Flight of Fantasy: Interview with IBI
Flight of the Amazon Queen is the long awaited graphic adventure game from Brisbane-based company, Interactive Binary Illusions. Partners, John Passfield and Steve Stamatiadis have lived with this project, on and off, for the past four years and are, no doubt, relieved that it is completed. We caught up with them recently to ask about their work and to generally annoy them whilst they were in the crucial, final testing phase.
Quandary: Tell us a little about yourselves, your backgrounds, interests, etc, and how you came to form Interactive Binary Illusions and create Flight Of The Amazon Queen?
John: Well, Steve and I go back a long way with our comic book interests. I occasionally write for comics, and Steve writes and draws the occasional comic book story. We met through a mutual friend who worked at a comic shop.
Steve: I was interested in doing graphics for games at that point, and John had actually programmed some games for the Microbee computer.
John: I did two games: Chilly Willy, a Pengo clone, and Halloween Harry a platform game ...
Steve: I liked the name Halloween Harry so much that we decided to join forces and do a version of the game for the Amiga computer.
John: We cut our teeth on Harry, but found the game wasn't going anywhere, so we decided to try our hand at graphic adventures. This was after we saw a certain LucasArts game.
Steve: There's no prize for guessing what that game was.
John: In case you don't know, it was Monkey Island.
Steve: So we formed a partnership (now a company) and began work on Queen.
John: When we signed up with Renegade, we enlisted the help of programming whiz, Tony Ball. Incidentally, Halloween Harry was resurrected as a top notch PC platform game, programmed by Tony Ball and Robert Crane, available from Apogee and Manaccom (plug! plug!)
Quandary: Flight seems to have been in the pipeline for a long time. Was it simply a case of your publishers announcing it too early, or did the game grow substantially from the original concept?
Steve: A bit of both, but mainly due to the game growing in size.
John: Renegade felt that the Temple sequence was a bit too easy, so they were quite keen on giving us enough time to enhance this part of the game.
Steve: And do it properly. Also, we were at the Chicago Consumer Electronics Show where we saw the upcoming Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max on preview - the nice people at LucasArts gave us preview disks.
John: Little did they know!
Steve: One thing we noticed is that they had a lot more pay-off animations than usual. We thought that was a really good idea, and Renegade convinced us that we should do the same.
John: Which essentially quadrupled the amount of work involved to get the game finished.
Quandary: We heard, or read, that one reason for the delay was the advent of CD-ROM games with 'talkie' versions, was this an influence in your production?
Steve: No, no, no. Definitely not .... Yes.
John: Actually, of the time we've spent with Warner, the CD-ROMs have taken up at least a quarter of it. (Warner Interactive Entertainment has recently acquired Renegade, - Ed)
Steve: We probably could have released the PC floppy version last September.
John: Warner wanted to release all language versions simultaneously. So we've had to sit on the English version until the French, German and Italian versions were recorded and mastered.
Steve: The wait's worth it though, as we've got some really cool voice talent for the CD-ROM talkie.
John: We've got Penelope Keith, star of To the Manor Born and The Good Life. I was really surprised that she wanted to do computer games, but apparently her kids are really into adventures and flight sims, and she was keen to get involved.
Steve: We also got Bill Hootkins, who's been in Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He played Major Eaton, the guy who said "We have top men working on it!" - he plays the role of the evil Doctor Ironstein. The funny thing is, we're both extreme Star Wars and Indy fans and we didn't realise who he was until the second day of recording.
Quandary: How did the link with Renegade come about?
Steve: We were dealing with another company, who shall remain nameless, in the early days of Queen, but were dumped by them when some guy from the American division decided that Queen wasn't ...
John: Actually, what he said was that Queen would have to be 50 times better than anything LucasArts could do before they would consider releasing it.
Steve: Funnily enough we met Kelly Flock the Director of Development at LucasArts back then, and he loved Queen. He thought it would have made a cool Indy game.
John: Also, LucasArts were in the running to take Queen for American distribution, but they also wanted European rights - so the deal never came together. However, they were impressed with it - they thought it had a Monkey Island feel to it.
Steve: You can't get a better compliment than that.
John: But back to the Renegade/Warner connection - after this other company dumped us (a top tip for any aspiring game developers - MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A WRITTEN CONTRACT!) we cold-canvassed a number of publishers in the U.K.
Steve: We had interest from Ocean, but they wanted all rights to the game including sequel rights, which meant they could have left us out of any future Amazon Queen games.
John: Eventually we pestered Renegade and they offered us a good deal.
Quandary: People are invariably going to compare Queen with LucasArts adventures. Did you consciously set out to emulate this particular style of graphic adventure?
Steve: Yes, we did. The LucasArts style of games appealed to us more than the Sierra line. We felt we were more in tune with LucasArts' game philosophy.
John: We felt that with Queen being our first big game, we should emulate something that works, rather then trying to come up with something totally new. We didn't want to bite off more than we could chew, though, with the CD-ROM version that really went out the window.
Quandary: What is it about Graphic Adventures that makes them so popular and enduring?
John: I think good graphic adventures are the closest thing to good books. They rely a lot on characterisation and story development, and there's the sense that when you finish the game you've experienced a whole story from beginning to end.
Quandary: Is it true that programmer/developers generally write the game that they always wanted to play?
John: Actually, I've always wanted to do a detective mystery romance story like the Nancy Drew Mysteries. In fact, if I have my way, our next game will be just like this.
Steve: And it will have giant robots.
Quandary: What do you look for in an adventure game?
Steve: I like stylish graphics, a lively plot and a good mug of near grog!
John: I enjoy a good story with a healthy dose of humour. I lean more towards games that are different from the current crop of adventures. I really enjoyed Monkey Island with the pirate scenario, as well as Sam & Max with that warped dog/rabbit cop-buddy routine.
Steve and John (together): And puzzles that make sense!!!
Quandary: So tell us how you set up the puzzles in Flight of the Amazon Queen?
Steve: We found that there are basically two approaches you can take in coming up with these fiendish brain teasers. First of all, you can create characters, locations and situations and derive the puzzles from those situations. For example, most of the hotel sequence was derived from the storyline. Before any puzzles were even thought of we knew that Joe would have to confront his old girlfriend, wear a tawdry red dress, and be humiliated by running around in his underwear. The puzzles simply fell into place. The benefit of this approach is that the puzzles are more story-driven and fit quite neatly into the plot.
John: The other way is to come up with a neat puzzle, and work the story around it. An example of this is the weeping god statue in the Temple. We thought it would be really cool to have a secret passageway that is opened by placing certain objects in certain places. The story was moulded to lead Joe into a situation where he would have to solve this puzzle. While making the game, we found that in locations like the Temple, we used the puzzle-first approach, while in parts of the game that involved other characters and story progressions, we used the story-first approach.
Quandary: Who do you see as your main audience?
Steve: Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell.
John: They often drop in for play testing, so we like to gear the games more towards their tastes.
Steve: We design the games so that when we're playing through them for the seven hundredth time while testing we still find them fresh and amusing.
Quandary: How do you guys feel about the large scale intervention of Hollywood style production values into the computer game scene, with live actors, full motion video and the like?
Steve: The only impact Hollywood will have is in the visual look of a game, ie., better direction of video sequences for cut scenes and intros, and perhaps a little more polish in the story/script department. But let's face it, most Hollywood movies are hackneyed and clichéd and there are very few movies that are worth nominating for best screenplay.
John: Hollywood can't contribute anything more to gameplay than the current games designers. People seem to think that Hollywood can do it better, but only a few Hollywood people can write decent scripts and direct decent movies. Less than 1% of Hollywood talent accounts for 99% of Hollywood success. If Hollywood thinks it can make games better, then why can't the majority of Hollywood movie-makers consistently produce films of the calibre of a Scorcese, Spielberg, Hitchcock, or an Orson Welles film?
Steve: Face it, if people wanted movies, then why is the games industry bigger? It seems that games are having a bigger impact on Hollywood in terms of all the studios wanting a piece of the action.
Quandary: Do you think this could be the end of the sprite we have come to know and love?
John: No. The only danger is if developers produce games that consist of full motion video strung together with no gameplay. But I think that most people will get sick of that pretty quickly.
Steve: Sprites may be supplanted by real time 3-D characters like in Bioforge, but they'll always be there in the background. I don't think that full motion video will take over. Dragon's Lair and Space Ace did full motion video twelve years ago, and it still hasn't caught on.
Quandary: Is there pressure on you to move toward live actors, etc?
John: No. If we ever use live actors it will only be for cutaway sequences, and to increase the amount of press coverage for our games. Imagine, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Joe King!
Steve: We use real actors for voices, but that's about it. It's more flexible to use real time texture mapped 3-D objects in place of actors.
Quandary: What's next for Interactive Binary Illusions?
John: Next up is Stereo Jack.
Steve: It's another graphic adventure based on a comic book character that we've created called Stereo Jack. He's been around for about three years now. We want to get it out next year, so you'll have to wait until then to find out more.
Copyright © Rosemary Young and Gordon Aplin 1995.
All rights reserved.