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).


A 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.

After 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.

Continued on the next page...


Steve Ince Steve Ince
Aug 28, 2009

Excellent article.  I agree with everything Aaron wrote.  It’s actually spooky how much his views echo my own.

Ascovel Ascovel
Aug 28, 2009

It’s not exactly clear to me what the 1970s cop analogy refers to. It makes me think of massive multiplayer games, or games with repetitive gameplay like Tetris which I personally find overdrawn and boring to spend much time on.

In games I’m looking for condensed experiences with a definite beginning and end and with varied content throughout that I can play over short periods of time. Most adventure games (old and new) give me that feeling - even if I don’t have time to finish each and everyone. Games like World of Goo or Braid are perfect experiences of this type with their endless amount of new (sometimes better, sometimes worse) concepts.

Jackal Jackal
Aug 28, 2009

I think you’re taking the analogy too literally, Ascovel, but lots of old games were bloated by artificial time fillers. Ever map a maze back in the day? (Just one example.) I’ll echo the other sentiments of appreciation for the article. Its many points mirror my own thoughts as well, though as with Steve’s, this topic selection and article content were entirely up to the respective writers. Wink But just for the record, I totally wish it was me who coined the term “golden childhood”. Dammit.

Ascovel Ascovel
Aug 28, 2009

I don’t agree that you are describing something unique for older adventure games, Jack. The last maze I remember going through is from the newest Tales of Monkey Island episode. There was also the coupon finding and collecting thing that served no purpose besides the player having an additional run-around before obtaining items printed on the coupons. It’s just one new game example. And this particular game still manages to be a lot of fun despite such weaker gameplay elements.

Jackal Jackal
Aug 28, 2009

You actually mapped that simple maze? Wink You can argue any single example, and there will always be exceptions, but it’s about degrees. Both for games in general and many games in particular, the shift is definitely towards more accessible gameplay. Even that episode: much simpler maze than many in the past, and tucked inside only a 3-hour game. Very accessible. There still needs to be obstacles, of course; that’s the core of any game, as Aaron said. But it should feel more like fun and less like work to overcome them. Anyway, don’t let my possibly-bad example derail the comments. Grin

Trumgottist Trumgottist
Aug 28, 2009

“I think a true adventure game cannot have a single mechanic.”

A daring statement, but when I think about it I find that I basically agree.

orient orient
Aug 28, 2009

Excellent article. Traditional adventure games, minus the obscurity and frustration, have a potentially huge market that encompasses both the casual & adventure gamer. 100% agreed.

Everyone likes a good story - the challenge is to convince people that video games *can* have good stories. I mean, how many people bought Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code? 40 million? You convince a quarter of those people that video games can tell good stories and you’ve got an adventure game bigger than Halo 3. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to take a long time for that to happen, but at least we’re taking steps in the right direction.

Aug 29, 2009

I agree with most of it, but towards the end he crushes me. I’m sorry, but an adventure game without a sense of DIY exploration and real problem solving on the GAMER’s part, not the GAME’s is not an adventure game to me.

I fail to see any reason why developers keep bagging on the old adventures, yet in the same breath praise them as the golden era! It’s clear that the later era games just didn’t live up to the originals, but don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. I see no reason in the world why games like King’s Quest 5-7, the Monkey Islands, Fate of Atlantis, etc would be above people’s heads today. There is no reason why people can’t dig into an extended storytelling, problem solving experience over many sessions just like reading a book. People are no different, they just want a really good modern experience. So make great adventure games, with ALL the difficulty of the past classics, just up to date with fresh ideas. That’s it. There’s no reason to eschew difficulty or a little confusion. That just reaks of catering to the lowest common denominator, which is great for marketing, but not great for quality.

VoodooFX VoodooFX
Aug 29, 2009

This was a truly great article, I had a blast reading it.

I think downloadable episodic games are really great way to introduce new gamers to adventures…. and keep us ‘fossils’  still in the loop.

Because I don’t know about the rest of you, but as my life goes on, i find it harder and harder to dedicate the time needed to complete a full sized game. Yes even an adventure game. I find games like latest Monkey island and Sam & Max games before that a perfect format for me. Each month, three hours worth of adventuring, that I can finish in a sitting or two.
And I really like the feature introduced in ep2 of TMI, a summary of story so far at the very beginning.

Should we be lucky enough to see the return of Tex Murphy, I really hope they take an episodic direction with it.

rtrooney rtrooney
Aug 31, 2009

I thought your article was spot on.

Whether it be to keep one’s hand in; develop a new type of adventure; or fund future projects, several designers have gone the Casual Game route. Jane Jensen and Oberon Games immediately comes to mind. (I notice one of her games, “A Darker Shade of Grey,” is advertised at the bottom of this very page.)

I dl’d a demo of your game, and I looks quite impressive. The 3D renderings are better than what I’ve seen in most “real” adventure games.

Kasper F. Nielsen Kasper F. Nielsen
Sep 7, 2009

Mehh, the reason why I dislike many of todays adventure games and prefer many of the old ones is simply because I find the horrible standards of the 3D in adventure games to ruin the games, as opposed to enhance them. I’d much rather have amazing 2D over crappy 3D, such as in the new MI episodic game.

Also, CSI is a horrible horrible show.

Aug 30, 2010

Hey it’s great to read this discussion.  It IS hard to be older and have had salad days in early 90’s when gaming was so new and so exciting.  Now, finding a good adventure game, which to me is a great story game WITH difficulty that can be completed in segments is impossible.  Should explain - I’m from the URU and Longest Journey generation, older when I signed in but found my passion and now it is so hard.  Good games are hard to find but more pointedly are dicey to play as you replace computers.  If online reduces those frustrations at the cost of simpler loading than here’s to that.  It is heartening to hear that there are developers out there who still “get” that people want a story.  That matters.  Hats off and I’ll be looking for your game but will continue to be “sad” that the easy days of loading a top game are long gone.  To your success and mine -

Post a comment

You need to be logged in to post comments. Not a member? Register now!