Dimitris Manos

Pan Metron Ariston

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 25 July 2008. Last updated on 21 October 2008.
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Dimitris Manos
Dimitris Manos is the founder of Pan Metron Ariston and the creator of The Exchange Student.

Dimitris Manos is certainly no stranger to the adventure gaming community and the indie game development scene. He is the founder of the independent game development company Pan Metron Ariston, but he may be better known once as the founder and former editor of an online adventure game magazine called The Inventory. Outspoken and evangelical, Manos has been a great promoter of the adventure genre as both a critic and a developer.

The Exchange Student is the first adventure game series in development by his new studio, described best by Manos as a comical "interactive sitcom" about the wacky adventures of Emilio Carboni who travels to Sweden as a foreign exchange student in search of... err... an "alternative" education. The game is intended to be released in a 4-part episodic format. After a somewhat turbulent initial development period, the first episode (Episode 1: First Day in Sweden) has finally been released in May 2006 and the second episode (Episode 2: Point Club) in October 2007.

We are privileged to have the opportunity to interview this multitalented indie game developer. In the interview, Manos speaks about his past work with The Inventory, his trials and tribulations as an independent game developer, what gamers can expect in The Exchange Student, and what holds for him in the near future.

Who from the industry influenced you most as an adventure game developer? What were the first adventure games you played that won you over to become a fan of the genre? How had these experiences influenced how you developed your own games?

It's hard to narrow my answer to only 1 person. I would have to say that Jane Jensen and the Gabriel Knight games really made me fall in love with the adventure game genre. But to be honest if it wasn't for Bill Tiller (A Vampyre Story) I would have never been in touch with Bill Eaken and the The Exchange Student series would not gain so much in popularity. Last but not least, I can't deny that the Exchange Student series has some similarities with the Leisure Suit Larry series made by Al Lowe. So Jane Jensen, Bill Tiller, Bill Eaken and Al Lowe had been the most influential developers for me.

The first adventure games I played were Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, King's Quest 3 and Zak McCracken. If I remember correctly the very first one was Indiana Jones, a friend of mine told me that he had a game based on the Indiana Jones movie and being a movie fan, I asked him to lend it to me. It resembled the movie so much that I was hooked. I also remember spending a lot of time in Zak McCracken trying to figure out how to get the wallet. Solving that problem really gave me a feeling of mental satisfaction, as if I had just done something important.

Before founding Pan Metron Ariston, you launched an adventure game magazine called The Inventory in 2002. What were the greatest challenges (such as recruiting writers, meeting deadlines, creating contents) running an online game magazine? How did you deal with these challenges? What were the greatest rewards? How and why did you decide to end it in 2005?

The greatest challenge was finding people who were willing to contribute to the magazine without being offered a financial reward for their efforts. Writing even small articles takes time, most of the writers have an everyday job, relatives they need to take care of and friends they want to spend time with. Free time is something very valuable nowadays and it is not easy to ask someone to devote their free time to a magazine for computer games on a regular basis without being offered money in return.

The greatest reward was to receive emails by readers from all around the world thanking us for what we did, telling us how great they thought our job was. It was great even when I was reading their criticism, because it only showed they cared. I decided to end The Inventory because I got into game development as well and started with Adventure Europe too and there were just too many things to do simultaneously that I had to sacrifice something. I do not rule out though the return of The Inventory if we find a formula to be able to gain at least some money out of the whole effort.

The Exchange Student is a comical adventure game series (or "interactive sitcom" as you have called it) that is partly inspired by your own life experiences in Sweden (even though I am not sure if you want to claim any resemblance between Emilio and yourself). What parts of The Exchange Student mirror elements of your own life?

Most of the characters and the events in the game are inspired by real people and real situations I came across during my years as an exchange student in Sweden. I have very fond memories from my time as an exchange student. You see young people from all over the world interacting with each other, you see cultures collide and the outcome is almost always interesting and amusing. You see young men and women starting friendships and relationships with an expiration date, but they bond so much as if tomorrow does not matter. Whoever has the chance to go on an exchange student program should grab the opportunity, it is a once in a lifetime experience. Emilio is not Dimitris, but most of the characters surrounding Emilio are all inspired by characters I met in the past.

The theme of The Exchange Student is decisively whimsical and humorous. It is hard not to compare The Exchange Student to classics such as Leisure Suit Larry and Spellcasting series. How do you put a new twist on an old theme in your own games? How do you answer your potential critics complaining that the theme is just too juvenile?

I won't deny that the game resembles the Leisure Suit Larry series, but it is definitely not a copy of Larry. The similarity between TES and Larry is that the main protagonist is someone who is not so popular among the ladies and keeps trying his luck with them nevertheless. The similarities end there. The Exchange Student focuses more on the life of foreign exchange students in a rule-abiding society such as the Swedish one. Life in countries like Spain and Italy is very different to life in Sweden and when you have south European people living in a country of the north like Sweden the result is quite humorous.

I would not call the theme of the game juvenile. The story of the game is based in true events and people, so it could very well be described as a sociology study–game.

Humor, especially adult humor, is difficult to write and is easily misunderstood. What pitfalls have you learned to avoid when incorporating humor into your own games that are intended to be translated to multiple languages and played by gamers from different cultures?

Trying to please everyone usually results in pleasing no one. I imposed very few limits on the storyline while I was writing it. I was looking for an outcome that would correspond to real life. I would say that the only difference between the dialogs that would take place in real life and the dialogs that take place in the game is that there would be more vulgarity in real life. If someone is offended by what is portrayed in the game then they should either become more open minded or just opt for other games that are politically correct.

How big was the core development team for The Exchange Student? How long was the development time for each episode? How did you recruit talents (both production and voice) to begin development?

The core development team (graphics, audio, programming, story) consisted of only 4 people. The voice over actors were more than that, there were 9 of them for episode 1 and 3 new ones for episode 2. I recruited talents through the internet. There are several sites that are of great help when one is searching for freelancers.

Amazingly, you managed to recruit a number of big-name talents for the development of The Exchange Student, such as Bill Eaken (who had previously worked at LucasArts as a background artist), John Bell (who had previously done voiceover works for many big budget commercial games), and many others. How did you convince them to get involved in the indie game development scene? Did they work on a pro bono basis (obviously, without disclosing any financial details)? What lessons did you learn from working with these professionals about commercial game development?

It was an absolutely joy to work with both Bill Eaken and John Bell. I met Bill Eaken through Bill Tiller. I've known Bill Tiller for some time now, and we've talked on MSN quite a lot. I asked him if he could do some work on The Exchange Student but he did not have the time due to his work on A Vampyre Story. He said however that maybe Bill Eaken could help me. And fortunately he could. Both him and John Bell agreed to work for less money than one would expect to receive from a big publisher but their salaries were better for episode 2 and they will receive even better salaries for episode 3 and onwards. They were both convinced of the project's prospect and I'm glad that they decided to be on board.

The initial development of The Exchange Student had been marred by the cancellation announced by your original publisher Magixoft. How far along was the development of the game at the time? Was the news unexpected (or expected)? What was the early impact on the game's development (such as departure of talents previously recruited to the project)? What lessons had you learned about dealing with game publishers?

When the game got cancelled by Magixoft we had just finished our demo for the Nokia phones. The news were definitely unexpected, I don't think you ever expect your game to get cancelled when you go into development :). At first some members of the team decided to leave, but I think it that the phone version cancellation was an overall positive thing for the series. It was then that I decided to release the game for PCs instead. And you obviously have many more possibilities when you develop a game for PCs than when you develop for mobile phones.

Despite the early adversary, the project survived and launched with great success in 2006. In retrospect, how pleased were you with the initial reaction of The Exchange Student from the adventure game community? What were some of the common criticisms (aside from being in an episodic format or being too short) you received from your fans about the game?

Our main goal with The Exchange Student was to introduce classic adventure gaming into the casual market. We had to find the right balance between experienced adventure gamers and people who had never played an adventure game before. Some hardcore adventure gamers complained that the game was too easy while some hardcore casual gamers complained that the game is too hard. It's never possible to please everyone though. Apart from that, the main criticism for episode 1 was its short length. So we increased the length for episode 2 and we plan to make episode 3 even longer and slightly more difficult.

With few exceptions, commercialization of indie adventure games has not been very successful. This, in part, is because of competitions against free high quality adventure games offered by other indie developers. How do you justify monetizing your own games? How do you put values into the games you develop that will be perceived by the community as worthy of purchase? In this regard, is the indie development scene a double-edged sword? Why or why not?

Some free adventure games have great gameplay and an interesting plot. But most of them either lack the high quality graphics you would see from a commercial title or would be way too short, or would not feature professional voice actors. Although we had a small budget for episodes 1 and 2 we managed to apply high production values to our game. The graphics of the series is the kind of graphics you would see in any animation show on TV. And most of the voice overs and music are very professionally made too. I don't see the indie development scene as an adversary; on the contrary, I think that people who enjoy a good indie game will want to play something similar with a higher production value.

Why did you choose Adobe/Macromedia Flash to develop The Exchange Student? What other platforms, frameworks, or engines had you considered but subsequently rejected in using to develop your games? Why?

We used Flash because it makes porting to Mac easier (although not exactly dead easy, but that's another big issue) and because it is easier to animate a 2D adventure game in Flash.

Episode 2: Point Club of The Exchange Student continues the story of Episode 1: First Day in Sweden. The new episode has been developed in respond to great feedbacks from fans of the series. What improvements and enhancements have been made in the new episode?

We paid close attention to the feedback we got from our fans, so we made episode 2 quite longer than episode 1 and we added more challenges for the gamers. Casual gamers who played the first episode will now be a bit more experienced so we could add a couple of challenges that are more advanced than what we saw in episode 1. In episode 3 we will take the difficulty level one step further but we will always remain in the realms of logic :). Our intention is not to frustrate the gamer, our intention is to entertain him/her.

What can gamers, who may be unfamiliar with the series, expect from playing Episode 2: Point Club of The Exchange Student?

A desire to play episode 1? I don't know, I just don't see the point of someone starting the series on episode 2. Why would someone want to do that when episode 1 is as easily available as episode 2 is :). I am the kind of person who usually wants to start at the beginning, and I think it would be better for everyone if they played episode 1 first. Starting the series in episode 1 gives you a better understanding of the characters and one would probably enjoy more the jokes in the game.

What kind of mischievous puzzles and zany characters can gamers expect in Episode 2: Point Club of The Exchange Student? Rumor has it that gamers will even meet an inflatable doll as a character ('nuff said)!

I usually don't like to give too much away so I'll try to be as secretive as possible in my answer. Emilio will meet quite a lot of attractive women (I'm not sure that these women will be happy about it though), some strict characters who are very rule-abiding to the point of being mechanic, more insane students and of course the aforementioned inflatable doll! As for the challenges... Let me please clarify here that I'd rather call them challenges than puzzles, because when I think of the term puzzle I think of sliders, mechanical puzzles, match-3 puzzles etc. You don't see much of that in The Exchange Student, instead we try to incorporate challenges for the gamers similar to what an exchange student would possibly face in a foreign country. Well some examples of the challenges you will have to solve in the game involve getting into a night club when the guard is not so fond of you, pulling a couple of pranks to receive acceptance to the point club and fooling a bike merchant.

What can we expect from Dimitris Manos in the next 5 years?

Hmmm... a bald head, marriage, extra kilos, The Exchange Student: The Movie, a house in the Caribbean, children, best selling video games, world domination? Who knows :) Can I answer this question in 2013?

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