Chris Jones, Aaron Conners

Big Finish Games

Posted by Erik-André Vik Mamen, Philip Jong.
First posted on 03 November 2008. Last updated on 21 May 2014.
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Chris Jones, Aaron Conners
Chris Jones and Aaron Conners (left to right) are the cofounders of Big Finish Games, the developer of Three Cards To Midnight.

Big Finish Games is a new game production company founded by veteran game developers Chris Jones and Aaron Conners. To adventure game fans, Jones is best known as the cofounder of Access Software and the creator of the Tex Murphy series. Founded in 1983, Access Software is also the developer of the Link series of golf games and a pioneer of a number of patented technologies for video and sound productions in video games, most notably RealSound. RealSound allows playback of digitalized audio through regular PC speakers without standalone sound cards. This permits the inclusion of digitalized speech for spoken dialogs in games that are playable on computer systems at a time when sound peripherals are prohibitively expensive.

Fans of Tex Murphy games will also immediately recognize Jones as the wisecracking private investigator Tex Murphy, a role he chooses to play himself in the series. The popular series has since spawned a total of 5 games (Mean Street, Martian Memorandum, Under a Killing Moon, The Pandora Directive, Tex Murphy: Overseer) and even a radio series (Tex Murphy Radio Theater). The later Tex Murphy sequels also establishes a long-term collaboration (such as the radio series) between Jones and Conners that lasts to this date.

After leaving Access Software, Jones worked at TruGolf, a company which he founded to develop golf simulation software and life-sized indoor golf simulators for home and commercial recreation. Conners also left the company to work as the Creative Director at Ubisoft Montreal. In late 2007, Jones and Conners decided to return to their roots and began work on a brand new adventure game project, codenamed Tarot—a game that would later be revealed as Three Cards to Midnight.

We are very pleased to have this opportunity to interview both Jones (not to be confused with Chris Jones, creator of Adventure Game Studio) and Conners. In the interview, we ask Jones and Conners on their past successes at Access Software, other projects they have done since leaving the company, their current adventure game Three Cards to Midnight (expected to be released in late 2008), and even whether or not Tex Murphy will make a triumph return after a decade in hiatus!

Check out our exclusive photo of Jones and Conners together!

What led you to a decision to create Access Software together with Bruce Carver back in 1983?

Chris Jones: Bruce Carver developed a sprite-based software program and we felt like there was a good opportunity to produce entertainment software for the Commodore, which was big at that time.

What line of work did you do prior to that time?

Chris Jones: Bruce and I both worked for an engineering company; I was on the business side and Bruce was an engineer, though not the kind that drives a train.

How had your vision of the company changed over the years (until 1999 when Access Software became Indie Built)?

Chris Jones: I don't think the vision ever really changed. We always wanted to go for quality and the highest technology, and by doing that, we would find segments in the market that we could appeal to.

How did the character of Tex Murphy—the laidback, wisecracking private investigator always in dire need of cash—come into existence? How much was Philip Marlowe a role model for Tex Murphy?

Chris Jones: Growing up, one of the things we loved to do was make movies and one of the ideas we had was for a detective who was half Phillip Marlowe and half Roy Rogers. We had a cassette with a bunch of Roy Rogers songs on it and we really wanted to use it. For the main character we came up with the name "Tex Mutant". It was really just for laughs...and the movie was really terrible. But, later, when Access developed a flight simulator, we decided to add a story to make it more interesting and that's when Tex Mutant returned, renamed Tex Murphy.

Who else contributed to his personality?

Chris Jones: When Aaron Conners and I began work on Under a Killing Moon, which is really where Tex's personality began to develop, we really loved "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid", the Steve Martin detective movie, so that was a big influence. There are also lots of aspects of my personality and Aaron's mixed into Tex.

Your role as Tex Murphy became iconic with Under a Killing Moon. Was it also true though that you also appeared as Tex in both Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum? Was another actor (someone who had your likeness) ever used to portray Tex elsewhere in these games, such as for the cover arts and print advertisements?

Chris Jones: Yes, at least a digitized version of me. We couldn't afford stunt doubles!

You had no professional acting experience prior to your role as Tex Murphy. Why did you choose to take on this role yourself, rather than casting a professional actor? How did you prepare for the role?

Chris Jones: First, I was available at a bargain price! Honestly, we had no idea that real acting would ever be involved when we started out. I was just a digitized character. It was really organic and it turned out not at all the way I expected. Also, in sixth grade, I played the Ghost of Christmas Past, and the evolution to Tex was totally natural.

What was your favorite one-liner (or two- or three-liners) ever as Tex?

Chris Jones: My all-time favorite is "Danger's like jello, there's always room for more."

Which game of the Tex Murphy series was the most successful commercially?

Chris Jones: Under a Killing Moon was by far the most successful.

How disappointed (if at all) were you with the sales of the Tex Murphy: Overseer, especially after the fallout of the high profile bundling deal of the game with Intel?

Chris Jones: Very. What was most disappointing was how the whole genre of Adventure games went down the drain so quickly. We felt like we were making some really great games, but there were too many other bad adventure games and they killed the category.

How true was the rumor that Intel's investment played a large role in decisions made for the production of the game? What led to the fallout with Intel?

Chris Jones: Totally true. The point was, they wanted to take the game to DVD and we were always interested in pursuing cutting edge technology. Unfortunately, I think we were about two years ahead of the curve. There wasn't really any fallout with Intel, it just turned out that the market wasn't really ready for what we were offering. We ended up doing the CD version, but the DVD version was the way Overseer was meant to be seen and played.

RealSound was a groundbreaking technology pioneered by Access Software that allowed playback of digitized audio using only PC speakers without the need of dedicated sound cards. What was the developmental history behind RealSound? Who was involved in the development of this patented technology?

Aaron Conners: RealSound was developed by Steve Witzel, a sound engineer who worked with Bruce Carver in the early days of Access Software and eventually became the head of Marketing for Access. RealSound was Witzel's proprietary software and the details of the technology were kept top secret. The software was revolutionary when it was utilized starting in 1989 because, at the time, PCs were only capable of producing beeps and other simple sound effects. RealSound allowed games such as Mean Streets and World Class Leaderboard to offer spoken dialog and more complex sounds. The availability and standardization of sound cards made RealSound effectively obsolete after several years.

Many earlier games from Access Software featured digitalized photos (such as still photos of people) and even rapid sequences of digitalized images forming an almost video like playback. The realism in these games was unmatched by computer games from other developers of that era. How much of this technology was developed in house? What technical challenges did you recall facing back then?

Chris Jones: We developed everything in house. As I said, we always wanted to be the first to market with the best technology. Unfortunately, we were often too far ahead of the curve. The biggest technical challenges were always compression and frame rate...not too different from what everyone's still dealing with today.

When and how did you realize that Mean Streets would go on to spawn a successful franchise while Countdown would not? Was an idea for a sequel ever developed for Countdown? If so, what?

Chris Jones: Mean Streets sold much better than Countdown and we felt like it had a better chance of success. We never did any work for a Countdown sequel.

Many obsessed fans long wondered about the "secret" identities of the actors and actresses who played certain memorable roles in Countdown and Mean Streets (we are aware that a number of the characters in Mean Streets have been recast in later sequels). For the record, who played the roles of 1) Mason Powers 2) Lisa Loomis 3) Sylvia Linksy, 4) Delores Lightbody, 5) Lee Chin, 6) Sandra Larsen, and 7) any other character worth mentioning?

Chris Jones: I remember that Dave Brown played Mason Powers and John Berven played Delores, but that's about it. None of them went on to become major stars, I do know that.

You had previously confirmed that plans existed for at least 2 sequels to Tex Murphy: Overseer, tentatively titled Chance and Polarity. What was the original premise for the stories in these sequels? What work, if any, had begun on these sequels before they were canceled?

Chris Jones: Interesting question. Aaron Conners did a lot of work on these and the stories have been fully developed. We did a bit of work very early, including a Chinatown set, but nothing is still around today. There were a lot of hints in Overseer – especially in the Introduction and final scene – about where the story was going. We'll leave it at that for now :).

In 2001, you produced a series of Tex Murphy Radio Theater episodes. The show was extremely popular among fans of the series. How long did you prepare to produce each episode? Was the series always intended to be only 6 episodes? The story in the radio series was unfinished. How was it supposed to end?

Chris Jones: I'll let Aaron answer this one.

Aaron Conners: We felt terrible about how we left fans hanging at the end of Overseer. TMRT was a gift for fans to give them a taste of how the story would eventually continue. Obviously, the story isn't even close to being finished! But we hope to be able to continue on and tell the whole story someday.

What were your favorite personal anecdotes from the set during filming of the live sequences in Tex Murphy? What were your most memorable outtakes involving any of the Hollywood casts?

Chris Jones: It was great to sit down and talk with Kevin McCarthy about the Golden Age of Hollywood, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc. Tanya Roberts was really fun. Mainly, just being able to talk to people I'd admired throughout the years and to get their viewpoints and hear their experiences – people like Michael York, who worked with Laurence Olivier – it was just a really great opportunity.

The acquisition of Access Software by Microsoft in 1999 effectively destined an end to the studio as an adventure game developer (though later acquired by Take Two Interactive after the company became Indie Built). In retrospect, what regrets (if any) did you have about the choices you made in this deal? What would you have done differently that might have led your company to a different fate?

Chris Jones: Frankly, the adventure game genre was pretty much dead at that point, so we may never have gotten a Tex Murphy game released. It was a great time to sell our company, so that was good.

What other projects had you been involved with over the last 10 years or so (up until TruGolf)?

Chris Jones: We did a bunch of projects for Microsoft, including Links, tennis, snowboarding and wakeboarding games. Since then, I've continued to work with Aaron on several projects, one of which we are currently developing.

What was the extent of your collaboration with Peter Rasmussen and Jacqueline Turnure in the Machinima flick Stolen Life and even Steven Spielberg in the movie Artificial Intelligence: AI?

Chris Jones: Peter knew of Tex Murphy and was a big fan. He had a character that he thought I would be good to do the voice for. Sadly, Peter died a few months ago, but I'm glad I had a chance to work with him and I learned a lot from the experience. Jackie was a great director and was able to pull out very nuanced performances out of all the characters in Stolen Life.

Working with Steven Spielberg and coming up with game concepts for AI was thrilling. We met together on several occasions and came up with some great ideas; unfortunately, we weren't able to get the ideas developed and released – for a variety of reasons.

With TruGolf, you have returned to your roots at Access Software and your work with the Links series. What is TruGolf? Who from the original development team of Links is involved in this project?

Chris Jones: TruGolf is an outgrowth of Links and, for some time, we have been in business of creating indoor simulators and the software that runs them. We are currently finishing a new generation of golf software that has been developed by some of the original Links team.

You have just announced Three Cards to Midnight, a new game previously known only as Tarot. What is the meaning of this cryptic title? What is the concept behind Three Cards to Midnight? To what extent will it be an adventure game?

Aaron Conners: Three Cards to Midnight is influenced greatly by the classic stories of the Twilight Zone TV series and film noir movies. We wanted the title to reflect this tone and style. It's a bit theatrical and hard-boiled, but has the intriguing imagery of the cards in place of a unit of time.

Without revealing too much, the reference to the three cards involves a choice the player must make at the end, based on his/her experiences through the course of the game. If the player has played well - and paid attention - s/he will know how to best prepare to confront the endgame.

The concept of TCM, again without giving away all the details, is for the player to delve into the main character's past and, through the gameplay, reveal important fragments of lost memories. As the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, the player is led to a final confrontation, where his/her accumulated experiences and knowledge will be required to survive or, ideally, emerge victorious. (There are multiple resolutions to the story.)

TCM has some adventure game elements, including story, puzzles, etc., but it's really a new type of game. Everything is built around the story, especially the gameplay. The story isn't just added on. And we've designed it so that it can be enjoyed by anyone who loves a good story - you don't have to be an experienced gamer to play it, though experienced gamers will definitely be challenged.

How much riskier is the current market for an adventure game developer than that from a decade ago? How will this affect the development of Three Cards to Midnight as compared to your earlier game titles?

Aaron Conners: There are really three different "markets" in the equation. First, you have adventure gamers - people who enjoy adventure games and know the history of the genre. They don't like ALL adventure games, but they do enjoy many of the classic adventure game elements...most particularly story. And for these people, there aren't enough quality titles available these days.

Next are the casual gamers. The rapid growth of downloadable online games has shown that there is a large market for casual games. While there is some crossover between adventure gamers and casual gamers, many casual gamers haven't played and have little to no knowledge of the adventure genre, and play the games that are offered not knowing that there are better games available. Conversely, adventure gamers find most downloadable games to be "lite" and often low quality.

Finally, there's the broader gamer market. Many of these users think of adventure games the way our generation thought of disco: it got a bad reputation (not totally deserved) and the genre is considered archaic and unprogressive.

The development of Three Cards to Midnight has been a lot like producing an independent film. We're doing it ourselves without the benefit of a big budget, so we decided to focus on what's most important to us: the story. In the same way a book or graphic novel can thrill and amuse readers, our goal was to do the same with our game. The gameplay was then created to support the story. And the graphics, while not what you'll get with a multi-million dollar console title, are very good, effective, and (again) support the story beautifully.

Ultimately, TCM is a game that delivers a new, sophisticated experience for people who enjoy good stories and scalable gameplay. We're very proud of the game and think that anyone who plays it will have a good time.

We are asking you this final question (we lie; we mean questions) on behalf of all adventure game fans. Is Tex Murphy dead? Is there a chance he will make a tenacious return to finish his case? Will he ever score with Chelsee (is it all too late)? We want to know! We need to know! We demand to know (grinning)!

Aaron Conners: Is Tex Murphy dead? NEVER! We want nothing more than to bring our favorite detective back for at least one final game. We have the story all written and ready to go...all we need is the money to produce the game. With any luck, Three Cards to Midnight will help us to realize this goal.

And I can't tell you if Tex will score with Chelsee, but he'll definitely get his opportunity! And, of course, you must remember that our games are interactive, so it will be up to you! :-)

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