Genre Wars, Part II: A little action with your adventure, perhaps?

By Steve Metzler (March, 2004)
Some would have us believe that the traditional PC adventure game is extinct - or at the very least, an endangered species. But the situation is far worse than that. For the venerable point-and-click puzzle fest that we hold that special place for in our hearts has been figuratively hung, then drawn and quartered. And the resulting pieces have been scattered to the far corners of the earth, so that they may never become whole again. And who, you may ask, is responsible for this travesty? I'm afraid you're not going to like this, but to a large extent the answer is... we, the gamers. I knew you wouldn't like that. But it's not entirely our fault. The twin spectres of market forces and demography must also shoulder some of the blame. So please bear with me and I will attempt to unravel such mysteries as why Sam 'n Max: The Freelance Police was recently cancelled and Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon fared so poorly on the PC.

But first, you may be wondering why this article is entitled 'Genre Wars, Part II'. To answer this question, we must go back quite a few years, to the time I was writing for *cough* Games Domain Review. In early 1998, I wrote an article called 'Genre Wars'. To be truthful, it was a fairly acerbic rant, but it did highlight an emerging trend in game marketing at the time, which was to intentionally misrepresent the genre of a game in order that it might appeal to a wider audience. The biggest offenders were so-called 'action adventures' that had traditional adventure content approaching zero. In any case, you won't be able to find that article, because Yahoo have recently acquired Games Domain and consigned its entire legacy of 5000+ quality articles and game reviews to the virtual scrap heap. Will the material be resurrected? Only Yahoo can answer that question. For the moment, in a manner of speaking, Games Domain Review has gone the way of the traditional adventure games we used to write about. Cue violins and a drum beating slowly.

In this article, I'll be coming at the mixing of action and adventure elements from another angle. For instead of adding a few token puzzles to an action game so that it might appeal to the adventure audience, the exact opposite is now occurring: action sequences are being added to otherwise 'pure' adventures so that they might appeal to the console crowd. In both cases I posit that not only do these token elements from another genre fail to attract the intended secondary audience - they also do a pretty good job of alienating the game's primary audience!

Anyway, I suppose I should start at the beginning. One must look all the way back to the origins of the adventure game to undestand how it was once the mainstay of computer gaming. Of course, adventures got their humble start as interactive fiction. Pure text. Because way back in the early 70's, when I incidentally began my own first endeavours to programme a computer, there were no graphics to speak of, except on very expensive, specialised machines - military applications, flight simulators, and a few early arcade games. The first piece of interactive fiction (IF) to get any wide distribution, and possibly the first piece of IF full stop, was Crowther and Woods' Colossal Cave Adventure. And that, my friends, is how our favourite game genre, that largely consists of vexing puzzles rolled in with an engaging story, became known as 'adventure'. For the word adventure has entirely different connotations to the average person on the street: white water rafting on the Colorado River is adventure. Playing text parser based IF on a monochrome screen IBM XT till all hours of the morning is... for nerds?

The dynasty of the nerds
OK, so I'm a nerd. But I never wore white socks, and I wouldn't be caught dead using an umbrella, not way back then anyway. Nerds ruled the nascent computer game industry for nearly 10 years. A few bright guys started up Infocom, and thus Zork was born. Then suddenly... PC graphics came of age, making it possible to display colour images. Only 16 colours to begin with, but it was a start. The first graphical adventure I can remember playing was Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. These early graphical adventures were merely another step in the evolutionary process. You still had to type in your commands, and good text parser design was essential for a game to succeed. But now, more than adventure games were possible. Platform style games like Prince of Persia began to emerge, and these were more appealing to the casual PC user. The dynasty of the nerds was drawing to an end.

Because right about that time, the inevitable happened: the advent of VGA and the mouse caused a watershed in computer gaming to occur. Whereas the previous generation had little recourse but to play traditional adventures like those produced by LucasArts and Sierra, a new generation of gamers had a lot more to choose from. Shooter, simulation, sports, and strategy games were becoming incredibly sophisticated, and chock full of the 'wow factor' that appeals to teenage boys. The gaming community was now split into two camps: those who played Doom and those who preferred the more cerebral pursuits of games like Myst. And another sea change occurred that was hardly noticed at the time, yet was to have a profound affect on the games industry a few years down the line - for the Hollywood fat cats were beginning to realise the potential of computer gaming to become the biggest cash cow of all time.

The cruel science of demography
So now the PC gaming community is split into roughly two camps, only the 'twitch' camp is much, much larger than the adventure camp. The adventure types mostly consist of baby boomers like myself: young (and not so young) nerds, former nerds, professional people, or just people from all walks of life who prefer puzzles and interaction to the listless, passive activity that is television viewing. Some are retired. And a substantial proportion of them are women. Now... it's quite difficult to put an exact number on this slice of the gaming consumer pie, but I'd estimate its size to be no more than 500,000 people worldwide. For reference purposes, let's call them the "Faithful 500,000". I'm talking about dedicated adventurers who would buy more than one game a year, and who also hang out on-line. And so we have set the scene for one of the most costly disasters in adventure game history. It happened when adventures were 'dying'.

Jordan Mechner, the brilliant game designer responsible for the Prince of Persia series, poured his heart and soul into The Last Express. Released in 1997 to almost universal critical acclaim, TLE purportedly cost a cool $6 million to produce by the time the dust had settled and it had been translated into several foreign languages - and ported to consoles (yes, even back then). The game was filmed with actors, and the resulting footage was then transformed by artists utilising a 'rotoscope' effect to produce the game graphics. I was mesmerised by this game. Set in 1914, it portrayed the fictitious final journey of the Orient Express on the eve of World War I. Central to the game's theme was the fact that it was implemented in real time. If you happened to eavesdrop on a conversation in one part of the train, you could be missing another important (or perhaps not so important) conversation in another part of the train. Thus, it also had tremendous replay value, which cannot be said for most adventures. I can also attest to the fact that the main plot denouement held me so enthralled that I must have replayed that scene a dozen times in total awe. In any case, the company that Jordan formed to produce and market TLE, Smoking Car Productions, needed to sell about 500,000 copies - according to Jordan - just to break even. In other words, they needed another Myst - a game that could somehow manage to capture the imagination of an audience far beyond that of the "Faithful 500,000". For let's face it, not every one of us is going to buy every adventure game - no matter how good it is. But it was not to be. At the end of the day, TLE managed to shift a mere 50,000 copies, and Smoking Car Productions was no more...

How could that happen to a game that had so much going for it? Why didn't we buy it? I can only offer an explanation by way of conjecture, and my theory is this: because adventure games aren't advertised in mainstream media like television and radio, they rely largely on word of mouth to promote them. And this mechanism somehow failed for TLE. Perhaps the game was too 'elitist'; the critics loved it, but it was perceived to be inaccessible to the average adventure gamer? I maintain there's more to it than that. There was one aspect of TLE that could have put a lot of traditional adventurers off: it featured a few real time fighting sequences that caused some to give up in frustration. And that certainly doesn't help on the old 'word of mouth' front, does it? In an attempt to lure 'crossover' gamers from the twitch/console camp, are the producers of modern adventure games instead managing to drive away a large sector of their target audience?

You want some fries with that action?
You can almost picture the conversations in the boardrooms between the publishers and the developers: "Can't you throw in a little gratuitous action so the teenagers will buy it? Just look at how well Grand Theft Auto did!" And so it happened. Maybe not exactly like that, but more or less. A string of otherwise solid adventure games were knocked down a few pegs by the addition of action elements: Gabriel Knight 3, Tex Murphy: Overseer, Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, and I'm sure there were many more. According to PC Data figures, Broken Sword 3 only managed to sell 3000 units on the PC from mid-November 2003 when it was released through Christmas! And this is a game that had a legion of dedicated fans amongst the "Faithful 500,000" built up by its two predecessors. In addition to the action elements, Revolution developed the game primarily for the console. The result was a set of controls (no mouse!) that may have suited a gamepad, but was completely unmanageable from a PC perspective. Thus even myself, an avowed crossover gamer who has completed Half-Life three times (just had to play it in XP too, didn't I?), could not come to grips with the controls. Any time my character had to run, I panicked and often ran in the exact opposite direction from the intended one. The end result was utter frustration at having to play sequences over and over again - and I hated this. I played it because I had played the previous Broken Swords, and didn't want to miss anything. Silly me. I don't know how it fared sales-wise on the consoles, but the PC figures speak for themselves.

Uru did so poorly (about 76,000 copies through Christmas), that the Miller brothers decided to pull the plug on the on-line version - and I thought that was the whole point of the exercise in the first place. The single player version was supposed to act as a catalyst for the on-line extravaganza, Uru Live. What happened here? Another difficult to manage control system coupled with gratuitous jumping and pushing puzzles apparently turned off a lot of players. Die, restore, die, restore, again and again. Why is this level of frustration necessary in what is ostensibly a cerebral puzzle game?

Just recently, Sam 'n Max: The Freelance Police was cancelled by LucasArts. I suspect they finally realised it would probably do no more than break even. There are only 500,000 potential customers after all, and it would have cost something like $2 million to produce, so why bother to spend the money in the first place if another Star Wars franchise could bring in a much higher return for the same investment? Hard to answer that one, huh? From that standpoint, it's not too difficult to draw the conclusion that when the bean counters are afoot... the game probably isn't. On the other hand, some excellent adventures have made it to market in recent years, even though the financial risks were considerable - most notably The Longest Journey and Syberia. They must have made some money because both of them have sequels in the works.

What the future holds
So with our favourite genre torn asunder by market pressures and a shrinking fan base, what hope have we that traditional adventures will continue to be produced? I maintain that there is quite a lot of hope, and it is largely in the form of independent game developers who don't need to sell 500,000 copies of their game just to break even. A shining example is Jonathan Boakes who almost single-handedly produced Dark Fall, one of the best horror adventures ever made. You see, as free or relatively inexpensive imaging and sound tools become increasingly available for the PC, adventure game development can go back to its roots: one person in a garage happily at work on their latest creation...

Copyright © Steve Metzler 2004. All rights reserved.