Dear Esther- Two Years In... (Part Two)

Dear Esther original mod

In 2007, The Chinese Room, or thechineseroom as it was back then, was just a name. We needed a name to try and release this stuff onto Moddb under. We spent months kicking around potential names and TCR eventually came out of a joke about John Searle's critique of AI – that you could create a system that gave the impression of intelligence without any actual internal smarts.

We felt a bit like that at the time, stumbling around with a bunch of ideas, trying to make something to put them into practice, but keenly aware of our lack of skills and know-how in terms of the reality of making games. What there was, that has stayed with us over the last few years was a couple of key ideas that we think have defined what we've done since. Things like this: gamers are smart, and you shouldn't talk down to them. They can take big ideas and complex stories, and they are hungry for interesting, new experiences. Okay, so the last couple of years has shown rather depressingly that this isn't universally true, but we're not going to kick out the idealism just yet. You can refine this by working on the basis you don't have to make games for everyone, and making something a smaller number of people love is better than making something a larger number of people think is... well, okay.

We think this is one of the key reasons why Dear Esther flew. You could feel the passion in the game, and it didn't make concessions. For every person throwing their toys out of the pram about some weird “is it a game or not?” debate, which I honestly, genuinely, still find utterly baffling, there was a building crowd of fans who took Dear Esther for what it was, a story told with heart and conviction.

The launch of Esther is pretty well documented now. We found ourselves in the amazing position of breaking even on the first night, able to pay back the trust Indie Fund had placed in us. That nearly didn't happen of course; we'd emerged from the University of Portsmouth about eight months earlier because of snags between the University charter and aspects of the liability clauses in distribution contracts, and we had a three week period in the summer of 2011 where we thought it was game over and the remake would never see the light of day. But we got through it, and the game flew. And has continued to fly – we shot past the million units sold mark earlier this year and it was a really, really proud moment for us. We can look now at the raft of walking simulators, to borrow a steam tag, and see something we just made because we believed it was worth making, at the forefront of that sub-genre, and that's very cool.

By the time Esther launched, we already had another couple of projects on the go. We were prototyping an open-world variation on what we called pure-story gaming back then (the description died pretty fast), with a working title of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, and we'd started working on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. At this point, TCR was still just a name really, a really great team coming together, all employed by the University of Portsmouth. There was never a contract between TCR and Frictional Games for Amnesia, it was between them and the University. I worked for the University, Jess was freelance and everyone else got employed by them, which was strange and became increasingly difficult as the project went on. By this point, we kind of existed as far as the outside world could see (actually the company was constituted in 2011 when the IP of Dear Esther was released by the University and needed a legal home), but there was no internal structure – I managed the projects and am, ahem, not the greatest manager ever born – and it could have gone more smoothly in terms of scheduling and finance. We got through it, but learned a really important lesson about the internal structure of what we wanted to do and how that would impact the games we were making.

Pigs was a difficult and often painful development for us and, I suspect, for Frictional as well. The game was inherently caught between two partially contradictory fan-bases, and we made some errors of PR early on as we were swept up in the excitement of early design, which had a legacy of making the game sit uneasily between those two camps. That was naivety and you learn. Where we ultimately got Pigs wrong was that most of those issues we kind of knew to some extent way before we handed the game over to Frictional in January 2013. We had instincts, but we were a young studio and insecure about our judgement and we didn't listen to them, and in every place where the game falls short, we can look at that and say “we didn't trust our instinct”. That's a hell of a lesson to learn. I still think the game does a lot of really interesting things, and on balance, it was pretty good. Not the best game we'll ever make, but still pretty good.

What Pigs also did, perhaps more than anything else, was teach us how to be a studio, and see where we needed to invest some time, work and energy to make that happen. As we came out of the University, we wanted to invest heavily in not just the types of games we wanted to make, but the way we wanted to make them. We wanted to be a studio that employed people we really liked, treated them really well, and had fun making games. We figured if that wasn't happening, there was little point in doing it. We had an unofficial tag-line for ourselves- make money to make games, not the other way around. Get stable, get secure, look after your people. Hire brilliant, lovely folk and have fun making great games together. In a lot of ways, TCR was and still is about a lifestyle – reasonable working hours and conditions, getting home to see your family at night, no crunch, no weekends, no shit rolling downhill out of a remote managerial discussion. We wanted as flat a structure as possible, a team who felt they had ownership over the games they made, a chance for everyone to be part of the process of development.

When we finished Pigs, the team jumped over to Rapture. We'd suspended development on that whilst we were negotiating with Sony and getting Pigs ready to hand over to Frictional, so it was time to pick it back up again. We were also short of people. Rapture upped the ambition a bit, and we needed more code and art support, and we knew from Pigs that what we really needed above anything else was a top notch studio manager to hold the whole thing together. In many ways, Esther was the first TCR game, Pigs was our first game as a proper development team, and Rapture is our first game as a studio.

Basically, two years on from launch of our first game, we have literally laughed, cried and hurled and we feel like we're in a truly exciting position. Getting to do what you love every day is a privilege and we never take that for granted. Onwards and upwards.