The Chinese Room is dead, long live The Chinese Room!
In 2017, the celebrated developer of Dear Esther and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture made most of its team redundant and went dark. Financial pressures and health issues got the best of the studio. There was much uncertainty at the time about whether The Chinese Room would be able to make a comeback, though creative director and co-founder Dan Pinchbeck assured it wasn't the end.
Flash forward to August 2018: Sumo Group announces the acquisition of The Chinese Room. Within a few months, the studio had grown tenfold, and it has continued to thrive since. Even the global COVID-19 crisis didn't prevent the release of its first game since the Sumo acquisition: Little Orpheus, which launched on Apple Arcade in June.
While being part of a bigger entity inevitably meant tweaking some aspects of the development cycle, the change was most meaningful at a personal level.
"Not every problem is mine to solve. Being part of a bigger system has really been a good thing"
Dan Pinchbeck, The Chinese Room
"The biggest size we were at was 15 people for Rapture, and for Little Orpheus the team was about 32 people, so there's a lot of change that goes along with that, in terms of the way you do things," Pinchbeck says. "But I think one of the personal things that's been really good in having a larger team, having the support of Ed [Daly] in his role as studio director, and the Sumo infrastructure, is that I've actually been able to focus much more on being a creative director.
"Previously, I tried to sandwich being a creative director in amongst being HR, finance, pitching, publisher relations and manning support lines and everything else that goes with it, so actually it's been quite liberating on that side of things. Not every problem is mine to solve. Being part of a bigger system has been, on a personal level, really quite a good thing."
Pinchbeck's relief at not having to carry the weight of the company on his shoulders echoes what Double Fine's Tim Schafer told GamesIndustry.biz about having been acquired by Microsoft: "Things have been almost exactly the same, just without the terror of going out of business all the time."
There's a definite parallel between some of the studios Microsoft acquired in recent years and The Chinese Room's own journey as part of Sumo. For these studios, the weight of doing it alone maybe became too much, or they needed more financial support -- often both. The reality is that running an independent development studio is far from the idealised vision that many have.
"It's very difficult to concentrate on the creative requirements of the project you're working on and to look after the business," Pinchbeck continues. "It's important to [say] that running a business, you have to be incredibly creative. It requires very similar skill sets in terms of being adaptable, having an intuition, knowing where things are going, as well as being able to be responsive and structured. So there are a lot of crossovers, but I think one of the things that is difficult to communicate to people that haven't run a business is the weight of running a business on you.
"You're never off. You don't get to go: 'I'm just stopping.' Any time, day or night, it stays with you. It's a hugely weighty responsibility. And you're responsible for people's employment and their well-being, and that's a very serious responsibility to take on. I always found those things were some of the toughest stuff to deal with about running a business. And I don't think it's necessarily talked about very much. It's like: 'We'll get together and will do this and somehow there will be this game that we'll make. And then it'll be fine.' There's a lot of intricacies around that, that can take a huge amount of time and expertise to develop."
"What the group provides is all this security that is often hard to find for a purely independent developer"
Ed Daly, The Chinese Room
Studio director Ed Daly adds that being part of the Sumo group is just a "really neat solution" -- and no doubt this applies to many indie studios that end up being acquired.
"Especially -- and this is the case-- if the studio is able to maintain its own culture and creative autonomy and all the ways that really matter," he adds. "The team working on games is a master of its own destiny, and then what the group provides is just all this security that is sometimes -- well, often -- hard to find for a purely independent developer. All the backup and expertise that [you get] at a certain scale, it takes the pressure off."
Sumo Digital's support and the advantages of having such an infrastructure around the team were made abundantly clear during the COVID-19 crisis.
"The moment this all happened, Sumo was on it straight away," Pinchbeck says. "They were calm, organised, and they moved hundreds of people to working from home and remote working in a week... If there were ever any lingering questions about why we're part of Sumo, I think their response to the pandemic and how they treated their people during it has definitely answered those a hundred times over, because they've been fantastic."
Launching its first game since its resurrection was a particularly important step for The Chinese Room. The team wanted to make a statement with that first project, and make something that had nothing to do with what it had created previously.
"We bounced around quite a lot before the Sumo acquisition," Pinchbeck says, keen to highlight the variety of games the studio worked on. "We've done PC, console, VR. We wanted to see something different, to really come out of the Sumo acquisition and say: we're evolving as a studio. That's quite an important statement for us to make. That we weren't just gonna be producing Dear Esther 2, 3, 4.
"[We] really want to be seen as having that real focus on excellence around storytelling. But we're not necessarily limited to a particular type of game like a walking sim or whatever it is you might call it. The Apple opportunity really gave us the chance to do something very different, but it's still kept that DNA of what we've done before as The Chinese Room."
"That's quite an important statement for us to make. That we weren't just gonna be producing Dear Esther 2, 3, 4"
Dan Pinchbeck, The Chinese Room
Mobile is an exciting space to be in, Pinchbeck adds, but it doesn't mean that The Chinese Room will exclusively remain in that market going forward. Apple Arcade just created an opportunity for the studio to spread its wings in a new direction without the respective hurdles of free-to-play and premium.
"The Apple Arcade service really made a big difference because, if not for that, it would have been more difficult to do a game like Little Orpheus," Daly says. "There's no option to monetise within the game, and advertising would have made it difficult to make Little Orpheus work as well as we hope it does. We really needed that particular set of circumstances that came about with Arcade to make that fit.
"[Premium] is tough, just because to invest the amount of money you need in a game with the ambition of Orpheus is a really big ask, in terms of being able to recoup that. As a premium mobile title, there are very few examples that suggest that that's really going to pay back. So we would have had to approach it more gradually and look for some validation in the game before going as far as we did with the investments. I don't think we would have been able to embark on it were it not for the Arcade structure around it."
Being part of the Arcade ecosystem also solves the visibility issue that plagues mobile gaming, as it provides a curated space for players. However, it was reported a couple of weeks back that Apple was allegedly terminating contracts with some Arcade developers in order to focus on games with long-term engagement. But this doesn't scare The Chinese Room, and it could in fact provide the studio with interesting opportunities to expand upon Little Orpheus.
"I think any service is going to switch directions, it's going to evolve according to what is going on with users and things like that, so on one hand it's not a huge surprise to see Apple tweak the recipe as the service grows," Pinchbeck says. "And it's still pretty young, so I don't think it's an enormous surprise that they're going to be assessing it quite carefully and adjusting things.
"In terms of how it affects us directly, Orpheus was conceived as an episodic title initially anyway, so we were already thinking about how this is a game which can potentially grow and change and can have people coming back to it over and over again. That's something which I'm creatively really interested in because it's very different from how The Chinese Room has conceptualised games in the past. We've [done] sort of 'fire and forget' titles.
"Some of the best games out there have come as a result of shifts to the ecosystems and the landscapes"
Dan Pinchbeck, The Chinese Room
"We're not quite ready to go full blown games-as-a-service yet, but definitely there are some really interesting creative challenges [about] having long[-term] content, where you can really offer that complexity and that really emotional experience.
"I think if you are running a games company, responding to how the industry ebbs and flows is part and parcel of it. And I think some of the best games out there have come as a result of those challenges, of those shifts to the ecosystems and the landscapes. I'd be more concerned about Arcade if Apple had said: 'This is what we're going to do forever,' and they were just sticking to that regardless of how successful or not it was. It shows that they're invested in Arcade, that they're looking to steer the ship as it goes along."
The Chinese Room's vision for Little Orpheus goes beyond in-game extensions. This very polished platformer has great humour, music and sound effects -- its tone, as well as its cinematic and episodic approach, drew comparisons with your typical Saturday morning cartoons. The Chinese Room isn't talking about an animated series adaptation yet unfortunately, but going cross-media is definitely at the back of the team's mind, among other projects.
"I think one day, it would be nice to take [it] to other platforms," Daly says. "It's not something we'll be able to do for a little bit, but I'd love to do that one day and just think about what else we can do within the IP more generally. We talked about graphic novels and other ideas at some point in the future."
Pinchbeck continues: "Generally, transmedia stuff [is something] I really enjoy. I think making it episodic in this way came mostly from wanting to make something which had the tone of the old 1930s Republic [Pictures] serials, so things like King of the Rocket Men, Undersea Kingdom, Flash Gordon -- though Flash Gordon isn't actually Republic. I loved those as a kid.
"There's aspects of them which are really problematic now, but what we did want to capture was the idealism of a simple adventure. We've made a lot of dark games in the past, and I wanted to make something that was... not less serious, because I think there's hidden depths to Little Orpheus, but definitely had a very optimistic view of human nature.
"I want us one day to be looked at by people saying: they made the best games of the decade"
Dan Pinchbeck, The Chinese Room
"The way in which those old TV shows were structured, they'd always end on a crazy cliffhanger where the characters would be facing almost certain death. Like a character would fall off a cliff and you'd see them face their death, and then the next week you'd come back and they'd do exactly the same shot, only this time they'd put a tree in it that they'd hit halfway down and it would save them miraculously! It was really cheesy and corny, but you kind of knew and you were all in on the joke, and there's something really, really wonderful about that. And I really wanted to catch that with Orpheus. That structure let us constantly escalate the story: 'Oh, if you think that's crazy, wait until you see where we're going next!'"
The Chinese Room is not shying away from its ambitions. In an interview with EGM, Pinchbeck said he wanted to build "the Naughty Dog of the UK." The team is currently working on its next project, which is "oriented towards console and PC," Daly says. While the pair can't discuss the specifics at this stage, what's for sure is that they don't want to be known for walking simulators anymore.
"I think what we can say is that, from the word go, we wanted the studio to be obsessively driven by story, investing a lot in character, investing in production values -- audio, music, writing, voice acting," Pinchbeck says. "Doing what we've historically built our reputation on: being really good at creating worlds that really speak to people.
"And what we're doing is evolving the studio, to move out of that 'art house niche' I suppose. Looking at more traditional genres, more traditional markets, but keeping that fingerprint of what makes us us. About the aspirations of becoming the 'Naughty Dog of the UK,' I think if you're going to do this then you should be ambitious. Creatively I don't really see any point of doing it unless you're really shooting for the moon. Hopefully I want one day us to be looked at by people saying: they made the best games of the decade. You want to be seen in that position. Your job is to really dream big and then work on how you can turn that into a reality."