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Postmortem: Frozenbyte's Trine
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Postmortem: Frozenbyte's Trine

June 3, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

Trine (2009, PlayStation Network and PC) is a fairytale-inspired platformer with realistic physics, which offers three characters and requires clever solutions to a myriad of challenges. The gameplay is based on fully interactive physics and each character's different abilities and tactics can be used to invent new ways to overcome obstacles -- and save the kingdom.

Frozenbyte was formed in 2001 by gaming enthusiasts with no professional game industry experience. Our debut game -- Shadowgrounds (2005, PC) -- was well-received by critics and gamers alike and we felt like conquering the world. In 2006, after the dust had settled on Shadowgrounds, a great "AAA" concept was developed.

Most of the company worked on the project for almost two years, while smaller teams worked on prototype projects and outsourcing work that made it all possible. Of these projects, only our internal Shadowgrounds Survivor (2007, PC) was ever released.

Ultimately it became clear that the publishers who had enough money did not believe in our ability to deliver the AAA game we were pitching to them, and the publishers who had enough faith did not have nearly enough money.

In hindsight, asking for five to 10 million dollars, going from PC-only to multiplatform overnight, and hiring a lot of new people should've set off our own alarm bells too.

Shutting down the project was a painful process and resulted in a company much smaller in headcount. The remaining development team was left without a project, but these developers quickly found their home in the Trine project -- previously a one-man operation with a couple of interns in its pre-production stage. The project looked promising and suitable for a bigger release than originally planned.

As the third game for us, Trine had a lot riding on it. If it would not be successful, it would be hard to find the strength to carry on, and the financial debts would probably devour the company. But it was also a project full of potential -- Trine was to be the rebirth of Frozenbyte.

What Went Right

1. The decision to re-design the game

Trine, then under a different name, had been in pre-production for almost two years. It was an old school-inspired (MSX era) platformer with focus on large freeform levels. We often referred to it as one programmer's "hobby project". The project was also a test bed for interns and new employees. It was starting to feel like fun.

With the added manpower from the failed AAA project, the game's original design was seen as too small and unambitious -- and it was deemed to have major design flaws due to its old-school roots. The game was essentially redesigned over the weekend and greenlit for production the next Monday. The team needed work to do.

How do you transform a game designed to be made in a few dozen man-months into something that takes hundreds of man-months? While the process was painful, the key was understanding that change was necessary. Many of the original design decisions were made to fit the original plan -- less than 12 months of production with a team of just a few inexperienced people.

The game world was to be "free" and very adventurous, levels were to be copy-paste jobs, including plenty of backtracking, finding keys and other puzzle elements, and having a difficulty of old-school proportions -- unforgiving by today's standards.

The new design evolved over time but certain things were set from the beginning. More weight was given to physics, and a key factor was giving the Wizard the ability to summon physics objects into the world.

One of the main gameplay elements in the original design was a time limit for character change. Essentially levels were supposed to have segments that had a time limit for completion, and the player could choose whichever of the three characters he wanted to tackle the challenge.

If the player failed and couldn't get to the end of the segment within the time limit, he'd have to do it again (perhaps try another character). This design was now seen as punishing the players and was completely removed, which changed the core gameplay drastically.

The original design also had much less differentiation between characters -- all characters had more or less the same basic attributes and their differences came from the various items that the player could give to them. The characters were redesigned and given distinct personalities and capabilities.

While some criticism has been laid out as to why the capabilities were not made into a single character -- and in fact many prospective publishers commented on this -- we felt and still feel that the three character decision was key in making the game feel cohesive, have a better story and have more marketing power.

The three characters are mentioned in every article about the game and the message it says to potential players is very clear. It also brings in mind classic old-school games such as Lost Vikings, which was welcome, even if the game's new design was not as big of an homage to old classics as its original design was.

A key point in the new concept and its level design was allowing players to play the game in their own way and solve simple puzzles with any character or their combination. Almost all situations in Trine can be solved with any character and clever use of the environment.

While many of these design decisions brought a lot of anxiety with them, they were crucial to the success of Trine. The game can be seen as a very relaxed, play-at-your-own-pace type of adventure, suitable for both hardcore and casual gamers, and this fact has probably attributed to the game's success.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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Art Director


Chris Remo
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I didn't realize Frozenbyte had so many close calls leading up to and during the production of Trine. Congratulations on getting it all worked out -- I bought the game immediately upon its PC release, enjoyed it immensely, and successfully recommended it to many people. It was one of my favorite games of last year.

Mark Venturelli
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Wonderful article. I loved Trine, and I can totally relate to Frozenbyte's development problems. Here's hoping that their next game is even better and maybe a little easier on the poor devs =).

Matthew Campbell
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Just out of curiosity, you speak of sales being moderate.. did all of the blood, sweat, and tears turn a profit at all for the company? Or more so a break even scenario with the wins coming from getting a ton of experience?

Joel Kinnunen
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Thanks guys. I probably could've deleted the word 'reasonable' from the last paragraph, the sales have been good. We were probably working on some contracts and were too accustomed to adding reasonable everywhere. :) Trine is making profit, it surpassed the break-even point a while ago. This is in many ways thanks to Steam where we self-published Trine. If all goes to plan, we should be able to complete our two current projects without many financial issues (I dare not say 'any', heh - our ever-growing ambition may cause some problems down the line). We'll see, exciting times ahead. :)

Nicolas Godement-Berline
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"We were probably working on some contracts and were too accustomed to adding reasonable everywhere"

hahaha I can totally relate to that

Great postmortem, thanks!

Matthew Campbell
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Well congratulations! I'm glad to hear it all ended up in a profit at the end.. that's a whole lot more than most folks can say..

I'm sure it was a hell of a road, but at least you ended up coming out on top with the experience to top it all off. Gravy from here on out right!? ;-)

Maurício Gomes
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Indeed, the last level is crap :P

I finished it yesterday (although not inspired by the article... I was cleaning my PC, and saw the icon, and decided to finish it, since I was on the penultimate level...)

With rising lava, I could not get past a trap part (the "boss" drops a object in a platform that flips, throwing you inside the lava... :/), without rising lava, I died many times in the top of the tower, getting killed by the infinite respawning enemies while I tried (without sucess) cast several objects with the mage (for some reason, even using the mouse, sometimes the game decides to not recognize the objects). Although I love levels of that type, in other games, in Trine I hated it :/

But all the rest of the game, thumbs up ^^

Jake Romigh
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I'm one of the people who bought Trine with an online without realize the Co-Op was offline. That was disappointing to say the least. If you ever make a sequel, and I hope you do, please include online co-op as that would have been amazing!

The game was good nonetheless, IMO.

Brian Connor
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Good article, I enjoyed the read. It's good to see that other companies go through some of the problems we do aswell :)

I have to say I never had a problem with the last level but I think I may not have played it until after it was patched on PC. It was also refreshing to not have to face too many bosses. They have always been a pet hate of mine :)