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Playdead was a studio that was founded organically, says CEO Dino Patti. His original goal was just to help Arnt Jensen, his co-founder and the game director of Limbo, get his creative vision into the wild. The game studio just grew from nothing, as the vision expanded.
What's important to Patti is shepherding Jensen's creative vision. What's important to Jensen is creating a game filled with ambiguity -- one that people can enjoy artistically and also discuss and interpret in their own way. And he isn't happy when they get to close to the truth, he says.
As the studio moves forward with its second project, having thrown off the shackles of the investors who originally put up the funds to develop Limbo, Gamasutra traveled to Copenhagen to visit the studio and talk to Jensen and Patti about how Limbo was developed, what lessons learned during that process will inform the company's next project, and what we can expect from its next title.
You have that expectation now built in. It's kind of like you want to avoid the sophomore slump, right?
Arnt Jensen: Yeah.
Like, bands releasing their second album. When their first album hits so hard, everyone starts to have really high expectations for the second album. It's kind of like that with you guys.
Dino Patti: Our thing is because it's a while yet... We want to talk about it when we're satisfied.
AJ: Yeah. we have to be proud about it. That's a long way. It'll take a long time.
You're still developing the concepts?
AJ: Yeah. We're working in kind of a special way, because we haven't planned what it's going to be like, so it's more like working with some themes, and then do a lot of prototyping on those themes, and then we put it all together. There's no design document or anything...
Did you have a similar process with Limbo?
AJ: Yes, it was exactly the same. It never ended. We put in new stuff two months before we finished it [laughs]. We never ended it -- just came up with ideas and moved it around all the way through. If we came up with something better than we had, than we just changed it. So, it was very important to have it flexible all the way.
DP: And it was deliberately kept open until very, very late to be able to move things around.
AJ: Yeah. [laughs] Our producer... We were pretty anxious at the end.
DP: He was anxious. [both laugh]
AJ: We came every day with a new idea. It was just becoming too late at the end.
How did you control yourself? Or did you just eventually get to the point where it became apparent that there just wasn't time?
AJ: I don't know. I think everything just combines in the end, and you kind of convince yourself that now it's there, and now it's done. So it feels kind of natural. [laughs] We had no more money to spend, so we just have to finish it. Microsoft were pushing us and everything, so it just felt natural.
When you're really stressed in the end, you just take some big decisions, and you know it's for the better. It was okay. We will probably do it the same way again.
DP: Yeah, the problem is I don't really know how we do it, because the game was so much in pieces at one point, it was like... [laughs]
AJ: This is not going to be a game.
DP: And a lot of big decisions. We put it together. And some things were obviously cut, because they didn't meet the standards, or couldn't get in shape in time.
AJ: Yeah. We threw a lot out. We told a lot of people that we threw 70 percent out, of things. There were a lot of ideas.
Dino Patti (left) and Arnt Jensen (right) at the Playdead offices, Copenhagen
Not tempting to make a Limbo 2 based on success, and the pieces?
AJ: Well, that could be great some day, but I think it would have to evolve, and there have to be some new mechanics and ideas, before [that]. So, not for now.
That's the thing when you make a company. Making a game is an artistic endeavor, but making a company... A company has to survive.
AJ: Yeah. [laughs]
You have to counterbalance.
DP: The funny thing is, when we started, it wasn't going to be a company. It was only going to be, like, this game. I think we talked a lot about, [while] doing this game, that we also wanted a company. Because we loved the processes, and we loved the way of doing it.
DP: The more we found more people and found more money, it was like, "Hm, this could maybe be something bigger."
AJ: We really want it to be fun, so we really want to be inspired and having fun doing the process, so it made no sense just to make another black and white game immediately. And we could work for a big publisher instead, and that's [what] we're both scared of.
DP: But what you are talking about, running the company, it's also, I think, the opposite of what we wanted. We wanted the products to run the company, because we don't want to have a big team where, "Okay, now we have to find new projects to have the team going." It's not our goal to have a lot of people just working. It's all about having projects which run the company. So, when new ideas emerge, we get bigger. If we don't have any ideas, we get smaller. [both laugh]
AJ: We have two ideas at the same time, we'll probably make two productions at the same time.
DP: We don't want to be forced to make bad decisions because we have a lot of people working. It sounds kind of intuitive to the big companies, I think, but for us it sounds really counterintuitive, to just have a lot of people that you always need to put in new projects, to just have them work.
That depends on your priorities as well. The big companies are publicly traded, and their goal is to create shareholder value. That's not your goal.
DP: Yeah, exactly.
AJ: We bought our investors out, so it's not our concern anymore. [laughs]
DP: And it is to be able to just create or get good ideas, and do whatever it takes. I think it's a cool way of doing it.
AJ: We've been talking a lot about this. I think we'll earn our money in the end by being creative and not taking money decisions, so it will all work out.
You talked about Limbo being made of pieces. I have to say, playing Limbo, there are certain pieces that are somewhat incongruous. So, start off in the wilderness, giant spiders, with some sort of natives, or tribal people. And then it suddenly transitions into this sort of city and factory. I had the sense playing it, I was trying to piece together a narrative. What do you think about that?
AJ: I think it's pretty important to have the right feelings throughout the game. I don't know if it's that important if it's specific storytelling. I don't care about that. It's important to have those special feelings. It was supposed to feel this loneliness so that in the end, when you meet the little sister, it seems like you haven't seen people so long, the impact will be so much bigger.