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Bring Out Your Dead! Can Nintendo Breathe New Life into Adventure Games?
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Bring Out Your Dead! Can Nintendo Breathe New Life into Adventure Games?

February 5, 2007 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

When all is said and done, I think I’m a realist. I flatter myself that no matter what the scenario, I’ll take reality over a pleasant delusion every time. The truth - no matter how painful - is a comfort in and of itself, as I am fond of endlessly repeating to myself in a compulsive murmur during dental work. Great. Glad I got that out of the way.

Did I mention that I think adventure games are primed for a comeback?

I resent the snicker. I know it’s been heralded before, not that many people seem to care. If confirmed as true, the reaction would be undetectable by even the most precision seismometer - it’s quite a powerful thing to feel the hairs on the backs of millions of necks failing to rise.

Many gamers and game writers today refuse to dignify adventure games as an official genre at all, and each year the category slips quietly from the dockets of more and more publications, or gets appropriated by the dreaded catch-all that is the “action-adventure.” As public interest wanes, fewer companies are willing to risk development costs (or is it the other way around?), and those that do are slashing budgets with the ruthless abandon typically found in FPS enthusiasts.

Grassroots Threepwood

Despite this seemingly hostile climate, there is a ray of hope. A rapidly growing movement - plainly visible on sites like Adventure Gamers and in the sales figures of games like Phoenix Wright - is throwing their support behind Nintendo to get the ball back into the adventure gamer’s court.

Along with tycoon and real time strategy games, adventure games have been, by and large, stranded on the PC. One look at console sales figures is all it takes to realize this is not where the action is. A symbiotic relationship between consoles and PCs is beneficial to both sides; consoles offer a much wider user base and its accompanying revenue, and PCs offer an easy development platform where risky IP can be tested before the cross-platform SKUs run budgets into the millions.

It is no secret that adventure games need to break into the console market to remain (some would say become) viable. There is no reason to think Nintendo couldn’t help usher in this era if they chose to do so; after all, they’ve changed the rules before. Ironically, they may have done much to seal the fate of classic adventure games in the 80’s by creating the aforementioned action-adventure genre. You can keep your Link - I’ll take Guybrush, thanks.

According to the ESA, computer game dollar sales in 2005 were just under $1 billion. 5.8% of that revenue came from adventure games. Over on the console side, although sales were in excess of $6 billion, adventure games don’t even make it into the pie chart. If adventure games - once introduced in a tangible way onto consoles - kept their PC market share equivalent, it would be a tremendous shot in the arm.

I don’t think this is an unrealistic expectation; I’m inclined to argue that it’s rather conservative. Given the extra manpower and marketing inherent in bigger development budgets, it seems logical that adventure games would surpass their current standards both in quality and quantity (I am aware that throwing money at a development team does not guarantee a higher quality end result, but I’m speaking in broad strokes here.) Would this result in higher percentages for adventure games across the board? I hope so. After all, many of the bullet points for recent shooters read like a list of adventure game staples – a high density of character dialog and interaction, a strong narrative, and a high density of environmental interaction. That particular niche of gamers is starting to demand more from a game than three-figure frame rates and the odd scripted sequence. They would do well to look to adventure games for a change of pace.

To be fair, adventure games have long suffered from a drought of meaningful innovation. I’m not entirely certain where this culpability lies. I realize it’s a cop out to blame he-who-holds-the-purse-strings for all developmental woes. It’s easy to complain that you simply do not have the time or money to experiment with non-linearity or a new mechanic that might improve gameplay slightly, but will most certainly add a plethora of bugs.

I suppose the key ability here would be recognizing those ideas that give you an efficient ratio of manpower vs. return. It’s a skill that draws more from experience than precognition, and I wish I had it. Again, I realize that the solution is not to throw more money at the problem, but surely if more adventure games are being attempted, more minds are bent upon turning the genre on its ear - and occasionally one of the more insightful or lucky of them will strike gold.

As Marek Bronstring points out in his excellent article on the subject, a major obstacle to mainstream success for adventure games lies in the long periods of downtime between ‘eureka’ moments. Killing an alien every twenty seconds is an IV drip of positive reinforcement for the player. Adventure games are more accurately comparable to time-release capsules. He suggests that the Wii - and specifically, the Wiimote - would do much to bridge this gap, filling the downtime between major breakthroughs with tangible actions that would tickle our rapidly diminishing attention spans. Opening doors would no longer be a matter of clicking on the door, but of turning the controller in a real-world analog of twisting the knob. Opening a drawer would require pulling the controller towards you.

Yes, these examples are monotonous and highly repetitive, and will likely remain equally so (they may even cross the line into the territory of annoying) on a Wiimote; menial tasks stay menial no matter how innovative the control scheme. But the main point he makes which adventure game developers (myself certainly amongst them) should take careful note of is that adventure games need an increased density of short feedback loops to capture the attention of mass mind, instead of concentrating all our efforts on the less frequent, albeit more significant, story-progressing milestones. As he states: “rewards are the carrot dangling in the player's face, keeping them invested in the game's long-term progression. But they are only truly effective in the presence of many shorter feedback loops, the ones that maintain your interest in between.”


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