Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs Interview: Steam, Survival Horror, Consoles And Anteaters
Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs was recently announced and will see Dear Esther studio thechineseroom develop a loose sequel to Frictional’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent, with the latter acting as producers and financers. Here’s the premise:
The year is 1899. Wealthy industrialist Oswald Mandus has returned home from a disastrous expedition to Mexico, which has ended in tragedy. Wracked by fever, haunted by dreams of a dark machine, he recovers consciousness in his own bed, with no idea of how much time has passed since his last memory. As he struggles to his feet, somewhere beneath him, an engine splutters, coughs, roars into life…
NowGamer caught up with Frictional Games’ Thomas Grip and thechineseroom’s Dan Pinchbeck to talk collaborating, success, Steam, the indie scene and the state of survival horror.
A Machine for Pigs’ concept art is pretty grim and grimy.
Dan, you recently revealed that Dear Esther has sold over 50,000 units via Steam within one week of launch…
Dan Pinchbeck: Yeah, I know. It’s quite a shock really. We totalled it up on the Steam thing last night and just sat there and went ‘that’s so much more than we thought we were going to sell.’
Thomas, in your experience, how important will the long game be to Dear Esther?
Thomas Grip: Just for comparison, Amnesia sold 50,000 over the first two months, and now we’re at 600,000. So these kind of games seem to have a very long and thick tail. So there’s more to come for sure I think. I also like to believe it’s not mainly due to Dear Esther being more popular than Amnesia was [laughs]. The environment… people are more willing to pay for stuff online, more of them know about Steam and what not. You see that from how many users Steam has at any moment. Even though there’s two or three times more users than when Amnesia launched, more of them are willing to pay for stuff. It’s a new mindset.
What sort of plans have you got for Dear Esther and the unexpected funds?
DP: We’re going to do a few things. We’re patching and tweaking at the moment, we’re going to port it across to Mac, and look at hopefully another couple of platforms over the next few months. We’re really interested in consoles, but it’s a long process. Once we have the patches done, I can’t see us doing a huge amount of work to be honest with you. In order to justify putting a ton of resources into a game you’ve got to look at where the income for that’s coming from as well.
I don’t think we could justify charging players again for anything else we did to it, in which case we’d have to look at whether we can afford to spend too much money on it. 50’000 soundalike a huge amount of sales and people go ‘wow, that must be a huge amount of money’ but once you knock off distributors, knock off engine licensing, tax… It’s a while before you can walk around buying Ferrari’ and things like that.
Over the course of this year once we’ve finished with Amnesia we’ve also got Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture running with a second team as well. We want to be in a position where we can fully self-finance a game that we’ll start developing once these two games are done. And that would just be great to say ‘we’ve got this money, what do we want to build? Let’s just do it.’
So it’s all going into the bank right now?
DP: It’s all going into the ‘we don’t need another investor’ account at the moment, so hopefully we’ll be fully financially self-supporting by the end of the year. That’s certainly the plan.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent: Also featuring pigs.
So, moving on to A Machine for Pigs – its going to be a sequel of sorts to Amnesia: The Dark Descent…
TG: I’ll begin telling the birth of it all because it began as an idea me and Jens [Nilsson, Frictional co-founder] had a year ago or more. We had the money to make a sequel but we didn’t have the manpower and we didn’t want to expand our company that much. We talked about perhaps outsourcing the entire game somehow, and I’d been talking to Dan for a while and I liked the game he was making. I knew that he was up for doing a project like this, so I asked him… You seemed very keen on it Dan. [laughs]
DP: I was very keen, yeah.
TG: And then it basically went from there. So for us it’s an attempt to release more than a game every third year – so far it’s been working out better than I expected.
How big a collaboration is Amensia: A Machine For Pigs? Did Frictional have any existing ideas for the game?
DP: The majority of e development work is happening with us and I guess Frictional are kind of acting as executive producers as well as creative consultants; we’re using the [Amnesia] HPL2 engine and technically they’re there on hand… I think we’ve pretty much gone out of our way to break every single part of it in the last couple of months. And as we’ve been working on concepts and designs we’ve been sending them back and forwards to Frictional who then give us fantastic feedback. So we’re doing most of the development, Frictional are kind of producing it but it’s not just them straightforward bankrolling the game, they’re very heavily involved in the concept design and all that kind of stuff, and keep us honest as we go.
So you’re still bouncing ideas off of each other?
DP: Yeah, it’s good to be in that position as we go forward. What’s really important to us is we’re all enormous Amnesia fans, and Penumbra before that so for us there’s a real sense of wanting to stamp a thechineseroom identitiy on it. We want to evolve the game a little bit. But it’s big boots to fill and we’ve got to stay true to Amensia because it’s a fantastic game, and we want to do Frictional and Amnesia justice.
TG: At the same time also we don’t want to tell Dan and his team too much exactly ‘oh, you need to have this and this and this’. I feel it’s better that they have their vision and then we have to keep them in line, say ‘could you add this,’ or ‘perhaps you should do something like this.’ Especially at the start there was a lot of bouncing off ideas, so it’s definitely collaborative. We don’t want to have our fingers in everything because then you end up with a mess. It’s better to have a couple of individuals that are really focused on a certain experience and then we keep it all in line.
The devs are staying tight-lipped about A Machine For Pigs.
That’s a very chilled out, Scandinavian approach to your own IP…
TG: Yeah… [laughs]
DP: I think if you’re going to be an independent game dev you embrace the opportunity to not have to think and work in that heavily structured kind of corporate environment; there are less people involved, and everyone that is involved is involved because they love what they’re doing and they really want to support each other to make something really fantastic and creative happen. I think it’s one of the major strengths about independent game production.
TG: Yeah. It gets so limited. If I were to say ‘I want this character, and I want this and I want that,’ everything that was going to happen in Dan’s head is now ‘how am I going to manage this? How am I going to keep up with the history behind the game and so on?’ So it’s set in the same universe but different characters, perhaps there’s going to be a link or two, but not too much. Then there can be more focus on having fun ideas, than just trying to connect everything with what’s in the old games.
I think that’s a much more interesting approach, than just trying to make some fan-service games with connections all over the place – like you see with some of the Silent Hill games that have come out lately. If I may be negative [laughs].
Both Frictional and thechineseroom have explored the ‘narrative-as-gameplay-mechanic’ area of gaming – your fans will see this as a bit of a dream match-up. How do you match such high expectations?
DP: I think you make the best game you can. We’ve kind of had this conversation with a few people… a few people have said ‘you are deliberately trying to attack the concept of what a game can be’ and all that kind of stuff. We just thought this is a really good idea and want to make the best game we can with it. I think that’s probably the way most developers work, that you’re chasing an idea and trying to produce the best experience you can for players.
TG: Yeah, and I also think that one of the great things is that there’s so many ideas on the table from that viewpoint, some new mechanics and so on. That’s more important because when Jens and I discussed if we were going to do a sequel and what it was going to have in it, the first thing we came up with was that we can’t have the Sanity mechanic, and we can’t have some of the other mechanisms we has in terms of story telling and so on. That’s just been done before.
And when it comes to horror games and so on it’s very important that things stay fresh in order for it to be an engaging experience and to keep the atmosphere levels high. That’s definitely where Dan comes in because he has a different approach to how he wants to have the narrative and all that kind of stuff. That really adds to it. So I think that while fans will have high expectations, they’re going to be reached [laughs].
So compared to the first game A Machine for Pigs will feature different but equivalent types of gameplay mechanics and ways to instil terror?
TG: Yeah, there’s going to be equivalents of those things, right Dan?
DP: Yeah, definitely. I think the challenge for us is how do you retain the core kind of experience of playing Amnesia but have some new Inge going on in there that means you can’t just settle in and go ‘alright, I know how this works, I’ve done this before.’ We want to look at making some changes so players have to learn a few things again, and wouldn’t be able to settle in to a comfortable routine of ‘I know how to play Amnesia, I’ll be okay.’ So we’ve specifically looked at it to go ‘where can we see players might make assumptions about how the game works?’ and just make a few changes here and there to put them back on their toes again.
After Dear Esther Dan, what’s it like getting to grips with crafting a full-on psychological/survival horror experience?
DP: It’s great to be doing. It’s so much fun – there’s lots of stuff in this… mainly because it didn’t fit and when we made Esther we didn’t have the budget to do things like [that]. One of the reasons we got Dear Esther the way it was, was because when we made the original mod we couldn’t afford anything to do with entities, so it was like ‘right , we’ve got no money for entities – so we’ll have a game without entities in it.’ So it’s been great fun on this because we’ve actually had a chance to do creature designs and new AI states and everything else; it’s been really good fun.
And because of the setting and the nature of the game, we can really let rip on the environment builds as well. We’ve got some fantastic maps coming in already, where we’re not having to worry about if this foliage is the right sort for the Outer Hebrides, we can just go ‘you know what? We’re doing a steampunk horror here, let’s slam that in the middle of it and see how it looks.’ So we’ve had a lot of fun as a development team already.
TG: And it shows also because the base has so much done already… the interaction system is done, a lot of the core graphics and so on – so they can just build upon that, there’s going to be a lot more details and stuff. I was surprised playing a prototype and there was an anteater in the game that came out of nowhere, and I was like ‘oh shit, there’s an anteater there!’ Details like that. [laughs] I loved that anteater.
We’re not sure we even want to know how anteaters fit into all of this.
Sorry Thomas – did you say ‘anteater’?
TG: Yeah. I’m not saying how or when, but there’s an anteater in there.
A Machine for Pigs has an intriguing, literary premise – did you have any influences other than the original game?
DP: Because it’s set in 1899, a lot of it comes from that steampunk fiction. We’re trying to get that feel to it as well, so writers like G.W. Dahlquist who wrote The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, which is a really kind of f*cked up Victorian horror-type thing. And even slightly crazy stuff like Stephen Hunt’s steampunk things. And I read a brilliant book a little while ago, Sherlock Holmes investigating mysteries in the H.P. Lovecraft universe – which was just the most great collision of things. You had Holmes and Watson going round trying to figure out why [fictional Cthulhu monsters] Shoggoths are in the middle of Cheapside.
That was really the tone, Victorian fiction with fogs, gas lamps and Jack the Ripper lurking off in the mist… and how we bring the Amnesia universe into that. It’s such an amazingly vivid era so we’ve been looking at that. I know quite a few of the team have got in their reference files about four million shots of the Sherlock Holmes films, and we’re like ‘look, that’s great! Make more tall hats…’
The concept art for A Machine for Pigs is great, and slightly reminiscent of the original BioShock – how big an influence was Irrational’s game in terms of it being a successful steampunk-style first-person experience?
TG: For me personally,the first 30 minutes of the original BioShock was a very big inspiration for Amnesia. So definitely for me BioShock was big. I’m not sure if it was to do with its commercial success, but seeing those environments and just noticing how I played myself – especially in the first 30 minutes of the game – was a great revelation for me; what kind of stuff you can have in a game to keep the player engaged without having to have hundreds of monsters chasing the player.
DP: I think anyone that’s making first-person games now is influenced by BioShock. I think it would be almost impossible to find someone who didn’t turn round and say ‘yeah, BioShock is big’. What they did that I found inspiring was they trusted the world, said ‘if we invest in this world, and give it character – then that’s just hugely important’. It felt really real, Rapture. It’s really important that players can invest emotionally in a place.
If they’re happy just being in it without doing anything else then you’re already a huge step ahead whey of come to putting gameplay in – because provided the gameplay doesn’t work against the world, players are already invested in the story and that’s really important. I think anything that isn’t space marines is going to get compared to BioShock for the next few years – that’s the reality of it. The ethos they had behind the world is a definite inspiration. We’ve got more clockwork. [laughs]
Frictional is financing Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs – is it safe to say you’ve been working towards a self-funded project for a while?
TG: Ever since Amnesia’s release, daily sales have never gone below supporting daily wages [at Frictional] so we’ve always had a bit of extra money and we wanted to put that into something. We don’t want to be Uncle Scrooge and collect it in our vault, we want to put that money to use, so doing this type of project was perfect. It’s so cool that these kinds of thing can happen. I’m kind of surprised that this type of collaboration hasn’t happened before because you’ve seen this excess of money… You have this indie fund set up by other indie developers, which funded Dear Esther.
That’s so awesome. If someone would have told me that four years ago I wouldn’t have believed that something like that would have been possible. It’s really cool when those people that have earned money from their own projects can use that to help others out. I think that’s great for the gaming community. Hopefully we’re adding something by releasing a new Amnesia, and hopefully it will add something to thechineseroom as well.
Frictional turned down the chance to bring Amnesia to Xbox Live – what’s your attitude to consoles?
TG: We talked a lot about third-party ports for Amnesia, but it just turned out too much work. We had lots of talks on it, but realised we were up to our ears in work and we didn’t want to focus on it – it would simply have taken too much of our time. But we are going to release – in some way for consoles – the next game we’re working on. Consoles are definitely somewhere we want to be, definitely. Even though PC sales are good enough that you can survive on that.
It just feels better to have some other platform to support. You never know what’s going to happen in the market; stores like Steam and so on might be in trouble for whatever reason or might not want our next game…you never know what’s going to happen, so it’s better to spread your income about in some ways. And consoles feel great for that. Also, for me, when you get to consoles, it’s a little bit higher getting out to people in certain ways. Getting recognised… I’m not sure, there’s just a higher level to it.
DP: I agree. The other thing is there’s just a lot of people playing and buying console games, to be really crude about it. If you can, it just makes sense to really. I think it’s increasingly expected. Also there’s a real thing in independent game making; quite a big difference between PC indies and console indies in terms of the types of titles you see. With console indies you don’t tend to find games like Amnesia or Dear Esther with maybe the exception of thatgamescompany. So I think there’s a real place for the types of games we and Frictional make on consoles, and I think gamers would really respond to it as well.
TG: It would be very interesting to see sales for games like Dear Esther or Amensia on consoles. PC gamers get all these experimental games but consoles are more mainstream. There’s not that spread in the types of games that are available. The demographic for console gamers is different, do it would be very interesting to see how they’d react to that.
DP: When we first started talking to indie Fund about Dear Esther they wanted us to port it to PSN – we didn’t do it and we had a long talk about it eventuallysaid we wouldn’t do it because we thought ‘we’ve got a PC fan base’ and they tolerated us moving from a mod to being a commercial game. We’re not sure they’d tolerate is moving to console and abandoning PC altogether, and also we felt a loyalty to the scene that had out their faith in us. So we made the decision to stick on PC for Esther. But indie Fund was very keen on us talking to PSN.
So it wanted Dear Esther to be a PSN exclusive?
DP: Initially, yeah. They wanted an initial launch on PS3 and we didn’t think that would be fair to the PC gamers that had supported us. We’re certainly interested in going to PSN now that we’re out. But when you’re using third-party tools and licenses it makes those kinds of discussions complicated. It’s not just you signings deal with someone. It’s you having to make sure all the people you previously signed a deal with are happy with you signing a deal with someone. There’s always loads of goodwill and it’s always possible. It just takes time.
Dear Esther could still come to PS3.
Consoles come in for stick for their closed nature and Tim Schafer recently lamented the cost of releasing an update on consoles – how much credit should we give Steam for its approach to indie developers?
DP: I would happily sing Valve’s praises for a very long time. No Steam, you rip the arse out of the PC indie-scene to a large extent. We couldn’t have got anywhere without Steam because there’s no way we could invest in the game as much as we invested – even if you remove the Source licensing – the distribution platforms, without what Steam contributes, would be so high-risk for us. So Valve being really behind the game and taking a risk on it was fantastic for us. I couldn’t fault Valve for their attitude to indies really.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is available via cloud-gaming service OnLive – how is the service from an indie developer’s point of view?
TG: I think OnLive has worked great. They’re still in the beginning, but compared to other stores have been at the start, there’s a lot coming from them. It’s going to be very interesting to see where it goes. They’ve been very easy to work with. It’s hard to say exactly where it’s going to go but it’s quite cool. The thing with OnLive is if you’re playing on your PC you see the artifacts and the compression and so on – but playing on your TV, especially with a game pad is a totally different experience; you don’t experience the lag and artifcats get hidden and so on. Now that it’s going to come packaged with some TVs is a very interesting… that you’re going to have games like Dear Esther and so on on that platform – it’s a completely different market that you might be able to reach because it’s people that don’t have to buy a console.
Resident Evil 6: ‘Not really horror’.
Finally, what are your views on the state of the horror and survival horror genres, and how much of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs will be a reaction to that?
DP: I’m not sure apart from isolated titles that we have a survival genre at the moment. I think we still call things like Resident Evil ‘survival horror’ out of history and habit really. When you look at the last few games I don’t think they are particularly…
They’re calling Resident Evil 6 a ‘dramatic horror’ game…
DP: There’s moments in Dead Space and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. that have got that sense to it but I think there’s space for a game that’s focused on that old-school technique of really just scaring the hell out of the player and keeping them scared for the entire run of it.
TG: The only thing that I can think of now, which I haven’t played – I must get around to it – is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, the Wii and PS2 reboot. It sort of tries something different. But it’s still with a lot of problems. Like Dan said, you have these moments in Dead Space, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. where they’re real horror games, but it doesn’t seem like the focus of the games. And especially for AAA games the focus is trying to appeal to different markets. The horror concept sort of gets watered down along the way. I think that’s pretty much evident in every major release since Fatal Frame or Forbidden Siren.
Indie game Hide: Scary.
Comparing the sort of horror games the PS2 had with now… there’s a lot of difference with the titles that popped up and the emotions they were able to convey. I’m sort of negative on if we’ll ever see proper horror games because it’s been so long since any major studio made an attempt. But there’s some interesting indie stuff happening. I played a pretty decent, very short indie game called Hide, which is this very lo-fi first-person game that was really cool. So there is still stuff happening in that focused horror experience, but it’s very much indie from now on.
Is there something to be said for scaring your customers too much and putting them off from a AAA commercial standpoint? Can indies take more risks with the genre?
TG: We’ll have to see with A Machine for Pigs. If no one wants to play an Amnesia game, or hasn’t played the first one… every time we read ‘I only played ten minutes of it’. So we’ll see if all those sales we had come back for another game – that’s going to be interesting. But it’s not only that – we’ve sold over half a million copies now and we had no commercial… no consoles, and very little PR other than word of mouth that’s gone into it.
It’s still a very budget way, at least compared to many AAA games – many of these games can make a profit especially when it comes to prices and so on off a million sales. So I don’t think it’s just that they’re making safe financial decisions, it’s also a conservative attitude to what sort of stuff you need to have in your game – do you need combat, or RPG elements or whatever to make something that appeals to the market. I think that’s an attitude problem more than anything else.
And for all those Amnesia fans brave enough to return – can they expect a game at least as scary if not more so in A Machine for Pigs? Do you see that as a challenge for the next game?
DP: Yeah, I think if we don’t go all out to scare the living hell out of people then we’re doing something wrong.