This is the seventh article in the series The Academics Are Coming.
Dr. Dan Pinchbeck is a senior lecturer for the School of Creative Technologies at the University of Portsmouth. His PhD thesis, completed in 2009, was titled “Story as a function of gameplay in First Person Shooters: an analysis of FPS diegetic content 1998-2007.”
As discussed two weeks ago on Electron Dance, Pinchbeck is a champion of development-led research. He is known principally for Dear Esther, originally a Half-Life 2 mod from 2009 which was released commercially this year. He runs a studio called thechineseroom which is working on two new projects: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs with Frictional Games.
Dan has a lot to say about the relevancy of academic research and the strengths and difficulties of academic game development.
HM: Dan, there is still much scepticism regarding the value of academic research so... why become a game studies academic?
Initially, I didn't.
I've always been a heavy gamer, but actually started out on a PhD into story and virtual reality, interested in the idea of how you could use story to increase presence within virtual spaces. I was getting to a point where I needed to actually build some VRs to test ideas out and I'm not very technical, so it struck me that there were already these amazing mass-market virtual realities out there, with build tech readily available and I'd been an obsessive fan of them since I was old enough to pick up a joystick. So I started looking in more detail at FPS games and then realised actually I could work in game studies, that it was a 'proper' field.
It all went from there. I'm in two minds about it - I share a lot of the concerns and issues with game studies with people from industry and outside academia. It can be really self-indulgent and there's a lot of stuff that I struggle to find any relevance from. But games academia is a kind of self-perpetuating economy - it feeds itself, it serves itself, and that's true for most academic fields most of the time.
But there are people working in it who I really respect, who have really interesting things to say about games and although it's often wrapped up in academic language, it's extremely relevant. So you have people like Gordon Calleja who is probably for me the most interesting person thinking and writing about immersion in games, and then amazing educators like Tracy Fullerton. And then there's us lot, the academics who actually go ahead and try and put their ideas into practice – Clara Fernández-Vara, Doug Wilson, Michael Mateas, Eric Zimmerman, John Sharp and Colleen Macklin from Local No.12, Frank Lantz, Ian Bogost, Celia Pearce and others.
So there are a lot of really good people working who have direct industry and game development experience, so the two worlds actually aren't as far apart as they might initially seem to be, and there are an increasing amount of younger academics who directly want to produce and to make their work relevant to a wider gaming audience. So on one hand, academia does still need to demonstrate it's relevance, but it's also important to remember that academia is only really relevant to academia in many ways - however problematic that might be. And I do get frustrated about how fuzzy and pointless large chunks of it are.
HM: What was the goal in creating thechineseroom?
The point behind thechineseroom is to try and put theoretical ideas into practice - it's all very well pontificating about game design, but the reality is that unless you can demonstrate these ideas have a practical value, then what's the point of them? And at the same time, there's so much innovation going on in games that it makes a lot of theoretical musings about design kind of irrelevant and redundant.
If you want to make the case for new design possibilities, you need to show them in action, you need to put your money where your mouth is. So with our games, we're looking for design ideas that haven't been done by games, that look like theoretically they should be interesting and valuable, and then realising these so at the least, even if they don't work 100% (like Korsakovia), there's at least a case study out there that anyone - academic or developer - can reference and work with. You have an amazing safety net in academia, because failure means something different. If you are a developer and you take a risk and it doesn't pay off, you're in real trouble. As an academic, if you take a risk and it doesn't pay off, provided it fails in a way that is interesting and pushes the dialogue about the ideas further, that's still a positive thing.
Having said that, we're now developing commercially, so it changes a bit. It's important now to ensure that we succeed in both ways. That's interesting as a dynamic because you have to be even more careful that what you are proposing makes sense and works as both an academic line of enquiry and as a game. The core thing for me is that people who play our games shouldn't have to engage with them as academic research objects at all - they should work as games. That gives them a real validity as academic objects as well - they are not just lab tests, but real, actual games out in the world. So the lessons from them transfer very easily to industry and in a language that industry can work with.
HM: Is there any link between thechineseroom and the University of Portsmouth? Are you allowed to schedule your hours between the two as you see fit?
Yeah, I'm still a full-time employee (Reader in Computer Games), although my teaching load is pretty small - I teach one class and supervise a few PhDs, but these are all in the area of actually game development, so they are building games as part of their doctorates. The two games we are making now are being run through the University, so although thechineseroom is an entirely separate company, there's a strong link. Essentially, it's a mutually beneficial deal - the University gets the brand association, and thechineseroom can run as a minimal company with employment and finances being run by the University. So everyone wins.
There's always a tension in terms of time management, but I've got really brilliant support from the University - they trust me to deliver and give me the time and space I need to do that. So all the time I spend on thechineseroom is funded and officially bought out of my other duties. And Dear Esther runs in the evening and at weekends, and where it leaks into University time, there's the value of association with the game as a trade-off. thechineseroom was incubated by the University for a couple of years essentially, and Esther started off as a University project, so we're always sure to credit the institution and the people who made that happen.
HM: Are there commercial tensions resulting from working on thechineseroom and being an academic for University of Portsmouth? With more academics going down the development route, could this be an issue?
That's partially what Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is about. We're being part-funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (UK) to look carefully at those tensions and then make our findings public. You've got things like liability clauses in distribution contracts, that are generally uncapped, as distributors want to shift any and all liability for your product onto you as a developer. Normally, you just take out public liability to cover that, but it's more complicated for a large organisation with the remit of a University.
There are also issues with intellectual property and who owns what, and these can be tricky. We hit every hurdle on Dear Esther and the only solution we could have to actually get the game to market was for the University to sign over the IP to thechineseroom, which obviously wasn't perfect for them and left us without the backing to complete the project. Fortunately, we got Indie Fund, but it was touch and go for a few weeks, which was very stressful.
So we're trying to pre-empt those things on Rapture, and then offer up a set of guidelines for other academics at the end of the project. It's still going to be interesting... Normally, PhD students are in a very different position, as they tend to own their IP - apart from if they are on a University bursary, in which case they need to check their contracts as the Uni will usually retain IP under those circumstances. It's a very new thing and everyone is trying to figure it out.
HM: Should we consider academics to be a sort of "third channel" of game development? Mainstream churns out the crowdpleasers, indie garage bands do their thing - and now the academic experimenters are on the scene? Is it possible for academic developers to distinguish themselves from indie experimentation?
It depends on what the academics are trying to achieve. I think if you are releasing commercially, then you are a professional developer and you shouldn't be distinguishing yourself in that way. You can't expect gamers to treat your games differently from other commercial products if you are charging for them, so you've crossed into the indie camp.
Free games are different, like mods, it's OK I think under those circumstances to say 'this is a different thing, I'm a different kind of game producer'. But when you charge, you are an indie. And the reality is that there's at least as much innovation and experimentation going on in the indie sector as the academic one, and you have to respect that. I think historically, one of the things that wound people up about academia was a sense of 'who the fuck are you to tell me how/why/what about games when I'm the one who is actually doing it, making it', and I really agree with that perspective.
HM: What is your primary motivation for each game?
To make a great game experience that in some way does something different. There's a research agenda for sure, but that absolutely cannot compromise the quality of the game. It's really that simple now.
HM: Whereas Dear Esther caught a lot of love on its original outing, Korsakovia had a more troubled reception. Do you see Korsakovia as a failed experiment?
Korsakovia failed as a game, mostly in interesting ways, but it told us a lot about design, so as an experiment it was still really valid and useful. We figured out that players' tolerances for quite disruptive design and ideas was higher than the constraints that appeared to exist from other survival horror games.
I made some bad design choices as a developer and they impacted negatively on the game. Some of those were just dumb, me being a little cocky I think, and that's a good lesson to learn. Others were a result of too short a development period and inadequate playtesting, others were results of the tech not being up to the level we needed and had time to play with.
The biggest issue was the box stacking in the second level - people just hated that in a big way - which was kind of interesting as it's still a cornerstone activity in a bunch of commercial games, and it seemed so simple at the time - it felt really obvious what you had to do and where you had to do it, and we only ramped up the pressure by having a bunch of Collectors hassling you at the time.
The other biggest issue was allowing the player to attack and kill the Collectors, and that's interesting because Frictional were developing Amnesia at the same time and they actually had the balls to remove the ability to kill completely and made a brilliant game partially based on that design decision.
So I felt like if we'd gone that bit further, we could have maybe not had those problems - I bottled it basically. In other areas, there are parts of Korsakovia that worked really, really well - some people completely freaked out and had these incredibly strong responses to the lack of orientation and the frustrating elements we put in. So maybe it was too much at once, not properly paced, and that's an important lesson, and in others... well, maybe if we'd had longer, more time, money, people, it would have been a different thing, a better game. And I really got from it most of all that you have to drive up production values on an experimental game.
But as an academic experiment, all of these things - positive and negative, were good lessons to learn. Even if you write Korsakovia off as a complete failure (and I'm normally harder on it than lots of people I talk to about it), you can look to it and say "yeah, theoretically that seemed like a good idea but Korsakovia did it and it just didn't work" and then make a decision about whether that's because it's actually not such a good idea, or whether we just didn't do the idea justice. But you have something to work with, so that's got to be a positive thing.
HM: Was the success of Dear Esther a genuine surprise?
It was a total surprise. I thought it'd maybe get a few hundred hits and hopefully enough responses to be able to mine the data and draw some conclusions. It was extraordinary. But it really made me look at what we'd done with Esther compared to the other mods, and that led naturally to Korsakovia and then to the new games. I don't think if Esther hadn't done well I'd be writing this now- a huge success like that certainly makes it easier to get hold of the backing you need to push on. But the key thing with it as well is this idea of raising your game, driving up production and design, really professionalising what we do.
HM: Do you encourage your students to get their hands dirty as well?
Absolutely. We have a very practical course here anyway, but basically all students interested in games should be building wherever and whenever they can. Even if you are working primarily theoretically, it's invaluable in terms of understanding games at a deep level, and it keeps you centred and honest with your theoretical work. Right now, I'm working with three PhD students: Mitu Khandaker, Peter Howell and Arjan Dhupia, who all have practical game development at the centre of their work and you can really see how building impacts on their thinking. So yeah, I'd encourage anyone interested in study games to be building them too.
HM: Dan, thanks for talking to Electron Dance.