Family reunion: Jane Jensen, community-supported games, and the possible return of Gabriel Knight
Adventure game icon Jane Jensen talks about her Kickstarter plans and what she might do next.
Jane Jensen is at a turning point in her life. She first gained fame in 1993 for creating Gabriel Knight, a series of mature adventure games about an author-turned-supernatural detective. Over a decade has passed since the release of Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, the third and final Gabriel Knight game. Though Jensen has kept busy, she hasn't created anything that has had an impact on the gaming world in the same way as her beloved adventure series. She even left the bustling tech hub of California for a quiet farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
But she isn't done creating. Like many game developers seeking to do projects outside the realm of big budget publishers, Jensen has turned toKickstarter to fund Pinkerton Road Studio. This studio is a new chance to work on the kinds of games she loves - supernatural-tinged mysteries and narrative-heavy adventure games.
Jensen is convinced that an audience still exists for games like this. She's hoping to turn them into recurring customers with a new twist on the crowd-funding concept inspired by lessons from farming.
"I finally hit this point where I was willing to take a risk and step out onto this ledge, because I didn't really have a choice," Jensen says. "This is what I need to do. That's where I've gotten with it."
Jensen calls her concept "community-supported games," and with some luck and a little more cash, it might just reunite her with the fictional paranormal investigator who launched her career in 1993.
Jensen became a writer for Sierra Online in the early '90s, performing grunt-work on a number of projects. She first gained recognition in the gaming community when she stepped up as designer for 1992's King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow alongside Sierra co-founder Roberta Williams.
After a handful of successes, Jensen introduced gamers to a suave, Southern author named Gabriel Knight in Sins of the Fathers (above), a voodoo-themed murder mystery. It became a critical sensation.
Jensen headed up two more games at Sierra Online. In 1995'sThe Beast Within (top two images on the right), Gabriel Knight appeared in full-motion video and returned to his ancestral home of Germany to hunt down werewolves. In 1999, she finished work on Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned(bottom two images on the right), a Knight game involving vampires and the lineage of Jesus. It is primarily remembered as the final adventure game from Sierra.
Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned ends on a cliffhanger that haunts fans of the series, many of whom have given up hope for ever seeing Gabriel Knight again. Jensen even played off of the lack of closure in that final scene in a teaser video for her current project before revealing specifics."Find Pinkerton Road?" mutters a confused Knight, voiced by a Tim Curry impersonator.1 "What does it mean? Guess I'm gonna have to find out."
Jensen's own journey to Pinkerton Road wasn't easy. Following the collapse of the adventure game genre, she removed herself from game design altogether to focus on writing novels.
Jensen describes her most popular book, Dante's Equation, as "Dan Brown-ish," perhaps knowingly poking fun at the third Gabriel Knight game's similarities to Brown'sThe DaVinci Code. Many have noted the comparison, but in actuality Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned came out three years earlier.
Jensen seems quietly proud of the fact that she was penning historical intrigue before it became popular, but she stops short of bragging about her writing abilities. As she sees it, she works far better as a game designer than a novelist.
"A novel is more purely creative." she says. "It's not as technical. I'm unique as a game designer because I have a really good left brain, right brain mix. There are a lot more technical issues to consider in game design. It requires both sides. A game designer requires that unusual skill set, whereas lots and lots of people have the creativity to write a novel."By the time Dante's Equation was published in 2003, Jensen was ready to jump back into game design, but adventure games remained more or less dead as a genre. She knew she wouldn't get funding to do the projects she wanted from major publishers, so she joined three business partners in founding Oberon Media.
"I THOUGHT THAT IN A FEW YEARS, WE'D HAVE A STUDIO ABLE TO DELIVER FULL ADVENTURE GAMES ..."
"... THERE WERE ALWAYS JUST REALLY STRONG CONSTRAINTS ON THE SIZE OF THE PROJECT, AND PEOPLE INTERNALLY HAD A STRONG DESIRE TO BABYSTEP EVERYTHING."
"My goal was pursuing the casual audience, which was brand new at that time, as a great audience for adventure games," Jensen says. "I thought that in a few years, we'd have a studio able to deliver full adventure games."
Oberon's co-founders didn't see eye to eye with Jensen on this dream. Instead of heading back into the adventure genre, she worked on a series of casual and social titles, primarily hidden object games.
"For every hidden object game I did, I managed to get a little more adventure game stuff in it," she says. "There were always just really strong constraints on the size of the project, and people internally had a strong desire to babystep everything."
Jensen finally left Oberon in 2011, but she immediately panicked and started seeking contract work at other social game companies such as Zynga. She didn't last long before realizing that she was falling back into the trap she had just escaped.
"I didn't want to contract out my writing abilities on projects out of my control that weren't really good story projects," she says. "I didn't have any real say in them, and they weren't adventure games. I just felt like ... I'm finally free of Oberon - I want to do what I really want to do."
The solution to Jensen's dilemma came from one of her greatest adventure game collaborators: Her husband, Robert Holmes.
Mixing business with family
"It was just before the Gabriel Knight 1 project that we started dating," Jensen says. "Nobody knew about it for a while. We sort of came out of the closet about it [after a while]."
Holmes went on to create the soundtrack for all three Gabriel Knight games. The Beast Within contains a particularly well-regarded score; Holmes composed a fake Wagner opera that was central to the game's plot.In 1996, after dating for three years, Jensen and Holmes married. Even after the couple parted ways with Sierra, he continued contributing music to her projects whenever he could. Last year around Christmas, he asked Jensen a question that cemented their budding plans for a new studio: "Why don't we create a CSA for games?"
Community-supported agriculture (or CSA) is a recent trend heavily rooted in the growing consumer desire for organic food. A CSA works like this: A consumer pays a farmer a subscription fee - generally yearly or monthly - to help support the farm. In return, the farmer delivers to the consumer a bundle of freshly-grown vegetables at set times.
"What I liked about it as a consumer was having that direct relationship," Jensen says.
"Actually going to the farm on Thursdays and picking up my basket and actually getting to talk to the farmer. As somebody who's interested in where my food comes from, it felt great to be able to do that."
Last year, Jensen discovered that people were beginning to apply the CSA model to industries outside of traditional agriculture.
"For example, there was this stockbroker in upstate New Hampshire who bought a farm and raised sheep," she says. "She sheared them herself and dyed them, and she started a yarn CSA. Every year, she would have an open house, and she had people who loved to knit who would come from all over."
An open house is just one of the bonuses Jensen and Holmes will be offering up for supporters of their community-supported game project. "People can have a direct relationship with the studio and get everything that we do that year," she says.
If you want your direct relationship to Pinkerton Road Studio to include that open house, you'll have to pledge $250 or more. Like any good Kickstarter, there are different tiers offering a variety of goodies, such as beta testing access, PDF copies of Jensen design bibles, physical copies of the new games and more.
Most notably, backers pledging $50 or more will receive more than one game. As with a CSA, that payment will guarantee you final copies of every product that Pinkerton Road Studio releases during its first cycle, which Jensen expects to last about a year.
If you sign up and like what you get this year, Jensen will be seeking your support again next year. Though she's using Kickstarter, she's looking for more than a single kickstart. She wants a sustainable crowd - between 5,000 and 10,000 people that want to play the games she enjoys creating. As of this writing, she's above 4,000 backers and has just surpassed her $300,000 goal."This is the first time we've ever done a Kickstarter, and we made a lot of mistakes," Jensen says. "Next time, we might have a lower goal and keep it open for a couple months." She also expects that by this time next year, a wider group of gamers will have familiarity with the concept of community-supported games.
"THIS IS THE FIRST TIME WE'VE EVER DONE A KICKSTARTER, AND WE MADE A LOT OF MISTAKES. NEXT TIME, WE MIGHT HAVE A LOWER GOAL AND KEEP IT OPEN FOR A COUPLE MONTHS."
The community speaks
To set the tone of community involvement from the beginning, Jensen pitched three potential first games for Pinkerton Road Studio at the launch of the Kickstarter. Early contributors were given the ability to vote on which idea she would bring to reality first.
One of the ideas was Gray Matter 2, a sequel to her almost-return-to-form from 2010, which she happens to own the IP rights for. Then there was the working title Anglophile Adventure, a Jane Austen-inspired mystery set in Regency-era England. "I still love that concept," Jensen says, noting that it performed better than she expected in the user poll.
The winning choice should surprise no one, least of all Jensen herself. Moebius, which will be Pinkerton Road's first game, features light supernatural elements and a globetrotting background that should sound awfully familiar to Gabriel Knight fans.
"It's a metaphysical thriller - sort of vaguely sci-fi," Jensen says. Once again she brings up a Dan Brown comparison, but she also mentions the Fox television seriesFringe. "It's about a whole new point of view on life."
Above: Gray Matter 2. Below: Anglophile Adventure. Below left: Moebius.
Jensen says that her minimum Kickstarter goal of $300,000 will cover about half of Moebius' budget. Without full funding or an expensive team of programmers at her disposal, she's making the project possible using an outsourcing technique she learned from Oberon.
"When I was at Oberon, the way we did all our projects was an American producer and designer working with a team that was usually Eastern European," Jensen says. In this case, Pinkerton Road is using the St. Petersburg, Russia-based Signus Labs, a team that she worked directly with at Oberon. "It works out really well. At least initially, we don't need to take the risk of hiring 20 people. We have a contract with an external team, and they're taking a lower rate in exchange for revenue [sharing]."
What about Gabe?
In an update on their Kickstarter page shortly before this story went live, Jensen and Holmes announced a second game from Pinkerton Road, and hinted that it might be a new Gabriel Knight.
Even with a potentially great spiritual successor to Gabriel Knight in the works, Jensen will never be able to escape questions from long-time fans about the possibility of returning to the original character.
"It's like if you have an old girlfriend, and you come to a point where you've mentally moved on," she says. "It's not going to be the sole focus of your life anymore. I've come close to returning to it so many times that at this point, I'm not going to really believe it until I have a signed contract under my nose."
Jensen admits that she's pitched executives on a new Knight game twice since 1999. Following a merger with Sierra owner Vivendi, those rights now belong to Activision. With Activision recently opening up the Sierra archives to allow Telltale Games to create a King's Quest reboot, there could be hope for Gabriel Knight once more.
"I have talked to them again recently," Jensen says, "and I think there's a good chance that it's going to work out. It's not going to be ..." She pauses, weighing her words. "I think there's a good chance that we'll be doing something with Gabriel Knight in the future." There's the hint of a smile in her tone. "Just give it a month or two."
Following our interview and just before publishing this story, Jensen and Holmes posted a new video to their Kickstarter page promising work on a second adventure game this year, with Jensen calling it "Mystery Game X" and promising "it's a dark mystery of the kind you would normally associate with me."
Beyond the experiment in community-supported games, Pinkerton Road Studio hides an even greater promise in its name. Pinkerton Road is the name of the street that Jensen and Holmes' Lancaster farm rests on. It's home. Jensen wants her Kickstarter campaign to be more than a bid for money; it's an invitation to join her family. And maybe, if we're lucky enough, to join some long-lost friends too.
Jane Jensen, Robert Holmes, Kickstarter
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