Jared Morante and Ben Keeney are the founders of Abborado Studios and recently announced their first adventure game. Once Upon a Time in Japan is planned as a series of classical point and click games and is set in Japan in the 17th century. Visually inspired by Disney and Studio Ghibli, the designers try to create an authentic game world by using a well researched setting and Japanese voice actors.
A-T: "Hi there. Can you start by introducing yourself and your new company, Abborado Studios? How did you assemble the team?"
Jared: "Well first off, I just want to say I think our team is fantastic. Ben and I have known each other since we were teenagers and I think we always kind of dreamed about one day forming a company and doing something with it, but at that point we weren’t sure what. About a year ago we decided on doing a game company since we had the necessary backgrounds and we both grew up playing video games.
At that point we needed help so I asked my cousin Brian, who is a fantastic artist, if he wanted to join up. Through sheer luck we also tracked down a guy named Kamjar who is a great digital painter. The rest of our team came about later, after our four core members. So it's those four members we would call the “heart“ of Abborado. Did I cover it all?"
Ben: "I think that sums it up pretty well."
A-T: "Do you have any experience in the gaming industry?"
Jared: "Well I have never worked for another game company, no. I have a software engineering degree from a great University, and got a bit of games experience there. Also Ben is a bit of a movie star and works as a script advisor on the side. His writing is really great.
The few people that have seen the script all agree it’s an extremely interesting read. On top of that the game is already up and running, and looking good so far. As far as the rest of the people working on it, we are keeping tight control over all the different elements. "
Ben: "I'm no movie star, that's for sure. Jared is referring to one role I had in a made for television movie nearly ten years ago. I was only in one scene and my dialogue was cut, so the only perk of the whole experience was that I got to meet Angelina Jolie. More importantly, as Jared also revealed, I am an occasional script advisor for a literary agency."
A-T: "What does your company name, Abborado, mean?"
Ben: "It's pretty funny how we came up with Abborado Studios, and it's certainly not as meaningful as one might assume. Basically, at least where we come from, there's a little joke where people try to figure out what their name would be in a certain... ummm... adult profession.
One version of this game says that you combine your middle name with the name of the first street you lived on. In that version, I would be Abbott Colt, and Jared would be Miguel Colorado. One day, as we were joking about this, I said, 'Why don't we call the company Abborado!'"
Jared: "I seem to remember this happening a few years ago, and we actually said 'if we ever have a company that would be a great name!' It was weird how we both thought it was really catchy, and that it has stuck all this time. But I just want to say that as a Christian I don't watch that kind of stuff. It was just something we were joking about."
A-T: "Haha, what a great way to come up with a company name! The most common way here to get your 'adult profession name' is to take the name of your first pet and your mother's maiden name. That makes me to Blacky Schmidt, who are you?"
Jared: "Oh geez... either Brisby Thorpe or Blackbeard Thorpe. Brisby was a mouse we had and blackbeard was a goldfish that had black markings all over its body. I don’t remember which came first."
Ben: "I would be Cody Price, unfortunately."A-T: "How did you come up with the pretty unique concept of Once Upon a Time in Japan? Do you have a personal Japanese background in the team or is it just the fascination with a foreign culture far away?"
Ben: "There is no personal Japanese background, but I've been a fan of Japanese culture for a very long time. It all began when I was innocently flipping through channels and landed on a magnificent battle sequence in a black and white film. I found out that the movie was Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. Since that day many years ago, I've studied Japanese culture, history, and art."
Jared: "Yeah, Ben is actually the one who got me interested in Japanese film and that’s where the majority of the inspiration comes from, I would say. We’re really excited about bringing a truly human story, based in this era, to gamers. Hopefully we can do it some sort of justice, compared to what we are measuring ourselves against, in many different mediums really. The bar is set pretty high, already.
Actually as far as the personal background thing is concerned we do have a guy named Massa in Kobe, Japan that is on the project and he is doing the translation to Japanese for us. He’s a native Japanese speaker and he had some really good experience with translations from English, plus he’s a nice guy. So we do have at least one person involved that is native to Japan. Same goes for the voice actors actually."
A-T: "Will Massa just translate the texts or will he also act as an an advisor for the setting and cultural issues?"
Ben: "We appreciate the fact that he does both. Certainly if Massa found an error in my writing or research, we would gladly fix the issue. Accuracy is very important to us. Having said that, in terms of setting, we aren't using detailed terrain maps here or anything. I chose Etchu Province for the story because it bordered the Sea of Japan, and its shape and location happened to fit the map I had made in the first place...
Of course four hundred years have passed, and that province is now Toyama Prefecture. I've researched the prefecture and I've seen plenty of photographs, but certainly people who live there today won't see a direct representation in the game. Also, the village our game is set around is fictional, and has a few fictional incidents that shape its history."
A-T: "The release for the first game Earth is planned for Q4 2007. When did you start with the project?"
Ben: "The project really got underway in the first quarter of 2006. Prior to that, however, we had been working on ideas for the franchise for a few years."
Jared: "Definately. I wonder how many hours we’ve logged just brainstorming? Too many."
A-T: "Are all Once Upon a Time in Japan games set in the 17th century or do they focus on completely different eras?"
Ben: "There has been a misconception already that this first three part arc is about different time periods. That's partially our own fault due to how the press release was worded. Here's the real story: The first three games are all set in the early 17th century. However, there's a major arc in later games that spans many years in the 16th century. The stories are already in place for those games as well. We also have ideas and concepts for a game in the 13th century."
A-T: "Since you already have so many games on your mind, is Earth planned as a full-length game or will it be in episode format?"
Ben: "Earth was, in fact, originally intended as one part of a single game. This is no longer the case, however. Earth has evolved into its own game, and can stand alone. It's not an 'episode'. Earth has its own story, many exclusive characters, a lengthy quest, a climax and resolution, etc. It works by itself, but it will also serve as part of a larger story arc."
Jared: "We kind of joked that we 'pulled a Lucas,' referring to George Lucas of course, in breaking up our one story into three parts, but we actually have our stories mapped out for a decade’s worth of games. We're very excited about it. So we basically know where this series is going to go for a long time to come and it’s really interesting how it’s all separate but tied together at the same time."A-T: "With those long-term plans, did you already find a publisher for your game or are you still looking?"
Jared: "We've been getting offers from publishers in various markets, including North America, but we haven't made any decisions just yet. We’re not rushing anything and want to make the smartest business decision we can since our success is going to depend on it. Our goal is to continue the series for a long time so we have to focus on that. Also, we are really hoping to make a Wii port since we love the system and it’s interface. It would work perfectly for the genre and we think there would potentially be a nice market for this kind of game. So we’re hoping we can find publishers that can work with us on that."
A-T: "There were already a lot of discussions about adventure gaming on the Wii. Although some games were released on the Nintendo DS, we haven't seen any announcements for the Wii yet. How do you think the new controls can be utilized for adventures?"
Jared: "Well obviously there is the pointer functionality. I think this would be the first time playing a point and click adventure on a console would be a pleasure, as opposed to an exercise in frustration. "
Ben: "There are other things we could do, perhaps, like have the player 'grab' a cabinet and actually 'pull' it open with the controller instead of just pushing a button. Myst IV tried some stuff like that, but with the mouse. To be honest we haven’t thought about that part much yet, we were just more intrigued by the low cost, ease of development, terrific controller, and runaway popularity of the machine right now."
A-T: "In the press release you state that your art style is inspired by Disney and Studio Ghibli. Who inspired your gameplay philosophy? Any game designers we know?"
Ben: "I would have to say Jane Jensen has been the most influential for me. Her games are so rich in terms of character and setting, and I love the way she ties history into her stories. Gameplay-wise, however, I think we bring history and setting into our actual puzzles more than the Gabriel Knight games did. At least, that is our attempt."
Jared: "One thing that’s really important for us is to make sure the puzzles make sense and fit the time period. I doubt many gamers enjoy solving puzzles that are so obscure you would need the IQ of Nikola Tesla to figure them out. Everything has been researched to fit the time period. In fact we have had to throw out some really cool ideas because they just didn’t fit the era. It’s definitely tougher that way but in the end I think it should be more rewarding."
A-T: "I think the Japanese voice acting you announced is a very interesting idea. Will this be the only option or do you also plan to record English - and maybe other localized - voiceovers."
Jared: "Interestingly, having Japanese voice overs was something we didn’t decide on for awhile. We were thinking of doing just English, at least for the North American version, because of cost reasons. It’s certainly cheaper, so we kind of went back and forth on it but I think at one point we just asked ourselves 'If we made a fantastic game on this subject, and didn’t have Japanese voice acting... would we be satisfied with it?' and we both agreed that the answer was no. "Ben: "We have given some thought to doing other language options, for instance the North American version could allow players to choose between English or Japanese voices. Perhaps a German version could have options for German or Japanese, etc. The one language we want to make sure we have, however, is Japanese. People always complain about phony accents or actors speaking a language that isn't fluent to them... We figure we can avoid that by getting Japanese actors to do Japanese voiceovers for a story in which the characters would certainly be speaking Japanese anyway."
A-T: "Many devlopers nowadays try to bring the genre forward by adding new gameplay elements, including more action and so on. Are you going to do a classical point & click game or do you have something up your sleeve?"
Ben: "It's classical point and click all the way. No worries."
A-T: "Great! But the adventure market is small compared to other genres, especially in North America where you develop the game. Why did you choose to go for that genre?"
Ben: "I've always loved adventure games. It's as simple as that. The real choice we had to make had nothing to do with genre, and everything to do with what story to tell first and what style to use. Should we make the games set in the 17th century first? Or the games in the 16th century? Should we go hand drawn or CG? In the end, we chose the 17th century story to be done with hand drawn graphics."
Jared: "I think you can have a successful game if you keep your budget in check and do something great that you really believe in. I think if we were doing a game we weren’t passionate about we might be in a bit of trouble. We’re just building the game that we want to play ourselves, and we won’t settle for anything less than stellar quality in every aspect. We are hoping gamers around the world will respond to that."
A-T: "Wow, that sounds very idealistic. When will you start to publish more information about Once Upon a Time in Japan on the internet?"
Ben: "The new website will go up in early February, and we'll release our first newsletter then as well. Additionally, the newsletter is going to be a regular feature in pdf format, that is going to have regular columns and a special article with each issue that goes 'behind the scenes.'"
Jared: "Yeah, for example we know newsletter two covers the music and at that point we'll reveal a track or two from the game score for free download. So for those interested make sure you go to our website and sign up to be on the newsletter list. We’re planning on doing some cool stuff."
A-T: "Thanks a lot for answering our questions. I wish you good luck with your project and hope to see more of it soon."