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Ragnar Tørnquist Interview

by Stephen Granade

According to a whole host of reviews, The Longest Journey is one of the best graphic adventure games to come along in quite some time. Great story, good puzzles -- all in all, a satisfying game.

Despite being released back in the middle of 1999 and having gotten all these rave reviews, The Longest Journey is only now making it to the United States, over a year after its release. Why the delay?

In part it's because The Longest Journey is a graphic adventure game, a genre that has not done well recently and has suffered a drought of quality releases in the last few years. However, added to that is the fact that the US game market is notoriously difficult to break into. You have to find a publisher, who must then try to get the media to cover your game in order to build interest in the title. Distribution details must be hammered out; space in stores like Electronics Boutique and Best Buy must be arranged. All of this results in a substantial barrier to publication, one which makes publishers leery of publishing games that they fear won't do well.

I had an opportunity recently to talk to Ragnar Tørnquist, the designer of The Longest Journey, about what Funcom had to do to get the game to see the light of day in the US, as well as what he and Funcom are up to now.

Stephen: Let me start by asking: How long did it take you to get a U.S. publisher, and why the delay?

Ragnar: We've been actively seeking a US publisher since, oh, 1997. The thing was, at first, few publishers wanted to even contemplate releasing an adventure; it was, by all accounts, a Dead Genre.

Only recently did things start to change -- about the time when we started seeing a lot of favourable previews. At that time, we started talking to a few publishers about seeing the game released in the North American market. Still, though, we found that publishers didn't believe in The Longest Journey as a full-priced product.

I think it took a while before publishers realised that, a) TLJ had market potential, b) We'd already finished the game using our own money, and c) We deserved a good deal.

However, and this is where we are today, we realised that going through a big publisher just wasn't going to work for us, thus we made a deal with a distributor -- in this case TriSynergy -- who'd help us get the game on the shelves. This way, hopefully, we'll be able to reap the benefits of producing and releasing a good game, without having to go through a big publisher who'd take a big piece of the pie.

Stephen: What are the big differences between using a publisher like Infogrames or Cryo versus a distributor like TriSynergy? How much additional work is involved when you use a distributor?

Ragnar: Well, the biggest difference is that, in a lot of ways, we'll have to assume the role as publisher ourselves, going out to the media, marketing the product, securing reviews, etc. However, as far as I'm concerned, this is a Good Thing. We know the game, we know our audience, and we're going to make sure that the game gets out there and is noticed. With a big publisher, you're always in danger of disappearing into their line-up somewhere.

As for work, we're used to doing the grunt-work ourselves, like box-art, manuals, testing.... So it's not really particularly different from what we've done in the past, when TLJ was released to the Scandinavian market, for example. We're a real DIY developer!

Stephen: Sounds like you've been down this road before. Have you had any trouble with getting the game on store shelves? I've heard that that is often one of the more difficult tasks a smaller game company faces.

Ragnar: This is the big problem, or "challenge", in regards to the US market: The big guys dominate shelf-space. However, quality does matter, and the fact that we've gotten a lot of great reviews, as well as a lot of fans clamoring for the game to be released over there, helps a lot. Our distributor, Tri Synergy, also has plenty of experience with selling into stores, which also helps.

In fact, the numbers I'm currently hearing regarding pre-sold copies of TLJ into chains like Babbages and CompUSA are very encouraging. But it's true that, for a lot of upstarts, getting into the North American market is very, very hard...and it will, presumably, only get harder.

Stephen: Why harder?

Ragnar: Because, first of all, there are more and more games being released. Secondly, with juggernauts like PS2 and soon the X-Box probably proving more profitable to most chains, PC games will lose out on shelf-space. Last but not least, like blockbuster movies, the Really Big Games take up more and more space on their own. Rather than carrying 50 copies of game A from BigNamePublisher and 50 copies of game B from LittleDeveloperGuy, stores will carry 100 copies of game A.

Stephen: What's the media reaction been like? I've seen good coverage of TLJ in a number of online magazines, but less in print magazines. Are any of the big print magazines planning on previewing or featuring TLJ?

Ragnar: Yes. Definitely. They've been slow, granted, but then again US magazines like to be sure that a game is slated for release in their market before giving it column-space. There are lots of games that only see the light of day in Europe or Asia, so it's understandable.

But I know that a number of the bigger publications are currently reviewing TLJ -- the fact that we've received so much attention online, as well as a good bit of print (e.g. the New York Times review, and Computer Games magazine) means that people are paying attention.

But I think the most critical thing for us is word of mouth, for people to realize that this game is very different from most of the other games out there, and that it offers something that non-gamers -- in addition to hardcore gamers -- can play and appreciate.

Stephen: Can you point to any one thing that really pushed you over the edge with regards to getting in the US market?

Ragnar: Well, like I said, we decided to pass on a publishing deal and go with a distributor, so it became less of a question of being accepted into the market, and more of a "hell with it, let's do it ourselves!" attitude. But the huge amount of positive press, online and print, has definitely helped us getting into the stores. As well as having a pretty damn good game, of course!

Stephen: Where do you go from here? What's next for you and for Funcom? Another adventure game at some point, I hope.

Ragnar: Good question! Well, uh, currently I'm involved in two big games here at Funcom in my capacity as storywriter. One is our massively-multiplayer role-playing game Anarchy Online -- I'm fleshing out the whole universe on that one, and it's going to be released soon. The other game I'm writing for, I can't really say much about yet.

As for my own projects, I'm working on a design for a game that, in some ways, takes adventure-gaming to the "next level". Hyperbole, yes, but hopefully there will be some truth to that. It's going to be online, it'll be massively multiplayer, and it's called Miracle. And I believe this project will get the green-light next week some time.

Ooh-boy. Well, like I said, Anarchy will be out pretty soon -- it's currently in Beta. The next one should be out in, oh, two years, and Miracle probably won't see the light of day until 2003. So we're talking waaay off into the future, here!

Stephen: Talk about long-range! Anyway, thanks for your time, and good luck with both the US release of TLJ and your upcoming projects.

Ragnar: Thank you very much!

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