Developer’s Desk #1: Steve Ince - We Live in Interesting Times

Developer’s Desk: Steve Ince
Developer’s Desk: Steve Ince

Developer's Desk introduction

If there’s a single experience every adventure gamer has shared at one point or another, it’s that moment where we look to the heavens (or in that general vicinity) with mouth agape in a quizzical expression and exclaim, “WHAT were they thinking??!!”

It’s time to find out.

No, you won’t find the answers to those particular game-related perplexities, but Adventure Gamers’ new (hopefully) monthly feature called “Developer’s Desk” will offer a first-hand glimpse into what’s on the minds of your favourite game designers. The topics can be anything: recent news, industry concerns, genre trends, memorable moments, insider anecdotes… even all the latest gossip (hey, we can dream, can’t we?). The choice will be theirs. We sometimes forget that they’re real people with real ideas, concerns, and personalities of their own, and we hope this feature will be one way to help bridge that gap.

Our first guest columnist really needs no introduction, as you undoubtedly know him by his games if not by name. Author, cartoonist, and of course acclaimed developer of Revolution’s Broken Sword series and more recent freelance work on So Blonde, Steve Ince is not only a renowned industry veteran, but one of the rare few that keeps in regular touch with gamers on a grassroots community level. A longtime genre supporter and ever-available for dialogue about gaming issues, Steve was a natural first choice to kick off the new feature.

We Live In Interesting Times

Steve Ince

Interesting times can give rise to very mixed fortunes. The current economic recession is a prime example of that, with the games industry as a whole faring better than many others, although numerous companies have laid off staff and still others have closed altogether. There has been a lot of tightening of belts, and I’m sure we all feel for those who have lost out, but generally speaking there is much to be excited about.

Even in the backwater that is the adventure genre we can see exciting and positive things ahead. It’s as if some have (re)discovered the map that brings them here, while others have not even realised the map exists and found their way here anyway, blazing a trail from a different direction. Still others are going to find that they’re about to crash land here whether they like it or not.


Just in case you’re reading this and wondering what the hell I’m wittering on about (“Ince has finally lost it, shocker”), please bear with me and I’ll hopefully make myself clear.

There have been a number of recent developments that, on their own, may not seem remarkable news for the adventure genre, but taken together they offer up an interesting potential trend, and hopefully something for all of us to look forward to.

Okay, the first of these developments IS directly related to the genre and caught many by surprise (except a good friend of mine who kind of predicted it last year) – good old LucasArts has realised that there is still a lot of potential wrapped up in their old adventure IPs. With a re-working of the first Monkey Island game and a new series of Monkey Island games from Telltale Games, suddenly the adventure genre is news again and journalists using the 'D' word when writing about adventures are notably fewer in number. Did we enter the Twilight Zone at some point in the last couple of months?

The LucasArts development follows hard on the heels of an increasing number of adventure games appearing on so-called “casual” gaming portals. Some of them are re-releases of older adventure games and others are hidden object games that have incorporated adventure gameplay elements in them, and many bear more than a passing resemblance to games like Myst. If you look at the top ten of Big Fish Games, for example, adventure style gameplay features very heavily in many of the games positioned there, which suggests that players are buying them in healthy numbers. The purists among you may not like this aspect of adventure genre development, but I think it’s a path of which we’re only at the beginning and it will be interesting to see where it leads over the next couple of years. Perhaps this is something Adventure Gamers can explore in more depth and cover on a more regular basis.

Another recent development (well, recent-ish) is the way Sony have swung their weight behind David Cage’s game, Heavy Rain. Now, Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy) was definitely a love it or hate it kind of game with no middle ground, it seems, but you have to take your hat off to Cage for the things he’s trying to do. It’s better to try and miss the mark than not to try at all. From what we’ve seen of Heavy Rain so far, I’m sure we’d all agree that there’s something pretty impressive taking shape here. Yes, there may be questions about the gameplay and whether it even comes close to being an adventure, but it seems to be much more than just a straightforward action game. Fingers crossed. Not that I have a PS3, mind, so it’s a bit of a moot point at the moment.

It may seem that I’m covering ground that’s already been discussed a number of times before. I’ve even done so myself with regards to “casual adventures”. However, just today (as of writing the first draft of this piece) I saw two items on the internet that, when combined with the above could lead to interesting conclusions if you’re prone to seeing things in a similar way.

So Blonde

The first item was the news that family games are now the most popular type in the UK. I know they’re mostly talking about games like Brain Training and Wii Fit, but the fact that in the last year in the UK we’ve seen TV advertising for the likes of Professor Layton, Hotel Dusk and Another Code shows that Nintendo sees this kind of game as important to developing a broader player base. We’ve also seen the DS rise as a natural home for the adventure game, but increasingly the Wii also has a lot of potential in this market. There has been the recent release of Broken Sword on the Wii (and DS) and later this year will see the release of the Wii/DS version of So Blonde. From the outset, dtp realised the potential of this market and wanted a version of the game that wasn’t just a straight port but a “re-imagining” of the original story (see the AG preview for more details).


Clearly, the markets are broadening for the adventure genre, and that’s always going to be a good thing for those of us creating the games, isn’t it? Well, maybe. That’s where the second of today’s items comes in.

On there is an interview with Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk from BioWare. It’s a very interesting read in general, but I was fascinated by the fact that they think we’re at the point where AAA game developers can think about dropping combat from their titles and place the games in a more real-world setting. So I started thinking about this a little and what type of games would we be talking about? What kind of games would appeal to a broader demographic?

If you take the combat out of recent Tomb Raider games for instance (and if you play them on easy they have very little combat anyway) they just become 3D platform games with a relatively shallow story. This isn’t the kind of thing the BioWare guys are referring to because they talk about much richer narrative experiences.

Mass Effect

So, let’s take a look at one of their own games – Mass Effect. Clearly a title deserving of a triple-A billing and one with great scope. If you took out the combat and transposed it to a real-world setting, what would you have? Would it not become an adventure? You could, of course, argue that it would still be an RPG, but without combat and all the skill development that goes along with it, is that really the case?

It seems to me that the only way you can tell a compelling story in a game that’s set in the real world and without combat is to make it an adventure. Maybe not quite using controls that we’d be familiar with, but an adventure nonetheless. Personally, I can’t wait for it to happen. Oh, wait... it’s already happening.

For instance, just take a look at the work that Martin Ganteföhr and his team are creating over at House of Tales. These are already great looking games – just imagine what those guys could do if they had the kind of budget that BioWare generally have at their disposal.

Better yet, imagine what any of your favourite adventure developers could do with a triple-A budget: Jane Jensen, Telltale Games, Revolution Software, Wizarbox, Autumn Moon, etc. I don’t know about you, but I’m smiling just thinking about it.

But – and it’s a pretty big but – is this ever likely to happen? When the publishers realise that there’s an awful lot of life in our wonderful genre, will they beat paths to our various doors? Or will they give the money to the BioWares of the world who have great experience at producing AAA games but have yet to produce a non-combat story-driven game? Hmm... I guess only time will tell.

It’s funny that they mentioned a romantic comedy game. I have a proposal for such a game that I tried shopping around in Leipzig last year. Current adventure publishers have no interest in producing a game of this nature, so it would be ironic if one came out of a company like BioWare first.

We really are living in interesting times that have the potential for great things for the adventure player. However, as always, it’s not clear what kind of future is in store for current adventure developers. I hope that we can all play an important part in the genre’s development – it IS something we love doing after all.

For more from Steve Ince, be sure to check out both his personal and Juniper Games websites.


Scott Nixon
Jul 17, 2009

Spot on, Steve. Big Fish is definitely a good gauge of where the market is trending, and they have the foresight to know Hidden Object games will only interest consumers for so long.  Their recent internally developed titles bear more resemblance to Shadowgate and Myst than they do to “Where’s Waldo.”  Surely it’s only a matter of time before the hidden object mechanic is relegated to its proper place - a single facet in a game containing many other contextually appropriate (even if you have to strain credulity a bit there) mechanics.  Let’s hope the casual audience enjoys the gradually increasing depth and complexity.

Jul 17, 2009

An awesome reading. Thanks Steve for the insight and I can’t help but feel a little more hopeful Smile

Steve Ince Steve Ince
Jul 17, 2009

Thanks Scott.

Gamezebo is also a good place to follow trends in the casual market and there are definite shifts in some quarters towards games with deeper stories.

Steve Ince Steve Ince
Jul 17, 2009

Thanks, too, Andrea.

Jul 17, 2009

I’m looking forward to the idea of what YOU could do with a triple-A budget, Steve.

Trumgottist Trumgottist
Jul 17, 2009

I’d love to see a romantic comedy game! I can’t think of how to make it work, but I’m glad you and others are interested in doing one.

Steve Ince Steve Ince
Jul 17, 2009

A triple-A romantic comedy.  Smile

orient orient
Jul 17, 2009

It’s interesting you mention BioWare and combat-free triple-A games, Steve, because I actually think Mass Effect was a pivotal title in the realm of “story games”. Before Mass Effect came out, there seemed to be a real aversion among core gamers to titles that favoured narrative over action. It took a big game with a big budget to prove to the average gamer that building character relationships by talking and interacting with people can be fun and engaging.

Even the bigger adventure game releases towards the end of last generation, such as Fahrenheit and Dreamfall, although featuring some type of action, were still frowned upon by a lot of people for not being enough of a “game”. They certainly won a few people over, but nowhere near as much as Mass Effect. Now, I see plenty of people claiming that the combat in Mass Effect is the worst part of the game and that they loved the story. Same for Fallout 3 – a lot of people absolutely love exploring the wasteland and uncovering little nougats of storytelling throughout the landscape, but aren’t really into the combat.

Now comes Heavy Rain, a triple-A game about consequences that is *set in the real world*. That’s almost unheard of. The last time someone spent over 5 million on a game set in the real world was Shenmue – and to this day some people still can’t see the appeal of that game, claiming that it was completely pointless and boring – while I absolutely loved it. People are going crazy for Heavy Rain, and not just adventure gamers, but your average gamer, too.

A good story is becoming a lot more important to people now and that’s something we can all be really excited about. Thanks Steve for the article!

Eyeball Kid
Jul 18, 2009

I love what Telltale Games are doing to the adventure genre. The first Tales of Monkey Island featured some of the most fluid and varied lip-sync and character animations I’ve seen in an adventure game, an it really does give room for more experimentation in terms of storytelling (and storymaking) in games. However, while Telltale have reimagined several well-known characters and game worlds, all their games can be considered ‘comedies’. I’d love to see an adventure drama soon. I know it can be done, but most adventure games seems to be comedies, which I think might have to do with limited technology (remember the kissing scene in Dreamfall) combined with a lack of dramatic writers. You got Jensen, Tørnquist and others, but there need to be far more competition here.

I think too many video game writers try to copy Hollywood scripts (the Mafia stereotypes in BS4 really bothered me. A fat, stupid and triggerhappy Italian-American stereotype is something I have seen far too many times in films, so why even bother adapting that into a video game character?)

One of the ‘mistakes’ (sorry if this seems a bit arrogant, I just need to get it out) the industry seems to to in looking to Hollywood for inspiration, is creating all this big, ‘epic’ stories where the whole world is at stake. Why does the whole world have to be in danger for the story to feel important. I love writers like Raymond Carver, and I guess his sometimes brilliant and touching and honest and raw short stories can’t be said to be particularly ‘epic’ in scope. That doesn’t mean they haven’t got tension or interesting story-twists (The story ‘Neighbors’ is a good example). If it’s not ‘epic’, it’s a crime/detective stories. But what about a game that is more like the movie ‘Grave of the Fireflies’? The main characters in his movie is not fighting for freedom or trying to save the world, they are simply human beings trying to survive and move on with their lives. I think game writers have to start trusting the small stories, the subtle writing and storytelling instead of going for the big picture all the time. Grim Fandango, Gabriel Knight 3, The Longest Journey (TLJ) - they all have strong characters. While some people hated the slow beginning of TLJ, I loved just walking around talking to April’s friend and going to the art school. And although TLJ has an epic story, it starts out small. A normal art student in a small city. You don’t need fantasy all the time for a story to be interesting, but you need characters that you can really relate to.

One of the things that has made me really excited lately was the E3 video of Peter Moleyneux’ Project Milo, which uses all the best parts of the Project Natal camera/controller technology. Imagine adventure game developers getting their hands on this!

Oh, this post is just too long and repetitive, but it’ll do for now, I hope.

Kasper F. Nielsen Kasper F. Nielsen
Jul 20, 2009

What a great new feature on the site, and it got kicked off briliantly. A very interesting read Mr. Ince, I certainly hope the other developers will bring as interesting stuff to the table. Thanks!

Jackal Jackal
Jul 20, 2009

Great topic, Steve. Having grappled with these issues myself, I think any issue of wider appeal always seems to reach the same impasse now: gameplay. Adventures have always made puzzles the heart of their gameplay (just gameplay, not referring to story and exploration), and puzzles now seem to have limited value. Casual games and more adventures are turning to minigames to supplement the puzzles, and while that makes them more accessible, I think the shallow nature of minigames will make for a short shelf life on that idea. Quantic Dream has gone the interactive movie route, and like you, I applaud the effort. But (and this is coming from someone who liked Fahrenheit), Lord knows that Simon Says and QTE’s aren’t viable solutions to story-based gaming beyond the odd one-off experiment. So I think the question for BioWare, and even progressive thinking adventure developers is: if not combat, then what? And if not puzzles, what then? I’ve yet to see any particularly convincing answers to that question. I’m encouraged to see it being asked, though. Smile

Jul 20, 2009

I think the reason why narrative games are so wedded to combat - beyond the traditional target demographic - is that this mechanic provides reliable positive feedback on a regular basis. In a game reliant on puzzles (most adventures) you can spend hours with narrative and gameplay stalled over an element you can’t solve. Combat - however implemented - is going to provide a lot of nested effort-reward cycles. Even if your skills can’t get you past a tough level in an fps, for example, you still have the progressively larger achievements of 1) hitting enemies 2) killing enemies 3) progressing further spatially 4) encountering a new type of enemy etc. etc. - even if you die it still feels like you have made some achievements, with the potential to make more.  A lot of games are interactive crack, and adventures don’t tend to be - even when a good adventure builds artful puzzles that progress with successive rewards, the cycle can stall completely. Hence the popularity of non-combat based games with reliable reward cycles - like the hidden object type. They’re virtual crack for (forgive the gross stereotypical oversimplification) housewives not teenage boys.

Jul 20, 2009

Oh, and great article - thought provoking, as you can see!

Jul 20, 2009

I agree with some of what Steve says, but I have to take issue with this:

“If you took out the combat and transposed [Mass Effect] to a real-world setting, what would you have?”

Well… a very short movie, basically. I wouldn’t necessarily mind seeing more RPG elements (large open worlds, lots of characters to interact with) in AGs, but I think it’s a bit simplistic to say “take the combat out of an RPG and you’ll have an adventure”). The reality is that if you take the combat out of most RPGs, including Mass Effect, you’ll have virtually nothing left. There’s more to adventure games - or any other type of game - than narrative and dialogue.

Steve Ince Steve Ince
Jul 21, 2009

Thanks for the great feedback and comments everyone.

Ksandra - Yes, you’re absolutely right.  I realise now that what I had in my head didn’t quite make it to the words.  Take the combat out of Mass Effect and you have the conversational interactivity of an adventure game and the gameplay that goes with this THEN you would have to add in some kind of puzzle-like gameplay or you would definitely have an interactive movie.  Sorry I wasn’t clearer.

Jul 21, 2009

Well, in that case I certainly agree. Unfortunately I can’t see any AG developer getting Mass Effect-style budgets in the near future, unless some eccentric millionaire decides to fund one as a vanity project or something (though I’d certainly love to see it). As for the idea that a company like Bioware might switch to making AGs… I’m still a little skeptical, to be honest. Their comments are certainly encouraging, but I think they’d have to be convinced of a big audience before splashing out on an AAA adventure title.

Steve Ince Steve Ince
Jul 21, 2009

And even if they did, I doubt they’d actually call them adventures.  But we’ll know what they are.  Wink

Jul 24, 2009

Yeah, that’s all semantics. I mean, it’s really just a category we humans made up to wrap our heads around a bunch of games. I have a hard time thinking of Crowther one day sitting down and saying: “I’m going to make an adventure game!” Or anyone at the incredible talented bunch of folks at Lucasfilm of old one day at a meeting jumping up and going: “Oh my, let’s make a point&clicker; next!”

These lads had their ideas, they knew they had to deal with technological and budget constraints as much as every developer in some way or other - unless they’re called Blizzard Entertainment, that is. And they tried to breathe life into their ideas given the technology and budget available to them. Everything else… well, humans. Semantics. And so on.

That said, yeah, if Bioware goes down a route of making a non-combat-game, I wouldn’t expect them to suddenly come up with a bunch of MacGuyver-style conundrums a la Gobliiins or live action logics puzzles a la Myst or something. There’s an optional side quest in Kotor that has you investigating a murder. It’s all dialogue. And it demands you to pay attention and ponder about it too. Probably a good indication of things that might come one day as any.

Oh, and that’s a remarkably tidy desk!

tsa tsa
Aug 10, 2009

A few random comments on the article:
The term ‘combat-free game’ reminds me of Dreamfall. Dreamfall could easily contain much, much more combat, or no combat at all, and it would still have a fantastic story. If Dreamfall without combat is the future of AG’s, I’m all for it.
I don’t get what you tried to say with the family games thing. AG’s are still games you don’t play with the whole family; I’d rather play them alone than even with one extra person (Myst Online excepted).
That brings me to the question: do you see a future in online multiplayer adventure games like Myst Online?
I wish I had seen the article earlier. It was a very interesting read. I must go have a look at the homepage more often.

Jackal Jackal
Aug 10, 2009

“Family games” just refers to games that anyone in the family can pick up and play, as opposed to those designed strictly for the hardcore gamer. And (to your last comment) yes, you should! Grin

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