Frostpunk 2 Exclusive Interview: Leave your fingerprint on a frozen world

By Julian Benson, Contributor

Life hasn’t been easy for the Frostlands in the 30 years since the Great Frost, but with advancing technology, it has become manageable. Living in their pit and warmed by the giant engine tower at their back, its citizens looked out at the world as blizzards wiped it clean, and they adapted.

In the first Frostpunk, released back in 2018, you led a small settlement of refugees escaping a global winter. The game was a survival city builder where, in addition to directing the placement of buildings and gathering of resources, you had to tackle the deadly consequences of failing to keep your storehouses stocked. Shortages of food would see your people starve, and if you ran out of coal, the engine tower at the heart of your city would shut down, leaving your citizens to freeze in their beds.

In the sequel, if you look closely, you’ll recognize a city like the one you led in that first Frostpunk. A ring of Victorian buildings still crowds around a heat-belching generator, but those structures are artifacts of a bygone age. The buildings that fill the roads of the new districts are of steel and stone, not wood, and you’ll see they have no windows—these people know it is better to withstand the cold than see the snow. 

The streets themselves show how much life has changed for the people there. The city that sprawls outward no longer obeys the old town’s strict, concentric circular streets; this resource-hungry metropolis doesn’t depend on its one central engine tower. And despite the harsh environment, you can tell from the trails of glowing gold that snake their way through the city’s streets that the population is flourishing; each trail is a steady stream of innumerable citizens moving in a perpetual cycle of home to work, work to home, and back again. The golden loops speak to an underlying idea of Frostpunk 2: ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail. The unending cycle of life and death, rise and fall, growth and collapse. In the original game, you led a city through its fall, and now, in its sequel, you must guide an ever-growing metropolis through all the dangers of its rise.

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Frostpunk 2, which developer 11 bit studios will release on July 25, 2024, and a beta is expected in April, continues the story of the Frostlands as it faces its next challenge. With their minds freed from their focus on desperate survival, the citizens no longer see the world surrounding their city as death but as opportunity. “[They think] ‘We, humankind, we survived again,’” says Frostpunk 2’s co-director and art director Łukasz Juszczyk. “‘F--- this frozen world, we will put our fingerprint on this white sheet of paper, put a flag in it, this is ours.’”

The seed of a sequel

Frostpunk was a game about a society pushed to the limits, [surviving an] apocalypse as it was happening,” Frostpunk 2’s other co-director and the game’s design director, Jakub Stokalski, says. 

In the face of certain death, the people of New London gave you absolute power. “Convenient authoritarianism,” Stokalski calls it. As the city’s Captain, you chose what facilities to build, what technologies to research, and even what laws to pass. You could enforce child labor, providing more workers for your mines but at the cost of hope for your people. You could welcome the refugees who arrived at your city’s walls or turn them away, recognizing that they would stretch your limited food supplies and available housing even further. 

Frostpunk 2,” Stokalski says, “is the next step after that: How will society rebuild now the unifying factor of ‘’We have to do it, or we will die’ is gone and everyone starts to pull in their own direction?” 

Juszczyk and Stokalski looked to history for inspiration, seeing the Great Frost as akin to an event similar to a World War. “That was an end of the world for them in many ways,” Stokalski says. “The veterans from the trenches of World War One were different people because of what they went through. People who are shaped by these experiences.” 

When those people returned home with their worldviews altered, they changed the world around them. “The architectural style and the social thought in that period was futurism—the streamlined modern style, those sleek, aerodynamic lines,” Juszczyk says. “There was pride in humankind; they were thinking about the future.” 

But the First World War didn’t end all wars. By the ‘30s, the world’s nations were once again at each other’s throats. “Whenever there’s ambition, whenever there is opportunity to go forward, whenever people are starting to make plans, it triggers their inner demons, their lust and greed,” Juszczyk says. “We found that message looking out the window. Whenever there’s peace, we start a war; whenever there is some kind of equilibrium, we cut down forests and exploit the environment. Humankind’s spark of innovation and creation is simultaneously the key aspect of destruction.”

“Ultimately, our biggest enemy isn’t nature; it’s human nature,” Stokalski says.

“That was the first step,” Juszczyk says, coming up with the seed, the statement they wanted Frostpunk 2 to make. The second was: “How can we convey the message we want to say with interesting mechanics? The mechanics should fit the mood. When the art meets the design, it should all fit together. And in the end, it’s a game, right? It should be fun.”

Leaving a mark


Frostpunk 2 Cityscape
One of the most significant changes in Frostpunk 2 is one of scale. The first game was effectively a countdown to the Great Storm, set in a world where every hour was critical, every plank of wood precious. The problems that 11 bit studios wants us to tackle in its new game are more significant: “What is the grand division that drives us?” Stokalski says. “Not: How did we gather 10 wood to build a tent?”

“To show these large-scale changes in society properly,” Stokalski continues, “we have to move from days to weeks to months, even to years. When we’ve large timescales, the physical scales have to go [up] as well because we want to show growth and expansion.” It no longer makes sense for players to be constructing one building at a time, so now you order the construction of entire districts—housing, resource extraction, logistics—you mark out the zones, and your people fill them with buildings. 

Frostpunk 2’s districts are not islands. Their surroundings impact them: If you ring your housing district with an industrial quarter, the residents will complain about the squalor brought by the factories, causing dissent among your people. You must balance both the needs of your city’s expansion and the needs of the people who live within it.

The balance that will be most demanding to maintain, however, is among the will of the people. “These people survived for 30 years,” Stokalski says. “They might not have a bed of roses type of existence, but they lived, they raised children, they started wanting more, and one of the things that they wanted from life is to have a say in how the city is run.” 

The people formed the Council, a government of representatives who vote on new laws for the city. You, as Steward, still get to direct the vision of the city, but you can only enact it if you secure the necessary votes.

A house divided

Frostpunk 2 The Council
Stokalski wouldn’t reveal the main goal of Frostpunk 2’s campaign, only saying, “You take over leadership of [the city] as it faces [a] lack of resources and the need to expand.” How you expand, though, is not preordained, as the citizens are not all of one mind. 

While the Great Frost shaped everyone it touched, people weren’t all touched in the same way. In the decades since the event, different factions emerged within the population, all cohering around different ideologies. “The scenario is about the consequences of how you expand,” Stokalski says, “how you choose to shape the city, and by extension how the society is shaped and managing the conflict that comes out of that.”

One group, the Foragers, learned that it is essential “to stay adaptive, to stay clear of anything that will break down,” Stokalski explains. They rely on human muscle rather than machines. Another faction, the Engineers, took an opposite view. They believe it was only through technology that the Frostlands survived. As the city gears up to expand its borders once more, these factions compete to steer that growth according to their ideology. 

When the team created Frostpunk 2’s factions, they hit upon the idea of “axes of values,” Stokalski explains. “We did extensive research, going back to the Renaissance, [looking at] different philosophical, sociological, political, logical trains of thought of how people organize around ideas. We chose three sets of axes, with two extremes on each axis, that present a specific worldview.” The Foragers and the Engineers are at the opposite end of the Technology axis.

What this means in practice is that opposing factions will rarely be able to agree on big decisions for the city. For instance, one choice you will face in your campaign is how the city will increase its food production and support its growing population. The crops need fertilizer, and you have two options: human waste or chemicals. The Foragers know there will never be a shortage of excrement and lobby its case. Meanwhile, the Engineers argue chemicals are the more sanitary option. “There's really no good or bad answer. It depends on who you are and how you see the world,” Stokalski says. 

A vote in the Council chooses the city’s path, but you can influence the outcome.

As Steward, you decide what policy is voted on in each Council session, which gives you significant control over the shaping of the city. Council sessions happen regularly, and a policy must be put before them in each one, but often there will be a few policies for you to choose from. Before a policy is decided, you can see how the different factions intend to vote. If, for instance, you agree with the Engineers but they don’t have the necessary votes to succeed, you could put a different policy before the Council that session, effectively delaying the vote and giving you time to convince other members to join your side.

There are lots of ways to change a faction’s mind, but most involve offering them something in return for their support. The Foragers, for instance, may be convinced to support the chemical fertilizer in return for your commitment to build more Food Districts. If you fail to keep your promise, then you will anger the Foragers and create dissent in the city. “Tension in the city can grow so much that you will be ousted as a leader,” Stokalski says.

A risky but valuable bargaining chip is your power as a Steward itself. You can increase your standing with a faction and gain their support in a vote by letting them choose the policy voted on in the next Council session. However, as Stokalski says,  “Then you are locked into whatever they propose. And if you don’t like it, then you have to negotiate against them. So it can get complicated pretty fast.” 

The Council itself requires balance. “If you commit to a [policy] direction, everyone sees this and maybe will start joining them, and they grow in power,” Stokalski says. Each faction believes it has a vision for a perfect world, but, as Juszczyk says, “Whenever there’s an idea of how to create a utopia for one, it surely will become a dystopia for someone else.” 

The Engineers, for instance, have an extremist sub-faction called the Technocrats who believe individual power and choice should be ceded to the state. One policy they will fight for is mandatory schooling, which sees children taken away from their parents. If you try to block this, the group will protest in the streets and cause disruptions throughout the city. “This game shows that this ambition, this drive towards a better future, can lead to tragedy and downfall if left unchecked,” Stokalski says.
Frostpunk 2 Technocrats
“When you play Frostpunk 2, you’ll see how difficult it is to operate in that [kind of environment], pushing groups of people with their agendas,” 11 bit studios CEO Przemysław Marszał says. “It is difficult to grab those different groups, those factions—as we can see right now in the current world.” 

Players may find it frustrating that they don’t have direct control of the city in Frostpunk 2. Still, Stokalski welcomes that. “Strategy games—all games really, but strategy specifically—have this power fantasy at their core: ‘I’m gonna play this game because I want to feel good, and I feel good when I get my way.’” The voting system at the heart of the game forces “[players] to contend with different opinions and ideas for the future,” he says. 

And, as in the real world, there are other, less democratic tools at your disposal, which means when you encounter difficult situations, Stokalski argues, there is a “temptation to negotiate a bit with your morals.” In the first Frostpunk, you could make your job as Captain easier by bringing in powers that let you ignore the people’s will, flooding the city with propaganda towers and jackbooted guards who stamped out any opposition. While Stokalski wouldn’t elaborate, he said in Frostpunk 2 there are “creative ways you can play around with [the Council] if you are the type of player that wants more direct control.”

A sense of scale

In the original game, your population numbered in the hundreds, and the main campaign took place over a matter of months. Now, your city houses thousands, and the campaign takes place over years. The risk in these changes is that 11 Bit loses something that made Frostpunk special: the human stories that played out in their system-driven worlds.

“This is a design challenge that [has been] present with us from at least three games back,” Stokalski laughs. “[It] goes all the way back to This War of Mine. All the small people on the screen, how do [players] empathize with them? Then we started making Frostpunk, and people are now this size,” Stokalski pinches his fingers together, “Now, how do [players] empathize with them? And in Frostpunk 2, they are barely a couple of pixels across; how do [players] empathize with them?”

One solution is something the team calls “ghosts.” You can see them in the trailers and screenshots—those triangle-shaped wedges with a character’s portrait front and center. 
Frostpunk 2 Personal Story
While Frostpunk had citizens approach you as Captain to make requests or relay events happening in the city, these slices of life are “purely from the head of the speaker,” Juszczyk says. “We tried to bring the player closer to their perspective as if you can read their mind.”

“Some of the most impactful and emotional moments in the game are when you take the time to read and think about [these people],” Stokalski says. “There are great emotional payoffs there.”

“So we move the camera away but focus on particular people,” Juszczyk says. “It will be a different experience to Frostpunk. You can’t see people clapping and struggling to walk through the snow in Frostpunk 2 because it’s not a game about that; it’s about society and the groups [that make it up].” 

The team plans to use that platform of grander scale and intimate perspective to explore some controversial subjects. “It’s interesting to see how even some of the most abhorrent ideas, like eugenics, for instance, were justified as they were being born,” Stokalski says. “Reviewing lots of those topics and seeing them from different [sources] left me with the urge to stay humble regarding anything that gets said with certainty. We tried to make those choices go above and beyond what is obvious to the dilemma at hand and to subvert it.”

Engine trouble

While it may not show on screen, Frostpunk 2 has faced some significant challenges during development. “In our team,” technical director Szymon Jabłoński says, “we call 2020 the year of the three engines.”

Since the studio was formed in 2010, 11 bit studios used the same engine it had built in-house for all of its games. “The Liquid Engine was a very low-level tool,” Jabłoński says. “It was very lightweight, very good performance-wise. When we started to make Frostpunk, to be honest with you, we didn’t think about choosing another engine.”

In 2020, after the success of This War of Mine and Frostpunk, 11 bit studios decided the time was right to expand significantly, going from working on a single game at a time to three big in-house projects and publishing a number of external productions. “The idea was to support all internal projects [with the Liquid Engine],” Jabłoński says. 

While Jabłoński’s team built features for Frostpunk 2 in the Liquid Engine, Juszczyk and Stokalski tested their ideas first as board game prototypes that they played in Google Drawings and then in Unity with a small team of programmers, artists, and designers. “We had a whole set of builds to test ideas, the basic building blocks of the game,” Stokalski says. “It culminated in making a big prototype [using] not only design but art and technical teams to show how the game could work to the company.”

While Frostpunk 2 was progressing, the teams making the other internal projects, The Alters, and an unrevealed game still referred to internally as Project Eight or P8, decided it would be easier to progress development in the Unreal Engine. The problem with using in-house technology, Jabłoński explains, is that “at the same time you are developing and delivering technology, [you are] creating the game that uses it. This is bad for the iterative process of game design because you need to wait for specific features.”
Frostpunk 2 Failed City
This is a particular problem for 11 bit studios as the team doesn’t stick to a single genre even within its games, let alone from release to release. For instance, This War of Mine mixes elements of survival games, management games, and even The Sims, all while presenting it in a side-on view. 

“We are constantly in some kind of R&D,” Marszał explains. “A lot of mechanics are unique. [We can’t] pick those from the shelves of games already made. It’s happening with Frostpunk 2 right now, this is happening with The Alters right now, the same is happening with Project Eight right now. That’s one of the problems we have at 11 Bit, but in the end, it allows us to deliver something that is unique and that supports the idea.”

Delays in that preproduction prototyping phase can really hinder a project because, as Stokalski explains: “There’s always this magic moment that happens when you have all your pretty ideas neatly arranged on pieces of paper, then you implement them, and everything falls apart. You have to rebuild it as something that can actually work.” 

That challenge of design versus implementation continues right up to release. “Frostpunk 2 is a hugely systems-driven game,” Stokalski continues. “It’s a hard sell to say we are feature complete. It might end up a week before release that we have to fix a bug by modifying or adding a feature to a system. Even internally [people ask] ‘When’s your beta?’ And we’re like, ‘What's a beta?’”

When The Alters and P8 moved away from the Liquid Engine, it sparked a larger existential conversation at 11 bit studios. “We realized that we are an entertainment company,” Marszał says. “We aren't a technology company. All of our games are idea-driven, not genre-driven or any other factor-driven. We should be able to pick a completely new genre if we decided to, so growing an engine [that wouldn't limit the possibilities] would be impossible for a company of the scale of 11 bit studios.”

“You need to have a very good reason to use your own technology,” Jabłoński says. “Maybe you are making very similar games and releasing them every year. For example, you’re making FIFA. You already have your own technology pipelines, everything’s set in stone, and you're just upgrading a little bit. For a company like ours, especially after we scaled from making one project and design to three projects at the same time, it was just an impossible task for the team to do.”

By the end of 2020, after starting work on Frostpunk 2 as a board game, a Unity game, and a Liquid Engine game, the technical team ported everything over to the Unreal Engine. “It was a difficult time,” Jabłoński admits, but one that, in the end, helped the studio build a new technical team and a better foundation for future titles. 

Still, looking back on it all, Jabłoński says he “cannot imagine” sticking with the Liquid Engine. “A few weeks ago, I had a terrible nightmare [where] we are at the same point of the development today, but we are still on the Liquid Engine—it’s crashing, lacking features, and I have a backlog filled with things like implement the AMD upscaler from scratch,” Jabłoński laughs.

Escaping the loop

Whether it’s deliberate irony or pure coincidence, at the heart of Frostpunk 2 is a message about the dangers of ambition in the same year that 11 bit studios’ greatest ambitions will prove fruitful or a failure.

“We call it a delivery year,” Marszał says; it’s the culmination of five years of work, the proving moment to see if 11 bit studios can go from a single game studio to a multi-game developer publisher. The first major step took place after the launch of Frostpunk’s last DLC in 2020, when Marszał and the other founders asked their development leads to direct the sequel instead of taking on the responsibility themselves.

“We knew that at the scale the company was at the end of Frostpunk, it was the last moment that the management board could be involved in games,” Marszał says. “To grow, we needed to change. We knew the time must come when the leads that we were building our games with should [take over].” 
Frostpunk 2 Cityscape 2
By stepping back from day-to-day development and leaning on the team they had grown, the founders saw they could greatly expand how many games 11 bit studios released. “We are ambitious; we want to do ambitious games,” Marszał says. As well as making three games internally—Frostpunk 2, The Alters, and the unrevealed P8—11 bit studios is publishing games from external developers, such as last year’s first-person adventure game The Invincible and this month’s isometric RPG The Thaumaturge

“We want to release three or four games a year from publishing and internal development,” Marszał continues. “We are not there yet, but we would like to, in like two or three steps, do a triple-A meaningful game.” 

Much as the glowing trails winding their way through the streets of the city in Frostpunk 2 are a symbol of more than the workers that form them, this game represents more to 11 bit studios than a continuation of a popular series. “It’s crucial to deliver this strategy that we started years ago,” Marszał says, “[to] prove that we are able to do games simultaneously, prove that we are able to sustain around 300 people, prove we can deliver awesome things that the management board isn't working on.”
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Yet, when describing the themes for Frostpunk 2, Juszczyk says, “Whenever there's ambition, whenever there is the opportunity to go forward, whenever people are starting to make plans, it triggers their inner demons, their lust, and greed,” but he went on to add it also triggers “their good emotions, [their wish to] make prosperity and shape society so we can live better than they did.”

One lesson Frostpunk 2 may teach us is that ambition itself isn’t bad, but the growth it aspires to is only good when it’s hard-fought.