First posted on 18 October 2007. Last updated on 16 August 2009.
|Jörg Beilschmidt is the Lead Game Designer at Creatown and a member of the core development team for Secret Files: Tunguska.|
All images are courtesy of Susanna Mittermaier, Koch Media © 2007.
Jörg Beilschmidt is a game designer and a member of the core development team behind Secret Files: Tunguska, a graphical adventure game developed as a joint effort between Creatown (where Beilschmidt works as the Lead Game Designer), Animation Arts, and Fusionsphere Systems. Published in 2006, the game has been well received by both the media and avid gamers for its clever re-imagination of the mysterious, real life Tunguska phenomenon of 1908, for which the cause remains unknown to this date.
We are delighted that Beilschmidt has taken time out from his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us in an informal and friendly interview. In the interview, he tells us in detail about the development of Secret Files: Tunguska. He also speaks frankly about his own background and how he has stepped into his career which he now loves so much. His replies give encouragement to all budding game designers who like to follow in his footsteps.
- When did you first begin to take an interest in computer games? How did you know that you wanted a career as a game developer?
- Phew, I am an old guy, how am I supposed to remember things like that? I think it might have been 15 years ago when I started spending rainy days in front of a computer. But becoming a game developer was hardly a dream of mine – until I became one.
To be honest I had totally different plans but I guess life is just a (sometimes pretty good) adventure game: full of surprising turns.
- Did you study at school with a career in the gaming industry in mind? If not, what changed your mind during school to pursue your present interest?
- In the first place journalism was my job perspective. But after some years I had the choice to move house or to start something completely new. As you might guess the latter option was mine. I was thinking about different alternatives when I heard about a vacancy in the company which produced the soccer manager "On the ball" (at that time one of my favourite games). I applied for the job of a Lead Tester – my ticket to this line.
- When did the development of "Secret Files: Tunguska" first begin? How big was the core development team? Which aspects of the production (such as language translation, voice recording) had to be outsourced?
- In summer of 2004 we started by developing the first concepts, graphics and prototypes. The core team consisted of three guys: Marco Zeugner from Animation Arts (graphics, story), Martin Mayer from Fusionsphere Systems (programming) and me (concept, dialogs).
This team is still doing most of the work, supported by some guys who are helping us out whenever it is needed.
The only work outsourced is stuff you can hardly do because of the need for immense space or technical equipment (like voice acting and motion capturing).
- History has always been an excellent source for intriguing storylines for adventure games. What attracted you about the real life Tunguska incident to choose it as the story for the game?
- We were looking for an event that could offer as many elements of a thrilling story as possible: Something mystic, full of unanswered questions and maybe with some room for some conspiracy theories. And most important: It had to be a fresh topic in the genre. We couldn't find anything entertaining by the idea of taking the gamer into just another Atlantis or Stonehenge setting.
When we heard about the crash of an undefined flying object in the Tunguska region in 1908 we were really fascinated. And after some hours of intensive research it was quite clear that this event met all the requirements we had concerning our background story.
- For a game published in multiple languages, the quality of the voice acting can make or break a game. How difficult had it been to recruit the voice casts for the different language versions of the game? From where did you recruit the voice casts for the English version and the native German version?
- Judging the quality of a localized version is hardly possible. There are so many finenesses of a language and so many characteristics that only native speakers are able to recognize. So we had to put the translation and the voice acting completely into the hands of the guys publishing the game in their countries.
That was, of course, completely different in the German version. During the writing of the dialogs I had a certain imagination of every single character. They have their own background story, certain attitudes and characteristics. All these factors had to be taken into consideration during the selection of the voice acting. And fortunately we were able to recruit really professional and well known speakers for every single character. Nina, for example, is spoken by the German voice of Angelina Jolie, Max by the German voice of Mark Wahlberg.
So I think that the voice acting in the German version is exceptionally good and emphasises the personality of every single character in the game. Whether this is the case in the different localized versions or not, can – as mentioned above – not be judged be anyone else but a native speaker.
- Adventure games tend to follow a well defined but often rigid design format. What in Secret Files: Tunguska do you consider to be most unconventional for an adventure game?
- Of course, even in "Secret Files: Tunguska" the paths are quite narrow. But I don't think that this is that much of a disadvantage as they are always trying to tell us. Most comparisons are made with role playing games, which is quite unfair. Of course, the world in an RPG is way bigger; the freedom of choice is unequally higher. But comparing two genres is nonsense. In an RPG you will hardly find brilliant puzzles, in an action game you will hardly be able to improve your talents and in a racing simulation the explorative factor is pretty low. This comes with the genre and if you want to change one thing you'll have to make modifications on the other side as well. Running around in a free world simply doesn't allow you to make a complex puzzle design.
By the way, the relatively small locations in "Secret Files: Tunguska" was one of the main reasons so many players really loved the game. Running around in a huge world is not always entertaining as you might loose your aim and become quite clueless. In our game the player always knows what to do next, he spends his time thinking about possible solutions or listening to dialogs, not with running around in woods for hours and hours. So think that each genre has certain mechanisms which should only be thrown over board when the reasons to do so are really well thought-out.
During the development of "Secret Files: Tunguska" we took great care of the fact that all logical solutions for a certain puzzle are possible. There is nothing worse than a gamer knowing a solution but than the program doesn't allow this way of dealing with the problem. That's why we tried to include different possible solutions in case that all of them were logical. Our main purpose was that the gamer never looses the belief in the logic of our puzzle design.
One of our ways to give the gamer as much support as possible in tricky situations is the "Snoop Key", which highlights all available items and exits in the respective screen. In most adventure games searching the screen pixel by pixel is part of the puzzle design. This may be a way to create playing time but it is definitely not a way to entertain. That's why we introduced the "Snoop Key" so the gamers can focus on the strengths of the genre adventure game: A thrilling story and a challenging puzzle design.
- Sound effects can greatly help in setting the atmosphere of a game. Secret Files: Tunguska uses many ambient sound effects, such as bird songs in the garden and ocean waves by the seashore, rather than soaring orchestral music to set the mood for a scene. Is this choice intentional by design or by necessity (such as budget constrains)? What sample sources have you used for the sound effects? What do you believe in the relative values between musical scores and sound effects in a game?
- The decision to use rather sound effects than music was made intentionally. In an adventure game it is very probable that you spend a pretty long time in a single screen or location. No matter how brilliant the music may be: When you have to listen to the same song for an hour or two it will become quite annoying. So music might have a very positive effect in the beginning but after a while it is contra productive for the atmosphere of the location. And it is contra productive for your main purpose: Listening to dialogs and thinking about puzzles.
It is vice versa with ambient sound effects. They support the atmosphere created by the graphics. If you do not recognize them in the beginning it is only normal as there are hardly any locations in real life where acoustic information is the first thing you recognize. But when you sit back and relax for a while, you will find out that there's a lot going on in every single location: Bees flying around, cats chasing birds, guys cruising around in there cabriolets and in some cases attentive gamers will find some very special surprises.
The variety of the ambient sound effects is enormous; we put more than 450 minutes into the game. It was hardly possible to find material that really suited our idea of perfectly timed and individually adjusted sound effects. So we decided to record everything on our own. When we needed some samples for a romantic scene in the woods we took our equipment and spent our day in the fields. This was sometimes quite strenuous but I think it was worth the effort.
Still there is pretty much music in the game though, but it is mostly used for a short period of time to emphasize a certain atmosphere (e.g. in cut scenes or when an important character shows up).
- In an era where most games are hardware intensive because of graphic demands, the graphics in Secret Files: Tunguska is very polished even when playing on a system with only modest hardware. What is the graphic engine used in Secret Files: Tunguska? In retrospect, what more do you want to see improved in the graphics (such as character animations)? Will be you experimenting with another graphic engine in the sequel?
- Fusionsphere Systems developed its own engine which was designed to fulfil all the requirements we had. It is optimized for adventures like ours and is therefore able to deliver high quality performance even with small hardware.
When it comes to the sequel there is, of course, enough room to improve. Engine effects, graphical standards, storytelling or puzzle design – if you think you can not improve yourself you should stop developing computer games.
We are currently working in all of these areas to think about improvements and I think I won't promise too much if I say: You will definitely like it. Watch out for further information we will hand out during the next couple of month.
- The dynamic relationship between Nina and Max in Secret Files: Tunguska is reminiscent of that between George and Nico from the Broken Sword series or between Gabriel and Grace from the Gabriel Knight series. What is the inspiration for the characters Nina and Max? How is the relationship between Nina and Max different from that of the other pairs?
- In the beginning the relationship between Nina and Max is pretty one-sided: Max is fascinated by her, but the only thing Nina can think about is the disappearance of her father. So there is not really much of a relationship. This changes while their adventure goes on. With everything they experience their relationship changes in a certain way. There is not much Nina and Max can really do about it, both of them had hardly any chance to influence this – and it was the same with us: Their story was mostly determined by our story. So we never had too much of a chance to think about a certain kind of relationship. Almost everything was determined by the adventures Nina and Max had to go through.
- In Secret Files: Tunguska, clicking on the "Search Scene" icon highlights all the hotspots of a scene at once, which eliminates the need for pixel hunting that can often confound a novice player. How worry are you that such a feature may dumb down the game too much for your audience?
- At first there was no need to worry at all as the "Snoop Key" was a function to help the gamers in situations where they might get stuck. With this option they are able to make sure that there is nothing in the screen they forgot. Nothing to worry about as you might agree.
But our opinion changed a bit. Especially the press used this features in an excessive way. Combined with the facts that you can click through or dialogs and that our level design doesn't include long distances between the locations, this might mean that you are able to finish the game in a quite short period of time.
Therefore the only advice I can give: Take your time! You will not win any price completing the game within a certain limit of time. Use the help functions we included only if you really have to, enjoy the game and have fun.
- What types of puzzles are in Secret Files: Tunguska? Where do you draw the line between challenging and absurd puzzles in an adventure game?
- The density of puzzles is extremely high. This was necessary as we wanted to avoid all the annoying things that create playing time in other adventure games: pixel hunting, long distances between the locations and so on. Therefore it was essential to have a broad spectrum of all different kinds of puzzles to make sure that the gamers will not get bored by doing the same kind of puzzles all the time.
Being challenging but not absurd is indeed a pretty thin line as there is no common definition of logical thinking. When you take one single challenging puzzle you will always find people who would say it is too easy while others don't even have a clue how the puzzle works after explaining it to them for half an hour.
That's why we take three steps to ensure the playability: First of all we spend hours on the discussions about every single puzzle. Whenever not all of us agree on the logic of the puzzle we rather leave it out.
Instances two and three are the alpha and beta tests. We invite several people to play the game. Intensive observations of their play and complex interviews afterwards make sure that all critical elements are detected.
All these tests may take a lot of time but they give us the possibility to have a game play which is as close to being "challenging but not absurd" as it can be.
- What are the challenges working with a European publisher (Deep Silver) and a North American publisher (The Adventure Company)? What lessons have you learned about marketing a game oversea?
- We didn't have anything to do with "The Adventure Company" so all I can say is concerning our work with "Deep Silver". And even though it might sound boring, there is hardly anything I can complain about. We had the freedom to put our ideas into action and they kept all external problems away from us, so we were able to focus on the game.
- As a game designer, where do you draw your inspiration for ideas for a game? How often do you use your family and friends as "sounding boards" for an idea before deciding to include it in your game?
- The inspiration comes from dealing with the situation. You have to step in the shoes of different characters and their environment. Think about their situation and the problems they might have to face. Once you have done this you should think about solutions which are not that common. For example: You are in an ancient ruin, it is dark outside and you need a light. A torch might be a good solution, but a boring one. So try to think about a solution which is more innovative and (most important) more entertaining.
When it comes to possible input from friends I have to say that I hardly use this option. Most of them are not familiar with computer games and they are not too interested in my job. And, to be honest, I am not very sad about it. I am working so much that I do not feel the need to talk about work during my spare time.
- What educational and work qualifications do you advise an interested gamer to gain who wants to follow in your career footsteps?
- A pretty difficult question. I don't think that there are any standards you have to meet. Creativity is probably the most essential requirement; a good general education might be helpful as well. Other common rules are the same as in every other job: When you like it and when you are willing to spend a lot of time and energy, you will (hopefully) be successful. I can hardly think of any kind of secret recipe that might work (if there should be one, please feel free to contact me).
What I experienced in discussions with upcoming game designers is a lack of perseverance. It is quite easy to be creative for an hour or two. But when you are planning to make an adventure game you'll have to be creative for a very long period of time. And you have to keep up this level no matter what mood you are in. This might be the most challenging part of my job.
- You have previously hinted on a sequel to Secret Files: Tunguska. Currently, at what stage of development is the sequel? Will the sequel be based on another real life historical event or a completely fictional story? Will the sequel feature any returning characters? When is the scheduled date of release for the sequel?
- We are still at the beginning of the development. The story plot is written but nothing is even close to being final. Existing ideas concerning the different locations still have to be proved, the puzzle design is in progress and the first dialogs are written.
The story will have some historical elements, just like in "Secret Files: Tunguska". But it is quite difficult to say whether there will be more realistic or more fictional elements in it. And I guess that this might change until the very end of the development as our main purpose is a thrilling story – no matter whether it is more historical or more fictional.
What we have already determined is that we are not planning to recycle the characters of part one. There might be one or two guys having a little guest part, but as the story will be totally independent from the first part it wouldn't make too much sense to implement them again. The main exception will – of course – be Nina and Max, our two playable characters. But even they went through some significant changes.
Concerning the release date: It should be in the first half of 2008, further information will be given when the exact date is determined.