Sunday, September 26, 2010

American Girl Place

A few years back, I was in Chicago looking for gifts for the children while on a business trip and walked into American Girl Place. The first thing that was clear to me was that it was not the sort of place you should go to without a child. The second thing that was clear was you should not go to that place with a child. Otherwise you will not leave without anything other than an empty wallet. I vowed to stay clear of it.

I have kept that pledge but, sadly, Child No.3 managed to successfully lobby her mother to take her there today (the one in Boston that is). The stated aim was to attempt to allow Child No.3 to rid herself of her savings and experience an allowance budget constraint. Suffice it to say: goal achieved. But the scars may stay around much longer.

As an economist, I am in two minds about American Girl Place. I have never heard of a place so shamelessly tailored towards extracting money from people. The day began with a booking at the American Girl Bistro. But apparently, before getting there you needed to purchase an American Girl doll. Why? Because otherwise your child will be the only one sitting there having macaroni and cheese with an empty doll seat beside her. 

American Girl dolls are ordinary dolls; unlike say Barbie. But there many varieties so you can find one that looks just like your daughter. From the picture you now know exactly what our six year old daughter looks like -- fully accessorised. So a doll was purchased, another outfit, sunglasses, a necklace, shoes to match the new dress and a dog. All that completely eliminated our daughter's savings with a debt that will take three months for her (or several teeth as she pointed out to me) to put her back in the black. That meant, of course, that there wasn't enough money left over to:get the doll and my daughters matching hair styling (yes, the doll could have her hair styled at a price that exceeded the cost of my own haircuts!). It also meant that there would be no matching dress for my daughter. Nonetheless, now in her new poverty, she and her brother set about expropriating American Girl Place's business by making her new doll's furniture themselves out of discarded stuff around the house. Take that!

As a business, American Girl Place is fantastic in a Dr Evil type of way. But it is for this same reason that I have my second mind: it panders to every awful stereotype about girls that there is. It does so relentlessly and makes no attempt whatsoever to do anything other than exclude boys. There is pink everywhere and other horrors that Child No.3's mother cannot bring herself to speak about.

You know there are times when people ask me what I do for a living and I say sheepishly, "economist." But it could be worse, I could be an American Girl Place 'doll hairstylist.'

Thursday, September 16, 2010

On Game Length

Not too long ago, there was a coordinated blog effort with developers like Jonathan Blow, 2D Boy and more commenting on the length of games. The general consensus of these posts was that games should not be judged by their length, but if the experience feels complete or not. Something that we here at Frictional Games agree on.

Now that we have released Amnesia: The Dark Descent, game length has once again come into our lives. There have been several reviews of the game that have stated that the game's length, 6 - 10 hours, was a major negative. Especially considering that the game does not have any replayability (although that is up for discussion).

This has made us a bit concerned. A major goal with our games is to have no fillers, to have a game where everything is focused on creating a certain experience. Since we do not have combat in our games, there is no way to extend length in a simple way (like filling a room with enemies). Just about every minute in our games requires lots of time and effort to implement. If we are to keep on improving the quality of our games, 6 - 10 hours is pretty much the maximum amount of gameplay time we can create.

Especially now that the first week of sales, despite overwhelmingly excellent response, were only moderate (more on that here), this makes us a bit concerned. If 6 - 10 hours for a $20 game gives it a negative mark, what if we increase the price to $30, would this drastically decrease the positive response? Even more serious, this negative feedback on the game's length has made us having discussion topics like "how do we make this section longer?". We try to push this aside and instead focus on more important topics such as "how do make this section more engaging?", but it is still nagging at the back of our heads. Focusing on game length, is something I find can have very negative effect on a game's design (discussed a bit here).

With this background information, we would like to hear your thoughts on this issue! I have set up a poll in our forum here:
Please take your time and register and place your vote.

Also, please tell us what you think in our forum or here on the blog!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

One week after the release of Amnesia

It has now been a week since we released Amnesia: The Dark Descent and I would like to go through some areas of interest. There is a a lot to say really, but I will try and be brief and only concentrate on the most important things.

Making the game available
This was the first time that we have had a game that would be simultaneously released for six different stores on the same day, so we were a bit nervous on how that would go. To make sure that all stores had enough time we sent out the game more than a week before release. This seems to have worked and all the stores had the game available in time for release.

Added to this, we also had a system for pre-order customers to get their download link, serial key and Steam key. Jens have tried this over a month before release and it was very well tested once released. The only problem was some mix up with keys and people loosing their mail, otherwise all went well.

In summary, we are quite happy how the availability of the game turned out and we actually expected there to be more unknown factors popping up and make our lives harder.

Press Response
We had already gotten a few previews and thought we had some idea where the reviews would land. However, reality turned out far beyond our expectations. There has some extremely positive response (as can be seen on the game's page and at meta critic) and we are extremely happy about this. From all the graded reviews so far, all but three have been 80+ (about half of these 90+) and interestingly two of the less positive ones had has a major complaint that there was too much horror in the game. Which in a way makes us happy as well...

We have also been able to reach out to a lot of media, and most major sites have covered the game. A bit disappointingly, a few sites that reviewed and covered the Penumbra games have not mentioned Amnesia. We assume this is because we no longer have a publisher and thus lack the proper channels. For the Penumbra games we handled very little of the marketing ourself and thus lacked email/contacts to many sites (we still tried to contact all media we could think of though).

Player response
Like reviews, response from player has gone beyond our expectations. We noticed this first at the release of the demo. We were unsure of how interesting it would be, but it was received very well. Since then, the name Amnesia has spread like wildfire across the Internets. I think there have been more videos, discussions, etc released at the time of writing than we have accumulated for any of the Penumbra games. It is also telling that the within 24 hours of release, pretty much all major secrets in the game was found out (it took much longer for the Penumbra games).

I think the most alarming thing was that the game was available as a pirated copy 24 hours or so before release. This kind of 0-day release can be quite hurtful, as otherwise paying customers might be so anxious to play that they pirate and then forget to pay for it. Since we released the game online only, we were not expecting this and the source of the illegal copy was one of our review copies (with tracking info hacked away). We are not sure what to do about this in the future, but we will have to be more careful and perhaps not send out review copies to so many outlets. It could have gone a lot worse though as a the first review copies (of early builds) were sent out almost a month before release.

As many of you might already know Amnesia is a sort of make or break game for us. At the time of writing, we are very close to our "all is good"-goal, meaning that we are still in business (due to contractual stuff we cannot release any numbers right now)! However, there are a few "buts" to all this.

The response we got from the game is a lot better than we expected, yet the sales are only "good" according to our, much more modest, expected response. This makes us wonder what sales we would have gotten if the response would have been more like what we thought it would be. If this is our time in the spotlight, then a lot less noticed game would probably put us out of business. As it looks now, we still have to be quite careful in budgeting our next game (although much less careful than what we had to be with Amnesia). We were hoping a really successful release would makes 100% unworried about finances, but that is not what has happened.

Can we really judge sales from just one week? According to current graphs: yes we can. Even though reviews keep coming in from major outlets and we keep pushing out marketing material (videos, release of tools, etc) sales are dropping fast. Around 50% of our current earnings where made in less than a week and on pre-orders from before release. The sales where at the top during the last hour of the Steam 20% discount, and has since dropped almost exponentially, being pretty much halved each day. It will be really interesting to see at what level it pans out.

This is of course not all the income we will make from the game, but is still a bit discouraging when comparing to recent XBLA releases and similar. So why is not sales higher? Piracy? People waiting for future massive discounted sales? Game too scary / niched? Right now we have not got a clue, but hopefully it will become clearer further on.

Finally, as this was a multi-platform release, some preliminary sales distribution should be of interest. Around 90% was windows users, 5% Linux and 5% Mac. In defense of Mac and Linux we did concentrate our marketing efforts on the Windows user base.

Technical Issues
When releasing for PC, there is bound to be tons of technical problems, especially since we released for three different OS. So it is kinda surprising that it has not been that much. As with Penumbra, the number one problem has been OpenGL driver issues, something we unfortunately cannot control.

The largest single issue is probably the problems the ATI X-series and below range of cards for Windows. I'd like to add that we had tried it on a 9600 for a Mac successfully, but on Windows it fails due to various issues. In a way this is a driver issue too, but I think it might be some piece of code that it simply dislikes and I am hoping to fix it for an upcoming patch.

In general game issues, there have been less than expected too. There is the standard falling out of the map and physics messed up bugs, but less than we thought there would be. In-game crashes are also very few (most caused by some cache issues it seems), which is nice and we feel that the game is quite stable.

Game feedback
There has been a ton of feedback for the game and we try to read and discuss most of it. Discussing in detail would take up too much space so I will just take up two points, that I found extra important.

The main thing we will do for our next game is to skip any "forced" and incoherent mechanics. What I mean by this is puzzles that does not really make sense in the game world and break the immersion. An example would be the corpse-puzzle that forces the player to use very specific items to complete it. Trying to get rid of all these elements and further increase the feeling of being part of an actual world, will be one of our top priorities.

One of the main themes of the game, was for the player to slowly regain lost memories and to make up their mind about Daniel (ie their past self). While most still refer to the protagonist as "Daniel" (and not "me"), many players have really thought about the details discovered in a way we hoped. The game medium is so great for setting the audience at the center of the drama and force them to take a stance. It feels as if many people did this in Amnesia, and we hope to take this even further and on different subjects for future games.

Final thoughts
On almost all fronts, we area extremely pleased with this release. It has in many ways exceeded our expectations and it makes all the hard work, pay cuts, etc worth it in the end.

The most distressing thing is the sales though. Even though we are far from complaining, it feels like we do not have the financial security we would like to have, to truly be able to focus on making the best game possible. So what should we do? The things we have discussed include: Increase the cost of the game, doing a console port instead of Linux/Mac, do a less niche title and more. Now is too soon to make a decision though and we have to see how the coming weeks and months go.

Finally, I know I say this a lot but we truly mean it: Thanks to all who have supported us by buying the game, spreading the word, and what not. We hope you all will continue supporting us in the future as well! All of Frictional Games sends their finest regards and thanks for this support!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Editors are out!

Just wanted to notify all that the editor tools for Amnesia: The Dark Descent are out. These are the same tools that we used the create the game, so at a minimum you will able to do all that is done in the game.

All info is being collected here:

I suggest you start by first downloading the tools here, then follow the guide here and finally start checking some tutorials.

If you have any questions about the editors, please use our modding forum found here:

Happy editing! :)

NOTE: Only windows version released so far. Other platforms coming shortly!

Back to School and Homework

The children are back at school and continuing their enjoyment of the US educational system. To me the most dreaded words I can hear with respect to homework are: "graded on effort." When my 11 year old (now in 7th grade) gets a project with this qualifier, I know we are in for a long night. Her view is that the total possible amount of effort is equal to the time she gets home from school to the time she leaves for school the next day. Our view is moderation is in order. I suspect that is the teacher's view too but she is going to be handed 12 flashcards -- each a separate work of art -- today.

Child No.1 takes homework serious. She does it early and she does it often. In the US, responding to studies that demonstrated that over the long, three month summer break, children lost some large amount of knowledge, the children all received summer homework. Of course, for Child No.1 this meant doing the 30 pages (!) of maths problems in the first two days of summer which, if I am to take the studies seriously, was exactly not the point. It took her longer to get through her 5 books and book reports. Put simply, we are in the unusual position of having to regulate the amount of homework she does. Our threats are in bizarro land: "if you spend more than 3 hours on this, there will be no TV for you." Suffice it to say, we may have to actually pay her to stop.

This is not an issue we face with our young two. Our 9 year old son (now in 5th grade) keeps forgetting he has homework but that is fine as he can do whatever it is in less than 5 minutes. He is speedy although I pity the teacher that has to read his handwriting. They really need to let him type it up; if only for their own sakes. He had to be badgered to reading his summer books as he took offense to the restriction on his liberty. He ended up liking the books but it was the principle of the thing.

Our youngest didn't have to read any books but she did have a summer math calendar. with activities for everyday in July and August. Sadly, we didn't discover it until half way through August which meant that there was an intense amount of activity. Suffice it to say, recording the temperatures for 5 days was tricky! Nonetheless, in contrast to Child No.1's summer work, at least this was back-loaded.

All this does make me wonder how many other families actually completed the summer activities. It is challenging; what with camp and all.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Parentonomics is now in paperback

Parentonomics is now available in paperback (for the US/UK edition). You can purchase it from Amazon for around $10 and even less at Barnes & Noble. That is the around same price as the Kindle edition. There is also a Nook version.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Amnesia "Launch" Trailer

We just finished our "launch" trailer for Amnesia The Dark Descent. Watch here:

Now for a quick making of the trailer:

First of I started out making a text synopsis over the clips needed for the trailer. I had an idea of starting the video with a lynchian stare, that should set the mood for the rest of the trailer. My design process was then for me to lock myself inside a dark room, lie on the floor and mumble stuff while gesticulating in the air.

I then showed the synopsis to Jens and when he had approved after some smaller changes, I set Marcus and Luis to work with recording. I gave them descriptions on how I wanted the clips to be, they then recorded something, sent sample and I mostly told em tons of stuff to improve. It took a day and something like 5 - 50 retakes for each shot (one ended up not being used) to complete. We now had the clips!

One clip was missing though: Some fancy logo animation! This we could not do ourselves so I started looking for a company to do it for us. This turned out much harder than I thought! First finding a company was a pain; all I ended up finding where wedding photographers and the like. Nothing what we needed obviously. After some work I manged to find 19 different companies and mailed em. Three replied! All of which where fully booked or on vacation of course. But from one company, whose staff was on holiday, we got a tip about Atmospheres, a UK company that ended up doing the animation. I think it ended up very nice! Especially given the time and resource limits we had to give the company.

Jens now started working on the editing. This has caused us tons of trouble with all codecs and other crap that never works out as planned (blog post about it here), but Jens has started to master it now and is usually pretty quick. So he cut and mixed with the cut em together, which took half a day or so. I contributed with the graphics for the texts and some quote mining (a skill any dev needs to learn!). After some minor fixes, the editing was done!

Finally was time for Jens to put sound on it. You see, in order to get nice sound you do not keep anything from the original clips, and add new sounds for all. Otherwise you get all kinds of cut off sounds between cuts. It ended up taking Jens over three days to complete this (and is why "launch" trailer is not on launch). The final project file contained 52 tracks, each track having hundreds of sound samples.

Fun fact is that this process of design -> graphics -> editing (scripting) -> sounds is pretty much how we made levels in Amnesia!

There you have the story! Lots a work for a little over two minutes. Hopefully it will lure someone into buying! :)

Lose the Game

What would you do if you were Prime Minister and found out that millions of school children in another country had developed a Game in which you were a key player? Would you ignore it or would you engage with it if only to boost how those children think of your nation? Let's find out.

First some background. I happened to be sitting at a lunch yesterday where a group of middle schoolers in the US (grades 6 - 8) came to discuss something called "The Game." The Game has three rules:
  1. Everyone in the world is playing The Game. (Sometimes narrowed to: "Everybody in the world who knows about The Game is playing The Game", or alternatively, "You are always playing The Game.") You cannot not play The Game; it does not require consent to play and you can never stop playing.
  2. Whenever one thinks about The Game, one loses.
  3. Losses must be announced to at least one person (either by using a statement such as "I Lost The Game" or by alternative means).
The common rules do not define a point at which The Game ends. An old variant (and the one on Wikipedia which is a fixed page due to vandalism) says that the British PM announces on television that "The Game is up." However, years of campaigning for this to occur and its failure have meant that the ending rule has changed. It turns out that there is a global push to have the game end on 10/10/10.

According to the children I was talking to, the focus is now on the Australian Prime Minister. The Game will end if she says "I've lost the game." Now I inquired as to whether this statement had to be on TV -- would YouTube or maybe easier, a tweet do? They were not sure but I think there was some thought that anything is better than nothing.

This got me wondering as to whether our Prime Minister might actually engage with millions of US school children on this. I made an inquiry and it was suggested to me that it would surely not pass the cost-benefit test. I was told that the US President would surely never do the reverse. I must admit, I'm not so sure. If Obama actually visited Australia and was talking at a school, it wouldn't surprise me at all if he engaged with them. For the Australian PM, it is an opportunity to raise awareness about Australia. Seems to me that the political test is passed. Add to it a simple economic test of bringing 15 minutes of happiness to millions of children, and it seems like a no brainer. Nonetheless, our previous PM politely refused.

So here it is: I'm calling on the Prime Minister to think more broadly and finally come and play The Game. What else could you possibly be doing for 5 seconds on 10th October?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Where is your self in a game?

When you are playing a videogame, an external observer will probably say that you are sitting in a sofa or at the computer desk. But is this really where you are? When immersed in the virtual world of a videogame, do you still feel that you are sitting on a chair or in a sofa, staring at the screen?

An experiment
Before moving on, I would like you to consider a simple experiment. You can easily do it with the help of a friend if you got the right prop: a rubber hand. Put your own hand next to the rubber one on a table, and place a screen between them, shielding your own hand from view. Now ask your friend to stroke the fake and real hand at the same time, at the same place. Something strange will now happen. Your body image will change, and the rubber hand will become part of you. As your friend touch both hands, you will feel as if the feeling arise in the rubber one. All of a sudden, you will have made an external object, become part of your self!

With this experiment in mind. The question of where you are becomes more interesting. When playing a game, where do you transport your self to? Does it depend on what the game is about and from what perspective it is played from?

I think this is not only an interesting curiosity, but a very important part of the experience. Identifying where the player is when playing, can be very useful. And even more crucial, being able to "place" the player correctly is a very useful skill.

Spectator or something else?
Let's start simple and explore movies first. In movies there is no interaction, so surely you must be a spectator to every scene in a movie. A clear example of this, is when you see a horror movie and have one of those "don't go in there!"-moments. This clearly puts you in a spectator seat, treating the actor as a separate entity.

However, things does not get so polarized in other situations. Consider a gruesome torture scene or similar. These can get almost unbearable to watch and blurs the line between yourself and the actor. The reason why this is so is because of something called mirror neurons (here is a good video on the subject). What these do is to make you copy emotions from other people, replicating some of their sensations. One could even argue that they expand yourself, no longer limiting it to your own body.

Interaction added
Let's go back to games now. As we can see there are two forces at work: we can trick our brain into extending the body image and we have specialized neurons that copy other people's emotions. How these will affect us will depend on what type of videogame we are playing.

One of the major differences between games today is the viewpoint, ie first or third person. Does this matter? First person places you inside a character, putting your viewpoint where it usually is. This increases the feeling of being the character. In third person, you are removed from reality, and look upon yourself as if in some kind of OBE. This might make one think first person is superior, however, this only applies to the sense of sight. Another important sense is the proprioceptic one, which keeps track of your different body parts. When in first person, you see at most a hand or two, while in third-person gives you a full body image to copy. Third person can also give your mirror-neurons more to work with, like facial expressions. So depending on the kind of actions you perform, first or third will have a different feeling of being.

Also worth noting is how easily we shift between different states. For example, in Silent Hill 2, I feel very much connected to James when I run around town. Then when entering a cut-scene, I sort of float out of him and become distanced. I am no longer in control of the character and no longer part of him. Then when controls comes back I once more float inside him and the virtual characters becomes an extension of my own body again. This kind of movement happen in just about all games.

The roles we play
Now that we have explored how the self can shift position as we play a videogame, an interesting question arise: What is the player's role in these different positions? As videogames contain interaction; not only do you fee,l to various degrees, part of the on-screen character, you also control her/him/it. What does this make the player? Some kind of puppet master? An devil/angel on the shoulder? And more importantly, can the role assumed, change how the game is played?

In most games, you do not control all actions in a game, but mostly give general commands. You tell your character to jump, but not how much force to use and so on. You command a character to pick up an item, but have no control over any finer movements. This is not that far off from real life though, as most of your day-to-day movements are made without any conscious thought besides the thought of initiating them. This means that making a character jump by pressing a button gives you a very close connection. In these instances, you might feel like you are the character.

However, not all games have this close connection. Consider an adventure game where you just pick a destination for the character or choose between prefabricated lines of dialog. What role does this give the player? Some kind of guardian angle - a guiding voice inside the protagonist's head? Does this change the way that the player think of the character and how to interact with the game? Perhaps this role-assignment distances the player emotionally from the game's protagonist?

It is interesting that some games actually explicitly give the player a role. This is quite common in adventure games, where the protagonist might look at the player and directly address her. Do developers really consider how this can affect the placement of the player's self? I must confess I have not thought about this until very recently and have not heard of many discussing it.

I think it is very important to decide where the player is and what her role is. If this is not coherent than it might have a negative effect on how the player choose to interact with the game's world. If you know your role in the game, it gets easier to be immersed in it and know how to behave. This does not mean that the assigned role and placement of self needs to be the same throughout, but that it must be consistent with what needs to be done. A simple example of when this goes wrong is quick-time-events during cut-scenes. This can be very confusing at first, as you have just gone from being the character (in normal play mode) and gone to spectator mode (when cut-scene is playing). All of sudden you are required to control the character, something that is not coherent with your current role.

This shift in placement also explains why emotional moments can be hard to get right in cut-scenes. As you enter a cut scene you move over to "spectator mode" and all of a sudden you are no longer as connected to the character as before and do not care as much. JPRG:s like Final Fantasy 7 have it easier here, as the normal gameplay is more close to a "spectator mode" and thus the difference is smaller when entering a cut-scene. Same goes for a game like Heavy Rain. An important thing to note here is that contrast in position seem to play a huge role. When there is a violent shift in the location of self, it is very noticeable and the emotional connections are lost.

Finally, I also want to add that the same game, can have players assume very different roles to themselves. A good, although a bit extreme, example of this, is a recent Gamasutra article, where the writer let his mother-in-law play the new Sam and Max. The interesting part is that she did not release she could or should control the characters. She just assumed (probably from lessons learned from experiencing other media) that she should be in spectator mode. One should have this in mind when designing a game and tutorials for it, and not just assume that a player knows what role they play.

Our take on this
Location of self and the role of the player is something that I have not really thought about until we where developing Amnesia. I would therefore like to discuss how Penumbra and Amnesia: The Dark Descent differ in this aspect. As a lot of thought have gone into making the player become the protagonist in Amnesia, it has had a different focus compared to Penumbra.

In Penumbra, Philip narrated all the scenes, yet in normal gameplay the player very much was part of the character. As these narrations are very subtle, it gives a bit of schizophrenic impression. For example, at one point Philip comments that he does not like spiders upon seeing one scuttle by. What happens here is that we are forcing very specific emotions on the player who will either accept or reject them. If rejecting them, it means a large shift in the position of the self and Philip stops becoming a part of you. From being part of the world yourself, you are reduced to being a passenger inside Philip's head. As mentioned before, this contrast can be very bad for the immersion and the emotional connection.

In Amnesia, our goal is for the player to become the protagonist. This is vital for the story and experience as a whole. Because of this, there are never any words spoken, and there are no Daniel-subjective comments. We hope that this will place the player's self inside the body of the protagonist, and to think about what "I am doing" and not what "Daniel is doing". Our hope is that when you encounter facts about Daniel's past, it feels like your own forgotten memories. I know this is not an easy thing, and I am not sure many players feel this way. There is also the issues of adding smaller cues like breathing and heartbeats. Since these are actions that are not totally under our control, it is not incoherent to force them onto the player, but only if the player accepts it. Judging from player comments so far, there are people on both sides and having it in is a bit risky (we are actually thinking of having them optional in the future because of this).

End notes
There is a lot more to explore, but did not want to make an already long post longer. So consider this as just a discussion starter and a brief introduction on the subject.

Now I am really interested in hearing how you feel about this! What role do you feel that you play in different games? Please share your experiences!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is Released!

Not too long ago, I actually wondered if there ever would be a release. However, today I am proud to say that Amnesia: The Dark Descent is finally released!

If that is all you need to know, go and get the game at one of the following places:
Our own store (windows, linux & mac)
Steam (windows & mac)
GamersGate (windows & mac)
Direct2Drive (windows)
ImpulseDriven (windows)

The game has been in the making for exactly 3 years now (first document is dated 8th sept 07) and it has been quite the journey. The design has been changed countless times and we have been very close running out of money a few times. Somehow, due to successful sales and salary cut we have managed to get through it though. This makes it extra rewarding to have the game finally out.

Even more rewarding is the extremely nice press response! Some example:
“Few games are able to conjure up an atmosphere this genuinely frightening.”

“Despite its title, Amnesia remembers what the blockbusters of survival horror seem to have forgotten: how to horrify.”
- PC Gamer UK

“I think it is safe to say that Amnesia is the most successfully frightening game to have been made.”
- Rock Paper Shotgun

“I must say Amnesia is a masterpiece of horror, something surely all other horror games could take from and in some senses, strive to be.”
- NeoSeeker

Player reactions have also seemed quite positive and we now eagerly await your thoughts on the full game!

Big thanks to everybody have supported us over the years. We hope you all will enjoy Amnesia and have a really dark descent!

And as always, please help spread the word! Reddit, Digg, Facebook and whatnot!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sleeping games in the car

Jeff Ely gives us the game theory of car sleeping:
Whether it is desirable to have your kid fall asleep in the car goes through cycles as they age.  It’s lovely to have your infant fall asleep in the snap-out car carriers.  Just move inside and the nap continues undisturbed. By the time they are toddlers and you are trying to keep a schedule, the car nap only messes things up.  Eventually though, getting them to fall asleep in the car is a free lunch:  sleep they wouldn’t otherwise get, a moment of peace you wouldn’t otherwise get.  Best of all at the end of a long day if you can carry them into bed you skip out on the usual nighttime madness.
Our kids are all at that age and so its a regular family joke in the car ride home that the first to fall asleep gets a prize.  It sometimes even works.  But I learned something on our vacation last month we went on a couple of longer then usual car trips.  Someone will fall asleep first, and once that happens the contest is over.  The other two have no incentives.
Also, in the first-to-fall game, each child has an incentive to keep the others awake. Not good for the parents. (And this second problem persists even if you try to remedy the first by adding runner-up prizes.)
So the new game in town is last-to-sleep gets a prize.  You would think that this keeps them up too long but it actually has some nice properties.  Optimal play in this game has each child pretending to sleep, thereby tricking the others into thinking they can fall asleep and be the last.  So there’s lots of quiet even before they fall asleep.  And there’s no better way to get a tired kid to fall asleep than to have him sit still, as if sleeping, in a quiet car.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Back to School iPad/iPhone Apps

Time to just point to some new iPad (and iPhone) apps that would suit the 'Back to School' buzz. (I've done this before).
  • Algebra Touch: This program is the the future teaching maths. It is hard to describe but it basically allows you to feel operators and equations. You move an expression to the other side of an equality and it becomes negative. There isn't perhaps as much material there as you might hope but what is there is well worth the $3. 
  • MathBoard: We have tried lots of apps that let you practice basic mathematical problems (you know the stuff that is pretty boring) and not surprisingly, they are pretty boring. This one is literally chalk and talk but it does the job and keeps attention going.
  • Slice It: This is a great game (and not just for kids although that can be your excuse). You are presented with some geometrical shapes and you have to slice them up into smaller pieces. It teaches symmetry and geometrical thinking.
  • The Pedlar Lady: this is a children's books. There are lots of them available but this one stands out as being original and also integrating very well with animated and not static pictures. Quite a few big words but my 6 year old loved it.
  • Puzzle Agent: This is a game that follows the investigation of a puzzle agent solving a mystery. I've only just started but it is a fun story with some fun puzzles along the way. The kids will love it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Notes on New York City

We spent four days last week in New York City and did a ton of walking. Here are some brief comments:
  • The Central Park Zoo is beautifully laid out, small and completely devoid of interesting (i.e., fierce) animals. As my children pointed out there were no lions, zebras, giraffes or hippos making Madagascar completely unrealistic. That said, there were penguins and a Snow Leopard. The latter was 'endangered' to which my son noted (caution Mac OS joke only ahead) that couldn't they just make copies. We also discovered that it is costly to run out of cash at that Zoo on a hot day as you need it to buy water!
  • FAO Schwartz remains the best toy store around. Nonetheless, my children tried hard to spend their allowances and failed completely on account of the high prices: $60 for a bunch of Ugly Dolls.
  • The Museum of Natural History has two themes running through it. It has a new planetarium and sphere structure designed to show you various ways in which you are small and insignificant and will have no impact on the Universe. It has the rest of the museum designed to show you how your impact on the environment matters and you'll destroy everything if you are not careful. I note, however, that on the art rather than science front the museums in New York manage to specialize. Go to MOMA for insignificance and the Met for impact.
  • The Statue of Liberty is much better up close and the ferry trip to Ellis Island is designed to replicate the cramped and unfavourable conditions immigrants to the US from Europe had to endure.
  • The Addams Family musical was not billed as kid friendly but it really is. If you go, take the whole family. There are some 'adult' jokes but it will go over the heads of the kids.
  • Ground Zero is a moving visit but it is hard to explain it to kids as there isn't much that is visual to show. A memorial is really needed.
  • There are no copies of Parentonomics on sale at the Borders closest to Wall Street. That does not bode well.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Freakonomics with the Kids

So tonight Freakonomics the Movie was released on iTunes. It was rated PG-13 but somehow I just didn't think it would be that unsuitable for kids and so I gathered up the 9 year old and the 11 year old and we all dug in. I, having read the book, knew how it was going to turn out or that it was going to turn out that incentives matter. They came to it with a clean slate.

The first thing of course was their stunned expressions when they found out that it was a documentary. We had recently watched Airplane! and if you look at the poster you can be forgiven for thinking that Freakonomics was going to be a wacky spoof on economics rather than something more serious.
Anyhow, despite that disappointment, there was enough there to get their interest going. Basically, Freakonomics is an unusual documentary as it is really four or five of them (I lost count) all done by different film-makers. That meant all manner of different perspectives on Levitt and Dubner from friendly interview, to shadowy figures to more amusing animations. But it also compartmentalised the issues nicely. There was a segment on parenting that had to do with crazy names people might give their children and what it might mean (answer: nothing). There was also a segment on crime and, in particular, disentangling cause and effect. That one might not be for every family as it deals with the notion that abortion laws could explain a good part of the drop in US crime rates in the 1990s but when it came down to it what better way to discuss the issues there between practical and moral concerns. There was also a broader discussion of corruption based on fraud in Sumo wrestling that went beyond that and into a commentary on Japanese values that frankly I could have done without.

But perhaps the most interesting segment was on bribing kids. My children are, of course, no strangers to that notion. In some sense, it helped them see that their weird family might have something to do with their father's profession. Nonetheless, the particular bribes highlighted were payments for good grades. I could see my eldest daughter just calculating what that might mean and I have to admit that I became curious as to what might happen if we did something in that spirit. This past year she had come to the US, made the honor roll but then fallen behind when she was sick for a month with some flu like thing. So there was ground to make up. It seemed to me that a little financial focus wouldn't go astray and might get her back into the swing of things. Yes, I know that is fraught with danger but sometimes you just want to know if it will work or not. We will see.

That's the lesson. If you are thinking of watching this with your kids, they will find it educational but there is also a danger that they might get some ideas. If you want to save yourself the trouble and have a laugh I can certainly recommend Airplane!

Let's not forget about Physics

Today we released a little video that show of the physics in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. You can find the clip right below and below that I will go through the various parts a bit more detailed.

As you can see, this is pretty much the same things that we used in Penumbra. But I also hope you noticed that it is more streamlined and intuitive. Allow me to explain.

Grabbing stuff
The grab mode is what is used when interacting with objects like books, chairs and pots. In the first versions of the game, we actually had something more like in Crysis, where the object travels to a certain position when interacted with. This did not feel right though, so we want back to more like in Penumbra. We then added a lot polish to this and especially the rotating mode (when holding down a button, moving mouse rotates object). Even though the object is still moved 100% by a physics simulation, it is very smooth and you can be very exact when placing. In Penumbra there was lots of lag, but that is all gone now!

Opening doors
I think I spent a week or so tweaking how the door opening physics works. In Penumbra, you had to make sure to interact with the door at the right place to open it properly, which made it hard to close / open doors in stressful situations. Not so in Amnesia. Here you can click anywhere on the door and it will easy to control it. The way this is done is by estimating how to convert 2D mouse input into 3D forces. As you will never be able to get perfect correlation between mouse and object (you will always loose a dimension), this took some time to get right. The end results feel very nice though and the things learnt for other interaction types such as levers.

A further improvement is that doors will now stay closed / opened. In Penumbra they sometimes bounced back at you, but in Amnesia that is all fixed saving the player from many virtual/real headaches.

Desktop simulator 2000
Opening drawers is a common interaction and another area where improvements have been made. Drawers will now react faster to player movements and it is possible to have more control (in Penumbra drawers could continue sliding after you stopped moving). And just like doors, the drawers will get stay open / closed, without any annoying bouncing.

Spin round, round...
The one interaction that we got most negative feedback on in Penumbra was the wheels (valves, etc). There was the problem of where to interact as interacting at center zero leverage and made it impossible to turn. Also the actual turning movement could be hard to get right. For Amnesia, we have remade the whole system. Now it is possible to interact wherever you like and the movement required is far more intuitive. There is a special system that analyzes your mouse movements and can quickly and correctly determine which way you want to rotate. It can even approximate the speed and there is as good as no lag involved.

Closing notes
We are very proud of the physics interact we use in our games, and it is something we have worked with for almost 5 years now. It is also a very unique method, and as far as we know we are alone at using it. We will not stop at where we are now though, and hope to take physical interaction even further in the future.

Also, I'd like to mention the fantastic Newton Game Dynamics, the physics engine that makes all of this possible in the first place!

Amnesia Demo Is Out!

Finally, you can get a small taste of the Amnesia: The Dark Descent! We have just put up a demo of the game, that will guide you through a few of the earlier levels in the game. To get it simply go here:

The demo is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Check the site for system requirements and other helpful data.

Please help us spread the news, twittering, facebooking, etc!
Make sure to up the following links:
These sites are usually really simple to register at and if enough people vote up, our exposure increase enormously! All help is really appreciated!

Thanks for all support so far!

Now while you are downloading I would like to discuss some of the thoughts that when into this demo. Creating demos for adventure games is hard, and more so for horror ones, where build-up and foreshadowing is so crucial. In a more action oriented game, the purpose is simply to show of the game's main mechanics (shooting, matching blocks, etc). However, in an adventure game, there is no such mechanic and it is the more holistic parts, like story, mood, etc, that shapes the experience.

There are other problems besides showing off the game in the best possible way. It is also important to not have too many spoilers, so when starting the full game the player should not know too much. There is of course also the sale angle, you want people to be eager to buy after playing the demo.

It was clear at once that we needed to start from the beginning of the game. The opening is crucial for understanding the game's story and putting the player in the right mood. The problem is that our opening is quite long. Amnesia is not very action filled from the start and slowly builds up the mood. We felt that it needed to be shorter in the demo, so player could get a grasp of the game quicker. To fix this, we remade the first level a bit, so crucial items and information are found a bit earlier. This shortens the experience, but contains the essence.

Then it was the problem of what to show next. We wanted the demo to contain creature encounters, but as these are too slowly built up in the full game, they did not fit the demo. So after completing the first level, the player is transported about 2 hours into the game, where more stuff happens. It was then possible to let the demo go on from there and then end with a little cliffhanger. This also worked well from a spoiler viewpoint as the maps are more about atmosphere and most events have already been shown in videos.

To further give the demo a good feel of the full game, we made the sanity mechanic be a bit more aggressive. This means that if will be easier to reach an insane state of mind than during normal play. The fear of going insane is a crucial element, so we felt we had to show it off somehow.

I think the demo represent the full game fairly well and contains most of its major features. However, it is still in some sense a hacked-up version of the "real thing" and misses a lot of the atmospheric build-up. There is also no time to show of up any of the story either (except for the initial setup), and we only focused on atmosphere for the demo. I guess this is just the way it is with demos and the same really goes for trailers and any sort of promotional material. The good thing is that if you enjoyed the demo you should like the full game even more!

Hope you all enjoy this vertical slice of nightmare! Only a few days left until the real beast is unleashed!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What could possibly go wrong?

Now that we are so close to the release of Amnesia, I would like to talk a little about all that stuff that didn't go so well during the development. I cannot talk much on behalf of my mates here at FG, so this is gonna be a pretty personal post (but can surely apply to others out there as well).

What can keep a project from getting done? Well, there sure are tons of different causes for this to happen, but I think we can classify these in some simple categories, which I am gonna list right away:

Bad (or not so good) design
This is a big source for issues, issues and more issues. Think about it, if you are just patching your stuff up for your current needs, you are really gonna need a big amount of luck to be able to keep that if further additions need to be made. Also, that is bound to fall apart at some point in the future. All these generally lead to rewriting stuff from scratch, which means time in which the project is stalled.
For example, at the start of the project I made an object management design that worked perfectly with the 3 types of objects that we had. A few months later 2 more types needed to be added and guess what, the old design did not work! Scrap the old one and make a new fitting the old ones. Then suddenly another type is needed and of course is totally unsupported... and so on. Fortunately I got to do something that nicely fixes this now, but guess what... it's asking for a rewrite now!
Not to mention how transforms are handled, which works for now, but I really want to get it done some other way.

Rule #24923 from the Gamedev code: Learn to facepalm you will have to

So what to learn from this? Summing up, lazy design is something to avoid at all costs, and you have full control over it, so just don't let it happen! You have been warned. Also, if you fall into this one too much, it can actually lead to...

Lack of motivation
This is a dangerous one. You know, it is reaaally non rewarding to wake up right next to your workplace, being all alone there, with temperatures over 35ÂșC (lovely summertime in southern Spain) and having to hunt down a random bug through over 1000 lines of code. You eat, sit back, hours go by and then you go to sleep again. I had these like everyday in the last month and a half. I looong so much for a vacation now, just in case you are wondering.

I see no inspiration in this painting. You can get melting watches everyday in august here in Seville.

Anything that can be listed here is no good on its own, but it can also lead to issues in the above category. When you work while being in this state, you are very likely to make mistakes, often minimal, but horrible-bug-creating ones too. In addition, when working like this, even the simplest of tasks will become time consuming. Trust me, it is not good at all.

Force Majeure
Fancy frenchy name for the funniest one. Think Murphy's Law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. These are generally external interferences, as in stuff happening around you over which you have little to no control at all. This includes:
  • Power cuts for a couple of hours.
  • Electrical failures with firework-like sparks and lightning and risk of fire.
  • Having water from a neighbor above flood your apartment.
  • Network screwups.
  • Laptop breaking down (twice).
  • Buying a replacement computer for the dead laptop that turns to be faulty itself too.
  • Being pointlessly called to court, senselessly accused of swindling.
These are fine examples in this category that happen to summarize the last 5 months in my life. While it might sound like a joke or exaggerating, all of the above are true stories that are actually too long to describe here (I might give details on demand). I lovingly coined it "the Frictional Curse", and it seems to affect FG core team members living outside Sweden only. At least I didn't lose any of my work. What can I say...

Wait, is that my apartment over there?

Sadly, all the above is nothing but just a glimpse of the many forms mayhem can adopt. At this point, I got no real advice other than learn to live with the fact that there is chance things can go bad, and in the worst possible moment. Once you accept it, that won't make it less likely to happen, but at least it won't take you by surprise!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Puzzle Tweaking - Tale of a Wooden Stick

Once upon a time there was a wooden stick, a stick so firm, a stick so stuck it could not be seen upon without the touch of many small, busy hands.

And so this tale beings.

Today we released a new gameplay video. Keeping to the Amnesia tradition it is one single clip, showing a sequence from the game. This time it's about exploration and puzzle solving. It is the puzzle part that this blog post will discuss, as it took quite some time for us to get that puzzle right.

The puzzle is that the hatch is too heavy to lift by hand, but by using a crank and pulley contraption the player can open it. Unfortunately something is wrong with the crank/pulley and the player has to figure out what it is. It turns out that a small piece of wood has been jammed into one of the pulleys, making it impossible for the crank to pull the rope going through the pulley.

This particular piece of wood took quite a lot of tweaking in order to make it noticeable. For each test session we found that there was always one or more testers that got stuck on this puzzle. They simply could not find what was wrong, most important, they did not notice the wooden piece at all. Over and over we tweaked the puzzle, we added descriptions and interaction messages, we changed the texture of the wooden piece, we added some faint light to show it clearer in the dark, there are some particles coming down from the wooden piece when you pull the crank, we made the model larger and we changed the angle it is stuck in. We even added an alternative solution to the original solution (not saying what the solutions are, in-case you like to solve the puzzle in another way than what is shown in the video).

Finally, we hope, for the love of all puzzles, that this puzzle has been tweaked to perfection and that none of you will get stuck on it*.

*If you watch this video, it would be very strange if you did. :)