gaming has come a long way in Utah since the Acclaim days. Did you
know we're becoming a hub?
Big Finish Games has become one of the newest gaming companies to rise in Utah, bringing back the classic story-based games to the forefront with a twist on the format. And as a new approach they've become one of the many companies now marketing their software directly online, avoiding the overpricing of going through retailers and bringing the game straight to you. I got a chance to chat with both co-founders Chris Jones and Aaron Conners about their time in the gaming industry, the new company, as well as thoughts on the industry. Plus some shots of their new game “Three Cards To Midnight.”
Aaron Conners & Chris Jones
Gavin: Hey guys, first off, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Chris: I’m a life-long Utah resident, went to Bountiful High, started Access Software back in 1982 and did a bunch of games, including Links golf and the Tex Murphy adventure games. Aaron and I have worked together off and on for coming up on 20 years and now we have a new company called Big Finish, Inc.
Aaron: Professionally, I’ve been a Writer, Producer, Story Director and Creative Director for several different video game companies and also published two novels, a non-fiction book, and a handful of screenplays. Personally, I’m a laid-back Leo who loves long walks and doggies.
Gavin: How did you take an interest in gaming? And what were some of your favorites growing up?
Chris: Hmmm…back when they didn’t have computers. What did the ancient Egyptians play?
Aaron: We both grew up loving board games and I always preferred them, even after I got an Atari 2600. Pacman, Donkey Kong and Asteroids came out while I was in high school, but I kind of lost interest until I actually got into the business. One game I thought was really innovative was called “Psychic Detective”. More recently, I liked Psychonauts. Pretty much any game with the word Psych in it, I guess.
Chris: We did like some of the LucasArts and Sierra games – Indiana Jones & The Fate Of Atlantis comes to mind.
Gavin: When did you become involved with Access Software?
Chris: Well, I was there from the beginning.
Aaron: I joined Access in 1991 and became their first (and only) full-time writer.
Gavin: What was your time like over the years?
Aaron: It’s been a mostly fun ride, with a few crappy years and a bunch of speed bumps thrown in. Over the last year or so, I feel like we’ve almost come full circle, back to the early 90’s, from a creative standpoint. Which is fun.
Gavin: You both developed a lot of adventure games that still remain popular. Which would you say is your favorite and why?
Chris: The Pandora Directive was our magnum opus. It really fulfilled my dreams of what a game could be: multiple narrative paths, great actors – it really realized the potential of games for us.
Aaron: The Pandora Directive without a doubt. It was our second game together (after Under A Killing Moon) and we’d figured a lot of stuff out – technologically, design-wise, and just how to work together effectively. Pandora was exactly the game we wanted to make at that time. Even today it holds up well. I think the big, exciting, interactive story integrates with the fun, challenging gameplay as well as it’s ever been done in an adventure game.
Gavin: Were there any significant changes after the Microsoft buyout?
Aaron: Only everything. Microsoft was a great company to work for, but a lousy company to make games for.
Chris: It basically took us from the entrepreneurial spirit to a fairly sterile bureaucracy.
Gavin: What eventually led to the end of Access?
Chris: I think it was that the industry, marketing – everything you needed to support a product and be successful – was geared toward larger and larger companies. Everything had shifted in the late 90’s – it was more expensive to develop games, you needed bigger teams, you needed to pay more money for shelf space. It was becoming almost impossible to stay competitive as a smaller, independent company.
Gavin: After the fallout and before you partnered up, what were you both doing during that time?
Aaron: I joined another department at Microsoft and worked there for five years. I then went to work for Take Two as a Story Director, then joined Ubisoft as a Creative Director.
Chris: I worked for Microsoft for five years as well, then came over to another business venture I owned a stake in, TruGolf, to manage the operation. We’ve been creating golf software for a long time and selling our own simulators since 2002.
Gavin: What led to the decision to start a new company, and what was it like for you getting set up?
Chris: Aaron and I both felt like there was an opportunity in the online game market that wouldn’t cost us millions of dollars to get into. Most importantly, we wouldn’t need huge teams to create games. And we wanted to keep this venture separate from our other businesses.
Aaron: It’s easy to set up. The harder part is staying in business.
Gavin: Where did the idea for “Three Cards To Midnight” come from?
Aaron: I’d had the story idea for a few years. That’s one thing about being a writer and not having enough creative outlets – you keep coming up with ideas. I’ve got notebooks full of stories, just waiting to be told. For this game, once we decided the type of game it would be, this particular story seemed to be a good fit.
Gavin: What was it like developing the game, and what were some of the issues you ran into?
Aaron: It all started with this a guy we knew from the old Microsoft days. He’s now a higher-up at an online video game company and was always a fan of our old Tex Murphy games. He asked if we had any ideas for games. We did, and they got all excited to help us develop a new game. At the last minute (literally – we’d signed the contract and were waiting for them to sign it), they decided not to do the game. Instead, they wanted us to produce a casual game based on the James Patterson “Women’s Murder Club” books. Again, the deal didn’t get done. At that point, we just decided to screw it and produce the game ourselves. The only real issues we had were related to having a small team working separately in their spare time. There was some miscommunication and decisions made that we had to live with just to get the game done.
Chris: Overall, we felt like it was a pretty great achievement considering it was our first effort for this type of game and with very limited resources. There’s so much potential here and we felt like we brought something new and interesting to the table.
Gavin: Why did you choose online distribution instead of the traditional format?
Chris: In the core game marketing – console titles, primarily – you have to deal with limited shelf space, not to mention the cost of development, marketing, etc. Online distribution is really the best and only way for smaller companies to get their games out.
Gavin: And what has the public reaction to the game been like?
Aaron: Overall, it’s been very good. The response to the story in the game has been especially strong and most players seem to enjoy the intelligent gameplay, which can be customized to three different difficulty levels. Some fans of our Tex Murphy games expected our new game to be similar in scope to the old ones – but, of course, we don’t have millions of dollars to spend on production. Fortunately, most of the fans saw “Three Cards To Midnight” for what it is: the video game equivalent of an independent film.
Gavin: Without giving away too much, do you have plans for the next game?
Aaron: Absolutely! We’re already well into development. We’ll continue the story and bring back most of the characters from the first game, but I think people be surprised where we take it. On the technical/design side, this game will be more polished with a much higher degree of customization. Also, the gameplay will be tweaked so it can be localized into other languages, whereas the first game was English only.
Gavin: Going local, what do you think of the local gaming shops and audience here in Utah?
Chris: Well, I follow them very closely. Haha! Honestly, I don’t play video games, so I don’t go to the gaming shops. However, I think the audience here in Utah is the very best audience in the whole world.
Aaron: Chris avoids the game stores because he gets recognized occasionally as Tex Murphy… and he’s a bit of recluse by nature. Incredibly embarrassing for him. Hilarious for the rest of us.
Gavin: What do you think of other software and gaming companies in town? Do you view them as competitors or comrades?
Chris: Utah is really a hotbed for game development. There are some great dev-houses here and incredibly talented people and we’re happy to be a part of that.
Aaron: We’ve been around so long, we know a ton of people in the business, locally and otherwise. I have good friends working for most of the other developers here in town. Personally, I think games are like movies – they’re only competition if you release at the same time. Plus, at least for now, we’re in the downloadable, online game market, not the big console market like EA Salt Lake, Avalanche, and the others.
Gavin: A little nation-wide, what are your thoughts on the gaming industry today, both good and bad?
Aaron: Well, my last two games were Shaun White Snowboarding, which cost $20,000,000 to produce, and Three Cards To Midnight, which cost less than $300,000. I think this epitomizes the industry: most games are either huge console titles or small online/downloadable games. Obviously, there’s demand for both types but, personally, I enjoy the creative freedom, shorter dev-time, and mobility of the smaller projects. We, along with some other developers, are trying to create a new category in between the two extremes with games that offer more depth and challenge, but don’t cost millions or take years to produce.
Chris: It’s a shame that the cost of development makes it so hard to take games in new, exciting directions.
Gavin: Is there anything you think could be done to improve it?
Chris: I think we’ll see some real innovations in these smaller games, so at least in the design aspect, they can compete with some of these games that cost millions.
Aaron: We need to create and release more downloadable games with sophisticated, intelligent designs and/or stories so the market can grow beyond the current perception of “casual games”.
Gavin: What can we expect from you guys the rest of the year?
Aaron: We’re hoping to get our sequel released for Halloween, though we’re not ready to announce that as the official release date. We’re also signing on with another company to develop a game based on a popular TV mystery show. And, of course, we’re always working toward bringing Tex Murphy back.