These days games take boatloads of money to create. No one knows that fact better than indie studios, especially those who gamble by developing bigger and bigger games in an effort to grow. In 2015, Frictional Games took one such risk with the horror game of the year, Soma. With a budget ten times bigger than its predecessor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Soma needed to sell quite a few copies in order for Frictional Games to begin seeing a return on their investment.
In a recent developer blog, Frictional Games disclosed that Soma had sold over 450,000 units over the past year, a huge number for an indie studio and over 60,000 more than Amnesia: The Dark Descent sold within the same timeframe. The blog goes on to talk about just how big the risks they took were, like recording dialogue three times over, and commissioning models for creatures that ended up being cut in the final game. The studio was nervous, they explain, and now the strong sales mean that Frictional Games has made back the money they spent making Soma a year after release:
This is quite good, in fact it is so good that we have now broken even and then some! I think it is worth to stress just how great this is. We spent over five years making our, by far, most ambitious game ever. We also spent quite a lot of money on various outsourcing such as voice acting, 3d models and animations. For instance, to make sure we got it right, we actually recorded a lot of the game's dialog three times. In the past we have just recorded voices at the end of the project and hoped for the best. With SOMA we knew that nailing the voice acting would be crucial, and spent money accordingly. [...]
It is important to understand that SOMA was far from a safe bet. While we had the luxury of having already made a successful horror game, SOMA was not an easy sell. The game relies heavily on getting certain themes across to the player, and communicating this proved to be a hard task indeed. When showcasing Amnesia we could just show how you blocked a door with some rubble and hid in a closet and the game's core experience was neatly summarized. But with SOMA things were way harder. First of all, weaponless horror games are no longer anything special and by no means a stand-out feature. In fact, the "chased by monsters"-gameplay was not even a core part of the SOMA-experience. The whole idea with the game was to give the player a first person perspective on a variety of disturbing philosophical musings. To make matters worse any concrete gameplay example of this would be riddled with spoilers, so all discussion had to be made in an obscure "you'll understand when you play it"-fashion.
Even though there were all of those risks and a lot of money sunk on unused voices and monsters, Frictional seems happy with the result. "Despite a bloated budget and tough sell, here we are a year later having earned back every single dime spent," the blog proclaims proudly.
How exactly did Frictional manage to turn a profit on Soma? First and foremost, it was able to leverage the name recognition from Amnesia: The Dark Descent to appeal to the hardcore horror crowd the studio had enthralled back in 2010. It also helped that Soma saw a release on the PlayStation 4 in addition to PC. Perhaps the biggest reason behind Soma's profitability lies in the way it was able to stick close to its $30 price point. The majority of Amnesia's sales occurred during sales, with some discounts reaching up to 75% off its $20 price, while Soma hasn't seen nearly as big a discount yet.
Essentially, even though Soma cost many orders of magnitude more to make than Amnesia, the higher profile, selling price, and wider reach of the game allowed it to turn a much bigger profit.
Not only that, but Frictional Games feels incredibly satisfied with the public reaction to Soma. Though initially worried that many would compare Soma directly with Amnesia (widely regarded as one of the greatest horror games of all time, sitting on Steam with a 10/10 rating), they're happy to see even negative reviews and refund notes containing positive feedback. For example, one refund note read, "I love horror. Soma is distressing. There is a scene where I have to hurt an innocent robot to progress and I don't know why. It made me cry." That distressing, discomforting feeling? Exactly the horror the studio was going for in Soma, which means they've succeeded on more than just a financial level.
Looking forward, Frictional Games aims to become a large enough studio to be working on two projects at a time. Their next project goes into production at the end of this year and another has been working its way through research and development. No specifics on either game has been revealed, but they did hint that some smaller stuff might be in the works. DLC for Soma, perhaps? One of those smaller things should be revealed later this year and the other at some point early next year.
Horror fans, get ready to see a whole lot more from Frictional Games in the coming years.