Author Archive for Mihai Sfrijan





12 questions: Thomas Grip – Frictional Games

Frictional Games are a small independent studio based in Sweden and have so far impressed with their excellent Penumbra game series. They are preparing to launch their new horror game, Amnesia, soon and we thought about asking them a few questions. Read on below:

GMZ: First of all, how did Frictional Games come together?
Thomas Grip: Jens and I first collaborated on a game called Unbirth (that never got finished) in 2005. We then worked together on a game for our thesis which in turn led us both to do a one year masters course. It was during this course that the Penumbra tech demo was made and after the course we started working on Penumbra Overture. In 2007 the company was officially formed and Penumbra Overture was released. During the development of Black Plague and Requiem 3 more people joined, which has brought us the total size of five people!

GMZ: How many people are involved in the development of Amnesia?
Thomas Grip: We are five people in the core team that have worked full time on the project since the start. We then have a lot of freelancers that we work with. We have one guy who does all the music, one writer, a mac/linux porter, a guy that makes all the additional sounds, a firm that did some of the animation, two that have been doing some concept art and four artists who have done additional art. On top of that are voice actors, people doing casting and so on. Some of these have only put in a few days of work, while others several months. So there has been something almost 20 people involved in total, but at the core we are just five people.

GMZ: Where do you draw the inspiration for your games? There’s a lot of Lovecraft in there, but what else? For example, there are a couple of Thief levels (Cradle and Return to the Cathedral) that seem pretty close to what you guys showed so far.
Thomas Grip: There are have been tons of inspirations when making Amnesia and these have been collected during the three years we have worked on the project. Some of the more major inspirations comes from books read on 18th and 19th century scientists and set the tone for much of the story. Also things like the Milgram experiments and Unit 731 have been inspiration for themes that we cover. Games that have inspired us include Bioshock and Silent Hill 2, which have helped us determine ways to tell the story and how to create environments. I really loved the first 15 minutes of Bioshock (before the wrench fighting started) and that kinda of immersive and interesting environments and scenarios have a been one of our many goals.

GMZ: I remember the first time I read a short story by Lovecraft and realized that the key to a successful horror is to not actually show anything specific, keep the reader (or player) guessing, unsure. Games are not that subtle: you usually get a gun and some baddies that may or may not look scary. The only games that come close to that feeling of dread that you get from the Lovecraft stories are Asian horrors (the Fatal Frame series, for example). Why do you think developers are so reluctant to use these incredible powerful mechanics?
Thomas Grip: I think many are stuck in the thought that games must be “fun”. So when a game is started out you first try and find the proper mechanic (usually based on killing stuff), refine that and then add all story, atmosphere and immersion on top of that. This approach makes it impossible to have enemies that are only hinted at and build a fear of the unknown. What we try to do instead is not to have any specific gameplay at the core of the game, but rather emotions and feelings that we want to evoke. Then we try and come up with mechanics that work towards creating these. For example, Amnesia does not really have any core gameplay, but is rather about placing the player in a fictional world and then let them have an experience inside this world. The mechanics are only there to support this experience and does not need to have any fun-value on their own.

GMZ: What are the most important design rules behind Amnesia?
Thomas Grip: The most important rule is to let the horror happen inside the head of the player. By letting the player imagine what lies behind the next corner instead of showing, you can increase the horror level a lot.
The second rule of importance is that the player should be the protagonist. The player is always in control, there are no cut-scenes, no time-jumps and the protagonist should not speak for the player. The last point means that there will never be comments on subjective matters in the environment and it is up for the players to decide what they are seeing.

GMZ: What did you set out to accomplish with your games? Besides getting the players scared…
Thomas Grip: To create a game where the players feel like that they truly are the protagonist and then immerse them in a story that stimulates thought and makes them think about moral, human evil and things like that.

GMZ: How does the creative process go for Frictional Games? I know you don’t actually work in an office, but from home. Does that affect you or the project in any way?
Thomas Grip: Hard to say since we have never really worked in an office. We have worked out a lot of ways to deal with stuff and do not feel like we miss much. As for creative process, it is very hard to describe, but involves a lot of iteration and cutting. I think that pretty much nothing of the initial idea is left in the game.

GMZ: This is your 4th horror game, so you seem pretty committed to this genre. Let’s presume Amnesia will sell millions and make you all stinking rich. What would you like to do next?
Thomas Grip: As long as we make enough money to survive we will continue to evolve and try to make something new and interesting in the gaming medium. Our plan is to try and push the boundaries further and the amount of success we have with Amnesia will determine how much resources we can spend trying to do so.

GMZ: Tell us a little bit about your experience as indie developers. How hard is it for you to keep developing games on your own?
Thomas Grip: At times it is really hard and I think we have been close to closing the company at least three times since we started. Right now things are looking really bright though and if we get a decent success with Amnesia we should almost come up to normal living standards! The last year has been quite tough financially, but I guess sometimes that is what is required to do what you love.

GMZ: Will you launch the editor alongside the game? It looked really interesting and easy to use, so I presume a lot of people would want to try it.
Thomas Grip: It will be released along with the game! Probably as an optional download.

GMZ: Will there be a boxed (or collector’s) version of the game?
Thomas Grip: There will be a boxed version of it in Russia, but EU and US are still undecided.

GMZ: One of the voices in the latest video (not the main character) sounds a lot like the mission briefing voice from Dungeon Keeper 1. Am I crazy?
Thomas Grip: As you might have read from our release date PR, the game has been known to cause insanity…


Go To Hell

Go To Hell. Simply awesome!


12 questions: Kellee Santiago – thatgamecompany

If you read this blog, chances are you already know who thatgamecompany is. For those who don’t, here’s what you need to know: not only they have offered us some incredible games (flOw, Flower) but the way they approach video-games is nothing short of amazing (their jobs page currently offers the position of Feel Engineer :)). The studio, founded by Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago, is now working on the much anticipated Journey, which promises to change the way we interact with other players in an online experience.
We’ve been lucky enough to catch up with thatgamecompany’s president, Kellee Santiago, soon after E3 and ask her a few questions about the company’s history, their inspiration and why they won’t release a shooter any time soon:

GMZzz: You guys started collaborating in college, the result being the still awesome Cloud. Do you remember that first moment when you realized you should start working together? What triggered that?
Kellee Santiago: When Jenova and I were working on our pitch for “Cloud” to take to Electronic Arts, which was the company that sponsored the grant that allowed us to make that game in school. We were working long hours together on top of our school work, and working on the pitch forced us into many conversations about what kind of games we wanted to make. We realized that we had very similar ambitions, and also we worked really well together. There are few people in the world you can start a business with – you need a strong relationship built on trust and understanding.

GMZzz: So in the dynamics of thatgamecompany team, what’s Jenova’s role and what’s Kellee’s role?
Kellee Santiago: Jenova is the Creative Director – he comes to the team with the initial spark of inspiration for a game, and then sees it through completion. He’s very hands-on, designing and executing in game as well as owning the “Big Picture” and leading collaborations on the team. I’m President, which involves setting a course for the future of the company that ensures we can continue being successful making the kind of games we want to make, and making sure that each step we’re making along the way takes us in that direction.

GMZzz: Your breakthrough game was clearly flOw. That game really put your name up there but it also helped Sony’s PS3 to stand out as a platform for genuinely original titles. I’m just curious how much did Sony help you out? Did they see the potential in your game and backed you up, or did they react only after the game’s fame started picking up steam?
Kellee Santiago: Well, first of all, thank you for the complimentary introduction. Sony offered us a three game deal to developed downloadable titles on the back of our student game, “Cloud”, and Jenova’s thesis Flash game, “flOw.” We chose to take “flOw” to the PS3 because we knew we were going to be facing many challenges making our first commercial console title, so we wanted to mitigate some of our stress by use the Flash game as a launch pad for the game design, as opposed to starting from scratch.  As part of the deal with Sony, they housed us in their Santa Monica offices, alongside the God of War team. Through this period, they were really part mentors and part publisher. They really supported us and helped us in every aspect of shipping our first title.

GMZzz: Do you think the success of flOw helped other independent studios get their crazy little games up on PSN? Or was it just a logical evolution, one that was required by a market fed up with the same generic games?
Kellee Santiago: I think it was a bit of both. When we were talking with publishers before graduating, many of them just didn’t know what to do with us. The very idea of studying video game making in school was so new, that they weren’t sure if we were going to be able to execute on a professional, commercial level.  I think flOw and Cloud, along with other student projects such as the Portal team’s “Narbacular Drop” helped to put students of game design on the radar of publishers. I also think the people at Sony Santa Monica who structure this 3-game incubation deal helped to set a precedent for students taking their work into independent development, and of course the PSN audience has helped to encourage them and other studios to continue this kind of work by voting with their dollars for experimental titles like “flOw” and “Flower.”

GMZzz: What can you tell us about Journey? It seems a very personal project, yet completely different from the previous games. What did you set out to do with this new game?
Kellee Santiago: Journey was inspired by Jenova’s feeling that we lack a sense of awe in modern society. We are so very powerful in our day-to-day lives now – we can fly, we can work in buildings that reach above the clouds, we can connect with just about anyone, anywhere at anytime! Could we design a game to bring back a sense of smallness and wonder to players?

GMZzz: How does Journey differ from your previous games? Just the fact that it’s an online game seems like a radical change from what kind of experiences your previous games offered.
Kellee Santiago: You’re absolutely right. Online is a frontier we’ve yet to explore, so we knew from the beginning that we wanted this third project to explore the online connections.

GMZzz: Do you fear that players might not “get” what you’re trying to do with your games or might have different reactions from those that you intended? How do you prepare for that?
Kellee Santiago: We don’t fear it, but we certainly wonder about it. We playtest quite a lot throughout development – an average of one playtest every two weeks from the very beginning through the end. However, you never really know how people are going to react to the concept of the game until it’s out there for everyone to play. We try our best to get each game to a point where we’re satisfied with what we’ve accomplished, and then we sit back and see if it worked.

GMZzz: Wouldn’t it be better for you to just start working on a futuristic shooter, with lots of gore, menacing aliens, a macho lead and sell millions of copies? How does that sound?
Kellee Santiago: Haha better in what way? I think it would be fun to see what kind of violent game we could make, but the truth is there are many other studios making those games and they have many more resources available to them than us. We try and make games that can’t be compared to anything else, so no one will notice how little we have to work with.

GMZzz: What does it take to make it out on your own in such a competitive industry? Is there something from your experience that you’d like to let other aspiring, young studios know?
Kellee Santiago: Make games that express your own voice, your own passions. I get so frustrated when I see new studios or young game makers mimicking games that have already been made. It’s a good way to get started and to learn about the process, but it’s a terrible way to begin a new studio or career. Because just like with us, there are other teams with more money, people, and practice than you. Make something unique, that cannot be compared. In games right now, it’s really not that hard – there’s so much that hasn’t been done.

GMZzz: Where do you get the inspiration for you games?
Kellee Santiago: Where does inspiration come from? Our lives, art, architecture, nature, psychology… anywhere! Everyone at thatgamecompany is very passionate about game making, so even when we’re not doing it, chances are we’re thinking about it.

GMZzz: How do you usually decide to start a project or not? How does that whole creative process work? I’m curious if you guys follow the same rules as the bigger development houses.
Kellee Santiago: I don’t know that we do follow the same rules, because we begin with an emotion. So we start with a very large range of possibilities of games that could elicit that emotion. We kick around the emotion, try and hone in on the specifics of it, which happens through conversation, prototypes (Flash or Processing usually), art, and music.

GMZzz: Are there other studios that you really admire?
Kellee Santiago: Naughty Dog, which is just a couple of blocks from us, has incredibly passionate and extremely talented game makers. We hope we can get to the day where we’re recruiting talent like theirs! I also really admire Eskil Steenberg, Jason Rohrer, and Jonathan Blow – individual game makers who have carved out their own path in the industry. Finally, I have to mention Tale of Tales – their dedication to their craft and expression in their games inspires me and they always challenge me to be true to who we are as game makers.

You can check out more about thatgamecompany at their official website.


Games/Art – the Tale of Tales point of view

I think the debate about Games as Art is pointless. Thankfully, there are other people that think the same. For example, the people at Tale of Tales (The Graveyard, The Path), who held a quite interesting presentation at Festival of Games this June.

Rather then asking the “Are Games Art?” question, they choose to focus on “HOW Can Games Be Art?”. It’s an interesting read, even if it’s a little bit too mean with 90% of the people in the industry. Go read.


BioShock Pitch – part 2

Part 2 of the original Bioshock pitch has been posted on the Irrational Games website.

Here’s part 1: link.



Transformice! You’ll want to play this.


Fault Line

Fault Line introduces a cool little mechanic: stuck in a level? Fold it.


Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages, the new game from ACE Team (creators of Zeno Clash).

Don’t really know what’s happening in this video, which is a good thing 🙂


The Game Probe Series by Mike Jones – 7 episodes and counting

We have linked the Game Probe series before on gmzzz, but I think it’s time to post the whole series here.

For those of you who haven’t been following Mike Jones, he’s award winning teacher and writer with extensive experience in media technology, creative production, journalism, online development and critical analysis of screen culture. He has written more than two hundred published essays articles and reviews along with three books for students of screen media.

He uses his expertise to analyse video games in a fantastic series of video essays entitled Game Probe and has so far produced seven episodes, all of which can be found below. It’s an inspiring work that I recommend all of you to watch. For more of Game Probe be sure to check it’s original website. Enjoy!

Thief: The Presence of Self

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Half-Life 2: Unbroken Perspective

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Bioshock: Narrative Architecture

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Company of Heroes: Player as Cinematographer

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Portal: Spatial Metaphor

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Mirror’s Edge: Internal Perception

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Dear Esther: Is this a Game? What are the Rules?

Vodpod videos no longer available.



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