A Discussion With Jon Miller
In May of 2012, I received a most unexpected email. Jon Miller, game industry veteran — including time as the executive producer for numerous Crystal Dynamics titles — had come across the article I had written years earlier regarding the similarities between the concept art for the unfinished Chakan title for the Sega Dreamcast, an unreleased PC title called Sirens, and Blood Omen 2 (see Chakan and Sirens).
He offered to talk on the phone, and we had a very interesting discussion, during which I took pages and pages of notes, not knowing when I might have another chance to learn so much about the history of my favourite series and some of the people who had been involved in making it. I then made the unfortunate mistake of putting the notes somewhere that was safe. So safe, in fact, that I didn't find them for well over a year. However, at long last in the late summer of 2013 I unearthed them, and now present what I learned.
Jon Miller's Time in the Games Industry
Jon's first exposure to programming when he was 12 when he stumbled across the Logo lab at MIT. He describes Logo as "basically Lisp with a simpler syntax and a turtle".
He got his start as a game developer in the early 90s, building Sega Genesis titles. He is generally (though not always) credited as Jonathan Miller - see the reference section at the end for a variety of links.
He moved to San Francisco in 1991, and met Steve and Mira Ross in 1992. The two Rosses had already developed the concept for Sirens when Jon Miller met them. All three of them would go on to work together on Chakan: the Forever Man for the Sega Genesis. According to Jon, the art for the Genesis Chakan game was very faithful to the original comic-book art by Robert A. Kraus.
Jon and Steve would team up again in 1993 — along with Dan Rosenfeld — to found HeadGames, where they would develop further Genesis titles including X-Men 2: Clone Wars. Around the time that HeadGames was being founded, Mira Ross joined Crystal Dynamics.
In 1996, Jon moved to Crystal as well, and began trying to convince Steve to move there as well, although this would take some time. He served as executive producer on Blood Omen, where he worked with Amy Hennig (who was the design manager for that title).
By 1997, Steve Ross was working at Crystal Dynamics. His first title for them was Gex 3D: Enter the Gecko, followed up shortly by Akuji: The Heartless. Jon thinks very highly of Steve's art, which he says he "loved bringing to life", and describes as having a signature feel — that there is always a common "look" running through it, much like how nearly any work by H.R. Giger is instantly identifiable as having been produced by Giger. He wouldn't be surprised if Steve Ross' art influenced Soul Reaver and future Kain games, but he also believes it's hard to avoid similarities in games about undead warriors, even if there are no intentional references to other works in the genre. Much like Steve Ross himself, Jon attributes any similarity between the Dreamcast Chakan concept art and Blood Omen 2 to that common "look", as opposed to intentional reuse.
Jon and Amy Hennig would continue to work together, with Jon continuing as executive producer for Soul Reaver, Amy Hennig's first chance to direct a game of her own. He remembers that early on in that game's life, the transition between the Material and Spectral realms was even more pronounced, with dramatically-changing colours and shape-shifting of the surroundings.
Jon Miller left the games industry in 1999. Looking back, he remembers the shift to 3D as being a sea change, because it required so much more time to create the in-game models as well as debug the games.
He is, however, tempted by the "back to basics" aspect of mobile games, as it makes possible a return to the smaller, tight-knit teams of the 16-bit console era: one programmer, a couple of artists, and one person to handle music and sound effects.
He is also very interested in Scratch, an MIT project which he considers the spiritual successor to Logo, and hopes that it achieves a similar goal of introducing programming concepts to a wider audience.
Appendix: Tracing a Few Strands of the Tangled Web of the Games Industry in the 1990s
When someone from the games industry tells you that "everyone knows everyone else", they're not fooling around. This small sample of "3 degrees of Jon Miller" emerged during the research I did to augment my notes.
Additional Reference Material
Steven A Ross - Steve Ross' portfolio website, although as of this writing it hasn't been updated since November 2010
Steve Ross - IMDB entry
Mira Ross - IMDB entry
MobyGames entries for:
(note: I have omitted the MobyGames entry for Steve Ross, as they have incorrectly conflated multiple people with that name together, resulting in a wildly-inaccurate list of titles)
|1.||He is correct, although I was not aware of this fact even having worked briefly with Logo myself as a child.|
|2.||A fairly complete list is available over at Moby Games, although beware that it appears to have some inaccuracies - most notably due to Jon Miller (former games industry professional) having the same name as Jon Miller (sportscaster) and Jon/John Miller (Sony employee).|
|3.||Steve has a personal site highlighting his work as a game artist, although as of this writing it hasn't been updated since November 2010.|