11 bit Studios: Expanding the horizons of Frostpunk
Marketing director Patryk Grzeszczuk on building a bigger audience on consoles, and taking the Frostpunk universe beyond the strategy genre
Frostpunk has performed beyond 11 bit Studios' expectations since it launched on PC a year ago, and the Polish developer is now ready to build on that success to explore new horizons -- both a shift toward console platforms for the company as a whole, and the possible expansion of the Frostpunk universe beyond the strategy genre.
11 bit's distinctive strategy game sold 250,000 units in less than three days when it launched last April, and it went on to sell more than 1.4 million in its first year. Given that Frostpunk is still only available on PC, that figure represents a major step forward for the company as both a developer and a publisher, and it has now set its sights on the console market.
Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz at Reboot Develop last month, marketing director Patryk Grzeszczuk acknowledged that strategy games have never been an obvious fit on consoles. For the most part, this has been down to the difficulty of condensing the complexity afforded by PC, mouse and keyboard into a system that can be navigated by a controller.
"Frostpunk is a society survival game, and I think console players will be interested in that"
In that sense, he said, 11 bit Studios has few doubts that the console version of Frostpunk will surpass expectations.
"It is the same game," he said, booting up a build of the game, Xbox pad in hand. "We have changed the UI, we have changed the controls dramatically, and we have rebalanced the game just a little bit, to be more in line with the expectations of console players. It isn't any easier, but the momentum is a bit different."
The 11 bit Studios' team played "each and every strategy game available for console" to find the right approach, but having seen the new version in action, it's clear that the biggest influence is Frostpunk itself. One of the aspects that makes the game unique is the map being the base of a vast crater, with a generator at its central point -- a vital source of heat in the bitter quest for survival.
The city the player creates spirals out from that central point, a structure that proved to be a neat fit for the field of motion allowed by a controller's analogue sticks. Through a context-based system of radial menus, Grzeszczuk proudly stated, every part of Frostpunk's PC UI is accessible to the console user within two button presses.
"Most of what you see here is our own invention," he continued. "The good part about Frostpunk -- and we've been talking about this since its initial release on PC -- is that it's a radial city, and so it's a perfect fit for the sticks. The whole game is about the generator and those rings around it, so the menus should be like that; everything should be in line with that so we can maintain the cohesion of the game.
"It actually works, but it took us a while. We had at least three iterations: the first was not very good; the second was a bit better, but it still lacked something; and we are very happy with this one."
11 bit believes that this is the first of two key factors in attracting a substantial audience for Frostpunk in the console space. For the most part, Grzeszczuk said, strategy games have faltered on console because, "they are not usually on par with their PC equivalents." With its elegant, intuitive solution for the game's controls, however, Grzeszczuk believes that the superior version of the game is a matter of subjective taste.
"There is nothing objective that makes the PC version better," he added.
"In the future we should think about, maybe not a sequel, but a spin-off -- an RPG set in the same universe"
"The second thing -- and I'm not sure that this isn't the more important one -- Frostpunk is not your regular strategy game. It is a society survival game, and I think console players will be interested in that. There are strategy games -- you can find something in every genre on consoles -- but you won't find Frostpunk, and the moral decisions it asks you to make."
While it nominally belongs to the same genre as, for example, Cities Skylines, the detail and depth of the world in which Frostpunk is set gives it a distinct appeal. It is like the relationship between a game like Gone Home and a first-person shooter; they share some important DNA, but the message and the experience are entirely different, and that opens it up to new audiences.
"You don't have to be a fan of first-person games to admire Firewatch, and you don't have to be a fan of strategy games to be a fan of Frostpunk," Grzeszczuk said. "Although it is a strategy game, truly it is about something else: society and shaping society, making decisions and living with the consequences."
Indeed, the world around Frostpunk is so important that, when 11 bit Studios thinks about how to build on its success, the first idea isn't necessarily a straight sequel. The game's free DLC, The Fall of Winterhome, is a narrative-driven continuation of the game's campaign, and the next major DLC will be driving in the same direction. Indeed, Grzeszczuk suggests that developing the lore and the world of Frostpunk is as essential to the future of the IP as making another strategy game.
"We've had that approach since day one," he said. "We were discussing Frostpunk as a universe. We wanted to create a world, and then fill that world with stories, with places, and then build connections between them.
"[The DLC] is expanding on the universe, it is adding new story, and explaining some things that might be hinted at in the past. This is what really drives us; the world of Frostpunk is growing, and we're thinking that, in the future we should think about, maybe not a sequel, but a spin-off -- an RPG set in the same universe."
Different game experiences set in the same, richly imagined universe; it is an ambitious notion, and a possibility that will be made "easier" if the console version of Frostpunk finds a similar level of success to what it enjoyed on PC. 11 bit Studios sold 4.5 million copies of This War of Mine across myriad different platforms, but PC and mobile were as important as Xbox and PlayStation -- if not more so. According to Grzeszczuk, that is about to change.
"Our strategy as a studio right now is to aim at those console platforms first and foremost, because up until now we were PC oriented company," he said. "But for our next project, we're thinking in terms of console first. We're already designing with the game-pad in mind, designing for that experience.
"It's going to be totally different to anything we've done in the past, but it's going to have that 11 bit flavour to it."