By John Walker on May 22nd, 2012 at 2:00 pm.
As the current trend to Kickstart every adventure series I loved in the 90s continues, I jumped upon the opportunity to speak to Tex Murphy himself, Chris Jones. With the new FMV-driven noir science fiction adventure already well over halfway to its half-million goal, there’s cause to be optimistic for Big Finish Games’ project, Project Fedora, going ahead. And as Jones reveals, his team are putting in quarter of a million of their own money too. We talk about bringing Tex back, updating the genre for a modern audience, and why Jones believes FMV characters can connect to players in a way CG ones never can.
RPS: So how are things right now?
Chris Jones: Things are good. We had a good weekend. We’re over fifty percent. The great thing has been the fan support. For a game that’s been out of circulation for a while, for these people to come back and be so excited, and do so many things for us, has been incredible.
RPS: Were you surprised how quickly people have leapt on this one as something they wanted to see come back?
Chris Jones: I really was. We have several websites that are still active, but when we first put out the announcement video… I mean we had 35,000 hits in the first ten hours. I was just overwhelmed by that. Then to see these guys dig in and try to get us press, try to bring their friends on board, it’s really been fantastic, it’s just amazing.
RPS: How much do you think the previous games’ presence on GOG.com has been an influence on how popular the games still are?
Chris Jones: I think it’s been great. There have been instances where this being up on a website for years and years, people discover it and ask what the deal is with the Tex Murphy games, and people refer them quickly to GOG, and they’ve been able to get copies of the game and play them, and go, “Wow, I had no idea of the depth and how advanced the storytelling you guys had generated.” So GOG has been great for that. It’s been wonderful.
RPS: They were very well loved games in their time. Were they commercially successful?
Chris Jones: Yeah, they actually were. Under A Killing Moon was by far the biggest success that we had, and Pandora did quite well, and then Overseer fell off at that particular point in time. But I think a lot of was due to some of the feelings in the industry at FMV, and maybe some of the other games more-so than ours. We got lumped in together with them.
RPS: You really hit the crest of the CD-ROM game, you timed that perfectly.
Chris Jones: Yeah, I think so. From our standpoint we were looking for a big break in terms of the amount of data that could be stored, and when the CD-ROMs finally came out I think our timing was dead on.
RPS: Although you don’t seem to be mentioning Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum in this at all?
Chris Jones: Well… for those people who are familiar with that, that’s great. A lot of people really loved Mean Streets. It’s just it was such a change from the standpoint of how the games were done, that the early ones were of a different era for us. Under A Killing Moon started allowing us to develop the character in a much broader way.
RPS: I remember it had a huge impact on me, that weird, uncanniness of my PC doing video, but I was controlling video! It seemed impossible. You’d think that by now that would be really normal, but that still seems really abnormal to me, the idea of controlling video.
Chris Jones: Obviously we think that our products were well ahead of their time. I think that looking at what’s happened in the industry, FMV just faded off and died, but look at see what’s happened in the movie industry. That’s what all the big movies are any more: green screen with live actors, basically a lot of game elements that are inside the movie. I think bringing games around to having a lot of movie elements inside, so you can let the characters develop more so than just some tertiary things, I mean some really in-depth character development along with some solid acting that allows you to relate to the characters better than you could ever do with a CG character.
RPS: Do you think that’s true? Do you think there’s an extra level of connection with video?
Chris Jones: I think there is. I think CG characters are great in their way, but I don’t think you can get the depth of emotion that you can get when you’re dealing with real people. It’s the same thing with the Avengers. If those were CG characters it wouldn’t nearly be the same as it would if you’ve got a Robert Downey Jr, who’s executing the role of Iron Man perfectly, in a way you can relate to as a human being. So I think it makes a huge difference.
RPS: Why do you think more developers don’t do it for games?
Chris Jones: I think when it first game out it basically got a bad rap… Well, some of it was deserved.
RPS: [laughs] It sure was!
Chris Jones: [laughs] It was ahead of its time, but we were learning the craft. Then it faded away and I think a lot of people said, “Well, games are games, and movies are movies.” But really to me, no, that’s not necessarily true. You want an emotional connection with what you do, and I think developers have tried to do that in a CG way, and some of them have been quite successful. But the true human element, if you could truly relate to the characters, if it’s executed properly – and now I believe we have all the tools to do that – I think brings another dimension to the game. And again, my thing is, yes CG is great – it’s just like animation and what Pixar does – but I think to really let the story flourish you need FMV.
RPS: For how long have you wanted to be able to bring Tex back?
Chris Jones: Well, ever since we built a cliffhanger that… about twelve years ago! We’ve tried various times to bring this character back. When we were at Microsoft there were a couple of opportunities, but when Xbox took over they didn’t think the product was something that would work well on Xbox. As Big Finish games we’ve built some casual games, and we’ve thought, how can we bring more of the elements from adventure games into casual games, but they’re really kind of separate entities. We’ve talked to a couple of publishers, but it felt like it was going through a couple of committees, and going up a couple of levels, and then they would say, “No, there’s really no market for an adventure game any more.” So we couldn’t get any serious traction to bring it back.
RPS: Was it Kickstarter that made you realise?
Chris Jones: Well, we had started on prototyping some levels of Tex Murphy, we wanted to see what the tools could now do, and then obviously Tim Schafer had fantastic success. So, if there are people out there who really would want to see this product, and if they would support it, let’s give this a try. Let’s see if this is a viable way to bring the product back to market. Let’s find out if there’s any interest from a marketing standpoint, and if they can support it, great, let them be the publisher and let us answer to them in terms of the quality we put out there. And if they’re happy with it, well this is a great way to develop a product, because you’re dealing with the people who are the ultimate consumers.
RPS: Are you in touch with others who are doing this? Any of the old Sierra Online or LucasArts guys?
Chris Jones: We’ve talked to the Leisure Suit Larry guys – I loved that product in its day – and Jane Jensen, we’ve talked with her, and the SpaceVenture guys. It’s really the old guard.
RPS: This is my teenage years of gaming come back alive again!
Chris Jones: [laughs] It’s exciting! The whole point to this is, we are now answerable to those consumers. If we want to bring this back, we’ve got to do an excellent job. We’ve got to satisfy these people, and we’ve got to give them a reason for supporting it. If the publishers won’t do it, and we’ve got our second chance, we’ve got to deliver or this is a one-time shot.
RPS: So do you think this is something that could become ongoing if it’s successful?
Chris Jones: I really do. I think the reason so many people are supporting this just now is because the market has narrowed so much in terms of selection out there. You go, this is great, I love the shooters, I love the sports game, or whatever, but pretty soon you’re looking over shoulder and saying, “You know, there used to be more games that I could choose, and there used to be more variety,” and it seems that’s died out. So I think there is a certain longing for that. Now let’s just make sure that what we produce satisfies that longing so we’re a legitimate member of the family of games.
RPS: I’ve very pleased to play more Tex Murphy games. I loved those games back in the day. And I’m thrilled about new Space Quest, all these products coming back seems great. But I also worry that there’s a hook of nostalgia here, that will have that one-hit sense. “Oh yes, I remember loving those games then. It will be great to have a new one.” Do you think there’s a danger with you guys not developing new ideas as well?
Chris Jones: I think really the danger is – if they love the character they’re going to love this game – but you can’t rely on old technology, you can’t rely on how you did it before. You have to make it an enjoyable, slick experience. People’s attention spans are so much shorter than they used to be, so you need to gauge yourself to that and say, we’re dealing with a different type of consumer here, we’re all different types of consumers at this point, so don’t think that how you built a game fifteen years ago is going to satisfy these people. You have to bring these elements forward, and put them in a slick casing, so they go, “Wow! I’m enjoying this at the same level because they’ve got great characterisation, they’ve got a great story, the gameplay is fun, but if I’m going to stick with you you’ve got to make it easy and exciting, and basically a very slick package for me to play.”
RPS: How much was the budget on Under A Killing Moon?
Chris Jones: Under A Killing Moon was… two million dollars.
RPS: Okay, so this is going to be half a million, and it’s many years later. So how is that going to happen? How are you going to work within what is relatively a very tiny budget?
Chris Jones: Well, first of all the budget we’re getting from Kickstarter is not all the money we’re going to be using. We’ll have several hundred thousand dollars that we’ll commit to it as well. So you’re really talking a production that’s three quarters of a million. But when you look at the tools and how much they’ve improved… it used to be horrendous, the amount of work you’d have to go through to cut characters out and put them on the backgrounds, and give it the depth and the feel of them being in the environment. Now the tools are so slick, it’s so much easier than it used to be. Off the shelf technology that you can pull for the engine itself – I mean, we had to develop our own engine, our own tools, we had a very big programming staff – now you can do it with fewer programmers by far. And for the art team, you need a reasonably sized art team to pull this off, but it doesn’t need to be nearly as big either. When you combine all of these great tools that we have now, with people who have done it before, who completely understand the process – a lot of the guys are the exact same guys who worked on these games before – when we say in the video that we’re the pioneers, that’s really true. This is pretty much second nature to us.
RPS: So while you’ve only recently realised this is something you can do, what about the ideas going into the game? How long have they been around?
Chris Jones: We had a story arc that we were working toward. Obviously with Overseer we’d taken the story in a specific direction, that’s why we had the cliffhanger. I think the difference here is a lot of those elements are still going to be part of the game, it’s just that we’re pushing it out further. Obviously the characters are older, we don’t want to just say that they wake up the next morning and here we go, and oh – you guys look a little older, what happened?! We’re pushing it out a little further to make sense of where we are, and what’s happened to the characters, and I actually really like that. Developing the story it’s going to be, “What did happen on that night? What did happen to Tex’s girlfriend?” It really adds a lot of intrigue. I think people are really going to enjoy that.
RPS: Can you give us any hints about what themes we’ll be seeing in the new game?
Chris Jones: I think there obviously is a big story arc here. We’ve got the multi-paths again, so people can take it in different directions, based upon how they want to react emotionally and physically to a lot of the characters in the game. I think we do pathing pretty well. To see the relationships of the characters and where they’ve gone over the past seven or eight years will be very interesting to people. I think it’s going to be very intriguing to see elements of things Tex wasn’t even aware were happening to him in his world in Overseer, now really starting to blossom and come to fruition, as he’s pushed down the road just a little bit. I think people are going to be really excited about how all these elements have transitioned into something very, very big.
RPS: What about someone who never played any of the other games? How are they going to feel coming into it?
Chris Jones: Well, the really great thing about pathing is there are elements where if you want backstory you’re going to be able to find it. If you want to just move the story forward, you can just resolve things. But if you want to go back and play on a different path, you can do that. But anybody who is just hitting it fresh, we’re going to bring them up to spin really very quickly, and they’re going to be able to enjoy the story without worrying too much about what has happened – those elements will be there for them to discover.
RPS: Thank you for your time.