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The Making of Frostpunk: The Special One

making games - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 4/2020 vom 05.02.2020

Dress warmly for our cover story about an extraordinary game.

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Frostpunk is world’s first society survival game. Developed and published by 11 bit studios, the Polish makers of the fantastic This War of Mine, Frostpunk was released 2018 for PC and 2019 for consoles. Gamers around the world celebrated Frostpunk for its outstanding atmosphere, great steampunk look, and addictive build-up sim gameplay with moral choices to be made that sometimes make the player’s throat closed. A few days ago 11 bit studios released the new DLC The Last Autumn, a big expansion with a prequel scenario, new technology trees ...

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... and resources, new buildings and a lots more. For our cover story a few developers wrote excellent articles about the unusual genre mix, the social aspects and the outstanding art design. In addition, Development & Art Director Przemyslaw Marszal, Development & Design Director Michal Drozdowski and Partnership Manager Pawel Miechowski took the time for a detailed interview. Let’s start with this!

Making Games: This War of Mine was a great success and instantly placed you on the international map of game developers. Instead of repeating the success with This War of Mine 2, you chose a completely different game and a completely new story instead. Isn’t that a bit crazy?

Przemyslaw Marszal: It might seem like this when looking from a distance. But doing it the other way - making This War of Mine 2 right away would be much crazier. Why? Because, after the first one we were very tired. Especially tired emotionally. This game required so much attention to war- related details, so much of this emotional understanding that it was just too much near the end of the development cycle.

So sure – we felt that This War of Mine put us on the map in a very good spot to do a sequel. But at the same time, we felt we needed a change, and this feeling gained the upper hand. So we looked for the next topic. The one that, we thought at the beginning, could be less dramatic, less serious and harsh. The one that will let us think more about its core gameplay systems or its art style.

That’s how we came up with an idea of steampunk city-builder. Yet, after about eight months of development, we started to understand that we just can’t do a game without a message, without a meaningful root that will be something we want to tell about. That’s how Frostpunk was born - a game about society adaptation in survival times. One more thing is crucial. Probably right now, I can say This War of Mine was an artistic statement touching the problems of civilians struggle during wartime. And in this sense, it was sort of a complete statement from us. We told what we wanted to tell regarding this particular problem and we felt that at that moment there was nothing meaningful we wanted to add to it.

How big has your team grown after This War of Mine?

Przemyslaw Marszal: Just after the game release, not that much as I recall. But during the years after it started to change. This War of Mine was done by about 20 developers internally and Frostpunk during the next few years scaled the core team to around 45 people, but we also grew in other departments. Right now, we’re capable of doing three separate games with three separate teams. Before The Final Cut edition of This War of Mine, which released November last year, we still had a team doing working only on this project. We’re still be patching and tweaking the game, but most of those people moved to the new project. The second team is responsible for Frostpunk, and third the unannounced Project 8 game. We also have a publishing team, working on third-party titles, business development, and marketing teams or our own internal QA guys, because we also test in-house the games we’re publishing like Moonlighter or Children of Morta. All this accounts for about 125 people right now, but we still growing and moving into a new office in a building we bought in whole, probably in March.

What inspired you to do Frostpunk? Are you fans of the movies Snowpiercer or The Day After Tomorrow? Or did the infamous “year without summer” inspire you?

Michał Drozdowski: I remember when we tried to figure out with Przemek on how to proceed after making our first prototype called Industrial. It was very economical, it was a steampunk-ish city-builder proto, so sort of what we liked it to be, but it lacked a lot in terms of motivation, message, and overall vision. What was quite intriguing is that each of us separately came with a very similar vision of a frost fighting society survival game at some point. My head was full of images of very strong-hearted men. Those people you could once find in a situation where nature is the ultimate obstacle and worst nightmare - people like sailors, mountaineers, whale hunters, oil-platform workers. It was mostly about this vision of those hardened people fighting for survival. Another question then will be how the frost and winter came in and took the rule? Well, we used to have pretty strong winters in Poland, and we know something about really cold weather. But winter seemed to be a great enemy, especially combined with the power of heat would have in that situation and a steam technology used to generate it. As you mentioned those movie titles - they were known to us, and particularly Snowpiercer is one hell of a movie. We all love it both for its world as well as being a very compact and metaphorical approach to society.

What was the initial idea behind Frostpunk‘s art direction?

Przemyslaw Marszal: When we start prototyping a new project, we often ask ourselves: what we would like to hear from a player looking at a finished game? How would we like him to describe what he sees? So we set up a list of adjectives that we imagine would suit best that kind of description. And then try to think about how we could achieve that. What steps we need to take to get that kind of feeling from the players. For Frostpunk these adjectives were: cold, city, steampunk, seriously looking, with living society, victorian, looking like AAA game. Getting everything that working right at once in the actual game is like solving a puzzle. And coming to that result involves a lot of research, drawing and conceptualizing things. In general, a lot of trial and error processes. Plus there is one other ingredient - uniqueness. So the graphic not only must convey all the associations we want but also has its own unexpected and exciting bits. Bits like round circular ice hole with a huge generator in the centre or radial laid city.

Talking about the development process: What problems did you encounter in general and how did you deal with them?

Michal Drozdowski: From my perspective, the biggest problems came up with a growing team. We doubled the size compared to our peak during This War of Mine production, and I think we were not fully aware of the consequences of this sudden growth. The problem that arose was communication. In previous smaller teams, we were used to having a lot of short daily conversations that made the game vision spread naturally across all team members. Keeping a healthy amount of design documents and a few occasional meetings was enough to make sure people understand what is happening and why it is happening. When the team sized changed dramatically, we realized that these measures were not enough. Some people still lacked knowledge about some important elements of the vision of the project or its creative directions. We had to make sure that we have a better communication process on our side. One that is more targeted at supplying the team with all the crucial information. Taking into account that saying something once, or having it written in a document rarely ensures that the subject can be considered as a piece of well-spread information.

Which design decisions would you have made differently in retrospect?

Michal Drozdowski: I really don’t like to look into the past with that kind of approach. I think that every game we make is defined not only by the design itself but by the team and the time at which it was made. Because during that time we overcame many obstacles and made many hard decisions. There is always a great number of ideas or even partial design that ‘didn’t make it’ into the game for various reasons. But even if they did not appear in the game, there was a reason that something more important took their place. There is a time we feel the game is ready and complete. Of course, it can then evolve and change, which is great, but that first version, I consider it a closed chapter.

Which feature of the game are you particularly proud of?

Michal Drozdowski: I tried to rephrase that question in my mind and ask myself that the whole time I spent working on Frostpunk. And there is one definitive answer - the team we build-up for this project. I mention it not only to give them credits for their skills, passion, and willpower but to stress that sometimes building a great team might be even harder than crafting a great game. In the end, it’s those people who make the vision change into a game you could release. Getting back to more particular features, I’m most proud of our narrative solutions. We were able to deliver a mix of systemic and emergent narrative mechanics combined with a more classical approach to storytelling. Finally, we got a game where each action and decision matters and adds both to the grand story of the player’s journey and the message we wanted to deliver.

What you can consider as the biggest thing the art department achieved during Frostpunk production?

Przemyslaw Marszal: I must highlight two things. First, it is awesome when a lot of people that see a Frostpunk screen know immediately that this is Frostpunk. This uniqueness allowing for distilling this game in a split second from a lot of other games. A uniqueness that is clear to describe but also has its rules and magic. And the second thing - we really worked hard to connect art with gameplay in a lot of fields. I believe that we achieved this level of immersion in which gameplay and art are working as one entity, and deliver a bond absorbing players into one precisely defined mood during their play.

How satisfied are you with the reviews, the feedback from the community and the sales?

Pawel Miechowski: Complaining is a national sport in Poland, so I should start with a set of complaints, but the reality is that the reception was fantastic and we have nothing to complain about. A massive part of the reviews was underlining the game’s original approach to the setting, gameplay, and its maturity. There were some 6s and 7s here and there, but we’re fully aware that this happens each time. We can’t just please every gamer out there because we are not making games for everyone but for a precisely chosen type of gamer. We know who our audience is. And the majority of the audience gave us great feedback, first with fantastically positive acclaim, and then by providing us tips and hints on how to improve Frostpunk further and develop expansions such as the Endless Mode. The only problem we had was that the first paid expansion - The Rifts - was a small one, is like an appetizer before the big one - The Last Autumn - and we didn’t communicate that clearly to the community. So the reception of The Rifts was not as good as we’d want, but then we communicated precisely what is our plan and now The Last Autumn is out with great acclaim from the players. And when it comes to sales - the game paid off in just two days after the release and it was more than four years development process so the financial success was fantastic. Sometime last year the game crossed 1.5 million copies sold and is still selling very well.

How did you finance the development?

Pawel Miechowski: Initially, the game was called Industrial, and the funding of the prototype was granted by the Creative Europe program. After it was made, we knew there was a huge potential, and we’ve decided to invest our resources into the game. It was roughly three million Euros of our funds, spent on the development in over three years during which, in the course of numerous iterations, the game morphed from Industrial into Frostpunk.

The (lack of) state support for the games industry is a much-discussed topic in Germany. Tell us about the situation in Poland?

Pawel Miechowski: I’ve heard now there is a big program in Germany to support kick-starting studios and prototypes of the games, so I’d like to congratulate the German industry for making this discussion to happen. In Poland, things changed in a good direction over the last years. We also got nothing special six or seven years ago except some small grants for exhibiting at international shows. Now there are dedicated programs for R&D, programs for supporting exhibiting at the shows so practically every indie studio that has at least the will and some own funds can participate in shows like gamescom, PAX or ChinaJoy. From time to time there are programs to kickstart prototype development but those are not big ones. All in all the state support is solid. However, there are always things to improve, like the higher game development education-oriented things. There’s a lot to do in this field.

Was it difficult to port Frostpunk to the consoles? Why did it take so long?

Pawel Miechowski: We did what we’ve aimed for and made Frostpunk play on those platforms like a natively developed console experience. To achieve that our team redesigned the UI and control scheme from scratch. The whole system went through five iterations during the development process and nailing it right, and getting the right game performance on consoles, was more important for us than finishing the game earlier. The decision about the delay was the right one from today’s perspective. The game is doing really well on this sort-of uncharted market for strategy games because we think this genre on consoles is still a bit of a blue ocean. There aren’t many of them, and we believe Frostpunk: Console Edition could be seen as a benchmark for those, especially in terms of the player-friendly interface. Also, we get a great amount of support both from Microsoft on Xbox and Sony on PlayStation, so we feel they see there is space for the games like ours.

With your publishing program, you support in some way other indie studios. Please tell us about that.

Pawel Miechowski: We have a special philosophy of creation that can be underlined as meaningful entertainment. Games that leave a mark in the player’s minds, make them think about them even when thy not playing it. At some point, we’ve come to the conclusion that there are indie games out there who share the same philosophy and it would be great to create an ecosystem of devs making those games with an extra mark, like ourselves. These devs need help on the market to succeed and this is where we come in with our knowhow and resources. Primarily, we are a development studio, so we know exactly what the developer needs. We have the experience because we’ve been in the trenches, so to speak. Starting the role of the publisher and creating this ecosystem for the devs was a natural business direction. 11 bit studios can provide everything a developer needs - funds, marketing, QA. But we need to fall in love with your game. It has to ignite a spark that we truly understand. We’re a picky publisher but we consider it our mission. And when you look at the latest release like Moonlighter or Children of Morta, this proves we’re doing it the right way. Proof for that is the way those games were reviewed, the feedback from the community, how they performed saleswise and how many awards they won.

In a nutshell: What are the three most important rules that an indie studio should follow?

Przemyslaw Marszal: I think it’s hard to say if we are still indie devs. But looking back - what helped us a lot was, in the first place, understanding where in our ideas the value for players lay. And why players were not only paying for our games but more importantly also giving us the time to dive into our fantasies. Being brave and looking for our own way, trying to find this unique personality of the studio was the second thing. And thirdly, having an awesome, honest and friendly team that understands the goals of 11bit Studios as a company and treating them as there were theirs own.

“As a publisher we need to fall in love with your game. It has to ignite a spark that we truly understand.”

Michal Drozdowski: I’ll add something from the design point of view. The first thing is knowing what you want to achieve. All great games have a good strong focus – a few things that are critical for them and at which they aim to be the best. This focus is crucial to make further decisions during development. Having a very clear vision of the game you’re making, keeping consistency during design, production and finally, sales are the key aspects in delivering an outstanding experience to the players. This may sound as being a bit obvious, but it’s actually one of the hardest aspects. Be able to judge what are the very things that shape the personality of your game and treat all the remaining ones just as a nice to have. During prototyping or developing new features, you may easily find yourself straying from the path, so make sure to cross-check several times during the project that your main vision is still your goal.

What comes next from 11 bit studios?

Przemyslaw Marszal: You know we just can’t tell. Yet what we can guarantee that whatever we do we want it to be a huge challenge for us. We won’t settle, we will push ourselves to achieve new experiences, emotions, messages, and craft more meaningfulness into our games. We will struggle while doing it, swearing and cursing on our ambitious decisions. Yet in the end, we will be satisfied and we hope players will be too.


Development & Art Director

Art director and co-founder of 11 bit studios. He’s responsible for the art direction of all company titles, as well as managing development teams together with Michal. With almost 20 years of experience in game development and many games shipped under his belt, he always tries to work on titles never imagined before.


Development & Design Director

He is a creative director and a co-founder of 11 bit studios. He’s responsible for the game design, recently for Frostpunk and all company titles as well as leading, supervising and managing studio’s internal and external design teams.

He’s designing gameplay in games for about 20 years now.


Partnership Manager

Working in game development since the late 90s. In the early 2000s landed in Metropolis Software and worked there as a writer and PR manager.

Later in CD Projekt Group and from 2010 at 11 bit studios, initially as a writer and PR guy and now working as a partnerships manager.