Interview with Jeff and
Jeff and Karen
Tobler first came to prominence in the adventure
gaming community with the release of their first
project - "Riddle of The Sphinx" or
"ROTS". Gamers everywhere were
enthralled with this realistic adventure into the
depths of the Sphinx, the pyramids and beyond.
When word first came out that, the sequel, "The
Omega Stone" was being developed and due for
release late this year, the news was happily
Not only did they
work together on this project, but they
have been business partners for most of their
career. Despite their multifaceted obligations
and projects they also managed to raise two
active and delightful young boys. A lot of web
searching uncovered an eclectic background
for the husband and wife team. Jeff and Karen
live in St. Louis, Missouri and have been in the
graphics design business for a number of years
preceeding the release of "ROTS". Their
company, "Omni Creative Group, Intl",
has been a success in many areas of design work.
Jeff, the son of an accomplished jazz artist, is
himself a talented musician. He is known around
St. Louis music venues for his trumpet playing
and great vocals. He and Karen until recently,
were the owners of "Phoenix Live", a
jazz combo/group that performed in a number of
venues. To say, that they are an amazing couple
and individuals, is an understatement. Recently,
they were kind enough to sit, for over an hour,
on the phone and allow me to dig a bit deeper
into their lives and their work. With great
pleasure - here are Jeff and Karen
Hi Karen, You
are always mentioned in interviews but, seem to
stay in the back ground. I am sure that many
would like to know a little more about you. I
noticed you were originally into math and thought
about teaching. How did you end up as an art
director and now in game development?
I always liked math and I always liked art - but
of course those two dont always go together
well. So, I went to the University of Missouri
for my first year in college. And it was
fine, but it was very dry and I missed doing the
artwork. So, I decided to go into commercial art
and find my niche there. Then I got out of
college, got a design position and then
moved into art directing. I held back for a
while, then Jeff and I decided to start a company
together. It was freelancing at first and then it
started to grow more into the 3D modeling and
related products. So, it has come round
about for me. Its a good combination though.
Now about your first project. Did "ROTS"
begin as more of an experiment with your 3D
modeling or as a deliberate project?
were both experimenting before that, when we
first got the 3D software Strata. We started with
Strata first and then Myst came along and all
that. No, "ROTS" was definitely a
concerted decision to do it and go after it. It
definitely started as a project. The only
thing that happened with our game design was the
part of actually getting in there and creating a
chamber here and there. That changed drastically.
In your mind there is actually a lot more to do
then when you actually get into a room. You are
just sort of spinning around there. So we had to
add a lot more exploration. Each area just
exploded with growth as we got in there. We
thought, "You know, it would be
neat to have a chamber over here or something
over there". And it is still happening with
the sequel. Not to the same extent, as we were
able to plan in advance from "ROTS"
knowledge. When you get in a room and start
modeling, you all of a sudden have these things
open up. Like, there should be something under
this floor board or things suddenly appear to you
in your mind. So, you just add them.
It sounds as
though you were playing this game as you were
Oh yeah! The same is happening with the sequel.
We sit there and its entirely
what would we want to find over here. Then well
both be sitting there working and look at each
other and go "Oooh oh ohh wouldnt
it be cool if this was here or Id like to
walk in there and
. !". So, thats
how we do it.
impressed by how realistic it felt to play
through "ROTS". Nothing was just laying
there, you had to uncover it. How much of this
reality based game mode influenced "The
think thats the back bone of it. I mean
there is a line there. You dont want to
make it too mundane, but if it is too fantastic
then theres not enough to bite into. You
have to first be led with the facts at hand. Our
games are rooted in facts and history. From there we treat it as
though it would be somewhat realistic, in that if
you found this place, what would it look like and
how would it really be. For example, if you
located a door - how would it be secured? We kind
of went stir crazy with "ROTS" and the
logic of things. The materials that would have
been used and how would they have reacted over
time. Would they be rotted or not? With
"The Omega Stone", we are still
concerned with these things. But we have given
ourselves a little more leeway, in the sense of
having it be even more of an adventure.
So we arent
going to worry how candles stayed lit for a
thousand years right?
Our standing position has become, if theres
no real answer for why something is the way it is
in the game, but it looks really good - well its
a game. (laughter) - Live with it, were not
Was there any
part of your design of "ROTS" that was
an effort to build the perfect game?
was going to say, we really dont play that
many games. I dont think we ever looked at
this, as a way to fix other games.
like to answer that in two ways. We did make the
game for ourselves. But, compared to people like
at GameBoomers, we are not "game
players". I think we have a shelf with
like eight games on it. But beyond that, there
are standard adventure game design features.
There were several things that bothered us about
some of those. One of them, was that in graphic
transitions you would either go to black to go to
the next scene or you would have to load in a new
scene. There was no continuity. When you stepped
through a threshold, there should be. That was
one of the big things with "ROTS" that
we tried to do. You never really left the
game environment, well except for the
interface so you could find stuff.
But, you could walk seamlessly everywhere
you wanted to go. There was never a fade to black
and then you are suddenly in the next area or
anything like that. That was one of the big
design decisions. But, other than that
made the game so that we would enjoy it. I
think we are adventurers more than we are gamers.
We are really closet archeologists, slash
adventurers, slash whatever. We wanted a game
where you could go in and do those sorts of
things. Which I think many people who play
adventure games want.
have said that this is about entertainment not
edutainment - there does seem to be a teaching
element in both your private life and with "ROTS".
Do you view "ROTS" and "The Omega
Stone" as educational due to the layers of
research and fact that are behind the
II think we have pursued a certain degree of
teaching the player about the history behind
everything, especially with the new game. We
tried wherever possible to base things on
are actually in the process of taking these
different components out of these games and
making them stand alone edutainment applications.
You can click on an object and find out more
information about it.
Do you see
playing adventure games as something that urges
kids to read more - developing an appreciation
know it has.
think it would be great if that happened. I think
a lot of pieces of the plot and the things that
go into "ROTS" and "The Omega
Stone" are based on real life places and
events. These are things that have been found or
discussed in other books and theories. Maybe we
will publish a compilation of our research that
went into the games.
think I alluded to this earlier. Part of that is
necessary, in my mind, to draw the player into
the game. To give the player the whole background.
There were people who e-mailed us (and still do)
who said things like "I had no idea about
all these discoveries". "ROTS"
brought them an interest into Egypt, Egyptology
and archeology. So, their experience of the game
was heightened. We are doing the same thing
with "The Omega Stone". We are rooting
everything in fact and historical relevance.
There will be books related to "The Omega
Stone", just like there were for
additional materials be available on the
I think these will help familiarize the player
with the areas and draw them deeper into the game.
Whether they are legitimate facts or logical
extensions of them, I think the player will
really get into the places and feel a part of it.
Some of these other games are great, they
just have a different purpose. In those,
you will go to a location, but you never
really learn anything about it. For
example, we try to tie all of our puzzles
into legitimate facts, theories or folklore. I
think this strengthens the whole game experience.
Do you think
this makes the game more immersive?
funny, because we have a laughing debate
with Dreamcatcher going on right now between the
descriptive word enigmatic vs. immersive.
How is it
working with Dreamcatcher this time around vs.
Dreamcatcher has been wonderful to work with.
They have been really hands off on both of these
projects. Which is unheard of in this business,
as I understand it and we havent
dealt with any other publishers except for
very early on. There were a few changes in "ROTS"
- but they were minor adjustments . Like the
length of video in this area, a couple of small
parts in the ending, but other than that there
was no interference. Theres more
cooperation, as they do what they are good at and
we do what we are good at. I cant say
enough good things about them.
outside influences, did you incorporate any
player feedback into "ROTS" and / or
"The Omega Stone"?
With "ROTS", the feedback that we
did get, as the game was being developed,
was very generic and abstract. It was more
related to facts and peoples experience
with Egyptology or their views on games. I think
the only other feedback that we had in that
regard were things like "I hate mazes
do a maze" or "I love mazes - have lots
of mazes". Then there were "I hate
puzzles" or weird stuff like that. So
we just said, "Hey were doing the game
- the way we would enjoy it". We cant
make everyone happy with "The Omega Stone".
We have incorporated the majority of suggestions
we have had from people. One of the things
that we wanted to do with "Riddle of the
Sphinx" and were able to do with "The
Omega Stone", was to make the inventory
interface accessable from the main screen. So
that is now part of this game. The other
thing obviously, was that the technology was an
issue. There was nothing much we could do about
that with "ROTS", but we have
enhanced the sequel quite a bit. However, we
havent changed the way that puzzles are
going to take place. We havent really
changed anything in that regard, we are just
trying to make each area visually pristine and as
logistically as we can.
would just say that probably in terms of game
play, inventory access and technological
limitations were the biggest issues.
You once made
a cryptic reference, in the past, to some new
discovery that arose from your consultations with
Steve Vincent, an expert on middle Egypt
hieroglyphics. You were consulting him about the
scroll you were using in "ROTS".
However, you said that the discovery would have
to wait till the sequel. Any hints as to
what this means
thing about the scroll that is interesting,
is that we wanted to find someone who could read
middle kingdom hieroglyphics, so that it would be
accurate. Because there are grammatical
differences between the different Egyptian
kingdoms. We were also trying to interpret what
we would have wanted them to have written down.
He came across the word that we were looking for.
And, there were some other words we needed for
fictional purposes. He thought about it and
"Hey, you know what - they
actually have a word for this!". It matched
to within one syllable of what we were thinking
of. This was another indirect tie, which led us
to believe there may have been more credence to
some of these theories.
that in ROTS you took everything to the edge and
.. Where are we with "The
Yes and Yes. It took us a while to get the sequel
done after "ROTS" was released. We had
a general idea of what we wanted to do with it,
but all the pieces didnt really click yet.
We didnt want to put a sequel out
there, just because we all thought we
should. It really needed to flow. From the game
stand point, there is a contiguous story
line. Even then it would have fit , but now I
think it fits perfectly. Regarding the legitimate
historical basis of the sequel, it is on par with
the level of "ROTS", if not more
accurately tied to histories and events. Theres
a fictional tie in obviously with Gil and with
what we say has happened in the story. But, it
all happens around things that really exist.
Like with "Riddle", we start off
with a huge body of evidence or known data. About
60 or 70 % of the game is known data and the rest
is the good stuff. There is so much that you can
buy into and experience that is quote "real"
and then we go to the next level.
There are a
number of theories floating around regarding the
Egyptians and their influence on the rest of the
world. Perhaps through travels or a binding
universal intelligence. Is this an idea present
in "The Omega Stone"?
you want to play hot and cold?
Yeah! Hey I
want to buy this game - I am trying to pull out
some more inside info here.
how much more can we
tell her before we have to kill her?
very close, you are very very hot. A
lot of the premise of the story has already been
discussed out there to a certain degree. The
details though, will be given to the player as
they play the game, or they will discover it.
Its not much of a secret that we are tying
all these areas together for some purpose.
think thats part of your appeal? That due
to all the back ground research and factual
context, you appeal to the intelligence in
would hope so. I mean I dont want to say
that and make us sound like we are elitist or
something. But, I havent met an
adventure gamer yet. Well there might be one or
two, but I doubt they really played our
game (laugh). They are like artists, musicians
and people in other fields, where there has
to be a level of intelligence to do what they are
doing in life. So the shoot em up guys and
gals, wouldnt appeal to them on a
daily basis. It just doesnt take a lot up
there to play through many of those games.
Thats where its been really
interesting with kids. We have gotten several e-mails
and letters from adults and they have their 4
year old - their 8 year old whatever aged child
with them. A lot of these kids can get these
things, with just a little nudging from Mom and
Dad. I think our games are an educational,
intelligent and adventure experience. I think
thats what makes it like a good book or a
good movie. If theres not enough meat
there, then its boring
I noticed that
you have sold your management interest in "Phoenix
Live", your music business, to others in the
group. How have things changed, asides from more
helps tremendously. I will always play music.
I just have a different role now. If I go play a
gig anywhere or whatever it is, now I can just go
play and then come back. Before it was a business.
Part of the "Phoenix" business was
helping to fund the development of "ROTS".
But, it was also taking time and energy to do all
that stuff. What we can afford to do now is focus
entirely and do it the way we intended to do
"ROTS" technology wise. Plus, with all
the extra people we have, I think its going
to be a much better product. Again, given the
higher technology, some of the things we learned
from the first game and given the fact that we
are now getting sleep every night, all that
makes a big difference. So I definitely think its
a good thing.
not set to put the Sphinx in your back yard just
yet . But , its nice to hear that you are
benefiting from the release of "ROTS".
What we want to do now, is open a miniature golf
place. You know with the Sphinx and
pyramids and all that.
Sounds cool to
After all that
you know now - any advice for others?
Personally hmmm, boy that would be a long
conversation. I would tell them one thing.
First of all, I think people should go
after their dreams, but I think they should be
prepared to do so.
prepared to work - really hard. But,
thats true of any dream. It doesnt
think if it had not been for Karen and I for
one, you know our relationship and several
other factors, "ROTS" would not be out
on the market. There was a tough time, when
we really didnt know whether we could go on
with it money wise, mentally and so on. You
know, just life. Why are we doing this?
There was no reward. There was no end in sight.
There was no publisher. So, I think just being
prepared for that. But, if its something
someone really wants to do and they are good at
it, then do it. We still feel very
fortunate that "ROTS" was taken in by
all of you and everyone else who purchased and
had written about it. We dont take that for
granted. There are many other games out there,
that just didnt catch on. Or didnt
get out there, because they didnt
find a publisher. Or, the publisher didnt
promote it. For whatever reason, I think it is a
tough thing to do. But, I would hate
to squash someones dreams.
I am amazed
from a real life perspective, that you guys got
"ROTS" completed. I mean you had a
serious life, one then two kids. It must have
been very tough at times to continue solo like
that. And you are in St. Louis.
we are in St. Louis, how did that happen? I
mean, were not in Silicon valley or
How is that
being a gaming company and web producer coming
from the mid west?
get that all the time. We get things like, isnt
that where the cows are?
Yeah theyll ask us, "Do you have any
Or, theyll say, "Arent
there corn fields where you are?" - "Do
you live out of caves?" or something.
You have two
children now. How much have your kids
gotten into what you do, is it ever a conflict
and how does it affect your family?
eldest has grown up with us doing this, so to him
its, "Oh theyre in there doing
an adventure game again". Its
just that thats his life. He likes to come
in and "help". Hell do
little drawings and things. Really to him,
its no big deal.
no big deal, but he takes it for granted
now, that there are secret chambers
everywhere in real life. When we went to
Chitsanichu with him, we were taking video
footage of the pyramids and dimensions. We have
him on video in the back ground saying,
.., "Daddy, Daddy come on
we gotta go find the secret chambers".
So hes into all that. He just really
does take it for granted that is just life.
So with the
hardships, kids and all, what kept you
going? Or, were you so deep in, that you
had no choice?
Well, that was part of it. It really was a part
at 31/2 years. We talked about it several times.
Even if it fails miserably and even if a
publisher doesnt pick it up and even if
blah blah blah we have to finish this and put it
away. Bury it in a tomb or whatever. I think the
other thing was our marriage. We did believe in
our vision of the game. Which was really what we
wanted out of the game. I think also, it
was foremost our belief in Christ and Him getting
us through a lot of that stuff towards the end.
support was key?
our family and friends definitely. We wouldnt
have been able to finish without that.
this has been really great. I sure appreciate you
both taking the time to sit and have this chat
about yourselves, "ROTS" and, last but
hardly least , "The Omega Stone". I can
tell you, that many folks, especially this gamer,
are very excited about its release.
Any last comment youd care to make?
last thing that I want to say, is that you and
all the other wonderful people at GameBoomers
have been so gracious, giving and sincere. We
sure do appreciate that. Anything that we can do.
I dont know what we can do (laughter), but
we would. You guys really got the word out and
kept us going through the tough times at the end.
Once word got out, that was really a big
morale boost. Just have to say thanks.
© 2002 GameBoomers