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Secret Files: Tunguska - Jörg Beilschmidt interview

When Secret Files: Tunguska first appeared on the adventure scene last year at the Games Convention in Germany, its impact was much the same as the historical natural phenomenon it's based on. Completely out of the blue, the game arrived unexpectedly, it shone brightly and dazzled, and then took off like a flash, leaving the landscape permanently changed by its presence. In the aftermath, a bunch of wide-eyed, open-jawed adventure fans were left to pick up the pieces, asking ourselves "where the heck did THAT come from?!"

Okay, maybe the analogy doesn't quite hold up to the massive explosion of 1908 that devastated thousands of miles of Siberian forest in a disaster that still hasn't been adequately explained. But Secret Files: Tunguska certainly caught a lot of us off guard and left us impressed and looking for more. Co-developed by two relative unknowns in Fusionsphere Systems and Animation Arts, just who were these guys, and what did the game have in store for us? With their game having released in Europe a month ago and in North America just recently, we felt it was high time to take a few moments to speak with Jörg Beilschmidt, the Lead Game Designer.

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First of all, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Let's start off with a nice, easy, relaxing question: what REALLY happened in Tunguska in 1908? Okay, maybe that's not so easy, but it's such a unique mystery, we'd love to hear your thoughts on the real historical phenomenon.

Simple questions deserve simple answers: I haven't got a clue. Really. The problem is, we have spent a long time researching the historical facts behind the Tunguska catastrophe (in 1908 a flying object which has not been identified up to the current day crashed into the Siberian steppe, exploded and left behind a massive trail of destruction). We then tackled a wide range of different conspiracy theories (of which there are some ... well ... unusual ones). And because this wasn't enough for us, we spiced up the mixture of facts and theories with a generous helping of our own fiction. I am now no longer sure what is fact, theory and fiction. But didn't a certain Wladimir Kalenkow write a interesting article on the Tunguska phenomenon?

It's a fascinating event, but not particularly well known, possibly because of its remote location and age. What was it that drew you to Tunguska as the topic for your game?

That's exactly it: the subject is fascinating but still relatively unknown. We didn't want to have our adventure set yet again in Atlantis or Stonehenge. And the Tunguska catastrophe provided us with so much material that in the end we had to throw lots of material overboard, as it would have easily been enough for two games.

The game revolves around a modern day fictional account of Tunguska, but obviously you had to understand your subject matter pretty thoroughly. How much research into the actual event did you do?

We spent approximately two weeks searching the Internet for information, in order to find out whether the subject really contained the substance we were expecting. After we had confirmed this, we spent another 2-3 weeks doing intensive research. And despite this, questions still repeatedly occurred during development, which required a large amount of research work. If we design another ten adventures involving secret mysteries, we should be able to call ourselves experts without a doubt.

So why an adventure game? Surely you've heard that there's no market for adventures anymore. What made you believe you could be successful creating a point-and-click adventure in 2006?

Counter-question: Is there a market for average quality games of a different genre? Generally speaking, good games thrive and also generate correspondingly good sales figures. (Exceptions prove the rule). We "simply have to" deliver a top-notch product and then hope and pray a little. Additionally, we all love the adventure genre and just thought that it was about time again for a good old traditional adventure.

Had any of you worked on adventure games before?

Not directly, but as game development is generally quite an adventurous thing, we were able to fall back on some experience. We did of course take a look at all the competitive titles over the last few years, analysed their strengths and weaknesses and checked out the respective forums. This insight corresponded almost perfectly with our perception so we "just" had to realise our vision.

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So tell us a little more about your team. At least in the English-speaking world, it seems Fusionsphere and Animation Arts arrived out of nowhere.

Our core team consists of three people, who have all known each other since our time together at Ascaron Entertainment. We worked on The Patrician II together there. We parted ways for a brief while, then the graphics studio Animation Arts was founded, then Fusionsphere. I was occupied with my Political Sciences degree as the time and was not really happy with it, so that the call from the other two with the idea to work together was really welcome for me. The team was added to with freelancers as necessary according to our needs so that we had up to ten employees at times.

Any noteworthy anecdotes from your time developing the game? Unexpected obstacles, late night crunch sessions, anything else we'd never guess from playing such a polished final product?

Unexpected obstacles? Yes there were a few. Sometimes we only worked ten hours a day. And we did even treat ourselves to completely free weekends. Of course only at the beginning of the project. And very rarely. Hardly ever. Actually never.

And otherwise? There are many things that any normal person would consider as extremely strange, but which are perfectly normal in the games world. That's why we love our job so much. Or do we hate it? I'm not always sure myself...

How did your relationship with Deep Silver come about? I believe this is also their first adventure as a publisher, so it seems an unlikely partnership at first glance.

Sometimes it's the little things that make the difference. Deep Silver gave us the feeling right from the beginning that they believed in the title. And we gave them the feeling that their belief was justified. The co-operation, I think, has proven both sides to be right. Both parties have explored new territory and were rewarded for it. We didn't have to think about alternatives, when considering the continuation of the co-operation. Doesn't that sound terribly harmonious? Yes, I'm sorry, but it's really true.

Despite being your first adventure, the game shows a very fundamental grasp of traditional game design, so you're obviously no strangers to the genre. What games would you cite as being influences, either on you personally or your professional approach to Secret Files: Tunguska?

Of course every one of us has our own personal favourites. Simon the Sorcerer II is a candidate as is Day of the Tentacle. Subconsciously they have also influenced us without a doubt, but even if there are people who accuse us of wanting to copy a style (yes, they do exist...) Secret Files: Tunguska is simply our own idea of a great adventure.

Now that you've finished, what aspects of Tunguska are you most pleased about, and are there any areas you aren't completely satisfied with? Maybe something you'd do differently if given the chance?

There are always things that can be improved. If that wasn't so, we would have created the perfect game and would have to retire from the business. It is not so much obvious faults but much rather a number of optimisations. And there will definitely be some. Which ones? We'll keep you posted...

Fortunately, those are lessons you can carry over into the sequel. You are planning a sequel, right? The announcement at the end of the first game certainly suggests you are.

Yes, we are working on a sequel. But no more can be said at present.

Not even a little? Will it be a direct sequel with a continuation of the same story, or do you just plan to use the same characters in entirely new adventures?

We will not have that many links back to the story in the first part, as we do not want to commit ourselves too much regarding the selection of the story. The two main characters will of course return (and perhaps a number of supporting characters may feature in small guest roles).

Have you already begun work on the next game, or are you still busy following up on the various international releases of the first? Or maybe just recovering from exhaustion.

I have already been working on the design of the next title for three months now. The graphics designers from Animation Arts and the programmers from Fusionsphere Systems are still partly working on the European localisations and are using up every free minute for developing new prototypes. After all, the presentation also still needs even more improvement.

The game is being quite well received, though not yet released everywhere. Are you happy with the reception it's received to this point? Any surprises so far?

To be perfectly honest, I'm not really happy with the ratings. If people compare a classic adventure with an ego-shooter and criticise the lack of action, then a number of questions occur to me. Secret Files: Tunguska has its focus clearly on the classic puzzle design, the exciting story and the atmosphere. In addition to this there is the intuitive control and the numerous little support features which guarantee a game experience free of frustration. Of course you can't shoot people in our game, or throw fireballs around or plan the next move on the strategy map. But all those who like classic adventures and who value logical puzzles and easy operation have definitely made the right choice with our game. Both the forum response and the large number of emails show that we have given many players a lot of pleasure with this type of adventure.

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Do you have any favourite characters or moments from the game that really stand out for you?

I love the conversation between Max and the innkeeper in Ireland. I still laugh when I hear the dialog, even though I wrote it myself. I don't really have any favourite characters. As I have designed a background story for every character, no matter how small his role is in the finished game, I am really fond of every character.

What's up with the fascination with radiators? There must be an inside joke attached to that. Care to let the rest of us in on it?

We are small garage companies and we nearly froze last winter. Then we got an offer from a large heating manufacturer...

No, this really isn't supposed to be a joke. The graphics just got many more radiators than we originally intended. So we started gradually to like it and included further puzzles concerning radiators. Well, game designers are strange creatures some times...

The decision to use all American accents in the English version of the game is generating some interesting public reactions. Whose decision was it to do that, and why did you choose that option over localized accents?

We wanted to have good speakers. Really good speakers. And over there [in North America] the selection is much larger and you can pick out your favourites. Here, it's quite another thing if I am looking for an Irishman of Cuban descent with a Siberian accent. The choice in this case is not very large and the quality tends to be lower.

The questions can also be asked: what do I want to achieve by having someone speak with a French accent? Is that a characterisation? Hardly. That's why we decided against any kind of accent and have preferred to individualise our figures with other characteristics.

Any successful adventure relies on a balance between storytelling and gameplay. Some developers seem to have a specific style of gameplay in mind and build a story around it, while others appear to work puzzles in once they've developed their storyline. Secret Files: Tunguska is very story-driven, but has a lot more puzzles than many other current adventures. Did you have a primary focus when developing the game?

Our definition of adventure is a perfect combination of puzzles AND story. Both elements were thus developed parallel to one another. The puzzles on the one hand must ensure challenging entertainment but on the other they continue to tell the story. There is accordingly no focus on ONE of the two elements, but rather on the combination of them both.

Having two playable characters really opens up possibilities, either to develop a story in different ways or to create cooperative gameplay where both characters are required to succeed. The interaction between Max and Nina was used but not really emphasized in this game. Is that something you're interested in pursuing further in future games?

Yes, there are definite plans to further develop the co-operation between Nina and Max. It is however difficult to say currently to what extent this can be realised.

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Are you involved in any other games right now, or have you been focused exclusively on Secret Files: Tunguska?

We are a small team and are putting a lot of stock into an even better successor for Secret Files: Tunguska. We are thus concentrating fully on taking the players' criticisms seriously and acting on them accordingly. In other words, in addition to working on the sequel, there is perhaps a little time available for sleeping and eating every now and then, but definitely no other games.

How soon until we start hearing the first details about your next adventure? Anything you can tease us with now?

Towards to the end of this year there will be a German teaser. Whether and when there will be international versions of it has not yet been planned. I have been forbidden to impart any further information on pain of a longer stay in the Tunguska region.

Well, your first game is enjoyable in its own right, and shows all kinds of promise for Fusionsphere and Animation Arts as adventure game developers. Thanks again for sharing your time with us, congratulations on your achievement, and we do hope to see plenty more from you in future! Any last words to share with our readers?

Thanks a lot. My last word is usually "Cheers". As the international ratings vary between 60-90% and a clear tendency doesn't seem to be developing, I would like to draw your attention to our comprehensive demo. Download the application and decide for yourselves if Secret Files: Tunguska is more of a 90% than a 60%.


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