I’m lucky to have had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Neil Rennison of Tin Man Games, who I met at Adventure-X in December. He promised me then a Skype chat and this afternoon I took him up on his offer. Here’s how it went:
So Neil, tell me a bit about yourself and where you work.
Well I’m one of the founders of Tin Man Games, it’s me and another guy called Ben Britten Smith who run the company, we’ve been running for a couple of years and we’re mainly based in Melbourne, Australia, although I’m over in the UK at the moment.
And what is it that Tin Man Games is focusing on at the moment?
At the moment our main focus is on Gamebook Adventures which is our series of interactive “choose-your-own-adventure” styled gamebooks. We’ve released certain books, we’ve got a host of new titles coming out this year, we’ve probably got about ten new books coming out which are all on iOS, so that’s iPhone, iPad etc., but we’re also hoping to bring as many as possible to Android, PC and to Mac.
Do you find that there are problems with communication between yourself at home in the UK and Ben in Australia?
Well basically, we’re an Englishman and an American running a business from Australia. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but that’s the best way to describe it. That’s actually how I normally start off my presentations! The great thing between me and Ben is that we have an awesome work relationship. So, there’re never any stones that are left unturned, we’re very honest about how we feel about absolutely everything. If he thinks something’s a big bag of shit, he’ll let me know, and if I think something’s a big bag of shit, I’ll let him know. We’re just two guys who are passionate about the same thing, and good at communicating our thoughts with each other. That’s the best way to run a company internationally.
You clearly get on very well with each other, what was it that inspired you both to start recreating these adventure gamebooks?
It was actually me who was working on them for about 5 months before Ben actually became part of Tin Man Games. I originally started it up with another programmer, but unfortunately it didn’t work out, for a number of reasons, mainly financial. But we’re still very good friends, we’re still on good terms, but obviously I still have this little dream to build this gamebook entertainment. I was searching for someone to work with, I was doing a little looking around when I was working in Melbourne, so I got in touch with Ben and said “Hey, fancy meeting up? Fancy going for a beer?”. We immediately got on, we were on par with each other. I explained to him what ‘Gamebook Adventures’ was, I mean at the time it was just me trying to recreate these gamebooks, at which point he told me he was an old role playing game fan, and so he was all over it. To start with, Ben worked with Tin Man Games on a royalty-based thing, at the time we were chasing a company for funding which we won. So we got a few books released, and it soon became apparent that Ben was more than just a guy working with me for just a royalty deal; he was as big a part of the company as I was, and soon I had him building this engine which had great potential.
At Adventure-X in December you spoke about a pie-chart detailing what it takes to be a successful game developer. Can you elaborate on that further?
Well actually we stole it. Umm, The Voxel Agents started up around the same time as Tin Man Games did, they’re very different to us in that we make very different games, but in the indie development scene we’re brothers in arms in a sense. Simon Joslin who is the Creative Director at Voxel Agents didn’t really mind us stealing it, but I don’t actually know, I thank Simon in my presentations for allowing me to steal it so I guess it’s alright. It’s quite a good pie chart, it gets good reactions from audiences.
What is it like having Jonathan Green, a well-known gamebook writer, on board your team?
Well it’s about a year ago now, he saw what we were doing and really liked what he saw. Jonathan’s a very pro-active, social media kind of guy, and so he’s really clued up on the whole digital arena. There are a lot of novelists and writers out there, but he got in touch and said “I really want to write with you”, and we knew he was one of the fighting fantasy writers, so it worked out from there. To get someone like that coming to you and saying the ideas you submitted to him are awesome and stuff, it’s really incredible. I’ve met Jonathan now like 3 times in the flesh, we’ve spoken on the phone a few times and we get on well, he’s a really nice guy, so it’s a good relationship. He’s agreed to write a few books for us too which is good.
Can you tell me a little bit about Frootrees?
Haha, there’s only a bit to tell really. So this previous programmer who was originally working with me went on to produce games professionally, and this was our first little starter game. We thought at the time we could create something quite simple from scratch, put it on the App Store, not spend too much time on it, it would sell bucket-loads and we could start some sort of income… I was so wrong. Well basically, the little game that wasn’t gonna take us very long actually took us about 8x longer than we thought, and it probably made about 8x less money than we’d hoped for, so the maths doesn’t really add up. It’s just one of those things, you know, in life you have to fail disastrously to learn what you did wrong, but if it weren’t for our failure with Frootrees, Adventure Gamebooks wouldn’t be nearly what it is today.
Youngsters today seem to find it difficult to just pick up a book and read. This is seen especially in schools and increasingly in the media, but in the golden years of adventure gamebooks, this wasn’t as much of a problem. How are your gamebooks going to interest and involve a wide audience in this modern day and age?
Look, I don’t think for a minute that we’re going to convert a kid who wants to sit and play Call of Duty, I don’t actually think for a minute that youngsters “aren’t reading”, I actually think there are as many people willing to want to read as there ware, I just think there is a lot more choice open to them, there are many more other things for them to be doing. I think there’s still the same amount of reading people, I just don’t think they read as much. So in that way what we’re trying to do is give them that ‘game fix’, like if they were to log onto [World of] Warcraft every night or Skyrim or something, we’re kind of adding in that reading element. It’s kinda nice to think of it that way, we cover the reading bit whilst scratching their gaming itch, if you like.
Well one thing that keeps coming up in the media is how online magazines, online newspapers and gadgets such as the Kindle are “killing off the book”. Do you consider your gamebooks a menace to tradition or more of an innovation?
In the 80s, ‘fighting fantasy’ and ‘choose your own adventure’ books were selling millions of copies worldwide, and the reason they were selling so many at that particular time was because they were doing something new, which was turning a book into a computer game of the time, if you like. Then the colour computer came around and became pretty good, over time adventure games got better and better, the graphics started improving, and now we have things like Skyrim etc. so those were the things that killed off the demand for gamebooks, it wasn’t Kindle and tablets and stuff, but that’s the reason they kinda dropped in sale. I think there’s a bit of a renaissance at the moment with adventure gamebooks, I think there will be an increase in sales again, but nothing like in the 80s. the way I look at it is that we’re actually furthering our cause for gamebooks, we’re not stopping sales we’re saying “look, this is a living part of the book industry and we need to move on with it.” We hope to get more people reading Adventure Gamebooks this way by extending the gamebook availability further than ever before.
What about your engine is so interesting, and how is it especially effective on the iPad?
Well our engine is basically all interactive narrative, but one of the things that surprised me was how when you play an original crypt-based adventure game, there’s a lot of trust in the player. So for example, you might have to kill an ice dragon, and if you’ve picked up the flaming sword, you do double the amount of damage, because it’s an effective weapon against the monster. When I was a kid I used to cheat. All the time. And now the trust is in us, with our gamebooks, and one of the things we found that if you take that trust away, you have to force people to play fairly. With our gamebooks, if you haven’t found that flaming sword, when it asks “do you have the flaming sword?”, there’s less opportunity to cheat. I mean, part of the success in a gamebook, which some people do, is to put your finger in the pages so you can go back if you don’t like what comes of it. We’ve tried to take away that cheating ability. On computer games you can’t really cheat very much, unless it’s like a point-and-click where you can just try out every possible combination, and so this is one of the things about our interactive gamebooks that’s positive in comparison.
Ok, so which of your Adventure Gamebooks is your favourite to play, and which was the most fun to design and produce?
Definitely the first one [An Assassin In Orlandes] on both accounts, the thing is with the first one, it took such an awful lot of effort to get that released, and it all came together almost magically. We got the soundtrack created, we got all the artwork done quickly, you know, it kind of just… worked. I can’t not just love that book for everything that it means.
Back to Adventure-X in December, what would you say is your favourite 2D wonder, if any?
I used to play them quite a lot, but the one that sticks in my mind the most form youth that I really enjoyed playing, and I actually have still got it now with all the manuals in its original box, was Beneath a Steel Sky on the Amiga. It’s amazing and it actually came with a free comic book which I still have, all fully boxed in mint condition.
Other than your own work, of course, what is your one all-time favourite game?
Well I’m gonna be really, really torn with this one… Ok, so I loved the Total War series, when I played the first version of that it blew my mind; I’m a bit of a fan of historical battles. Umm, this may be really boring, but ever since the original way back on the Amiga, I’ve always played Championship Manager, which more recently has become Football Manager. I mean I still play it. I’ve got the latest on my iPad, I’m just addicted to it. I don’t know what it is, I have loved it since I was about 15, but don’t judge me! It’s my dirty, guilty pleasure if you will.
What can we expect to see coming from the Adventure Gamebook series in the next year, that you’re allowed to tell me about?
Well I’ll release what we’ve already leaked out, so we’ve got our next book which is coming out in February, and that’s called Infinite Universe, it’s a science-fiction based interactive gamebook written by Andrew Drage, who is a gamebook addict. He’s an awesome guy, it’s an awesome story, and that’s our first ever sci-fi title. I’m actually sat as we speak creating the logo for the app. There’s that, and we’ve got Judge Dread coming out around April, which is very exciting because we have the publishing rights for it, and as soon as you’ve finished your interview I’m off to do some editing for that. We’ve got a series of books coming out called Gundogs, which is written by a chap called Jamie Wallis who founded Hogshead Publishing, and it’ll be illustrated by Gary Chalk, who is most famous for the artwork that he produced for the Lone Wolf adventure games, so it’s nice to see him doing adventure gamebooks again. We’ve also got sequels to some of our first books, so An Assassin In Orlandes is our very first book and it’s had a sequel written which is currently being edited and the artwork being finished, we’ve also got a sequel to Slaves of Rema, originally titled Sultans of Rema, and then we’ve got loads of other exciting stuff which I can’t talk about.
You knew I’d ask this, but do you have any key advice for aspired game designers in the making?
Make sure that the course you go on to do at university is a good one. It seems that every university and college up and down the country now has a games design course, because it’s an attractive thing, it puts bums on seats. Now, most of these, I’m sure are fine. But some of the courses could be not as well thought out as others. I think it’s good to check out who the people are, their background, because there are some courses out there whose lecturers have very little experience at all, which is a bit strange. It’s worth doing your research beforehand