Several weeks ago Games Domain Review published my preview of The Last Express. Mark Moran, technical lead for The Last Express development contacted me after reading the preview. It was the first piece of independent feedback he had seen. Since then I have played The Last Express a few times and published a full review. I believe The Last Express is a great game that should become a classic, so I asked Mark if he would do an interview for Games Domain Review. It might interest you to know that I did not fly down to California to do this. We talked live by IRC instead, at the cost of a local phone call ($0) and ISP connection time.
Read on! You will be fascinated by how Mark got involved in The Last Express and amazed at the effort it took to develop this game.
By now you must have read plenty of the The Last Express reviews and I know you have been following the newsgroup messages. What are your impressions of how The Last Express is being received by the public?
I've been very happy with the reviews so far. Of course, I'd like to see more of them, but I really can't complain. We consistently get at least 90% ratings, and the user vibe seems really positive. I just hope that enough people will hear about it and that the game will keep building steam into Christmas. Jordan likes to say that "every great product is controversial" . . . and we've had our fair share of that . . . especially with the save system! (A couple of reviewers and users seem to have been confused by it. I am actually very proud of our unique save system . . . but some people prefer the traditional 50 named save slots I guess . . . I think a few people don't trust that its always saving for you, or they think the different color eggs are save slots, etc.) It is different, I guess.
Are there any plans for a sequel to The Last Express?
Well, there are always ideas being kicked around here. Right now we're all focused on building Express into as big a hit as possible, but I wouldn't rule out some kind of sequel or new game
Right now, Ben Nason and I are finishing the PlayStation version of Express, as well as getting additional localizations finished. (Japanese version + a localization kit for potential additional languages)
The programming/technical design for the localization is fairly minimal at this stage . . . the code changes very little, and most of the data is kept the same as well. But all of the dialogs and soundtracks have to be dubbed, and all the nodes with European text in them (about 100) have to be changed as well.
Will you be releasing new English versions or are you just changing it for the European market?
Surprisingly enough after six months of QA/Beta testing, we haven't needed to make any revisions . . . which we always hoped to avoid. The work we are doing now is for markets other than English, French, and German - which are already selling - as well as a version for the Sony PlayStation, which is naturally somewhat different from the PC version.
How much was The Last Express based on the actual last journey of the Orient Express in 1914?
In some respects, quite a bit. We actually went to original sources (CIWL records, etc.) to find out everything we could about departure times, the weather those days, the numbers of the train cars, and so on. CIWL - Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (international company of sleeping-cars) is the company that has always run the Orient Express. However, we were unable to find out anything about the identity of the actual passengers on board that trip, so we had to make those up (based on what we knew of the historical period, of course). So, although the characters are fictitious, the stereotypes and dialogue are quite authentic from everything we can tell.
How long did it take from initial concept to release The Last Express? How many people worked on the entire project?
Jordan (Mechner) and Tomi (Pierce) came up with the concept in November 1992, and the first version (English) shipped in April 1997! Up until our 22 day film shoot, there were about a dozen of us working full time on the game (from about August-93 to Sept-94). After the film shoot, we gradually ramped up to over 40 full time people. Of course, the film shoot and the various voice recording sessions probably involved another 200 people or so. I think there are over 300 people in the final credits, not counting our loved ones who put up with us during all that time!
What was the budget and what was the overall cost to produce The Last Express?
Well, no one ever talks about details like this for some reason, but including all console and foreign language versions, just under $6 million.
Do you or Smoking Car Productions feel that games should be more based in the real world like The Last Express, rather than fantasy or science fiction?
I think that like movies, the wider range of genres the better. I am a history buff myself, but I enjoy all kinds of games and I don't think Smoking Car will necessarily confine itself to period pieces. Right now I think there are so many sci-fi/fantasy based adventure games that historical titles like Express and Titanic are really refreshing.
Who did you hope The Last Express would appeal to?
Everyone! Since many of us here at Smoking Car are not hard-core gamers, we really wanted to make something truly mainstream, as opposed to the traditional "18-35 male" market. Of course, the nature of the game dictates that young children will probably not appreciate it, but I certainly hope a large number of adults (women and men, gamers and not) will get an opportunity to play Express. Ever since we sent our first beta copies out, a majority of women have liked the game. We'd love to be the first mainstream game to sell more copies to women than men . . .
The evidence of that philosophy can be seen in everything from building a story based on classic movies like "Casablanca" and "The Third Man" to trying to design as intuitive an interface as possible.
What types of games do you play? What are you currently playing?
Honestly, I haven't been much of a gamer for the last six years, since I started putting so much energy into making them. I actually like platform games. I played "Bug!", and "Super Mario 64" and "Mario Kart 64", but thatís about the extent of my game patience these days. I used to play a lot of adventure games in the 80's/early 90's (all the Sierra games, Star Control II, etc.).. these days I watch a lot of movies.
What were you doing before you joined Smoking Car Productions?
I was in high school! :) Actually, I did meet Jordan while a senior at Loyola High School in L.A. At the time I had started a game company with my friend Noel Marrero and we put together a game prototype/demo by hiring a half dozen artists/musicians/programmers spread around the globe with money we raised selling bonds! I started work on Express the summer after I graduated from school, and Noel joined the team soon after.
How did you come to join Smoking Car Productions?
In the summer of '93, I called Jordan to ask him if he knew of any artists we could use for our demo. He said he was looking for a programmer, so I agreed to meet him next week when I was up at U.C. Berkeley. At the time, Jordan was working alone in a one man office, and Tomi was working on other stuff in a nearby office. Jordan bought me lunch and explained what he wanted to do. I showed him our demo, which was as far along as we were willing to take it, and told him I could do his game. He said I reminded him of himself ten years earlier and convinced me to move to San Francisco and help him build this game.
Do you plan to stay in PC games development? In a technical lead position?
I don't know yet. For a little while, anyway. Ever since our film shoot I've developed a strong interest in film making, but I'm not sure yet how seriously I'll pursue it. I really like screenwriting and storytelling, but there are so many new areas and possibilities to explore with interactive entertainment and games. At this stage I'll probably go back to school as my next major 4-year project.
How did the company name come about?
"Smoking Car" is what the salon car on a train was called, where many intriguing meetings and discussions have taken place throughout history. It also sounds very visual as in a flaming car.. Also since "smoking" is so politically reprehensible these days, Jordan couldn't resist a little mischief. (Although very few people on the project smoked!)
Will Smoking Car Productions continue developing real-time thriller games?
That sounds like a sneaky re-phrasing of the sequel question (#2) :) While we are not ready to make any announcements, I think it is certainly safe to say that we are very pleased with the real-time aspect of Express and would definitely want to capture some of that quality in whatever else we do.
How much influence does Broderbund have on the artistic direction of Smoking Car Productions?
Is there anything you or Smoking Car Productions would have done differently now you have player feedback?
Well, naturally there are things we would have liked to change . . . nothing ever comes out quite the way you hope it will.. However, most of the game's weaknesses we were aware of ourselves and simply didn't have the means to change them for this game. A common phrase in every game development company is "Next Game!". Although as sales build up steam, we may hear new ideas from players that we haven't thought of. I hope so! We welcome suggestions and feedback. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Does Smoking Car Productions expect to have influenced any of your competitors with the innovations The Last Express introduced?
Sure. I hope our game is successful enough that it will be imitated. Like Myst and Doom, I hope our game's style is refreshing enough that it will be copied, though I think copying Express would be quite a lot of work. Actually, some companies have already expressed an interest in licensing our image processing technology.
Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?
I think that what makes "The Last Express" so technically interesting and what has consumed a huge part of our development are two things: "masking" and the character logic. Although the story, sound, and acting are incredibly rich, I think that what makes this game so neat (though controversial) is its visual look. The idea of a flat cartoon look against a very realistic (though stylized) background is what Scott McCloud calls "masking" in his book Understanding Comics. This comic-book style is what I think makes Express so visually appealing, much like the Disney movie "Beauty and The Beast".
Of course developing and refining the image processing software and techniques to practically create this look for thousands of sequences encompassed much of the first half of the project's technical design.
The second half was dedicated to the creation of the character logic - the unique "AI" script that allows every character to very naturally alter and make his own story play out during the train's real time journey. This also allows the characters to intelligently interact with each other and the player, based on events that have taken place or opportunities that might take place. Over a year and a half was spent inventing, writing, and testing the game logic and I think that underneath everything else, that is what gives our game its "character".
And I know Mark has some last words for us!
Yes. Buy "The Last Express". If you really don't like it, then return it. But I think you'll like it.