2 Years After Release, Dear Esther Moves To A New Engine

By Alec Meer on February 18th, 2014 at 2:00 pm.

Bad news for anyone holding out for Dear Esther 2: The Legend of Jakobson’s Gold – The Chinese Room’s next step for their maudlin, poetic Taking A Walk game is to remake it. Again.

In practical terms – i.e. how this will affect people who want to play the game – this is perhaps a bit of an unstory, but the shock choice to port the game from Source to Unity is a fascinating peek behind the developmental curtain. Why, after using it for the first two editions of Dear Esther, would programmer Robert Biscoe now want to leave Valve’s engine behind?

In a lengthy and hysteria-free post on the matter, he says it all span out of plans to port Dear Esther to PS3, wherein they hit a wall of Source and licensing issues, originally raised by getting a third party dev to take the game to Mac and Linux. Apparently, those latter ports made a loss due to the amount of unanticipated middleware costs.

“This was all happening around the time of the departures at Valve, which unfortunately included our main contact for all things Engine related, and subsequently we spent weeks trying to find someone else who could point us in the right direction. This had a cascade effect on the whole project leading to months of delays, coupled with the contractor’s inexperience with the engine, communication problems, and then finally the PS4 release date announcement, we decided it was time to pull the plug, at significant cost to us.

We also got the underlying impression that official engine support was not long for this world, making me all the more anxious, not just about the possibility of further ports, but about the future of Dear Esther in the years to come.”

The suggestion that official Source support is nearing its end raises a number of rather big questions, doesn’t it? I’m not sure I feel ready to go there just yet.

In any case, Briscoe taught himself some Unity in the hope that he could “not only safeguard the future of Dear Esther, but to also clean up the Linux and Mac ports and reach a wider range of other platforms. Best of all, we’d be able to keep everything in-house, at low cost, with no more licensing or communication barriers, no more support woes and no more scouring for experienced Source Engine developers to help us.”

What this means for the Esther experience is hard to say, though a couple of images suggest we’re looking at something visually very similar, if not to all intents and purposes identical. Just don’t expect to see it for a little while yet. “The plan is to work towards a solid, high quality, Linux and Mac build, and then eventually PC. At some point we’ll release betas for our existing Humble Store and Humble Bundle customers to evaluate and test, and when we’ve got something that reaches a quality we’re happy with, we’ll scrap the flakey old builds and look at getting everything up and running across all platforms on Steam.”

Issues aplenty still, and they’re resolute that they won’t release anything until “100% sure it’s ready.”

As I say, I don’t expect this’ll ultimately change much at the consumer end of things, but it’s fascinating/horrible to see just how convoluted things can be behind developmental doors, for all our presumptions about how games get made.

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43 Comments »

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  1. Viroso says:

    I was disappointed with Dear Esther. I thought it was going to be an exploration game but it was more like a corridor explorer. I didn’t understand all the praise.

    • USER47 says:

      It never was, and never intended to be, an exploration game…

      • Jinoru says:

        Very much this.

      • Rovac says:

        That’s the thing that confused me. What is it that you do in Dear Esther?

        edit : Haven’t played it yet

        • SomeDuder says:

          It’s more visual story, with no possible branches of exploration – the route is pretty much set in stone, with very little surprises. You can even guess the end by the time you get there (Which shouldn’t take you more than 90 minutes).

          You just walk the only route that you can follow (And literally walk, there’s no running speed) and try to interpret the world, without the traditional storytelling elements you know from more conventional games.

          While I don’t think this a traditional game (There’s no actual interaction, other than the main menu), I did not dislike the experience. As long as it doesn’t get ripped off, it should be a fresh experience for everyone

          • frightlever says:

            As a free mod for Half Life it was interesting. I found Serena a considerably more interesting experience, for instance. (not a mod for Half Life, but free).

            As a for pay standalone product Dear Esther seemed, to me personally, like a lot of work for a not very much better experience. Graphically it was prettier but in a world where Risk of Rain is “beautiful” I don’t know that those graphics matter. or do they? I’m not up to date on the latest memo. Would Citizen Kane be a better movie in hi-def colour? Maybe, I don’t know, I’ve never watched it. Looked dull.

            It’s not as if there is some mountain of Dear Esther lore to be excavated. Cobble together a random sound sample, a vaguely esoteric symbol and a lump of rock that looks your Aunt Flo and a hundred people will descend on a wiki and have a fully functioning mythology built up around it within the week. People are designed to look for patterns and tend to find them even when they aren’t actually relevant.

          • rikvanoostende says:

            Maybe I was in luck and got a more or less consistent story despite the random dialogues, I don’t know why exacty, but it brought me to tears on my first playthrough. It makes me wish I could experience it for the first time again. Money well spent if it happens to click for you.

          • CookPassBabtridge says:

            This is how I would describe Dear Esther, and why I loved it.

            Sometimes at the weekend, you can’t sleep and you are in that hazy state of mind, tired but awake, flipping through channels at 2am. The announcer tells you that there is now going to be a short film, set on a Hebridean Island. Its not a film maker you have heard of, and you know its only going to be about half an hour long. You start watching it, you follow their story, and you begin to realise they’ve lost someone. Even though there is only the barest of time available to get to know the character, there is something you can connect with, something you lost, and a desperate, but futile hope of getting it back.

            To deal with it they have become a hermit, sequestered themselves in a remote part of the world, away from people where they can struggle to make sense of what has happened. It all takes place in a very short time. You aren’t really expecting anything of it because its late, you are slightly tired, and its only going to be half an hour. It sneaks under your radar, kind of seeps under your skin, presses emotional buttons you thought had been forgotten.

            In Dear Esther, you are inhabiting that late night film, seemingly treading in the footprints of this person. But the first person medium allows a blending that a movie can’t give you. Its not clear if you are separate, or the character themself. It was never meant to be a game in any way, and I think is much better viewed in the way above: A powerful drama which you take part in, following just 5 minutes too late to stop something terrible from happening.

      • Viroso says:

        I guess I thought there was going to be exploration because walking was all you could do. I assumed, hey if you can just walk then you’ll go where you want to go, which means there’ll be places to go other than straight ahead. I was imagining it was going to be a game that managed to be interesting without any action, and it wasn’t the case for me;

    • Reapy says:

      I disliked it, the story did nothing for me, and the tedium of walking forward at a slow pace got to me. This was having payed 10 dollars for it. As a free or 1 dollar type thing I probably would have not felt ripped off when I got to the end of walking forward for a bit.

      I have a feeling though that if you are in the right frame of mood and type of person it might be an enjoyable experience though, and it probably was worth mentioning in its time for having been something a bit different.

      • jaypettitt says:

        There is no story. It just hints that there should be one. It’s left to you to notice things on the Island and resolve what’s been going on for yourself. Which is obviously a very different thing to the usual… it’s more of an exercise for creative writing class than it is a book you buy and read. It’s a shame to have gone into Esther expecting traditional game stuff only to find it lacking, ‘cos it’s definitely not traditional game stuff – and if you can go into it in the right mood and without those expectations it can be strangley affecting.

    • felsenmeer says:

      That’s why you didn’t like it? Fair enough, but it wasn’t advertised as that. It’s an interactive story you discover in a linear fashion. I really loved the idea of DE, particularly what it wanted to do (love dem interactive on-rails story things!) but found the single determining factor against total enjoyment was the cheesy-ass Creative Writing group writing. It didn’t come across as pretentious, just ham-fisted. A fist of hams! But it looked pretty. I enjoyed the original mod more, to those ends: a little less writing, and as a result the experience felt less defined by the ramblings of a crappy unfinished novel. Mood was important, and they definitely got that right with the setting and some of the writing. Just sometimes less is more.

      • Viroso says:

        Well, I expected since it was a game where you could just walk, you’d walk where you wanted to, which means you’d have places to explore. But as it is, it was just walking straight. If I didn’t like FF13 or CoD for that, I don’t like Dear Esther either.

    • felsenmeer says:

      That’s why you didn’t like it? Fair enough, but it wasn’t advertised as that. It’s an interactive story you discover in a linear fashion. I really loved the idea of DE, particularly what it wanted to do (love dem interactive on-rails story things!) but found the single determining factor against total enjoyment was the cheesy-ass Creative Writing group writing. It didn’t come across as pretentious, just ham-fisted. A fist of hams! But it looked pretty. I enjoyed the original mod more, to those ends: a little less writing, and as a result the experience felt less defined by the ramblings of a crappy unfinished novel. Mood was important, and they definitely got that right with the setting and some of the writing. Just sometimes less is more.

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      Carra says:

      It’s more of an interactive movie. Atmosphere above puzzling elements.

      It was a well spent two hours.

    • LordDamien says:

      Neither do I from Proteus, although both are gorgeous to see, I still wish there was any action to do there besides walking. It did gave me some guilty pleasure when I read somebody tagged these as “walking simulators” in Steam.
      On the other hand I am very happy these kind of games do exist. Maybe a bit more of investment in the storytelling part and I would be completely in.
      So far I do have both (Proteus and Dear Esther), and I played along 15 minutes trying to squeeze some fun from it..

  2. Premium User Badge

    Anthile says:

    I very much doubt we will see any source engine game beyond Titanfall. Source 2 has been hinted at for quite some time now and I think we’ll see it for whatever game Valve does next.

    • SuicideKing says:

      It’s the CoD devs. They can (and do?) iterate the same engine for years.

    • DatonKallandor says:

      Oh I wouldn’t worry about Titanfall. They managed to take Source and turn it into a very convincing copy of the Quake 3 engine (what CoD runs on). Not sure any real Source engine stuff impacts them.

    • manny says:

      Source engine isn’t a good engine for newbie developers. It’s based directly on the quake engine, and iterated to the higher level it is now. It’s a mess. Unlike the Unity engine which was developed from the ground up to be a an easy to use commercial game engine.

    • Vin_Howard says:

      “Oh I wouldn’t worry about Titanfall. They managed to take Source and turn it into a very convincing copy of the Quake 3 engine (what CoD runs on).”

      Except the “fog” is a dead give-away that it’s Source :p

  3. grimdanfango says:

    Erm……

    …anyone?

    ……

    …okay, okay, I’ll do it…

    HL3 confirmed!!

    • Jinoru says:

      Get out.

    • SuicideKing says:

      ·-··­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­·- — -­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­·­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­·­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­· -­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­·­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­· ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­·-

    • Premium User Badge

      RaveTurned says:

      Every time its name is mentioned, its release date gets put back 24 hours.

      Current ETA is… June, 2143. Valve time.

  4. Sam says:

    Painful reading all the difficulties they faced with the engine. Also unpleasant that their only real hope is to switch from one proprietary engine to another, more fashionable, proprietary engine. It’s these unexpected costs that contribute to it still not being a terrible waste of time to make your own engine.

    Also I’m kind of surprised the developer is putting so much energy in to making it work on other platforms when it sounds like there’s not much of a market there for the game.

  5. Premium User Badge

    bear912 says:

    Huh. Too bad it got so convoluted. I have a strange sort of loyalty to the Source engine. Every time someone would say something about Source being long in the tooth, one could just point to Dear Esther as an example of what could still be done with it, even if technical capabilities didn’t always match up with more modern engines. I think I shall make a trip to my Humble Bundle library to download the Source versions while they’re still available. I have little interest in switching engines for the Windows version, where Source works just fine as-is.

    • nimbulan says:

      I used to as well, but the Source engine has been outdated for years. It seems to be suffering from feature bloat, with system requirements gradually increasing over time with little to no benefit for the end user. The multicore rendering is buggy, especially in multiplayer games, the texture streaming code isn’t nearly as robust as Unreal Engine, and it lacks a lot of features from newer engines. ALT+TAB still doesn’t work properly which is very unusual these days. Its netcode has been broken for 10 years and only seems to be getting worse considering the state of CSGO (though Respawn MAY have miraculously fixed it for Titanfall, I haven’t played it enough to say for sure.)

      Anyway, I loved the Source engine when it was new, but it’s time to move on. If Valve can combine the best parts of the engine such as the console and easy moddability with a better feature set and more robust design like the Unreal engine, they could be competitive again.

  6. pilouuuu says:

    Is it really worth to remake it once again? Shouldn’t they focus on making a new game on a new engine instead?

    • dethtoll says:

      Why would they do that when they can milk this pile of transparent emotional manipulation set to bad poetry for all its worth?

    • escherlat says:

      When learning something new it can be quite helpful to do it in the context of something you know rather well. Since the devs know Dear Esther really well it can be a simpler endeavor to learn Unity by porting Dear Esther to it, versus learning both a new engine and creating a new game.

      As a developer myself, there are a few applications I know very well. Their problems are essentially solved for me. When I learn a new language or technology, I rewrite one of the applications using the new thing. It’s a lot easier for me to spot problems in my understanding of the new thing, without being complicated by not knowing whether the problem comes from a lack of knowledge of the new thing, a poor design on my part, or a myriad of other things.

    • manny says:

      Think multiple platforms. Source can’t run on anything except pc, unless you rewrite the whole thing. But unity runs on Xbox One, BlackBerry 10, Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, Unity Web Player, Adobe Flash, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U and Wii. and PlayStation Vita. Those are huge markets and potentially alot of money they are missing out on.

    • christmas duck says:

      They’re currently making a game in the Cry Engine (not for PC irritatingly, though it’s unclear if that’s a permanent state of affairs). So it looks like this is just a side project to keep DE running (and I can’t tell how much this is to do with Thechineseroom as a whole and not just Brisco), in any case, they are working on a new game in a new engine.

  7. barney says:

    I’m amazed at the amount of effort that seems to have been put into that island (I’d never have guessed from my experience playing it — I’m gauging this sense of the gargantuan from scattered RPS coverage). It’s counter-intuitive, considering the content is so small, and the work is never to extend it.

    Whenever they’re brought up, Chinese Room surprise me in being one of those small ‘craft’ business that usually infuriate me for their twee, faux-naïf effeteness — like those kooky artisan coffee shop where the painstakingly, lovingly elaborated unique coffee blend is served to you lukewarm by an art student in an adorably ill-fitting checkered shirt who forgot you wanted sugar (Bless! It’s so intrinsically sweet that you’re persevering with your idea that any critical reaction would be churlish!) — but somehow I find myself respecting their determined work to safeguard that little project of theirs. If nothing else, it’s at least a clear labour of love: and it’s good of them to document it in unsentimental terms for the rest of us to learn from.

    And the alcohol molecules sketched all over the place were really fun too.

  8. Premium User Badge

    The Sombrero Kid says:

    On the one hand I feel like any dev’s who believe Unity is immune from this kind of problem are naive, on the other, this port is likely extremely cheap compared to writing you’re own engine but moving from proprietary engine to proprietary engine tells me you learned the wrong lesson.

  9. BerthaCBowling says:

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  10. Monkeh says:

    Seems kinda weird they’d release it again, but if they think it’ll sell, I hope they’re right.

    Having already played through Dear Esther, I’m not really interested in this.

  11. Shooop says:

    Dear Esther is far, far, far past its day in the sun. After the mod was made into a full-price game its single trick of emotional manipulation corridors wore thin.

    They’re trying to milk a cow after it’s dropped dead. I hope this backfires on them so very hard, it’s almost as disgusting as EA’s attempt at making Dungeon Keeper a (not really) free-to-play game.

    • Shodex says:

      I can’t help but agree. It’s in a weird spot. I enjoyed Dear Esther immensely, it felt like a labor of love. A work of art (yeah I said it, Ebert).

      But I think it loses it’s intellectual value when the devs pump out a slightly updated version so quickly after the last slightly updated version. You proved you have talent, show us something new and interesting.

  12. fitzroy_doll says:

    I loved using Source, but after engine updates killed my mod stone dead I wouldn’t touch it again.

  13. Jean-Michel says:

    Now about that Linux port, it was very half assed, it was only a crossover bottle, in fact the windows version works wonderfully under WINE anyways, why they haven’t used WINE is beyond me.

    With that said why would we believe what he has to say, who care about porting this “game” on consoles and the Unity engine, what I want to know is will I be able to get the new version for free, I’ve already bought this on humble bundle so I’m afraid we won’t be getting this “refresh”.