Dreamfall Chapters - Ragnar Tørnquist interview
Ragnar Tørnquist surprised and delighted many adventure fans when he recently formed his own studio, Red Thread Games, and announced that the team would at last be giving us a new installment in The Longest Journey saga. Since then, the overwhelming response to Dreamfall Chapters on Kickstarter has offered definitive proof that TLJ remains of the most popular adventure game franchises of all time. With the fundraising campaign soon drawing to a close, we had a talk with the acclaimed writer/designer to chat about the past, present and future of Stark, Arcadia, and his independent development studio in Norway.
Ingmar Böke: Hello Ragnar, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to Adventure Gamers. You recently launched your Kickstarter campaign for Dreamfall Chapters with enormous success. Obviously The Longest Journey saga has tons of loyal fans that have waited for this moment for many years, but did you ever expect SUCH an overwhelming response to your work? And what are your thoughts on the campaign so far?
Ragnar Tørnquist: Hi, and thank you! No, we really did not expect such an overwhelming response to our Kickstarter campaign. Our most optimistic projection was $200,000 in the first twenty-four hours, and we didn’t really think we’d get that much.
We made more than twice that in less than a day, and we were completely blown away by the support and generosity of our fans.
We were expecting to be biting our nails from start to finish, but we met our original target in a week, and we recently passed the $1 million mark, which is amazing. There’s only a handful of games that have made this much money, and we’re both honoured and humbled to be amongst them. Our fans are simply incredible, and there are apparently a LOT of them. More than we thought.
Ingmar: What lessons did you learn from previous crowdfunding campaigns, and which positive examples influenced your own Dreamfall Chapters campaign?
Ragnar: We looked closely at pretty much every big Kickstarter there’s been, from Double Fine Adventure and onwards, but the campaigns we’ve learned the most from were Project Eternity and Broken Sword. Those two provided the model for what we wanted to do and accomplish, and we felt both were very well run campaigns that reflected the level of ambition and professionalism we were aiming for.
We spent many months analysing other campaigns and building our own, before we felt ready to launch, and that time – all the research and analysis – was definitely time well spent.
Ingmar: I’d love to crunch some numbers. $850,000 (really less, after all the Kickstarter expenses) plus a $175,000 grant from the Norwegian Film Institute to develop the prototype doesn’t sound like much for such an ambitious project. You stated before that there will be some more money from other sources, and your campaign has already gone over its minimum target, but presumably you will still have a budget that’s a lot smaller than the one for Dreamfall. Can you compare it with the budgets of TLJ and Dreamfall, and explain the financial situation for Dreamfall Chapters in detail?
Ragnar: I can’t go into all the details, since some things are still in flux, but the budget for Chapters is definitely lower than the budgets for both TLJ and Dreamfall. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I would guess TLJ cost about $2-3 million, and Dreamfall probably twice that, maybe around $5 million. Of course, we had a lot of inexperienced people – including myself! We pretty much built our own engines and all of the tools, and we lacked the management experience to have an effective and optimal production pipeline.
With Chapters, we have an established, functioning engine in Unity; we have a highly experienced and motivated team that has worked together in the past; and we have key learnings from previous games, which allows us to design more efficiently and to not waste time on content and features that we need to cut.
The Kickstarter money won’t be enough on its own, but combined with our own funds, the grant we’ve received, and some other sources of income, we will be able to bring the game in on time and budget – a lot cheaper and a lot more efficiently than a larger developer would be able to.
Autumn in Marcuria (in-game screenshot from Dreamfall Chapters)
Ingmar: Can you give us an idea of what that efficiency means when it comes to the creation of Chapters?
Ragnar: It simply means that we are able to plot out the story and gameplay in detail and to stick with that plan. We will still do tweaks along the way, of course, and we will still need to change things when we start testing and playing the game, but much less so than with previous projects. We also know exactly where the story is heading and where it ends, and we can focus on telling that story and wrapping up all the loose threads. In addition, we have so much experience budgeting and managing large projects, it’s going to be a lot easier to run a small and tight team, and a game as manageable as Chapters.
There will still be hurdles and surprises, of course, but we know how to handle those. We are capable of making the right changes at the right times, simply because we’ve done this so many times before.
Ingmar: Since you’re working with many familiar faces at Red Thread Games, now's a good chance to introduce the team.
Ragnar: We have a bunch of people from the Dreamfall core team, including art director Christer Sveen, co-writer Dag Scheve, technical directors Eigil Jarl Halse and Kjetil Hjeldnes – who also worked on The Longest Journey – and Sigbjørn Galåen. On the technical side, we have my brother Audun, who also worked on TLJ, along with Quintin Pan, who has experience from The Secret World. On the management side, there is Rakel Johnsen, who was senior project manager on The Secret World, and of course we have Martin Bruusgaard onboard as lead designer – he held that position previously on The Secret World.
We’re going to add a few more people to the team in the months ahead, but we don’t plan on growing too big. At least not yet.
Sunset in Shady Quay (in-game screenshot)
Ingmar: I imagine you must have a feeling of unlimited freedom right now. Talk about the mood at Red Thread Games at the moment, and how this independence from publishers is the model of the future.
Ragnar: The mood is great at the office! I think everyone feels privileged and lucky to be able to work on this project at this time, and to have received so much support and love from our community. We know that this freedom isn’t unlimited, and that it comes with a lot of responsibilities, but we also know that we are the architects of our own fate, and that it’s entirely up to us to make a great game and to tell a good story.
The crowd-funding model is definitely one that will have a great impact on how games are made. It’s not going to be the way ALL games are made, obviously, and this model isn’t for everyone, but for us it’s changed everything – it’s allowed us to take charge and forge our own path. It’s allowed us to approach this game on our own terms, with our fans and supporters in mind, and to avoid the whole process of selling an idea to a publisher and making compromises in order to raise money. We have an audience, and that’s who we’re making the game for: adventure gamers, players who love great stories and characters, who can appreciate a challenging and mature game, and who are looking for more depth, more meaning, more soul.
Ingmar: Let's talk about the actual game now, starting with what you can tell us about the plot of Chapters. I'm sure you’re keeping many things tightly under wraps for now, but perhaps you can tease us a little.
Zoë Castillo (in-game screenshot)
Ragnar: The story starts where Dreamfall left off. Zoë is in a coma, trapped inside the Storytime. The resistance in Marcuria has received a serious blow. WatiCorp’s Dreamer has been released. Things are looking quite bleak. It’s almost a year since the events of Dreamfall, and players have to help Zoë confront her past self, her fears and hopes and dreams, and to be reborn into the world...
I don’t want to spoil too much, but I can safely say that most of the questions players had at the end of Dreamfall will be answered, or at least addressed, and that we will resolve the cliffhangers that players may have been frustrated with after the previous game.
Ingmar: When people hear the word “chapters”, many probably think about episodic games, when in fact that idea has been abandoned for a while now. So... since Dreamfall Chapters will NOT be an episodic game, please explain the context of the word “chapters” for this game.
Ragnar: Chapters refers to the chapters of life, to the passage of time, to the phases we pass through on our journey from birth to death. It’s the theme of the game, and a really important part of the story itself. Dreamfall Chapters also takes place over almost a whole year; seasons pass along with the chapters in our characters’ lives.Continued on the next page...