Game Changing: Games research creates new knowledge of digital games environments, improves industry perception of collaborations with academia and results in commercially successful, award-winning products
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Portsmouth
Unit of AssessmentCommunication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Information and Computing Sciences: Artificial Intelligence and Image Processing, Information Systems
Studies In Creative Arts and Writing: Film, Television and Digital Media
Summary of the impact
An innovative approach towards researching story-telling and its
relevance in games design has resulted in cultural and economic impact
in the creative sector and generated novel approaches that have influenced
creative practice in the games industry. As a direct result of the
research, an independent games development studio has been established and
two commercial game titles have been released, with commercial sales to
date of approximately £1.65m. The first release, Dear Esther, has
been a major commercial success, has also won several industry
recognition awards and is cited as directly responsible for the genesis of
a new gaming genre.
The research described was led by Dr Dan Pinchbeck, Reader in Computer
Games at the University of Portsmouth, School of Creative Technologies,
between March 2007 and February 2013.
Pinchbeck identified a lack of research data in the area of participant
experience, narrative modes and games design. In 2007-8, he was awarded an
AHRC speculative research grant [Grant 1] to lead research into how story
telling in virtual environments could be used to increase participants'
sense of immersion and self-presence (1, 2). To create conditions
under which player participation could be evaluated an innovative approach
to the research was taken: to maximise the experiential engagement of
players, virtual environments within games were created and made publicly
available to the gaming community. The aim was to gain research insights
into the role of narrative in gaming environments through creation of
authentic experimental gaming processes. In contrast to a traditional,
lab-based academic project, this research project made an innovative
contribution to games research methodology by constructing a `field-based'
context for player interaction (3, 4).
Specifically, research focussed on three game `plug-ins' (or `mods'
applied to an existing commercial game engine) that were developed by the
researchers under the AHRC grant [Grant 1]. These were made
available as free download, with public engagement from the gaming
community providing key feedback throughout. The principal output at this
stage was the first version of a `mod' named Dear Esther. Dear
Esther broke new ground in presenting an innovative experimental
design to test the limits of `first-person' narrative environments in
traditional games design. By removing all usual game play elements from
predetermined `first person' positions, players were permitted to explore
the environment for themselves and, to an unprecedented extent, determine
their own personalised narrative from the multiple potentials of a
fragmented and randomised story.
This approach had previously been considered too `risky' by the games
industry since it challenges dominant use of `first person' in commercial
gaming protocols. The fundamental research described above focussed on
exploring game design spaces that were not being explored by the industry,
due to their perceived experimental and uncertain nature. Industry focus
at this time was largely on mainstream game development and on reissuing
existing games, e.g. using the same basic structure as previous hit
releases, game tie-ups with successful film franchises, and/or developing
sequel releases to hit titles. In this context, the research team
identified an innovative research space in which an academic group could
use experimental techniques to evaluate technical and aesthetic innovation
within the framework of the community of `users'. Participant feedback was
used to create original `mod' prototypes that could be developed within
the commercial sector.
A fourth mod was develop under the project title Everybody's Gone to
the Rapture that, after production of a prototype [funded by Grants
2, 3], led to a successful industry collaboration and game
development contract with Frictional Games [Contract 1].
The research was published in the academic literature and key findings
and participant player feedback was disseminated at major games trade and
industry events. The use of practice-led research methodologies was
ideally suited to the encouragement of direct involvement with the gaming
industry as it resulted in applied knowledge readily applicable to
industry games development processes (5, 6).
References to the research
6. Pinchbeck, Dan (2013) DOOM: SCARYDARKFAST, Landmark Video
Games; Publisher: University of Michigan Press, ISBN 9780472051915, REF 2
Grants and Contracts
[Grant 1] Title: An exploration of the potential for new narrative
experiences in first-person perspective gaming
Principal Investigator: Dan Pinchbeck
Scheme: Research Grants (Speculative)
Period of the grant: 01/03/2007 to 30/06/2008
Value of the grant: £55,246
[Grant 2] Title: Thechineseroom: Commercialisation of practice-led,
research-driven experimental storytelling in games
Principal Investigator: Dan Pinchbeck
Scheme: Follow-on Funding
Period of the grant: 06/01/2012 to 05/09/2012
Value of the grant: £95,822
[Grant 3] Title: Everybody's Gone to the Rapture
Contribution to top-up AHRC Follow-on Funding (Grant 2)
Funder: University of Portsmouth
Scheme: HEIF (internal use of funds)
Period of Project: 06/01/2012 to 05/09/2012
Value of grant: £34,000
[Contract 1] Title: Game Development: Amnesia — A Machine for Pigs
Project Leader: Dan Pinchbeck
Funder: Frictional Games AB (Sweden)
Period of project: 01/11/2011 to 31/12/2012
Contract value: £225,676 (ex VAT)
Details of the impact
As a viable route to targeting new commercial markets and creating novel
game genres, our academic-industry partnerships fully demonstrate the
cultural and commercial value of collaborative research and development.
Consistent engagement with industry at trade events, workshops and
networks throughout the development stages of the research ensured that
experimental investigation was firmly located in the practical, commercial
contexts of games production and in authentic player experience. The
research described above has resulted in the following demonstrable
Contributing to economic prosperity via the creative sector (computer
The underpinning research led to the formation of `The Chinese Room' in
2007, now a fully established, successful, independent games development
studio with Pinchbeck as the Creative Director. The company employs 12
full-time staff. The Chinese Room is a major beneficiary of the
underpinning research demonstrated through the commercial success of its
first title (Dear Esther) and its most recent collaborative venture
with Sony. The Chinese Room has been able to build a strong reputation in
the industry based the credibility of its underlying research base.
Three commercial game titles, based on the underpinning research have
(i) Dear Esther — game released by The Chinese Room
In order to complete the commercial product, the underlying intellectual
property was assigned from the University to The Chinese Room which
subsequently entered into a licensing contract with Valve Corporation (US)
in order to release Dear Esther commercially, using Valve's Steam
distribution platform. The Chinese Room successfully secured ca. £55,000
Indie Development Funds to finalise the commercial product and released
the game to critical acclaim, including five BAFTA nominations and winner
of 7 major game industry awards (see http://dear-esther.com/).
Dear Esther has, to date, secured sales of 850,000 units (compared
with 100,000 for a typical Indie release) equating to US$2 million.
(ii) Everybody's Gone to the Rapture — game development by The Chinese
Room for Sony Computer Entertainment (US)
Following the research performed under Grant 1 and dissemination of the
outputs within the industry, the AHRC [Grant 2] and University [Grant 3]
funded further development of a commercial game prototype, under the title
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. The work and outputs from this
project led directly to the University securing a commercial contract
[Contract 1] with Frictional Games (see below). The Chinese Room is
currently developing Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, funded by
Sony Entertainment (US) for later release on the PlayStation platform (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3PG7k6vyyY).
(iii) Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs — game released by Frictional AB,
developed in collaboration with the University of Portsmouth
The popular release of Dear Esther demonstrates that industry and
academia are successful when collaborating on innovative game projects
with potential for commercial application. Because of this success,
Frictional AB approached the University to partner in its development,
bringing the innovative story-telling elements and atmospheric environment
to its latest `first-person' horror game: Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
was completed in Feb 2013 (http://store.steampowered.com/app/239200).
Pre-release sales of the game (full-release Sept 2013) allowed Frictional
AB to recover the full costs of its development, approximately £400,000.
In the TIGA Awards in 2013 Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs was shortlisted
as Finalist in the `Best Action Adventure Game (Small Studio)'
category and won Best Audio Design.
Generating new ways of thinking that influence creative practice
Dear Esther was a unique game, at the forefront of innovation in
the industry with strong following by the independent games community. It
received widespread trade and press recognition with articles in PC
Gamer, Games TM, Develop, Edge, The Guardian and Develop
publications A major contribution to experimentation in `new wave' games
design, the success of Dear Esther has had a major impact on
perceptions within the games industry about how collaboration with
academic institutions can be made to be highly effective. Academic
`practice-led' research (closely informed by participant `users' in the
games community) has generated innovative insights into the unexplored
capacities of digital gaming. Major industry (e.g. Sony Computer
Entertainment America) as well as `indie' developers (e.g. The
Astronauts, Poland) cite Dear Esther as the creative
precedent for development of their own projects and the creation of a new
`walk `em up' games genre.
Due to the University's role in brokering innovation in creative industry
practice, this has enabled the collaborative links with a number of
companies, including: Valve, Crytek, Sony, Splash Damage, Red Game Tools,
Rebellion and Climax. The University of Portsmouth is a short-listed
finalist in the TIGA Awards 2013 for `Best Educational Institute' in the
`Business of Games' category (http://awards.tiga.org/awards_categories.php).
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Letter from Director, The Chinese Room Games confirms that
establishment of the studio was dependent on the under-pinning research,
the games contracts undertaken by the studio and employment figures.
- Email from Chief Executive Officer, TIGA (Games Industry Association)
confirms the significance of the research in influencing creative
practice and TIGA Awards and nominations.
- Letter from Creative Director, Sony Computer Entertainment America
confirming the significance of the research in creating a new gaming
- Chief Executive Officer, Frictional Games AB can corroborate that
early research dissemination led to the development of Amnesia in
collaboration with the University team, and the sales figures for Amnesia:
A Machine for Pigs.
- AHRC News — describes the commercial success of Dear Esther http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News-and-Events/News/Pages/Highly-anticipated-computer-game-makes-its-budget-back-in-6-hours-upon-its-commercial-release.aspx
- AHRC Feature — describes the origins of Dear Esther, its
critical acclaim and its influence on creative practice http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News-and-Events/Features/Pages/Dear-Esther.aspx
Dear Esther Awards: http://thechineseroom.co.uk/games/dear-esther/
- Trade Press covering the collaborative work between University and the
games industry and supporting games design development through
PC Gamer http://www.pcgamer.com/search/pinchbeck
The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2013/oct/15/horror-amnesia-a-machine-for-pigs-chinese-room