In the Know
Publisher: Sierra On-Line
Genre: Life Simulation
In 1991, Sierra On-Line released an unusual title that looked and played like an adaptation of a classic board game. It wasn’t; it was an original game called Jones in the Fast Lane and I spoke to lead programmer and designer Warren Schwader to learn more about education, career, wealth and happiness…
New to Jones? Read Here First!
The four goals of Jones in the Fast Lane are Wealth, Happiness, Education and Career. Each player takes a turn which represents one week and what you do is dictated by a timer with each activity allotted a certain amount of time. Each turn is open-ended but working and eating are necessary and education and work experience are key in order to advance your career rating and increase your earnings.
Money buys you goods, gets you a better education and enables you to invest in stocks and shares. Some purchases, such as a business suit, are imperative while others are used to enhance happiness, like a television or theatre tickets; a good balance between work and play is critical in Jones, much like in real life.
As the game progresses, each player can assess the standings to see where they need to improve and the first player to achieve success in all four areas is proclaimed the winner. Prepare for the game of life!
The story of Jones in the Fast Lane does not begin at Sierra but at the home of the Whaley family in California. Along with Kelly Walker, the Whaleys were ardent computer enthusiasts and spent many evenings developing the concept for a game entitled Keeping up with the Joneses. Their idea was to create a “life simulation” where the player took on the role of a character who must make progress through the game world gaining the necessary achievements whilst competing against other human players or the computer – the eponymous Jones. With the two brothers, Chris and Robert, set to leave home for university, they decided to sell the idea to Sierra On-Line and from this point the story moves to lead programmer Warren Schwader who was Sierra’s first full-time developer, having begun work there back in February 1981.
GM: Hello Warren. Can you start by telling me how you began working at Sierra?
WS: Sure. Simply, Ken Williams bought some of my self-marketed games from a computer store and invited me to California to work for him. Incidentally, the games - Bustout, William Tell and Smashup were later repackaged onto a floppy disc and re-released by Sierra.
GM: How did you end up working on Jones?
WS: I think the timing was right. I had just finished one of the Hoyle products [a series of board and card game adaptations] when Jones was acquired by Sierra. It was in text form and licensed by us to develop utilizing multi-media aspects that Sierra were keen to promote.
GM: Jones’ simplicity is key, making the game easy to get into – was this something you imagined from the start?
WS: Yes, and the original text-based game was fun as it was, so we stayed fairly true to its template while adding the multi-media elements and Sierra style and humour.
GM: On the subject of humour, there are a number of inside jokes and also a friendly atmosphere in Jones which almost reminds the player of another certain close-knit community…
WS: I guess that’s true, it did ring a little of the Sierra community itself – I just thought it was important to keep the player entertained during the game. However, I wasn’t too keen on the in-jokes between the different games. I think it takes you out of the game world you are in unless it’s meant to be a satire like Space Quest.
GM: Going back to those multi-media aspects, Jones in the Fast Lane employed Rotoscoping as well as the emerging CD-ROM storage format.
WS: Indeed. Jones had a four-person design team and they wanted to feature real people using real voices and lip-synching as it didn’t seem right to have digitized people and then not synchronize their lips. CD-ROM gave us plenty of room for this and other features and we wanted people to have a reason to buy the CD version over the floppy disc release. Sierra were desperate for the CD-ROM format to succeed as it would allow us to make bigger and better games. But this was very far from a certainty at the time.
GM: So was Jones the first CD-ROM game by Sierra?
WS: It was released very closely to another CD game called Mother Goose. As I recall Jones was first but I’m not sure anyone could state this for sure. It was like delivering twins, one after the other!
GM: It appears clear to us that Sierra were keen to exploit new technologies.
WS: Sierra were always pushing the envelope forward, at least until the mid-nineties, which probably explains why they began to struggle at that point. I believe several technologies advanced faster that they would have thanks to Sierra’s attitude here.
GM: For Jones Sierra employed a new manager, Bill Davis. What was his role?
WS: Bill had been brought in as they attempted to move away from the programmer- as-developer approach that was prevalent back then. He was primarily involved in the art direction and he championed the use of storyboards, a fresh concept at the time.
GM: How did the locations around the town match the original idea and were there any that didn’t make the final cut?
WS: We stayed fairly true to the original text game. Looking back, there were many additional locations and elements we could have added but it was also a matter of screen space and how the presentation allowed for it. The artwork had significant influence on the game design, and in fact took precedence over it.
GM: Jones can be quite tricky to beat due to many hidden calculations such as work experience and history.
WS: Maybe, but part of the fun was finding out which strategies worked best. To be honest, the internal workings could have done with some more refinement. For example, instead of merely telling the player they were sick and charging them, we could have included a hospital for them to visit.
GM: Why wasn’t the game released on other platforms, for example the Commodore Amiga?
WS: I think Sierra just bought into the PC completely, and at the time I believe they made the right choice.
GM: When it was released, Jones in the Fast Lane was not much of a success for Sierra. Did this disappoint you, and why do you think it sold relatively poorly?
WS: I’m not sure, possibly something to do with marketing as other companies had bigger hits with inferior titles in my opinion. I attribute Sierra’s successes to having cutting edge products at the right time, even though it didn’t work out quite so well with Jones.
GM: Despite its lack of initial success, it’s obvious Jones in the Fast Lane has a cult following with several remakes on the internet. Does this make you proud?
WS: The people who did buy it all seemed to like it and many mention how Jones has played an important part in their lives. And yes, this gives me a lot of satisfaction, even now.
GM: Jones would have made a great board game.
WS: I agree! As far as I know it was never considered though.
GM: Finally, what’s the best way to become a high achiever?
WS: Generally you just need to stick to the basics: eat every week, go to school, then work and watch that economy. If prices are going down you’ll still want to consider a promotion even if it means you will earn less money and don’t forget to work a fair amount each week or you won’t even get that opportunity of a promotion or a raise in salary.
Guruka Singh Khalsa
“It was the heyday of adventure gaming with Sierra and the first widely played graphic adventure games.” says Guruka Singh Khalsa, Sierra’s producer for Jones. “Chris Whaley came to us with the concept and we spent a lot of time tweaking and balancing the gameplay. It was basically a stat-driven life game – long before the incredible success of The Sims.” Jones was also an early CD format game. “We had a CD burning machine that cost $140,000 and you had to burn the whole gold master disc in one go - or the disc was a coaster,” recalls Guruka with a smile, “and each blank disc cost $140!”
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This is an adapted version of the original article that appeared in Retro Gamer magazine issue 94.