When a game releases, we only see the latest version of it coming out. Sometimes, we’ll see that evolve through patches that can radically change a game over the years—compare World of Warcraft 2017 to the same title in 2004, or Team Fortress 2 2018 to Team Fortress 2 2007. But, before it even gets to the state where we can observe its evolution—even in screenshot form, let alone early access—it has gone through a number of changes. I talked with Jakub Stokalski of 11 Bit Studios about their upcoming city survival game Frostpunk and how it came to arrive at the state we know today.
11 Bit Studios is one of a number of studios that makes heavy use of paper prototyping. With this, the idea is to quickly try out mechanics and see how they feel in the rough form and if there’s anything that works. Frostpunk itself began here, but before it could come to be another project had to fail first: a city builder known only as Industrial.
Industrial is a game we’ll never see but parts of its DNA live through Frostpunk. Whether it was a canned project or just pivoted is likely a matter of how you see it, but, with Industrial, they were making a Victorian steampunk city builder with notes of class conflict. The game was number heavy in these early iterations and testing found it dry and not particularly fun.
Exactly how it came to be is a bit of a mystery, but as they were working on it, someone brought in the ideas of cold and survival, and thus began the reshaping of Industrial into what would eventually become Frostpunk. One of the earliest things said, and a phrase that has gone on to be the game’s tagline, is “The City Must Survive,” as said by Przemyslaw Marszal, which became a key reference for the core of Frostpunk's design.
From the start of this pivot, they had the basic idea of the generator popping up form the ice and the circular design that sets Frostpunk apart visually from other city builders. With this idea they began exploring design space in paper prototypes again, trying out different mechanics to see how they work and iterating on them where proper. By the end of design, all the core mechanics went through a paper prototyping stage at some point. 11 Bit was good enough to share a picture of one of the early paper prototypes with me. Though, I want to note here this is an early prototype and, shockingly, a Polish studio when making quick testing things writes in Polish.
We can see the layout of the generator with heat spreading out similar to how it would with the final version of Frostpunk. Whether those are roads or connective things, different buildings surround it and show building what tools the society needs to survive.
One of the big challenges Frostpunk faced came from its inherent design goals. Most classic citybuilders are simulators, using more of a model or toy type of design in Simcity or Cities: Skyline. There isn't really any losing other than running out of money, and typically supplies are flush in a citybuilder; it's all about having fun building and trying out different ideas. Objectives may challenge you or give you a different focus but still answer to the same goals. In contrast, one of Frostpunk's punks goals from very early on was delivering a more narrative or story experience, largely through its mechanics.
“The concept itself, while I think its really interesting and novel in the way it puts all these different pieces together and against each other, its really difficult from a design standpoint to get into a smooth good gameplay experience. On one hand, you have this citybuilding, but when you look at most citybuilders they have a specific way they play.” –Jakub Stokalski, Lead Designer Frostpunk
To help with that, they expanded what genres of games they looked at. Survival games were a natural fit with the survival elements—games like Don't Starve and Banished provided different ideas and mechanical inspirations for the design of Frostpunk, but those ideas had to be adapted and transformed for a different scale. Real Time Strategy games also helped with their similar focus on of material gathering and building a central location utilizing those materials. In the end, they had to find their own ways to build the tension they wanted to bring to the genre. This was perhaps especially challenging for a studio that never worked in the genre before. Though,11 Bit has made a history of jumping genres from the reverse tower-defense of Anomaly Wars, to the survival game of This War of Mine, and now to citybuilding in Frostpunk.
“What we want to do is deliver a specific type of experience for the players, that we think is worthwhile, is meaningful and fun to play. We are not that concerned if it’s a shooter or a strategy game – these are just tools we use to deliver the experience." –Jakub Stokalski, Lead Designer Frostpunk
Paper prototypes though, will only take you so far. Eventually, you have to take it to the computer. Here, ideas can be programmed and tested, with many early ideas using things like wireframes to try stuff out while keeping art budgets low. Not all ideas work out either; for example, one idea they tried to work in several prototypes was Snowstorms. These storms would disrupt the pattern of the city as they blocked you from doing things, but they failed to create interesting gameplay decisions and moments, becoming essentially an inconvenience. Once or twice, it could be interesting, but it failed to work at all as a core mechanic with the real-time day/night cycle that Frostpunk uses. While it may return in some form at a later time, the prototypes succeeded in illustrating that the ideas they had then for implementing a snowstorm didn't work and helped them refocus on other ways of making weather test and vex you.
Here's an example of what some early Frostpunk internal tests looked like. You can see the background is there to help establish the mood, but otherwise, it is a prototype to test the different decisions made and how they all interact with each other.
One evolution that came relatively early in development was the addition of the discontent bar to help measure how people felt about the decisions you were making. In the earliest iterations, it was alone without the complementary hope bar until research into survival stories showed a common element to them: that survival often depended on people having hope. This research, done throughout the creation of Frostpunk, informed the decision to make the second bar and make it so that as a leader your job isn't just to avoid making your followers angry, you need to inspire them about a better tomorrow. Survival stories, in general, were a rich source of research as they often showed how far people would go and gave ideas for new scenarios and events to happen.
Not all inspirations came from real-life survival stories, the Victorian era in general, or other video games though. When talking with Jakub, he mentioned two pieces of fiction they drew on a lot to help shape Frostpunk. The first was the critically acclaimed Polish novel Ice by Jacek Dukaj, which helped inspire some of the core ideas of Frostpunk. Ice is set in the mid-20th century and shows how people reacted to the world getting frozen over and is in line for an English release at some point in the future. At one point, 11 Bit even had Jacek over to show him the game, and while he may have been expecting something closer to his novel given they named it as an inspiration, he found that 11 Bit tackled many similar concepts in a different way. The other piece mentioned was Snowpiercer, a 2013 Korean-Czech film where a failed climate change experiment killed all but a few. While Ice helped inspire the ideas for Frostpunk, Snowpiercer helped shape the visuals and mood of the piece overall.
Much like This War of Mine, Frostpunk relies a lot on atmosphere to help create a mood in the gameplay and that makes it something that playtests have to also experience to make sure that it can connect with players. While simple outlines like the above or paper prototypes work for internal testing, when doing major milestone tests that go outside the team (even while staying at 11 Bit Studios), they try to work up the art to beyond a placeholder level. The goal here is to evoke the feelings and experience they want the players to have so that the playtests can give them the best data, and it helps keep a consistent tone over the period of time a game is worked on—three years in the case of Frostpunk.
11 Bit Studios also had to communicate their ideas to more people internally than ever before. While This War of Mine was made by a team of between 14 and the low 20s, Frostpunk has around 80 people working on it, a major expansion of the team and one of the challenges they had to overcome. That makes clear visual prototypes that aren't just placeholders all the more useful because it helps show everyone where the vision is going. Jakub identified this scaling up of the team as one of the biggest challenges they faced in development.
All games have their trials, their challenges, and their difficulties to overcome in their creation. No creative work is easy to do, and video games combine various disciplines of drawing, music, animation, writing, and more, making it even tougher in many ways. Personally, I find it fascinating to see how the game we get went from those early drafts into something closer to this late beta build:
What do you think of the development of Frostpunk? Do stories like this interest you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!