Jane Jensen is back. The famed Gabriel Knight and Gray Matter designer has opened a new studio--Pinkerton Road--on her farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with her husband, composer Robert Holmes.
Following Tim Schafer, Brian Fargo, and others, Jensen will seek to fund Pinkerton Road's ambitions through crowd-funding site Kickstarter. Jensen has a number of point-and-click adventure game concepts on her mind, and fans will have a say in which she proceeds with if the campaign's $300,000 goal is reached by May 19.
Pinkerton Road will operate through a development process Jensen is calling "Community Supported Gaming." She likened the system to Community Supported Agriculture, whereby consumers support independent organic farms in exchange for regular orders of produce and a close relationship with the people who grow their food.
In the case of Pinkerton Road, Jensen and Holmes plan to establish a similar relationship throughout the development and distribution of their titles. The studio will offer backers video development diaries, and even the option to visit the farm.
More information can be found on Pinkerton Road's just-launched Kickstarter page.
Jensen and Holmes will operate Pinkerton Road from the farm in Pennsylvania, with outside development on the projects handled by Phoenix Online Studios and Signus Labs.
GameSpot caught up with the longtime developer and picked her brain concerning a range of topics, including her ambitions for the new studio, the value of a close relationship with users, the Mass Effect 3 end-game controversy, and more.
GameSpot: Where did the name Pinkerton Road come from?
Jane Jensen: It's the name of the farm.
GS: Why did you feel you needed to open a studio of your own?
JJ: It's been a perfect storm of things converging to make me decide to do this. I was involved with Oberon Media for a lot of years. I was cofounder of that company, but I wasn't too involved on the business side. I stuck with that for a long time, and it was a really formative experience. I was able to make some products there that I think helped advance the adventure game cause. But ultimately, I never quite got to do what I wanted to do there.
New leadership came in [and] decided that they wanted to completely focus on distribution and not do any of their own games anymore. I could have stayed on, but I'm a game designer, so it wasn't very interesting for me. At that point, I'm looking around, and I thought that this was just a great time to start an adventure game company. First of all, Telltale has developed a really successful model; they've managed to do very well, bringing back kind of the LucasArts style of games.
"What's really interesting to me is the tablet market. This is an emerging device that just has a huge reach and a lot of people buy those because they like to read books on them."
And there's been a resurgence of PC retail adventure games with a lot of European companies. There's Tim Schafer's campaign, which proves there's a lot of interest out there. But what's really interesting to me is the tablet market. This is an emerging device that just has a huge reach and a lot of people buy those because they like to read books on them. So that's a great market for adventure games.
GS: You now own and operate your own studio. How do you feel about the risks of being independent?
JJ: That's a risk I've avoided for a long time. And I've just come to a point in my life where, I'm 49, I probably have another 15 years at most in this business, and I feel like it's just time for me to do what I really believe in doing. For years I've been a team player, and I did what was needed, but at this point, I felt like I'm ready to do my own thing and do the games I know I really want to do and try to make a go of that. We plan to stay really small as a studio, and will work primarily with outsourced teams.
GS: Working on your own farm in Pennsylvania reminds me of the Skywalker Ranch in California; Why work where you live instead of buying a studio space?
JJ: The farm is just so beautiful, and it's just like you get here and you never want to leave. There's so much potential here. We have a number of out-buildings that could be converted to sound rooms or office space. And I think people would love working here. I'd love working here [laughs].
GS: There's you and your husband so far. How many more staffers do you plan to add?
JJ: For the first year we're probably just going to be working with outsourced teams. I've got two good dev teams I've worked with in the past. We aren't planning to add any of our own developers initially, but it depends on how things go, and how the games do. If we feel we need to ramp up we may add some personnel here.
GS: Your husband composed the music for the Gabriel Knight games; can we expect music from him to be a big part of new games?
"I'm 49, I probably have another 15 years at most in this business, and I feel like it's just time for me to do what I really believe in doing."
JJ: Yes. I would say you could. That's his area, he's really passionate about that. My husband actually has a band--and they did a couple tracks for us for [Gray Matter] and people really liked that, so I'm hoping we can do that with our new games.
GS: Your business model sounds a lot like that of Telltale Games'. Is this accurate?
JJ: I think on tablet it will be something where it's a free game, and you get to play so much of it and then there's a purchase moment, kind of like when you get an e-book. It's not been completely decided, but that's what I'm thinking at the moment.
GS: What tablets are you targeting? iOS? Android? Both?
JJ: Probably both.
GS: The model for your Kickstarter is "Community Supported Gaming," which I understand is like Community Supported Agriculture. Why is establishing a connection with the community important to you?
JJ: It's very, very core to me. It's kind of like the heart of the business. I've gotten so many great emails from fans in the past, and they tell me what they like. Over the years those kinds of letters have really helped me to understand what sticks with people in my games. And I see that as a big part of this new studio. I just want to have that kind of one-to-one relationship with the player, where we can get that early beta test feedback. I think that's critical for us as a studio and hopefully that stuff will be really fun for the fans, too.
GS: Your Kickstarter is aiming for $300,000. But what happens if you don't get it?
"If it doesn't work out, then we will probably be talking to some angel investors, and proceed anyway. Hopefully we can show everybody what we can do."
JJ: Well I put a sack over my head, and I hide in the bathroom for three months [laughs]. If it doesn't work out, then we will probably be talking to some angel investors, and proceed anyway. Hopefully we can show everybody what we can do.
GS: Is $300,000 enough in 2012 enough money to make a bona fide adventure game?
JJ: The game that I have scoped out is about the size of Gabriel Knight 1, which is about 60 rooms. So it's not as vast and sprawling as something like Gabriel Knight 3 or Gray Matter was. Having done this a long time and having done everything from 2D to [full motion video] to real time 3D, you reach a point where you find out what is really important and critical and what is superfluous. The game we're looking to do would more realistically cost around $600,000, but we're putting in some money. The dev team is working at a discount, through [revenue] share. So we're supplementing half of that budget basically.
GS: Tim Schafer and Double Fine made quite a splash with their Kickstarter campaign. What have you learned from watching that process unfold?
JJ: First of all, it was really intimidating. It was so amazingly successful, and it was wonderful to see that it was so successful based on that it was an unknown adventure game. But Tim is a god and he's done so many great things. We were planning to do this before that happened, and we were like 'Do we really want to proceed because we're never gonna be like that.' Kickstarter is not a one trick pony. It's not a flash in the pan. What's really intriguing about it is that it's a great way for small developers and artists to connect with the public. Certainly we watched that campaign and we tried to pick up what people were responding to.
GS: You haven't decided which concept to run with yet, but some ideas you're cooking up are Moebius, Anglophile Adventure, and Gray Matter 2. What are these?
JJ: At the end of April, assuming our campaign is a success, we will send out an update to the CSG members and give them more information on the project, and help us decide which one. I would love to do all three of them. And hopefully we will be able to do all three of them eventually. One of the concepts is Gray Matter 2. The character is nanobiologist, and another character is a skeptical street magician, and they research different cases of people possibily having unique abilities like telekinesis or future viewing and out of body experiences. Kind of like a CSI for neurobiology.
The Moebius concept is totally new. It's been something that I've wanted to produce, and of the three, it's the most Gabriel Knight-like. It plays a lot with history, like the way [Gabriel Knight 3] did with the bloodline of Christ. It has a lot of bending of history, and it's set in modern times. It has a lot of exotic real life locations. There's a big mystery going on and I think it has a really interesting concept hook. I don't want to talk about why yet, but you can see it has a more graphic novel style to it.
And then the third one, Anglophile Adventure is what we're calling it. I'm just a huge Anglophile. I love to go walking in the Cotswolds every few years, and I did a trip where we walked across England. And I just love that place, and I'm a big fan of Downton Abbey. So I'm really anxious to do a game set in Regency England.
GS: What kinds of ideas do you have for Gray Matter 2?
JJ: Gray Matter was always written to be a continuing series, just like a TV show like LOST or C.S.I.. So if we did Gray Matter 2, it would be one story in that sequence, and it could definitely continue.
GS: What are your thoughts concerning Gray Matter 1?
JJ: It was a different kind of process for me. I had the script for that game. And basically it was developed by a German publisher, and the development team was originally Czech, and then it moved to Paris. And I was working full time at Oberon at the time, so I had a limited amount of time to really spend on that project. And towards the end, they kind of ran out of time and money and were just trying to get the game out. I'm very proud of that game; I think it's a good game, but part of the impetus behind this new studio is I want to make sure I have control over the production. And that I can make sure the games have the quality that I really want to see them have. So the story is not sort of marred by production flaws. I didn't have as much oversight on the project as I would have liked to have had.
GS: You created Gabriel Knight, but no longer have a say in the series. How attached to it can you still be knowing that the rights holder might never touch it again, or possibily worse, bring it back in a form you don't agree with?
"I'm hopeful that we have our own studio and we can show some success, that we'll be able to talk to them about getting the rights to it to do a Gabriel Knight 4."
JJ: That's another reason why I want to do my own studio. Because [let's] say Moebius is a big success and people want more of it, we intend fully to hang on to that IP so we can do whatever we want to do with that. Gabriel Knight has certainly been a lesson in what happens when that isn't the case. You never know who is going to get sold to whom four or five times, and something's buried in the basement. It would be a shame. It's their property, and they can do anything they'd like with it. But I would hope that whatever they would do with it they would have great success with. I think ideally, if it was brought back, it should be as an adventure game. I think they've probably realized that. I'm hopeful that we have our own studio and we can show some success, that we'll be able to talk to them about getting the rights to it to do a Gabriel Knight 4.
GS: What do you consider to be an example of strong adventure writing, whether it be film, books, TV, games, or something else?
JJ: I just recently read a book called Robopocalypse, which was really fun. In adventure games, I just downloaded Hector and Puzzle Agent from Telltale. Those are obviously not dramatic writing games, but they are fun games. I think Hector is very well written. TV shows like LOST did such a great job of building a mystery. I think that would have been a fun game concept.
GS: What about specific examples. How does a developer hook a player through writing?
JJ: I think you want to have really dramatic and intriguing cutscenes. Like for the introduction and for the end of the chapter, where it's just beautiful and dramatic, and maybe scary. You know. Mysterious. And they really want to make you feel like 'What happens next?' And then during gameplay, I think the mystery format is so perfect for adventure games because basically what a detective does, whether it's a murder mystery or somebody like Dan Brown's symbologist characters, they're trying to track down clues to find out what's going on and they gradually uncover more info that points to this or that and there might be red herrings or plot twists. And all that stuff works great as gameplay because that's what you're doing as a player: going around and uncovering clues.
GS: Storytelling is clearly important to you, so what is your take on the Mass Effect 3 ending drama? Is BioWare right to possibly change the game's ending based on player feedback?
JJ Were that to happen, I think it would depend on how strongly I felt about the ending. You think about some of the great works of art--I was just watching a show about whaling in America--and they were talking about how badly received Moby Dick was at the time it came out and now everyone considers that a classic. It would depend for me on how deeply I felt 'No, this is right.' If I was really, completely confident that that was the right ending then I think I would stick with it. If I was on the fence about it, then I think there is a lot of value in listening to customer feedback.
GS: Thank you for the time.