Jane Jensen: Back Home on Pinkerton Road interview
With her newfound determination to return to her old-school adventuring roots, Jane Jensen is going home -- quite literally. But home is no longer quite where she left it, as the acclaimed adventure designer is now stepping outside of her comfort zone to make her dream happen. After many years spent largely out of the limelight, preferring to keep a low profile even as she was being lauded as one of the finest interactive storytellers of all time, these days Jensen is more visible than ever as she kickstarts her own adventure game development studio.
The legendary designer behind such revered classics as King's Quest VI and the Gabriel Knight series needs no introduction in these parts, of course. Post-Sierra, her extensive work on titles like Deadtime Stories and the Women's Murder Club is perhaps less heralded in adventure circles, but no less influential in driving the casual game market ever towards more story-oriented experiences to broaden their appeal. Her latest full-fledged adventure game offered another exemplary Jane Jensen storyline, but Gray Matter was held back by delays and production issues that somewhat disappointed not only players, but Jensen herself.
Arriving at something of a crossroads in her career, Jensen knew that if she was to continue doing what she does best (namely: making quality adventure games), it was time to seize full control over the design process by forming her own development studio based out of her farm on Pinkerton Road. Or perhaps not full control, opting instead for a public funding option called Community Supported Gaming to finance her initial project(s). Based on an agricultural model popular near her Pennsylvania home, CSG allows backers to support and participate in the creation of Jensen's upcoming adventures. Already voted on by fans, first up will be Moebius, a "metaphysical sci-fi thriller" along the lines of Gabriel Knight, with the promise of more to come if all goes well.
It's exciting times for Jane Jensen, then, though perhaps a little nail-biting until her fundraising campaign finally reaches its target goal. It's exciting times for her many fans, too, eager to see what the master storyteller will cook up without the restraints of publisher interference while returning the 2D format that worked so well for her back in the genre's heyday. It's also a rare opportunity to delve more deeply into the mind of the developer herself, as she opens up publicly more than ever before. So there's no better time for a chat with Jane, as we ask about her design philosophies and personal experiences, both past and present.
And stay tuned following the interview, for a special treat of never-before-seen materials, including "design bible" samples, storyboards... even Gabriel Knight 4 concepts!
Adventure Gamers: Your Kickstarter page mentioned that you have a bunch of adventure game ideas that have been “floating around in your head for years.” How long ago did you start thinking about Moebius?
Jane Jensen: Moebius came to me last summer. I was on a flight and I was trying to think of new game series ideas as part of work I’d contracted to do for a company. But when Moebius came to me, it was like – wow! As a writer, you learn to really appreciate those ‘big ideas’ because they don’t come along very often. When I wrote up the idea for Moebius, I realized I didn’t want to give the IP to another company. So it ended up NOT being one of the games I submitted to them. I selfishly hung on to it.
AG: You’ve compared the game to Gabriel Knight as well as your novel, Dante’s Equation. Did you purposefully set out to create a GK-like game? How will the main character, Malachi Rector, and the world he lives in be different than GK’s?
Jane: I didn’t deliberately set out to create something GK like. But a lot of my work is in that “metaphysical thriller” category, like GK, Gray Matter, Millennium Rising and Dante’s Equation. Malachi Rector is more of a scholar than Gabriel, he’s a lot more urbane. He can be a flashy dresser. But he has some deep scars and problems, too. The universe is a touch more sci-fi. But it doesn’t have the kind of creatures, like werewolves, that the GK universe has.
AG: How much work had gone into Moebius before it was announced as part of the CSG?
Jane: I have a rough story outline, but in terms of production, it was just in concept phase, like the other two concepts we presented. So, not much!
AG: You’ve stated that the art will be 2D graphic novel-style, like an updated GK1. How did you decide on this? Was it entirely your vision that you took to an artist, or did the artist help you develop the art style?
Jane: The concept art was created according to my direction. I’ve been wanting to do a true 2D game again and I think Moebius is perfect for that. For one thing, I want to be able to have a lot of cinematic camera angles so simpler, more graphic backgrounds mean I can have more backgrounds in the same time/budget.
AG: Some concept art has been released – can you tell us how that came to be? What did you tell the artist you wanted, and how did the two of you get to the end result? Also, why did you choose that particular scene, of the girl running opposite an alternate reflection, to represent Moebius?
Jane's vison for Moebius concept art in development
Jane: When I’m working with an artist to create a piece, whether it’s a logo or concept art or a game screen, I prepare a spec, which is a kind of mind dump with visual reference images. [I can provide you the one for this concept scene.] And then the artist will start sending me images, usually once a day, so I can see the progress and give suggestions and feedback throughout the process. For the Moebius concept piece, the reflection in the water hints at the main theme of the game, which I can’t reveal without spoiling it!
AG: One of your reasons for starting Pinkerton Road was to have more control over which games you get to make. In light of this, why did you allow people to vote on which game the studio would make first? How did it feel to put that decision in the hands of the fans?
Jane: Well, honestly I stacked the deck on that one. It was a Sam-like maneuver. Because I really want to do, and intend to do, all 3 games. We let people vote because we thought it would be a fun way to get buzz going around the campaign, and also it demonstrated one of our core ideas, that our CSG members will be our focus group, so to speak. I had a pretty good guess which concept would be voted for and I was right. But I was pleased that Anglophile Adventure actually did pretty well, too, because that’s a game I really want to make that I didn’t think my fans would be too excited about. It’s more of a departure. But it wasn’t right for our first title.
AG: Now that Moebius been selected as Pinkerton Road’s first game, what will your next steps be? Describe a typical work day.
Jane: I’ll work on the design first, before the dev team starts, for 2-3 months. That process includes writing the design bible, the GDD [game design document]. That is THE core creative document (it’s not called the bible for nothing). The process of writing that for me is a very internalized, stereotypical, lone-writer-at-typewriter-facing-blank-sheet-of-paper process. Usually the first stage of that is to fully define and punch up the story – maybe 20-30 pages. And then I break that into chapters or days or what have you and “gamify it” by working the game design in.
A typical work day – I usually work at least 10 hours on the main project going on and then often another 2-4 catching up on emails or the other balls I have in the air. My laptop is on a table facing a large window that overlooks the barn. I try to get out with the dogs a few times a day for a brief stroll in an effort to enjoy the beautiful place where I live.
Jane's dogs (and stars of Lola and Lucy)
AG: Some of the Kickstarter rewards include the design bibles for Gabriel Knight, as well as for the new Pinkerton Road games. Tell us more about these and their role in your design process. What information does a design bible include? At what point is it developed, and how if at all does it change during development?
Jane: The GDD or bible is the first and core design document. It outlines the entire game including story and puzzles and sequencing. It generally doesn’t have detail to the dialogue level, though if dialogue pops into my head when I’m writing the GDD I’ll put it in there so I don’t forget it. You can compare it to a screenplay, but it’s more complex since a game is interactive.
In my games, the GDD changes surprisingly little during development. If you were to read the GDD for GK1 or Gray Matter, you’d see that 99% of it is the same in the final game even though the GDD was created before a single piece of art or code.
AG: What are the basic design stages, and about how long do you expect each stage to take? How involved will you be during each of these stages?
1. GDD/bible (~3 months)
2. Room descriptions – Since a given location may appear many times over the course of the design (such as St. George’s Books in GK1), the point of the room description, or scene spec, is to pull all the data for a given location into one place and give more descriptive detail and photo reference, define all hot spots. The artists use these to create a scene.
3. Scripts – this is the final detail level of design and includes every response for every hotspot at various points in the game, down to a description of the animation and dialogue lines.
How long #2 and #3 take depends upon the size of the games, but during them the team is working, so usually there’s also art review and other directorial tasks going on at the same time.
I typically do all these myself or I may have an assistant designer that I can hand off some tasks to.
GK1 design bible sample page
AG: What comes first: story or puzzles? Or are they designed in parallel? How do you decide where in the story to “insert” puzzles? (Or is the process more organic, with puzzles emerging from the events you’re writing into the story?)
Jane: Usually story comes first unless the puzzle is particularly significant – like solving the mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau in GK3. In that case the story was more designed around the core puzzle.
The insertion of puzzles can be obvious, in the case of an investigative story line, or less so. In general the story must be broken up into very small pieces that are revealed by something the player does – and those actions are the puzzles.
AG: Once you’ve decided where to include a puzzle, how do you approach its design?
Jane: It really depends, but let’s take a puzzle that’s very integrated into the story, like the “3 dragons” in GK1. [Puzzle spoiler warning.] In that case, the idea of the 3 snakes appears in several places as a clue – in Gabriel’s dreams, in the snake painting in the bookstore, in his granddad’s sketchbook. Then you can pick up a book in the bookstore that tells you that in mythology dragons and snakes are basically the same thing. And then finally, in grandma’s attic, the puzzle itself occurs where there is a clock that belonged to your grandfather. In order to open a secret compartment on the clock, and get a key story clue, you have to set the clock’s hands to the right position, something that would have been important to your grandfather. There are symbolic images on the face of the clock and the solution is to set the hands to “3” and “dragon”.
In this case, the puzzle was really an emphasis of the point the story was trying to make, that Gabriel’s nightmares have a meaning, and that they’re the same nightmares his father and grandfather had. When you can make a puzzle underscore the story like that, that’s the best. Of course, not every puzzle has that deep a meaning.
As for puzzles changing over time during development, usually any changes will either be related to art (sometimes the way an artist sees it is slightly different but still works) or it might be that people aren’t getting it so I need to add in more little nudges in the right direction, through a narration line or ego comment.
AG: Each Gabriel Knight game had a strong historical component, and Gray Matter had a lot of backstory involving psi energy. How do you approach research for topics like these? Will there be something comparable in Moebius?
Malachi Rector sketches
Jane: Often, the main theme of a game will be something that I discovered before the game, something that inspired the idea for the game. For example, I read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and that inspired the idea for GK3. And Gray Matter was inspired by books I read on pop neurobiology. But usually there is still more research and digging to do to get the material for a game. Moebius will require a lot of research, yes.
AG: Moebius will have a “casual mode” and a “true adventure” mode. How will they differ, and how will the inclusion of these two modes influence the design process?
Jane: The actual puzzles won’t be that different, but the casual mode will have a lot more ‘hand holding’ like hints and clearly defined objectives. I’m also considering a different UI for the two modes like a single click for Casual and a more sophisticated radial menu for Classic.
AG: Will your experience making casual games for Oberon influence the development process at all? What did you learn working on those “smaller” games that might carry over to Moebius?
Jane: My experience in casual games has an effect in that I do believe that I can make Moebius something that will appeal to that casual/hidden object game market with the Casual Adventure path, and I know what that path needs to be like. In addition, I’ve learned a lot about process and production. We did a lot of games at Oberon in a short period of time. But really I see Moebius as more a return to my roots – I’m nostalgic for the older style adventure games. So we’ll see if I can pull off a cohesive blend of these elements!
AG: At what point does your husband Robert [Holmes] get involved to compose the game’s music? Tell us a bit about how you work together.
Jane: He hears about the story before anyone else. Since he is trapped living in the same house as me, he’s subjected to the role of sounding board. And he’s good at giving me early feedback on my ideas. So by the time there is any actual art, he knows the story well. There might be a main theme in his head even before we have art, and then he will compose specific themes for characters and scenes as we go along. I usually will tell him if I have any specific ideas or thoughts about an area of the game – which he often ignores! But I usually really like anything he’s done so that’s alright.
AG: How do you expect Moebius’s development to compare with your other games? You’ve mentioned that the game’s size and scope will be comparable to Sins of the Fathers – are you planning to model other aspects of the development after GK1, too?
Jane: Everything I’ve done in the past affects my current project, so there will be a lot of influences *besides* GK1. But yes, I am specifically interested in that particular game again because it was 2D and because I see the first Moebius as being like GK1 in some ways. So it will have more influence on Moebius than usual. It might show up in things like the structure of the story, the UI and puzzles.
AG: Right now, Pinkerton Road has a very small team – just you and Robert, right? Which aspects of the development will the two of you handle and what will be outsourced? How will you keep an eye on the outsourced work to ensure its quality?
Jane: I’m going to be adding a few more people to our core team in Lancaster shortly. But yes, most of the dev team is an external team. I do creative direction, design and writing and some production. Robert does music and some production as well.
Jane's desk at Pinkerton Road
It seems very normal to me to work with an external dev team, because that’s the way I did all my games at Oberon. The producer and designer were American and the dev team was usually a team that sat together in a physical office in Eastern Europe somewhere. In fact, the dev team we are using, Signus Labs, is a team I worked with at Oberon (and on Lola and Lucy). They’re very fast and very good.
The way it works is that I usually have a lot of emails waiting for me in the morning. All the artwork in progress is sent to me daily, from the very first sketches on. And I give feedback on it first thing in the morning. Often there will be another quick rev or two during the day. We get builds twice a week and use a bug base to track all the bugs, tasks and change requests. So it is a very tightly integrated process. I prepare detailed specs with photo references ahead of time so the team knows exactly what to do.
AG: How is it different working with an outsourced team (as you will for Pinkerton Road), compared to an in-house team (like at Sierra)?
Jane: As I said, I’m very used to this model now since that’s the way it worked during 8 years at Oberon. But certainly there are things I miss about being right next to the programmers and artists, as we were at Sierra. I think eventually, if Pinkerton Road is successful, we might build a team here. But for now this is a great way for us to begin without a huge capital outlay and I know we can produce a great game with this team.
AG: What are some of the problems encountered during development of your other adventure games that you hope to avoid with Moebius?
Jane: With GK2 and GK3 there were a lot of technical hurdles to overcome, since we were using new technology. GK3 especially look a long time (3 years) because we started from nothing and built a real time 3D engine and tools and it just seemed to progress at a snail’s pace. Here, we have the engine, we know what we’re doing for tools, and we’re doing a beautiful 2D game. So I’m anticipating we’re not going to have a lot of thrashing, we can focus on creating great content.
With Gray Matter, a lot of the delay on that game had to do with changing publishers, the publisher changing dev teams, things being redone, and I was working full time at another job and not very involved in production. None of that will be the case, thankfully, with Moebius.
AG: As part of the CSG, backers will get to help with "A/B testing" and beta testing. Can you tell us more about what this means? At what point will backers get to be involved, and what do you hope to learn from the feedback? (Will people be helping to “shape” the game, or will it be pretty much set by the time they see it? How “broken” will it be when fans see it? Will you be able to make changes based on the player feedback, or will it be too late?)
Jane: A/B testing is player insights stuff – things like the vote we had on game concepts, voting on a game title or between 2-4 different character sketches, reactions to various box copy samples. Best testers will get to play the actual build early on, probably from alpha stage.
Choosing an outfit for Gray Matter's Samantha Everett
The last few companies I’ve worked with did a lot of player insights testing and it is helpful to get people’s reactions. For example, you might show two possible character designs to 1000 people. Either the results are going to confirm to me that *my* gut instinct is correct. Or it might point out a problem that I didn’t see – for example, if 600 out of the 1000 people say ‘that hair makes me want to vomit’, well, that’s something that’s good to know! It’s even better to know it early on before we spend months animating that character. At that point, as a creative director, I can either override the consensus or I can make a change. But even if we don’t change anything, I am forewarned that players may have that response.
It’s the same with alpha and beta testing. We don’t have to respond to everything people tell us, and probably can’t. But if 80% of our testers don’t like something, at least we can look at the issue closely and make an intelligent choice if we can address that or not.
Our testers will be seeing cohesive builds that are organized for the purposes of testing. They won’t be seeing builds weekly, and they won’t get a build that’s totally broken because that would waste everyone’s time. But they will see the game early enough that we have a chance to respond to their feedback.
AG: Thanks very much for taking time out what is clearly becoming an increasingly hectic schedule. We can't wait to see more of what will hopefully be just the first adventure of this exciting new Pinkerton Road endeavour.
And so concludes our interview, but there's still so much more to say! Only this time in pictures instead of words. Click ahead for an exclusive look at key art and design documents (click images for larger versions) for Moebius and the classic Jane Jensen adventures of yesteryear.
Gabriel Knight Storyboards
These storyboards were part of a set of pencil sketches by Sierra artist John Shroades, rescued from a dumpster outside of Sierra's Yosemite office. They lay out the sequences of two key events in Sins of the Fathers: the iconic recurring dream that plagues the Schattenjager, and an action-packed climactic puzzle.
Gabriel Knight Design Bibles
Sins of the Fathers
The Beast Within
These pages from Jane's design bibles outline scenes from each of her adventure games. Design bibles help help define the flow of each game — for GK1, it's laid out day by day, while the FMV GK2 is more like a movie script.
Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned
Though Jensen says her stories generally change very little from design bible to finished version, the early Gray Matter draft reveals that the game was at one point set in Manhattan. Due to copyright issues the game was almost renamed, but in the end it was able to remain Gray Matter.
Gabriel Knight 3 graphic novel
Like the games themselves, the graphic novels that accompanied GK1 and GK3 (shown here) started with a script written by Jane. The artist created a rough layout based on the script's panel-by-panel description.
Once the layout was approved, each page was painted by an artist (in this case, Ron Spears). After any necessary edits were made, talk bubbles were added to bring the story to life.
Early art concept
Dread Hill House
A game's artwork goes through many iterations during development, as Jane works closely with the artists to fine-tune her creative vision.
Choosing a tie
In the final stages of concept planning, sketches look much like their in-game counterparts, but it's a lengthy, selective process to reach that point.
David's mask concepts
David's tragic accident shaped his personality and left him scarred for life, hidden behind a mask... but which mask?
Dread Hill House exterior plan
Daedalus Club basement floorplan
As environments are created, Jane goes back and forth with artists to establish the layouts and architectural details. (If only we'd had his Daedalus blueprint when we needed it!)
Moebius environment concept
The rough outline of an upcoming scene. Bring on the first adventure from Pinkerton Road!