-II. What we were really after was to establish two very different and unique soundscapes: the underwater soundscape and the “air” soundscape. From the get-go we knew that these two soundscapes had to contrast with each other heavily, so if we were to turn off the visuals, you could instantly tell where you were. We also developed some new and very special systems to tie into these worlds.

I could go on for far longer than you’d want about how we approached the sound in SOMA, but instead I thought I’d pick out some audio treats that we hope you’ll like.

SOMA deals with many interesting themes, but the main focus is on what it means to be a living, breathing, conscious entity. From the start we decided to take that description and run with it for the “air” soundscape, where everything is heavily grounded in reality. The world of Pathos-II sounds dirty, gritty, crumbly. When walking through the corridors of Upsilon we want you to feel cold and lonely through the sound alone and when you hear something that doesn’t sound quite human in the distance, that still needs to sound realistic and grounded.

To achieve this we introduced a new system which was never given a formal name, but we’ll call it the room size system for now. What this allows us to do is read how large a room is and play content relative to the size of the space - one prime example is the player’s own sounds. A recent tweet went out saying that SOMA featured over 2000 footstep sounds, and this is due to the room size system. Instead of recording a bunch of footsteps on various surfaces, our foley artist Tapio Liukkonen actually went out and scouted for interesting-sounding locations of varying size.

This is where the footsteps were recorded, so when you’re running through a large hall, you’re actually hearing the sound of a large hall, none of it faked through reverbs or other processing (which can end up taking away some of the life of the sound). Instead you get the air and size of real spaces. This might sound like a minor detail, but in a game about exploration and discovery, this lends itself massively to a sense of reality when roaming the halls and corridors of Pathos-II.

So how about underwater? Again, we wanted this to be grounded in reality, so instead of processing various sounds or making them muffled, we opted for recording a huge amount of fresh content with underwater microphones (known as hydrophones) and contact microphones (special microphones that only pick up vibrations in objects rather than the air). This gave us a huge palette of interesting yet grounded textures to play with.

Here is a clip showing Tapio during a recording session:

One example is a sequence where the player has to climb out of a vessel, in the audio clip you can hear the squeaking and interesting sounds made by the player that you wouldn’t really capture from a regular microphone.

Another cool feature for the underwater environment that we introduced was that we wanted all of Simon’s sounds to be binaural - his footsteps, his diving suit and even his speech. So when we recorded his dialogue at SIDE studios in London, we requested a special setup that recorded all his lines Binaurally as well as normally for the underwater dialogue. That means that if you play the game with headphones - you will feel as though you’re in the helmet with Simon, wandering the depths of ocean floor.

Another very interesting topic we could talk about are the many variety of creatures in the game and the unique systems created to make them feel hofrrifically real and pant-wettingly scary… but some things are best left a secret :)

For the voiceover implementation and processing of the game, we turned to Kpow Audio, a small team of 2 from Australia responsible for the amazing sound in games such as L.A. Noire and The Banner Saga. Here’s what they had to say about their experience:

"The job of processing the SOMA dialogue was fairly wide-ranging: we had underwater helmets; audio logs of all different shapes, sizes and conditions; public address systems; video postcards; dispatch messages; a host of robotic devices and more. The audio team have done an amazing job at creating an audio environment that balances impact and authenticity, and it was obvious from the start of our involvement that the dialogue needed that same balance.

To imbue our own work with this type of authenticity, we tried – wherever possible – to recreate the signal paths described on screen. Due to the huge variation in speaker types and placements in SOMA, our first step was to record a unique set of Impulse Responses, capturing the behaviour and tone of a number of different speakers, which could then be applied to sounds in post production. The speakers were then recorded inside different metal objects, to recreate the numerous resonant environments found within SOMA's sprawling landscape. These “enclosed” reverb responses were also used to produce the underwater helmet effects found throughout the game.

The same technique was employed in a more direct way as we piped large portions of the dialogue out of the speakers and rerecorded the results in a process called “re-airing”, a technique used for many years in the film world. Compared to digital processing this is a very labour intensive approach, but the ear immediately recognises the results as “real”, so the effort is often more than justified.

By far the biggest component of our work was spent on the historical blackbox recordings of life aboard the aquatic facility in which the player finds themselves. Predominantly made of conversations between the crew, these recordings provide insight into the backstory of the game. The initial direction we got from the team was toward the style of a period radio play, and this most accurately describes their function in the game. They operate as live action, casting the player as a silent witness to past events, and as historical documents. The dramatic narrative and the locational positioning have to be conveyed simultaneously. To support the narrative, many of these recordings play back in stereo, which draws them outside of the world slightly. A major focus became describing the different locations of the characters. One might be in a diving suit underwater, talking to a dispatcher in a small dry room, via a submerged intercom. Successfully enunciating these differences was very much a team effort. We received amazing foley tracks from Tapio Liukkonen, which took the conversations from being a collection of disassociated vocal recordings and gave them character and a physical presence. All this was then processed to fit the device it was playing through, which was in turn given the reverberant character of the room in which it was being emitted.

Tapio's foley room

This process could happen multiple times when numerous locations, emitters and recording devices were present in the one scene. Often one speaker would be run-down, whilst another in the conversation was new at the time the recording was made.

A huge array of tools were employed to get the right tone for these recordings. Often we turned to more traditional analogue processing such as guitar pedals, outboard compression, tube saturation, analogue filters, tape delay and some very dusty, old digital effects units to give us the fuzzy, squelching distortion we were after. As much is it's fun plugging in the “toys”, this gear was vital in imparting authenticity to the sound….still, I won't pretend it wasn't fun.

Of course, a huge amount of back-end work went into ensuring the processed dialogue and Foley behaved correctly in game. Tuning the various behaviours and in-game effects is very much the glue that ties the audio to the world and makes it believable in an interactive environment.

Looking at the project as a whole, our goals were to impart a sense of history, to communicate the drama of the backstory, whilst at the same time give life to the technology and inner workings of their surroundings. Suits, speakers, microphones, broken cables and half heard conversations, all with their own unique character, but also needing a strong sense of consistency across the game.

Hopefully we have achieved this and added something positive to the project and the experience of the players.”

Because of the approaches we took, the final SFX count for SOMA is slightly eye-watering, clocking in at a little over 18,000 SFX files (not including voiceover and music). SOMA was a fantastic project for us to all to work on, we were extremely happy with the end result and we hope you enjoy listening to the game as much as you do playing it!