With the original release of Dear Esther pushing forward the boundaries of game design and storytelling in 2012, it was only a matter of time before gaming audiences would come to see the need for a current gen HD remake in the form of Dear Esther: Landmark Edition.
Keeping the essence of what made the original game so great, Landmark Edition is mostly the same game, but has been rebuilt in the Unity 5 engine with reworked textures and lighting. Add to this, the new game features remastered audio as well as an audio commentary from its makers. In light of this, I spoke to Dan Pinchbeck (Writer and Designer, The Chinese Room) and got to ask him as to how he’s adapted to the success of his studio since the game’s original 2012 release, and what sort of enhancements gamers can expect from Dear Esther‘s HD remake. Enjoy!
How old are you and what’s your background in games development?
43. I’ve been playing games for like 35 years. I think I first played an Atari 2600, told my parents and everybody in my family to chip-in together for birthday and Christmas to get a ZX80 Spectrum, which was the first time I ever made games. Actually, when we made Dear Esther, I was teaching at a university and I was doing a Ph.D. in first-person shooters and the relationship between story and gameplay. And there’s a lot of discussion in the game theory community about whether games could be stories, whether you could have games with no story, whether you could have games with no gameplay. And a lot of people were saying, “Story is utterly dispensable. We don’t need story. And story really is not what it’s about.” So it just came from an initial question of going, “Well, what happens if we actually take a game, and we remove everything apart from the story? Is that still going to be something that people are going to want to play?” And my hunch was it would be because of games like Soul Reaver: Legacy of Kain, some of the early Doom mods, like there was a Doom mod called Aliens TC by a guy called Justin Fisher back in the early ‘90s… System Shock. All of these had these big patches of game where virtually nothing happened. And they’re incredibly atmospheric and incredibly emotional.
So really, with Dear Esther what we wanted to do is say, “Well, what if we just have that? What if we just have a space you can explore? It’s all about the atmosphere. It’s all about the mood. Is that going to work?” So we made this very simple little mod. Put it out on Mod DB as a Half Life 2 mod, and people loved it. Really, the mod community really championed it. And tens of thousands of people were downloading it. And it was doing really, really well.
And then we got contacted by an artist called Robert Briscoe. So at that point, it was just me and Jessica Curry, who is co-studio-head at The Chinese Room and the composer on the project. And he had just finished working on Mirror’s Edge. He said, “Look I’m looking for a downtime project. I’d like to essentially re-skin this mod.” And he started work on it, and his work was absolutely beautiful. And Jess then started saying, “You know what? I would like to re-record the music, and rather than using digital samples, get live musicians because I think that’ll give an incredible lift as well.” And we realised the only way we could afford to do all of this stuff was if we maybe sold it at the end of it. Not because we thought we’d be making any money, or that we’d sell many units, but just because we hoped to make enough money back that we’d be able to borrow enough money to license the Source engine and pay musicians.
So we spent a couple of years doing this. And it went on sale in 2012. And really, we were expecting to sell a few thousand units. Our target was 20,000 units. We thought if it sells 20,000 units, we can pay back the money we’ve borrowed and we can put a couple of thousand pounds to Jess, a couple of thousand pounds to Rob, which isn’t a lot for two years’ work but it was something. And it sold 60,000 units in the first week, and it’s now at somewhere in the region of 830,000-840,000 units. Within six months, it had done like 120,000 plus.
This was on Steam, right?
On Steam, which for 2012 was vast.
Does that mean you’re minted now?
I wish we were… no. Well, so we had a deal with Rob where we split all the money. So actually, it was kind of a collaboration. The studio didn’t get all the money anyway. What it did do is put us in a position as a studio where we weren’t living hand to mouth. So we’re not minted, but we’re safe and secure. And that is a really good position, and quite an unusual position for us. And then in terms of the games we’ve made, we’ve been able to grow to a size that we’re happy with. We’ve been able to follow games that we wanted to make rather than trying to chase commissions. And it means that we are around 12 to 14 months away from trouble if no money comes in, which is enough time to make a game all by ourselves. That means that at the moment, we’ve got one project where we’re working with a publisher. And we’ve got a smaller team working on a self-funded project. So we’re able to do those things, and that is like, “Thank you, Esther.” We always kind of say that. That’s the result of that doing well. There was no expectation that it was going to be a big game, or it was going to be an important game, or certainly not that it was going to be a financially successful game. And certainly, we didn’t think we’d be in a situation where five years down the line, it’d be getting a kind of special edition console port, and it was going to be referenced by a load of other developers. It’s something that had an influence on their work. I think we kind of just had an idea for this interesting little thing, and we wanted to make it. So we made the best version that we could put out there. And I think between a combination of the quality of Rob and Jess and Nigel Carrington, the voice actor’s work, which I think is all three of them just produced world-class work on it. And a little bit of being in the right place at the right time. We find ourselves in this slightly strange position that suddenly, we’re a games company. And I think at that point, this sort of became the question of, “Right, okay… What do you do now, and what’s next?”
We’ve had a pretty lucky run of it in terms of, we’ve made three games, all of which we love, all of which that we believed and we made what we wanted to make. And we’re now in a position where we’re making a fourth and fifth. But we’ve bypassed a lot of the… It’s always hard. There’s always a lot of grunt work and you have to push at things. But so many companies start in the work-for-hire model where they’re desperately trying to get enough resources together, or to work on their own projects on the side, hoping that at some point they’ll make the game that they really, really want to make. And that’ll kind of break them out of the sort of treadmill of making just whatever you need to make to make ends meet. And I never take it for granted at all that we were spared going through that process because the first game we made was so successful.
Jess always says that our early history was desperately un-strategic. But it’s funny, looking back on it now actually… I think the fact that we didn’t go into it – we went into it quite naively in terms of what we should do and what sort of games we should make – actually has meant that we’ve had a kind of career as a company that is being possibly more successful, but certainly as being very rewarding because we’ve always just made the stuff we wanted to make.
Why do you think Dear Esther was successful in 2012, and do you think the game would be as successful now if it was to come out today? I mean I know that the Landmark Edition is obviously coming out on PS4…
Yeah. No, it was the first one of its time. Now thinking back then, I think there were quite a few studios and developers thinking similar things. And I think there were lines of convergence towards a game like Dear Esther. You had from a sort of like… They were sort of like art-house developers like Tale of Tales. But also, things were starting to move. When Dear Esther came out, it was pretty close to Uncharted 2 with the Tibetan village sequence, people like Richard Lemarchand thinking about it in those ways. You had kind of a general mood that survival horror had drifted too close to action, and people wanted to get back to stuff that was emptier. You had Amnesia 2: The Dark Descent right around the corner that Frictional Games had been working on after the Penumbra games that had been really successful.
So there are a lot of people thinking about atmosphere and space and time and that idea of a vacuum that the player could fill with their own thoughts and feelings. And we sort of parachuted fairly squarely into the centre of that bull’s-eye with Dear Esther.
Now I don’t know how much influence we had with the mod that came out five years before then. And I wouldn’t like to say. But I know that some of those people that were then making those games had played the mod. So it might have had some influence. And of course we were part of a trajectory of design. I mean, we were drawing from ideas that go back to the early ‘90s. And we were only standing on the shoulders of some pretty illustrious giants when we had the ideas we did have.
I think someone would’ve made it if we hadn’t. I think we were lucky that we kind of got there first and we did it well. John Carmack says the same about Doom. He just says, “Someone would’ve made Doom.” It’s just id made it. But id made it really well. And I think… again, Rob and Jess and Nigel’s work is so good that it meant that Dear Esther did it really well. And if it’s a statement or if it’s something that had been done badly at that point, I don’t know whether it would’ve continued to have that sort of influence.
It’s obviously been a successful sub-genre in terms of the other games which have come out. Things like Firewatch, Gone Home, and Ethan Carter…
I’ve played none of those games…
I see… I think Ethan Carter in particular is really, really good. I’m a terrible tourist. I mainly play first-person shooters. I think what’s interesting is what’s happening now, and what’s been happening over the last sort of like 12 to 18 months is a lot of those games have started splicing in more traditional mechanics. So actually, the kind of pure walking simulator is edging back towards first-person adventure. I think there won’t be much in the way of pure walking sims in a couple of years. So with Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, we went open-world. Firewatch has got branching dialogue in it. Ethan Carter has got classic puzzles. You’ve got Soma which has got shades. It’s got ideas that come from a walking simulator, but it’s basically a first-person horror game. And it feels like the idea is a group of people over a few years shone a light on the need for space and emptiness and the power of space and emptiness in game design. And we’re now seeing more space and emptiness integrated into game design generally. How much of that is an influence and how much of that is just riffing on the zeitgeist, I don’t know. It’s interesting seeing Dear Esther now, because it’s so stripped back. It’s so minimalistic that actually, since this movement that we’ve been on, as well as the studio, away from a very, very pure kind of very aesthetic, there’s nothing. There really is nothing there on a mechanical level in this game. But it still seems to be speaking to people. It still seems to be something that has very, very loyal fan base. We get contacted by a lot of young developers that have found it really influential, which is a lovely position to be in. So yeah, I’m not sure… I don’t think we could’ve gotten to 2016 without someone making Dear Esther, and I think someone was going to make it around 2012/2013.
Landmark Edition is coming out on consoles. What do you think have been the major advancements, or enhancements, between the standard Dear Esther game which came out in 2012, and Landmark Edition coming out four years later? How have current consoles benefited from today’s version of Dear Esther?
The Landmark Edition… we kind of look it as being like a loving recreation of the 2012 one. So there’s been a new audio pass on it which was tightened up and really polished up the audio. But apart from that, it is the same game as the 2012 version.
No. The reason why we started working on it was because we were concerned that as the Source engine depreciated, that the game would become obsolete for the fan base. So it started off as porting from Source to Unity, to keep the game alive… not to make any money, but just to make sure that the existing fans could continue to play it. And then as we started putting it on Unity, we sort of went, “Look, we’ve just released Rapture on PS4. It’s done really well. We’ve got a new group of fans over there. So given that we’re now working towards porting to an engine which will support console, it kind of feels appropriate to do that,” which is when we got in touch with Curve Digital and started working with them. And they picked up the PC port where it was and then turned it into the console ones as well.
So it essentially is the same game. There’s a Director’s Commentary on it, which is a new thing that is going on the Landmark Edition, which is a new feature for the consoles. And then when we release the new PC version next year, that will go in there as well, which was the first time that Jess and Rob and I had been in the same place and been in the same room for about four and a half years. So it’s really interesting coming back and doing that.
I assume you work remotely?
It was a collaboration on Dear Esther, and we were never in the same place. As a company, we were fully remote during the development of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. And it’s only in the beginning of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture that we’ve had a physical office. Our lead designer and lead programmer are both still remote. But the rest of us, the other 13 of us are all together in an office for the first time. It’s interesting. It’s definitely more expensive. But it’s nice having everyone together in the same place at the same time. Because we’re a small team, we’re quite flat and open structured. And we talk a lot. So it’s really good to be somewhere where we can throw ideas around really, really quickly.
The original Dear Esther was the product of a small team, so you therefore didn’t have to butt heads against people who’ve got massive egos. But going forward, especially with the kind of success that you’ve already had, what ramifications do you think your previous success will have on your studio – especially with the increased head count where you’ve now got to cater for more mainstream concerns?
Yeah, I mean we have to be smart now because we’re more expensive. But we’ve been successful by not feeling like we have to either follow the market or do things in a way that we think is going to be the right financial decision. We’ve been successful by saying, “We made the games that we want to make, and we made them with heart and soul.” And I think you can really see that in the best work. You can feel that passion from the developers in there. Short of bad things happening, that’s the best possible way you have of being sustainable, to make the games you want to make and to really, really care about them. We’ve very carefully nurtured and cultivated a culture in the studio where everybody’s voice matters.
I’ve always had a huge problem with the idea of “auteurs” or “the cult of personality” in games. I don’t think it works. I think games are inherently collaborative and holistic. And if you’re not giving everyone the most equal voice you can in development, then you run the risk… The caveat is that you can’t do that with 150 people, but certainly with 15 to 20 people. If people’s voices aren’t being heard, then you’re losing a big chunk of creativity and talent, and the specialisms that you’ve got there. Not only the specialisms in terms of work, but peoples’ interests outside that.. the types of games they’re playing or the types of media they’re consuming. That all comes in to challenge the vision that you’ve got. And if you’re working towards a vision for a game, it should be able to take on board or deflect or fight its corner against any challenge that’s thrown at it from any angle. And that’s when you know you’re making something really, really good. So the easiest way for me of doing that is if you sit at the top and you say, “My way is right and no one is allowed to argue with me,” you’re never going to know whether your vision is good or not. But if it’s out there and everyone can go for it, and everyone can work with it and run with it, not only do people then get really, really invested and they start bringing their own brilliant ideas to it, but it also means that you’re far less likely to make stupid decisions and get caught out doing it. So that studio culture is a really, really important part of it I think.
Again, with the caveat that things don’t always go according to plan, and particularly in this country, there are some amazing studios that have gone under in the last couple of years through absolutely no fault of their own or how they work. I think believing in what you do and trying to make things that you think are the best possible games you can make is the sure-fire way of being in business as long as possible.
When you first started out with the Dear Esther mod, you yourself said that you didn’t necessarily go about doing things the “industry way”. How have you grown personally and professionally since then, especially to the extent that you’re now heading up a 15-man team?
Yeah, I mean we’ve learned. We’ve learned how to be a game studio. And certainly, there were things which… I think less for Esther because it was so small. Certainly during A Machine for Pigs, there were things which I look back and I cringe about in terms of how we built it, because we didn’t really know any better. We didn’t have anything in the way of kind of like scoping or scheduling software. We didn’t really understand production at all. We’ve got an amazing Producer now who keeps us really, really honest.
Sometimes you have to make mistakes to sort of learn best. And what you’re trying to do in the early stages of being a business is make them in a way which doesn’t basically destroy anything. But really just listening to specialists… I find that the games industry, for all its problems, has the nicest people working in it of any industry I’ve worked in. People are unbelievably generous with their expertise, and they really want to help each other. So that’s a really important part. Something that you learn quite quickly is to not be proud, and to learn from people who’ve made the same mistakes that you might be making.
There’s a “business side of things” about learning what it means to employ people, like the things you have to do. I think the sheer fact of employing someone changes the way that you approach what you do as well. Jess and I say that if we screw up the company, we screw up the company. And it’s our decision, and it’s our company. And we do it, and that’s on us. But if we screw up our company now, 13 people lose their jobs through no fault of their own. And that’s the responsibility that you have as a boss. And when you take on staff, it’s a bit like being a parent when that responsibility is there. It changes the way you approach things. You still want to take risks, but you want to take smart risks, and certainly consider your actions. And again, that comes down to having been surrounded by people that you trust and you respect, who know that you are someone that is open to be challenged on stuff if they think you’re wrong. And that’s a smarter way of doing business, and it’s also a far more ethical way of doing business as well.
Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is coming out on the PS4 and the Xbox One. Sony recently however announced the PS4 Pro, and Microsoft’s Scorpio is coming out next year. What sort of ramifications are these forthcoming consoles going to have on your studio?
Nothing immediately because we’re not directly working on consoles for the next project.
No [laughs]. It’s unannounced at the moment, which kind of narrows it down away from those.
On mobile phone?
Possibly… We’re also working on a self-funded title, which is probably 18-24 months away, which we hope will be cross-platform on PC and console. So by the time we get to it, the market will have settled down, and we’ll know a bit more about what’s going on with those.
Probably the only real question that most small developers have about those mid-generation consoles is, “Am I going to have to do more work to get this to market? Is this going to hurt me in terms of am I now developing for two consoles and not one?” And certainly, when we were coming to the end of Rapture, there was the initial kind of knowledge that something was floating around out there amongst Sony. And there were rumours around Microsoft as well. And really, that was the kind of question which most people were asking was, “Does this mean I’m developing for two PS4’s now?” And the message that was coming back from Sony, and I think Microsoft as well, was “No, you’re still building for one console. There are just two versions of it. But be aware that there’s one which is this powerful one, and one which is that powerful. And you’ve got to know which one you’re working for.”
So it’s always about, “What do we know about the platform? How easy it is to get onto that platform? Are there any unknown risks that might come up and bite us on it?” So it’s not going to affect us because we’re not directly in that market for the time being. But we’ll keep a very, very close eye on it.
I think we were lucky. We came to PlayStation for PS4, and not PS3. And everyone I know who’s developed for both said PS4 is a walk in the park compared to PS3, which was really, really tough. Hopefully, enough is known about what they’re doing with the uplifts that it’s not going to be a case with both the Pro or the Scorpio that developers go, “What? I have to learn a whole new language to effectively bring a product onto this?” And if that’s the case, I suspect what will happen is that it’ll probably only happen once because fundamentally, consoles are about the content that’s available on the actual hardware itself. With the greatest of respect to the hardware developers, consoles are nothing without the games. So if you’re not making them a space where good developers can make good content on them, they’re probably not going to last very long.
When Dear Esther came out in 2012, it was obviously a landmark success for your studio. With the gaming landscape having changed quite considerably since then, not only in terms of the quality but also in terms of the quantity of content, what are you doing to ensure that when Dear Esther: Landmark Edition comes out for consoles, that it will be met with equivalent success?
I’ve got great faith in Curve Digital. For starters, they know what they’re doing in terms of publishing games. They have far more knowledge than we have as a developer, which is one of the reasons why we’re working with them.
Dear Esther arrives on console with five years of establishing itself as an important game. It’s got an incredibly loyal fan base who are really, really excited about this. They may have played on PC, but not played again for years. They will be looking forward to getting the game on console. It’s got a whole new audience. People who bought Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture on PlayStation 4 can now see the game that started that journey. So Dear Esther‘s in a nice place because it’s a game that’s been around for a while. It comes with some of those questions already answered. We’re not having to prove a new title that no one has ever heard of. So I’m very, very optimistic. I think for us, it’s really exciting because we know that this game speaks to people and it’s an opportunity to speak to a new group of people. So we’re kind of going into it with high hopes that it’s something that people are going to really enjoy.
Is Landmark Edition getting a physical release?
We would like it to. There’s nothing in the works at the moment. Hopefully… It’s always complicated. So discussions are happening but nothing is set.
Jessica Curry is renowned for the soundtrack work that she did for Dear Esther. Will the game’s soundtrack be getting a physical release?
Again, we are hoping and we are in talks about that. There was a limited edition vinyl release of her soundtrack for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – which was the BAFTA winning score. And that sold out in days. So there’s definitely an audience for it. So she’s talking to a few different people about how to make that happen. But we’re really hoping there’ll be a vinyl release and potentially a CD release next year.