How Universities Are Helping Video Games Move Forward

In a recent interview with Electron Dance, Dr. Dan Pinchbeck explained how the development paradigm he works in actually finds values in failed games,

“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.”

Pinchbeck, a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth’s School of Creative Technologies, is the man behind thechineseroom, the small studio that produced Dear Esther and Korsakovia. In the interview, part of Electron Dance’s ongoing series “The Academics Are Coming,” Pinchbeck describes the unique position his studio is because of its relationship to the university.

As a developer-academic hybrid with support from the university, Pinchbeck can afford to take a more experimental approach to making games,

“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.”

Whatever your thoughts on art house mods like Korsakovia or Dear Esther, it’s clear that they are helping to push the boundary of how we think about interactive virtual experiences and games. Even if the end product doesn’t win audiences, there are bits and pieces of design that can have important consequences for games being developed in the rest of the field, and by studios that don’t themselves have the same luxury to wait and see what works, and what doesn’t work. As Pinchbeck notes,

“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.”

Recently, what’s developed in the gaming space is a market that’s split between the larger, more bureaucratic, risk averse studios and the smaller, nothing to lose, DIY-ers. Now while I’ll be the first to admit that I love big AAA blockbusters when they’re done right, they are so often not done right. And even the ones that are (Halo, Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed, etc.) end up hurting industry creativity and innovation because of their penchant for propagating sequels. Critical success for a game like Bioshock didn’t mean more risk taking, it meant more Bioshocks.

The problem then is that failure simply isn’t an option for most people. Unlike other media, books and music for instance, a major flop in video games can lead to the closing of a studio because of all the resources that had been tied up in it (38 Studios is a good recent example).

Of course, failure is hardly that much more tenable for smaller indie developers. While they might not be investing huge chunks of money into their projects like the “pros,” they certainly invest a daunting amount of their time and emotional energy.

Which is why I’d like to see more partnerships like the one between thechineseroom and the University of Portsmouth, as well as more financial support for the growth of video games as an art and as a way for learning about ourselves by how we play.

The university is already a safe haven for struggling writers, musicians, and actors, why not a bastion for passionate developers as well? Larger publishers might even have an incentive to donate to or establish fellowships in conjunction with academic programs with an eye toward eventually benefiting from the knowledge and produced by developers working in a freer, less profit constrained environment.

Especially as the tools become easier to manage (Dear Esther and Korsakovia are both Half-Life 2 mods), more people will be able to explore the design possibilities left unexcavated in the framework of existing development engines. With any luck, they’ll be more studios like Pinchbeck’s to come in the next few years. All of which makes me hopeful that even as mainstream studios and publishers struggle to take chances, thechineseroom and others will be experimenting and innovating despite them.