[IGC 2018] Empathize with Numbers - The Process of Frostpunk Scenario Writing

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Przemysław Solski, Game Designer at 11bit Studios

 

[IGC Speaker Bio] Przemysław Solski, the game designer at the Polish indie company 11bit Studios, has been in charge of developing Frostpunk. He designed the comprehensive gameplay mechanisms of the game such as the scenarios, hitting system, and randomized map compositions. He also used to be in charge of the gameplay conception, F2P monetization, and level design at Ten Square Games.


Limits can be a new opportunity

You can empathize with mere numbers

Scarcity can sometimes become affluence


This War of Mine and Frostpunk by 11bit Studios are famous for their storytelling, which often haunts players’ minds with moral choices. How ethical can you remain in a life and death situation? Will you cross the line that should never be crossed for your survival? Following the previous title based on war, Frostpunk demonstrates various moral choices in a cold world where heat is the only power source.


The presentation by Przemysław Solski at IGC 2018 showed that the company considers moral choices as one of the most crucial elements in the game’s scenario. He introduced the fundamental ideas and scenarios of Frostpunk and emphasized game narratives and gameplay mechanisms with his works.


The scenario of Frostpunk was written based on moral implications

 

Frostpunk is set in the 19th century in the midst of an ice age. Because of this harsh environment, all of society revolves around steam technology, as it provides energy and keeps people safe from the blistering cold. Another main element in the game is society. How much will society change for survival? Is there a line that should not be crossed? Can any of us maintain our humanity under dire circumstances? These are the moral questions and also one of the main features that Frostpunk intends to ask.


The game consists of 4 main scenarios; A New Home, The Arks, The Refugees, and The Fall of Winterhome. Each has different missions, topics, and moral issues.


For example, the first scenario, A New Home, features the story of survivors in London and the most important moral issue here is how the society should change in order to survive. The Arks features the story of engineers who have a mission to guard the last seedlings on Earth. The scenario deals with the moral issue between accomplishing the mission or protecting human life.

 

The Refugees demonstrates a conflict between two groups of survivors and explores the idea of helping others/outsiders. Lastly, The Fall of Winterhome takes place in a collapsing city where people need to decide what to do before an inevitable disaster.


The main goals of Frostpunk scenarios through the Arks and the Fall of Winterhome

Three main goals of the Frostpunk scenarios

 

11bit Studios had three main goals when writing the scenarios of Frostpunk. First off, they needed to provide a new gameplay experience through which players could encounter difficult moral choices. The post-playthrough reflection, in which players can go back and watch the scenario after playing the game, also became one of the main goals.

The first stage determines the basic concept of the scenario

 

Mr. Solski emphasized the very first stage of the production process in order to create an effective scenario. This is the stage where the most fundamental concept of a scenario is formed and the developer needs to be able to explain the concept within one or two sentences. The game concept is then documented and goes to the prototype stage. It is crucial to test if the ideas of the first stage work well at an efficient cost. The scenario testing is done multiple times at this point, and then the production begins.


What basic concept was applied in each scenario of Frostpunk?


The Arks - Limits can sometimes lead to an ample story


Mr. Solski explained using The Arks as an example. This scenario was designed as a test for ‘what would happen if the population is limited?’. It assumes that a player cannot have more people in the game.

The Arks started off by limiting the number of people

 

The first prototype based on this concept showed that this idea had potential. Due to the limited number of irreplaceable people, it created a significant impact every time one person dies, and it was a difficult but satisfying starting point. An automaton which replaces the dead person also changed the form of the city.


However, it also had a couple of negativities. A small group of people meant there were not enough problems to solve due to the smaller number of houses and easier management of the population. The Book of Law which serves a critical role in the scenario also didn’t make sense. The biggest problem was that all these elements made moral choices unnecessary. The game became unchallenging, which also lessened the implications of each element.

 

To solve this problem, 11bit Studios added a couple of elements after a bit of trial and error. The main goal was added; you need to survive by saving resources for the upcoming storm. The new city called New Manchester was added as a new alternative. The city is full of sick and hungry people with weak technology that won’t last long without the help of the player.

New achievements are added along with New Manchester

 

Mr. Solski said that they could add challenging elements to the scenario with these two elements. Not only does a player have more work to do for the main mission, but it also becomes much busier if the player decides to help out New Manchester. New moral choices were added along with the new city. Will you save your city, save both, or sacrifice your own for New Manchester?


However, there was still one more problem: the story was lacking. They needed a reason that explained why the city housed only engineers. They also needed a way to maximize the results of moral choices. New Manchester was simply not good enough.


The new setting called The Arks was added to resolve this issue. The main goal is to construct new buildings where the last seedlings of Earth are gathered and guard them. Engineers now have to revitalize plants on the Earth and they also need to save not only two cities but the very future of humanity. The form of the city had also been changed.


Mr. Solski said that they learned the importance of limiting content when they were creating the scenario. Making new gameplay does not always mean adding new content, but instead involves limiting the existing content. He also mentioned that it’s better to figure out the scenario’s ending as soon as possible.


The Fall of Winterhome - Simplify the story and add gameplay elements


Mr. Solski continued his presentation with The Fall of Winterhome. Unlike The Arks, The Fall of Winterhome was created with enough experience, time, and manpower. They, therefore, wanted to do something more with this scenario.


The Fall of Winterhome takes place in the ruins, which players can see in the first scenario, A New Home. Regardless of the player’s actions, the city will inevitably be destroyed. The important objective was to give players a sense of victory despite the result.

You know what’s going to happen, but how can a player still feel victorious?

 

First off, the Fall of Winterhome takes place in a big city. A player then needs to rebuild the city and a number of laws are already legislated. As mentioned before, the city will be destroyed no matter what due to a malfunctioning generator. To make the outcome seem more hopeful, the company added an option for a player to evacuate people.

The first scenario flow structure of the Fall of Winterhome

 

According to the initial flow structure of the Fall of Winterhome, the first quest is to rebuild the city. After the reconstruction is complete, the generator failure begins, and engineers are dispatched to examine the failed generator. After finding out that that the generator cannot be repaired, the player receives another quest: to find shelter.


As a result, it was a good starting point to provide the big city from the start. With a couple of laws already legislated, the player can approach a couple of issues such as child labor in a new way. The generator failure also forced the player to consider who to evacuate first; children, or the more useful engineers? A number of other moral choices have been added to the process of evacuating from the city, and the result can be affected by the type of resources you hold at the time.


The problem with the first prototype was that there was a gap between each story. It feels as if the story was cut off in between and didn’t really flow well; the generator breaks down without any real explanation, and the story, in general, was too complex. The player had to go through too many steps from the generator breakdown to the evacuation.

The structure has now been simplified and also flows better

 

To solve this problem, Mr. Solski simplified the scenario and used a dreadnought. The evacuation process has become simpler, and the player can now focus more on the idea that not everyone can be saved - the dreadnought has a limited capacity that somehow suits the original concept of the Fall of Winterhome. In addition, the evacuation center made the process look more dramatic.


Mr. Solski also emphasized that it is important to think about the original concept of the scenario at this stage. He claimed that it is also important to create game mechanisms that both advanced players and beginners would be satisfied with at the end.


Game narratives and gameplay mechanisms are the front and back of a coin

 

Mr. Solski continued to talk about the role of game narratives and their application to gameplay. He said that this application is one of the most difficult parts of the production. Frostpunk, in particular, aims to make the player explore moral choices and have them reflect on what they have done after playing through the game, so it was especially difficult.


To achieve this mission, 11bit Studios had to apply the game story in a new way - by adding movie narratives to Frostpunk.


Generally, the story consists of an introduction, development, peak, and ending, along with plot twists in between. However, Frostpunk involves constructing the city, thus the city building aspect was more important than game narratives because players still encounter various problems while building the city.

 

“100 sick, 60 hungry, and problems that will become worse in time. How can we deliver the story in this chaos? In a situation with more urgent matters?”


Mr. Solski said that they needed to modify game narratives for the city building game. The first thing was to simplify the narratives as much as possible. The main plot was shortened to the extent that they could be described in only one or two sentences, and game narratives became interactive with gameplay mechanisms.

 

Not only was it difficult to adopt the narratives to the city building game, but it was more difficult to add plot twists. The plot twists need an introduction - hints, and warnings. According to the refugees emotional timeline, there are two major storylines; saving the people and facing the lords, and the story gives a hint at the beginning for players to resolve the issue when they encounter such problems.

 

The Fall of Winterhome follows the same pattern. The main plot twist is the moment when players realize that the generator cannot be repaired, which is continuously foreshadowed by the notifications saying there’s something wrong with the generator.


Mr. Solski emphasized that the game narratives and gameplay mechanisms should be like the front and back of a coin. The evacuation center in the gameplay mechanism is an element that supports the main narratives of the scenario. It decides the people’s fate and reflects the result of the decision.


Moreover, he also mentioned that it is important to know that each player receives different gameplay experiences. He indicated that it is crucial to craft narratives and gameplay that satisfy both casual and experienced players. In Frostpunk, there is the main objective that everyone needs to accomplish as well as challenging optional objectives for experienced players. For example, the main objective of the Arks is to survive in the storm, whereas quests regarding New Manchester are additional assignments.

You need to consider how to satisfy both casual players and experienced players

 

Lastly, Mr. Solski claimed that you need to think about the main concept when writing a scenario and never forget it during the whole development process. He added that limits can be a new opportunity and people can also empathize with mere numbers. He concluded the presentation with the last words; scarcity can sometimes become affluence.

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