Jane Jensen on Kickstarter, Gabriel Knight and hunky male protagonists
High-risk, multi-million-dollar blockbusters. Just hearing that phrase might make you think about the movie business, but it also applies to the games business. Something that's inherent to our economic climate is that people shelling out the cash to bankroll new games are less willing than ever to take risks on something that isn't the next Call of Duty, or that promises to rake in a billion dollars.
Crowd-funded games have recently started bucking this trend. Kickstarter, the go-to site for aspiring start-ups, has quickly become a hotbed for game makers who want to avoid dealing with large corporate masters and just want to make great games that may not be a big budget shoot-em-up with frickin' laser beams attached to its head.
It's not all just small-time newbie developers either. Double Fine, whose founder Tim Schafer has garnered a cult following by making games like Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and more recently, Brutal Legend, raised $3.3 million for a still-untitled adventure game project. Al Lowe, the creator of the slightly naughty Leisure Suit Larry series, raised $655K for a new Larry project.
And in less than two days, Jane Jensen, creator of Gabriel Knight series and many other games, will be finishing up her Kickstarter project, aimed to get her new studio, Pinkerton Studio, and its first adventure game, called Moebius, off the ground. The project hit its initial $300K goal and is working on reaching a $400K and $450K stretch goal in its few remaining hours.
Games.com talks with Jensen about taking a risk with Kickstarter and on what we can expect from Moebius, her studio's first game.
What's it like putting yourself out there on Kickstarter?
It's a scary thing to do because you're putting yourself out there very visibly to either succeed or fail. And, it being the internet, you know you're going to get a certain number of haters, skeptics and it's, just, a vulnerable thing to do. By the time this is over, we will have launched the studio in so much more of a visible way and have some really passionate supporters. That might have taken us two or three years to do no the normal course of events. It's intense, but it's really super productive too.
Have you supported other games projects on Kickstarter?
There was a project that just finished, the Leisure Suit Larry remake. Al Lowe was another Sierra designer and we try to support each other, mention each other on our videos and back each other's projects. That was actually very helpful. And I supported Double Fine when they were out in January; that was a hugely successful campaign.
Do you need to be a name brand to succeed on Kickstarter?
I think it helps a lot. If you're not, than I think you may need a lot more really cool art, maybe a playable demo, and things to show people that they can get excited about. I've seen some campaigns that were really nicely done by some indies who were not known, and then I've seen some fail. It's really hard to know... really, we had no idea when we went out how it would be perceived... it's hard to predict.
Kickstarter offers many incentives for supporters: Has any one thing really pried open people's wallets?
We've actually changed the campaign a lot since we went out, because we get feedback from people saying, 'We want this, and what about this at this level?' It's actually really helpful to get that kind of feedback from your backers. If we were to do it again, we would probably do more advance work on just polling people.
Some of the things that we found people really like are memorabilia, so anything that I've been able to put up from GK (Gabriel Knight) or past games that I've worked on, just talking about it on updates or sharing concept art, people just love that. The big box version, like an old fashioned [PC gaming] box, people like that.
The Larry campaign had a lot of success at the $5K tier with letting people be a character in the game, and we're thinking about offering that at a little bit of a lower tier.
Moebius. It's described as a metaphysical, sci-fi thriller like the TV show 'Fringe.' What else can you tell us about the game?
I'll tell you what I can. It's one of those games where if I told you the main hook, it would be a spoiler, kind of like the Matrix.
The main character, he's a... you know, I watch that show American Pickers, so he's kind of like a really, really upscale version of that. He travels around the world and hunts down really unique antiquities, and he buys them and meticulously documents these things, with like a dossier and then sells them to really upscale clients. I like him because he's kind of a mix of a scholar, like Johnny Depp in Ninth Gate, where he can travel anywhere, speak a lot of languages and has this sort of adventurer side to him.
So, the inciting incident is that his shop in Manhattan, with all of these treasures burns down and he just happens to be between insurance things because he was traveling and didn't get it renewed, and it's completely devastating. This billionaire calls him into a Manhattan penthouse, and he hires him to investigate this series of events -- even though he is not an investigator or a detective -- but he's like, I just know you have a great eye and I just want you to go prepare a dossier on these events. So that's what you're doing as the player, going around the world and investigating these events. After a few of these things, he's starting to realize that there's something particular going on with these events. And I can't give that away without spoiling it, but it sort of has that alternate view of reality twist to it.
Is this just a straight up point-and-click adventure? Is there also some kind of twist with how the game will work?
What we're thinking about is that we'll have a casual path and a classic adventure path.
On the casual path -- we will have both PC and Mac download, but we are also very interested in tablet. So on the tablet, tap once would be for 'look' and tap twice would be for 'actions,' and the interface will be pretty simple. And you'll be able to do things like swipe to reveal hotspots and get help with your objectives, and things like that will help lead you through if you're not a very experienced player or if you just, ya know, don't want to think too hard.
On the classic path, we thinking more about a having a radial menu that you click and two or three options come up. It will have more challenging puzzles and will do a little less hinting and hand holding on the way through the puzzles.
What kind of person will like Moebius?
Aiming at a cross-gender, like a good mass market movie or a TV show like 'Fringe.' I'm hoping we can appeal to the more casual audience and people who just like good stories. I think about the tablet where people get a lot of ebooks to read, so I'm kind of hoping to appeal to an audience with something that is just real entertaining.
If you're into smooth gameplay, great voiceover and music and it feels like a whole interactive little movie. At the same time, we really want to provide a nice, challenging interactive adventure game for people who are more hardcore gamers.
What ingredients does a game need to have to appeal to a mass audience, including ladies?
Some of the things we found while at Oberon [which Jensen co-founded in 2003], that turned off that audience was really tricky action sequences, timer things where 'if you don't get this done in 30 seconds, you die,' and we just don't want that kind of stress, you know. I think adventure games are great for that audience in general, go at your own pace, no pressure, good story, good production, and I think our games will have all of that.
I typically actually like to write male characters, but I like to make them kind of hunky, you know. There is kind of a little bit more sensuality in my games, which I think can appeal to anybody. But, um, I do kind of have that audience in mind, that more female audience.
How many other projects do you have in the works for Pinkerton Studios?
We've put together a road map, and I have about 10 different series that I'd like to do, so... I'm sure over time the best of those will bubble to the top.
So, have to ask: Gabriel Knight -- is he ever coming back or is that story over?
I hope he comes back, but I don't own the license to that. I've pitched a story to the license holder several times over the past 10 years or so. I think there's a good chance that that will happen, now that I have my own studio and I can focus on adventure games and have more control over discussions with them. We can show them what we can do with Moebius, then I think there's a good chance he'll be back.
If you're interested in helping Jane Jensen and Pinkerton Studios reach those stretch goals, head to this project's Kickstarter page.