February 28, 2012 5:01 AM | John Polson
Playdead was a studio that was founded organically, says CEO Dino Patti. His original goal was just to help Arnt Jensen, his co-founder and the game director of Limbo, get his creative vision into the wild. The game studio just grew from nothing, as the vision expanded.
What's important to Patti is shepherding Jensen's creative vision. What's important to Jensen is creating a game filled with ambiguity -- one that people can enjoy artistically and also discuss and interpret in their own way. And he isn't happy when they get to close to the truth, he says.
As the studio moves forward with its second project, having thrown off the shackles of the investors who originally put up the funds to develop Limbo, Gamasutra traveled to Copenhagen to visit the studio and talk to Jensen and Patti about how Limbo was developed, what lessons learned during that process will inform the company's next project, and what we can expect from its next title.
You have that expectation now built in. It's kind of like you want to avoid the sophomore slump, right?
Arnt Jensen: Yeah.
Like, bands releasing their second album. When their first album hits so hard, everyone starts to have really high expectations for the second album. It's kind of like that with you guys.
Dino Patti: Our thing is because it's a while yet... We want to talk about it when we're satisfied.
AJ: Yeah. we have to be proud about it. That's a long way. It'll take a long time.
You're still developing the concepts?
AJ: Yeah. We're working in kind of a special way, because we haven't planned what it's going to be like, so it's more like working with some themes, and then do a lot of prototyping on those themes, and then we put it all together. There's no design document or anything...
Did you have a similar process with Limbo?
AJ: Yes, it was exactly the same. It never ended. We put in new stuff two months before we finished it [laughs]. We never ended it -- just came up with ideas and moved it around all the way through. If we came up with something better than we had, than we just changed it. So, it was very important to have it flexible all the way.
DP: And it was deliberately kept open until very, very late to be able to move things around.
AJ: Yeah. [laughs] Our producer... We were pretty anxious at the end.
DP: He was anxious. [both laugh]
AJ: We came every day with a new idea. It was just becoming too late at the end.
How did you control yourself? Or did you just eventually get to the point where it became apparent that there just wasn't time?
AJ: I don't know. I think everything just combines in the end, and you kind of convince yourself that now it's there, and now it's done. So it feels kind of natural. [laughs] We had no more money to spend, so we just have to finish it. Microsoft were pushing us and everything, so it just felt natural.
When you're really stressed in the end, you just take some big decisions, and you know it's for the better. It was okay. We will probably do it the same way again.
DP: Yeah, the problem is I don't really know how we do it, because the game was so much in pieces at one point, it was like... [laughs]
AJ: This is not going to be a game.
DP: And a lot of big decisions. We put it together. And some things were obviously cut, because they didn't meet the standards, or couldn't get in shape in time.
AJ: Yeah. We threw a lot out. We told a lot of people that we threw 70 percent out, of things. There were a lot of ideas.
Not tempting to make a Limbo 2 based on success, and the pieces?
AJ: Well, that could be great some day, but I think it would have to evolve, and there have to be some new mechanics and ideas, before [that]. So, not for now.
That's the thing when you make a company. Making a game is an artistic endeavor, but making a company... A company has to survive.
AJ: Yeah. [laughs]
You have to counterbalance.
DP: The funny thing is, when we started, it wasn't going to be a company. It was only going to be, like, this game. I think we talked a lot about, [while] doing this game, that we also wanted a company. Because we loved the processes, and we loved the way of doing it.
DP: The more we found more people and found more money, it was like, "Hm, this could maybe be something bigger."
AJ: We really want it to be fun, so we really want to be inspired and having fun doing the process, so it made no sense just to make another black and white game immediately. And we could work for a big publisher instead, and that's [what] we're both scared of.
DP: But what you are talking about, running the company, it's also, I think, the opposite of what we wanted. We wanted the products to run the company, because we don't want to have a big team where, "Okay, now we have to find new projects to have the team going." It's not our goal to have a lot of people just working. It's all about having projects which run the company. So, when new ideas emerge, we get bigger. If we don't have any ideas, we get smaller. [both laugh]
AJ: We have two ideas at the same time, we'll probably make two productions at the same time.
DP: We don't want to be forced to make bad decisions because we have a lot of people working. It sounds kind of intuitive to the big companies, I think, but for us it sounds really counterintuitive, to just have a lot of people that you always need to put in new projects, to just have them work.
That depends on your priorities as well. The big companies are publicly traded, and their goal is to create shareholder value. That's not your goal.
DP: Yeah, exactly.
AJ: We bought our investors out, so it's not our concern anymore. [laughs]
DP: And it is to be able to just create or get good ideas, and do whatever it takes. I think it's a cool way of doing it.
AJ: We've been talking a lot about this. I think we'll earn our money in the end by being creative and not taking money decisions, so it will all work out.
You talked about Limbo being made of pieces. I have to say, playing Limbo, there are certain pieces that are somewhat incongruous. So, start off in the wilderness, giant spiders, with some sort of natives, or tribal people. And then it suddenly transitions into this sort of city and factory. I had the sense playing it, I was trying to piece together a narrative. What do you think about that?
AJ: I think it's pretty important to have the right feelings throughout the game. I don't know if it's that important if it's specific storytelling. I don't care about that. It's important to have those special feelings. It was supposed to feel this loneliness so that in the end, when you meet the little sister, it seems like you haven't seen people so long, the impact will be so much bigger.
So, the setting is chosen more for the atmosphere it provides, rather than for the sense of progression?
AJ: Yeah. I think so.
One of the hallmarks of the game is just how atmospheric it is on every level, from sound design, to visual design, to animation. There's something of a debate on style versus substance. What amount of style is substance?
AJ: It was very important for us to create gameplay. For a very long time, there were no graphics or sound in it. We knew that it was important to have fun while playing it, or else it didn't matter. We couldn't save it with graphics and sound, so we really put a lot of effort in making the boy controlling as we wanted, and having good puzzles, and just making this blocky graphic fun to play.
We tested it on a lot of people, and we would see they had fun, and then we thought, "Okay, it will only get better when we start putting all these graphics and sounds in this."
DP: We were in a fortunate place because Arnt, he did the graphics like way before I met him.
AJ: Yeah. It was like the first thing we had.
DP: The first thing we had was the graphics. [Addressing Arnt] And you were not scared at all then.
AJ: No, no. It was like, I knew we had that covered. The gameplay was the big concern.
DP: "Can we reach this?" And then he'd go like, "Yeah, no problem. I know what it takes. I want the gameplay done." So, it was really boxes and things, boxes and still objects, once the graphics came on.
What was important was to have the gameplay before the graphics went on. We had the spider chase, which was a killer box, a red killer box, until very late in production. And it was so fun because it was so scary, this red box. If it touched you, you died.
AJ: Why did we change it, then? [laughs]
DP: Why did we change it, yeah? It was actually more scary as the red box.
I don't know. I think the spider is really scary. It's pretty creepy.
DP: But it was cool because it was fun and scary before the spider came in, and it just got worse, or better, when the spider came in. It's just really scary now.
AJ: We came in really late. Really late, we put in the animation.
DP: But it was important to have all the things. And it was a fortunate place because it's easy to make gameplay when it's graphics are thought of. And we just reskinned afterward. And again, when they were skinned, a lot of the gameplay was not changed, but like moved accordingly to fit better.
I think that's one of our forces. Like we had everything integrated, the sound, the graphics, and the gameplay, everything of those affect each other. Back to the original question, it's not that I think we have emphasis in some of them, but it's all like having them fit together in a single piece. I think that's where we can do something bigger companies can't do, because they really have to modularize everything to have people work on it.
You talked about bringing in people to play it when it was still in the box state.
You tested it a lot?
AJ: Yeah, a lot. We had several hundred people in the office.
DP: 150-ish tissue testers [Ed. note: testers who are used once only] who just tried it for the first time.
AJ: Yeah, it was really great. It was so important. We learned so much just sitting and watching people. Usually we didn't say anything. We just give them the controller, and then we sat behind them, and we didn't ask any questions.
We were arrogant enough... We didn't want to know what they were thinking, because we think we're the best to decide what's great. So we didn't ask them anything. We just watched them and saw if they had any problems. That was it. Could they solve the puzzles? What should we do to make it easier to solve them?
DP: Or harder, if it was too easy.
Was there much harder, or more easier?
Much more making it easy?
AJ: Yeah. There were definitely a lot of puzzles harder than the stuff we came up with in the end. I think we did a lot of weird, hard puzzles.
With the new game, are you going to do as much, or more, testing?
AJ: I think it's going to be the same. It's very natural to start watching people, and there is so much that you don't think about. It's just great to do it the first time. You go back and you are all depressed because they can't play anything of what you thought was so easy, and they don't see it, they don't feel it. It's really important. It's so important to test.
One of the things I liked about Limbo is the simplicity. Everything you run into is concrete enough, for the most part, that you can figure it out. You don't need things like health items or anything. But that doesn't keep it from being deep. I think that a lot of times mainstream games, they think depth and complexity are the same thing.
AJ: Yeah, I hate that. I can't play those games. We talked about it in the beginning, and I insisted on having very few elements and no inventory. Dino was like, "What? It's an adventure game. There should be an inventory. We can't do deep gameplay without this inventory!" [laughs]
DP: I don't remember that.
AJ: I just kept insisting on it, and I kind of knew that when we had the right mechanisms, we could always make it deeper and deeper. I think at the end, we had a lot more ideas. We could keep on going, but we just had to end it somewhere. It's the same approach now. It's great to put mechanisms in, instead of all this inventory crap.
DP: But Arnt's brilliant simplicity was because it's really hard to make something simple and deep at the same time. It's not easy. I think good games unfold. [Addressing Arnt] Like, remember? We had a joke -- I can't remember if it was three or four or five elements.
If there were more than this in the game, it would be a joke in the office. "Ah, there are six elements in this! There's a box, and there's a rope and, there's a lever. And you have to do this! And it's too much!" or something. It was really funny. We really searched for like something where there's only one mechanism -- if we could have one mechanism work in good gameplay.
AJ: I think a lot of gameplay designers put in a lot of mechanisms. We talked about it, and said to each other, "What is really necessary for this puzzle? What can we throw out? What doesn't have to be there? Just throw it out."
DP: And we had some beautiful iterations where we started removing mechanics, and it was like, "Okay." We ended up where the swinging rope was the core of this puzzle.
AJ: "What's the fun part of this?"
So you tried to strip things out as much as possible for specific puzzles.
AJ: Yeah. All the way.
Whenever the little boy dies sometimes it can actually be quite funny, with the rag doll effects. But it also looks so painful. Is there an intentional sense of black humor about the game?
AJ: Yeah, definitely.
That's what I thought. But I don't think a lot of people took it that way.
DP: I think it's definitely Arnt's black humor.
AJ: Yeah, but it's fun.
DP: It's definitely something about you, I think.
AJ: It gives a good tension to the player, because you know you can die in an instant. [Snaps fingers.]
DP: There's a thing about combining calmness with brutality.
Yeah, sometimes it's peaceful for a second. Well, you never think anything is going to be okay, though. Actually, one of my best friends who played the game, she hates it because nothing ever improves for the main character. There's never a feeling that things are going to get better. They're going to get worse.
AJ: Oh, but it does, in the end.
DP: Oh, but you get better as a human, playing it, because you learn how it works, and you solve all these puzzles, I think. You expand as a human being.
But if you're a very empathetic person, it can be a bit stark, right?
AJ: It's supposed to.
It's supposed to be stark?
AJ: Yeah. [laughs]
Obviously it conveys something, but it's ambiguous. The message, or meaning, or anything about the game is ambiguous. Was that a goal, or was the goal to be more atmosphere and gameplay-driven?
AJ: [Asks for the definition of "ambiguous" in Danish]
DP: [Translates into Danish]
AJ: Ohh. Yeah, yeah. I think it's supposed to be... Hmmm. I think it's great when you're done playing it, you're still thinking about it. It's not supposed to be, "It's like that, and that's how it is." I hate that. In everything -- in movies and books.
I really like this, that you have to think by yourself, and you have to talk with people about it. We enjoyed reading all those forum posts on the net, people talking about, "What is happening? And what does this mean?" Some people have a pretty clear idea, and others think it's bullshit. And pretty funny, all these in-betweens. [laughs] So, it's been great.
I definitely spent a lot of time thinking about it and talking about it afterward. I know that you like the ambiguity, but did you find that people were really getting the message you wanted to portray? Was it more about just giving something people to play with in their minds?
AJ: Yeah. I get a little upset when people say, "It was a stupid ending, and I don't know what was happening." All those people who enjoyed the open ending, that makes me happy, because it was supposed to be an open ending. What it means, I don't want to talk about.
DP: You told me that you think somebody got close.
AJ: Yeah, very close. [laughs] Sometimes scary.
DP: Scary close! To things we've been talking about in the office. Things only Arnt has in his head.
Is it scary that somebody would correctly interpret your vision?
AJ: Yeah, it is. Because then there's too many clues. It has to be... [falls silent]
Have you talked at all about the next game? I mean, that's kind of the luxury, I guess, of indie developing, is that you don't have to follow what you did with the sequel, you don't have to do anything the same the second time.
AJ: No, but I think we got the same approach to it. It's still going to be a puzzle-platformer-adventure-action game. Yeah. It's going to be very different, and we're going to iterate on what we already know, so it's going to be some of the same stuff. In a way, it's a sequel with a lot of new, more ambitious ideas. It's not going to be a first-person shooter.
DP: It's more like a company sequel than a game sequel.
It goes back almost to the band thing I was saying earlier.
DP: Oh yeah. Exactly. We have a lot of the same people as Limbo. We have new -- not better, but very good people on the next one.
AJ: Better. [both laugh] One of them is better.
DP: [whispers] You can't write this.
I can write anything. [laughs] I think that hopefully the sense of humor will come across. Just like with the game, it might be ambiguous, though.
DP: I think it's a company sequel.
Were you surprised by the popularity of the game?
AJ: I was a little concerned that people got it. [laughs] Is this stuff only in my mind? People, do they really want to be this involved in a game? I had my concerns about it. At the end of playtesting, and when we showed it to people, people were so impressed, we knew something would happen.
DP: Yeah. I still think it's crazy, somehow. We still get a couple fan mails each day. We got a lot in the beginning. We get so many requests, and offers, and so on, from different places.
AJ: They keep coming.
A lot of people like games in different ways. Is it okay to you that people just play it? They play it for the puzzles?
AJ: Yeah, of course. I hate games, so of course.
You hate games?
AJ: Yeah. Most of everything, I just hate it. It's hard to convince people of that.
DP: But when you say you hate games, you mean...
AJ: I love games.
DP: You mean you love games.
AJ: Yeah. But there's so much crap. That's the problem.
DP: There's so much crap. [laughs]
AJ: It's only every second year there's a good game, I think.
What games do you like?
AJ: It's obvious, I think. It's everything that has a personal touch in it. It's Braid, and Ico, and Half-Life. Stuff like that.
I was surprised to see a Dead or Alive poster in the office. That would not be my first guess.
AJ: No. That's another fanboy in here. [laughs]
That was not my first guess for Playdead's top list of beloved games.
DP: We allow people to have their own interests and opinions. It is allowed.
Obviously, a lot of the games you don't like are probably liked by a lot of people who play Limbo, right?
AJ: Yeah. [laughs]
And that informs their approach toward your game. In a sense, I think that enhances the likelihood of your game standing out, because to people who like regular games, it seems like a breath of fresh air.
AJ: Yeah, probably.
I think a lot of people would give Limbo a try because it's quick to get into, simple, readable.
AJ: Yeah. It's supposed to be. We talked about being able to catch people's attention from the very beginning. You should almost never notice the world around, just get sucked into it. It doesn't matter what kind of game, it could be anything, it's just being able to do that is important.
DP: I also remembered when we talked about, a long time ago, which category to put it in, not because we needed it for ourself, but because for the platforms they required it. And it was so hard because we didn't want to put it in a box.
DP: You didn't want to put it in a box.
AJ: No. It's not a point and click adventure, but it's got some adventure elements... It's not an action game. It's not a horror game.
DP: It is a platform game, but it's nowhere near platform games in general where you need to shoot, have pick-ups, and have inventory. It's like [dismissive noise]. I don't think we can get around that, but again if you have a person who likes platform games, they don't necessarily like Limbo. And if you like Limbo, you don't necessarily like platform games.
AJ: People call it a puzzle game as well.
Well, that's like Braid. Is Braid a puzzle game, or is it a platformer?
I would say Braid is not a platformer, but I would say Limbo is, more. That's my personal feeling. I'm not saying I'm 100 percent accurate here.
AJ: But if you look like puzzle games, it's like Bejeweled and all this stuff I would never play.
DP: If you look at the category...
AJ: And there's Braid... It's kind of strange.
DP: If you look at the category and look at puzzle games, for example on Steam, you get Bejeweled and Puzzle Pirates and whatever. And that's... I don't know.
Speaking of Braid, the core of Braid is the logic. The platforming is a mechanism to deliver the puzzles.
AJ: Yeah, exactly.
Whereas I think Limbo has more visceral pleasure in the actual act of moving across the world.
DP: It's like in Limbo, you can't really get from A to B without being able to do some platforming action.
Sure. Though it's definitely not a skill-based platformer like a Mario game. And is it even relevant to have these conversations? It doesn't sound like you guys feel that way.
DP: No. I hate when it becomes in a box anyway.
DP: We were forced to it. We were forced to it because we had to choose, when we have to go to platforms. But we're in our own category.
AJ: It's like Half-Life. People talk about it as a shooter, but I'm not sure it's a shooter as much as an adventure game, because there's a lot of elements in there shifting all the way through. It's not like a Call of Duty shooter. It's much more complex.
DP: I don't really recall so much shooting in Half-Life.
AJ: No. It's everything else. It's an experience.
It's the weight of history, weighing down on the way games are perceived. The weight of the commercial industry. And you guys are sort of outside of it. You put yourselves outside of it, to an extent, creatively, but also now that you've had success, you can insulate yourselves from it to an extent as well, right?
People know who are you are. You don't have to meet the expectations.
DP: I hope that people know what we stand for, when it comes out. It's like the first time, it was hard to convince, and it was also hard to explain. And we didn't explain. But next time... People know what they're going into.
AJ: It's getting worse. It's getting worse to explain. [laughs]
DP: It's getting worse to explain, now, what it is. But people know, even though it is in the puzzle category, or the platforming category, they know it's not like the usual platform or the usual puzzle game.
What got you inspired to work in games rather than another medium if you're not such a big fan of games? Or was it specific games that you liked enough?
AJ: Yeah. Yeah. There were definitely a lot of games throughout the years, you know. I've been playing since I was 10 years old. I don't know. I've tried everything else. I tried to be an artist and make big posters.
Were you motivated by frustration with what was available?
AJ: Yeah. I think so... Yeah, maybe. It's such a hard medium to master, so it seemed like it would be interesting to try, I think. [laughs] In the beginning, I wanted to do it myself, and I wanted to convince people that you could make a good game without spending too much money and too much people on it. It's kind of just a thing to do.
But at a certain point it became clear that you're going to have to spend more money and get more people.
AJ: Yeah. It was because of Dino, because I wanted to do it myself. [laughs]
DP: So, I just hired a lot people. And he went, "What the fuck? Who are these people?" No, it wasn't like that. [laughs]
What was it like?
DP: For me, it was organic. It was like, we met, we started to plan. In the beginning, I just wanted to help Arnt get this out because I thought it was interesting. I thought he was interesting. And the business just became bigger and bigger. It was evolving.
It was not from the beginning, we planned what it was going to be -- the budget end of it and that kind of thing. We just needed more people, and we needed more money to have those people. We were like entrepreneurs without wanting to be so. In two years or something. And in the end we wanted some big money because we really wanted everything to be alright.
Alright for the company, you mean? Or for the game?
AJ: Yeah, both things, at that point. I think we didn't want to muddle through, every time we needed to get more people, we needed to get more money. So, one time, we tried to get the rest of the money we needed. And then quite later we're thinking, late 2008, we did the final plans like how we wanted to do. We started when I met Arnt in late 2006. And late 2008, we had the final plans for this and got the money, luckily. And also these bad investors.
They were bad investors?
Is that why you bought them out?
AJ: Investors are always bad, I think. [both laugh] From my point of view, anyway. Some people love it, but I don't know.
Well, again, it goes back to what your priorities are, right?
AJ: Yeah, exactly. It's very important, too, that we're able to take our own decisions, because we think we are the most clever ones take our own decisions. And it's been so hard to have those idiots trying tell us how to do it. Because we're talking about it every day. We're so deep into it.
Did you run into a point with Limbo where you thought bad decisions were going to be made because of the investors? You seem satisfied with Limbo.
DP: They were never into the product at all. But I think it's the holistic approach to like everything around the product, like marketing, and the way to show it to people, and so on.
AJ: The more we felt that Limbo was something, the less we wanted to market it. So we didn't do any marketing. We just did some PR and talked with a lot of journalists. That was it.
And of course investors can't understand that. When I said we don't want to do advertising, they thought I was crazy. They looked at me like, "What are you talking about? You should advertise for a product! It seems crazy." So how do you convince people to not advertise something you're proud of?
DP: How do you convince businesspeople to not advertise? It's the only way they know. They have no trust with what consumers want, but they know advertising is expensive and expensive things work.
As far as being a CEO goes, I guess your job is more to protect the creative core of the company, to enable it. Rather than to make this a big business.
DP: Yeah. But I think it's a balance. We don't want to do something stupid, and we never want to compromise the product for money. I think that's what it comes from. A company like ours, the only thing we have of value is the creative people here and what we produce. Of course, that's the most important thing to protect.
I think it's like hardcore businessmen, they value money first and then good product afterwards. We're just the opposite. It's product first and money afterwards. But when these two things clinch, you know, there's a lot of discussion about the second priority. "Oh, you never think about money?" or "You never think about product?"
Well, you need money to make a game. You need money to pay 15 people.
DP: Exactly. I don't think we have found our funds are balanced yet, because we're using our money. We're slowly just working ourselves to a point where we'll be using our money, and we have to be responsible about it. Again, the most important thing is to really do something I think you're proud of. Also, I think the way we can reach talented people is also to have this environment where it's not about tough decisions.
Are you actively seeking a publisher for your second game, or are you just going to go under your own steam until you get to the point where you need one? Jonathan Blow is not looking for a publisher for The Witness. He doesn't need their money, so he doesn't need them until very late.
DP: We need some kind of partner for the next project, because we paid too much money to the investors we wanted out. But we did it because it was important for the company and the product.
But that's where you have to be careful.
DP: Again, if it in any way compromises our creativity and controls it... That's why we actually used so much money to buy out already. So, it will not work for us to just get new money in. I must admit it, it's really easy for us to get money now, because of the success, but it's still a challenge to find the right people. Not because they're not out there, but I think because the process of getting it to the core of what people believe takes time.
[Addressing Arnt] Do you enter those conversations? Or do you let him handle it?
AJ: No, we make every decision together. We talk about everything every day. But he knows me. [everyone laughs]
DP: I know where Arnt is sensitive and where not. Every day I learn new places where he's sensitive and not [laughs], but it's cool. I think we have something great. I love the challenges we meet every day. It's fun challenges, I think. I love them.
When Limbo launched, in the wake of Braid's popularity, you hit at the right time for success.
DP: But I think that's always a problem, looking back to predict the future, because it's always easy to look back. And it's what all the big companies do. They base all their choices on statistics and so on.
I really hate corporate thinking, because they always say yesterday equals tomorrow, and that's the only way how you will never get like in front of anything, and you'll never get innovation. No matter how much innovation you want to do in a big company, you'll never reach to it if you base your decisions on statistics.
AJ: With Limbo, we waited a long time, as long as we could, to find out how to put it out in the market. With whom we talked with, a lot of people, and a lot of publishers, all the way through. It was just in the end, with XBLA. We made that decision very late.
DP: Almost intentionally, because we wanted it to be. It wasn't important to us the way it came out, as long as it got the widest spread possible.
AJ: So maybe next time, it's going to be a new challenge to get it out. We don't know. We definitely won't decide for a long time.
DP: But I hope we can get to a point where it's really good, and we can get on the platform, and everybody afterward says, "Oh, we got the right timing." [both laugh] We always aim for that without using statistics, and more like taking really important decisions late, if they can be late.
I remember with Limbo, everybody in the beginning, like just after the concept movie you did, asked what platforms it's for. I was like, "It's so early!" Why was it important what platform it was on? Also we were sure with Limbo we were sure that we could just get it out anywhere. It's a matter of optimization. We could hire people for that. The problem is making the puzzles and all of that.
How many designers do you employ on the new project?
AJ: Gameplay designers? Four or five people.
So, it's a pretty big proportion of the company.
AJ: Yeah. As long as it seems right. I like to be in some kind of control of it, you know. I think it's obvious. Not like in picky control, just to know what everyone is doing, to look at the stuff and discuss it, and being a very big part of everything, to make clever decisions. When you have too many people, then it's getting really hard to have this feeling of what people are doing.
Are you hoping to throw out less this time? You talked about throwing out so much of the stuff you ended up making for Limbo.
AJ: Of course, we became a lot more clever than the last time, so I think there's a lot of stuff that we know from the beginning that we shouldn't do twice.
Did you do a lot of analysis? You talk about not wanting to look back, but did you do a lot of your analysis of your own processes on the first game before moving forward? Or does that choke the creativity?
AJ: [Sighs.] I think throughout the whole production, we tried to find the golden way of producing, but we never succeeded in it. We changed all the way throughout production, the way we did it, and how to be in control with it. We tried Scrum, and we tried hanging small notes up. We tried different programs. We tried everything. I don't know.
Did you arrive at anything? Or did you just keep changing?
AJ: We kept changing. And we still are changing the way we do it. It's like if it's getting too much into a system, I really get concerned. I think now it's getting too much of production, like a factory. It's supposed to change all the way through, because then you will see from different angles. People get new ideas. I think every time it's going too well, I have to push it somehow, and change the way of seeing it.
Battlefield 3 producer Patrick Bach told me "If you build things by a process, you will get the same thing that you got the last time you used that process." You'll end up making something that relates to the method, and not to the goal of what you're trying to make.
AJ: Of course. You can tell by all those crappy games out there. Some of the games. It's a production. It's level after level. You can tell how they do it. For me, it's very boring, because I can almost tell from the demo of the game that I'm not going to be surprised in this game. I don't have to buy it, because it's going to be the same all the way through. There's not going to be any surprises.
Do you find that you can just see? You know, I write. So, when I read, I can see, "Oh, I know what you did there." I can understand techniques people are using. Do you think it's the same with games, and with you, that you can just see through them?
AJ: Yeah. I think so. I really enjoy playing a lot of games, but as soon as I'm in the matrix of it, I don't want to play it anymore, because then it's just a waste of time.
DP: I think you can see definitely what's outsourced, which people are on another floor, and where the music guy sits. It's usually a long way from the team. A lot of these things... It's so easy. You can see all the modules, which have to go into place. For some games. Some games it's harder. Lots of bigger games, it's really...
Obvious? I know exactly what you mean.
AJ: It's so boring that they got 28 levels. What? Who cares? I'd rather have some unexpected stuff, instead of 28 levels. Why should I play those?
DP: The worst thing I hate is random-generated gameplay. It's the worst excuse ever to not have game design.
To that point, Limbo is a very handcrafted game. There's not a single piece of it that doesn't feel designed.
AJ: No, it's very handcrafted.
You said you spent to the very end pushing to put as much stuff into it as you possibly could, but it also feels very polished.
AJ: Yeah. It is. But we polished throughout production, so it can work together, I think. You can get new ideas and still polish. It's not that hard.
DP: Yeah, but I think it's pretty advanced how it worked out, because it was like everything worked together a long time. I don't know. It's not a simple answer to how it was polished. But I know polish is a big part of Arnt's concern, always.
AJ: It is. It has to feel right.
Did you spend a lot of time prototyping the character motion?
AJ: Yeah. It was an ongoing thing for three years.
DP: That was one guy full time on it. Only the boy. He didn't do anything else. I think he would do water, or something, but only the boy. A coder, full time. And an animator, not full time.
AJ: That was important. We've got to do it again.
DP: But as you said at one point, it's the one thing you'll see throughout the game in the middle of the screen, always. So, that makes it kind of important to do it right, and true.
AJ: I don't think people notice that it took three years to do this boy, but we put so much into it, the way he behaves, and physics.
DP: That's how you know it works, because nobody noticed.
AJ: Yeah, exactly. Sometimes people write us and think we did it in a month. "How did you do that? Which program did you use?"
DP: And, "It looks like a Flash game." There's so much into that boy, which is really cool, but you don't really see it, because he works in a dynamic environment. Technically it's hard to make anything work in a dynamic environment. Everything is set. We could build anything and put it in the boy. It's not magic. It's just taking a long time to make this boy acknowledge everything, know what's physical and not, and he anticipates things.
AJ: He can look forward in time half a second to see what's out there...
DP: To reach for the right position. He could actually catch things if you want, because he knows how things move.
AJ: It's pretty amazing.
Like one of those carts you push or something, he'll like reach out for it before he quite reaches the actual handgrip.
DP: Exactly. Especially in the dynamic environments, where things were turning.
AJ: Yeah, the rotating room. Pretty advanced for the boy...
DP: To acknowledge things. Things are changing, moving around. I think it's cool that people didn't see it.
AJ: They feel it, I think, when they play it.
DP: Yeah, I think they feel it. We've gotten a lot of comments from people, like game creators or something, who play a lot of games, they feel this is a bit different. It's not just a bounding box which can jump and run.
It's like with Ico. What made a big impression was Yorda and Ico holding hands, right?
AJ: Yeah. That's interesting.
That didn't really have much to do with the gameplay, so to speak but it was...
AJ: So important.
It's one of the revolutionary things about that game.
AJ: Yeah. It felt like she was living. It was pretty amazing.
So many games have someone following you.
AJ: But never like her. Never in gaming history like her, I think.
DP: It's so hard to copy.[This feature was written by Christian Nutt on Gamaustra.]