Like many individuals who undertake artistic endeavors, Dan Pinchbeck found that his desire to create and spread his art and ideas led him down a path he never could have predicted.
Conceived as a research project by Pinchbeck and a team at the University of Portsmouth, his experimental game Dear Esther is a Source engine mod released in 2007, with the most recent version of the mod arriving in 2009, the same year it won the best world/story award at the IndieCade festival.
But that didn't mark the end of Pinchbeck's journey with Dear Esther. Indie Fund - a collective that funds unique indie games - is betting that gamers are ready for subtler, more powerful, more meaningful experiences. Now the group has told Gamasutra that it selected Dear Esther as its fourth game in its increasingly compelling stable of funded titles.
What Indie Fund will do is help Pinchbeck and his small team finish bringing Dear Esther from an academic experimental Half-Life 2 Source mod to a full commercial release that utilizes the Portal 2 version of Valve Software's engine.
While Pinchbeck is the key creative force behind Dear Esther, it was Robert Briscoe who envisioned a more beautiful version of the game. Briscoe was an environmental artist on EA DICE's Mirror's Edge, and, impressed with Pinchbeck's ideas and work on Dear Esther, committed himself to using his expertise to update the mod to triple-A production values.
Dear Esther approaches storytelling and other concepts in a way that's different from most commercial releases (Briscoe has said he prefers the term "independent" release). Told from a first-person perspective, Dear Esther is a haunting tale that ties the player's actions to audible notes written by a dying explorer who found himself on a deserted island.
There's no shooting, there's no switch-flipping - rather Dear Esther conveys a pure, natural sense of mystery, curiosity and discovery to the player, partly through a ghostly voice that is constantly tapping players on the shoulder throughout the experience.
But despite the talent behind the project, the completion and eventual release of Pinchbeck and Briscoe's full-on Dear Esther remake soon came into doubt. At the University of Portsmouth, Pinchbeck said that the development team "hit an insurmountable contradiction" between contractual demands of the school, and the demands of a potential Valve distribution agreement.
Art And Commercialism
Academia and art were beginning to collide with commercialism, but the art aspect wasn't about to give way. Valve was impressed with Dear Esther as it was, signing it for distribution on Steam - but the remake of the game still wasn't complete, as the developers needed more funding.
"We suddenly lost our host organization [University of Portsmouth] and our investment and everything else," Pinchbeck told Gamasutra. "[We] found ourselves basically with a 75 percent-finished game and no money and no backers and nowhere to take it to market."
The game's acclaim among mod enthusiasts and gaming press got the attention of Indie Fund, which was founded by indie games luminaries including 2D Boy's Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler, Number None's Jonathan Blow, thatgamecompany's Kellee Santiago, Capy's Nathan Vella, Flashbang's Matthew Wegner and AppAbove Games' Aaron Isaksen - all of whom contributed to the fund's $700,000 pool for indie games. Pinchbeck originally approached Indie Fund to help support another game, but it was Dear Esther's remake that eventually won the investors over.
Carmel, who explained that Braid creator Blow worked closest with Pinchbeck in signing Dear Esther, told Gamasutra he wasn't totally sold on the game when watching videos. But that changed. "As soon as people started playing it, the tone of the conversation just completely shifted, and people were very much in favor of supporting this project," Carmel said.
Indie Fund this year announced its first three funded projects: Andy Schatz' Monaco, Steve Swink and Scott Anderson's Shadow Physics, and Toxic Games' Q.U.B.E. While Indie Fund is looking for unique gems that exemplify the indie spirit, it is not a charity, and the funding partners hope that they don't lose their investments.
Carmel said the time is right to find out just how commercially viable such offbeat titles really are.
Subtlety And Finesse
"Maybe it's my skewed perspective because I run in game design circles, but you can kind of see [offbeat, original games] gaining a lot more traction," said Carmel. "[Indie Between developer] Jason Rohrer's games are becoming more popular, he's putting a game on DS. You just see the glimpse, here and there, of people just going for the really out there stuff."
He added, "Our tastes have a little bit more subtlety than they did 10 or 20 years ago. [Dear Esther] is one of the first big glimpses I had into more subtle experiences than the machismo or other kind of archetypes in video games. There's subtlety and finesse, and it's a moving experience. I think the hunger for that will grow as gamers' age and their tastes mature."
Asked if he thought Dear Esther is a commercially viable game, Carmel replied, "'Commercially viable' requires a bit more definition, in my mind. For a team of 20 or 100 to make a game like this is not commercially viable. But that's kind of part of the indie charm - you need to fund a team of one or two, and it's very easy to make something commercially viable when it's a one or two person team."
Evidence of interest in Dear Esther has been apparent since its release as a mod. Pinchbeck estimates the mod is currently somewhere over 75,000 downloads, but he and Briscoe felt that the game deserved a bigger audience as a commercial release. "I think there's a real space for this in the market," he said.
Whether or not Indie Fund's games will have any notable market impact is still up in the air. But if Indie Fund does fizzle out, it won't be due to lack of effort, experience or talent.
The future of Indie Fund just depends on how the games, including Dear Esther, perform, Carmel explained. The group has committed two-thirds of its $700K budget so far. "We're still looking for more games," he said. "The end of that money doesn't mean the end of Indie Fund. ... As soon as some games start selling, we'll see if we're going to try to roll the money back into the fund and keep going, or if we're going to try to grow it. It remains to be seen."
For Pinchbeck, his journey continues, as he's moving on from his life in academia to become a full-time indie game developer. He's already learning that it'll take more than a keen design instinct to be successful: "I now know more about American tax law than I ever thought Iíd know in my life," he laughed.