Karel Matějka, Jan Hloušek, Mirek Papež
First posted on 11 October 2009. Last updated on 25 June 2014.
|Karel Matějka is the Creative Director at Centauri Production.|
|Jan Hloušek is the Technical Director at Centauri Production.|
|Mirek Papež is the Director of Development at Centauri Production.|
All images are courtesy of Cécile Schneider and Claas Wolter, dtp entertainment © 2009.
Many adventure game fans may not have heard of Centauri Production. Founded in 2000, the small Czech Republic game developer has mostly been focusing on the local game market and has just now started to make its mark elsewhere. The developer's latest release is Memento Mori, a point-and-click adventure game originally developed in Czech and English and released first in German in 2008 and later in English in 2009.
The history of Centauri Production, however, began much earlier, as the company's grassroots was sown almost 20 years ago. At that period in time, the community of the game developers in the Czech Republic was very small. A trio of enthusiastic game designers—Karel Matějka, Jan Hloušek, and Mirek Papež, who had been working separately at the time for different studios such as Bohemia Interactive, Cenega Publishing, and Cenega Czech—came together to form a new parent company, Centauri Production. Since then, the developer had grown to become the largest and oldest game development company in the Czech Republic.
We are privileged to have the opportunity to interview the trio of designers from Centauri Production. In the interview, they speak candidly in depth about the long history of their company, their past game projects, the development of their own CPAL3D game engine, and, of course, their latest adventure game Memento Mori—a psychological thriller delving into international art thefts, conspiracies, and a secretive order of monks from Finland. Thanks to Matějka, Hloušek, and Papež, adventure game fans worldwide have learned much about the intrepid Czech Republic game developer.
- Prior to the founding of Centauri Production in 2000, the Czech Republic was relatively unknown for having a strong game development scene. How big was the video game industry in the Czech Republic back then?
- Karel Matějka: It's true that Centauri production was "officially" founded in 2000, but we regard this date only as a kind of a milestone at which several independent developers joined a company that had already been in existence. In fact, Centauri is the result of three groups coming together, and each company had existed long before... their roots date back to the 8-bit times of the last Century. :o) After almost 20 years now we can consider ourselves the oldest gaming company in the Czech Republic.
Later, during the beginnings of PC games, a lot of enthusiasts appeared on the scene who tried to create lots of games, confident that their games would break into foreign markets - a great number of teams were formed (usually made up of five to ten developers), but only a fraction of them succeeded in finishing their projects. And those who actually managed to release their games outside the Czech Republic were even fewer. One must realize that the teams relied only on a fanbase and word of mouth - the graphic designer wrote music, the programmer wrote dialogs, game designers didn't even exist, levels were edited by the programmer's brother when he came back from school and no space was left for someone who would take care of the communication with the publishers, let alone of promotion. :o) Out of the more successful groups (you could count them on the fingers of one hand) a few larger companies emerged that are still in existence today. In such a situation, you realize you know almost everybody in the field. The Czech Republic is very small in this regard. :o)
- What prior experience did you have in the video game industry before working at Centauri Production?
- Karel Matějka: The Czech Republic is small, so it isn't extraordinary to work on more titles from different companies at the same time. Before 2000, I was lucky to work on Mafia by Illusion Softworks - now a branch of Take2. I also worked on, for example, Operation Flashpoint by Bohemia Interactive, and I still cooperate closely with them. I think I am listed in the credits for the just released Arma2. :o)
- Most independent game developers, including Centauri Production, grew from very modest beginnings. How many people were employed by Centauri Production when the company was first founded? What was Centauri Production's first game project? What was Centauri Production's first published adventure game? Why did Centauri Production choose to expand into the adventure genre, at a time when other game developers were shying away from it?
- Karel Matějka: The very first project of Centauri was the step dungeon The Knights of the Grail. At that time, the genre was very popular and RPGs, as we know them today, actually grew out of it. At the same time, the second branch of today's Centauri created the first serious adventure game called Gooka and its third branch created an arcade game similar to Another World but enriched with paralax scrolling. That was exactly eleven years ago. Before that, only 8-bit stuff was made and it was never even published. The first adventure game of the present Centauri was the Fairytale about Father Frost, Ivan and Nastya, based on Slavonic fairy tales, and to this day this is one of the most widespread games in Centauri's history. Then came the necessary transition to 3D and with it the team's expansion. I can't really give you the exact number of people working on each game, as numbers changed according to the needs of production, but I know that at the time of the greatest expansion we had about 30 co-workers. The heart of the team is formed by about 12 experienced developers who have been with us for the whole post-2000 era. Some of them also gained their experience thanks to projects in England, Germany, etc. And as for the genre choice? We really value our independence and we try to make games that we ourselves would enjoy. The fact that adventure games have been on the blacklist recently isn't related as much to developers as to the publishers who have a lukewarm attitude to 'point and click' games. There used to be times when games were not 3D and couldn't even be offered to the publishers. Everybody wanted strategies or shoot-them-ups. :o) From that time, I recall several of our efforts to mix genres so that we wouldn't have to label the game as a classic adventure game in our brochures. Memento Mori was a kind of an experiment for us. It was about going back to our roots and taking advantage of all our experience with this genre, and further about using the latest technologies to spice up the wilting genre of 2D adventure games. Although we tried to build a clean adventure game without any distinctive novelties, everything we incorporated in the game was done with the greatest effort to get comfortable controls, it took us several months to fine-tune the batching of the story, we tweaked the difficulty of game tasks innumerable times and we refined the audiovisual impression over and over again. Here it's fitting to thank our publisher, who took care of the rest so that we are getting excellent feedback.
- Memento Mori was first released in 2008 by dtp entertainment but in native German only. When did localization of the game into English and other languages begin? Who was responsible for the English localization? How long did the process take?
- Karel Matějka: We developed the first versions of the game in Czech and English. A few months before the release we switched to the German version and the last changes and fine-tuning were implemented there because this was the first one to be released. In this way, the English version then had to be upgraded to the latest status, and the same for the other versions. Further localizations were carried out almost immediately after the game was finished - French, Russian and Spanish. Again, our thanks go to the publisher for having chosen very good actors. Without them, the game wouldn't have the special atmosphere it now has.
- How large was the development team for Memento Mori? How long was the game in development? What part, if any, of the game's development was outsourced?
- Karel Matějka: During the biggest growth spurt, as many as 30 of our people worked on Memento. The production took almost two years and one third of this time was devoted to bugfixing and polishing for which we only had the really indispensible staff.
- What is the basic premise of the story in Memento Mori? Who are the major characters in the game? Where do these characters fit into the story?
- Karel Matějka: The premise of the story is a failure of the security system in the world-renowned Hermitage gallery. As the player learns later, several paintings in the gallery were replaced with worthless replicas. The chief of the St. Petersburg militia cannot allow this to leak to the public, so he starts to manipulate the two main protagonists of the story, Larissa Svetlova, a rookie Interpol agent, and Max Durand, an art professor turned art-forger who had an inevitable run-in with the law. Max and Lara are led through exotic locations in Portugal, Scotland and Finland in the course of their investigations.
- What authentic (real) locations, if any, were used to model the environments in Memento Mori, such as the Hermitage Museum, the Winter Palace, and other locales?
- Karel Matějka: From the very start we aimed at a totally faithful rendering of all locations, so that the player would feel like he or she is traveling in real European cities. We took lots of photographs. This is not to say we toured Europe instead of working on the game. :o) In a lot of cases it just so happened that someone knew someone else who lives in Portugal or St. Petersburg. These people then received exact information from us as to what they should photograph. Then we just had to go through the photos. You might find it interesting that we have authentic bands from Petersburg in the rock club in the game.
- What is the CPAL3D engine developed by Centauri Production? How is it different or better than other 3D game engines, such as the Wintermute Engine, that are popular among adventure game developers? What special graphic effects can the CPAL3D engine handle (for example, high dynamic range lighting)?
- Jan Hloušek: CPAL3D is a complete solution for the production of computer games, including a scene, IDE and script language. Let me emphasize that I'm talking about computer games in general, not just adventure games. On our engine, games of various genres have been developed - on-rails action game, physical puzzle similar to Ballance, a free-roaming shoot-em-up is ready for release and even an RPG is being developed. It isn't that these games are all in-house projects, we license the engine to friendly studios, too. As a relatively small studio we focus mainly on keeping our tools as flexible as possible so that even a graphic or game designer would be able to modify the rendering or game mechanics as need be without a programmer's intervention. All people who have worked with the engine praised it as an excellent prototyping tool for various game designers' ideas.
Fortunately, we didn't stop at prototyping. :o)
By the way, Wintermute is fantastic stuff and I cheer for its author (one person made it!). However, it isn't a 3D engine.
As for the effects in CPAL3D, it includes dynamic lighting and shading, a shader material system, postprocess effects, a pathfinder, a rendering of large spaces, etc. And it's all on at least id tech 4 level. Unfortunately, everything couldn't be used in Memento Mori.
- What types of puzzles will the player find in Memento Mori? How many hours of gameplay can the player expect from the game?
- Karel Matějka: We tried to make the puzzles in Memento in such a way that they would be as varied as possible. At the same time, we strove to ensure that the player could do in the game the same things that can be done in the real world. If the player is to examine a spot under a carpet, she will really lift it, if the player is to open a door with a picklock, she really tries to open the door with a picklock. For this purpose, all objects and locations are modeled in 3D which enables such extensive manipulation within the game locations. There are over 1,000 unique animations in the game and they all serve to create the sense of reality. As for the game length, it's between 10 to 16 hours, depending on individual skills and experience of players.
- How is the interaction handled in Memento Mori between the player and other characters for finding clues and solving puzzles? Are there a series of dialogs to exhaust through to get the answers?
- Karel Matějka: A multilayered system of clues is implemented in the game. We wanted the characters to respond as real people, not machines, in all the situations. The characters themselves are thrown into the story and they must respond to non-linear situations in the game in a way that players wouldn't find them too prepared. Players don't have to go through all the dialogs (actually, players can follow alternative branches of the story). I think it's possible that players won't even have the chance of discovering between twenty to thirty per cent of the dialogs.
- Memento Mori is purported to have 8 different possible endings, depending on which path the player chooses to go down. How early or late does the game branch off to these different paths? Beyond puzzle solving, what is an example in which the player's action will have significant consequence later in the game?
- Karel Matějka: Unfortunately, a number of Memento players are somewhat confused by the branching off of the story. They are afraid of responding by emoticons in dialogs because they might make a mistake. I would like to encourage them not to be afraid. They can respond the way they would in real life. It's true that the game will differ depending on their reaction, but the storyline will dynamically adapt itself accordingly. There are several spots that affect the final episode and that obviously determine the end of the game. The end is composed of several independent segments which combine differently according to players' actions in those spots I mentioned. There are 18 combinations in all. However, there are only three main branches that a player would recognize at first sight. Nevertheless, there are several spots in the story where you can make different choices. However, this shouldn't make you afraid, because all that you lose are just other branches of the game - interesting dialogs which can perhaps give you additional information when you play the game the second time. I read through the discussion forums where players debate the game endings and I must say that nobody has discovered one particular ending yet. :o) That's a challenge, isn't it?
- What other game projects are currently in production by Centauri Production? Is there any plan already for a sequel to Memento Mori? What can we expect to see from Centauri Production in the next 5 years?
- Mirek Papež: Actually we have already finished three titles for this year – Pat&Mat, Alternativa, Pound of Ground. Unfortunately it is having delay due to localization and publishing issues. Currently we are heading to the future with open mind. We are preparing one not yet announced title and definitely looking for some console development. With our technology and creativity I am afraid to say we could even match Heavy Rain very soon.