Jan Theysen

King Art Games

Posted by Matt Barton, Philip Jong.
First posted on 28 October 2011. Last updated on 29 July 2013.
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Jan Theysen
Jan Theysen is the cofounder of King Art Games.
Jan Theysen
Jan Theysen
Jan Theysen
Jan Theysen
Jan Theysen
Jan Theysen
Jan Theysen
Jan Theysen
Jan Theysen
Jan Theysen

The authors wish to acknowledge Macro Rosenberg, King Art Games, for his assistance.

For more information, visit The Book of Unwritten Tales.

Jan Theysen is the cofounder and creative director of King Art Games as well as a self-professed fan of classic adventure games such as The Secret of Monkey Island and Simon the Sorcerer. Founded in 2000, King Art Games has quickly established itself as a developer of downloadable and browser based casual games. With The Book of Unwritten Tales, however, the company has now transitioned into making full-length, standalone adventure games. After some unfortunate time lost in litigation, the game has finally been localized from German to English and is scheduled for release in late 2011.

We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Jan Theysen about The Book of Unwritten Tales. In the interview, Theysen speaks about the history of King Art Games, the legal struggles with HMH Interactive and JoWooD Entertainment to regain the publishing rights to The Book of Unwritten Tales, the challenges of localizing the game from the German original, and what plans lie in the future for his company.

Check out our gallery of rare and previously unpublished concept art from The Book of Unwritten Tales!

How have you transitioned from a developer of browser based causal games to a developer of standalone adventure games? What have been the greatest creative challenges for you during this transition?

We always wanted to make adventure games but our way into the gaming business started with browser-games. Actually, some of these browser games had adventure-elements too. For example, we did a series of games called "Murphy's Law", which we will re-release in English at the end of this year. They are basically very small adventure/puzzle games playing in a single location.

So there wasn't really a transition for us. We were adventure game developers who made browser games for a living. Finally working on the first adventure game was very cool, a great relief and something we had worked towards for a long time.

What other adventure game projects had you been involved in prior to The Book of Unwritten Tales?

We did a little bit of scripting for Simon the Sorcerer 4. But out first big involvement was on Black Mirror 2. We developed parts of the story, the puzzle design, wrote nearly all texts and did a fair amount of the location design.

To what extent will The Book of Unwritten Tales appeal to nostalgic adventure game fans of Monkey Island and Simon the Sorcerer?

Monkey Island 2 is my favorite adventure and probably the main reason why I became a game developer and author. I love the game, the puzzles and the humor. Monkey Island was our benchmark, and The Book of Unwritten Tales has this very classic structure. You start in a few locations with a couple of objectives and then the world opens up and you can decide by yourself where to solve the next puzzle.

Even when it comes to art style Monkey Island was a big influence. Our graphic design philosophy came down to "a mixture between Monkey Island 2 and World of Warcraft". Of course it's HD and of course we can do much more technically today. But when it comes to the layout of a location, the colors and things like that, you will always find some Monkey Island in there.

Many people tell us that BoUT reminds them of the "good, old LucasArts times" and that's probably the biggest praise for us.

The Book of Unwritten Tales was an IP (Intellectual Property) that was caught in publishing limbo for years due to the insolvency of HMH Interactive initially and then JoWooD Entertainment later on. What was the chronology of these events? When did you finally regain the rights to the IP? What lessons did you learn from this experience about managing IP rights with third-party publishers and distributors?

We are the developer of BoUT, but also the co-publisher. This means that we paid some of the development costs, had a say in the marketing of the game, benefited directly from the success (well... theoretically) and we kept some of the rights.

After HMH declared bankruptcy (a couple of months after they released BoUT and unfortunately before they paid us our share) the situation seemed quite clear for us: Nobody but us was allowed to make any sequels and the IP could not be sold without our agreement. We talked to the insolvency administrator and first it seemed like a quick agreement was possible. Together with a partner we made them an offer. But they turned down the offer and presented JoWooD as the new BoUT publisher.

We refused to cooperate with JoWooD because of their extremely bad reputation as well as rumored liquidity problems and the whole thing became a feast for the lawyers.

Things turned ugly when JoWooD released a German version of the game without our approval. The game was altered by them and was unplayable as a result. We prepared legal steps but then JoWooD went bankrupt. After that the HMH insolvency administrator came back to the negotiation table and we bought back all rights in spring 2011.

Of course we will try to keep more rights on our own games in the future. But that's not always possible. The guys with the money try to dictate the contracts and of course they want to possess as many rights as possible. It's not easy to insist on the rights but we sure would have had much bigger problems if we had given away all of the rights of The Book of Unwritten Tales.

Where does the story of The Book of Unwritten Tales take place? What are the major influences of the game's fantasy setting?

The game takes place in a typical RPG/fantasy world. We tried to include as many clichés as possible and then give them a twist. So of course the major fantasy franchises like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Discworld, Dungeons and Dragons and so on were a big influence.

But the biggest influence was "World of Warcraft". We had a serious WoW addiction problem in our company when we started working on BoUT. So we were influenced by that a lot.

Who are the major characters in The Book of Unwritten Tales? To what extent does the game's story explore in depth the relationships of these characters with each other?

We have four playable characters in the game. Three of them are fantasy archetypes.

The gnome Wilbur is the youngest of them. He lives with his parents in the mountains and works at a dwarven pub. He is the only gnome that is not into technology and mechanics but dreams about becoming a hero... the first gnome wizard if possible. He is innocent, gullible and sometimes downright stupid. He really needs the player to take care of him. But during the course of the story he's more and more turning into the driving force behind our party of heroes.

Nate, a human adventurer, has a talent to get himself into trouble. He talks faster than he thinks, is cheeky and pretty narcissistic. As a lone wolf he doesn't really want to be part of the team and doesn't want to be put in the category of generous, selfless hero.

Ivo – the mandatory hot Elf princess - is the only capable character in the team. She has to work pretty hard to keep the others out of trouble.

The fourth character is a pink, hairy creature called "Critter". In a world with so many well-known creatures we wanted to have one really original creature. The critter is Nate's companion, and it can't talk but makes pantomimic gestures and strange noises.

At first you play only one of the characters at a time. But as the story progresses you play two or three at once. And sometimes you can choose with which character you'd like to continue playing.

What kinds of puzzles can players expect in The Book of Unwritten Tales? What role-playing elements can players expect in the game?

The puzzles are mostly classic adventure game puzzles (inventory puzzles, dialogue puzzles and so on). But since you often play more than one character there are quite a few "multi character puzzles" that can only be solved when the characters work together.

We also added some mini-games. For example, in the second chapter Wilbur has to brew a particular potion. He finds the right recipe and all the ingredients. Now it is up to the player to brew the potion the right way by stirring the potion in the specified directions with the correct speed and things like that.

Overall, I think we've got a pretty good mix of puzzles. Our goal was to keep the players in a flow. There are no ultra-hard puzzles that 80% of the players would need a walkthrough for. Also, there are always several puzzles accessible at the same time, so in case you are stuck you can leave one puzzle alone and work on another one.

What steps have you taken to ensure that the English localization of The Book of Unwritten Tales, such as translation and voice acting, will remain true to the German original?

Mark Estdale of OMUK was responsible for the localization. And yes, I am the developer and therefore have to say its brilliant... but... IT REALLY IS!

Mark and his guys fell in love with the project, so they put much more effort and time into the game than anybody could have dreamed of or could pay for. I think the English localization of BoUT is by far the most elaborate localization that has ever been done for any adventure game. And although it is a little bit embarrassing for us: The English voice work is even better than the German one (which is really good).

So, the localization was in good hands, and we basically sat down in the passenger seat and enjoyed the experience.

There were rumors circulating for years about the development of a sequel to The Book of Unwritten Tales. What happened to the development of this rumored sequel? What publishing plan was originally envisioned for this sequel?

Actually, it's a prequel. ;-) It's called "The Critter Chronicles" and will be released in Germany this fall. We started the development for HMH in 2009. After their bankruptcy we kept working on the game at our own expense, and if The Book of Unwritten Tales is a success internationally we will release the prequel worldwide next year.

What is the current release schedule for The Book of Unwritten Tales, particularly with any third-party publisher and distributor? On what other platforms (such as consoles) will the game be released?

We work together with Lace Mamba for some territories (GB, Australia, Italy, Scandinavia and South Africa) and with another partner for the Russian territory. For the rest of the world, including North and South America, we publish the game by ourselves digitally.

The release date for the boxed version in the UK and Ireland is October 28th. We are trying to offer a digital download by the same date.

Currently there is a PC and a Mac version, and we are not working on any console version at the moment.

Why has the adventure game genre flourished in Germany (where you are located) while it has languished in the United States in recent years?

I am not sure. Germany is a very strong PC market. I think that is part of the answer. Nostalgia has got something to do with it as well.

Generally, I think many Germans like the slow paced gameplay and the brain work. Strategy games are big here too. But all of the above is true for some other markets as well. I think there are far more potential adventure players out there than actual players. The BoUT marketing targeted the RPG and fantasy fans to reach new customers, and many players gave us feedback like "I hadn't played an adventure game for at least 10 years, but I really enjoyed it." I think there are a lot of gamers out there that don't know what they are missing out on!

What plans lie in the future for King Art Games?

After The Critter Chronicles we will work on another adventure game that has been in pre-production quite some time now. It has got nothing to do with the world of The Book of Unwritten Tales. It takes place in the real world and it is a kind of mixture between a "Whodunit" story and a heist story taking place in the sixties.

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