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Dear Esther: The Mod Community’s Backlash at Premium Pinchbeck

By on February 21, 2011

Dear Esther was an experimental 2008 Half-Life 2 mod which positioned the player as a nigh-on passive entity; a nameless soul exploring a Hebridean island at snail’s pace while semi-randomised letters to ‘Esther’  are syphoned through the speakers. It was produced by Dan Pinchbeck and his crew as part of a research project at the University of Portsmouth, and when the Valve-sanctioned commercial release was announced last week Nicholas asked me to chime in. Specifically, to chime in on this.

Yup, the story here is that not everyone’s happy a successful mod’s makers want to turn it into a premium product. Moddb’s comments threads are certainly aflame, but then when are there not a bunch of people on the internet complaining about just about anything? For once, though, I understand the sentiment entirely.

Lewis Denby, in his Beefjack write up, posits a number of positions:

a) The first angle is that people are pissed off because they were promised something free (the mod was released for free in 2008, with the remake also intended to be free up until very recently), and now they’re being asked to pay.

b) Maybe people just don’t like to pay for games

c) It’s art and therefore shouldn’t be a profit making exercise

d) The mod community feels shunned: its underground darling is all grown up and doesn’t need them anymore

Being promised something free and then being asked to pay for it sucks. Frankly, my joy at seeing a game like this offered a shot at commercial viability far (far) outweighs my being miffed at having to pay. But I can see that’s not for everyone. As for (b), Denby debunks that fairly thoroughly (people don’t like to pay for games, but they do). Denby concludes his article by asking whether we have a right to consume art for free; I’d argue we do not on the basis that we don’t have the right to anything for free.

It’s (d), though, that really makes sense to me. It’s that age-old thing of finding a band you love; spending months trying in vain to get your mates to listen to them; then the band making Top of the Pops and everyone jumping on the bandwagon. Dear Esther has – on a professional level at least – outgrown the community that first gave it a leg up. I don’t believe for a second that Dan – who’s always seemed like a lovely, smart chap when I’ve met him – has done the same.

I can understand the community’s sentiment. Modding has always been a crucial cog in the machine that makes the PC the most experimental development platform available, and if members of that community feel snubbed by the fact that Dear Esther’s makers want the game to reach a less niche audience then that’s an emotion I can identify with. It seems to me, though, that the heart of the matter is buried in that very sentence: the mod community is home to some of the most creative, outrageously ambitious and wildly talented developers on the planet. It doesn’t need to feel snubbed – it needs to get on with finding the next Dear Esther so we can start the whole fantastic process all over again.

About Tom Jubert

Tom Jubert is a freelance games writer / narrative designer, best known for his work on the Penumbra series, for which he was nominated for a Writers' Guild Award. His upcoming releases include Lost Horizon and Driver: San Francisco. He was previously the Managing Editor at GameShadow.com, and has also spent time in production.