Frogwares Interview – On the Success of The Sinking City and What Comes Next
Frogwares, an independent games studio founded twenty years ago and based in Ukraine (with an office in Ireland, too), made a name for itself thanks to the licensed Sherlock Holmes adventure games. In total, they've developed eight games dedicated to the world's most famous fictional investigator.
After the last entry, launched in 2016, Frogwares decided to double down on the investigation design concept while moving to an open world framework and switching to a brand new IP. The result was The Sinking City, launched last year on PC and consoles.
Given that it's been almost a year since the Lovecraft-inspired open world investigation game debuted, we caught up with Frogwares Communication Manager Sergey Oganesyan to check up on the aftermath of this release and what's next for the studio as a whole, which now plans to self-publish games going forward.
It's been a while since The Sinking City came out. Can you tell us how the game fared commercially on the various platforms?
Okay, for those who don’t know, we released The Sinking City on PC, Xbox One, PS4 and the Nintendo Switch, and while we cannot reveal the exact numbers, I can say the game was definitely a success for our studio. It is selling better than our previous Sherlock Holmes titles did during the same period of time and continues to do well.
Did you benefit in any way from the exclusive deal to bring the game out on the Epic Games store? Do you expect a significant sales boost when The Sinking City will come out on Steam later this year?
I’m not sure I can disclose the contents of the commercial agreement. But like we have said before, we wouldn’t have agreed to the terms if it weren’t crucial for our studio. This deal with Epic Games allowed our studio to continue doing what we love to do - niche detective games but also prepare for the future. Will we see a sales boost for The Sinking City on Steam? It's up to the players to
Is there any reason why the Merciful Madness DLC is available only on Nintendo Switch? Does Frogwares have any plans to bring it to other platforms as well?
Our team is investigating the possibility to bring the DLC to other platforms, but I cannot confidently say what will happen. There are technical and legal conditions applying here.
Are you interested in porting The Sinking City to Google Stadia?
Any platform that is interested in our titles and properties is interesting to us. Their model is one of the possible ways for independent studios like ours to be profitable. And Stadia has, theoretically, all that it needs to reach a huge audience. We believe any large player that is willing to innovate and bring games to more people deserves support from studios and publishers like us.
Let's talk about the game for a while. Your 'City Generator' tech demo was quite famous ahead of the release. With the benefit of hindsight, are you satisfied with this approach used for The Sinking City? Do you plan to use it again in the future and if so, are there any specific improvements you're looking to make?
We are happy with the approach, for several reasons, mainly because we simply wouldn’t have been able to create the atmosphere of a Lovecraftian town on this scale without the tool. It’s just not the same if your world only had 10 streets. It was a technical achievement for us, a small team being able to make a full-scale city. This was a very clear example of needing to innovate in order to actually get the job done.
However, we’ve realized the tool’s shortcomings too and we’re now working to improve it to create much more varied surroundings in future games. To give you an example, we’ve really altered our approach to how we create street environments, interiors, etc compared to what we did for The Sinking City. We looked closely at the players’ feedback and as a result, this is one of the areas we want to focus on. We’re now aiming to make each street and building feel more unique, and as a result, to make the city feel more authentic. All while still being able to benefit from some of the time saving the tool initially gave us.
This was also the first true 'open world investigation game' made by Frogwares. From a mechanics and design perspective, what did you learn during the development of The Sinking City and what would you do differently now with that experience?
With the release of The Sinking City, we noticed a few things that can now help us take the concept of investigation up a notch. The feedback we got from the players regarding the detective mechanics is very positive, but there are a few things we could do to make gameplay in our future games more varied, so to speak.
Take the idea of our no-hand holding gameplay. An approach that overall was very well received, but also led to certain issues in the long run. The perfect example is navigating by using an actual map instead of the common magic hud markers or a radar. While fun and different for a lot of people, eventually, it got a little tedious for some players since it was hard to really memorize the city by any visual cues and landmarks. But we don’t want to step away from this concept and just default to the industry standard because we still firmly believe in this type of gameplay. So now our
feature and quest designers at Frogwares are trying out ideas that could improve how people navigate in the city while still sticking to our idea of not babysitting them. Things like the previously mentioned street level design, custom markers, etc. are all being looked at.
We don’t want this experience to become stale as you play the game, so these mechanics will now be more than finding two intersections. We want players to use their surroundings, landmarks to find their way to the target, or maybe even ask people on the streets for directions, we are working to make that whole gameplay situation more complex and interesting.
Speaking about people on the streets - we have an idea of what we call global investigation, where the whole city can be a part of your case. I cannot say more right now, but it’s how we can make our overall quest design more varied and avoid having to rely on one gameplay “pattern” too much. We are looking at our combat too, and experimenting with a different locomotion to make controls more responsive. So, yeah, lots of things are being worked on, overhauled, polished and so on.
Are you planning to keep your next project open world or perhaps you'd rather go back to the segmented level structure seen in your Sherlock games?
With the tools that we have, and more importantly, with the experience that we have gained, we do want to continue to explore this concept. Our goal is to create the ultimate open world detective experience, or the best detective experience possible.
Now, when it comes to the size of the open world relative to its content, this is of course something we will continue to work on and optimize, based on the feedback that we received. In an age where you regularly see players complain about “open- word fatigue” we’re now more accepting of the idea of quality vs quantity.
On that note, Frogwares fans want to know whether you're going back to Sherlock Holmes (as teased in a recent tweet) or perhaps continuing with your intriguing Lovecraft-inspired setting. Is there anything you can share yet?
I can confirm we are working on something, but we are not ready to reveal what it is. What I can tell you is that fans best know us for our detective games, and this new game will fit the Frogwares profile - a story-focused detective adventure with minimum hand-holding. But is it going to be Sherlock, The Sinking City 2 or a new IP - that I, unfortunately, cannot say just yet.
We've read in a recent job ad that Frogwares is already working on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. Does that mean your next project won't be cross-generation and is aimed only at next-generation consoles (in addition to PC) instead? Also, is there any plan to take advantage of the new hardware in some ways to improve the experience of playing The Sinking City on these upcoming platforms?
I wouldn’t look at that job posting too much. The new consoles offer possibilities that are very interesting both for production and gameplay, but not everyone is going to buy next-gen right out the gate.
One of the most surprising decisions taken by Microsoft was to announce that there won't be any exclusive next-generation games for the first couple of years or so from their first-party studios as they intend to keep supporting Xbox One, too. Some users are worried that this will result in worse games due to having to keep a lower common denominator from a hardware standpoint.
Looking at what happened when the current-gen was first introduced, we probably shouldn’t expect an absolutely mind-blowing jump in terms of game quality being the standard, because cross-gen titles will be a thing for some time. I just don’t think developers can momentarily drop their support of an enormous fanbase that has grown during the current-gen life cycle unless they have the financial incentive of the console makers to make up for the potential missed out sales.
But we should all definitely look forward to things like better textures, better framerate, better lighting, better loading time, bigger maps, more detailed environment, etc. Which is a lot and the improvements will be more than noticeable.
We already have absolutely gorgeous games like RDR2 and Horizon, and I can’t even begin to imagine how good these games would look on the next-gen hardware.
What do you think of the Xbox Series X, now that Microsoft has revealed most of the specifications? Is it fair to say it is essentially a high-end PC disguised as a console?
Didn’t people say the same about PS4 and Xbox One? We are happy we are moving to a much faster SSD storage. For open world games that’s a life (and time) saver. It’s safe to say that this new approach by MS is interesting. Say what you want about how things worked in the past, but their whole mantra of wanting to get people on any platform has been validated by their support of the PC market.
Since both consoles have announced support for up to 120fps refresh rate, there is hope among some gamers that developers would use 60fps as the baseline for next-generation titles. Do you think that will actually be the case?
I think more and more devs will offer you a choice between resolution and framerate. I personally hope 60 FPS will become the standard, but optimization is not that easy, especially for smaller studios.
What kind of performance improvements do you expect from the patented variable rate shading technology in the Xbox Series X?
Well, we do expect to have a more stable framerate at higher resolutions, and we are eager to see how it works.
Do you think the vastly increased power of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X Ryzen based CPUs could lead to proportionally more complex and more believable AI? This is one of the areas that were a bit left behind during the generation that's ending, in my opinion.
I can see that happen but I think it really depends on the game and the developer. Prioritizing will still be a thing. But I think once someone comes along and sets a substantial benchmark in how AI behaves in games, others will want to follow. Making the worlds games are set in more and more believable will always drive developers.
Is there anything else you would like Frogwares fans to know?
Honestly, just how much their support has pushed us forward. In case some were wondering about how Frogwares is doing after the whole de-listing debacle - we just got Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments back online on PS4 and Xbox One, and our studio is hungry to keep thriving on our own terms. For here on in we are going to self-publish all our future releases too. To achieve that goal, our studio set up a publishing department consisting of internal marketing, business and release teams, and we’re genuinely excited to share our plans with all of you. So again, I wanted to say a big thank you to all the fans that have supported us all these years.
Thank you for your time.