Saturday, December 29, 2007

Jane Jensen + Casual Games = ?

With all the interest in Jane Jensen doing another adventure game along with looking at the history of the genre, I really have to wonder about what direction all of this is leading to. No doubt about it, she's a powerful figure in the genre indeed and deserves all of the attention she gets. Gabriel Knight is one of my all-time favorites, so you won't see me complaining about her coming back!

However, I do view all of this with cautious excitement as I am reading things that make me wonder where the genre is going.

A few things to note here about adventure games. The genre was falling apart back in the mid 90's, but then Head Games released an adventure game called Inherent Evil as one of it's budget ($20) titles. Shortly thereafter, DreamCatcher (The Adventure Company) started picking up adventure games and selling them at the $20 price range. While this move saved the genre from what seemed like extinction, it didn't leave much on the table for developers to justify creating large epic games, nor did it help to keep them in business. So in the short term, it might have saved the genre, but in the long term, I think it really hurt things.

In the last year or so, we've finally seen the prices and quality of adventure games start to rise. For the genre as a whole, this seems like a good thing. The better the profit margins, the better the games and the more interest it will gain with large development houses which have the capabilities to greatly improve things. Things seem to be looking up.

In reading some interviews that Jane Jensen has given, there were a few comments that caused me to take pause.

In an interview on she mentions that the audience is just right in the casual gaming space - over 30 and mostly female which she says is perfect for adventure games. Her Agatha Christie casual games are a move in that direction and she'd love to get Gray Matter up there as well.

Then there was another interview on The Escapist where she mentions not overestimating the stupidity of the mass market and if it's going to be popular, it has to be really simple and entertaining which is something she'll strive for. There were two key points though that really jumped out at me. She kept bringing up story, story, story... but watering down player challenges and making things simple. She also puts a lot of faith into the casual games arena as being able to rejuvenate the adventure game genre.

As an adventure gamer I can't help but find some of this to be something to worry about. For one, we are starting to see the genre slowly pull out of being low margins/budget titles categories, yet her emphasis on the casual games portals seems to drag it all back to where is was 10 years ago with exceedingly low margins for the developers. It's like repeating the past. Even worse, those portals have their game clubs where players can purchase games for under $10! You would have to sell an assload of games just to break even. Forget risking money on a big budget/epic title. Forget having adventure games you play for 20+ hours. We are talking about 2-6 hours of entertainment at best.

In my previous article I talked about adventure games being the fractured genre. Instead of splitting themselves off in different directions and defining themselves, they all stayed firmly entrenched under the adventure game umbrella. Jane mentioned that she felt Myst had a hand in ruining adventure games as the puzzles where so difficult that most people who played it never finished it - and probably never went back to the genre. I have to agree with her here.

Maybe Myst should never have been considered as an adventure game. Maybe it should have split itself off and called itself something else - Puzzle Game? Heck, I don't know, I'm terrible at coming up with names. Especially considering Bejeweled is classified as a puzzle game, which makes no sense to me. From a marketing standpoint, when Myst came out adventure games were HUGE, so I can see why it called itself that in the first place - to tap into that huge market.

But now we come to Jane and her vision of adventure games. Makes me wonder if maybe she is reaching as well. With the emphasis on story and lack of game that she seems to be talking about, I keep hearing Interactive Fiction even though she keeps saying adventure game. Maybe that's it though. Back in the day, the word Adventure Game was often synonomus with Interactive Fiction. Now you rarely see interactive fiction being used, but adventure games seem to continue to encompass a rather wide variety of point-n-click games with some radically different puzzle elements.

Perhaps there is something to the whole "Myst isn't an adventure game" debate... from a purist standpoint, I can see how some would come to that conclusion. From another standpoint - and just to confuse the issue further - if you go to the adventure section of a DVD store, you'll be greeted with movies like Indiana Jones and other movies which all contain action elements. Try putting action into a adventure game though... yeah, that muddies the adventure gaming waters even further.

It'll be interesting to see what all comes of this. I'm not quite sure that we'll see any new classics emerge in the genre. I also don't see the watering down of games via the casual games portals as being very helpful in the long term. Who knows though, it might just work.

I'm glad Jane is coming back, although I'm not feeling the same excitement as some others are feeling in regards to this possibly bringing adventure games back into the lime light. It's kind of like Guns-n-Roses coming back to save Rock-n-Roll. The old vanguards never restore former glory. At best they only bring some nostalgia.

It's always someone new that no one has ever heard about and who approaches things from an entirely new perspective that does. The only thing that will bring the genre back to the forefront is someone who radically shakes things up and redefines it...not only that, but they are usually young and do it because they don't know any better and they aren't tied down by 'experience'.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Fractured Genre

Been thinking a lot over here about adventure games. Once the King (or Queen) of computer games, it has fallen into steady decline since the mid 90's. Surely it isn't 'dead' by any means like the mainstream press might like to constantly proclaim, but it sure has been shoved into the closet for the most part.

When you look at RPGs, FPS, and RTS games, it's pretty clear what makes them what they are. While you might have fans of those genres who disagree on the quality of those games, you don't really have any major influxes of people who have radically differing opinions on whether or not it's their type of game or not. It's pretty obvious that those games all share a common template that everyone agrees on.

Now take adventure games. There really isn't a set formula here which can adequately define the genre. Ask 10 people what makes an adventure game and you might just get 10 different answers. I might even go so far as to say that adventure gamers don't even know what an adventure game is. By no means am I indicating that I know either.

If you ask me, I might tell you that it's a game with an intriguing story, engaging game play and mental challenges. Well, by that definition Jedi Knight II might qualify as well as a host of other FPS games. Heck, even RPG's have that.

Somewhere along the way Adventure Games seem to have lost their way. It was a genre that was defined by its rich stories, graphics, and intellectual stimulation. There was nothing in the interface that determined the genre. After all, that was something that was constantly changing. From purely text-based to text based with graphics, from 3rd person to 1st person, from cartoon graphics, to rendered 3D to full motion video, etc. The list goes on and on...

...and maybe that's its curse. Maybe adventure games were really nothing more than an experiment in various technologies, techniques and player interfaces. Some ideas proved to be hits and they went further into those directions and created their own genres like survival horror games, action adventures, etc. At some point adventure games got stuck with certain interfaces and certain game play elements. Radically change the interface or style of mental challenges at this point and you'll have people questioning whether or not its even an adventure game.

Adventure Games surely aren't dead, but they risk being nothing more than a retro genre. The only thing that has changed seems to be that the quality of the graphics have improved. Beyond that what has changed? We're still seeing some of the same puzzles in current games as we've seen in games from 10+ years ago.

While some might say that the art of story-telling is what defined the genre and that no one seems to be carrying that torch, I have to ask if that is even relevant in today's fast paced world. Right now it seems like the market prefers fluff with very little substance. Try to go a bit deeper with a story and it might go over a lot of people's heads. Being subtle doesn't pay - spelling it all out so there is no confusion does.

So how is the genre fractured?

The mental challenges in adventure games come in 2 flavors - inventory based and logic based. You have players who enjoy both and have no real preference for either, but then you have other who are either in strong favor of one over the other. Likewise, the same can be said of 3rd person vs. 1st person perspectives. Cartoon graphics vs. realistic pre-rendered 3d. Comedy vs. horror. The list goes on and on. Taking an already minor genre and having it battling itself can't be a good thing.

Is it wrong?

Of course not. Everyone has their own opinions for what they like. This article isn't about players, it's about challenges that the genre faces that keeps it in the closet. At one point it was all encompassing which worked in it's favor, but now that same mentality has forced it to have limited mass appeal.

I can't help but compare this to the movie or music industry with all of the different styles and flavors out there. The thing is, those industries have clearly defined and categorized themselves. Likewise, many of the other gaming genres have clearly defined themselves. Adventure games really haven't - in trying to be master of all, they've become master of none. You see this clearly in many of the games trying to incorporate many different styles of challenges.

Instead of sticking with what one group likes, they try to do a little of each to make the masses of adventure gamers happy. The trouble is that when they do that, they are guaranteeing that their game will make everyone disappointed at one point or another. I'm sure it is possible to do it in such a way that it fits logically with the story, but most of the time the puzzles seem out of place and stuck in there for the sake of having a puzzle.

I think this is just a symptom of not being clearly defined and trying to be an 'Adventure Game' - which means a whole lot of different things to different people.