flashlogo

The Death of Adventure Games

Al Lowe asks at the GDC whether the adventure genre is fighting fit or fighting for its life.
Originally posted at Next Generation, On-Line's web site

March 19, 1999

"Is Adventure Dead?" must be the most incendiary title of the many lectures, panel discussions, roundtables and presentations here at the 1999 Game Developers Conference. This was a roundtable discussion in several parts, ably hosted by Bill Volk.

Dozens of attendees discussed the state of what was, for many, their favorite genre. We had difficulty right from the first: we couldn't even agree on the definition of an adventure! Eventually most agreed that to be considered an adventure game, a game must emphasize story, include a protagonist, puzzles, and inventory objects and have a definite beginning and end.

Many theories were proposed for the declining sales of adventures:

1. Declining technology. Once upon a time, adventure games were "bragware," the kind of game you buy to show off your new computer hardware to your friends. That hasn't been true for years.

2. Myst. How could the best-selling game of all time kill the genre? Because of its huge success. When it broke a million copies, suddenly every publisher wanted a Myst-killer, which spawned a huge crop of "me-too" games that mostly sucked. Since they almost all lost money, management then decided not to green-light any more games and withdrew funding for the next round of development, which might have created some good adventure games.

3. Lack of replayability. "Once you've finished an adventure, you know how the story ends. There's no motivation to play it again."

4. Changing audience. I believe adventure games were the perfect game for the 80's. Think about it. Who owned PCs in the 80's? Only those who had the tenacity, time and perseverance to "solve the puzzles" of making a computer do something, anything. What better audience could puzzle games ask? But as the ranks of computer owners has grown to now 50% of American homes, there hasn't been a corresponding growth in the number of puzzle fans and problem solvers. They all owned computers back in the 80's.

5. No multi-player mode. Look at the growing popularity of multi-player on-line games. I've been trying to solve this problem of how to create an interactive multi-player adventure for years-with no success. When there are many players, who gets to be the protagonist? Or is there none? If so, is it still an adventure? Who solves the puzzles? Does everyone get the same set of puzzles? Or can you have some players generate puzzles for others? I haven't seen a good set of answers to match these questions.

6. It ain't easy. Writing well is hard and adventure games are the hardest games to write. Simplicity is difficult. Many games are too complex. A good design is complete not when you have everything in, but when you've taken out everything possible.

To a certain extent, adventure games' key elements have been absorbed by the other game genres. Action games, shooters, and RPG's have all adopted many of the characteristics of adventures.

But many at the roundtable held out hope for a comeback. Some cited the nearly exclusive popularity of arcade games in the early years of PCs which faded through the 80's to nearly nothing, only to return to popularity now in the guise of first-person shooters. Likewise, strategy and RPG games were nearly dead a few years ago, yet in 1998 they were the majority of titles in the Top 10 Best Selling Games. If we can just hang in there long enough,.maybe things will turn around and adventures will return to the top of charts.

There is also a surprising amount of activity on the Internet, especially in the rec.arts.interactive.fiction group. There fans of text adventures are preserving the genre and producing some good games, which are then distributed to others on the 'Net. I also know of at least a dozen web sites devoted to the creation of adventure games in AGI, a language Sierra invented and then abandoned in the late 80's.

But the biggest surprise of the roundtable was the news that this whole "death of adventures" may merely be a local U.S. problem. A representative of publisher Infogrames said that their recent adventure games had sold a half-million copies each! They translate their games into 27 languages and are currently building at least 9 titles for this year. But here's the ironic part: They are looking for a U.S. distributor because that half-million sales included zero copies in North America!

In conclusion, I hope Europe can keep the flame alive until some brave American publisher figures out that games with a good story, interesting and challenging puzzles, intelligent characters and an immersive environment (but without constant blood and guts) may also have an audience.

Do I believe it will happen? Unfortunately, after what happened to me three weeks ago when Sierra informed me they were "not currently interested in another Leisure Suit Larry adventure game" in spite of the fact that my latest adventure (like all of its predecessors) had sold over a quarter-million copies, I'm pessimistic.

"Is Adventure Dead?" It is at my house...at least for now.

Of course, as Dennis Miller says, "That's just my opinion; I could be wrong."

cyberjoke-subscribe
Subscribe to CyberJoke 3000™