In the spring of 2009, we added weapons to the game and spent a few weeks testing and tweaking the system. It didn't go well. We intended for combat to be a used as a last resort only, but this kind of gameplay proved extremely hard to accomplish. Remembering Penumbra Overture (our only game with combat), we recalled that very few players used the combat as intended. We also felt many would see the combat as sub-par compared to other games, which finally convinced us to scrap it. Removing the combat also simplified the design of the game substantially.
Looking back at the state the game was in at the time, it makes me wonder how we could have believed that we were on the right track. I guess that is partly because things look so much simpler in hindsight. When you are in the middle of something in which you have invested so much time and effort, it is extremely easy to fool yourself.
Looking back at the state the game was in at the time, it makes me wonder how we could have believed that we were on the right track.
To Hell and Back
In April 2009, rapidly running out of funds, we signed a contract with Paradox to create Unknown. Finally, we could relax and not worry about funding anymore. Or at least so we thought.
Less than a month after we had signed the contract, we were forced to break it. Hard choices needed to be made as our money had been nearly depleted, the worst of which was probably that we had to dismiss our employees as we had only money for another month's salary. This meant they would still be working for a month, but unless we could get more funds somehow, that would be it.
Things were looking very dark indeed, and we saw only two choices: either we quickly make some kind of game with what we had or try to get money to complete what we had started. We first started looking at making the game simpler. The idea was to change the control scheme so that it was entirely controlled by mouse and create some kind of "escape the room" game, hopefully allowing us to reach a more casual market. Unfortunately, it did not work as we hoped and the idea was scrapped.
Finding some kind of financial backing did not go much better. Banks were still skeptical about the project, angel investors did not understand the project, and publisher interest was low. I actually started to prepare my CV to look for job opportunities.
At the start of June, things changed for the better. Steam had a sale of the Penumbra Collection at 75% off. While Paradox owned the digital rights of the Penumbra games Black Plague and Requiem, we had retained the complete rights to Overture. This meant that we would be getting more than a third of the profit from the sale. Our hopes were pretty low, but amazingly the weekend-long deal sold more units than the combined lifetime of all Penumbra games. We were overwhelmed to say the least.
We knew this was our lucky break, and with salaries cut in half across the board we were able to maintain staff and keep things going. Still, we knew it was not enough money to complete the game, and we had to take matters into our own hands. Boosted by the popularity of the Steam sale, we made our own sale of Penumbra with Linux and Mac versions of the game included, and the income from that matched our profits from the Steam sale.
Encouraged by these sales and a renewed popularity of our previous games, we shifted our focus to making a game that was much closer to Penumbra. The entire Mario 64-like hub design was scrapped and we focused on a more linear experience. We could not redesign everything, of course, and reused as much of what was done already as possible.
With the focus shift, the story also needed to change in scope. Where previous inspiration had been on fringe scientists, the story now took a little nastier turn, focusing more on torture and human evil. The time period was also changed to 19th century. Unfortunately, the new direction was not something that our current writer was interested in, and we parted ways.
At this point, we also did a huge turnabout with regards to the kind of gameplay we were aiming for. The game shifted from "fun Mario-like bite-sized torture porn horror" to "slow-burning-psychological terror." We decided that our motto would be, both internally and for marketing, "like Penumbra, but better."