Aaron Conners and Chris Jones interview
By now we thought we'd be playing Three Cards to Midnight, the long (LONG!) awaited new game from Aaron Conners and Chris Jones. But the developers best known for their beloved Tex Murphy series have decided to make us wait a little longer than expected, and for good reason. Due in part to feedback on the preliminary version of the game (such as... say, our own preview), they decided to revisit key elements of the game's design in order to further enhance it in significant ways. We'll be taking a closer look at this new and improved version soon enough, but in the meantime, the delay gave us the perfect excuse to grab Conners and Jones for an in-depth discussion of their storied careers, both past, present, and soon-to-be-future.
Adventure Gamers: First of all, welcome back to the genre! It's been a long time since we've been able to talk about a new Chris Jones/Aaron Conners adventure. Which means we have a lot of ground to cover before we start pestering you for more info about the new game. So let's start with an easy one: what have you been up to since 1998? (Nothing quite like being asked to summarize a decade of your lives in a few short lines, is there?)
Chris Jones: You want to take this one, Aaron?
Aaron Conners: Let’s see…ten years in fifty words or less. [smile] Well, there was the whole “getting bought by Microsoft” thing. We worked with Mark Hamill on an ultimately unreleased game called “Black Pearl”, then another unreleased game, “Guardian”, which was tied into Steven Spielberg’s A.I. movie. Chris then left to run TruGolf, an offshoot of Access Software, making golf simulations, and I went to work for MS’s User Experience Group. In 2004, I joined Take Two as the Story Director for Amped 3. In 2006, I became a Creative Director at Ubisoft Montreal for the Shaun White Snowboarding game. Last year, I started my own consulting/design/writing business, WordPlay LLC, and my clients have included Ubisoft and Electronic Arts. Chris and I recently started the Big Finish production company to do our own new games.
AG: You’ve certainly both stayed busy in the industry since Overseer, then, but the last time many of our readers heard of you (literally) was in the six-episode Tex Murphy Radio Theater series. That was certainly an interesting concept, and a natural fit for Tex. You guys aren't old enough to have grown up on pre-TV radio shows, so how did that idea come about?
Chris: Well, we’d left some people hanging and for some reason they weren’t too happy about it. For the folks who were shocked and dismayed about Tex’s fate, we wanted to give them some comfort. Plus, it was fun for us to do and gave us an excuse to get back together with the actors and keep the possibility open of bringing them back in the future.
Aaron: At Microsoft, it was becoming apparent that we weren’t going to get an opportunity to do another Tex game in the foreseeable future. Chris and I are big fans of classic movies and TV and we felt like the Radio Theater concept would be a good fit for what we wanted to do. Plus, as long as we stuck to audio only, it was do-able.
AG: For those who haven't heard the episodes, the storyline is a continuation from the agonizing cliffhanger of Overseer but then managed to keep listeners hanging anyway, if not quite as dramatically. Were you good-naturedly toying with us, or was that a signal that you'd like to continue the tales of Tex and Chelsee at some point, either in game form or otherwise?
Aaron: There’s nothing we’d like more than to continue the tales of Tex and Chelsee! It was a blast going back into that world to do the TMRT episodes. As many of the fans have said, it was great just to hear Tex’s voice again. And to have the other characters back was fun. Plus, I’ve been sitting on the damn story since before we finished The Pandora Directive, so I was eager to spill some of the beans.
AG: If you do get the chance to continue, do you already have a plot outline in mind from the point you left off, or will you cross that bridge if you ever come to it?
Aaron: I don’t know about other writers, but I have so many ideas rattling around in my brain that most of my stories evolve right up until production. I always knew where Tex was headed, but the route to get there has changed a few times. Originally, the sequel to Pandora was going to be a game called “Trance”. Then, while working on Overseer, I came up some new ideas, so it expanded to a trilogy of games: “Chance”, “Polarity” and “Trance”.
Recently, though, we’ve started thinking about a new approach – maybe starting a Tex Murphy “series” of episodes, similar to what Telltale is doing with Sam & Max. Either way, we know where Tex is headed and how things will turn out in the end.
AG: I know there's a new game to talk about, but for the many Tex-starved fans, let's stick with the beloved PI for a while longer. The world of Tex Murphy is a refreshing blend of old and new, sci-fi and pulp noir, mystery and comedy. What influences contributed to the creation of this distinctive setting and style?
Aaron: Chris came up with the original setting. I think Martian Memorandum (which came before Under a Killing Moon) was set in 2036 or something. His vision was a lot more high-tech and sci-fi, though Tex’s office was always straight out of a noir film – definitely influenced a lot by Blade Runner. When I started collaborating with him on Killing Moon, I suggested adding a bit more of the classic detective elements, with the fedora, cigarettes, booze, ex-wife, etc. I always liked the Alphaville thing (the movie, not the ‘80s band). For the humor, we were both big fans of the Steve Martin noir comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, so that was another big influence – more so for Killing Moon than the others.
Chris: There were two art forms that we loved: Sci-fi because you could take ideas and concepts and accept them as viable in the world you create, and the old Noir movies for their mood and atmosphere. Combining them gave us an interesting combination that was still believable, but gave us a lot of freedom to experiment.
AG: Chris, as the actor that portrays Tex Murphy, it's hard not to think of you as practically synonymous with the character. Where exactly does Chris Jones end and Tex Murphy begin?
Chris: Well, our names are different. [ha-ha] You really have to consider Tex as my dream character – my alter ego. He lives the kind of life I’d like to lead – the stories, the mystery, solving crime, but not like James Bond. We see Tex with warts and all – he’s not Superman and I like that. He has problems to deal with, but it’s basically a believable guy in a plausible alternate universe that really appeals to me.
AG: Aaron, despite being a co-designer on the series, you don't get nearly the recognition that Chris does by virtue of being front and center in the games. Are you happy to stay more in the background?
Aaron: Couldn’t be happier! I can’t imagine how miserable it must be to get recognized in public. I’m a bit of a recluse by nature. Chris, of course, eats it up. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard him berate some stranger with “Don’t you know who I am?!”…
Chris: And just imagine if he got TWO dollars every time!
AG: And speaking of dollars, here’s the real money question: what are the chances that Tex will indeed be coming back?
Aaron: The chances of Tex coming back are directly related to how well our new game does (which I guess we’ll get to in a minute). Chris and I have always wanted to bring Tex back and now it’s really just a matter of financing the project. We did our new game in part as an experiment to see how good a game we could make with limited resources. As it turns out…we can make a really great game! But we didn’t want to experiment with Tex.
AG: I guess that really was a money question, more literally than I intended. But your answer is very encouraging! And you’re confident a Tex game could work with limited resources?
Aaron: A new Tex game will not be like the old ones… it’s just not practical. It cost over $4,000,000 to produce Pandora back in 1996. To get that kind of dev budget, you’d have to convince investors that we could sell at least 100,000 units at full retail just to break even. Could happen… but investors won’t bet the farm on it.
But there are other options. For us, we love the detective-style gameplay, the characters, the stories, the humor, and Tex’s world. These are all things that we could bring to a new game without having to spend millions in development.
AG: And about that new game (Aaron, be careful what you wish for), while Tex lingers in the background, Three Cards to Midnight is first up. We’ve already detailed our early looks of the game in its early incarnation, but in a nutshell, what more can you tell us about the game? In fact, forget the nutshell, just tell us everything!
Aaron: We’re really excited about Three Cards to Midnight. I think this is the best story we’ve ever had in a game and everything from the ground up was designed and built to enhance the story experience. The gameplay is a mix of classic Tex Murphy-style puzzles (all tied into the story) and new stuff that can be played at a relatively easy level, a challenging mid-range, or downright diabolical difficulty. Again, I can’t stress enough that the gameplay is inextricably woven in with the story; it’s not just “busy work” that has to be done before another story scene plays. Everything in the game connects together.
We’ve been making games for a long time now and we used every bit of ingenuity we’ve learned to make 3CM. It was really like making an indie film where it’s not about the multi-million dollar explosions and big-name actors – it’s about a great script, good execution, intelligence, respect for the audience, and creating a compelling overall experience.
One thing I want to address is the talk about this game being “casual”. Granted, 3CM isn’t on the scale of the old Tex Murphy games (multiple CDs, etc.), but in early testing, it’s taking people 6-8 hours to play through…on the easy level – longer on the more difficult levels. And the number of locations and puzzles isn’t far off from our previous games; we just don’t have all the random searching and experimenting with inventory objects.
The bottom line is, we’ve created a game we’re very proud of. It tells a great story in a compelling way, has tons of gameplay with scalable difficulty levels, and it’s something that Tex Murphy fans (and adventure games in general) should really like.
Chris: We also want casual gamers to buy it by the millions. Seriously! The casual game space is huge and moving closer all the time to games with adventure elements. It would be naïve to ignore casual gamers. We’re not turning away from our core audience – we just feel like this game offers a really compelling story-game experience that will appeal to both adventure gamers and casual gamers.
AG: Did you find it difficult to start over from scratch, or was it more liberating to have the total freedom that comes with a new beginning? Any unexpected challenges along the way?
Aaron: I really enjoyed creating this new world of Three Cards to Midnight. I knew from the beginning I wanted a female protagonist because it offers a whole new perspective. The game is set in modern day, which is somewhat easier to work with as opposed to the futuristic setting of Tex Murphy (sci-fi isn’t my forte…I’m definitely a film noir guy). No unexpected challenges, really. It was really fun.
AG: Full motion video adventures are all but extinct these days, which wasn't the case in Tex Murphy's heyday. Was FMV ever a consideration for Three Cards to Midnight?
Aaron: I still love FMV. FMV wasn’t the problem; the problem was that most FMV games sucked. It’s like Nicholas Cage movies. Yes, Leaving Las Vegas was great, but it was the exception.
We didn’t really consider using FMV for 3CM because we wanted to keep the scope of development as manageable as possible, and the whole process of casting, lighting, filming, processing, compositing, etc. would have been “non-trivial”, as we say. Initially, we were going to tell the story without any animation (as in graphic novel or comic book-style), but we came up with a simple style we liked that offered quite a bit of animation and worked well with the story and voice work.
AG: Have you felt restrained at all by going the indie route? Are there things you'd like to do but are too cost-prohibitive now? Or alternatively, does the freedom from publisher interference benefit the game in some ways?
Chris: From the business side, going the indie route is really overrated. We tried hard to get funding and we were right on the verge a few times. In the end, we had to do this for ourselves and, obviously, we’re glad we did. The financial limitations really pushed us, but I think it proved that creativity is independent of budget. What we always wanted was to provide a satisfying, rewarding experience and I think we did that.
Aaron: Having worked for Microsoft, Take Two, Ubisoft and EA, I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to get a game made. You need either a big IP – like a superhero or a toy brand or a pro athlete – OR you need to be in the top tier of management (or be buddies with someone who is). To get a game like ours produced – a game without BFGs, explosions and/or a superhero IP – you really have to go the indie route.
Fortunately, this is a good time to be doing what we’re doing. The growth of downloadable games represents the new frontier of videogames. It reminds me a lot of how things were back in the early ‘90s, before all the small games and companies got absorbed.
AG: The new game stars 30-year-old Jess Silloway, but we don't know much about her beyond that. Players try to help her rediscover her recent memories in Three Cards, so we don't want you to give away any spoilers, but what can you tell us about Jess?
Aaron: The thing about Jess is that she’s no Lara Croft. She’s not even a Nancy Drew. She’s just a normal, smart, attractive (though not a bombshell) young woman who’s lived a good, though not exceptional life to this point. She has a long-term boyfriend who wants to marry her, and a loving relationship with her parents. Then her parents mysteriously disappear and everything gets really crazy. Like Tex Murphy, she’s a regular person – who we can relate to – caught up in extraordinary circumstances. She’s not as clumsy or as reliant on dumb luck as Tex, though. [smile]
AG: You've said that you'd like your new game to launch another ongoing franchise. Will Three Cards be a completely standalone story, or like Tex, will it hint at a larger story arc that you can continue on in future installments?
Aaron: There are definitely some big themes introduced that we’d like to explore in future sequels. And I know what lies ahead, but this is also a self-contained story…no ridiculous “Overseer-style” cliffhangers here! We learned our lesson!
AG: There seems to be a influx of "old school" adventure designers returning to the genre these days -- more and more LucasArts spinoff studios, Jane Jensen, Hal Barwood, now you guys. You can only speak for yourselves, of course, but why do you think that is? Just coincidence, or something a little more meaningful?
Aaron: Everything goes in cycles, right? The videogame industry has been around just long enough to start seeing some cycles coming full circle. A lot of the old school game-makers were really talented, but when consoles came along they were either unable or unwilling to adapt – or maybe were just caught flat-footed by the sudden change and missed the train.
We had the PC Age and then the Console Age. Now we’re moving into the Age of Wii, hand-helds, and downloadable PC games. We still have the big console titles (and probably always will), but now there’s a lot more opportunity out there for those of us who never really embraced the console game mentality.
AG: The genre has a reputation of being behind the times already, largely stagnating since the mid-'90s or so. While it's a great thing for so many acclaimed designers to be back making games again, is there a danger that "the more things change, the more they stay the same?"
Aaron: Speaking for myself, I’ve learned a lot about what worked and didn’t work the first time around. By the late ‘90s, many adventure games had become notorious for being obscure, frustrating and frequently tedious. Gameplay and story often had little or nothing to do with each other. Cut scenes were badly written, poorly produced and forced down players’ throats. Gameplay became clichéd and repetitive. The novelty of early adventure games had gone away, the audience was more sophisticated, and kids who played games in the early ‘90s were growing up and no longer had hours and hours to waste searching vast 3D environments.
People glorify the old days, but very few of the “classic” adventure games hold up today. The fact is, users have changed and the games need to change with them. It’s kind of like fashion: old trends come back, but they’re always updated in some way.
Another thing is that most users only have an hour or two free to play, so they want something that’s punchy, gets to the point, is entertaining, and doesn’t drag on and frustrate them. If the old designers recognize this and adapt their designs accordingly, I think they can have great success.
AG: My last question may have been misdirected, come to think of it. After all, the Tex Murphy games were remarkably forward-thinking in their day. Even today they blow many new adventures out of the water in terms of progressive technology and design. What motivated you to take such an approach when many of your contemporaries were playing it safe?
Chris: We were always interested in staying on the cutting edge technologically. At Access, we did that with the Links golf game and it carried over to the adventure games.
Aaron: At the time, we really wanted to create a true “Interactive Movie” in the sense that the look and feel would be like a classic film noir movie, but would have as much interactivity as possible. It was a very exciting concept at the time. And one thing that we focused on – that many other games didn’t – was pacing. Our design, featuring the hint system, was intended to keep the game and story chugging along and avoid some of the pitfalls of other adventure games.
AG: Have you kept up with adventures since you've been away from them (as designers)? How would you describe the state of the genre during those years?
Aaron: We take a look around periodically. Overall, I would say the adventure genre is evolving in order to survive. Hardcore adventure gamers aren’t a big enough audience to justify the old massive budgets, so a lot of new games are being designed to be more accessible, faster-paced, and less frustrating in order to attract other kinds of users, especially casual gamers… and I think it’s not only a good idea, it’s essential to the survival of these types of games.
AG: What do you think has changed in story-based gaming in the past ten years, and how has this influenced your approach for the new game?
Aaron: Telling compelling stories is tough in any medium – movies, TV, books – but I’ve always said that good game stories are the hardest of all. It’s the balance with interactivity that makes it so tricky and, honestly, there are only a handful of games that did anything for me story-wise. I haven’t seen anything in the past ten years that’s revolutionized story-based gaming. It’s a hard thing to pull off and it’s almost totally subjective. For my part, I just try to tell a story that I would enjoy and try to integrate it with the gameplay in a way that makes sense to me… and hope for the best!
Chris: It seems to me that people are starting to clamor for more and better stories in games, and it’s nice to see. Storytelling is what we’ve always been most focused on.
AG: How do you think you've grown as writers and designers over the years?
Chris: Well, we’ve grown disappointed. [smile] Honestly, when you first do something, it’s all trial and error. At this point we’ve learned a lot of lessons and gotten a sense of what people like and don’t like. We’ve had to create templates in the past and now we’ve created a new one. Our big advantage is that many games – especially casual – are really just starting to experiment with storytelling and that’s territory we’ve already covered and are comfortable with.
Aaron: I’m better at getting to the core of something and not being distracted by the fluff. My dialogue tended to get a little “rambly” back in the day; now, I’m pretty good at self-editing. As a designer, working on a wide variety of games and platforms has definitely opened me up to new styles of gameplay and given me a better understanding of what resonates with gamers.
AG: Well, we're all certainly looking forward to seeing the results in the next month or so. But those deadlines won't meet themselves, so we won't keep you any longer. Thanks for taking the time to satisfy inquiring minds.
Aaron: Our pleasure.
Chris: You bet.