Quandary Wars Episode 19: The Phantom Market

By Rosemary Young and Gordon Aplin (January, 2001)
A few weeks ago a friend of ours who has played the odd adventure and a few puzzle games around at our place asked about purchasing a console machine as they are much cheaper than a PC. (Well they were until the latest Playstation was released. When we saw the price we thought they must have been including a TV with it!) So in our usual (unbiased) way we sat our friend down and hit her over the head with unused joysticks and worn out keyboards.

"Have you seen a console game?" we asked. "Er no..." she stammered, her eyes widening in fear. Relentlessly we pressed on. "Have you ever used a gamepad?" "Er no..." she replied. Then more firmly, seizing the initiative, "No, you haven't got one." Ok, so we had to concede that point. "Then why do you want to buy a console?" we asked, more thoughtfully. "Well," she said, "they are cheaper and there are lots of games in the shops." "Yes," we replied, failing utterly to keep the note of triumph out of our voices, "but you would be lucky to find half a dozen adventure games amongst them whereas there are hundreds of adventure titles for the PC!"

Anyway, to cut an exceedingly long, tedious and slightly violent story short, we got to thinking about the console market and our friend's perception of it and, indeed, our own perception of it.

There did seem to be a lot of console games around especially in the big department stores and they certainly outnumbered PC games. Though, looking more closely this was a little misleading as the console games covered different platforms such as Playstation and Nintendo, etc. However, what was more interesting to us was the confirmation of our long-held assumption that the console market was inherently hostile to the adventure genre.

We tend to think that the adventure genre is now a niche market amongst PC games, but in the console market it is not a niche, more an aberration. Compared to the numerous, racing, sports and platform games that all looked alien to us, adventures simply didn't exist. We do know that games such as Discworld I and Broken Sword had been ported to the console in the past, but they obviously hadn't set the console market on fire as developers weren't rushing adventure titles out to cash in on their success.

So, was there a vast untapped market of console players just hanging out to play an adventure game or just waiting to be initiated into the joys of thinking about how to solve a puzzle for three hours without making any progress? The sales staff, once they had stopped laughing, called us troublemakers and threatened to throw us out if we didn't stop harassing them and their customers. When asked what was a good console adventure game the sales staff stared blankly at us for several minutes then invariably pointed to the Final Fantasy games "because they have a story". None of the kids we spoke to were interested in solving 'boring' puzzles. Speed was a big thing with them, but more importantly the game had to be perceived (by their peers) as being cool or wicked and thus ok for them to enjoy as well. From our, admittedly, brief exposure to these young and predominantly male console players we were left with the impression that the terms 'cool' and 'wicked' encompassed many of the worst aspects of human nature. J

Still, fun though it is, we are not here to mock console games and those who play them, but to acknowledge that it is a market far removed from the adventure buying public. And we don't doubt that there must be many console players who do play and enjoy adventure games and perhaps might play more if they were available. So from that perspective we applaud the brave publishers who port genuine adventure games to the console market if only to attempt to increase sales overall and introduce more potential adventurers to the genre.

Where we would draw the line, however, would be at any move to tamper with adventure games further simply to increase their appeal to this market. Already we have seen the changes brought about in the genre to appeal to fans of PC action games. It was argued that by including action these players would flock to the genre and boost sales. We are still waiting for them to take up the slack. Instead, if an action/adventure doesn't sell it is still adventurers who get the blame for not supporting the 'improved' hybrid game. What many people fail to realise is that though there is a large market for action games and, we believe, potentially a large market for adventure games the receptive audience for action/adventures is actually very small. A niche of a niche if you like and to us it made no sense to chase this phantom market at the expense of the existing and growing band of loyal adventure fans.

It is still our view that the console market for 'traditional' adventure games is largely illusory. It is yet another phantom market that is being touted as the means to 'revive' the genre. The reality is that consoles are wholly perceived as 'toys' so adventure games would need to change substantially to compete and succeed in this market. They would need to become un-adventure-like to appeal to this younger audience. This would necessarily be at the expense of the existing and, dare we say it, more mature adventure fans. And we would resent, with a vehemence our friends would find hard to believe, any further attempt to 'improve' adventures just to appeal to a market that has shown a need for speed and little else.

P.S. Our friend bought a PC for Christmas.

Copyright © Rosemary Young and Gordon Aplin 2001. All rights reserved.