Delivering the keynote address at ExPlay 2012 in Bath today, environmental artist Robert Briscoe talked attendees through the evolutionary process Dear Esther went through from its original state as a Half-Life 2 mod to full-blown standalone release – and how he turned down a job offer from Valve to make it happen.
“Plan ahead,” he warned attendees. “Take whatever estimate you have in your head, then double it. Then add an extra six months for good measure. It will never go as planned.”
Having worked on a number of projects – including Mirror’s Edge – Briscoe recounted how he had stumbled across Dear Esther in 2008 on the Mod Database website while looking for a new project to motivate him.
“It was great to be creating and experimenting with no one looking over my shoulder,” he said of finding the mod and beginning work on a rebuild after a period of feeling burned out by the industry he was working in.
Briscoe recalled his determination to be open about his reworking, posting progress updates on Mod DB – an act that generated a huge amount of feedback at the time, including an email from Valve inviting him, ominously, over to Seattle for a “friendly chat”. Surprised at the subsequent job offer from a company he respected a great deal, he ultimately turned it down.
“As tempting as it was to take the job, I was determined to see what it could grow into,” he said, careful to point out that Valve were supportive of his decision. While the subsequent months and years proved difficult, Briscoe credited original developer Dan Pinchbeck’s determination for keeping the project going and getting a Source Engine licence even as funding was lost and Valve’s initial quotes proved far out of the developers’ ballpark.
By going over the convoluted story of Dear Esther’s evolution, Briscoe highlighted the work that goes into making an ambitious project of this nature a success, and stressed that – while it may have seemed like it from the outside – Dear Esther was no overnight success.
“Our success came form the way we approached development early on,” he explained. “By building a community and getting people involved in the game. It was better than any PR campaign we could have organised.”
Steam was also a vital part of the game’s success, and while the it’s available elsewhere – including the official website – Valve’s service actually accounts for 99 per cent of its total sales. It was testament, he said, to “how powerful a tool it is for reaching gamers.”
“Don’t give up, and don’t constrain your ideas to find success,” he offered in closing. “If you put passion into your work, the chances are that others will too. Indie development is hard, but ultimately the successes and failures are what makes it a unique experience.”