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