The Myst Opportunity: Adventure games ... what now?

By Rosemary Young (July, 1998)
We started on this topic last issue in our editorial, 'Sad State of Affairs'. That was written almost six months ago now and the sad news is that the trend hasn't gone away. No matter how hard we try, we can't deny the simple fact that there are fewer adventure games appearing on the shelves at the moment.

Of course, there have been a number of very good games released over the past months, but this doesn't compensate for the fact that there are fewer of them. Even if you get out that crystal ball and look into the future the forecast isn't all that rosy. There simply aren't that many adventure games in production, especially compared to the up and coming new titles in the action or strategy categories. Although there are a few bright spots on the horizon we are nevertheless still being bombarded with news of shelved projects such as Blizzards' Lord of the Clans and Revolution's Broken Sword series. These 'discontinued' projects follow a growing list of other examples including Activision's Planetfall: The Search for Floyd, Sierra's Cloak and the next Xanth title from Legend.

Say it again
It's all been said before, by Quandary and by numerous other adventure game commentators ... adventure games are not being made because fewer of them are sold so the returns for effort are insufficient compared with those for action-orientated titles. It's perfectly simple really ... or is it? Is it sufficient to simply acknowledge that action or strategy games are much more popular than adventure games and start from that assumption? Hardly, because this kind of simplicity can lead to simplistic answers. That is, if adventure games aren't as popular then make them better, 'dress' them up with better graphics, better music, etc. etc ... this will surely make the difference.

Assuming, of course, that this is what adventure game players want ... better graphics (the total 3D experience?) coupled with other technological gimmickry, will this necessarily work a miracle and sell more adventure games? What happens if it doesn't? It's a scary question. If it doesn't work then it will only confirm that adventure games are not worth the effort. However, I'm not convinced that simply 'improving' adventure games is the answer, especially as the logic falls flat when you consider that there have been some excellent games released that haven't managed to turn the tide.

The amazing aberration
One game that always makes an appearance when discussing the popularity of adventure games is Myst. It can't be ignored simply because it was/is so successful. In fact, the Myst phenomenon demands special attention and it is particularly interesting because it is so often roundly criticised. I dutifully played it and I have positively no regrets. Yes, it was a different experience for many adventure gamers at the time of its release, but equally deserving of merit when compared to other adventure games. Yet I am constantly amazed by accusations that it isn't a ' real' adventure game played by 'real' adventurers and that it is nothing more than a mere aberration. Don't believe it!

But this isn't the point, ie whether or not Myst is a 'real' game played by 'real' game players. The point is that this title was, and still is, often accused of being inappropriately publicised in that the publicity it attracted wasn't limited to venues monopolised by the 'hard-core' gaming community, but somehow leaked out into the mainstream media thus inviting everyone to play. (Hence, it is argued, this game was purchased by non-game players who essentially don't count!)

Inappropriate publicity? Selling games to the wrong players? It's difficult to comprehend this idea even though it seems to be widespread. Why not sell games to new players? Each and every one of us had to start somewhere. This 'habit' of castigating games such as Myst (as well as the players who play them) serves no useful purpose as all it does is present computer game playing as an 'elitist' hobby and discourages more people from joining in the fun. The fact is, Myst did sell well both within the 'hard core' game playing community and without, and surely we are fooling ourselves if we don't acknowledge that it introduced a range of new enthusiasts to computer game playing.

The Myst phenomenon
When considering the Myst phenomenon then, rather than finding fault with its marketing/publicity strategies it seems reasonable to assume that this game sold extraordinarily well compared to other adventure games not in spite of 'inappropriate' publicity, but because of it. It also succeeded without the inclusion of spectacular technical breakthroughs, and without relying on juvenile posturing. What ensured the popularity of this game was that it was made accessible to more players.

The Myst experience', in fact, is an example that many adventure game companies/publishers would do well to acknowledge. It is a fairly obvious trend that action-intensive games appeal more to younger players, and especially young males, but that puzzle or story-oriented adventure games have a wider appeal. So why not branch away from the traditional advertising venues that are monopolised by young males (that 'naturally' concentrate on promoting action titles) and tell more people about adventure games?

Change of direction
The logic is fairly straightforward, reach out to an appropriate audience, but, of course, it won't work on its own. Promotional material for adventure games also needs to be considered so that it includes everyone. A major problem here is that many game publicity/advertising gurus only see one narrow range of 'clients' ... young and male ... hence publicity pitched at this group has to have 'attitude'. This applies to advertisements, box cover graphics and even promotional web sites. It is illustrated in the number of 'dark forbidding' graphics that proliferate as well as by the use of angry images and aggressive language: guaranteed to attract young males, but equally guaranteed to turn away many other people and convince them that computer games really aren't for them.

Adventure games surely have a huge potential audience outside of the 'male 13 - 25 demographic', if only it was recognised. To cater for this audience wouldn't it be a better strategy to advertise adventure games more widely and less aggressively -- in the sense that such material would acknowledge it is addressing adults as well as younger players? Wouldn't it also be good sense to design games with stories or themes (and even puzzles) that might have a wider appeal, rather than just being aimed at a teen market which is already saturated?

The challenge
Sadly, the market image for computer games largely gives one message, no matter what type of game is being promoted, and that is ... keep away unless you are young, 'cool' and have a never-ending supply of testosterone (witness the aggressive imagery and the number of under-dressed women on promotional material). No matter how much or in which ways adventure games 'improve' they won't ever compete with other genres unless they are treated differently, and until popular opinion acknowledges that computer game playing can be enjoyed by anyone. Of course, influencing popular opinion and reversing the belief that computer games are only for young (and primarily male) players won't be easy as it is already so entrenched. It will need the co-operation of all facets of the computer game industry to turn the tables and change the image. It will especially demand that adventure games are recognised as legitimate and afforded the same priorities as other games rather than receiving second-class treatment as they often do at the moment.

The time for change is overdue. With computers already a staple item in many households, of course the sale of 'action' titles is increasing exponentially because young males, who already have a license to play, are taking up the hobby. And they have networks of friends from whom to gather information, and a myriad of sources such as computer game magazines to turn to for help. More mature computer owners aren't nearly so lucky. Rather than having access to useful information and being invited to participate in computer game playing, many adults are simply alienated and encouraged only to see computer games as 'kids stuff'. Because they haven't yet been issued with their license, many adults don't even consider playing computer games, or when they do, many play them clandestinely.

The crux of the matter is this, simply making 'better' adventures won't succeed in financial terms if adventure games are only pushed towards a market that inherently favours other types of games. The adventure game industry simply has to find other avenues through which to publicise their titles and invite new people to play them.

This is the only way to improve the sales performance of adventure games in line with other genres such as action games because the current pool of adventure players is not big enough to sustain massive sales. More people have to be invited to participate and these new players certainly won't be found in sufficient numbers from amongst those who access traditional promotional venues, they simply have to come from outside the current 'hard core' gaming community. Love it or hate it, Myst, because it was promoted in the mainstream media, is surely a shining example of what might happen.

Copyright © Rosemary Young 1998. All rights reserved.