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Developer’s Desk #2: Aaron Conners - 2010: A Game Design Odyssey

Developer’s Desk
Developer’s Desk

He's not the one up on screen in the trench coat, sneakers, and fedora, so Aaron Conners may be less recognizable to adventure fans than Chris Jones, but the co-writer and designer of the last three highly acclaimed Tex Murphy games is no silent partner. A strong proponent of story-centric gaming and easily one of the most progressive developers this genre has seen, Conners has firm ideas about quality game design that he's always willing to share. And in a career that has taken him through diverse projects from golf games (Links series) to shooters (Brute Force) to snowboarding (Amped 3, for which Conners received a "Best Story" award nomination – story! in a snowboarding game!!), he has experienced the highs and lows of the industry over the years.

With this year's release of 3 Cards to Midnight, Conners (along with Jones once again) has put one foot back in adventure game territory, albeit with the other squarely in the casual games market – a move that's both a stepping stone towards his own grander storytelling goals and a testament to his belief in the opportunity afforded by the exciting new download era. His return also made him a no-brainer to invite as the second contributor to our "Developer's Desk" feature, and we know you'll be glad we did. Read on as Aaron Conners takes us through a whirlwind tour of genre history and into a future that's more hopeful than ever.

2010: A Game Design Odyssey

Aaron Conners

At this year’s Game Developers Conference, I ended up in a tiny little bar having beers and cocktails with the guys from Telltale, who created Bone, the Wallace & Gromit games, and the reincarnations of Sam & Max and Monkey Island. We got to talking about the business of designing games – in particular, creating modern versions of “classic” games with established followings and high expectations. They had just experienced this first-hand, while our group was (and is) hoping to take a shot with a new Tex Murphy game. And, from a game design standpoint, here’s what it all really boiled down to:

“We need to give players the experience they remember having.”

This seemed quite profound to me and, when AG invited me to write something for them, it gave me the idea that I want to talk about: specifically, how we used to design games “back in the day”, how the process and philosophy has evolved since then, and how game design can help usher in a glorious new era of adventure games (or whatever).


Image #1A lot of people think they’d like to be game designers. And I’m sure there are a bunch of you out there that could be excellent game designers. But on behalf of those who’ve actually designed videogames, I want to point out that there’s a tremendous difference between knowing what you like and don’t like and having the skill and understanding to create a game. Have you noticed how seldom you hear well-known game designers criticizing other designers’ work? It’s because we know how tough it is to make a really great game.

Game Designer is a job that’s hard to get and even harder to keep doing. The videogame world is constantly changing, from the demands of the audience to the development cash flow to the Borg-like corporate entities that alternately attack, absorb and blow up. Graphic adventure games have been around for less than a generation and only a handful of us are still around from the days when RAM cost $50 a MB and VGA was a freakin’ acid trip! It’s forced us – like the adventure game genre itself – to adapt and evolve, find new opportunities and outlets just to survive.

So join me, if you will, for a look back at the Good Ol’ Days, the Dark Ages, the Brave New World, and Adventure Gaming World of Tomorrow.

The Good Ol’ Days

I’ll admit, the Good Ol’ Days were pretty darn good. I began working on Under a Killing Moon in 1991 and it was a blast and a dream come true. Like pretty much everyone who would be reading this, I grew up playing games, but this was back in ancient times, when board games ruled the earth. At around age 10, I began making my own games using dice, spinners, rulers, compasses, markers, and poster board – glorious, versatile, potential-filled poster board. I made sports games, war games, fantasy games – pretty much every genre you could imagine. Then, when I was in college, I started designing interactive murder mysteries and hosting parties where everyone would play a character and compete or cooperate to ferret out the killer(s). This process of learning how to tell a story from different characters’ perspectives was my first foray into the world of interactive storytelling.

It also got my foot into the door of the videogame business. Chris Jones, then CFO of Access Software and creator of Tex Murphy, heard about my interactive mysteries and, after checking one out, hired me to work on Killing Moon. It was what I’d always wanted to do – I just didn’t know that you could actually make a living doing it!

And here’s the thing: when you boil game design down to the atomic level – I’m talking about single player, classic adventure game structure, but it really applies across the board – it’s pretty basic: Create an obstacle for the player. Give them the means to overcome it. Repeat. That’s it. All my board games and murder mysteries were, at their core, very similar to the videogames that came later.

So what was it like designing an adventure game in 1991? Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but at Access Software, Chris Jones and I were trying to create The Greatest Game Ever. First, we wanted to create the biggest, most dynamic and open world possible. Back then, Wolfenstein 3D had set the bar for 3D gaming, but its graphics were so-so. The 7th Guest was the best looking game ever made to that point, but there was limited range of movement (pre-rendered motion). Our goal was to combine the two and, to pull that off, we had to create our own 3D engine from scratch.

Image #2After the engine (and the story which, as always, was the foundation of the game), our biggest challenge lay in the gameplay design. Coming from 2D static screen/side-scrollers, we really had to rethink and experiment with ways to take full advantage of the newly added third dimension. To ease the transition, we included a lot of inventory puzzles and what we now refer to as classic adventure game puzzles – assembling torn notes, safe-cracking, etc. – which hadn’t yet become total clichés. In the sequel, we really hit our stride and, as a result, both Under a Killing Moon (1994) and The Pandora Directive (1996) were named Adventure Games of the Year.

[Pats self on back as ominous music begins to play in the background…]

The downside of a gold rush is that everyone and their dog jumps on the bandwagon. It had been an exciting era for everyone: game creators, game players, PC and sound card makers…even Hollywood and the mainstream media got in line for the gravy train known as “The Interactive Movie”! The future fairly reeked with the promise of unlimited creative freedom, riches, and possibly even lovely young starlets looking to get cast in your next big production.

But there were two HUGE problems.

First, like many a Hollywood starlet, we weren’t ready for success. The industry was so young; all of a sudden, videogames were supposed to compete – on a creative level – with television and movies, but the industry was still run primarily by programmers. And while some programmers can design gameplay and write dialogue, often it was their roommates or brothers-in-law that ended up doing the creative work. And it showed. For every good-quality game, there were dozens that absolutely blew. And guess what? A lot of our favorite games are in the “blew” category. Honestly. A few years ago, I played on one of those tricked-out Xboxes that had all the old adventure games from the early ‘90s loaded on it. I was like “Yeah! I’m gonna fire those up and just have so much fun like I did back in the day…” And then I played for about five minutes. Wow. Complete crap.

Which leads me to the second problem: too much focus was put on the technology. Often, some new innovation was enough to sell an otherwise miserable game. Back then, people actually bought games to show off what their PCs could do! Frame rate alone was enough to make us gasp. Live actors in a computer-generated world? Who cares if Christopher Walken is chewing the scenery like a high school drama teacher? Margot Kidder? I thought she was dead! Good story? Optional!

So why did adventure games fall out of fashion?

Go ahead and pick any you agree with: Most of them sucked. Too-high expectations. Too much technology, not enough creativity. The audience became more sophisticated. Independent developers got Pac-manned by soulless corporations. The genre got stale and clichéd.

The Dark Ages


Suddenly, it was hard times for adventure game designers. A lot of us got pigeonholed, the same way a musician might be mocked for trying to be an actor (and vice versa). I was lucky enough to find creative outlets. Most of the games I worked on from 1999 until this past year were AAA console titles. These projects were massive, with millions of dollars in budgets, teams of 100+, and seemingly endless layers of risk-averse management. Some of the projects were fun, some not so much. But I never felt the same thrill as when I was creating the old adventure games.

Brave New World


Fast forward ten years to August, 2009. I cannot begin to describe how excited I am about the new, expanding world of downloadable games. And I’ll wager that virtually every other adventure game designer from back in the day feels the same. When I look around, I see something very similar to the PC world, circa 1993. It was CD-ROM technology then; now, it’s high-speed internet.

My first toe-dip into the pool came earlier this year. Chris Jones and I have a company called Big Finish, Inc., and we released a casual story-based game back in May. It was a learning experience, much like Under a Killing Moon was. We’re proud of and happy with the finished product, but – as always – we know there’s room for improvement and we learned some things that will make the next game an estimated 42% better.

Regardless of where you stand on casual gaming, it’s driven the downloadable game market and presented people like me with a unique opportunity to get back to making the games we WANT to make. I know some hard-core adventure gamers aren’t particularly happy to see adventure game designers going over to the “dark side”, but – at least for me – it’s a means to an end. And frankly, while I’m working toward my ultimate goal, I’d rather create a casual game with a great story than get paid big bucks to produce a multi-million dollar Xbox360 tennis game.

Things haven’t looked this promising in fifteen years. Technology has advanced to the point where we can now license a better engine than the one that took us three years to build. And it’s cheap! There are literally tens of thousands of young graphic artists and programmers looking to get in the game business and, with many more games now in development than five years ago, there are great opportunities. In many ways, this is like the gold rush of 1993, except those of us who are older and wiser are better prepared this time around.

And if you’re still hatin’ on the whole casual game audience, think about this: when I look at the MASSIVE audience of casual gamers, I see a bunch of ADVENTURE GAMERS just waiting to happen.

The Adventure Gaming World of Tomorrow


What makes adventure games unique is that no other genre is centered on story. If an FPS has a story, it’s there to explain who the bad guys are and why you need to kill them. Occasionally, a game like Half-Life will come along that ups the ante – in this case, the story actually featured a PLOT TWIST! Some people speculated that this might qualify Half-Life to be an adventure game. This is crazy talk, of course, but starving people have been known to resort to desperate measures.

There are RPGs, all of which have a “scenario” – a story setting that defines the game world and the characters and quests in it. But is that a story in the adventure game sense? In my mind, adventure games are defined by two vital elements: narrative integrity and spirit of exploration. It’s not about puzzles; it’s about “adventure” (not to be confused with “quest”). With an FPS, you know you’ll get an arsenal of weapons and some type of distinctive terrain. With an RPG, you’ll have character classes and attributes that you’ll upgrade at a rate roughly similar to those of the enemies you encounter. But with an adventure game, you should have no idea what the gameplay has in store for you.

There’s also a lot of discussion these days about the line between casual and adventure. I think a true adventure game cannot have a single mechanic. It doesn’t have to be 3D, but moving, searching and traveling are important aspects. And, most importantly, the story needs to be the backbone of the game. Ideally, it will offer interactivity and give the player at least some control over how the story unfolds. That being said, if you take an objective look at some of the best casual games, I think you’ll see that they’re moving closer all the time to my definition of adventure games. Story is playing a more important role, the gamers are more comfortable with more challenging gameplay, and the audience is getting more sophisticated and asking for deeper, better content.

The two things casual gamers hate are frustration and confusion. And many of the “classic” adventure games were not only frustrating and confusing, they banked on it to extend gameplay. It may be an oversimplification, but in some respects, casual games could be adventure games with the frustration and confusion removed. In other words, take out the aimless wandering with no idea what (if anything) there is to find; always try to make certain the player knows what the current objective is.

So here’s the dilemma: We designers want to make adventure games and you want to play them, but we need to make money to stay in business, so more people need to buy our games. It’s pretty simple math. And that’s where casual games come in. It may take some time, but I honestly believe that we can bring them over to our side and create a happy place on the gaming spectrum.

What’s next?


The 1990s was the golden childhood for adventure games. We look back with warm memories and, for some of us, nothing will ever measure up to the classics. But as a time-traveling game designer, I would encourage people to stop living in the past. This is an exciting time for games, but we have to accept that they must be better – and different – this time around if they’re going to thrive.

It’s like comparing a 1970s cop show to, say, C.S.I. Nowadays, you don’t have a long, uninterrupted shot of an unmarked police car turning a corner, coming down the street, rolling to a stop, doors opening, cops getting out, closing the doors, etc. It’s not important to the story and it’s tedious for today’s audience. Yes, some of us love it because that’s how we are, but you get my point.

Better pacing, less navel-gazing, and I also think it’s a great idea to reduce frustration and confusion. We don’t have to get rid of them altogether – that’s what multiple levels of difficulty are for – but we can’t make games that rely on obscurity and repetition to pad game length. Some of you may love games where you’re free to get lost, stuck, annoyed, etc. – but you’re in the vast minority. Most people want games that are accessible, scalable to their skill level, intuitive, and fun. They want to be able to get in and out easily and do something satisfying without making a huge time commitment. The days of making huge, expensive, obscure exploration games are gone.

For those of us open to change, I think we’ll be downloading some wonderful games over the next months and years. I like the direction things are headed and I love how much potential and opportunity there is out there right now. If we play our cards right, let’s hope that soon we’ll all get to enjoy a huge resurgence in adventure games.

Developer's Desk headline art designed by Dan Lee.


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