In the Shadow of the Monster: Adventure Games and Market Forces

By Gordon Aplin (September, 2002)
For several years now Rosemary and I have been saying that adventure game players are quite a different audience to the main or 'hard core' computer game market and we have lamented that most games are targeted to just one demographic which is teenage boys. Because of our focus on adventure games we have tended to view this as a phenomenon unique to the computer game industry related in some way to the relative youthfulness of the industry itself. We have been told by our critics that this is simply market forces at work, supply and demand in its clearest form where action games outsell adventure games simply because there are fewer people who want to play adventure games compared to those with an insatiable need for the latest First Person Shooter or racing car game. But is it really that simple?

Consider this: In the late eighties and early nineties, a period that many look back on as a golden age for adventure games, adventures were clearly one of the dominant and sustaining genres of the nascent computer game industry. Sierra, Legend, Westwood and LucasArts were merely the most prominent players in a large field of fine adventure game developers. What happened to that well-established adventure game market? Are we to believe that the demand for adventures simply dried up?

Markets and other forces
Many theories abound: Adventure fans simply got bored and sought out more exciting genres; they grew up and concentrated on career and family; Myst and its imitators killed the genre; adventure games failed to keep pace with technology. This last point led to calls for adventure games to embrace the latest 3D graphics and include more action to appeal to the 'hard core' gamer. Others argue that the computer game pond suddenly got bigger and better leaving adventures behind as a small and increasingly irrelevant fish. Allied to this is the argument that adventure games cost too much to make and no longer provide the returns to justify the cost. Or could it be that adventure game fans have been sidelined or excised from the target demographics of computer games? And so we come back to market forces.

To accept that the current plight of adventure games is simply the result of supply and demand at work is to ignore the other 'forces' behind the term 'market forces'. It also means that we must accept the view that only teenage males play computer games or are ever likely to do so and that all they want is more and more action games. We would also have to assume that the popularity of adventure games just a few years back was solely the result of them being played by teenage boys marking time while impatiently waiting for ID Software to release Doom! Clearly this was not the case though it is probably fair to say that just as many teenage boys enjoy adventure games today as they did back then. Only then, as now, adventure games appealed to both sexes and to a much greater age range. The problem is that the target demographics for the marketing of computer games have shrunk, effectively marginalizing the market for adventure games.

The Big Picture
The market forces at work here are not confined to the computer game industry. There are clear parallels in the movie industry and with the entertainment industry as a whole. Some months ago we watched a fascinating documentary called The Monster That Ate Hollywood. The monster in question is the blockbuster spectacular (starting with Jaws) that has to break all box office records on a single weekend just to break even because of all the marketing dollars thrown at it. The program also looks at the takeover of movie studios by the giant conglomerates such as Vivendi-Universal, Time Warner/AOL and Newscorp and how they use movies to further their other merchandising and media interests:

"Newscorp - they've got a studio. They've got a network, the Fox Network. They've got two cable outlets. So you know, they've got all these different arms to sell this stuff. Then they've got Sky Channel and they've got a satellite overseas and they own TV Guide. I mean, vertical integration is now - it's like Doctor Evil from the Austin Powers movies. You know, it's these tentacles that encircle the world. When you've got Time Warner/AOL, Entertainment Weekly and CNN and Time Magazine and People and In Style, they get to flog movies in five or six different ways before the picture even comes out. And they're often pictures made by companies that they're in business with." (ELVIS MITCHELL, Film Critic, "New York Times" and NPR) Source: The Monster That Ate Hollywood (Transcript)

The movies they make provides content for their magazines and television stations and the stories they run promotes the movies. In Australia, the media conglomerates own the major newspapers, television and radio stations, every type of magazine and even some of the cinema chains. Popular magazines are now little more than celebrity gossip-fests purveying salacious details of the lives of the rich and famous. It is a regular occurrence on the prime time news on the commercial television stations for them to 'feature' an imported interview with a movie star who isn't even in Australia. They end the segment with the announcement that the star's movie opens next week. They fail to mention the station's business links with its parent media conglomerate and with the cinema chain where it is showing. This blatant advertisement masquerades as news and illustrates just one of the ways these conglomerates manipulate the viewing public.

But what has this to do with computer games? Well, there is the obvious outlet for cross merchandising:

"If you want action, we got it! Last Action Hero. Now, the year's most action-packed movie is today's hottest video game for your Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis systems. And it's available only at your video store. So when you're returning this cassette, pick up the game and live the action!" (Video Commercial) Source: The Monster That Ate Hollywood (Transcript)

Though this is merely an aside to the issue that I want to explore in this article. The Monster That Ate Hollywood goes on to look at the nature of the beast:

"Well, I think if you gamble on the expensive movie, and once you get into the $100 million category, you do start hedging your bets. You're going to rely on sound and spectacle, whether it's ... digital effects, computer graphics or whatever, in order to embrace a bigger and bigger audience and to go after kids that are the core of your audience. And you can't afford to do many of those because the risks are fairly substantial. But they also tend to be the movies that, because they don't have as much dialogue as you might imagine, they're easily translatable to foreign countries and foreign languages." (HOWARD STRINGER, Chairman & CEO, Sony Corp. USA) Source: The Monster That Ate Hollywood (Transcript)

" go after the kids that are the core of your audience." Now we are starting to see the parallels to the computer game industry and I will look at this in more detail shortly. But first it is interesting to examine another issue raised in that quote. The action movies don't have as much dialogue and "they're easily translatable to foreign countries and foreign languages."

"What most people forget is that movies are no longer made just for the U.S. It's important that a movie be a success in the U.S. because it helps it become a success overseas. But the number of theaters is shrinking in the U.S., and the amount of overall business that a movie does in the U.S. versus the rest of the world is shrinking. A big action movie like Armageddon can do almost twice as much overseas as it did in the U.S. And that's going to continue to grow. So more and more, movies are made to satisfy a foreign audience, which doesn't understand English. So if you don't really understand it, it doesn't really make much difference because it delivers on a certain action level. And even if the plot doesn't make a great deal of sense because people are watching it in subtitles or dubbed, they don't really care." (RICHARD NATALE, Entertainment Journalist) Source: The Monster That Ate Hollywood (Transcript)

The same no doubt holds true for action games, the story doesn't have to make sense to a player because the action is understandable in its own terms. Shooting things, blowing things up, car chases and even sports scenarios don't rely on subtle nuances in dialogue to provide a clue to solving intricate puzzles. So clearly the potential worldwide market for action games, as with action movies, is going to be a prime target for the game publishers. And who is to be targeted? It is the same core audience for the action movies ... the kids:

"What the studios are doing is they're throwing out the adult audience. I mean, if you're an intelligent adult and you don't live in a big city that has an art cinema or a selection of films, there's often no movie for you to go to see that weekend at the theater. Let's say you're 30 years old, you're a college graduate, and you're fairly literate. Are you going to go see The Mummy Returns? Are you going to go see Gone in 60 Seconds? Are you going to go see Coyote Ugly? Are you going to go see Evolution? Are you going to go see all these movies with Pauly and Adam and all the other goofball dumb comedians? No. Those movies are made for 13-year-old boys, they're not made for you." (ROGER EBERT, Film Critic, "Chicago Sun Times") Source: The Monster That Ate Hollywood (Transcript)

"The target is becoming more and more specific. What used to be thought of as being the target audience from 12 to 24 is now a target audience from 12 to 19. The audience that repeats, that - you know, for them, a movie experience is like watching a movie on videotape, where you just want to see the stuff you like over and over and over again." ELVIS MITCHELL, Film Critic, "New York Times" and NPR) Source: The Monster That Ate Hollywood (Transcript)

Here we see the shrinkage of the target demographic for computer games as well as for movies. The implication for fans of adventure games is clear. As far as the big publishers are concerned adventure games don't appeal to their core market so they are simply not going to produce them. Not only does this deliberate targeting exclude a great many adventure fans but it also ensures that there is no place for adventure games in the cross-promotional loop or 'vertical integration' within the conglomerates' media arms. The adventure game and its fans are effectively frozen out of the market.

The Global Teen
But why has this exceedingly narrow age and interest range become the target demographic of choice for the big conglomerates and multinationals? The answer can be found in any of the recent studies of Globalisation over the last twenty years and the identification of a 'Global Teen' market. According to Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, "the world is crawling with teenagers". She points out that "two thirds of Asia's population is under thirty" and that "the so-called global teen demographic is estimated at one billion". Of course this global teen market excludes the millions of impoverished teens around the world and only focuses on the middle class teenagers who have already absorbed the monoculture of the brand-led 'lifestyle' image. Klein argues, "the image of the global teen floats over the planet like a euphoric corporate hallucination."

"These kids, we are repeatedly told, live not in a geographic place but in global consumer loop: hot-linked from their cellular telephones to internet newsgroups; bonded together by Sony Playstations, MTV videos and NBA games." (Naomi Klein, No Logo, Flamingo 2001 pp 132 - 133)

Klein points out that MTV is the centre of this global teen phenomenon "which, in 1998, was in 273.5 million households worldwide - only 70 million of which were in the U.S." She quotes the New World Teen Study that found that "the single most significant factor contributing to the shared tastes of the middle-class teens it surveyed was TV - in particular, MTV, which 85 percent of them watched every day." (p134) This, she argues, has produced an homogeneous world teen market for consumables that has the multi-nationals falling over themselves to tap in to because it is ready made for the image they wish to project. And that image is 'cool'. So important has this image become that many multinationals now employ 'cool hunters', that is, trendy marketing companies who stalk kids on the streets to learn what's 'in' or 'cool' at any given moment. (Klein p79)

Of course, this can be a hit or miss affair so the companies hedge their bets by marketing directly to this teen group through the media that is most accessible to them ... Movies, TV, videos, magazines and this means that the next 'cool' trend can be shaped and influenced. The rise of cult of the 'celebrity' is directly related to this. Michael Jordan is (or was) 'cool', he was paid millions of dollars to pull on a pair of Nike sneakers, so Nike sneakers must also be 'cool'.

One impact of this global teen homogenisation is the development of a monoculture where it is only acceptable to like or want the same things and the different brands only give the illusion of diversity or choice. This can be seen in the various game consoles, it doesn't really matter if you buy a Playstation, Game Cube or X Box, the types of games available are all the same and are overwhelmingly marketed to just one particular consumer, the teenage male.

The marketing of 'cool' products to the 'cool' generation allied with the corporate takeovers and mergers, especially in the media and entertainment industries, has resulted in a highly selective and restricted view of the market. It is here where we are told that only teenage boys play computer games thus denying the existence of the many thousands (and potentially millions) of mature and female computer game players worldwide. So if the market for computer games is defined as males aged 10 to 18 worldwide and the considerable resources of the major publishers is directed to promoting games that might appeal to that demographic then it is hardly surprising that adventure games have suffered as a result.

Can't see the forest for the tree
To argue, as many still do, that adventure games have declined in appeal because 'the market' has demanded only the latest 3D action games is a simplistic and shallow argument that overlooks the impact of globalisation and the deliberate shrinkage of the specific target audience of 'the market' for ease of promotion and production and maximisation of profits. There are very few, if any, truly independent computer and video game magazines - most are related in some way to a media conglomerate. Though it wouldn't really matter if they were independent at this stage as the mindset is already well established and the editors and contributors are themselves a part of the action game culture that they have grown up with over the last ten years. So the voices heard only confirm and support what the publishers want to hear. They certainly don't want hear about the huge potential market outside of their target demographic, as that would force them to think outside the comfortable box they have created for themselves.

Yet, at the same time many of these publishers grimly hang on to titles that they have no interest in publishing. Microsoft bought out Access for its golf game and in so doing gained the rights to Tex Murphy and effectively killed it. Activision is sitting on its Zork franchise and Sierra dismantled its world famous adventure arm shutting down the popular Gabriel Knight series, not to mention King's Quest, Space Quest and numerous other adventure game series. If they are not interested in creating new adventure games from these titles why won't they allow others to do so?

The market for adventure games, far from shrinking, is growing all the time but largely outside of the target demographic of the major publishers and consequently this market is not 'seen' to exist. Even when an adventure game succeeds in finding a publisher it may still suffer from lack of promotion or, more likely, promotion only to that same narrow target demographic by means of the media that scorns the adventure genre. In other words the audience it is promoted to is not interested and really doesn't want to know about it. When it inevitably 'fails' by comparison with the 'successful' action titles the publishers are not likely to take a 'risk' with another adventure game as the 'market' has been 'proven' not to exist.

Sadly, minimisation of risk succeeds only in stifling creativity so more of the same types of games get produced in the form of sequels or clones of previous best selling titles. Interestingly, this same sequels and clones syndrome is another argument that is used to explain why adventure games 'died'. Yet now it seems that we must accept that the non-adventure market only wants and demands sequels and clones despite the view that this is precisely what led to the demise of adventure games. The reality of course has nothing to do with demand, only with what is commercially 'safe'.

The enormous push
So adventure game developers have a hard time finding a publisher and frequently have to publish, promote and distribute the games themselves. Without the backing of a substantial publisher this is a very costly and often frustrating exercise. Just getting the game onto the shop shelves to compete with constant stream of action blockbusters is beyond the means of most independent developers. Even the profitable developers are struggling to get the publishers to back them. Presto Studios is a recent example of a highly creative and profit making developer simply closing its doors and walking away from the industry. Once again the parallels with what is happening with the movie industry are quite fascinating:

"If you don't spend a lot of money on marketing, you don't generate big box office, which is translated in so many eyes as one of the criteria of hits. So that if ... I had a $100 million picture and I ... only spent $10 million marketing it, for instance, I haven't really saved $10 million because people will start saying, "Well if you didn't have a big opening weekend, you weren't a success." And if I'm not a success, I can't sell it to television or cable, and I threaten my video sales and DVD sales, and so forth and so on. So there is a ... sort of spiral of pressure." (HOWARD STRINGER, Chairman & CEO, Sony Corp. USA) Source: The Monster That Ate Hollywood (Transcript)

"There's an enormous dynamic going on in the American independent film community right now. Good films are being made, and when you go to Sundance, you see them. But the problem is, they're not being distributed because the distributors have been totally overcome by the Friday night "Who's going to win the weekend" syndrome. And unless we find a way to distribute films without feeling that they have to have this enormous push behind them and this expensive advertising campaign, we'll never be able to appreciate this generation of filmmakers." (ROGER EBERT, Film Critic, "Chicago Sun Times") Source: The Monster That Ate Hollywood (Transcript)

Much the same thing can be said about adventure games. There are good games being made by independent developers who are finding themselves increasingly locked out of the publishing and distribution chain and are having to compete without "this enormous push behind them". The over-hyped 'blockbuster' games are salivated over for months before they are released and become instant 'hits', even the ones that eventually turn out to be complete rubbish in the eyes of their consumers. This doesn't matter as the sales have been made and the demand for the next 'blockbuster' on the production line is already being fuelled by the hype-merchants.

The dark side of market forces
This rapacious 'consume and move on to the next big thing' mentality is exactly the sort of 'demand' the games industry is creating in its target demographic and adventure games don't fit into this culture as they generally 'move' more slowly. Usually, because of poor marketing to the wrong audience, the adventure game requires a longer shelf life while waiting for 'word of mouth' promotion to filter through. And a long shelf life is frequently denied to it as the shop owners naturally prefer to see stock turn over rapidly, not to mention the fact that the large publishers have all the 'muscle' and can afford to pay for shelf space. An adventure game then comes to be seen as a liability taking up valuable space that could be better used to stock multiple copies of the 'latest and greatest' action game. Frequently adventure fans search the shelves of their local game shop in vain, only to be told that the game they are seeking is not on order or that the shop's one copy sold last week and they are not going to get any more in because there is no demand.

The audience for adventure games generally doesn't demand the 'bells and whistles' of the technology-pushing 3D graphics engines. For them, 'immersiveness' comes from the combination of story and puzzles not from the latest 'gee whiz' special effects. Often an adventure game will be sought out and played and enjoyed long after its initial release date especially as more and more new players discover the genre and seek out all those wonderful 'old' games they are only now learning about. This slower pace of adventure game sales has a significant impact on perceptions within the games market place. Clearly the lack of promotion and lack of widespread availability upon release can lead to poor initial sales during the important (to publishers) first weeks of sale. It's much harder to hype up the sales figures that may occur over several years so if the game, like the movie spectacular, isn't an instant 'hit' then it must be a 'flop'. Also, because many adventure games suffer from poor or lukewarm promotion and distribution in the shops many 'knowledgeable' adventure game fans prefer to purchase on-line and often these on-line sales figures are not included in the compilations of sales data. Thus it is more likely that the people purchasing on-line come from the market that doesn't exist.

But despite the best efforts of market 'forces' the adventure game market has steadfastly refused to die and this is testament to the legions of fans who still support adventures and to the independent developers who still love the genre and recognise that the support is still there. In many ways the Internet has enabled that support to not only continue, but also to grow. It is the one arena that is not yet controlled by the media conglomerates and without it the adventure game would now be dead. The big games publishers and their willing cohorts in the print magazines have done their best to kill it off, even prematurely dancing on its grave, but it defies them still.

What we are witnessing is not market 'forces' as some would have us believe, but market 'manipulation' that has resulted in the adventure game and its fans being 'marginalised' by the big publishers in their single-minded pursuit of the mega hit game that will appeal to the ever shrinking demographic that they have identified and, to some extent, created. Like the blockbuster movie spectacular, the games industry's emphasis is on style over substance with technology-pushing 3D graphic engines at the pinnacle so that 'cool' special effects and explosions and mayhem can be incorporated into the gameplay, just like in the movies.

The Monster That Ate Hollywood (Transcript)

No Logo by Naomi Klein, Flamingo, 2001.

Further Reading:
Quandary Articles
Adventure Games: Sacred Cow or Sacrificial Lamb
The Myst Opportunity: Adventure Games What Now ...
Another Missed Opportunity
Are They "The Boss Of US? (courtesy of Mr Bill's Adventureland)
Quest/Adventure Computer Games Going; Going; GONE?

Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West by John Ralston Saul, Penguin Books, 1993.

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2002. All rights reserved.