Dear Esther: TheChineseRoom Talks Indie, AAA, Music, Source, Crowd-Funding

Tom Hopkins

We chat to Dear Esther's creative team - lecturer and developer Dan Pinchbeck, artist and AAA dev Rob Briscoe and composer Jessica Curry - about the atmospheric first-person indie game.

Published on Feb 14, 2012

The Academic

It's been a long - presumably challenging - slog to bring Dear Esther to market since it first launched as a Half-Life mod - how does it feel now your experimental game is getting a commercial launch?
Dan Pinchbeck: Really amazing - if you'd have asked me when we first released the mod we'd be here, I wouldn't have believed you. I think the work that Rob and Jess have done is of such an exceptional quality though, it really deserves to be pushed as a full commercial game. What we have now is a game with a production quality on the level of most AAA titles, but it still has this really innovative core, and I think that's really important in terms of indie gaming.

The fact that gamers are ready to take on something like Esther says a great deal about games in general, it shows up all the talk about games being derivative and needing to evolve as rubbish - if that really needed doing. And it's been a long couple of years, including patches where we really didn't think the project would ever get finished. We've got Indie Fund to thank for that, they really saved us. Also, throughout, we've had great fans, who have really kept us going. Dear Esther would never have got anywhere if it weren’t for the mod community, who really got behind it as a project. So I like to think that going to commercial release kind of pays back all the faith so many people have placed in the game, and that's a nice feeling.

Was there a level of polish that you aspired to update the mod to? Did you have ideas leftover from the mod that have now been implemented?

DP:  We were really learning Source when we made the mod, and I don't think I'd really got my head around the idea that we could push up to the kind of level Rob has managed. I always thought the music and voice-overs were of that quality, so it's hugely rewarding to see just how amazing Rob has made the world. He's said, and he's spot on, that what has happened to the game now is that the world has come up to the level of storytelling that was in the mod, which is lovely to hear.

It's a much more deep and rewarding experience now, you have a far greater sense of place and being there in the world, which I think changes the experience in quite a profound way. And that's something that speaks to other AAA games - that it's not just about looking good, but how you sculpt a reality. So having that in place now I think fills a gap for me. My inspiration for everything we've worked on has always been other FPS games, so I feel like now we have a game that can stand alongside these, not just an experimental mod - and that closes the circle on the original push behind Esther, whether you can have a game like this and make it work. To answer that, you've got to have something that stands alongside other FPS games, and that's where we are now.

And there are always ideas left over, that's the cool thing about game development - you get inspired as you work on one game, and it generates the seeds for the next one. Remaking Dear Esther has opened up a bunch of ideas that didn't fit within Esther, and they'll carry over to Everybody's Gone to the Rapture.

What were the biggest challenges along the way, and what have you learned for future commercial projects?

DP: The toughest thing was hitting a brick wall with the University and how we got over that. I still work for them full-time, and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is being produced as a partnership between them and thechineseroom. But when we ran aground - due to a bunch of liability issues - which was back last spring, we all really thought that was it, the project was dead, and I was faced with a choice of losing my job or going back to teaching photoshop full-time and not making any more games. That was just a horrible, horrible time- fortunately Indie Fund were there, or we'd basically have been fucked. So I'm a lot more savvy now about those aspects of production - I kind of think now I've made the transition from an academic making games to a professional independent developer, and I was always really reticent about talking about myself in that way before.

You always learn from every project or you sink. I think that's the bottom line, it's not just some hippy notion, but a brutal reality. You have to keep moving and developing, and taking ideas and lessons and threading them into the centre of the next project. So the biggest lesson for me, I think, alongside the practical things about how to get a development made, get distribution sorted, manage finances and liability, find team members, etc, etc, is that it's OK for me to trust my vision, that I seem to have ideas for games that people want.

And that having a great team, who are involved right at the core of the creative process, and who share your visions and ideas... that's just invaluable. Dear Esther is stunning, for me, because of Rob and Jessica and what they've brought to the project. The team we have working on Rapture and gameB are brilliant, lovely to work with, and full of fantastic ideas. And Rob and Jess set a very high bar, hard acts to follow, and because of them, I've had high expectations of myself and the team. And if you set your expectations high, you can hit them. That's probably the single most important lesson you can learn. It's worth going for it, no holds.

How did you go about settling on the tricky subject of a price point? How will each play-through vary?

DP: We talked to a lot of people, took a lot of advice. We always knew we wanted to keep it under $10 [it’ll cost £6.99 in the UK], and it was a case of balancing what return we needed to make, kind of figuring what we'd need to sell in order to pay back the investors and get a decent salary return for us for the years we'd spent unpaid working on it - against wanting to charge what we thought was an appropriate amount. So the full game probably lasts around 90 minutes to 2 hours - which is the same as a movie, and we're charging about the same price as a cinema ticket. That seems fair to me, especially given it's taken three odd years to make and has such exceptional production to it.

We added a whole new set of voice-overs to the game now, so at most points where you get story delivered, you’ll be hearing one of four possible things. And these different versions completely change the story, whole new interpretations come out of it depending on what you get. Some of these are also held back for the second play-through, so you have to return to the island to get some variations which change things quite a bit. We've really tried to think about delivering an experience you can go back to for the remake. There's also randomised visual details and objects in the environment, so it functions like the voice-overs now - you have to explore and really look at the details, and these change from play to play.

What are your hopes for Dear Esther and how's the next ChineseRoom project coming along? Can we expect a similar level of polish to Dear Esther?

DP: Well, obviously, I hope it does really well. It's funny, for all the aspirations about it I've had, it's reduced down to two things really. One, we want players to have a great experience and get loads out of it; and two, we want to sell enough units to keep the studio developing - I've got a great team working on gameB and Rapture and I want to keep them employed once those projects come down. We're hoping to get both Rapture and gameB out towards the end of the year, then I want to dive straight into a new project - something bigger. There's a few options for that one. So hopefully we'll either do a Mojang and make fifty gazillion dollars and be able to pay for basically whatever we like, or we'll do well enough to be able to bolt together a prototype and attract the investment we need to get it made. But yeah, Esther sets the bar for production quality now, I don't think I'd be happy making a game that wasn't coming in with that level of fidelity and finish.

The two projects are doing well - we're just into our third month of gameB and have just had the prototype cleared, so it's full on there for another few months. It's looking great, got a brilliant team on that. And Rapture is now just over a month old, we've got a prototype openworld in place and we're getting the very complicated dynamic audio backbone in place over the next week or two, so we can start driving in the art and other assets. So it's all go, it's very exciting time for us!

Double Fine recently saw a lot of success crowd-sourcing funds for it’s next game – is that something you’d consider? Would you welcome UKIE plans to make that possible in the UK?

DP: I think like most developers, I'm really pleased to see how amazingly this has worked - and like most gamers, anything that keeps Schafer and his team making games has to be celebrated! It's been extraordinary watching it take off, and it's one of the first cases where it seems to show that Kickstarter can raise significant amounts of money. And it's a very cool model too - people want the game, they pay to have it made. It's a great way of a developer and a fanbase working directly together, and that's good for everyone.

It's not a catch-all model of course-  it's only happened because you've got a developer with a massive fanbase and a track record of making really great games, but it does suggest that even in the early stages of development - say, going to prototype, you could work with fans to get a project off the ground, and for lower budget games, even see if right the way through to completion. So if that extends to the UK, that can only be a good thing. The more avenues for generating a project budget, the more ways a studio can keep staff employed... that's got to be good.

Would we try it? I don't know. Sure, but I'd want to be sure we stood a chance. In this model, it's all about reputation and numbers. If I knew we had a dedicated, large enough fanbase, I'd definitely consider it. It's a really honest relationship with them - essentially, they are paying for the game upfront, and if that's a game they would be paying for anyway, it seems like a great way to go. If the next couple of releases go well, and I feel like we've carved out enough trust with players that they'd go for, I'd certainly consider it.

The AAA developer

Having worked on Mirror's Edge - what were the main differences between your experiences at DICE and working as part of a small Indie team?

Rob Briscoe: Hmm I’d say the pros are that you have complete creative freedom and control over your own work and also the hours you work (although the hours can sometimes be longer – but then you can give yourself a day off whenever you feel like it!) There’s also the fact that you’re working within a tight knit group of people who share the same vision of the project, which makes production much smoother and efficient and communication is better too since you’re all in direct contact with each other, rather than having to go through development managers, etc.

As for the cons, when working remotely like I’ve been doing these past three years, I’ve found that it can be quite an isolated experience. It took me quite some time adapt to working long hours alone, and it can be easy to lose focus on how good or bad your work might be when you’ve been working on something for so long without any kind of feedback. I’d actually say this project had been the most taxing to date, both mentally and physically, but overall the I think the rewards greatly outweigh the negatives because, for me at least, at the end of the project I can sit back and say “I did that, that’s mine” and having ownership over my work is a big deal for me.
What were the key challenges in overhauling an existing mod? How did you set about evolving DE?
RB: So with the original Mod you had this abstract but fantastically engaging narrative that not only gives glimpses into the story behind the protagonist presence on the island, but more importantly it also gives an insight into some of the history behind the island itself, its past inhabitants and the various tragedy’s and misfortunes that plagued them throughout that history. For me this was one of the most fascinating parts of the story. In my mind, these small snippets of information really helped me piece together the universe in which the game takes place, and totally immerse myself in this story of a seemingly cursed island.

The problem that I saw with the original mod was that there was barely any evidence of this history or even the protagonist’s presence portrayed through the environment or visuals. As a result of this, I found myself very disconnected from the environment in comparison to the story, which was being beautifully conveyed through the narrative and music. So this was something that I really wanted to improve and build upon in the remake, I wanted the environment to become more than just a backdrop to the game, and more like an immersion tank to draw the player in and be an integral part of the storytelling process.

The biggest challenge was keeping the atmosphere authentic to the original – There is this desolate loneliness in the mod version which I think was really important to the game, and it was a real challenge to balance this with the sheer detail amount of detail added into the remake. I was really conscious of that in the early stages of the rebuild and would often go back and revise areas after re-playing the original just because they didn’t capture the same ‘feel’ the same as the mod did. I did grow more confident as the project progressed and as I grew to really understand the concept of Dear Esther and it’s many subtle nuances. As a result I was able to make more drastic changes and additions to areas later in the game such as the caves, and the final level.
Dear Esther looks beautiful - how did you go about squeezing the best out of the Source Engine? Is it as over-the-hill as some have suggested?
RB: Source is definitely looking a bit creaky these days, at least as far as its toolset goes in comparison to the competition, but I can’t really blame Valve too much though - Source was never designed with big open environments in mind. It just does what Valve want it to do and does it very well at that. It’s an extremely sturdy engine after all of these years, and as a result we haven’t really had to tackle many big bugs when testing the final build of DE. I think part of me also revels in the challenge of doing something extraordinary within a limited set of parameters.

When someone says “It can’t be done” I just take it as a challenge, and it certainly has been a hell of a challenge to get the quality of visuals you see in Dear Esther to the level they’re at now! Without going into technical details here (as I could fill a few encyclopedias before I'm done) most of the work behind Dear Esther’s art was just purely using the resources available at hand in the most effective way possible; There’s not a lot of fancy shaders or tech going on in Dear Esther, most of it is just good old fashioned art hacks. I do have to give credit to Jack, our coder, though as he’s done some amazing things with the foliage in the game which has really bought the environments to life!
Given your level of input and creativity on Dear Esther how do you feel about going back to work as a cog in a ‘AAA’ machine? Any future plans?
RB: As mentioned earlier there are certain benefits and pitfalls to working in both areas, and I'm still weighing in my options at the moment. I have some really good offers on the table if I was ever to go back to work in for a big studio, which has been tempting financially, since I’ve been living in practical poverty the past two years. But then after having so much freedom and control after all this time I'm not sure how I’d cope with going back to being just a small part of the machine again. At the end of the day it all depends on how well Dear Esther sells and what options that opens up for me; I’d love to start up my own indie studio some day and work on some ideas I have. For now though, I’d just settle for a few weeks in the Maldives!

The Composer

How did you approach the soundtrack to DE? Is the score the same as before, or will we hear newly created pieces?
Jessica Curry: Dear Esther was the first game that I’d written music for, so I didn’t entirely know what I was doing! I trained in Screen Music at the National Film School, so I decided to approach it in the same way as if it were a film score. I think that this linear (rather than the more traditional repeated loop approach) works in the score’s favour, as it provides a really strong narrative and an emotional core. I always tell stories in my music and Dear Esther is the most beautiful story to interpret.

There aren’t any newly created pieces as such, but there are new versions of existing tracks and the re-orchestration gives voice to what I couldn’t afford to do the first time round.  The reaction to the original score was so strong- I’ve never had fan mail before but a huge amount of people have contacted me saying how much the music means to them.  We made a very conscious decision not to change the music, as we wanted to stay true to all those people who loved the original.

Music is often a background device in games, but in Dear Esther’s explorative world it’s almost a character itself - what themes does the score explore?
JC: I’m so glad that you’ve said that - I feel that about the music too. I wanted to give a voice to the game’s themes of loss, love and grief. I’m a hopeless romantic so this was a dream project for me.  Scores are like children - you shouldn’t have your favourites but secretly you do, and I still love the music that I wrote for the game.

What's the secret to creating atmospheric and ambient music for a world with so many audio triggers? Any Easter Eggs in there?
JC: It was a lot of hard work but Rob and Dan were always so helpful and patient. Rob had a lot of input in the placing of the music and the three of us worked together from the start to make it work. I think it would have been much more laborious if we weren’t such a close team.

There is a little secret in This Godforsaken Aerial (formally The Code) and no one has guessed what it is yet. I got an email yesterday from a fan yesterday and he was the first person that I’ve told so it will be interesting to see if that gets out!

Other than your original work on Dear Esther, did you have any inspirations?

JC: Dan’s story, the actor’s voice and later Rob’s amazing visuals provided a huge amount of inspiration. I always knew how I wanted Dear Esther to sound, but we didn’t have the budget to achieve that.  I nearly wept with joy when I got the opportunity to re-create the soundtrack with a bigger budget.  I got to work with world-class musicians and to record at Pinewood studios. My inspiration was having the chance to make the soundtrack I’d always wanted to create.

Dear Esther is available on Steam now. Click the link to read our Dear Esther review.



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