What's next for the Frostpunk studio
"This one is not sad and depressing..."
There's a real sense of momentum about Polish game-maker 11 bit Studios. It might not be turning out blockbusters, in the biggest sense, but the games it makes are thought-provoking in ways which stay with you long after playing. In This War of Mine, we played as civilians trying to survive in a warzone; in Frostpunk we built a city and braced it for apocalyptic cold. Both games asked how far you were prepared to go to survive.
They reviewed well and they sold well. 11 bit announced recently Frostpunk had sold more than 1.4 million copies on PC, and there's a version coming to PS4 and Xbox One this summer (11 bit would like to do Switch, it tells me, but hasn't even begun exploring it yet. Edit: Frostpunk project lead Jakub Stokalski talked more on Twitter about the possibility of a Switch version after this article was published. It doesn't sound likely. "The demand for it would have to be overwhelming for us to consider it," he said.) 11 bit also helps other indie games as publisher. In other words, it's a company on the rise, and all that momentum is going into what's next: Project 8.
Project 8 will be the first game 11 bit has made with consoles in mind from the outset, the company's PR and marketing manager Karol Zajaczkowski tells me, at Digital Dragons 2019. The hope is a simultaneous PC and console launch - whatever those consoles happen to be at the time.
Right now, Project 8 is in the blurry area between pre-production and production, but it began life more than a year ago, after Frostpunk launched, in April 2018. The lead designer is Marta Fijak, who was responsible for dreaming up the Societies and the Book of Laws in Frostpunk - those systems which probed your soul. She also happens to be an experimental biologist and once, perhaps in-advisedly, made a free-to-play mobile game with permadeath, about free-diving.
Two things to know about Project 8 are: 11 bit is mechanically changing tack again, and the new game will have more of a celebratory tone than the dour games before it. But it will still unmistakably be 11 bit.
"People sometimes look at This War of Mine and Frostpunk and the common denominator for them is sadness, a kind of depression," Marta Fijak tells me at Digital Dragons, chuckling. "But for me, this is not true.
"The common denominator for those games is meaningful experience. One tells a pretty important story about what happens to civilians during war; the other says how far will you go to ensure survival. And the next story we are doing, it's also meaningful. It has that core, important question, which for me is important in my life.
"We don't," she adds, "live in a bubble."
If you're someone who thinks of 11 bit's games as sad and depressing, then, you're in for "a twist". "This one is not sad and depressing," Fijak says. "This is a celebration of one of the parts of our experience - celebrating that thing which, in my perspective, is really important for humans.
"Of course, we are a mature company so it's not like Peggle and happy and rainbows. There are takeaways, there are questions I hope you will ask yourself after playing the game, and it will show you a new perspective on life."
What the designers wanted Project 8 to say was decided early on, but how to say it was "a whooooooole different cup of tea", Fijak admits, and a lot of experimentation was done. 11 bit is confident about where it landed but the result is another mechanical shift, just as Frostpunk (a city-builder) shifted from This War of Mine (a base-building game about a handful of characters). All that matters, Fijak tells me, is the game's message; the mechanics will serve it.
"For the story we want to tell right now," she says, "those Frostpunk [city-building] mechanics aren't the best ones to express what we want to say and make you feel the things we want you to feel, so we changed it - more than slightly!"
Project 8 will be 11 bit's most ambitious project to date but the studio doesn't want to go toe-to-toe with blockbusters. It wants to occupy a different niche, provide an alternative - "not a huge 80-hour monstrosity that will be your new hobby". "We want to give you a thing you can experience and take something from," Fijak says.
'When?' is a question it's too early to publicly answer but I reckon 2021 is a good shout. Until then, 11 bit has plenty to keep it busy. Support for This War of Mine is ongoing five years later and there are two Scenario-like Story add-ons for Frostpunk due, one this autumn and another maybe before the end of the year - or early 2020 if it slips. And, of course, there's Frostpunk console.
For now, though, consider Project 8 under wraps. But if you like what 11 bit has done before, I don't expect you'll mind the wait.