Sunday, 8 December 2013

People of Frictional: Jens Nilsson

Second post in the series. Thomas Grip posted the first, which you can read here.

Who am I
I'm Jens Nilsson, one of the people that started the company in 2006. Back then my work space was dubbed the "Pink Room" and in it all the Penumbra and Amnesia magic happened. The previous occupant of the apartment had a young girl and that room was the girl's room. We did not get around to give it some new paint until the year before we moved out. I dug and dug but could unfortunately not find a picture of it. Anyway, I've always had the luxury of having a dedicated room to work in and currently I am located in a cozy attic space.

I got an urge to make my own games when I was seven years old and the family got a C64. Spent a great deal of time copying the code from the Basic manual and got stuff printing, balloons flying and even the C64 making sounds. Did I understand anything of it beyond the end command "run"? Nope.

My first actual working modification of a game was around 1990 when we had a game called "Italien 90" which was a game written in Basic for the C64. The game was a simple text based football manager for the world cup in Italy 1990. As it was a Basic program you could pause the game, scroll through the code and make changes. I'm sorry Thomas Ravelli, but you got replaced by Jens Nilsson and my stats were all top 9 values. While at it, the rest of the Swedish team got top 9 values as well but they got to keep their names. Sweden won the world cup, over and over, which was quite similar to how they performed in the real competition (group c).

The following years I did not spend much time trying to create anything, kept it to gaming only. Instead I spent a great deal of time playing instruments, at first the piano and later the guitar. I eventually started playing in bands and music was the main occupation during the years 1988 to 2002. In 1995 the family acquired the first computer since the C64, which was an Apple Macintosh 5200. With it some craving for trying to create something with games came back. As in my younger days, actually programing something was not on the table, rather modifying games was what I did the most. Mainly Bungie's game series Marathon, it had third party tools available so you could create and edit content for the game. For anyone interested the Marathon games are available for free through the Aleph One project.

Not very pretty deathmatch level for Marathon.
In 1996/1997 the family computer got bumped to an Apple Macintosh 6400. With this my two interests started to merge and I began using the computer to record and make music.

One day in 1997 I was reading the latest news on and there was a post about the next game from Brian Greenstone. He had announced that his next game was going to be freeware and because of it he asked if there were anyone interested in helping out making graphics, music and such. I had no clue at all about how/what to do in terms of music for a game, but I figured I should at least mail and offer to help out. I got a positive response and for the next couple of months we sent emails back and forth. Brian sending new builds and I sent my attempts at making music for it. As this was in 1997 it took time to send or receive an email with a large attachment, as much as 30 minutes. Always with the risk of the dialup connection breaking. Tough times. In the end I only did one track, the one used for the menu. Regardless, I had gotten my first taste of working with some actual game development.

 Video of the game Nanosaur (only a few seconds of my music at the start…). 

I finished high school in 1998 and in 1999 I turned my "music for games"-hobby into a self-employment business. The following years I did a lot of small projects, some that never got released, but quite a few that did. Lot's of the work I did was for free, or for little pay, what I earned I mostly spent on getting new gear and software. The main "pay" was gaining experience and contacts. I increasingly did less and less music and more and more sound design. These projects gave opportunities to do tasks other than audio. Scripting, design and such all got some leveling up. Running a small business also required me to get up to speed in all sort of departments. I needed to make websites, understand how to invoice, bookkeep, market, customer relations, international work/pay and all the taxation rules that goes with it, and so forth. Experience that turned out to be quite handy as we started Frictional Games.

Thanks to the wonderful Wayback machine I can show a saved version of my old site. Listed are all the game projects that got released up to 2006.

Captain Bumper, cool and forgotten Mac game.

From 2002 to 2006 I attended a game development program at the Gotland University College. We did some fun projects as part of the education. My favorite is probably the large, foot controlled, floor projected Pong game that we created at the end of the first year. Overall the education was quite chaotic, lots of changes as to what the purpose of it should be. Because of that the quality of the education was lacking. It did allow for a lot of free time, I spent that time doing other projects through my self-employment business. A friend in class one day told me about a guy that he met online. It was some strange dude that was making a horror game and my friend was helping him out making graphics for it. A couple of months later I got in contact with that guy as well, it turned out to be Thomas and his Unbirth project. I did a bit of sound design for it and well, yeah, I think Thomas pretty much covered the rest of how we went from there to Energetic, to the Penumbra Tech Demo and ending up starting Frictional Games.

Four player Pong clone.
What do I do?
I have headed up the audio department, where I have done most of the sound work and design of the sound while working with Mikko Tarmina as our composer. For Amnesia, Kaamos Sound helped out making sounds. For Soma, Kaamos and Samuel Justice are doing all the sound work with Mikko doing his magic with the music. Other game work has been level scripting, level editing, level optimization and design.

I take care of our servers, both for development and for the public sites. This involves setting up and making everything running properly, it could be something as simple as registering a domain, researching and installing a bug tracker, it could be writing the code and server scripts for websites or making sure everything is backed up on a running schedule. I do, or did, lots of our customer support, these days we have a very nice forum community that does way too much of it (in particular one guy…). Like Thomas I also have a slew of small stuff that is done from time to time.
Two rows of not games.
In addition to the server management, what I pretty much only do at the moment is managing the company side of things. This is all sort of stuff not related to game development: Partners, agreements, salaries, taxes, bookkeeping, sales reports, buying equipment, paying invoices, sending invoices, reading and writing a never ending stream of emails and so on and on. At the moment I am not doing any game development due to two reasons. First, we have grown to 12 people and have numerous contractors, partners and service providers. It all requires a bit more time to manage these days. Second, currently only working three days a week, so I have less time than what I used to have (hmm, I can think of quite a few years when we worked seven days…). Next year I'm going back to full time again and with it I should be back to a bit of the game development work.
Four reasons to work three days a week.
If you are thinking, "Oh, the poor sod. From game development to office rat". No, not really! I've always been the most interested in the whole of it, to run a company as well as to do creative work. The main perk with Frictional Games has always been the wide variety of things to do.

I did not go much into details about how I actually do the various things that I do. If you are interested and have any questions about it, just post a comment and I'll do my best to give you a prompt answer.


  1. What's important to think about when creating game sounds, and is HQ equipment necessary?

    1. That a sound you make does by no means have to be created using something that resembles it realistically. Anything that works works!

      With both sound and music it is important to remember that sometimes less is more. If you have a hard time creating a tense, horrifying feeling for a scene, regardless of what sounds you try to use for it. Then going in the reverse and removing all the sounds might work much more effective.

      You don't have to spend lots on equipment. Again anything that works, works. It also connects back to keeping it simple and to try and do stuff that your equipment is up for.

      Microphones I used the most have been a couple of old and standard SM57/58s. If there is anything that I think is important to spend money on it would be to get some OK studio monitors (speakers). It works to use headphones, as they give you a good sound and allow you to hear in great detail as you work. But, they lack any sense of dynamic so they do not work well at all to use when working with sound levels.

  2. My first taste in game development was also for a dinosaur game! Whats up with that? I did a few 3D, 2D assets that got shipped with the game. (albeit it was more recently for me, the game called is Primal Carnage and it shipped last year)

    There's something just so unbridled about the modding scene of those old games. Marathon is before my time though, I started with Half-Life and the hammer editor. Twas good unbridled times of making shit out of BSP geometry. I remember the levels had to be vacuum sealed, as in they had to be completely encased by the skybox usually. Many hours has been spent hunting for tiny holes, which today seems like a baffling exercise in pointless patience now. There must have existed grid snapping at the time, so I don't know what my god damn problem was.

  3. My first game was called "Project Chess Sehic".I made that game in 2007 written on C++.Then I stared to make my real 3d engine called OGGY.Thanksfully to you "Frictional games"You guys gave me inspiration. :)
    I have one question ?
    Will rest of Frictional people have their own story?

    1. Every two weeks or so there should be a new story up.

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  4. Ahhhhh yes, domain management, backup schedules & customer support... sounds awfully familiar!

    Good to hear you enjoy doing overall company management stuff, not a nice thing to get stuck with if you don't enjoy it but, from what I hear can be incredibly rewarding if you do!

    Of all the various development tasks you've done, what is it that you've enjoyed doing the most, and why? It sounds like (no pun) Sound Design has been important to you & FG's games overall (which has clearly paid off), but have you gotten more enjoyment out of the level design/scripting?

    1. I would say what I have done the most at frictional, "putting it together". When you have a level an artist created, so it looks neat, then have a puzzle to make and you might not have all the assets for it yet. So you do some temp art, create sounds for it, possibly take some music for some other event and then script it all up and get it working nicely and note down the assets needed to be finalized later. It is fun to work with, fun to test and when you are done it feels quite finished and you know it will only get better as the quality of the assets gets improved by those that have the know how!

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  6. do you still have open positions? It would be great to work with you as a gameplay programmer and scripting stuff...

    1. not at the moment I'm afraid. Keep your eyes on this blog, if we are in need we post about it here.

    2. Hey.Will game tester or level designer be available for Soma?I wish I can work as tester.

  7. Again, kudos to you and Mikko for the sound of Amnesia. Tied with lighting and design/concept for my favorite game element. You did well. I'd say genius but don't want you to get a big head and give less effort for the next release :P


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