Jan Müller-Michaelis

Daedalic Entertainment

Posted by Steve Irvin.
First posted on 23 October 2011. Last updated on 18 July 2013.
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Jan Müller-Michaelis
Jan Müller-Michaelis is cofounder of Daedalic Entertainment.
Jan Müller-Michaelis
Jan Müller-Michaelis
Jan Müller-Michaelis
Jan Müller-Michaelis
Jan Müller-Michaelis
Jan Müller-Michaelis
Jan Müller-Michaelis
Jan Müller-Michaelis

All images are courtesy of Claas Paletta, Daedalic Entertainment © 2011.

For more information, visit Daedalic Entertainment.

Founded in 2007, German game company Daedalic Entertainment has established itself as a prominent developer and publisher in Europe by releasing a string of in-house, award-winning adventure games. Games such as Edna & Harvey: The Breakout, A New Beginning, and The Whispered World explore emotional and psychological issues that are not normally covered in adventure games and have been well received by both critics and fans. Daedalic Entertainment has also distinguished itself as a successful third-party publisher of adventure games such as Machinarium and Tales of Monkey Island. The company has just finished development of Edna & Harvey: Harvey's New Eyes and is currently busy working on Deponia and The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav.

We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Jan Müller-Michaelis, cofounder of Daedalic Entertainment. He is a driving force behind his company's creativity and vision. In the interview, Müller-Michaelis discusses his company's philosophy, his early adventure gaming influences, the market for serious adventure games, the contrasts and similarities between European and American markets for adventure games, and his hands-on experiences working on the Edna & Harvey series.

Check out our gallery of previously unpublished concept art from Edna & Harvey: The Breakout and rare screenhots from Edna & Harvey: Harvey's New Eyes!

Daedalic Entertainment describes itself as a game development and publishing company with a focus on "the production of entertainment software with strong narratives". What defines a "strong narrative" for you?

A strong narrative needs strong characters. An engaging character needs to revolve around an interesting conflict that is explored in the course of the story. Most interesting is to put the character at the center of a dilemma that forces him to decide between two opposing philosophies. The objective of a strong narrative is to slowly excavate that central conflict and separate it from all secondary aspects. All the viewpoints vis à vis that conflict are expressed, applied and overcome until the conflict is distilled to its essence. Now, if at that point, the player is finding it difficult to decide on where he stands in that conflict, for me that makes a story successful and worth telling.

What past video games influenced your creative efforts behind Edna & Harvey?

In the way the story is being told, I very much adhered to the semantics of the old LucasArts adventures, just as in cinema, where you don't need to re-invent editing or cinematography every time. There are rules that you generally follow, unless you want to achieve a special effect by breaking them.

The story itself has no direct influences. Edna & Harvey came out of my amazements that, as far as I was aware, nobody had yet used the existing semantic means to tell a more complex story that makes use of the interactivity of the medium to achieve an added dramatic effect.

What creative processes did you closely oversee as the creator of Edna & Harvey? Of these, which were the most challenging aspects?

On Edna & Harvey, I did almost everything, even though I lacked experience in all areas. But it was that challenge that was my main impulse. Probably the most exhausting part of making the game was writing and scripting an individual reaction for each and every possible object combination in the game – I totally underestimated the amount of work that would be.

Being named as Studio of the Year 2009 at the German Game Developer Awards, Daedalic Entertainment has established itself as a major game developer and publisher in the European market. What specific and different challenges does Daedalic Entertainment need to meet to be as successful in the North American market? What differences do you find in the tastes for adventure games between the European and North American gaming audience?

In order to find a bigger audience in North America we would probably have to make the jump over to consoles. But so far, the right concept for transferring the gameplay of point & click adventures over to the gamepad hasn't emerged.

Being perceived as a European game maker doesn't help either; it's just another hurdle we need to overcome. I think it's not so much a matter of different tastes for the gamers; it's just that the retail landscape is dramatically different, the delivery systems for getting the games to people are different and the faith those gatekeepers have in adventure games is quite weak.

In the current marketplace, big development budgets are generally reserved for blockbuster game projects in the action, role-playing, and strategy genres, where the lion's share of consumer interest lies. How does the niche nature of the adventure genre in this marketplace impact your ability to execute your vision for a quality adventure game, such as Edna & Harvey: The Breakout, on a limited development budget?

It's like the difference between James Bond and Die Hard's John McClane: While James Bond fights evil while looking perfectly coiffed in his expensive car, wearing a fitted tuxedo on the way to his luxury yacht, we're already sweaty and covered in blood after the first minutes, having already crashed half a dozen cars. We get there in the end... but near the end of the development cycle we regularly have to jump off exploding rooftops holding on to fire hoses in order to deliver the gold master in top quality. We don't like to compromise.

Edna & Harvey: The Breakout was developed in Java, an uncommon platform for developing non-casual games. What drove your choice to develop this game in Java? What programming challenges did you encounter with this platform during the game's development?

The decision back then was down to the experience of the team that worked on programming the engine back then – friends and fellow students, basically – which forced us to go for what was the lowest common denominator at the time. It was a non-commercial student project; back then we didn't plan for it to be released as an actual product. It impacted us in terms of the performance, which wasn't very good, but in general it was a good platform to work with and meant that people on Mac or Linux had no problems playing the game.

With over 28,000 unique dialog lines and over 120 distinct rooms in Edna & Harvey: The Breakout, what were your biggest challenges in creating a game of this scope?

The sheer amount of text cost a lot of nerves and several months of sleep that I'm still trying to catch up on. But once you've written a couple thousand of nonsense reactions in the vein of "Use cocktail glass with lamp", it is surprisingly easy to come up with appropriately insane lines. In fact, I stopped getting tired at all after a while. I just huddled in front of my PC, giggling quietly to myself, only moving to catch spiders crawling past.

To what extent do you target a certain level of experience and sophistication in your audience when developing an adventure game? To what extent does targeting a broader audience usually mean making creative compromises?

I think it's important to make a distinction between content and usability. While the interface should be as self-explanatory and accessible as possible, I'm not a fan of dumbing down the narrative. I want to meet the player at eye-level, just as if I was talking to a good friend.

Many gamers view adventure games poorly because they are difficult or too hard to learn. To what extent do you believe that a difficulty rating system (easy, medium, hard, insane), though somewhat subjective, may be useful to avoid criticisms or frustrations by gamers and critics based on unfounded expectations?

Ideally, adventure games should be free of frustrating moments. It's not easy to design puzzles that are challenging but not unfair. But that's what we're aiming for. I'm warming up to the idea of integrating hint systems into the game that help players that are stuck, but in a way that is as if comic books came packaged with coloring pencils to fill out those panels that the illustrator forgot to color in. It's our job as game designers to entertain the players – if they get stuck, it's generally our fault for not drawing their attention to the solution enough.

As both a creative artist and a business person, how important to you is critical acclaim versus commercial success? How much attention do you pay to the opinions of the gaming press and critics?

Good reviews are what drives us... but unfortunately, they're not what feeds us. I don't think you need to be a business man to understand that. Producing a flop can mean the end for a developer, even if you work successfully for five years. A publisher or distributor might shoulder the biggest part of the financial risk, but if a studio has trouble signing new deals and has to reduce their budgets it can lead to shutdown quickly. We've seen that happen a number of times in the recent years with other companies, where good reviews and awards make no difference in the end. Still, the press reaction is obviously an important indicator for whether we're doing good work.

What lessons have you learned from the development of Edna & Harvey: The Breakout that will carry over to the development of the upcoming spinoff, Harvey's New Eyes?

We finished the German version of Harvey's New Eyes recently and it was the fifth game I worked on here at the company. I still learn new things about gameplay, story, sound, visuals every day...

What's a bit frustrating is the realization that translating such a huge game as Edna & Harvey in a passable quality can be more expensive than the money we stand to make from licensing it. What's uplifting is that there are still so many friends of these kind of games and so many people who appreciate a good story.

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