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Jeff Tobler – Riddle of the Sphinx interview

Riddle of the Sphinx now being in the final stages of development, we asked co-designer Jeff Tobler some questions about the progress so far, and the early days of the project. Be sure to read our preview too.

Omni Creative was originally a website production and 3D animation company. What made you decide to get involved in interactive entertainment?

Omni Creative's website production is now at https://www.stlouiswebery.net. Our 3d animation has, with the exception of a few good clients, been focused toward ROTS. But I should step back and say that we were a full-service, albeit small, advertising agency before making the switch to developing interactive titles.

The combination of the interactive medium becoming a reality along with our knowledge of 3d art, design, music, and programming, plus our love of adventures (any kind of adventure) and puzzles/games, are all what made the light bulb flick on. It literally hit us in a single moment that we have the tools and know-how to produce the kind of title we wanted to produce, so why not? The specific influences to produce ROTS came from our interest in ancient Egypt and her mysteries, and certainly our experience in Myst.

What we didn't realize was that we needed a larger team, more money, and beefier equipment than what we had. We now have a much better idea of how to tackle these next projects.

Did your background as graphic designers prepare you for the job?

Certainly. Design theory never changes. 3d has it's nuances, but we are still working with design tools. Probably the biggest stumbling block is changing the way in which you think. Thinking as a designer (2d tools) requires tricking the eye into seeing what isn't there. Well, when designing in 3d, aside from lighting and mapping, there is no need to "fool the eye". You build it and work with a camera to compose the scene.

The 3d transition was easier for me since a had started drafting at a local foundry while still in high school. From there I studied technical illustration and architectural design. Only after that did I decide I much preferred the creativity in design. Then a few years later I was able to combine those two worlds in 3d art.

How did you come up with the concept for an adventure game set in Egypt? What was your experience with (adventure-) games before you started the project?

For us there is no other topic more interesting. Plus, each year more activity and new finds comes to the surface. It's hard not to notice the enigmatic nature of the Great Pyramid and Sphinx (literally and figuratively). I can tell you that we have both been very interested in archaeology at a very young age. That was one of the first things we realized we had in common. The difference between being a true archaeologist and a closet archaeologist is that I probably wouldn't have the tenacity to sit day after day, month after month, brushing away dust to find one piece of broken pottery. Rather, we want to uncover the big finds in a relatively short time period Image #1 That is why we started ROTS!

We also got tired of all of the hype and no tangible discoveries. In ROTS, we answer the questions behind most of the mysteries surrounding the Sphinx and Great Pyramid. Those wanting to know what is behind the "Secret Door" in the air shaft of the Queen's Chamber (Rudolph Gatenbrink's discovery using his robot) will find out in ROTS. Anyone interested in the evidence and lore of hidden passageways and secret chambers within the Great Pyramid will find the answers in ROTS.

As to our experience with adventure games or otherwise, I started out playing a very simplistic adventure-style game on an Apple II (although I can't remember the name of the game). I think we both played Donkey Kong, Asteroids, Centipede, and other arcade style games at that time. Then we really got into King's Quest and Larry the Lounge Lizard. I still really enjoy that type of game. We played other games after that, but Myst was definitely the one that took hold and wouldn't let go Image #2 The other games around that time were not as appealing due the lack of continuity between puzzle and environment, but we've enjoyed many others (too many to mention). And, of course, we have always enjoyed board games, cards, great adventure movies, etc.

How many people are involved in the development of Riddle of the Sphinx?

Karen and I worked on ROTS for about 4 years. Our typical day was: in at 9am and home at anywhere from 12am to 3am. I don't want to see those days ever again. Then one of our designers began to help us out in a few areas toward the end. But I would be remiss in not mentioning the multitude of those who have helped in many other ways. We have had good friends lend us equipment, their time, and most importantly their support and friendship when we needed it most.

Tell us a bit about the research you did on Egypt and the Sphinx.

We had plans to go to Egypt, but all of our research happened from our studio, on the phone, over the internet, and by mail. We talked with several people close to Sphinx-related projects, and two people directly involved with the Sphinx—Dr. Mark Lehner and Dr. Robert Schoch. Anyone following the Sphinx will know who these fellows are and will have opinions of each that differ greatly. Eitherway, they know the Sphinx and have worked closely on and around the Sphinx doing research and the age and relevance of the magnificent monument. We have talked to experts in Egyptology and archaeology, inside and outside of many universities.

My parents were helpful in confirming much of what we already knew with their trip a year ago (yes, we were very jealous:). We asked them, before the went, to research specific dimensions, facts, etc. And it just so happens that Dad is a professional photographer. The photos are beautiful and we will be posting them on the site soon.

A lot of work went into the visuals of Riddle of the Sphinx. How were you able to recreate the shapes and textures of ancient Egypt so accurately?

We had several books with dimensions and photographs. Plus we had the firsthand knowledge of our experts (see above). Even with all of that, it was difficult to get the exact dimensions and imperfections that exist today. Many of the books are old and, therefore, not accurate. The weathering of the Sphinx has changed dramatically over time, but we were able to get enough data from various sources and photos to accurately reproduce the Giza Plateau, Great Pyramid, and Sphinx. As we have already stated, in some areas we have purposefully left out graffiti and other defacing elements.

A point of interest is that several archaeologists have thought that the rendering of the Sphinx (daytime shot) is a photo, not a 3d model. The inside of the Great Pyramid is also very detailed. For instance, in the Grand Gallery, the telescopic walls have metal braces in place to keep any further deterioration from taking place. Well, in the game you will see those braces on the wall if you look carefully. Anyone knowledgeable with these monuments will enjoy the level of detail present everywhere in ROTS!

What types of puzzles should adventure gamers expect before they dive into the Egyptian mystery?

Karen and I spent a lot of time with the puzzles early on AND as we actually developed the environments, to make certain they still worked. Several puzzles changed overtime, for the better, and others worked as they were intended. But the point to this is that, above anything else, we wanted the puzzles to be part of the adventure. We've played a few games where you walk into a room and up pops a totally unrelated, conventional game (chess, for example). If I wanted to play chess, I would not have fired up an adventure game. No, our puzzles are as closely integrated into the story and/or environment as possible. Most of the obstacles confronted are either physical or logical.

What would the ancient Egyptians have constructed to keep out tomb robbers and thieves? Those are the types of puzzles in ROTS!

What went into the design of the soundtrack of the game?

The soundtrack was developed over two years. While scenes were rendering, I would swing over to the keyboard (synth) and start composing. I used several factors to create the mood of ROTS Soundtrack, including the sounds of modern Egyptian music and that of neighboring influences. A few of the tracks are fully orchestrated, usually featuring a double-reed or flute as soloist. However, the other tracks feature harps, primitive drums, flutes, and other interesting instruments. I wrote some of the music after a room was finished, but most were written before any of the environments were rendered. I ended up with many more tracks than we needed, so it was fairly easy to pick and choose which track went with which environment.

Which of Riddle of the Sphinx' features are you most proud of?

I've never been enamored with technology, so if by "features" you mean technology I guess I would have to say the full-screen 3d renderings, animated fire, and water scenes. If you are asking about content, then I would have to say that we're very happy with the continuity and richness of ROTS. We never compromised the detail and authenticity of the environments as you can see in the screenshots.

How did you end up signing with Dreamcatcher Interactive? Were you approached by them, or vice versa?

I know that they were told of our product and I remember being told to contact them by several people, so I'm not quite sure. In any case, I'm glad that they are handling the product. They have been wonderful to work with and they have been invaluable in helping the adventure game genre.

How much of the game is completed at the moment, and when will the Cryo/Dreamcatcher combination release the game to stores?

Since the official release date has been set for September 2000 (was Spring, but was simply too tight), we have additional time to look for and tie-up any loose ends. The issues we are faced with are optimization, testing, and revising any areas (either navigation or puzzle implementation) that we feel need it.

All and all, ROTS is a classic epic adventure! Anyone who has ever had the desire to explore ancient Egypt's monuments and tombs at their own pace, without interruption or permission from the Egyptian government, will love this game. If you enjoy ancient Egyptian artifacts, you will love this game. And, of course, if you have an insatiable desire to solve puzzles, discover hidden passageways, decode ancient scrolls, and solve the Riddle of the Sphinx, you will most definitely love ROTS!


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