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Pressfire.no interview with Ragnar Tørnquist (translation)

November 28, 2012 in Articles, Interviews

The following is a translation of a Pressfire.no interview with Ragnar Tørnquist on 21 November, 2012.
It was translated from Norwegian to English by Crow’s Fan.


We’re among the best at creating stories in games

“The Longest Journey” continues.

Lasse Lervik, 21-Nov-2012 18:36

Oslo (Pressfire.no): Ragnar Tørnquist is the closest thing we get to a celebrity in the norwegian games business. Not because of the work he did for the game “Casper” in the mid-90′s, although that was where he started his career of 18 years, but as the boss for some of the greatest game projects in Norways history. “The Longest Journey”, “Dreamfall” and recently “The Secret World” for example.

Now he’s started to break off the ties of the behemoth in Skøyen to go back to his roots as an adventure game creator. “Dreamfall Chapters” is finally going to be realized.

«Funcom owns the “The Longest Journey” and “Dreamfall” universe. What we’ve done is get the rights to make games and other stories in this universe.

In return, Funcom gets a certain percentage of what we earn from the game. It’s a great deal, which allows us to focus on making the game we want to make. Then Funcom gets the benefits of profiting from us when we make a good game, hopefully,» Tørnquist tells Pressfire.no.

Dual Resposibility

The game designer [Ragnar Tørnquist] always has a slightly shaggy hair-do, and often uses more superlatives than most people I know. I won’t go as far as calling him a mad professor, but he has a magnetic enthusiasm which is well suited for an indie studio. The studio calls itself Red Thread Games.

«It’s a completely new independent studio which is going to fund itself. We’ve started by getting money from the Norwegian Film Institute, and we’ll be starting a Kickstarter this spring».

Funcom received funds for this project as early as 2007, but realized their focus was mainly geared towards online games. The fund was returned og Tørnquist was sucked into the whirlpool that was “The Secret World”.

What is your role in Funcom right now?

«I’m the “creative director” for “The Secret World”, Joel Bylos has taken over the position of “game director”. He’s has a lot of the creative resposibility. I give advice and I’m still working with the story, dialogues and things like that».

How do you intend to combine the two projects? Is this a kind of gentle extraction from Funcom?

«My plan is to stay on “The Secret World”, but obviously the team will become more and more independent. In the long run things will probably change. I’m spending a lot of my time on “Dreamfall Chapters”, but “The Secret World” is my responsibility. That’s the foreseeable future».

As Small As Possible

Over time several high profile game creators have left the helms of massive, traditional game studios and started their own companies. As I speak to Ragnar it’s obvious that he thinks it’s a slightly romantic trend, and that the thought of doing things your own way is inspiring.

«We’re going to try to keep it as small as possible. A core team of regular employees, så we’ll have a few people working on “Dreamfall”. The team will have 15-16 people at the most, I think. There’s no intention of becoming a studio with 100 employees and a lot of projects. We’ll focus on one job at a time».

It must be refreshing to go from one of the biggest projects in the gaming business to such a compact, personal team?

«I think the gaming business has gotten to a place where the projects are so gigantic and cost so much money that I think a lot of people look forward to working on something a bit less expansive.

It’s refreshing to start something new and smaller. You have a much bigger possibility of shaping things your own way. Not that Funcom’s been restrictive, we did a lot of the things we wanted to do. But when you get money on your own and don’t have shareholders to answer to – and sort of have full control – it’s something completely different».

Apparently the Kickstarter success of “Monkey Island” creator Tim Schafer, the first really big game on the web site, has sparked a lot of interest with both Tørnquist and his fans. As soon as Double Fine reached its target sum the Tweets and e-mails started pouring in requesting a new “Dreamfall”.

A Very Good Chance of Success

When I ask what they’re going to do if they don’t make their target sum on Kickstarter, I’m immediately met with laughter.

«I think the chances of a Kickstarter success are pretty, pretty good. But nothing is guaranteed of course. If we don’t manage to get the funds, things will be heavily delayed. We depend on them. The money from NFI is great for getting things started, designing a prototype and that kind of thing, but it’ll never be able to finance the whole project».

Apparently one of the back-up plans is to take the project to a traditional publisher, something Tørnquist doesn’t seem very interested in doing.


«You’ve got private capital, shareholders and things like that, but we want to keep it small and uncomplicated. Have the ownership of it.

Regarding Kickstarter, how much you ask for, what you present and how you set up the rewards are important. There’s a lot of planning and organising. We’re already working on that. We’re going to be very honest and open to our gamers, and give good incentives to invest».

Based On Experience

There’s been a lot of talk about the risk of Kickstarter and how there’s no legal responsibility to complete a project. At the same time, “Dreamfall Chapters” is something the fans have been waiting for without anything happening. What’s your take on the risk of this project?

«I think the media use every opportunity to write about Kickstarter and how much discontent there is about it. The facts are that among the high profile game projects there are no heavy hitters that have delivered yet – but nobody has failed either.

 

Tim Schafer, “Project Eternity”, “Broken Sword” – big companies and established game developers are behind them. The chances of them working out and delivering are enormous. But there will probably be delays, every game gets delayed», he chuckles.

The game creator reflects a little over the fact that some projects have already failed, but believes that the customers have faith in their heroes and are aware that some games are bad or that they may not make it at all.

«I think there’s a greater chance of some of the hardware projects tanking than the games», he claims.

This Isn’t a Game

«We take the responsibility for “Dreamfall” as seriously as any other game. I don’t want to leave people who have paid a hundred or a thousand dollars with nothing to show for it.

Everyone that’s going to work here has a lot of experience in the gaming business. We know what games cost, how long it takes to make them, what’s realistic or unrealistic and how much money we need. This isn’t a game for us. When we ask people to give us money… even though it’s not legally binding, we see it as a contract between ourselves and the gamers. We’re going to deliver», Tørnquist promises.

In the “Dreamfall Chapters” press release, you mentioned that you’ll finally be able to continue the cliffhanger. Has the fact that you ended the last game so abruptly been a thorn in your side?

 

«”The Secret World” has been the main focus and it took longer than we thought it would – but of course I had hoped to start working on “Dreamfall” before now. It hasn’t been a thorn in my side, but I have been writing it and I’ve wanted to continue it. It’s something I’ve looked forward to doing».

Not An Interactive Film

A lot has happened genre-wise since 2006, when “Dreamfall” was released. Adventure games in general have had a lot of growth the last couple of years. What are Tørnquist’s thoughts about the genres new trend with “The Walking Dead” and other games which have tried to mix storytelling with a bit more turbulent experiences?

«Telltale have done a lot both for episodic games and adventure games in general. When it comes to “The Walking Dead”, “Jurassic Park” and some of those titles, Telltale has chosen a slightly different path. The first one mentioned feels more like an interaktive film than a standard adventure game», the experienced veteran says.

«We’ve noticed that a lot of traditional adventure games or the kind of interactive films that Telltale Games do are being made. There aren’t a lot of companies making games like “Dreamfall”, a world you can explore, with a lot of focus on puzzle solving, character interaction and so on. That’s something we’re going to explore»

There was a noticeable evolution from “The Longest Journey” to “Dreamfall” gameplay-wise as well?

«Yes, they were two very different games. “TLJ” was a point-and-click with static 2D backgrounds. “Dreamfall” was more of a developement towards an action-adventure direction. We’re hoping to combine the two a little with “Chapters”. We want to go more for puzzle solving and exploration, while you still have direct control over the characters in a 3D-world».

More Games

The norwegian thinks that smart phones and tablets have done a lot of exciting things for the genre, at the same time as the developement of computers has had an influence. But he misses a true developement of adventure games.

«There has been a lot of new versions of old games and a lot of the new games are very, very puzzle oriented. I think we have a kind of game that there aren’t that many of».

Is one of your goals having a game to a greater degree than for example “The Walking Dead” which you call a kind of interactive film.

«Oh yes. I’ve only played the first episode – but I think “The Walking Dead” is very exciting and interesting. Still, it’s not the kind of game we want to make. We want to give the player much more control. You’re not bound to a corridor and you have to click your way forward. Games with a bit more game in them», laughs Tørnquist.

What is it about the adventure game genre that draws you back? I get the impression you’re a story-teller first and foremost, what is it about this way of expressing yourself that interests you?

«Firstly it’s telling a story within the genres premises. I think it’s a lot of fun to explore a world and a story in your own tempo and avoid being pushed along to the next big explosion. Games where you’re put into a world where you know where you want to go, but at the same time can talk to a character or perform a sidequest».

Ragnar appears to be fond of open world games like “Grand Theft Auto” or “Assassin’s Creed”. Apparently because they give you a world and a story, but also because they give you tasks aside from that.

«I’m not saying we’re going to turn “Dreamfall” into “Assassin’s Creed”, but rather that we’re going to give you a story that’s exploratory. That’s what we did with “The Secret World”: inserted pieces in that world and let the players experience them at their own pace. We want to use that again, stories driven by the players curiousity and desire to explore».

Rollercoaster

Won’t a more open structure make your job as a storyteller harder? They say that open world games have a more difficult job when it comes to telling good stories, because they don’t drive the story as well as linear games.

«Yes, there will always be a linear game there with a dramatic pace and a future. I often feel that the possibility of taking a break and exploring stories from other angles just adds more depth to the story. If you balance it with the player always knowing what the next step is, you won’t lose the pacing or focus of the story by expanding on it.

I once spoke to the president of Telltale Games Dan Connors. He said that their motivation for taking a filmatic direction was to depict tension in a genre where one often does so many puzzles in a row that one forgets the original objective.

Once again, it’s a question of how to build up the story. Giving freedom and slowing the pace at the right places. In “TLJ” you played as April Ryan in the beginning, and you were just a girl who was going to school and work and meeting friends. In that case it’s not nescessary to push the player forward, you’re just getting to know the character.

Later, when Zoë has to infiltrate a large corporation quickly and get to a room to reach her goal, it’s important to have focus without a lot of characters and sidequests. You need to balance it correctly».

Going A Bit Deeper

Are there any obvious flaws with the two first games that you want to avoid this time around? The combat system got quite a bit of critisim for instance.

«Yes, we agree that the combat system didn’t function optimally. We’re going to leave it behind entirely, and we also realize that there might not have been enough gameplay, not enough puzzles in “Dreamfall”. That’s something we’re going to work at. Having more variation and things for the players to do. People love the story, and it continues after the “Dreamfall”‘s cliffhanger».

What kind of stories do you want to tell?

«It varies from game to game. In the first game April thought she would become the Guardian of the world. She was willing to make that sacrifice because she thought that was her purpose in life. Then it turned out not to be true. It’s a bit about learning to find your place in life, but also understanding that sometimes you’re not going to be what you initially thought.

“Dreamfall” is about having faith in something. Yourself, the ones around you, or religion – which was one of the characters in the game. We had a character called Faith, which you had to liberate at the end of the game, and that was part of the point. We’re going to do the same in “Dreamfall Chapters”.

I won’t give anything away, but we might be going to talk about things that aren’t usually talked about in games. Going a bit deeper. Without it intruding on the entertainment. You’re supposed to be able to enjoy yourself withough getting too introspective, there’s something behind it all».

An Emerging Game Scene

It seems as though you want to tell us more personal stories which might be more introspective rather than facing outward?

«Absolutely. We do both, and we care a lot about the characters and the journey they’re on. That’s part of the concept with the first game too. It’s not just “The Longest Journey” outwardly, but inside as well. All the characters are going somewhere and change. It’s not usual, in most games the characters don’t change. But in good stories they do».

How do you feel about suddenly becoming an independent developer? You might argue that the norwegian games scene is a little underdeveloped.

«It is, but that seems to be changing. We have a lot of new companies and games now – it looks like we’re getting a scene. At this stage we’re far behind Sweden, which has a very strong indiescene, but I think it’s starting to improve».

Do you think Funcom has cannibalized the scene?

«Not on purpose, necessarily, but I think a lot of norwegian game developers wanted to work there and on big games. That used to be something everybody yearned for. That’s changed, indiegames are more sexy and exciting in many ways now. I think everyone who’s worked on big games and been in the business for the past five-ten-fifteen-twenty years is a bit tired of working on the biggest projects».

The Veterans Are Spreading Out

During the most recent support grants from the NFI [Norwegian Film Institute], we saw the start of no less than three gamestudios by wellknown people in the norwegian game business. In addition to Red Thread Games, people from the “Battlestar Galactica”-studio Artplant started Megapop A/S with one of the Funcom founders. Some of the remaining people from the Tromsø department of EA Playfish, that was shut down, became Greenlit Games. Are we experiencing a generation shift?

«That would be great and it looks like that’s the case! Our goal is to start a company that last, all we want to do is keep on doing what we do until we’re old and grey.

But of course, we don’t want to grow big either. We see others making companies and creating new possibilities in Norway as a positive thing.

Our country is well suited for it. We have a lot of people with plenty of IT competence. A long dark winter which makes it ideal to sit indoors. We have a lot of very talented creative people, musicians, sound technicians, animators, graphic artists», he illustrates.

The Business Is Sexier

In other fields like 3D-animation and film art norwegians have had considerably more success…

«I think it’s a little to do with economic incentives. It’s getting much better now, with more available funds. There hasn’t really been any cultural recognition either. Games have probably been looked down upon a bit compared to tv and film in Norway. It’s unfair but I think that’s changing in Norway too. The games business is sexier than it was a couple of years ago».

Obviously, “Dreamfall Chapters” is the main priority of Red Thread Games these days. Tørnquist reveals that they have the rights to make more games in the series, and that they don’t intend to stop anytime soon, but they also have plans a bit further ahead.

«Our company will be about telling stories. That’s always going to be the focus. That’s our competense, we’re some of the the best out there for writing stories in games. For making exciting, appealing characters and writing good dialogue. Working with actors. We’re not going to sit and make tower defense-games».

Game Stories Are Looked Down Upon

No matter how big the games medium has become, game stories are still looked down upon. John Carmack once said that “A story in a game is like a story in pornography. You expect it, but it’s not really important”. What do you think the status there is?

«That’s not true anymore. You can see what a huge focus stories have in all genres nowadays. Everyone wants to have a strong story, strong characters. Something that give the player motivation, get them emotionally engaged. Personally I think that a story in a FPS is at least as important as in an adventure game. Running around shooting people isn’t fun unless you have a reason to do so. We’re not talking about multiplayer-games, of course, “Counter-Strike” is doing very well without a story. But when you sit down and play “Call of Duty” it’s not the explosions on the screen that makes it work so well. You feel as though you’re taking part in a big Hollywood production.

I think that game stories get too much critisism. If you compare the film industry in Hollywood – I’m talking about the big productions now – and the big games, it’s not like games are very far behind. There are good scripts in a lot of games», he enthuses.

Both Story And Gameplay

But if you look at the emerging indiegames the last couple of years and the big successes there, it almost seems as if the core of the games and the game mechanics have gotten more important? For instance, impulsive stories and stories which are created as you play, à la “Minecraft”?

«Of course there are examples of those as well. “Minecraft” doesn’t exactly have a story, and the players create stories. But it’ll never completely take over and stop games from having scripts, written stories. That’s just not going to happen.

Firstly, it’s two completely different things, and there’s room for both. At the same time there’s a lot of people that like to meet characters in games, and take part in a story with a beginning and an end. It’s not like you can’t have interesting game mechanics in a game with a story.

Whether it’s a campaign or a story that’s going on around you that you can explore… there’s a lot of ways to do it, one doesn’t mean the other isn’t interesting. You’ve got the Notch’s new game, his space game.

“Ox10c”?

«Yes, the one with the “Elite” feeling, where you travel around in a spaceship. Obviously it’s going to be very player driven with “emergent gameplay”. But for me as a gamer, it’s interesting to get to other planets and meet new creatures. I want to know a bit about them, for the planets to have names and the species to have an indentity.

A story doesn’t have to be restrictive and push you down a corridor. A story can be a texture which makes it exciting to discover things. A reason to find out more».

Loves “Uncharted 2″

Which game stories impress you? Which game stories do you [Ragnar Tørnquist] wish you had written yourself?

«Hm. I’m trying to think of what I’ve played recently. I think “Dishonored”, which I’m playing at the moment, is really good. Even though the story in the “Assassin’s Creed” games is overly complicated and at times a bit corny, they do a lot of good things too. It seems like they’ve used all the money in the world, but it’s very exciting to see how they’re building up the story.

I guess “Uncharted 2″ is the game I wish I had written. It’s really, really good. Great characters, really, really good story. They’ve gotten the pacing right all the time. I think it’s one of the best games made. It’s very linear, but you feel like you’re in control of what’s happening at all times.

I think the story in “Halo” is really good too. I’m going to buy “Halo 4″ later. The first game in the series got the science fiction angle just right. The exciting feeling of exploring ny worlds and unknown species. Artifacts from ancient civilizations. All the things a great science fiction, space opera novel is supposed to have, right?»

It must be exciting for you to watch “Assassin’s Creed”, which has explored a lot of the themes as “The Secret World”?

«Yeah, I can see that we’ve used similar sources. Especially the ones that center around 2012 and the Mayans, prophecies and the like», he grins.

Afraid Of Stagnation

It’s interesting to see how a lot of the popular genres from the mid-’90s have started emerging again after years on hold. Space simulators, point-and-click adventure games…

«I think what Kickstarter has done is allow the players vote with their wallets, in a way. You’ve got a lot of adult gamers that invest in games on Kickstarter and they might feel that the kind of games they like aren’t being made anymore. The big sports series or “Call of Duty” might not strike a chord with them.

Especially when it comes to the pc and Mac, the money donations go to the pc and Mac games. There’s a risk that everything ends up as nostalgia, that retro-games are all that’s made. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen. If it does, the game genre won’t evolve at all. But I haven’t seen it happen yet.

The “old school” role playing games still have a lot of new stuff about them. The core is the same, but the mechanics are still ambitious. It’s not a game from 1995, but 2012. It’s just part of a genre where there aren’t a lot of games being made.

It’s the same with Tim Schafer’s new game. I don’t think they’re, like, going to make an adventure game with a 320×240 resolution».

Hoping For A Norwegian Version

I think what this might mean for telling a story is exciting. These games often have less ambitious demands when it comes to cutscenes, voice acting and that kind of thing, which might make it easier to write an expansive, complicated story.

«I think so too. Smaller games are easier in a lot of ways. Fewer people work on them, fewer things need to be done beforehand. All large games today use not just one or two, but three, four or five outsourcing companies which take care of different parts of the game. In those cases, everything needs to be planned from day one.

We’re going to add voice acting to everything, that’s what the players want. Our strength lies in the characters, not huge choices or a story that branches out a lot. We want be able to explore, but the story is already decided. The gamers want that as well. They want to know that we know where the story’s going. They want to have fun as they go along».

So there’ll be a comeback from Synnøve Svabø and the gang?

«On the norwegian veersion? He he. Our plan is to make a norwegian version too, of course».

A Failed Console Version

You’ve talked a bit about a console version too? Do you feel it paid off earlier?

«Not with “Dreamfall”! It was released at the wrong time altogether. In a console cycle, you often have the larges audience at the very end. “Dreamfall” would have fitted in well there. It’s a bit “casual”, it doesn’t just appeal to the hardcore players and it works well when Xbox’s are a household item. The problem turned out to be that Xbox wasn’t much of a success for Microsoft.

When the Xbox 360 was announced, about the time when “Dreamfall” got released, they completely dumped the Xbox. All the developers focused on the 360 instead. We were one of the last Xbox games that was released, and the owners were really just waiting for the new Xbox to be released. So we didn’t sell as well as we’d hoped. We should have been on the Xbox 360, really.

Thinking that it would be risky to be early on a new console was right, because there wouldn’t be as many people to sell it to. But the Xbox 360 was announced and grew very, very quickly. It soon became what the Xbox had been and more…

It didn’t pay off, but it might do so for “Dreamfall Chapters”. The main focus is pc and Mac, but we’re in contact with one of the three big console producers who want the game on their platform. That’s something we’re discussing these days»

A Sucker For Platforms

What do you think about the implementation of adventure games on consoles so far? Telltale has managed fairly well.

«Telltale has managed pretty well. There aren’t a lot of adventure games on those platforms, at least not traditional ones, but there are games that have taken the idea and the genre and gone further. Action-adventure games is a genre that’s big on the consoles. “Uncharted” is a perfect example that definitely has its roots in adventure games. “Uncharted” would not have existed without adventure games. To me, it’s the perfect example of a game with adventure games in its DNA. But you can’t make point-and-click adventure games on consoles, you have to find new ways of doing things».

How about the iPad and iPhone?

«We’re starting out on the pc and the Mac, that’s where our core customers are. But we’re definitely interested in the iPad and we’re probably going to end up there. Not the iPhone. “Dreamfall” doesn’t fit on a screen that small, nor on the bus. Mobile games are things you tend to play when you’re taking a break. Playing five to ten hours on a cell phone won’t be very smooth. But putting on your earphones on a plane and playing on your iPad is a lot more interesting».

Translated by Liv Leech aka Crow’s fan

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