Settlers of Catan: The Versatility of Elegant Design
Where Next With CRPGs

Adventure Games: A Question of Scale

Ron Gilbert has a link to a detailed article about the state of adventure games on his blog, and comments about how adverse publishers are to this genre. I feel it necessary to stand up for the publishers on this one. In Ron's comments he says:

From first-hand experience, I can tell you that if you even utter the words "adventure game" in a meeting with a publisher you can just pack up your spiffy concept art and leave.  You'd get a better reaction by announcing that you have the plague.

Publishers are silly.

Firstly, some background. Ron Gilbert is one of the people behind the successful and influential Monkey Island adventure games, beloved by myriad gamers. (I never really liked them personally - they were very professionally made, and are hugely significant titles, but I struggled to enjoy the stories and didn't connect with the tone; simply a matter of my personal tastes. No game is made for everyone!)

Conversely, I worked with Perfect Entertainment on the Discworld games; I don't think it's an exaggeraton to say these game wouldn't exist without the success of Monkey Island. The last of these (Discworld Noir) was my first game as lead game designer and script writer. A cult hit in Europe, the game never had a US release thanks to GT Interactive going bankrupt. The game still has a following; at the moment, some fans are trying to create new free versions of the games to save them from obscurity, and some Polish fans are trying to create a version of Noir in Polish. We're lending all the support we can, since no-one else is in a position to support these games (Perfect itself died before the millennium).

Talking of publishers being silly, GT Interactive were the company which at the ECTS convention in 1998 set up their stall as a perfect recreation of their offices. Not only was this a grandly expensive gesture, but who but an employee of GT Interactive could possibly appreciate the gesture? This is an example of the silly things that some publishers do. But I do not believe that the resistance of adventure games by publishers is genuinely silly.

Publishers are very insensitive to certain issues, often those very issues that the hardcore game audience cares deeply about, but the one thing they do care about is the bottom line. Every game project should make as much or more money than it cost to create and distribute. Anyone who thinks this is wrong should not take their grievances out on publishers - which are commercial entities intended to make money - but rather on the system of capitalism, which is rife for criticism on numerous points.

The reason publishers are gunshy about adventures is that the cost of development (in the mid to upper market) has skyrocketed, and at these new scales of costs, there is currently no evidence that certain styles of games can make a profit at that scale - adventure games are one of those styles. In the late 80's and early 90's, the cutting edge of game development had budgets that were profitable with respect to their audience size. But as costs have grown, the audience hasn't. In fact, it's shrunk slightly as certain members of the hardcore have moved their support away from adventures and into other genres. This has further hurt adventure games.

But it would be wrong to say that publishers don't publish adventure games. Dreamcatcher Games are a publisher who specialise in adventure games, chiefly via their Adventure Company brand. And in the US, Legacy Interactive and other mid range publishers have made adventures from various TV licenses. What makes these publishers different? The scale of the projects they are signing. They know that to make a profit on an adventure game it needs to be made on a budget which is less than the top range of the industry.

There is an obvious consequence to this... adventure games don't get to be the most shiny and impressive games on the market. But why should this matter? What do adventure game fans actually want from their adventures?

Beiddie Rafól, whose article The Cold Hotspot is linked to from Ron's post above, suggests:

...its essence - the idea of a story and world to experience through interactivity, through a character's eyes, through exploration, obstacles that challenge the mind, and emotions that make the heart race, all combined with the most severe focus on quality, consistency, and integrity. These are the true essences of what makes an adventure, what makes a GOOD adventure, regardless of whether it uploads tradition or breaks from it.

It strikes me that the adventure game crowd shouldn't need the top budgets to deliver this.

Here at International Hobo, we've been talking for some time about adventure games, and we've had several ideas go through the process which could have been adventure games. We even worked on some projects - like Tale of Tale's imaginative modern fairy tale 8 (which sadly is in the development hinterlands and will probably never see the light of day) which were new approaches to adventures. I remain confident we will still work on more adventure games which will make it to the publisher - there's some interest in a project preliminarily entitled Echoes, which I really shouldn't talk about publicly at this time.

The thing we have remained confident about is that adventure games are part of the niche market, not part of the mass market. It may be that a particular future evolution of adventure games would hit the mass market - but we can't go there directly. Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon tried this. It was a valiant attempt. But it cost too much to make. (I have great respect for Charles Cecil, and I'm not criticising Revolution's attempt to bridge the market with this game - somebody had to try, and if anyone could have done it, it was probably him and his team).

I thought Ron was thinking along similar lines to us when I read his The Economics of a 2D Adventure in Today's Market but when I asked him about it, he let me know that it was a thought experiment, and not something he was personally pursuing. Given that Ron likes to work with a team in the same building, and he's in California (I think), this isn't surprising. But what he proposes strikes me as viable - if the company developing the games is in Eastern Europe, or India, where the development costs are lower. Low development costs means we can hit a smaller audience and still make a profit.

Among the ideas I'm thinking about right now includes producing a general 2D adventure game engine and getting a lot of classic adventure game writer-designers (I think I know or have at least talked to most of them now) to create adventures using common resources, and (a related concept) an adventure game sequence in the style of a TV show. A series of adventures, written by a varied team of writers, but using the same core graphics and engine. Just as a TV show has a format, these adventure games would have a common format. Each episode plays for about  2 hours. I guess we'd sell 4 episodes per disk, and/or offer them for paid download individually (with the pilot episode free), with the initial plan for an 8 episode sequence. These are niche market plans.

There is a definite issue to consider in respect of difficulty. We see the core of adventure game players as correlating with our Type 2: Manager cluster (we didn't expect this - it came out of the ?research we ran as an unexpected result). This cluster seems to enjoy challenging puzzles - they don't seem to mind how tough the challenge is, as long as the solution is logical (and it's nice if there is help to advise you when you are off-track). But the story element of adventure games could also appeal to the Type 3: Wanderer cluster. These players seem to enjoy stories, and don't care so much about challenge. So there are two clear paths - challenging adventures which appeal to Type 2 players, and story adventures which appeal primarily to Type 3 players. What we'd like to find is a middle path between the two... if this is possible.

We can't blame publishers for not wanting to make adventures in the mass market, but we do need to re-energise the niche market so that we can grow the audience for adventure games. It's even possible that we could grow it into the mass market - on paper, it's a possibility. Adventure games aren't dead. Like the legend of King Arthur sleeping magically inside a hill, they are merely resting.


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