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Life After Tex
Somewhere between the Sierra Quest games and the massive contraction of the adventure game market, there was a series of games that pushed technological boundaries while delivering enthralling storylines, a combination that consistently redefined what a game is capable of as an art and entertainment medium: the Tex Murphy series.
Tex’s many fans will be disappointed that he isn’t quite ready for a comeback yet, but they have been thrilled that the games’ creators, Chris Jones and Aaron Conners, have started their own studio in 2007: Big Finish Games. Big Finish put out its first game, Three Cards to Midnight, last May, and a sequel, Three Cards to Dead Time, will be out soon.
Listening to guys like Chris and Aaron talk about games and game design is always a good way for a gamer to spend some time and with their new company about to release a sequel to their first game there was plenty to discuss. It was an excellent moment to sit down and see what they are up to.
The audio of the interview will be up shortly is up. There is plenty of interesting and funny stuff in there we just don’t have room to cover here, so you’ll have to download it for all the juicy bits.
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People Enjoy Good Stories
Big Finish Games’ About Us page makes it clear that Chris and Aaron are still all about making games with deep and involving stories. I started with the obvious question: what is the hardest part of interactive storytelling; which Aaron fielded. “Uhh, you got like an hour?
“That’s a significant question in our line of work… It’s almost like the Holy Grail. How do you balance that out? How do you give people a lot of freedom to have some control over what goes on but not compromise the integrity of the story. It’s that ongoing battle of how interactive do you make it and how much do you lose by giving people control over it. For us it’s an ongoing process of trying to find that perfect balance."
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Story in Hidden Object Games
Three Cards to Midnight had, not only a great story, but gameplay that was closely tied to it. There wasn’t a disconnect between story and game which is so common, where both gameplay and plot are good, but seem cut and pasted together. I asked about how this closeness was achieved. Chris answers:
“I think in looking at the particular market that we were going after, which was more of a casual gaming design, we looked at the products that were out there and obviously we felt like there was a lot of room with that in terms of bringing a story, but because story was so critical to what we were doing, we had to start with the story and work on the aspects of how do we integrate solid light adventure and casual gaming into the design, without compromising the story. So we really did start with the story itself, and then, with the experience that we’ve had, we found, I think, an excellent way to integrate the two."
Aaron: “It was hand in hand. It was ‘Ok. let’s look at what type of gameplay we have available, what is the best story scenario to fit that?’ We thought someone trying to retrieve their memories, through this word association, that that gameplay and that story would really work hand in hand very well."
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Making Three Cards to Midnight
Many of the Tex Murphy faithful were a little surprised when two point and click adventure luminaries started a company and promptly announced they were working not just on a casual product, but a hidden object game. Chris:
“Our motivations were to basically take what was successful in the market currently, which was hidden object, but bring a more intelligent twist to it. We felt like it was a game where you had to think a little bit harder. We’re kind of feeling our way, but we feel like there is an audience out there that likes a particular product but they may be willing to take a few steps and kind of ‘grow up’ with the games per se. From our stand point it’s: ‘what can we do to stretch the genre a bit and make it a bit more interesting to people who like this type of product, but really want to maybe find a way to expand it.’
“So, really, we feel like our mission here is to bring intelligent storytelling and interesting, fascinating gameplay and bridge them in a way that reaches back to the casual market and kind of brings them along." Aaron adds:
“I think it’s definitely kind of cliché at this point, because you have people like Jane Jensen [maker of the Gabriel Knight games] and some other people that are kind of straddling this line between the old fashion adventure games and this kind of new market. I think, for us, all along out intention has been to do the things we’ve done in the past, and find a way to reach out to this new audience. Like Chris was just describing, dangle a little carrot to them: something that looks really familiar to them, but behind it, there is more depth, there’s more of what you would consider traditional adventure game elements. We thought ‘Alright, we’re going to approach it with something that looks like a typical hidden object game, but we’re going to add elements to it, that’s going to expand the experience.’ With any luck, people will play a few of our games, we can actually pull them all the way over to, like, the Tex Murphy games."
I couldn’t help myself: “So, you’re creating gateway drugs?" They admitted to making “gateway games."
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A big challenge for independent game developers is how to get their games into the hands of players. Retail distribution and marketing are the kinds of things that large publishers have the cash for. Aaron explains how Big Finish sells Three Cards to Midnight:
“We did a few things. We self-published initially, from our website, and a lot of our fans came to that site, which was great. We were able to start building up a data base of people who like our games… People who come and register on our website, we will keep them in the loop as to what we’re working on and what games we’re coming out with. But there are also a lot of other game portals…
“What we’ve found is the majority of people in those casual spaces tend to just buy from one portal. We feel like we’re just reaching out and gradually trying to find all the people in the nooks and crannies that might like this game."
I asked about the importance of digital distribution to indie game companies. Chris answers:
“It’s a big help. You reach their fan-base immediately once it’s up on a site and like you say, each of those are basically their own little island. In order to win, especially at this level, you need to gather as many little islands as you can, push it yourself, and build your following that way. It’s not much different than when we first started out in the business and we had to find a way to reach as many people as we could, as inexpensively as possible."
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The Indie Nitty Gritty
What independent devs lose in distribution, they usually make up for in flexibility, innovation, and enthusiasm. Aaron:
“We did it on such a shoestring. It was basically having a lot of people work with us because we enjoyed working together and we were all excited, after all these years, to come back together to actually create a brand new game." Chris on the same topic:
“We created what we wanted to create... We’re looking forward to just keep pushing the envelope in terms of how we design and who we design for."
Aaron and Chris have a lot of experience in big game companies, so they have a lot to compare with the making of Big Finish’s first game. The next article will delve into the differences and similarities of AAA and Indie game development, and the changes to the industry as a whole over the last twenty years.