Playdead: Nordic Video Game Developer That Pushes the Art Boundaries
The video game market has seen exponential growth in the last two decades, making it a challenge for existing developers to keep up with demand and supply. And as more creative minds enter the field to join their forces, separating yourself from the bunch is no easy feat.
But, some companies have managed to achieve immense success. How? Let’s explore the story of Playdead.
Playdead is an independent studio based in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is globally recognized for its macabre games Inside and Limbo and has been acclaimed by the industry for its unrivaled artistic creativity and numerous awards. The eerie atmosphere and chilling monochrome visuals quickly caught the eye of gamers and critics, who have made these titles a staple in the gaming community.
Founded in 2006 by game designers Arnt Jensen and Dino Patti, Playdead had runaway success. Let’s see how this duo birthed one of the highest-record-breaking brands on the market.
The Modest Beginnings
Arnt, a graduated illustrator from Design School Kolding, started scribbling sketches of a puzzle game in 2004, which later on became Limbo. His interest in games began in early childhood when his father bought him his first PC from Texas Instruments in the early 1980s.
He worked as an Interactive Developer for the Danish company IO Interactive from 2000 until 2002 to dip his toes in the field of programming. Following this experience, Arnt started working as a freelancer with a full focus on the development of Limbo.
Some events transpired, and Arnt eventually met Dino, the co-founder and his partner in crime.
Dino has led world-class developers since 2007, and his specialties involve project management, concept development, leadership, gaming, and game/interaction design. He is also an investor for Sisu Game Ventures, an advisory and Investment Company focused 100% on games for the Nordic region.
Dino is also a member of the European Advisory Board for the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the world's largest professional game industry event. He is currently the CEO and founder of Coherence, a Swedish startup with a mission to democratize online games by supporting the creation of massively scalable and persistent virtual worlds for studios of any size.
Arnt and Dino tirelessly searched for investors so they could launch Playdead. In 2008 they got the Danish Arts Foundation’s three-year work grant. The success of Limbo was so big that they quickly reacquired the company from the investors and led it independently.
Ominous Puzzle Games
Arnt worked for six months to draw the little boy looking for his sister in a monochrome and eerie world where all sorts of dangers, like spiders and traps, creep up from everywhere. He titled the game Limbo, the parallel world between Heaven and Hell, or Purgatory. The game offers players a surreal, borderline unsettling experience, complete immersion, and a gameplay like no other.
The game pushed the boundaries of the art form of its time and is one of the very few genuinely creepy horror games that tapped into the dark areas of the collective subconsciousness. It was released in 2010 after six years of uninterrupted work and became the third most award-winning game that year. The game reached 153 different countries in 9 different languages and sold one million copies within the first year of its release.
Their other game, Inside, was released six years later in 2016 and was an even greater success. It has been nominated for awards at all the major festivals and conferences in the world. It was financed by the Danish Film Institute and is similar to its predecessor when it comes to the theme and style, both visually and as a puzzle platform gameplay.
It received stellar reviews, and the game publishers chose Andersen for sound design and music, the same as for their first game Limbo. Video Game Development and Rise to Fame
Playdead was a very small video game development company initially and had a minimal budget. They didn’t know whether to make the Playdead games focused on Xbox or PSN, one of the main problems concerning small developers. You might think it’s best to do both, but not everyone has the leverage to do that. They also had no infrastructure support, which was a whole other problem, and an expensive one at that.
At first, Arnt and Dino wanted to fund their debut game, Limbo. However, when things started escalating, they realized that production costs were draining their budget. So, they started turning to investors.
After the big success of their first project, Limbo, their second project was entirely self-funded and self-published.
Building New Bonds
Shortly after the release of their second game, co-founder Dino cut ties with the company and sold his shares to Jensen. He realized he could manage himself, after leading the company for nine and a half years and growing it to 25 people.
There was also a disagreement about how and when to release the games. Dino Patti sold his 49-percent stake in the company for 50 million Danish kroner ($7.2 million).
However, good things were on the horizon. In 2020, Playdead happily announced its partnership with Epic Games, which aimed to revolutionize video game development. The whole point of the partnership was to allow creators enough time and space for creativity and design.
The partnership addressed 3 key points:
- Developers would retain 100% of all intellectual property, a.k.a. no one else aside from them could claim ownership over the product.
Epic Games Publishing would take care of all the development costs.
- There would be 50/50 profit sharing between developers and publishers.
- This partnership was a step forward for game developers and an even bigger step for artistic freedom.
Playdead Facts and Funding
Playdead was founded in 2006 by Arnt Jensen and Dino Patti. It is headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark and releases 2D and 3D games for, Xbox 360, XOne, PS4, and PS3. Their titles are also accessible via Windows.
Playdead has so far had several investors and substantial funding. The main funder of Playdead is Vaekstfonden; however, the exact funding amount is unclear as of now. The latest deal has remained private and raised $7.07 million.
Besides the co-founders, Playdead’s team also comprises a few more employee profiles: Adam Jones as a Lead Recruiter, Alex Grahame as an Artist, Anders Hald as an Environment Artist, Annalea Hartelius as an Animator, and a few more influential persons.
What the Future Holds for Playdead Games
Playdead now consists of a small group of developers based in Copenhagen that constantly looks for new opportunities and talents for collaboration. They currently employ 50 developers in their Danish and Lithuanian development studios. Further, it will undoubtedly grow in the next few years. The company is an art studio, and although Epic Games will publish its new titles, Playdead will maintain its integrity and organizational structure.
The critics compared Limbo's art with Edvard Munch's paintings and Ingmar Bergman's films. Both are great names in Nordic art that rebelled against the conventions of their time.
Their games' aesthetic qualities pushed the boundaries of art, and their future project will be a great surprise that will offer a great experience to the gamers. The company has already made a name for itself as one of the most influential developers on the indie scene.
Their future releases will offer a more amplified 3D experience but will remain minimalistic in their design. And for sure, there will be another mystery to be unveiled by the players!