Last summer, Steam staged another massive sale. The service, which according to the latest data has more than ten thousand games, offered huge discounts even on the most popular titles. Despite the abundance of choice, once again the leader of the sale was the pioneer of indie games — the gloomy platformer Limbo from the Danish company Playdead. In a week and a half, more than a million users bought the game, which is two and a half times more than CS:GO or Payday 2.
In addition, in June, Playdead released the studio’s next game called Inside. Critics immediately saw in it the spiritual successor of its predecessor and dubbed it «Super Limbo».
Limbo is a real hello from the past, namely from 2010, when indie developers were just making themselves known. The platformer was one of the first indie games to achieve massive commercial success, along with Braid, Super Meat Boy and Castle Crashers. Like them, Limbo started out on the Xbox 360 before settling on Steam. The game immediately attracted attention with its black and white art and sucking minimalist gameplay.
And it all started with an artist named Arnt Jensen. In the early 2000s, he worked at IO Interactive, creating concept art for Hitman 2: Silent Assassin and Freedom Fighters. Despite the status of the company, Jensen every year more and more doubted that he was in his place.
“In the beginning, everything was great – high salary and creative atmosphere in the company. But over time, it became more and more difficult for me to push through my ideas. ”
Maybe this, or maybe hours of work on the killer simulator gave him the idea of a lonely boy’s adventures, in search of his sister, overcoming one obstacle after another. In 2004, in his free time, he makes art for Limbo and tries to revive the picture on his own using Visual Basic.
“I started with sketches of the setting, without the boy himself. From the first drawing, I knew I had come up with something special.”
After suffering for some time, he uploads a concept trailer of his project to the network in order to find accomplices. The call was answered by Dino Patti, a programmer who had recently retired from a major game company. Jensen and Patty quickly found a common language and decided to continue development on behalf of their own company, Playdead. After two months of work, they realized that the scale of the project was beyond their capabilities. We needed more people, more time and, accordingly, more money.
Playdead flatly refused to deal with publishers and looked for outside investors to maintain creative control. Although, I must say, the latter also did not stand aside and tried to impose their ideas on the developers, such as multiplayer or a mustache for the main character. Jensen rejected everything that did not fit into the original vision, chopping up, according to him, about 70% of the original content.
When the money came in, Playdead began hiring new employees and at the time of release consisted of sixteen people, including freelancers. One of the most valuable additions to the team was programmer Jepp Carlsen. Patti and Jensen quickly recognized Carlsen’s potential in design and put him in charge of gameplay and puzzles. Later, he will once again confirm his abilities by releasing two successful puzzles «140» and THOTH on the side.
Whatever holistic vision Jensen has, things could fall apart without the right puzzles.
Carlsen recalls: “Arnt insisted that everything felt very organic in the given setting. We wanted to avoid the feeling of going from one mystery to another, even if that’s what actually happened.»
Japp wanted the player to be unable to predict what would happen in the next twenty seconds, and each puzzle was different from the last. To do this, the designer spent months figuring out how this or that riddle would be perceived by the players.
“After the player has found all the pieces of the puzzle, he will think: “Now I know exactly what to do.” He tries but fails. At some point, the player is forced to stop and study the environment properly in order to understand the mechanics of the puzzle.”
But, despite the fact that Carsen has achieved notable success in his business, and riddles are one of the strengths of Limbo, Jensen is not all calm at heart.
“I think that before Jebb started to actively work on puzzles, the game was more focused on the feelings of the boy and his little stories that he got into. In the end, I think I missed an important piece of the atmosphere.”
Another atmospheric piece was the audio in Limbo. Martin Andersen, a graduate of the Aarhus Royal Academy of Music, was involved in writing the soundtrack. The composer saw the original trailer and was very impressed with the light and sound aesthetic.
“You see in front of you something realistic and familiar, but at the same time abstract.”
Andersen used acoustic music for the soundtrack, consisting mainly of sound effects appropriate to a particular location. As a result, many reviewers got the impression that there is no music in Limbo at all, with which Andersen, of course, disagreed.
“Instead of the traditional musical accompaniment, the game is carefully arranged with barely intelligible sounds. One of Jensen’s key concepts for Limbo is that the game should be ambiguous in all aspects and leave more room for the imagination.»
Jensen originally planned to release Limbo as a free-to-play game on Steam. Later, when development had already gained momentum, it was decided to make the game exclusive to the Xbox 360. At the same time, Playdead repeatedly stated that they were not going to release Limbo on other platforms. The fact that the company still changed its mind and released Limbo on everything possible is probably the result of sales of the Xbox version. A month later, sales exceeded 300 thousand, after three years, total sales from all platforms amounted to 3 million copies.
Taking on their next project, Playdead decided to make a few changes to the development process. First, in contrast to the situation with the Limbo engine, Unity was chosen for the new game.
Patty recalls: “The Limbo engine only works in monochrome and it took us too long to develop. It was as if we were working on two full-fledged projects at the same time: the game and the engine. Despite the fact that our new project is much more ambitious than the previous one, we would like to focus on the main thing.”
Money has never played a key role in Playdead’s decisions. Even during the development of Limbo, they took financial risks, but firmly decided to release the game only when they were 100% sure of it. Inside is no exception.
“Good things never happen quickly. I think we need at least three and a half years to develop.”
But, despite the fact that their debut brought a lot of profit, a solid part of it went to buy the company from investors, and Playdead began to think about finding a publisher.
“We want to be completely independent. It is necessary that the last word always be with Playdead, and specifically with Arnt Jensen. If we find someone who shares these demands, we will cooperate with them.”
First, the Danish Film Institute came to the rescue and gave Playdead a grant of $1 million, and then Microsoft stepped in and announced Inside at E3 2014 at E3 2014. However, Playdead soon had to postpone the release date indefinitely in order to properly improve the game. At the same time, the company does not like to share development details with fans.
“We don’t want to bore players with early announcements. I hate it when big publishers show something a year or two before release. I want to see details for two weeks or a month at the most. This is the average range of human attention. Most likely we will start talking about the project quite shortly before its release, although I’m not sure, ”explained Dino Patti.
Although the public did not receive the finished game in 2015 as promised earlier, but they were able to play a short demo, and it was already something. Again, a platformer appeared before the players, this time partly in 3D and partly in color. The main character, as in the first part, was a boy, at every corner of which danger lurks. The same emphasis on puzzles and a mysterious atmosphere. While the ease of use remains the same, it’s clear that Playdead is implementing all of its new ideas through visuals and storytelling.
«A lot of ideas never found their way to Limbo, so we decided to bring them to Inside.»
As for the soundtrack, Martin Andersen was again invited to the board of the project. And this time, Martin decided not to follow the traditional paths, but to write music in an experimental way. After watching horror movies from the 80s, he got a real human skull and conducted all the sound through it. The result was the so-called «bone-conducting» sound, which, according to the composer, perfectly complemented the atmosphere of Inside.
This time, Andersen worked more closely with the rest of the team, and as a result, the soundtrack responds even more to the actions of the player, including the breathing rhythm of the protagonist.
Finally, in June 2016, Inside hit the shelves and was also released on Steam and PS4 before the end of the summer. Playdead has been aiming for as many platforms as possible since the start of development.
After the hype around the release of Inside subsided, Dino Patti announced that he was leaving the company. According to him, the motive for the change was the desire to try something completely new for the programmer, and not any disagreement within Playdead.
In fact, right now it will be most interesting to follow the work of the studio. Perhaps, as, for example, in the situation with Frictional Games, with each new title, Playdead will bring to mind its original idea. Or vice versa, Inside has become the apogee of development, and the team will undertake to develop a completely new direction. Given the secrecy of the company, it is very difficult to engage in any forecasts. Few imagined that after six years of Limbo development, Playdead would want to spend another six on a similar game.