Dear Dan. Talking with Dan Pinchbeck. Part 2

Dan Pinchbeck talk with Klarden

(original photo here)

And now, the second part of my talk with Dan Pinchbeck. We talk about the game pricing, strange “price per hour” concept in game pricing, influence of indie bundles and steam on game sales, popularity of Kickstarter, greatness of Indie Fund and wish for there to be something “in the middle”, the concept of franchises made by several small indie companies as a level up from modding scene, Dan’s fondness of soviet and post-soviet science-fiction and videogames and difficulties of going from a mod or a free game to the commercial release.

Klarden: Anyway… hmm… oh right, you talked a lot about game prices lately. I heard you talked about it on GDC. Unfortunately there’s no way to watch that, so… Do you think the games are underpriced today? Or people just don’t understand the value of games?

Dan Pinchbeck: I certainly don’t think they’re underpriced. I’m sure some games are worth a dollar. And some games are worth more than a dollar. And I think because of those prices, some people are going to get undercut. It’s competition, so people cut their prices down. And bigger companies will always be able to drive their prices lower than the development costs. And I get very frustrated with people always going “games are too expensive”.

And the one that really annoys me is when people say: “the game has to have a price per hour, and that’s what really counts.” So the game that’s 50$ and lasts for 50 hours is a better value than a game that costs 50$ and lasts for 10 hours. And it seems to me as lunacy. It’s like saying a longer film is a better film. That just because the films lasts for 6 hours it makes it a better value going to the cinema, than on the film that lasts an hour and a half. But it’s about quality, isn’t it? An awful lot of games have very long singleplayer campaigns. And a significant portion of that campaign is padding. It doesn’t really contribute much to the game, it’s not setpieces, it’s not a good design, it’s just there to make it a longer singleplayer campaign. To appease to this idea that games can only be good if they’re 20+ hours. And it seems crazy to me. I would always prefer to have… Like it the original Silent Hill, old survivor horrors – you’d have 5-6 hours…

Even less.

Yeah, even less. But it was all good. There was no padding in it. And they would cost as much as games like Tomb Raider which takes you 6 months to complete. Because it was a different game. You didn’t think that all games had to go by the same model of value per hour. You knew that if you picked up Resident Evil than it was a much shorter game than Tomb Raider. Because it was a different game, it was a more intense experience, it was a faster paced experience. And that was ok.

You could put 50$ in the slot machine… over the course of several hours :). And you’d have exactly the same 3 minutes of gameplay again and again. But it didn’t mean that it was less value for money, because if you got 50$ worth of enjoyment out of it, you got 50$ worth of experience out of it. And if you played it and actually thought: “you know, those mid-twenty minutes of me playing Defender were kinda boring”. Then you’d not have 50$ worth of experience. So the quality of the experience is what defines the cost of it. But that idea, like… if you get 100+ hours of experience out of Skyrim and it costs 50$, than any game that doesn’t give you these 100+ hours for the same price is less good value – it’s completely insane.

And when you look at the forums… We went through this with Esther, where people where “10$ for 2 hours?” And we were going: “well, that’s like a packet of cigarettes, like a cup of drink. You pay more to get a round for your friends in a bar, and that’s 20 minutes worth of entertainment. It’s the same price as the cinema ticket.” How did we get to the point where we said that games are worth so much less than other media forms? That they are worth less than books, less than music… They’re worthless.

And that’s the model like… the App model, where you say: “it’s a dollar and it’s probably awful, but hey it’s just a dollar and you can play it while you’re having a crap.” And I don’t want to make games that are reduced to something to do when you’re on a toilet. And I don’t think many game developers do. It’s a hard work – making games. It’s a lot of thought, and a lot of craft, and a lot of talent. And I’ve been looking at the teams I worked with, and I think it’s just insulting to say that it’s worth less than… than something that’s going to take 30 seconds to play and forget. And I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice, as an industry, if we allow that price model to be.

There are those people who go: this game comes out, and I’m going to wait 6 months until it’s about a pound and then buy it. And you go: well, fine, that’s your choice, but you shouldn’t say that if you want to wait 6 months, it should be a pound when it comes out. And I know that I can go and get myself a pre-owned game from a store. But I know that developers get no money from that sale. And if you demand the games to be stripped of all value, the only people you’re hurting are the game developers. And game developers are going to eventually say: well, I’m not going to invest into something that’s going to take a lot of work to do and will result in several hours of gameplay, because I’ll never be able to justify the price point and pay to my staff. And you won’t have those games anymore, because they will be not worth making.

And it tends to get aimed at indies as well, which annoys the hell out of me. You’re hurting the small businesses with this argument. People who try to build up innovation, do new stuff or in a different way. Like, I mean Esther went on Pirate Bay 45 minutes from release. It was fascinating. We went: Yay, people think our game’s worth stealing! But at the same time people were openly going “well, I don’t like this game, I’m going to wait and pirate it.” And you’re thinking: that’s like stealing from a small business. Do you feel good about yourself? If you want to pirate the game, go pirate of EA, if you have to – they can take the hit :). But this idea, that indies have to give their products away… it’s just completely bizarre. And it’s really hard to look at, like, a freemium market. You can understand it, but part of me goes: you can only afford it if you either have a game that didn’t cost much to make, or you’re big enough business.

It was a big rant, wasn’t it? I do feel quite passionate about it :).

Well, I can understand if someone waits for sales. I mean, I’m an unemployed guy from Ukraine, where we have a slightly different market, different salary. I’m also often waiting for the game prices to go lower. But at the same time, I understand that I’m kind of a “special case”, my word and my way of buying games is in no way something that means more than what developers think about pricing their games.

Yeah, it’s about what you value. I’ve been unemployed for several years, for about 3 I think. And I had to save up to get games. And the market is overflooded with games today. And there are so many cheap ones. And you get kinda lost in them. It’s so different from when I was… god, I’m so old :). From when I was in that point.

I think it’s the reduction. Because for some games the model works, because you can sell some games very cheap, or if for some games the model works and you can get hours and hours of… Like, say, Left 4 Dead. You have an enormous amount of gameplay and much less assets in it. Much more than if it was just a singleplayer. So for some games the model works, but for some it doesn’t. And trying to jam some model on a different kind of development just doesn’t work. And I think, for most indies, and I think quite a lot of studios as well, most people are not in the “get rich quick” business. They’re trying to look out for their staff and make games they wanna make. And the price of the games they sell is usually based around those things. How do we stay in business and stay fair to the player and fair to us.

And when we were thinking of pricing the first time, I think Rob and I and Jess all were: we don’t want to go over 10$, because we don’t feel… We want to bring this in line with night out, which it kinda is. But we also thought that we don’t want to drop it below 5$ initially, because for us it would feel like saying: this is just disposable thing. It was three years of blood, sweat and tears and we felt like it should be in there. But it’s hard. It’s not a lack of sympathy for people who can’t really afford games. And especially mainstream AAA games, as it’s a helluva lot of money to lay out – $50 at a time. And they’re probably going to get more expensive. But there has to be another pricing way, like it’s not an app, it’s not an AAA. Kinda like middle point, which feels fair to both fans and developers. And it feels like it’s that point that’s getting squeezed from both sides.

It’s something I don’t understand – when people complain about indie game prices. As indies are usually pricing the games as they feel fair. It’s the mainstream model what I think is broken. Where you have these $60, $50, $40 and other price points and you have to fit your game in one of those. Indies usually do it in a different way. If you like it, you pay for it, and if you don’t, you don’t pay and don’t play.

Yeah, it’s not like someone is forcing you to. And it kinda makes me laugh… People who don’t like Esther usually really don’t like Esther. And it usually makes people who like it really angry too. But, there’s been more than one thing going on forums where people are going like: “this game is a total rip-off, and I haven’t played it and won’t play it!” And I’m thinking: “what? How can you be saying it’s not worth it, if you haven’t played it?” When you’re going to the cinema you never know if the movie is going to be brilliant and you’re definitely gonna like it. When you buy an album or a book, you don’t do that.

It kinda goes like the recent debacle with Mass Effect 3 ending. It has never occurred to me when I’m reading a book, that if I don’t like the ending I’m going to write to the author and demand they change the ending. So, you don’t like the ending of Mass Effect 3, so what? It was their choice and they made it. I’m rather ambivalent for the whole idea of them changing it. And… See, back in the days if something like this would’ve happened and the game came out, and people didn’t like the ending, someone would’ve modded a different one. And it would’ve gone round the community. It wouldn’t have gone back to the developer, going: you have got to do what we say. You won’t always get what you like. And that’s part of risk of doing it. But you’re also sometimes gonna get something that you weren’t expecting to be as amazing as it was.

Well, I think the ending of Mass Effect 3 was stupid.

I didn’t like it either, and I think it was stupid and a mistake they made…

Yeah, but demanding the ending to be changed is kinda silly, isn’t it? Going: “well, guys, this was a mistake. You really shouldn’t have done it.” And hoping that they learn from this experience, and never do the same mistakes in the future is one thing. But outright demanding a new ending is kinda stupid. If they feel like this reaction changes their own perception of the ending, if they should really go and change it – fine. But demanding it…

Yeah, i mean, it’s not crowdsourced. They put a product out there, and you made a decision to buy it. And it’s kinda fun of what the big deal the end, effectively the last cutscene, being not what people wanted. And people would play the game and say: there are some problems with the mechanics, but we’re going to accept that mechanics are a bit wonky. But it was really interesting to see just how much people were invested in the story of Mass Effect. They weren’t saying: you have to get back on the game and tighten up physics, because they don’t work good enough. And there was no outcry for that. But the final cutscene…

Yeah, I heard they’re doing something more of epilogues, like they did for previous games, like Baldur’s Gate. Maybe it will be more of a middle ground and people will like that. But sure, they should go and fix gameplay stuff first.

I remember playing the first game and thinking: I wish there was a “skip combat” button. It was a great story, had amazing characters good animation and everything else, but then the gameplay wasn’t really that inspiring. It was more of a struggle going through the game and thinking: I really wanna see what happens next, so I have to play another level of corridors again. 2 was much better, and 3 is good.

I kinda liked the first one, actually. The gameplay, i mean. And it did have a lot of stupid mistakes in it. But sure, the second one fixed a lot of them. And i would really like to see them going and fixing stuff in the first game, even though i know that nobody’s going to do that.

Back to the topic of game prices. Do you think that things like Humble Indie Bundles can affect people opinion on game pricing? Because I recently heard a lot of people just going: there’s a new indie coming out, but I’m going to wait till it’s in the indie bundle and buy it for a dollar.

It depends on how you gonna do it. Humble are smart that they don’t announce very far in advance what’s going to be in a bundle. So if you’re doing that, you risk that the game might never appear in a bundle. It’s the same kind of risk as waiting for a steam sale. And it’s your choice as a player to do or not do that. And every experience I’ve had with Humble… and we talked with them on GDC quite a lot, is that they treat developers really well. And fair, and their terms are really good and transparent. And they’re very flexible. And they talk with developers just going: this is the sale we think you should go in, how much you might get out of it…

There’s this Botanicula bundle, and the game’s just went out. And maybe that works for them, because they figured they’re not going to have a massive initial spike of sales so they’re not gonna lose that much. And when I was talking to the guys from bundle, they said they haven’t actually seen sales being damaged. And a lot of developers reported that sales increase after bundles. Because it gets the word out about the game and people give it a shot.

That’s what I heard about Steam as well. That it usually works as a kind of a free marketing tool. People see their friends playing a game and even if it’s not on sale anymore, they will still buy it.

And it’s one of the reasons why Steam is such a wonderful platforms for games. It’s just so there. And Valve did a lot for indies. And they were great with us, I have to say. We didn’t know we were going to be on the front page of Steam. And we were on the front page before the game started selling as well. And they don’t really need to put any indies on steam. They don’t need to do any of this stuff. They don’t need to get indies the same billing as for AAAs, but they do. And I don’t know where its about them loving the games, and where it’s being a great marketing tool. But I don’t particularly care, as it works for small studios. Steam has been a brilliant idea and they executed it really well. So if they made a lot of money of it – it’s fair, really. It’s really hard to run steam service, as everyone who tried to run a service like this found out. You know, compare it to something like Origin…

Oh, and I don’t even want to mention Games for Windows – LIVE. I don’t even know why it exists. I mean, it exists because Microsoft, sure, but still.

And it’s weird. I mean, companies like EA have… In terms of resources, they’re huge. But they can’t get it right. There’s just the attitude in Valve that does… I think it’s because they’re developers. Not publishers, not a software company, and they know what works for players and what works for developers. That’s why Steam works. Because they’re not far from the two most important things in the chain.

By the way, have you played Botanicula or any other Amanita Design game?

I played Machinarium. But, again, it hits that I stink at puzzle games. But I haven’t played the new one yet. I was at IGF, and they were there too. And there are a lot of amazing games you want to play. But I ended up standing and talking for 12 hours to people and didn’t get the chance to play any of the games that were there. But it’s on my “I still haven’t played anything from IGF” list. Cause I just don’t have time to play at the moment – making two games is just… yeah.

Well, I’ve played it and completed it already, and in my opinion it’s the best game they’ve made. And what is interesting is that, their approach for Botanicula reminded me of what you did for Dear Esther, the commercial release. In that, they threw out some stuff from the game, to get a better experience. Made less do more. I really loved that in Dear Esther you’d crouch automatically and flashlight would turn on and off automatically, because thinking of this stuff could detract from the experience. How hard it was to figure stuff like this out?

Oh it was really hard. Rob actually put loads of gameplay in. He was thinking that we’re going to need some puzzles and stuff like that. So he put it in, and then just took it back out. And I didn’t even know he did that. I just asked later like: was there any temptation to add something? And he was: well, yeah I put some stuff in and then got it out. Because it did detract from experience. Same thing was with crouching and jumping. Well, the jumping went because… If you allowed people to jump in the game, they will bunny hop, and you can’t do anything about it. And crouching went because… yeah, it made you focus more on the mechanical solutions. And the moment you start thinking about that, you’re not thinking of other stuff.

And the interesting thing is, when we’re working now on Rapture, we’re thinking: well, how you have the great presence in the world, you can do those things and there is a kind of dynamic interactive thing going on, but it’s not something you have to think about mechanically. And it’s somewhere between… if you draw a three points path, between Dear Esther on one point, maybe, Tale of Tales’ The Path on the other… The problem with Path is, for me, that it made you think mechanically. Because it deliberately, almost aggressively wouldn’t let you play the way you wanted to play it. And Dear Esther doesn’t have anything like this. And somewhere there’s another point where we say: we can have something that feel like mechanics, feels like playing a game, but it’s never so structural and obvious that you concentrate on trying to beat the mechanic as opposed to being in the world. And it’s really hard. We’ve been working on this for a long time. How do we make a game that’s a game, feels like a game, but you’re not thinking you’re playing the game, when you’re doing it? Trying to make the whole thing more dynamic is what we’re trying to do. Making it so it responds to you, the world is constantly responding to your actions. But you don’t have that: I have to do X plus Y in order to get Z. Like The Path just turned into a flower hunt for me.

Same here :).

So I didn’t pay any attention to anything else. And than you could just ditch the entire point of the game and put me in the forest collecting flowers, cause I just focused on that. And I really loved The Graveyard. And I really like Tale of Tales, they’re really nice. But I didn’t like The Path really much. I felt like it was… it had an agenda that I don’t think Esther or Graveyard had. I think Path was really about going to “say something about videogames”. And I don’t really think it was needed to be said, really. And I don’t think we did anything like that with our stuff. And it really annoys me that there’s criticism like: they were clearly saying something with Esther. But we’re huge gamers, we wanted to make a game that was good.

Have you played Fatale?

Yeah, I did. I think it’s really… broken up. It’s really interesting when you get to the main part. But the beginning part…. I didn’t exactly see the point of it. I heard they went back to The Endless Forest recently. I think it’s, in the way, what they do best. They were recently kicking around the process for the game called Concentric. And they showed a bit of it at GDC last year, and I really loved it. I thought it was one of the best games they ever made. And it was much more abstract and symbolic. And I don’t think they’re carrying on with, I hope they do (they actually do, according to their twitter – Klarden). I think they’re really strong visually and less strong with narrative. So I hope they’d play more to their strength. The Path was more on the narrative side and it was… not very good.

That beginning in Fatale is cool visually, the words appearing in the air. So yeah, I also think they’re very strong visually.

Anyway, did you have had any experience with different digital distribution services? Like Desura?

No, we hadn’t time to do that. We’re signing up with several of them at the moment. But Desura, not yet. And on my side it’s really… basically, without them, the Moddb, we wouldn’t even be in the business. But I’m on a Mac most of the time. And I can’t login there, it won’t work.

It’s Windows and Linux, right?

Yeah. I have the development PC, but every time I’m on it, I work in CryENGINE and don’t have time for anything else.

How, do you think, this whole thing with digital distribution changed the game development for indies or the mainstream developers?

Oh, it’s huge. I think we’re still scratching the surface of it’s impact. There are those big games… and models, which hasn’t even been explored yet. Like franchising out aspects of content, where you have a central hub and franchise out content to smaller studios. And other things like that. And you couldn’t do it with the physical release model.

What it has shown already is that you can spend less on a smaller game and make… not as much money, but a better percentage return. And without digital distribution there would be no way of proving that was obvious to publishers. And with companies like, thatgamecompany – Journey wouldn’t just exist without digital distribution. You can get a niche product globally out. And if you’re releasing a niche product globally you’re getting a lot of audience. All because of digital… But it’s kinda also weird how it goes back to the early 90s and late 80s, to the shareware stuff of sticking a cassette in the post and mailing it to people. I think… it’s very democratic.

What was funny, a week after the Esther was out… it’s kind of our highlight :)… I kept going on steam and looking on the top sellers list and going: I know that it’s been out for months and everyone who wanted bought it already, but we’re outselling it – Skyrim! And no matter how you look at it, it’s just a really cool situation to be in. And you can only have this with digital. You know that you won’t be able to beat Skyrim if it was just released, it shouldn’t be that of a big deal. But when you look at it on Steam, you see that this tiny no-budget game is outselling one of the biggest AAAs on the planet, you see it with your own eyes, that sends out a signal that small independent studios can have significant projects.

Yeah, it definitely motivates people to do even more interesting stuff. What about the recent trend of kickstartering projects? What’s your take on it?

I think, if you can do it – do it. Someone said it recently… hm.. who was it… Well, he said that the problem with Kickstarters is that it’s hard to administrate them. And… Oh, I think it was Thomas Grip from Frictional! And he said that… or was that Jon Blow, who said that -_-. Well, Jon or Thomas. Anyway, he said that Tim Schafer paid someone to administrate his Kickstarter promises. But if you’re a small studio than actually you can be making more work for yourself, cause you’ll end up being a t-shirt printer rather than the game developer. But I think it can really work. Although, I think, to raise a significant amount of money on Kickstarter you have to have a name, a reputation already. The reason Tim Schafer could raise billion dollars for Kickstarter is because he’s Tim Schaefer, his games are wonderful and were for a long time. But, I think, it’s a helluva risk if you’re going to kickstart a start-up. You’ll have to invest a lot as a studio in it and not know if you’ll get any returns.

So it’s not something we’d use at the moment. I don’t think our products have got enough reach to justify it. And because the types of money we need to make the game, to pay to staff and everything, we’d have to raise a really really significant amount on Kickstarter. And I don’t think we can do it. With smaller projects – maybe. But it’s a bit like the Appstore problem. There’s a success like Tim Schafer’s Kickstarter and everyone’s going: “KICKSTARTER! PILE ON IT!” And everyone goes to Kickstarter and then you have like four billion games there and you can’t tell what’s good and what’s bad anymore. So you can get saturated. If you can do it – great. But it’s kinda like the price problem with developers trying to just follow some… “This is how all games should go”. You should just look at your game and think if it’s really the best way for it.

What do you think about things like Indie Fund? I know Dear Esther was funded by it. And do you think it’s possible to create something like Indie Fund, but funded by players?

There’s definitely a model in there. The advantage of Indie Fund is the knowledge of the people, who run Indie Fund. So… I mean, the money were really nice, we wouldn’t be able to make Esther without it :). But as well as the money, having people like Ron Carmel, Nathan Vella, Jon Blow, Kellee Santiago, Aaron Isaksen… and you can just email them and go: “we really don’t know this and that, what do you think, what’s your experience?” And they would reply and say: “well, this is what happened to us, this is how it works.” It was worth its weight in gold. And I think for us, and for Toxic, the guys who made Q.U.B.E., when those kind of people tell you that your game’s got legs and it’s worth getting behind it – it’s a huge confidence building. And you think: yeah, we can do this!

So I hope there’s always something like Indie Fund. Cause their investment in you, them saying that you are interesting as people and make good games, is meaningful. But yeah, I’d be interested to see if there’s something in the middle. Frictional did something like that with Amnesia. They had those pre-sells and if they get enough pre-sells, the game gets something extra. It’s an interesting model. It would be interesting to try something like that. To say: “How big this game is depends on how much are you want it. So we’re not gonna make a huge chunk of money after the game comes out, necessarily, but we can put another six months into this.” But again, it depends on what you’re in the business for. If you wanna make a ton of money, then making games like Dear Esther or Amnesia is probably not the way to do it :). Although, Amnesia sold like 650,000 units or something like that? It’s an insane amount of copies sold. Enough to bankroll the sequel. And the game they’re working on as well.

You’re a fan of Silent Hill, right?


I had this idea for some time… I don’t think it’s even possible, as Konami would probably never go for something like this, but… Well, you know there are things like some indie film festivals, where people create different short films with one similar topic or theme. So, I was thinking that it would’ve been awesome if there was something like this for Silent Hill. Where completely different developers would make shorter “Silent Hill-themed” games. Do you think it would be interesting to see this? (and, to be fair, it’s nice to see Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs doing something similar – Klarden)

I’m amazed this hasn’t been done yet. Going to a smaller studio and giving them the tools… Not modding, but like the next level of the concept. Or bringing the small studio and saying that: we’re going to commission you to make an hour long DLC or add-on for a game, or going to take a cut of whatever you produce, but we have a quality threshold. You have the concept, you have the software, the engine, the tools… You can say: we have the IP, but we don’t necessarily have to do all of it ourselves. So yeah, I’m amazed it hasn’t been done yet.

It feels a bit like a next level from the modding scene. Mods go full conversion, mod teams turn into studios. You may say: we’ll have Doom 4 in, well, let’s be optimistic :), in 2014. And what we need to have is Doom 4 add-ons, which would be made by separate companies. And we’d start those a year before Doom 4 ships. And you have those companies breaking your engine everywhere it could be broken, finding a lot of bugs, doing a lot of QA for you and, potentially, doing some interesting stuff you haven’t even thought about. If I were a big studio, and was working on a major title, it would be something I’d consider. You can have twice the content for your game without the same amount of resources. And the risk isn’t that big with it as well.

Valve is experimenting with it on a smaller scale with Steam Workshop and items and maps for TF2, I guess. I named Silent Hill because there’s a definite feel of what Silent Hill game is and it would be interesting to see different studios, from different countries, with a different take on horror to make a game that feels like Silent Hill, but is different. Like Frictionl going for a more Lovecraftian style, or some Ukrainian or Russian studio going for a totalitarian or post-soviet feel…

Absolutely. I have dreams of taking STALKER or Metro to different places in the world. Like, take the Roadside Picnic, the novel the game was based on, there are seven Zones across the world. How would people respond to the situation in other parts of the world? It’s such a brilliant concept. And it’s the same with Metro. You can put it in any iconic underground system in the world. And you have a fantastic core world, you can just spin it in different directions. I think it would be great to play that kind of stuff.

The central feel of Silent Hill is so strong, it would be interesting to see an eastern take on it… I think, a lot of western games which are going to get released… I’m looking at and just thinking: “Yeah, you know what? If this game would be made in Kyiv it would be a better game.” There’s such a special world view that saturates… and, in my opinion, is more interesting than the kinda American worldview used in a lot of AAAs. There’s some darkness, for me, I can engage with.

And it’s why I was thinking of Silent Hill – I thought the series could benefit from a different perspective. I mean, I really love the first two games in the series and mainly because they had similar concepts, but were completely different. And, I think, this was lost after the third one, where the overall story was canonized.

Yeah, Silent Hill as a series just got to the point when… I probably shouldn’t say it, but… Well, the studio which made Shattered Memories is a bit of a bucket shop company. I mean, they’re down the road from us, we know them. They just churn the games out. There’s usually no huge amount of depth to what they do. And they did… hmm… it wasn’t Shattered Memories, it was the other one… And you look at it and just think that this studio is not really passionate about their products. “We’re just a studio for hire and we churn games out.” I’ll see what the Downpour would be, but both Origins and Shattered Memories just felt like: let’s milk this IP.

Well, I honestly loved Shattered memories, and how it made similar things like the first games did – did something different. But Homecoming and Origins…

Yeah! (i guess, Dan meant Homecoming and Origins at first – Klarden)

You have said and shown a lot of love to the… kinda “post-soviet vibe”. You like soviet sci-fi. Where did it come from?

Well, an awful lot of it came from Shadow of Chernobyl. I haven’t read a lot of stuff particularly. But I remember playing Shadow of Chernobyl and being completely and utterly blown away by it. I just loved it so much. And I found out that it was based on Roadside Picnic and decided to give it a shot, since it was quite short. And I loved it. And so I went and read everything Strugatsky have written after that. I have a compilation of the short stories they did. And it has a story called Six Matches, which is so fantastic. It’s about the guy who burns his brain to a cinder while trying to lift a match from the ground with the power of his mind. He trained himself for six months to lift five matches and then adds a sixth match and goes completely insane while trying to lift them. And it’s a tiny little story, but it’s amazing.

And it went from there, and I read more stuff. But it was driven by games mostly, I think. So when the Metro hit, I was just: oooh, this is so fantastic! There’s such a clear vision in them, which I find really powerful. And I loved the novel of Metro 2033. I think it’s really flawed, but it’s got such an incredible vision in it. And they won’t bloody publish 2034 in English! It’s done in German, but no one’s doing an English translation, which is enormously frustrating. So, I guess, I’ll have to learn Russian now :). But I’ve never really been in Eastern Europe. Really want to visit, but don’t know it firsthand.

You should come and visit, yeah :).

One thing I almost forgot to ask: I really liked how Dear Esther went from a mod to a commercial release. Do you think that if a studio decides, that they want to turn their mod into a commercial release there should be some quality concepts, they should understand? Things they should do?

There’s a very big, survival of the fittest kind process there. There is a very big gap between a mod and a commercial product. And people like Steam won’t just come to you, you need to be showing them something and telling that it’s something they should put on their platform. You have to make sure you have a good engine. We went from Source to Source, and Source is not a good engine to commercialise a mod on. Because you don’t have any standard indie terms, like you have with, like, UDK or Unity.

Most mods are variations on a theme. And most mod teams are working on slight variations of a subject. And it’s very difficult to sell. They are, essentially, variations on AAAs. Which means, it’s incredibly hard to get the same quality standard as an AAA. And have something that is individual, that stands out. And I think it’s the reason why most indies don’t look like an AAA, because the moment you start looking like an AAA, you’re competing with an AAA. And it’s probably why Esther is unusual, we staked on unusual. But if you’re making a commercial shooter IP from a mod, you’re going to really struggle to make money from it. You’re gonna have to pay back engine percentages, and then the distribution fees, and you’re, probably, gonna loose, 50% minimum. Which means you have to shift a fair number of units to make it worth it. So you’re gonna make a really low price point, or make PR for it… And if it’s a shooter – there are so many shooters on a market. And a lot of very well funded shooters, which are really mediocre. So you’re going to drown in terms of PR.

Nathan Vella was talking at GDC and he made a very good point. He said: it’s less risky to take risks in indie development. Because if you do something completely insane, at least you’ll stand out. And if you’ll sell it to 1% of a market – well, it’s a big market. As opposed to trying and competing with products, which take up 75% of the market – you won’t stand a chance. So something like Esther was a much lower risk product, than if we’d make some variation on a shooter.

And what about games, which are free at first, but later, go commercial? Should these games add or change something significant before asking money?

We got a small but noisy percentage of people, who went absolutely loopy when we said we were going commercial. It was a small amount of people, but they were really noisy and it was unpleasant.They were saying that we were ripping people off by charging for this game. It wasn’t if it damaged us as a company, but it was pretty nasty being on the other side of it. I really believe we were up front and honest with people. But I would like to be our example as a cautionary tale for all the modders who want to go commercial. Be prepared for a reaction like this.

But I think it takes not less amount of time and work in making a mod, if you’re really investing in it, not much less than if you’re making a game. And I don’t think you’re duty bound to do stuff like this for free. Any more than people working behind the bar, fixing cars or whatever else. Everyone is making something for living, everyone’s got a rent to pay. So if you can make money from your mod, make money from your mod, absolutely. If people are passionate and talented enough to be modding, they’re passionate and talented enough to make games. And the more passion and talent in the industry – the better.

By the way, did you decide to add more stuff to Dear Esther before this reaction to you going commercial, or after that?

It was going to be a reskin up until… late 2010. We decided with Rob, that we could do something a bit more with this. We started talking to Valve in late 2010. We’ve already shown them the game earlier and they were interested in the project. And we got the Valve license in 2011, and until we got the license we weren’t planning to redo the soundtrack, cause we didn’t have any money for that. So, when we started talking to Valve – that was part of the budget that we needed to raise. And we also knew that if we’re going commercial, we’re going to need a coder, and we couldn’t afford it.

So it was when we started talking to them in about September 2010… And we couldn’t go and say we were thinking of going commercial before that. It was a pipedream until Valve came and said: okay, you can do this. It would’ve been pointless and stupid to say it to people. So, as soon as we knew it’s going to be a viability, we told people. But, you know, it’s the internet, there’s always gonna be someone who thinks that you’re an evil person, for doing anything, frankly. Maybe we should’ve said earlier… But, again, it would’ve been stupid. Like six months before we actually signed the deal with Valve: hey, we’re thinking of going commercial. It’s like saying: I’m thinking of making the game. Well, make the game!

Well, now I know why you were a bit unsure about my offer of translation of the new version, the first time I asked you about it. It was about October 2010.

Yeah, we didn’t know how closely, if at all, Valve were checking us out. So you can’t just go: hey, we’re doing this with this company. And the company’s going: well, no actually. It’d seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.


And then Dan remembered that he had a meeting. Making two games at once is hard -_-.

We decided to continue this conversation a week later, but, that week turned into a month. And a month later we could continue with our talk. The talk, I’m planning to post next weekends.

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