First posted on 26 May 2006. Last updated on 09 February 2011.
About the game
Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine is a graphic adventure game and a comedy about a feeble Easterner in search of his bride in the Wild-West. The game is developed and published by Himalaya Studios. It is scheduled for release in early 2006.
For more information on Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine, visit Himalaya Studios.
All images are courtesy of Himalaya Studios © 2006.
Few independent game developers have ever achieved the notoriety as Britney Brimhall has. She is the founder of Anonymous Game Developers Interactive (formerly known as Tierra Entertainment), a nonprofit independent game development team that, in 2001, has released freely a remake of King's Quest which has earned her critical acclaim from both the series' fan base and gaming media. Graduating from Arizona State University with studies in business (and a degree in German language), she has also worked as an award-winning artist and programmer on several adventure and role-playing game projects. She is now the Chairman and CEO of Himalaya Studios, a for-profit game creation company that is currently developing its first commercial adventure game, Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine. We are privileged to have this interview with the talented young game designer. In the interview, Brimhall reveals her passion for adventure gaming, her experience with remaking King's Quest, exclusive information about her upcoming game Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine, and what holds in the future for her and her company.
Check out our gallery of screenshots (including 2 previously unpublished exclusive images) from Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine!
- What was your first experience playing adventure games? What inspired you to become an independent adventure game developer?
- I grew up on the Sierra classics. I believe my first experience was playing King's Quest III. I remember my dad and older sister, sitting in his room at the computer desk on Christmas morning, participating in what appeared to be an interactive storybook. I distinctly remember this strong yearning feeling, watching them travel around this beautiful and vibrant world, and wanting to be a part of it. I really ached to be able to visit this place, explore it, and really cast spells like the ones in the accompanying manual. I wanted to be able to hear animals speak, see what lie beyond the treacherous mountain path, and get off the pirate ship and explore the mysterious island. My dad continued playing the game for weeks, and he would let me sit with him and help him solve the puzzles–sometimes, he'd let me play entirely on my own. I still look back very fondly on this game and saw it as a confidence boosting learning experience and a time of togetherness.
After playing King's Quest III, I met a girl in elementary school who also had a computer geek dad and a house full of computers. She introduced me to King's Quest I EGA, which we played whenever we were together. Back at home, my dad got into the Space Quest and Police Quest series, which I also really enjoyed. After he passed away, when I was 10, I found myself still playing these games on my own–they reminded me of the times my dad and I would hang out together. I would visit the game shops whenever I was in the mall to see if any of the upcoming Sierra titles had arrived yet.
For Christmas, when I was about 12, I received the Quest for Glory I VGA remake. The Quest for Glory series was one of the first series that I really developed a love for on my own–I didn't know anybody else who played them, and the experience was something between me and the games. Over time, I recommended this series to my best friend, and we would sometimes have sleepovers, playing games like Quest for Glory IV until 4am; I remember we used to be absolutely terrified of the killer bunny and would need to take breaks to pacify our fear! I always looked forward to any new Quest for Glory game and spent a lot of my time lost in those gaming worlds.
As for becoming an independent adventure game developer, the career choice seemed to have found me. I always loved the Sierra games and thought it would be amazing working for Sierra back in the day, but never really thought it was something that I would realistically end up doing; I saw it as more of a dream. I had always been an artist and interested in animation, but felt that I needed to prove myself intellectually instead of merely relying on my talents. I ended up going to college to study Biochemistry and German, and after a few years, decided to take time off and moved to Germany. While I was there, I was searching the internet one day for fun projects and hobbies to occupy my time while abroad. I remember finding a group of people trying to build their own castle, which I thought was neat and somewhat amusing. This somehow triggered me to look up the topic of creating your own Quest for Glory game. It was at that point that I realized that Sierra had shut down its adventure gaming division and that the games I'd grown up on were a thing of the past. I was devastated, but regained hope when I saw there was a group of fans creating a game in honor of the Quest for Glory series. Being proficient in art and graphic design, I joined the team. Since I am a person who likes to see things operating efficiently though, I was a bit disappointed with the lack of consistent progress. I butt my head against the wall for a while trying to find ways to make a huge development team function properly; I realized, I was in no position to do this though, as it wasn't my project. Ultimately, I decided to concentrate on my own project since I could control the progress of that.
I spoke with an old college friend of mine and told him about the Quest for Glory project I was part of; in return, he told me of his love of the Sierra classics and how he always wanted to work on a parody of King's Quest I. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to work on a project, see progress, complete it, thus being re-motivated to work on the previous Quest for Glory project. A friend I'd made through the previous project, who was also looking to see some positive progress, decided to join in on the venture, and our new team was born. We assumed we'd be taking a sabbatical for about two weeks to finish what we felt was a really small project. How wrong we were! It took us nearly 9 months to complete the King's Quest I VGA remake! About halfway into the project, we decided to drop the parody idea altogether and created a one-to-one remake of the first King's Quest game.
By the time we had finished the project, we were reluctant to release it. We had basically made the project for ourselves, but felt that it turned out better than we could have ever anticipated! We thought others might enjoy our efforts and eventually released it online as a free download. My biggest dream was to have 400 people download and enjoy the game over the course of my lifetime; therefore, I was very surprised to see that 70,000 people had downloaded it within the first month. We got a lot of media attention—especially since it appeared that the skyrocketing sales figures of King's Quest 8, which was still on the market, were due to the release of our remake. It appeared that people still loved these classics, and our little game was proving this point in a big way.
Most of our fans requested a sequel. We received a fantastic plot submission for a King's Quest II remake from one of these fans and decided to take a chance on it. This game was received with as much welcome as the first. We spent a lot of time refining our skills and making the game more enjoyable than our first. We felt the next step would be creating an original project–something most of our fans were also asking for.
I had returned to America to continue with my studies at college and found it difficult to keep up with school work and projects. I visited Disneyland one day, on my own, and did a lot of soul searching. I pondered what I truly wanted from my life, regardless of what others wanted me to do. I've always been a huge fan of Disney and began to wonder what the world would be like if he had listened to all the naysayers, telling him his animation skills weren't up to par and how unrealistic it would be to create an amusement park out in California. I realized, I really admired him for standing by his beliefs and decided that adventure games were very important to me and something I wanted to pursue. Against the wishes of my family, my school counselor, and my friends, I picked up and moved to Australia to work with AGD Interactive cofounder in creating our first original title. I brought along all the initial work I'd done on Al Emmo while living in Germany but had put aside to finish the King's Quest II VGA remake project. After working for about six months together, I returned to America and enrolled in some business courses. I finished up with schooling, started the official company, and returned a few times to Australia to work alongside the company cofounder and our fan turned designer, Daniel Stacey.
All in all, I didn't necessarily initially choose to become an independent game developer. I feel that the duty sort of found me, and it became somewhat of a mission. It definitely felt right, and once accepting it was the correct path for me, I was determined to follow it to the end.
- In 2004 you co-founded Himalaya Studios with Christopher Warren, with whom you also co-founded Anonymous Game Developers Interactive. What had been the different challenges forming a commercial game company as compared to a noncommercial game development team?
- I always thought running a commercial game company would almost exactly parallel running AGD Interactive, but there have definitely been some unique challenges. Interestingly enough, I've learned that team members are often more motivated by a love of their favorite games than by money. It appears quite often that developers would rather be working on remakes than on an original project because of the positive and nostalgic feelings associated with revisiting their favorite childhood games. Additionally, working on an original game has been a lot more work since we're dealing with creating contracts, doing accounting, establishing the business, creating budgets–everything needs to be official and we need to keep good records. This is new territory, and because of that, it can be frightening to make steps forward; we have to often put our fear behind us and “just do it”. It has also been challenging trying to remain faithful to the classics we love, but also developing our own style–I feel we've succeeded in doing this by acknowledging what we enjoyed most about the classics, and also adding improvements. Finally, from an advertising standpoint, a free remake of a known classic sells itself–a lot of people are interested in hearing more and trying out the completed project. With a commercial game, you have to be more creative in reaching your potential target audience and letting them know that what you have to offer is something that they will enjoy.
- Your first major game project was a VGA remake of King's Quest with Tierra Entertainment. The project received much notoriety in part because of the anonymity of its developers. What were the reasons for maintaining this anonymity (calling yourself the Anonymous Game Creator) during the development of the project? What was your decision process behind the name change from "Tierra" (chosen obviously as a play to "Sierra") to Anonymous Game Developers Interactive?
- We never wanted to receive credit for the Sierra remakes we created. We had a lot of respect for the people who worked on the classics, and wanted them to keep all the credit they deserved. We developed the game for a few reasons, and none of those motives were to receive personal attention. Reasons we DID work on the games were: we wanted to have a project to work on which we knew we could finish; we wanted to learn how to make a quality adventure game; we wanted to support classic adventure gaming, which erroneously was being referred to as a dead genre; and we wanted to prove to publishers that there was still a market for them so they would continue making them.
Right before releasing the first remake, I created a website and some forums, and was required at that time to register an account. I decided to call ourselves “the Anonymous Game Developers” because it described ourselves in the way we wanted to be known—unidentified individuals who were taking action because of a belief that these games needed to not merely survive, but thrive.
As for the name change from Tierra to AGD Interactive, we had felt Tierra was a great name while working on a parody of the King's Quest I game. After we cancelled the Royal Quest project, we felt that the name was sort of gimmicky, and relied too much on Sierra's name. People who were familiar with our remakes also became rather accustomed to the AGD acronym, so we decided to make a departure from Sierra and officially go with AGD Interactive.
- What were the major challenges remaking King's Quest? Had Tierra Entertainment ever been contacted by Sierra On-Line concerning the intellectual property and copyright infringement of its King's Quest license? In retrospect, how much had your anonymity protected the development of the project until its completion?
- I think the major challenge creating the King's Quest I VGA remake was that we completely underestimated the size of the project. We thought the game would take two weeks to finish, max. It ended up taking 9 months of full-time work. Luckily, we have good follow through, and would not stop until it was complete. But had we known it would be so challenging, and if we had been a bit less optimistic in our time estimate, we possibly never would have initiated the project.
As for being contacted by Sierra, yes—we were contacted both by past and present employees, supporting our work, and Vivendi Universal (VU) themselves. We had made it apparent from the get go that we would discontinue our project if VU decided it was inappropriate. Luckily, this never happened and we now have permission to create these games.
I don't think the anonymity played much of a role in protecting the development of our projects. Sierra had our contact information and at any point could have stopped our progress–luckily, our work was met with approval and we can continue without the fear of being shut down.
- Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine is the first game project from Himalaya Studios. How big is the current development team? How are the members of this development team recruited into the project?
- The core Himalaya Studios development team, which includes designers, musicians, artists, scripters, and business associates, consists of nearly 20 people; the largest department would undoubtedly be the modeling and animation team. Add to that a group of a dozen or so voice actors and around 20 beta testers, and the team is rather large. Only a handful of these workers really worked full-time, though.
As for recruiting core team members, we selected some of our best proven workers from AGD Interactive to help out on our first original venture. Additionally, we brought in interns from the Art Institute. Finally, we advertised certain positions and scouted out potential workers, ultimately choosing the most qualified candidates.
As for voice actors, we held open auditions which we advertised in different newspapers, online forums, websites, theater departments, universities, etc. I was quite impressed with the enthusiastic responses and massive turnout at the auditions, and we found some great talent.
As for beta testers, we advertised online with different Ezines in January of 2006, and within a week, had received around 400 applications. Even though we closed the application process at that time, we still receive applications nearly daily.
- The staff and independent contractors who are developing this game are scattered throughout North America, Australia, and Europe. How do you manage the team and the project remotely?
- Because independent contractors are located throughout the world, in different time zones, Himalaya is really an around-the-clock company. While part of the team sleeps, the rest creates assets. As the rest of the team wakes up, they can use those assets to continue work on the game.
The team is mainly managed via online development forums. Additional means of communication are email, occasional chats via instant messenger, face to face meetings, and the phone. I've visited Australia numerous times to work alongside the company cofounder and designer, having brainstorming and story boarding sessions. Many members of the team also came and lived with me in America, working on voice over recordings in the studio, lip synching, and scripting. In a few days, I am going to be heading out to the Netherlands to work alongside Stijn, one of our scripters, finalizing the beta testing and working on marketing.
In person contact is great for brainstorming and keeping up team morale. Working over the internet forums is great when you have a large amount of assets to create, can work independently, and then upload your progress and deliver it to the rest of the team. Additionally, forums allow us to see our progress over time, which can be extremely motivating. Finally, forums also allow us to keep information organized, have it available to all workers, and we can refer back to this information as we need to.
- For commercial games developed by indie game companies (such as yours), expectation from gamers can often be as high as those developed by mainstream game companies with big production budgets. In contrast, gamers are more forgiving in their expectation for fan based games that are developed non-commercially. Is this an unfair expectation? How do you deal with the inevitable comparison and competition against mainstream game developers?
- Since we are creating a commercial title, I do feel that it is right for gamers to expect a lot from our work—you never want to have to apologize for releasing an inferior product. Our goal is to satisfy our customer by releasing an awesome, enjoyable, and entertaining game, exceeding their expectations, and providing a top-notch, personalized, customer service experience.
We won't necessarily create a "mainstream" game since we are a small development team, targeting a niche market, and therefore have different goals. An analogy would be a large corporation which creates packaged foods versus a small Mom 'n' Pop's company creating homemade goodies. There is a place for both companies, and each creates products that are enjoyable in their own way. Whereas a larger company can create and distribute a very typical product with a cool wrapper design and a catchy commercial jingle and market it to the masses, the homemade goods from the smaller company may be multidimensional with lots of details and just as enjoyable to a more specific audience! Basically, we are concentrating on a quality game, with a unique flavor and tons of little details, which many larger companies would simply not worry about.
Being commercial though, we have put great effort into creating a game people will be proud to have on their shelves. We don't take shortcuts and never settle for "good enough", which sometimes happens while making fan games. With remake projects, people often already have such positive feelings towards the series, that they will be forgiving of a lower resolution or an unperfected background. With an original, commercial title, we have to create a completely satisfying experience which encourages players to develop a love of the game.
Overall, we want people to feel that their money was well spent. We want them to have a physical product in their hands, not merely a download. We want a beautifully designed manual and impressive cover art, created by a top-notch designer. We want memorable music, great, high-quality voice acting, comments for all inventory and background scenes, and lip synched dialog. We want cut scenes, replayability, a great story, great dialog. I feel we've successfully been able to include all these things in our first commercial title–many things which were just too burdensome, time consuming and expensive to include in a hobby project.
- Without giving too much away, what is the story underlying Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine? What inspires the design team to draw from the Wild West as a theme for this game?
- Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine is a classic style graphical adventure game. In pursuit of unrequited love and inconceivable fortune, Al Emmo embarks on a perilous journey into the untamed desert valley of Anozira; his objective is to unravel the mystery of a haunted, lost gold mine belonging to the woman of his desires. With imaginative and memorable characters; laugh-out-loud dialog; a captivating storyline; and a breathtaking, illustrated world; Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's mine will enchant everyone longing for an adventure reminiscent of Sierra's celebrated classics.
Al Emmo is set in the Wild West, although it is a very original game, not relying on the customary stereotypes found in most Old West movies and computer games–it really is more than merely a Western. The game is set in the land of Anozira, an arid desert environment based on present day Arizona, which just happens to be my real life homeland! The game contains numerous present day, pop culture references, and reaches out to a market that is far more extensive than merely those interested in a Western. The original reason for setting the game in the Southwest was because I was living abroad in Germany during the game's inception and was feeling rather homesick. I wanted to create a world based on my real life home. The inclusion of the Western setting reminds me a bit of how Quest for Glory used Germany, the Middle East, Eastern Africa, and Eastern Europe as influences in the gaming worlds. Although the game takes place in mythical lands based on these real life places and cultures, the story was really a completely separate entity. The location provided a unique cultural experience, but that was about it.
- How long has this game been in development? What is a typical work week for you supervising this project?
- The game has been in development for around four years, although serious development has only been underway for the past two years or so. The game and our goals have changed a lot since the project started four years ago. We basically brainstormed and created a rough version of the game during the first two years. We used this prototype to entice many of our AGD Interactive team members to join our first completely original endeavor. Shortly thereafter, we switched game engines, fleshed out the plot, upgraded the animations to 3D, increased the game's resolution and created over one hundred hand-painted backgrounds, added challenging and logical puzzles, created a beautiful soundtrack, and added voice acting and lip synching. The results are a highly professional commercial project that people can be proud to own.
My typical work week depends on what stage we're currently at in the project. At one point, most of my time was spent designing the storyline. At another time, it was spent creating concepts and then finalized drawings for each background screen and game character. At yet another time, it was spent recruiting voice actors and recording their lines in the studio. Now, most of my time is dedicated to making business and legal decisions, and spreading word of the game.
A typical workday for me right now includes answering a lot of emails related to the game; writing a lot of marketing material; communicating with our graphic designer; making important decisions; researching packaging options; checking in on the beta testing team to make certain everything is running smoothly; communicating with journalists, our Marketing Director, and Vice President in regards to budgeting and legal matters; speaking with publishers and distribution companies. Basically, I'm working quite a bit on business related topics and tying up a lot of loose ends before the game is released.
- Which character(s) can the player control in this game? What kinds of interaction exist with other game characters?
- The player controls Al, who can always be seen on the screen. Al interacts with over two dozen non-playable characters, each which elucidates clues through extensive dialog which leads to advancement in the game.
Although Al has started as a typical Woody Allen loser type character, he gains confidence and develops his character by facing challenging situations head on. Whereas the player has a hard time identifying with him at the beginning, and finds it enjoyable poking fun at the main character, by the end, the player is supportive, proud of, and identifies with the man he's become.
The game is humorous in nature, with one of its greatest strengths being its comical tone and witty dialog. The characters have great depth, are highly creative and very memorable, with many being based off of real life personalities; Al can hear gossip, joke, flirt, and more. This game's storyline is strong and expansive and is divided into nine individual acts. The narrator is a very strong presence in the game and provides a unique and entertaining contrast to Al. The writing was provided by Daniel Stacy, the award winning and highly coveted designer of King's Quest II VGA fame, and he's really done a fantastic job creating an engrossing gaming experience.
- What are the elements in this game (such as interface, graphics, and gameplay) that most closely follow the tradition of classic adventure games as it is advertised to be?
- We wanted Al Emmo to include all of our favorite elements from the classics, while also innovating in areas that could be improved upon. Games have changed over the past several years; most companies are devoted to making visually appealing games that lack a strong storyline. Al Emmo, similar to the classics, emphasizes a strong, witty, fun storyline, interesting characters, and a beautifully artistic and whimsical world. We wanted to create a fantastical realm and found the best way to accomplish this was to hand-paint all of Al Emmo's backgrounds, which is very reminiscent of the classics as well. The result is an enchanting gaming world akin to an interactive storybook.
Additionally, no detail in skimped–every inventory item can be used on each character; all narration is fully voiced; nearly every item in the background has a descriptor; each character has both essential and non-essential dialog as well as extra, entertaining, highly detailed animations. A lot of these elements are considered unnecessary and superfluous these days; we felt otherwise.
The interface is the good ol' classic style, point-and-click variety, and although we have made some minor innovations to the GUI, it will be very familiar and easy to use for all fans of the adventure genre.
I remember being a HUGE fan of Sierra's game manuals, and would read them with as much fervor as a favorite novel. We have spent a great deal of time creating a fun, appealing, and imaginative manual to satisfy fans of the classics.
Additionally, we have included some great comic book cut scenes, similar in style to those found in the Gabriel Knight series.
- What kinds of puzzles are in this game? How long is the estimated gameplay?
- The majority of the puzzles are inventory based, although we've also included code breaking, arcade sequences, brain teasers, trivia type puzzles, and more.
Al Emmo offers the gamer many hours of engaging gameplay—I'd say around 15 to 20 hours or more, depending on how efficiently you play. Additionally, there are tons of little details and Easter Eggs included which add to the replay value. It would take ages to exhaust all the options and see everything the game has to offer.
- On what platform is this game available? How, when, and where can the game be purchased?
- Al Emmo is available for the PC and runs on Windows. It can be purchased at the Himalaya Studios Online Store, which will eventually be found on our official website; upon purchasing, the game will be physically shipped to the customer.
A demo, featuring the entire first act of the game, will be available before the game is released.
If you'd like to be updated on the game's release, I'd recommend that you sign up for the Himalaya Studio's newsletter which is available on the main page of the site (http://www.himalayastudios.com). We will be sure to make an announcement when the game is ready to hit the market.
- What are the reasons for the difficulties adventure games are currently facing in the commercial marketplace? How do you see Himalaya Studios achieving commercial success in a genre where many mainstream developers have failed?
- I've heard people say that adventure games themselves killed off adventure games because some puzzles were very confusing and illogical. I think this is bogus. I think that most gaming companies just realized that there were larger markets for other types of games and decided to target them instead. I think that most adventure game fans don't really frequent stores or read gaming magazines after years of disappointment and hearing the genre was dead; this makes it harder to find the old fans and market a new game. Still, these old classic gaming fans are out there, ready for new, classic style adventure titles.
Himalaya Studios is a group of people who, above all else, LOVE adventure games. We are the gamers we are targeting, and therefore, know what type of people will enjoy our games. We are definitely targeting a niche market, but one which we understand well. Although we don't expect our game to appeal to every gamer (like many companies are aiming for), we are confident that we can find classic gamers who will enjoy Al Emmo–that is our definition of success.
- What holds in the near future for you and Himalaya Studios?
- We will be making some adjustments to the company structure. We will also be taking a short sabbatical to assess Al Emmo's initial reception before committing to production on a future project. Our main designer has already started extensive preliminary work on a potential upcoming project, though.
As for me, I am currently in the final stages of the application process with the Phoenix Police Department. Working as a police officer has always been a dream of mine, and it's a chance to "play" a real life hero. I feel it will also offer a variety of experiences and interesting stories, which could eventually inspire an adventure game. I've always been a fan of the Police Quest series, after all;)
Outside of that, I have also been creating a lot of original, commissioned portraits–I hope to continue creating artwork and expanding that business as well. And finally, I have been training for the upcoming Ironman triathalon, and will be participating in that next April.
- Thank you for this interview, Britney. We look forward to hearing more about Himalaya Studios and playing Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine!
- Thank you for the opportunity! It's been a joy working with you, and I hope you all enjoy the game:)