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Adapting the adventure game genre for the modern day with  Broken Age

Adapting the adventure game genre for the modern day with Broken Age

November 7, 2013 | By Kris Graft

November 7, 2013 | By Kris Graft
More: Design, GDC Next

The adventure game genre fell out of favor at the turn of the century, going from one of the staple genres to one that, in the wake of Wolfenstein and Doom, lost its prominence.

But even though some proclaimed the genre dead, there were still people who believed in the genre, and wanted to continue to experience the kinds of worlds that classic adventure games provided.

A lot of the true believers in adventure games ended up at Double Fine. Key members of the Kickstarter-supported Broken Age, including the game's lead Tim Schafer, were at GDC Next, explaining how to bring a classic genre to the modern era of video games.

While thinking of making a new adventure game, Schafer spoke with fellow adventure game developers, from genre stalwart Ron Gilbert to indies behind modern day adventure games such as Machinarium, Kentucky Route Zero and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery.

Here's what Schafer found that people love about the adventure game genre:

Pacing: "Adventure games work at your own pace and let you solve puzzles at the speed at which your brain is thinking," said Schafer. "...You're not worried about someone sniping you in the head."

The metagame element: Players rely on real-world knowledge to solve problems in adventure games. (e.g., cats love fish, so use a fish to lure a cat into the cage.) "There are [scenarios] where you apply your own world knowledge to solve a problem," he said.

It's okay to get stuck: Many triple-A games today, with all their polish, insist on holding the player's hand, telling her what to do and where to go. Adventure games allow you to be stumped, because becoming un-stumped is uniquely rewarding.

"When people complain about puzzles, they're just complaining about bad puzzles," Schafer added. "...There's real entertainment in being stuck in the right way. ... Even though your character is stuck and not going anywhere, your brain is still moving [toward an answer]."

So what is a good puzzle anyway? Here's Schafer's "good puzzle theory." Good puzzles should have:

A clear obstacle: Let players know exactly what the challenge is that they're facing

A clear motivation: "Put something on the other side [players] really, really want."

Responses for failed solutions, with hints: Let players know what they're doing wrong, and let them learn from their failures.

Rewards for getting close: When they're on the right track, give them the chance to feel some satisfaction.

An 'ah-ha!' feeling after the puzzle is solved, not "WTF?": When a player comes to the solution, they should realize the solution is reasonable and not completely arbitrary.

An appreciation for the puzzle in retrospect that makes you tell people about it: The puzzles should create memories that players want to tell other people about. They should remember the puzzles fondly.

Knowing what "good puzzle theory" is and putting it into practice, however are two different skills. For Double Fine, the studio moves towards good puzzle design through rigorous playtesting, having friends and family come in multiple times a week, as the developers take notes. You might not be able to make the puzzles perfect in the end, but Schafer said, "You can take out the really egregious [issues]."

Bringing the feel of classic adventure games to the modern era isn't purely about design. There's also the art, which Lee Perry heads up as art director on Broken Age.

"They were all magical worlds to me," said Petty, recalling past adventure games he loves. "I really felt part of those worlds."

But, he acknowledges, those games look static. To solve this for Broken Age he focused on updating the way the camera worked. A large part of this involved using multiple layers for the game's backgrounds, to give the visuals more depth. Dialog sequences were also made more dynamic, switching back and forth between characters, and highlighting their animations more closely.

There was also a large emphasis on lighting in the game. "I'm hoping those [updates] will make the new worlds magical for new players, just like they were for me."

Updating adventure games for a modern audience had a different set of challenges for Oliver Franzke, lead programmer on Broken Age -- namely the vast array of target platforms that he and the team has to deal with.

Broken Age is slated to come to Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, Windows and Ouya. The fragmentation of the mobile market alone presents the team with a significant challenge. "Nothing is worse than having it all run great on PC, then you can't run it on mobile," Franzke said.

The way that the game is actually is also fully modernized, thanks to the way Double Fine crowdfunded the game, reached out to its community for ideas, and continues to maintain a high level of transparency with its audience.

"[Kickstarter] quickly thrust us into open development," said Greg Rice, brand manager at the studio. "... This was a whole new beast."

Double Fine worked closely with the community with creating the game, and used them to inform decisions developers were making -- giving its community, and particularly Kickstarter backers, a sense of ownership of the game.

The two-way respect between the community and Double Fine manifested when the studio announced it would change its release plans for Broken Age, cutting it into two chapters, with the first due early next year as a Steam Early Access title.

The video game blogosphere took Double Fine to task for needing more money to fund the game, but Rice said backers, who had been keeping a close eye on how the game progressed behind the scenes, and communicating with the studio, often came to the defense of Double Fine's decision in comment sections and forums.

Overall, open development "went a long way to growing the community of the game, and earning trust with our backers," Rice said.

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