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'.


Duri said...

These posts were great. How come you don't write them anymore?

Eric said...

Sorry, I got the impression no one was reading them, LOL.

I do have some more things bubbling up inside my head though, so maybe later today. :)