In our most recent interview we had the greatest honor of speaking with industry veteran Rob Landeros. He is best known for his title The 7th Guest, created by Trilobyte Games, which sold over 2 million copies and spurred Bill Gates to call it “the new standard in interactive entertainment.” In 1999 he released the thriller Tender Loving Care under his new studio Aftermath Media. In recent years Rob has returned with Trilobyte Games, and they are updating their hit titles to release for iOS and Android devices. In addition to this they are working on The 7th Guest 3, a completely original sequel to the hit series.
Indie Game HQ: What were some of your inspirations for your earlier titles?
I used to subscribe to a games magazine that contained a variety of puzzles—crossword puzzles, cryptic crosswords, mazes, logic puzzles. I appreciated how each puzzle was couched in some kind of theme. There was also a simple game called The Fool’s Errand that really impressed me when it first came out. The story and characters were based on the Tarot deck, and the game contained puzzles similar to those in games magazines.
Every time you solved a puzzle you got a little piece of the map of the terrain you were traveling through. The map was like a jigsaw puzzle, and solving the individual puzzles gave you clues toward solving the larger puzzle. A unified meta-puzzle– I’d say that was my main inspiration. So, when I created The 7th Guest with Graeme Devine, I designed a series of logic puzzles based in scenarios and the themes of the story instead of just throwing together a bunch of arbitrary tasks.
The inspirations for the story in The 7th Guest were classic horror movies like The House on Haunted Hill and The Shining, David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks, and Clue, the board game. A house, a murder to be solved, people trying to figure out what’s going on around them. In playing The 7th Guest, the main mystery is trying to figure out who YOU are. It’s a game of self-discovery.
Indie Game HQ: What spurred the closing of Trilobyte in 1998?
First, we grew too big. After our initial success, everybody was throwing money at us. 10 million dollars bought a seat on the board of directors, and the board wanted to grow the company and go public. So, we went the corporate route. Which was fine, but it wasn’t really us. The other problem was that Graeme wanted to go in one direction and I wanted to go in another. When we did The 7th Guest, the buzzword was “multimedia” and CD-ROM was a big deal, but by the time we’d finished The 11th Hour, online games were becoming very popular.
Things like Castle Wolfenstein and Doom, first-person shoot-em-ups—twitch games with lots of bloodshed and violence. That’s all the publishers wanted to publish. Graeme wanted to move in that direction, but I was still interested in pursuing other forms of interactivity. I was working on an interactive movie called Tender Loving Care (TLC). The conflict came to loggerheads in 1996 and the board of directors said “It’s best that you leave, Rob,” but they let me take TLC with me. I don’t really know what happened at the company after I left. I could say they folded because I wasn’t there to save the company (laughs). But I won’t. Even though I just did.
Indie Game HQ: What led to the relaunch of Trilobyte in late 2010?
After I left Trilobyte, I formed Aftermath Media with David Wheeler in order to finish TLC and put it onto the market. We also shot another interactive movie along the same lines, although scaled down–not so elaborate and expensive–called Point of View. It had great success in Europe and was critically acclaimed; I was quite proud of that project but it wasn’t enough to sustain the company so I decided to go back to my roots as an artist and graphic designer. After all the huge projects and budgets and working with lots of people, I felt it was time to be a one-man-band and make an honest living providing a product and service to clients.
I’d begun in the gaming world as an artist and creative director and did a lot of the 3-D graphics myself in the early days, but after Trilobyte became so huge most of my time was spent running the company. I developed what I call CEO-itis, relying on other people to do every little thing for you; I forgot how to lick a stamp! At Aftermath, and later at my design company, I did my own work again. Not just running the companies, but designing and producing art. Good fun.
Then I got an iPhone. Bells went off in my head. The touch screen technology is so cool and so easy that a child or an old person can use it. I thought, “The 7th Guest should be on this thing, Tender Loving Care should be on this thing!”
I had licensed The 7th Guest to a company who planned to revitalize it, make it bigger and better, and I urged them to convert the game for the iPhone. They agreed, but didn’t do a darn thing. Finally, they defaulted on their contract and I seized the opportunity to get the license and the intellectual property back under my control. I got a programmer and a marketing guy and formed Trilobyte Games to get The 7th Guest for iPhone and iPad out onto the market.
Indie Game HQ: Do you believe your classic titles cater well to the mobile market today?
Yes. For one thing, a classic puzzle game like The 7th Guest retains its value. The graphics and video and technology aren’t up to par with today’s standards, but that hardly makes a difference. It still looks pretty good and it works. The stories are still there. The puzzles are just as challenging.
And TLC is perfect for mobile touchscreen devices. The big question in 1998 when we released TLC was, “Do people want to watch interactive movies on their computer screens?” The answer was “not so much.” So, after we developed TLC for the computer on CD-ROM and DVD-ROM, we adapted it to play on a regular DVD player so you could watch it on your TV using the remote control. People loved it. But TLC had marketing and distribution problems. An interactive movie didn’t belong in software stores and didn’t belong in video stores and those were the only large distribution channels available at the time.
These days, people enjoy watching movies on their tablets and iPhones. Digital distribution and online play allow easy access to all kinds of media. We’ve adapted TLC to play on the iPad and the iPhone and it will soon be on Android tablets. If you have Apple TV, you can stream TLC from your tablet onto your HD TV. I’m very pleased. Touchscreen technology works beautifully for the kinds of games I enjoy making. It’s as if technology has finally caught up with my game designs and philosophy.
Indie Game HQ: Is there a chance we’ll see The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour released for Android devices as well?
The 7th Guest almost definitely, The 11th Guest possibly, and TLC is in development for Android as we speak.
Indie Game HQ: How did it feel when Bill Gates claimed that your title The 7th Guest was “the new standard in interactive entertainment”?
In those days it was a great quote. As I’ve mentioned, “multimedia” was the big buzzword back then, the future of computers, and The 7th Guest brought multimedia to games. Existing games had no video, bad sound, and MIDI music– beeps and boops–so when we released The 7th Guest, Gates was quite pleased. It helped him push his multimedia message, as well as his software.
Indie Game HQ: Looking back, what would say is your defining moment for your career thus far?
That’s a really tough question. I suppose I’d say it was when I came up with the concept behind TLC. David Wheeler showed me a few of his screenplays in the early ‘90s, one of which was Tender Loving Care. I liked the story and we thought we could do something with the psychological theme. We started talking about how to turn the script into something interactive—obvious ideas like puzzles, games, rat mazes and Rorschach tests—but at a certain point I said, “How about we don’t include any gaming or problem-solving at all?” That leap pointed us in a new direction.
TLC was a critical success and I’m proud of it; I think it has a lot of interesting elements. It proves that if you give people choices, ask questions, request feedback, and provide an interesting interactive environment in which discovery is possible, they will engage and feel invested in the experience. In TLC, the viewer is asked moral questions, ethical questions, questions about personal taste and attitude as well as opinions about the characters in the story—and the answers affect the course of the narrative. Background material about the characters is accessible in the environment and the viewers’ reactions to this information often alter their feelings about the story, which once again will change the path of the plot. Questions are administered by a psychologist, played by John Hurt, who builds a personality profile of the viewer over the course of the experience. The viewer’s psychology is being analyzed, but invisibly, and the results of the psychologist’s diagnosis after each session of questioning determine what sort of movie the viewer sees.
I also like TLC because we pushed the dramatic boundaries; we explored human motivations, sexuality, betrayal, lust, power. TLC even has actual nudity and love scenes with real people, and depending on how you respond to those elements, the movie becomes more or less R-rated. We tried to create an interactive motion picture experience for adults. I’m an adult, and I develop formy age group. I don’t quite understand older and mature artists who develop for pre-pubescents and adolescents.
Indie Game HQ: Being an industry veteran, you have seen many changes over the years. What would you say were the best and worst changes you’ve seen?
The worst change put Trilobyte out of business, namely, the advent of first-person, shoot-‘em-up, bloody games for adolescent boys, carried to extremes in games with no socially redeeming value like Grand Theft Auto. That’s what the industry was publishing during my years at Aftermath. Very expensive twitch games for consoles where the purpose is to blow people up and get bloody and kill women and decapitate whores; really terrible products. I was glad to get out of the business. I was disgusted by it. Still am, to tell you the truth.
The best change was the arrival of digital distribution; it opened up a whole marketplace for casual games. Simple, uncomplicated pastimes like checkers or Tetris or solitaire. It opened up the market to anybody doing anything at all. It made me believe it was OK to come back to the gaming world.
The upside and the downside of digital distribution is that anybody can be a player, so your product can get lost amongst the half a million apps out there. But it’s democratic; no one’s shut out and there’s no huge price to buy in. When Sega and Nintendo and the console games were dominating the market you needed to be a huge developer with a huge budget to get distribution–I mean millions and millions, 20, 50 million dollar budgets. Crazy. Now you can develop for almost nothing. And you might gain success if you do a good job and put out a quality product. The other good change is crowdfunding, also a fair and democratic process. Crowdfunding took off just at the time it was needed since game publishers aren’t funding anything but their own huge projects. Now everybody’s going for crowdfunding. You just need a good idea, some credibility, and good marketing to get your word out there.
Indie Game HQ: What is next for you and Trilobyte?
The third in the The 7th Guest series with the working title, The 7th Guest: 3, which will have a campaign on Kickstarter soon, barring some other form of funding. We’d like to find somebody who will fund us with a small investment, of course. We’re not talking $20 million, more like half a million. We’ve had some nibbles; if we catch the right ear we won’t go the Kickstarter route. We’d have to give up a percentage, but that’s OK.
Indie Game HQ: Thanks for your time. Is there anything you would like to add for our readers?
Please support The 7th Guest on Steam Greenlight and The 7th Guest: 3 on Kickstarter if we campaign. And please support Trilobyte Games. You can find our products on GOG.com and DotEmu.com, the iTunes App Store and the Apple Mac App Store. Okay, sorry about the shameless plugs, but you asked. Thank you.
Thanks for taking the time to view this article. If you enjoyed, please consider sharing it via one of the icons below. Thanks and have a great day!