Private Moon Studios
The authors wish to acknowledge Judit Lapikas, Private Moon Studios, for her assistance in the translation.
For more information, visit Private Moon Studios.
In Hungary, few gamers can claim to share as much passion about adventure games as Pierrot does. In 1996, he founded the Inventory, a multilingual (Hungarian and English) online magazine that was amongst the first game sites to focus on adventure games. Over the next few years, his writings from the popular site began to appear on the pages of a local computer gaming magazine as a couple of fringe appendices bearing the same name. Unfortunately, the publication did not continue for long. The few issues that were printed, however, were the best and most unique part of the magazine. In them, he wrote up reviews about many of his favorite adventure games. Soon afterward, Pierrot envisioned a new project and venture to be born from his interest in this once hobby. He established Private Moon Studios—a small, independent development studio with a goal to create great adventure games. In 2003, the newly founded developer released AGON (Ancient Games of Nations), an episodic adventure game series that was marketed at a time when episodic gaming had yet to become popular. Since then, 4 episodes of AGON had been released: The London scene, Adventures in Lapland, Pirates of Madagascar, and The Lost Sword of Toledo.
- The following interview was originally conducted in part in Hungarian. It was translated to English and edited.
Yet, Pierrot already has another venture—Private Moon Records, that focuses on local Hungarian music, where Pierrot is both the producer and the singer. In fact, Pierrot is quite popular in Hungary as a pop singer.
Pierrot began his musical career in 1986. He published his first album (Babaházak) 4 years later. His name had since appeared in over 40 albums as a composer, a performer, or a producer. The 1980s era had a great effect on his music. He even produced a tribute album of his favorite songs from past bands and singers of that era (Pierrot Presents His Galley of Long Lost Treasure - Part One). He also wrote a book about his travels in Asia and on the cuisines of China, Indonesia, Thailand, and India. The book (To Taste Asia) included some recipes he collected from his excursions and his own photographs which he shot there.
We are very privileged to have this rare opportunity to interview the multitalented game designer, musician, and author. In the interview, Pierrot (whose offstage name is Tamas Z. Marosi) speaks about his passion for adventure games, the founding of his game studio, the birth of the AGON series, his second career as a musician, and most importantly, what gamers can expect in The Tale of the Four Dragons—the next episode of the AGON series that is currently in development.
Check out our exclusive gallery of previously unpublished concept art from AGON: The Tale of the Four Dragons!
- When and how did you first learn about adventure games? What attracted you to the adventure genre?
- My encounter with adventure games was accidental. It happened that I had to be waiting for some time in a computer store and to help pass the time I was pushed in front of a machine to play Lost In Time. Already then, I found it very exciting to see how different and rather more intellectually challenging such an artifact could be, in comparison with earlier, more-or-less similar programs run on arcade machines in gaming rooms. What is more, digitalized photos and movie clips had given me some insight into a technically very different way of game building. Yet, this wasn't the time when I fell in love with adventure gaming. The passion grabbed me a year or so later, after I'd had a glimpse on a Myst demo running in a Macintosh store. I found that approach absolutely fascinating! Not only for the first-person images of course – still quite a novelty those days though – but rather because the game's (its creators') way of thinking had been devastatingly new. I saw the first virtual world built, both in terms of space and story, and I rushed to the store to buy it right away.
- What were your favorite adventure games (aside from those of your own, of course)? Why?
- I'm sure it was this initial, defining experience that influenced my subsequent selection; however, I do not believe that only Myst-like games had been my only favorites in the genre. I think deep stories appeal to me most, such as Black Dahlia, the Gabriel Knight games or The Longest Journey and Syberia (apart from the Myst episodes of course). But sometimes an exciting new idea could be enough to save the day, like in Biosys, Bad Mojo or Dark Eye.
- When was Private Moon Studios founded? How had the company evolved over the years as a game developer?
- We have been engaged in multimedia development for over a decade. A few years ago we had to make a serious decision to reorganize the business of Private Moon Studios, including the composition of the team. We had worked on Yoomurjak's Ring already with the new setup and the Toledo episode was started over(!) in the spirit of this reengineering. No more experimenting - the investment period is over. Now I'm the only one left to carry the risk, yet to work for pleasure at the same time; the others have either left the team or stayed with me some other way. Basically chief programmer Gabor Csendes has been my only collaborator in creative work since the very first Agon team where he also played a key role. Many tasks can be managed internally by the four of us (with 3D graphic designer László Branda and project manager Judit Lapikas as practically permanent members of the staff) while we seek outsourcing solutions for all the other tasks. In the development of the Toledo episode our outstanding partners were Mzone Studio in France as well as Shinnyo Interactive in Canada.
- How was the idea born for AGON? What was the episodic format originally intended for the series?
- While looking at how we could acquaint people with and digitally preserve ancient board games from around the world by reconstructing them in their original shape, we found the genre of adventure game as a suitable form, and also the character of Professor Hunt as pillar of the story, who travels around the world in quest of 12 intriguing board games sometime at the turn of the last century. Yet storyline was far from being at the core of the original project. But with time, while basically remaining on track of the original scenario, all changes and ups and downs and staff replacements made us modify the concept to expand AGON to be primarily a multi-layered interactive story and a truly classic adventure where board games play an important yet no longer decisive role. The episodic structure was self-evident: the story will cover well known and less well known board games from all corners of the world, what is in fact a gripping journey around the globe. At each destination, the protagonist gets involved in memorable, sometimes complex and sometimes simple adventures. All this calls for handling these events as individual chapters of a tale – which tales could either be told in different gaming styles.
- How many episodes in total are in the plan for the series? Besides London, Lapland, Madagascar, and Toledo, what other exotic locales will Professor Samuel Hunt visit in upcoming episodes?
- The AGON story will consist of 14 episodes and this, for reasons inherent in the basis of the story, cannot be changed. However, this does not necessarily mean that each and every episode would make a full game. As you can see, the first three parts could be integrated as a collection under the title The Mysterious Codex – but then there are The Lost Sword of Toledo and the next sequel The Tale of the Four Dragons which have been or are intended to be published as individual titles. As for the next parts, compilation of games is not unlikely so we may even get to the end of the story in only 6-7 volumes. All future destinations have already been decided and even game titles seem to be fairly definite, based on existing synopses and preliminary scheme. However, it may be too early to jump that far ahead. But to satisfy curiosity perhaps I can reveal a few things: after Peking the Professor will stay for a while in Asia, then returns to the African continent; later he will pop over to America before returning to Europe for certain business. Eventually his Odyssey will finish in England. Of course the concept is more elaborated for upcoming chapters but those planned for the future are also in good shape.
- In what ways will The Tale of the Four Dragons differ from The Lost Sword of Toledo? Who are the major new characters?
- There will be no major differences in game features other than those deriving from the genuine diversity of the two cities Toledo and Peking, such as their different size for example. As core motive of AGON 5, we get involved in certain family affairs again but these substantially differ from those in the Spanish story. The person the Professor is looking for is no longer alive so the string seems to have been broken. His only chance is to try to bring together the one-time family members – Mr. Wang's four children who have not met and not been in touch with each other since they left the house, some two decades ago. The four siblings have not much in common; their walks of life and characters are all different as well as the environment they live in - and approaching them is a different challenge for Professor Hunt too.
At the beginning he is just groping around blindly but while doing so he explores the bustling city of Peking of the period. He visits a theatre, a silk shop, a Buddhist temple or an opium den and even manages to get inside the Imperial Palace. He also finds his way to the forests of the Fragrant Hills, gets acquainted with Chinese calendars, opera masks, tea leaves and dozens of exotic cultural features – not only in an effort to fulfill his own mission but, driven by his exceptional humanity, also to help good people.
- What kind of puzzles can fans expect in The Tale of the Four Dragons?
- In my opinion one of the strengths of the AGON series is the perfect integration of puzzles in the texture of the games, all in terms of story, culture and environment. We want to live up to this tradition in the Peking episode as well. There will be of course inventory and dialog-based challenges too but at the same time the game will feature a large number of puzzles to solve. This is because many of the logical puzzles originate in China so I felt important to have some of these built into the plot. A similar "stand-alone" feature is the gambler's character who will challenge us with various optional mini-games; he is always at hand if we overspend a little. There will be no mazes, timed puzzles and the Professor cannot die. But he has to use his brain a lot because the game will also be fairly non-linear. This means particular locations can be visited in any sequence, while the puzzles may indicate a connection between such distant locations.
- A signature of the AGON series is the various authentic board games that are totally playable in the episodes. What is the name of the centerpiece board game that will appear in The Tale of the Four Dragons? Are you yourself an avid player of board games? If so, which games?
- Yes, I have always been a fan of various board games. With the help of an ethnographer, I made a search for those with significant cultural background and – quite often – a past of hundreds or thousands of years. Some of them are well documented while others are mysterious and contradictory.
It is known by now that apart from the classic version, the new episode is also being built in the form of a casual–remix. The latter will be a simplified version of the former, offering a mixture of traditional "hidden object games" and adventures. There will be no significant differences, but the board games Professor Hunt encounters will be different in each one. One of them is considered the ancestor of Wei-Chi - or Go. It is, however less complex. The other game is an extreme rarity with mystic power attributed to it since many decades; some believe it had been the ancestor of all board games on earth. I would not like to reveal their names yet – everything will come to light in time.
- Unlike AGON, Yoomurjak's Ring is an adventure game featuring FMV (Full Motion Video) that includes a prominent Hungarian cast of live actors. How do you answer your critics that FMV games are inherently flawed in the ability to deliver an adequate interactive experience?
- I think Yoomurjak's Ring has just proved that an FMV game was able to render full interactive gaming experience. Originally released at the end of 2006, the title utilizes the enhanced AGON engine, with added interactive panoramic images, close-ups, cutscene movies and some real-time 3D elements. This technology enabled the production to provide a full yet very special, continuous movie experience and to make vast real-life spaces accessible virtually – with the ultimate aim to increase the touristic attraction of a town through a storyline performed in a real-life environment by real-life people. Yoomurjak's Ring is a Hungarian award-winning production in the category of interactive multimedia development. Its methodology has been utilized in other projects as well, primarily in the field of edutainment.
Currently we are looking at the possibilities of releasing the title in other countries as well. It has been downloadable from Adventure Shop for some time and the responses exceed all expectations. On the long run, much depends on whether gamers accept that voices are in the language of the country where the plot takes place, which is likely to sound rather unfamiliar to them and the only way to make out what is happening are subtitles and tooltips. I certainly hope that language will come up only from the aspect of its unique and exotic nature and it will not prevent anyone from enjoying the game.
- Back in 1996, you created a multilingual (Hungarian and English) adventure game site called the Inventory. What was the workload required back then to maintain the website? When did you close it down? Why?
- Those were times when adventure games had been thriving. No wonder they attracted the interest of many people. Inventory had lots of visitors and we were invited to every big international game fair. Unfortunately the continuous maintenance, editorial and communication tasks consumed a lot of energy while no income derived of these activities whatsoever - other than the savings I made on acquiring newly released games. Meanwhile, my career as a musician had also reached its height, so in those years I had very little time for anything else – I was happy if I could play at all now and then. Well, it was a forced decision but I had to admit to myself that I would have been unable to carry on this hobby-project at adequate quality level on the long run. However, I used to learn a lot during this period and practically it was then when it came to my mind: what if I tried to make my own games?
- In Hungary and elsewhere, you are also a well-known musician, singer, composer, and producer. What is your style of music? Who are your musical influences? What is the latest project from your studio?
- I believe my name as a musician is less known outside Hungary since only two of my productions were published across the border. Not surprising - it is extremely hard to break onto the international stage from a remote country like ours, and I am really proud of having made it now and then. Not that I had been particularly tough; I am just a kind of singer-songwriter who sings his own compositions with his band behind him, primarily in acoustic "adult pop" style. But as a music producer, I have a very colorful portfolio of productions written for other performers; the styles range from world music to alternative rock to reggae and hip-hop. Over 40 albums altogether.
- What lies in the future for AGON? What other game projects are in the plan for Private Moon Studios?
- Since Yoomurjak's Ring was completed, we have been open to making similar Jonathan Hunt adventures based on themes of history or literature, placed in other Hungarian cities. I have to say there is certainly an interest for such projects. However, being a small team, our main focus remains to be the AGON series. As our team is small and our financial sources are limited, the crisis has forced us to slow down the development process and to focus on other projects, including a few that are in some way a re-make of our existing productions. We are currently working on the Mac version of the Toledo episode and on our first attempt with the already mentioned casual game, as a "lite" version of the Peking episode. Also, a Yoomurjak’s Ring adaptation for iPhone and iPad is already in progress. In addition, Private Moon is a certified Nintendo DS developer and this opens up further opportunities we wish to utilize. This means the work on AGON 5 is going on, but not as fast as before. The current status of the game is around 65-70 percent. However, we do hope that the results will compensate everyone for the waiting, since high quality has always been our primary focus.