Feature: Ahead of Robert Briscoe’s keynote talk at ExPlay 2012, we chat with him about what the future holds, the success of Dear Esther, and how indie developers now have more opportunity to create than ever before.
Dear Esther was the kind of game that doesn’t come along often enough. It divided audiences, and while everyone seemed to agree its ability to tell a story through its environment was incredible, some couldn’t get past the fact it contained no traditional gameplay to speak of. You walked through the highlands, exploring and learning, letting the environmental cues and narration wash over you like waves against its island shores. You didn’t jump, you didn’t pull levers, and you certainly didn’t shoot: you simply walked and experienced.
The game began life as a Half-Life 2 mod, building a solid fanbase among the modding community. But when developer thechineseroom announced the decision to remake it as a full game, with a retail price, fans reacted negatively, believing that creator Dan Pinchbeck and environmental artist Robert Briscoe – the man responsible for so expertly crafting and interweaving Dear Esther’s story into its environment – had simply been taking advantage of their tight-knit community to market and promote a full release they planned to make all along.
Play it again, Esther
That wasn’t the case, though, and all Briscoe ever wanted was more people playing the game they’d worked so hard on. “It’s quite interesting to go back over it retrospectively, and just think about how I thought about it before release,” Briscoe says. “And I remember thinking that it’d be nice if we just sold enough so it would feel worth all the effort. It would just be nice if we got people playing it. The expectation was just that it would be good if some people actually played it.”
That expectation was exceeded: Dear Esther sold 16,000 copies on its first day of release, recouping development costs and turning profit after a mere six hours. It went on to sell many more, with 75,000 copies being sold during a single 24-hour period of the Steam Sale. If they hadn’t removed the barrier to entry that comes from being a mod, its audience would likely have remained much smaller.
“It was just a case that we both felt it was kind of a shame that the game has to be confined to this requirement of having Half-Life 2 installed, then the fiddly process of having to install the mod,” Briscoe explains. “So really the goal was just to kind of get it out to a larger audience, and to see people playing it, and if it made any money it was a bonus, and we were just thinking it was going to be a bit of a niche title, and that was it. It’s been amazing that it’s been as popular as it has, and it’s been fantastic to see that. The whole financial side of things has just been a really nice bonus, really.”
Going from mod to full game is something we’ve seen on more than one occasion. It happened with Dear Esther, and Natural Selection 2 was also the spawn of a Half-Life mod. Briscoe himself cites DayZ as an example of how mods allow you to build a community around your game, as well as expanding them into new and interesting territories.
That’s why it disappoints him that more developers aren’t doing more to embrace this approach. “It does really sadden me when I see companies that have once upon a time been legendary for their modding support now sort of going in a completely different direction. I think id is one of those studios, especially with Rage, and the disappointment over the lack of modding tools that have come out for that.”