Interview with Jeff and Karen Tobler
by Laura MacDonald/Gatorlaw

 

Introduction: 

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 received. 

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? 

Karen:  I always liked math and I always liked art - but of course those two don’t 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. It’s a good combination though. 

Thanks Karen. Now about your first project. Did "ROTS" begin as more of an experiment with your 3D modeling or as a deliberate project? 

Jeff: We 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 building it? 

Jeff:  Oh yeah! The same is happening with the sequel. We sit there and it’s entirely …hmmm what would we want to find over here. Then we’ll both be sitting there working and look at each other and go "Oooh oh ohh  wouldn’t it be cool if this was here or I’d like to walk in there and…. !".  So, that’s how we do it. 

I was 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 Omega Stone"? 

Jeff: I think that’s the back bone of it. I mean there is a line there. You don’t want to make it too mundane, but if it is too fantastic then there’s 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 aren’t going to worry how candles stayed lit for a thousand years right? 

Jeff:  Our standing position has become, if there’s no real answer for why something is the way it is in the game, but it looks really good - well it’s a game. (laughter) - Live with it, we’re not changing it! 

Was there any part of your design of "ROTS" that was an effort to build the perfect game? 

Karen: I was going to say, we really don’t play that many games. I don’t think we ever looked at this, as a way to fix other games. 

Jeff: I’d 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….We 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. 

Although you 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 plots? 

Karen:  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 realistic models. 

Jeff: We 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 for creativity? 

Jeff: I know it has. 

Karen: I 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. 

Jeff: I 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 "ROTS". 

Will these additional materials  be available on the official site? 

Jeff: Yes, 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? 

Jeff: That’s 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. solo? 

Jeff: 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 haven’t dealt with any other publisher’s 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. There’s more cooperation, as they do what they are good at and we do what we are good at. I can’t say enough good things about them. 

Speaking of outside influences, did you incorporate any player feedback into "ROTS" and / or "The Omega Stone"? 

Jeff:  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 people’s 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…don’t 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 we’re doing the game - the way we would enjoy it".  We can’t 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 haven’t changed the way that puzzles are going to take place. We haven’t really changed anything in that regard, we are just trying to make each area visually pristine and as logistically as we can. 

Karen: I 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… ? 

Jeff: The 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 said … "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. 

You mentioned that in ROTS you took everything to the edge and slightly beyond….. Where are we with "The Omega Stone"? 

Jeff:  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 didn’t really click yet. We didn’t 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. There’s 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"? 

Jeff: Do 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. 

Karen: I don’t know…… how much more can we tell her before we have to kill her? 

Jeff: You’re 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.  It’s not much of a secret that we are tying all these areas together for some purpose.   

Don’t you think that’s part of your appeal? That due to all the back ground research and factual context, you appeal to the intelligence in gamers? 

Jeff: We would hope so. I mean I don’t want to say that and make us sound like we are elitist or something. But,  I haven’t 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,  wouldn’t appeal to them on a daily basis. It just doesn’t take a lot up there to play through many of those games.  That’s where it’s 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 that’s what makes it like a good book or a good movie. If there’s not enough meat  there,  then it’s 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 financial support? 

Jeff: It 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 it’s 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 it’s a good thing. 

So you’re not set to put the Sphinx in your back yard just yet . But , it’s nice to hear that you are benefiting from the release of "ROTS". 

Jeff: (laughter) 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 me ! 

After all that you know now - any advice for others? 

Jeff: 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. 

Karen: Be prepared to work - really hard.  But,  that’s true of any dream. It doesn’t just happen. 

Jeff: I 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 didn’t 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 it’s 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 don’t take that for granted. There are many other games out there, that just didn’t catch on.  Or didn’t get out there,  because they didn’t find a publisher. Or, the publisher didn’t promote it. For whatever reason, I think it is a tough thing to do.  But,  I would hate to squash someone’s 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. 

Jeff: Yeah we are in St. Louis,  how did that happen? I mean, we’re not in Silicon valley or anything. 

How is that being a gaming company and web producer coming from the mid west? 

Jeff: We get that all the time. We get things like, isn’t that where the cows are? 

Karen: Yeah they’ll ask us, "Do you have any cows?" 

Jeff: Or,  they’ll say, "Aren’t 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? 

Karen: Our eldest has grown up with us doing this, so to him it’s, "Oh they’re in there doing an adventure game again".  It’s just that that’s his life. He likes to come in and "help".  He’ll do little drawings and things.  Really to him, it’s no big deal. 

Jeff: It’s 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 he’s 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? 

Jeff: 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 doesn’t 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. 

So community support was key? 

Jeff: From our family and friends definitely. We wouldn’t have been able to finish without that. 

Well guys, 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 it’s release.  Any last comment you’d care to make? 

Jeff: The 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 don’t 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. 

copyright 2002 GameBoomers

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