When Smoking Gun Interactive, the studio formed by ex-Relic (Company of Heroes) staff members, announced the first details on its debut project, we understandably paid attention. Relic is responsible for some of the best PC games this decade, so we dived into the X graphic novel to see what information could be gleamed from its pages. The studio has also set up an ARG, giving people even more titbits of gameworld information. We caught up with Smoking Gun Interactive CEO John Johnson to talk about how the graphic novel came about and the reason behind it.
VideoGamer.com: Much of the team at Smoking Gun Interactive previously worked at Relic on Company of Heroes? How did this experience help you come up with the universe of
JJ: The X universe has been something that I've been smoldering for many, many years actually; something my lead narrative designer Duane Pye and I have been talking about since the mid '90s. How it's transformed into a focused IP is because of the strength, creative drive and experience of the team that we have built. Many of our senior and lead staff were with us on Company of Heroes. Having built previous games before does help, but we've also grown and brought in quite a few new and very talented people that have played key roles in the development of X. There is a real benefit to having a core team that's worked together and collaborated with many of the staff before as we all know how to work together and "get" on with each other. That really goes a long way on any project.
VideoGamer.com: Douglas Rushkoff the author behind X is a renowned visionary cyber culture author. How did you begin working with him and can you specify how this working relationship with the development team works?
JJ: We set some incredibly ambitious goals for finding a partner in the graphic novel space, an area that we had limited expertise in. We created a shortlist, based on authors who'd already demonstrated mastery of graphic novels, and who were really visionary in the areas that we wanted to explore. That shortlist basically had one name on it. We arranged a meeting with Douglas, flew him out to give him an overview of what we were thinking and he instantly got it and was really excited about it.
Douglas works very closely with our creative teams, who have done a massive amount of research to build our back story. We gave him access to all of this to help him quickly come back with narrative threads that develop this epic, world-spanning conflict through various character arcs. He did an amazing job. He was brilliant at taking the constraints we had, and then developing this compelling story and set of characters that serves as a great introduction to the background behind the resistance.
VideoGamer.com: The universe of X is surrounded by mystery, espionage and government conspiracies; can you tell us what media have been a direct influence when creating this universe?
JJ: There have been hundreds of books, movies, documentaries, and thousands of websites we've researched over the years, to get to where we are, and we're still going. Since many of the things in the universe are real, or references to things that could possibly be real, it took quite an effort to ensure we had extensive information about all these ancient mythologies, how they string together into the narrative, as well as how they relate to modern conspiracies.
VideoGamer.com: On page 13 of the graphic novel you can enter the world of the Darknet ARG. Why did you decide to embed the ARG this way?
JJ: This is a reflection of how we want to work with cross-media platforms and create interactivity through them. This to us feels natural and is another way to interactively tell a story. It was also an important goal to build a community around the novel and universe that mimics what's happening in that universe. By embedding the "Rabbit hole" inside the novel, you feel like you are going into their world, the world (Darknet) where Todd and his group, that you are still trying to understand, spend their time. Snooping around his world is exciting and mysterious on its own, but actually becoming involved in it personally after you begin to realise what's happening, is even more exciting. Then finding an entire community online that is embedded there with you inside this novel, working together, with you takes it to a whole new level. We are building the resistance, and where that resistance will go over time, and what they will accomplish will be incredible.
VideoGamer.com: So far you have released the first 31 pages of the graphic novel X. When do you plan to release the remaining chapters of the first X novel, and will these continue to co-exist with the world of the ARG?
JJ: We are planning to release the first printed edition next year.
VideoGamer.com: This week saw a big update at www.exoriare.com with the launch of the second part of the comic book and also an update to the Darknet ARG as players interact with Forager - a stolen military network-warfare technology that players need to use to try to figure out what a missing NASA scientist was trying to reveal to them? Can you give us some hints on how this will move the narrative forward and what players can expect next?
JJ: No, you'll have to all work together to figure that one out.
VideoGamer.com: What is the timeline for the ARG? Do you plan to continuously develop alongside the graphic novel and cross platform game, or will there be a conclusion to the online experience?
JJ: We do plan to continue developing the graphic novel series X in parallel to the game and universe. Our vision for the darknet is that it's an extension of the X universe, and a window into that universe, it will play a key role as the story develops. What comes online in the darknet as we progress will probably continue to cross media boundaries, and be seen in different forms.
VideoGamer.com: How has community feedback changed the experience of the ARG? Were there any elements of the online experience that you have changed as a result of player feedback?
JJ: We have been monitoring the forums, and most of the feedback has been very positive. So I am wishful that we are on the right track with the direction we took. The community has been great at monitoring themselves, and working together to help, but also not spoil the experience for others. We have some very active forum members that have been hammering through all our content, and are putting the pieces together. There's still a lot more to piece together though.
VideoGamer.com: Can you provide some specific examples on how the ARG experience will merge with the unannounced cross platform game you are working on? The ARG features numerous interactive elements - will these mechanics feature in-game?
JJ: We are not speaking much about how we want to cross the console game world, with other online experiences just yet. But in short, yes, we see that as a fundamental element of how we want to do our story telling, crossing media boundaries, and allowing the players to not only experience, but also interact with their worlds in all kinds of fun and exciting ways.
VideoGamer.com: Can you tell us about the coolest feature about the ARG and what you're most proud of?
JJ: Well, again we'll have to let you all find out what's cooking. We wanted to make an engaging experience that would work on many levels, some players may like the mini-games and work on those, others may be far more interested in researching the clues, and backstory to find out more about what's going on, so it's really the community effort, and the sharing that is pretty cool.
One goal we had at the outset was to create an experience that was still compelling and fun to go through, even if a lot of the community has already gone through parts, and with the presentation style we've chosen we feel we've hit that mark so we're pretty proud of that.
And finally, most importantly, I must say we're proud of the community that is diligently playing, exploring, discovering and solving the mysteries. They are going gangbusters on this and it's great to watch.
VideoGamer.com: Thanks for your time John.