AdventureX 2014 - Part 2: The People
Reporting from E3, GDC, AdventureX, Gamescom and other gaming events around the world
AdventureX 2014 wasn't all just game demonstrations. Over the course of the two days there were a variety of presentations on all-things-genre-related. Talks covered periods from the past 20 years of a well-known Spanish studio to the future of games up to 2050. Those thinking of starting their own games could get tips from those who had already achieved success in doing so. There was even a presentation from yours truly on our own Following Freeware article series, covering four years of the top free indie adventures. Add to that a crazy quiz of adventuring knowledge and the chance to chat with gaming luminaries as they took their place on the Hot Seat, and there was something for everyone.
Josué Monchan –Twenty Years of Pendulo Studios
Josué Monchan is a game developer who also specialises in localising games into his native Spanish. One of the projects he is most proud of is a game for Save the Children that teaches children their rights. The tricky part of this project was getting the message across whilst fitting a child’s attention span and managing to make it fun. Inexplicably to Josué, whilst the game is available in Spanish, there have been no moves to translate it into English. His current main project is Blues and Bullets, an episodic noir thriller with a somewhat older target audience. For adventure gamers, however, even if you don’t know his name, you’re likely very familiar with his work, as for the last ten years he has worked for Pendulo Studios. His talk covered the ups and downs of the studio over its two-decade existence, and the lessons to be learned from them.
Back in 1994 when the studio was founded, there was nothing in Spain that could be called a games industry. Pendulo Studios were the first developers to really set up in the country. Unlike today, there was also no ready availability of game engines, so everything needed to be built from the ground up. Their inspiration for developing adventure games was LucasArts. This was clear in their debut release, Igor: Project Uikokahonia, which bears some resemblance to 1992’s Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. During their next project, Monchan claims that the first lesson was learned: that a developer should treat each game as if it were their last. If you hold back good ideas when they can be used in a game, you risk the game you produce being poorer for it. This sophomore title was Hollywood Monsters, which was based on the premise that horror movie monsters were not people in make-up but actual creatures. Whilst the concept was good, the gameplay was not thought through properly and resulted in players feeling overwhelmed (an issue they later corrected for international release when the concept was reworked as The Next BIG Thing.)
The company’s next project was Runaway, the first to see a major release outside Spain, and therefore incorrectly thought to be their first game by many. With this, Josué felt that the studio finally found their own voice, creating their own graphic style and no longer aping others. Here another lesson was learned: trust the publisher, but remember it is your game. The distribution was initially handled by Dinamic Multimedia, which went bust soon after its release, putting the publishing rights at risk as a result. The game was subsequently picked up by FX Interactive, which was founded by ex-Dinamic Multimedia staff.
He was kidding
The success of Runaway led Pendulo to make a sequel, The Dream of the Turtle, with disastrous results. The main problem was that the game was given a large budget, but the planning necessary to handle that budget was not in place. The result was that the game grew beyond control, without proper direction. At the same time, the decision was made to release the game in six languages, with localisation to be added in a further thirteen. The translation costs alone skyrocketed, which ate up far more of the overall budget than originally anticipated. As a champion of localisation, Josué felt largely responsible for encouraging this, leading him to jokingly suggest the lesson “Don’t Hire Josué Monchan.” There was also a failure to listen to criticism. In Germany, this led to the phrase “Runaway Syndrome” becoming common in gaming circles after a poor design decision. It describes the situation where a player takes a single object they need at the time from a container, but the player is given no indication that other objects that will be useful later are still in there. The subsequent third instalment, Twist of Fate, sought to learn from these mistakes.
“Beware the Bubble” was the next lesson. The first example of this danger was when Pendulo was assured that the Nintendo DS was the future of adventure gaming. They invested heavily in cartridges before the huge enthusiasm for the system died down, and ended up losing money on the deal. Having struggled to achieve any new successes, they then went on to make a new Runaway game on the 10th anniversary of the original release. But what may have started as a good idea at the time is now looked back on as a terrible idea by Josué and his fellow designers. The game was Hidden Runaway, a hidden object adventure whose only real link to the original was the presence of the same lead characters and settings. The game was largely ignored by the adventure gaming public, to the bemusement of the publisher who didn’t grasp the distinction.
In recent years, Monchan feels that the studio has managed to move with the times. Yesterday achieved widespread critical acclaim and has been a success in terms of sales. There has been a move towards catering to the more casual gamer, with the puzzles taking a back seat for more focus on the story. There have also been moves to make friends with other developers and interact on forums, an activity Josué heavily participated in over the course of the weekend. Pendulo Studios may have had its rough patches, but with enthusiastic and engaging people like Josué Monchan on board, I hope they continue to produce games well into the future. And with the recent news that Pendulo has signed an agreement with Microïds to produce a brand new (as-yet-untitled) adventure, they may very well get that chance.
Francisco Gonzalez – Dos and Don’ts of Writing in Adventure Games
With an extensive freeware career behind him, and a recently-commenced commercial career with Wadjet Eye (A Golden Wake) keeping him busy presently, Francisco Gonzalez has a lot of experience with game creation. In this short talk, he tried to pass on the lessons he has learned for writing them in a way that works.
The first lesson is to neither hold everything back, nor get too carried away. If a character looks at a door and simply says “It’s a door” then that is a disappointingly boring response. If they instead recount their entire life experience of doors, then the player becomes overwhelmed with irrelevant information. The trick is to aim for the middle ground, providing a little information with relevance to the game if possible. By way of example, he showed a character from his newest project, noting that a door seemed to be rather well-made for the abandoned building it was attached to. This made the door more than just a mundane object, and hinted that there might be more to the building than meets the eye. Thus useful information is conveyed to the player in a natural way.
When it comes to characters speaking to one another, dialogue can often end up unbelievable. Francisco stressed the need to think about how people actually speak, and try to mimic that. Fail to do so, and it is all too easy for non-player characters to become nothing more than living signposts, only there to convey certain information to the player. Gonzalez felt he had lapsed into this latter problem with Percy in the Ben Jordan games, who often seemed to spend time reciting great chunks of exposition. By considering what makes the character interesting, whether their social class, race, or origins, you can tailor the dialogue to match that background. If you are unsure whether something sounds like natural speech or not, try saying it out loud. On more than one occasion, he has found that dialogue that looked perfectly fine on paper sounded peculiar when vocalised.
Running the writing past an editor who is a native speaker is a vital step. This is most important when dealing with translations, but cultural differences are also relevant. Especially when dealing with slang, the differences between what is natural in the US and the UK, for example, are huge. Writing that sounds unnatural for the setting kills immersion in a game faster than almost anything else. Finally, on a related note, the words themselves need to be carefully considered. Playing a game is fun. Having to stop every few minutes to look up a series of obscure or unfamiliar words is not.
Whilst having no plans to go into game writing myself, the insights from someone of Francisco’s experience proved fascinating. I hope that those who do write adventure games will take his advice on board, as those games will be the better for it.
Theodor Waern (Hot Seat)
The convention had a Hot Seat area where various gaming luminaries were available at set times for question and answer sessions. There I caught up with Theodor Waern, part of the team behind The Journey Down, and got to ask him about the development of the game and the history of his studio, Skygoblin.
The Journey Down: Chapter 2
The first two chapters of The Journey Down are now available on a variety of platforms. These currently include PC, Mac, Linux and iOS, though the team is looking at expanding to other platforms. This expansion is somewhat limited by the team only currently containing one programmer, however. They prefer to use the term chapters rather than episodes, as they feel that calling them episodes creates an expectation of the much shorter release cycle of Telltale’s series. Work on the third and final chapter is ongoing, with most of the funding required in place to bring it to fruition.
Way back in August 2010, the first chapter was released as a freeware version using AGS, and is still available for download. Soon after this, the decision was made to turn the game into a commercial proposition using their own engine, Gobby, with much higher graphics quality. At this stage, there were two programmers on the team, Mathias Johansson and Markus Larsson. Markus was more interested in the tech challenges of engine creation so he has since left the team officially, but he is still called in as a freelancer when particular challenges arise.
The first chapter was primarily the brainchild of Waern himself, with the second chapter being much more of a collaborative effort with artist Henrik Englund and the programmers. Theo made clear he was pleased with how well the team works together. All feel comfortable pitching ideas back and forth, knowing they will be respected. This respect also involves being honest with each other about how good or bad ideas are. As a result, bad design decisions that may have slipped through before are now being stopped at an early stage. In a piece of extraordinary timing, they managed to get the game onto Steam just as Greenlight was being launched, which meant not having to get the community approval now required. Achieving this took some smooth talking, however, as there was some expectation from Steam that they would be part of the early stages of implementation for the content approval system.
Skygoblin has actually been in operation for nine years in total, though originally under the name SLX. At first they created mobile projects and advergames, but they were also involved in the creation of Nord, a non-violent MMO that made use of the micro-payment model before it became popular. Unfortunately, they also adopted the model before the technical kinks had been ironed out, with the result that, whilst they had lots of players, they only just covered costs. Even embedding the game into Facebook using Java 3D did not make it take off, and lessons were learned. But now that they’re established with a well-known game, and having a strong and cheery presence at the convention, Skygoblin look here to stay.
Jon Ingold (Hot Seat)
When Jon Ingold’s slot for a Hot Seat question and answer session came up, he eschewed the remote area for the more populated exhibition space, where I managed to catch up with him for a talk about inkle studio.
This has been a good year for inkle, with 80 Days being released to widespread critical acclaim. In making the game, Jon claims there was a desire to give it a rogue-like feel. In such games, knowledge picked up in early playthroughs usually enables the player to progress more easily in repeat plays. In 80 Days, this knowledge includes not only what routes are faster, but where objects can be bought and sold to generate the most funds for the journey. With multiple routes possible, each section of travel allows for different stories to play out. One that has frustrated some players is a journey on an experimental boat on which a murder is committed. Players have a very limited amount of time to investigate the murder, making it quite likely they will fail to solve it. With no facility to rewind the journey, players are forced to leave the matter unresolved, a possibility intended by the developers. Using the rogue-like principles, those wishing to answer the mystery must play through that route again, with the knowledge from their first trip focussing their enquiries a second time round. An expansion covering the North Pole is near to launch, with several thousand additional words added to the text. An Android version should also be released soon.
Inkle have also released Down Among the Dead Men an adaptation of a Choose Your Own Adventure book in which you take on the role of an ordinary seaman, captured and pressed into the service of the cruel and vicious pirate Skarvench. Over the course of the book you escape from Skarvench’s clutches and plot a way to bring the criminal to justice. Although launching later, this predates 80 Days in production and is more limited in its gameplay. Having played through and enjoyed the game myself, I was curious about a reference to fate having saved me two times in my final evaluation. Jon reassured me that there was no element of luck built into the system, the reference being related to the difficulty setting chosen at the start. You can choose whether you live in a cruel, fair or kind world. In a cruel world, the gameplay most closely mirrors the original text, with sudden death being a more common occurrence. In a fair world death is still possible, but only if you’ve done something that really merits it. In a kind world you simply cannot die. The luck reference is simply a measure of how many times you survived when the original text would have killed you.
Down Among the Dead Men
A few other projects have been produced lately by inkle. The Penguin group commissioned an app to help people learn to recite poems from memory. There has also been an attempt to get well-known authors to write new interactive books. The first of these is available on the app store, Kelley Armstrong’s Cainsville Files, utilising a somewhat different interface than other inkle products. This first foray into getting established authors writing interactive stories has demonstrated that the linear format of a traditional book and the branching of interactive fiction have greater differences than first anticipated. Inkle have also released an anthology of short interactive stories, Future Voices, the winners of a competition making use of the inklewriter engine. Whilst they would love to repeat this endeavour, the time required and the lack of return on the resources invested makes it unlikely they will be able to do so in the near future.
Stephen Brown – Followed Freeware
On early Sunday afternoon came the best talk of the convention. A stylishly-clad gentleman strode up to the platform at the front of the room and enthralled a huge crowd. Of course, since that stylishly-clad gentleman was me, it’s possible my recollection of the event may be somewhat biased. What is more certain is that attempting to fit four years of the Following Freeware article series into a 30-minute time slot proved something of a challenge. Having covered well over 400 games in detail, there wasn’t even time to list all of the names. Instead I had to settle for a selection that, in my opinion, best encapsulated the experience of four years on the job. As I took to the stage, and noted the number of freeware developers in the audience, I just had to hope no-one would be upset by any omission.
AG's own Stephen Brown... Retina-burning shirt alert! (photo courtesy of AdventureX)
The resulting talk was very much a whistle-stop tour of the recent freeware scene. Some games referenced came from bizarre concepts, such as Eddie’s Lament, the zombie apocalypse game where every action results in a verse written in the style of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”. Others were built on clever concepts, like Wages of Darkness, where the titular darkness forces the player to search a pitch black screen. For gamers that complain that time limits are too short, I cited 400 years, which provides you that much game time to complete your quest. I also drew attention to the potential future of gaming on display in Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, drawn, voiced and written by then-5-year-old Cassie. (Dave Gilbert later said his daughter Eve would now have to make a game by age 3).
Facts gleaned both during the convention and in the run-up to it also came into play. I was able to explain the reason why Death is the zombie mayor’s assistant in the Reality-on-the-Norm universe: because, in his first ever game The Repossessor, Dave Gilbert made it so. I was also able to share that, from a teaser screenshot posted by Francisco Gonzalez, I knew what the Wadjet Eye Mystery game was ahead of time. Furthermore, I revealed that the planned grand backstory implied by the freeware episodes of Technobabylon was an illusion, James Dearden having confessed to me that he made it up as he went along.
It was an exhausting but satisfying talk to give, and I hope that those who attended thought it was worthwhile. I wonder if I can convince the organisers to let me have a two-day time slot to do it properly next year.
Alexander Birke – Managing Workflows
Alexander Birke’s first experience of game development was Machine Island, which started out as a Danish student project in early 2012. He was also involved in the National Filmschool of Denmark’s Shadow of Kharon, still freely available on the App Store. Now working on the release of Rumpus Animation’s Bertram Fiddle adventures, he has picked up some tricks along the way to make development workflows easier. Illustrated by both stills from his upcoming game and animated demonstrations of his ideas in action, Alexander espoused five principles for making game creation easier.
Alexander Birke shares his five key workflow principles
Firstly, where possible: automate. Brain waves are a precious commodity, so there is no point in wasting them on repetitive tasks. Some activities lend themselves more obviously to automation than others, such as handling the import of content. But Alexander has managed to automate less obvious areas. He has created a utility called Unigayo that allows lip-syncing to be added more easily to Unity-based games. Using this utility to streamline the process, it has become possible to lip-sync 150 lines per day, when 20 to 30 was the previous norm. Secondly, if it cannot be automated, try to make the experience more pleasant. This mainly revolves around using tools to manage in-game activities more easily. Story chain guides and a conversation/timeline tool can give an easy-to-follow structure to the game. Having these run alongside in-game action enables tracking what game process run when, making it easier to see where adjustments need to be made.
Birke’s third point was that file structures should be set up to suit the needs of the team. When there are only a handful of large files, the chances of two people wanting to access the same file simultaneously grow. By dividing files up into smaller chunks, even if they need to be combined into a larger file for the finished game (by an automated process, of course) the odds of conflicts are reduced. Another important principle is accepting that you are going to make mistakes, so you should make finding them easier. The timeline tool Alexander uses really paid dividends in this respect. In the demo he showed, deleting an in-game object caused all the in-game events and interactions in the timeline requiring that object to light up red. This alerts the user immediately of what they have impacted instead of having to go through code line by line and possibly missing connections. Another tool had also been integrated that allowed time to be adjusted, altering the speed that commands were processed, including animations. This made it possible to skip past trouble-free areas, then slow down to examine sections with issues in detail. Finally, and possibly most importantly, good planning pays off. Whilst errors may be inevitable, a bit of thinking ahead should at least cut them down significantly.
Development will never be a simple task, and a lot of work goes into the games that we love. Whilst they won’t solve every issue, the tips highlighted by Alexander Birke should at least make the process a bit easier.
Ali’s Adventurer’s Tavern Quiz
The otherwise sociable convention atmosphere took a more confrontational turn on Sunday afternoon. A group of gamers split into two teams in the main auditorium to take part in a showdown of gaming knowledge. Each team had to select a captain to choose the definitive answer in cases of team dispute. One half of the auditorium elected Francisco Gonzalez, cosplaying as Ben Jordan especially for the event, to lead them. The other half decided to elect yours truly to the role, possibly influenced by my brightly-coloured performing shirt. This was perhaps not the best choice, as I soon found a day and a half of the convention, including a talk on four years of freeware, had wiped all adventure knowledge from my brain. So the stage was set for the epic battle between Team Green Trousers and Team Hawaiian Shirt.
Nelly Cootalot’s Alasdair Beckett-King led proceedings, with his lovely assistant Rachel keeping score. First up were questions on Golden Age classics, of which Francisco proved a powerhouse of knowledge. Then came Pixel Hunt!, a free-for-all round in which small parts of adventure gaming scenes were shown with players from both sides shouting out where they came from. Identifying King’s Quest 1 from barely a dozen pixels, Team Green Trousers leapt ahead. To complement the Golden Age round, 21st Century(ish) Adventures made up the third round (the ish referring to the fact that some came out in 1999). Another free-for-all round of Mystery Music followed, with short and long samples of the same tunes being played. Though guesses weren’t readily forthcoming for the single-second samples, the complete versions proved more recognisable. My brain sparked temporarily into action on this one, identifying the 11th Hour theme after throwing out a series of almost correct answers in quick succession. Indie gems followed and then we had the Odd-One-Out round. This included characters who had died and come back, and characters with common modes of transport. Behind the Scenes, addressing games production, was the penultimate round, Team Hawaiian Shirt scrabbling for extra points any way we could justify them. A last free-for-all round, Christmas Rebuses, topped off the fun with mash-ups of adventure game scenes and characters created to represent Christmas songs.
Team Green Trousers narrowly (cough) beats out Team Hawaiian Shirt
I’d like to say Team Hawaiian Shirt won the day. Alas, even the close second of our final score was probably more down to the generosity of the other team in allowing shaky answers to get points. Regardless, the quiz made for good, slightly anarchic, fun. The questions themselves covered a nice variety of gaming knowledge, and Alasdair did a good job of wrangling a bunch of unruly adventure fans to see it through with his trademark light humour. Limited edition Nelly Cootalot doubloons (a batch created for the Kickstarter that had been made with the engraving erroneously created as a negative image) were handed out to all as prizes for taking part. As a special bonus, having lent my reporting notepad to the scorer, I also gained an exclusive original artwork, though this painfully appears alongside proof of my team’s defeat.
Jon Hare – Sensible Software
Three decades ago, Sensible Software were one of the big names in home gaming circles. Having both a Commodore 64 and an Amiga now tucked away in my attic, it's clear they had a profound influence on my own early gaming experiences. In this talk, Jon Hare recounted the story behind his long gaming career.
Back in the early ‘80s, Jon Hare and his friend Chris Yates had dropped out of school and were in a band together. In 1985, taking advantage of the 30-day trial arrangements of various catalogues, Chris repeatedly ordered a Spectrum from a succession of outlets. Returning each within the time limit, he never ended up buying any of them, but that time allowed him to learn to program. The two men then took this knowledge to a small company called LT software, who were writing games for System 3, one of the big studios of the era. Here they helped produce the well-known International Karate and the more obscure Twister: Mother of Charlotte (working title – Mother of Harlots). It did not take them long to work out that, whilst they did the majority of the work, their share of the return was poor.
At the time, in an attempt to encourage entrepreneurship, the Government Enterprise Scheme offered start-up funds to new businesses. Engaging in a certain amount of manoeuvring to meet the qualification criteria, Jon and Chris received a grant and they first set up Sensible Software. 1986 saw their first game release, the side-scrolling shooter Parallax. Whilst obviously dated now compared to modern games, the use of shading and parallax scrolling to create a 3D effect was impressive for the time. They managed to sign a deal with Ocean, the biggest publisher in Europe at the time, but agreed to a cash advance with no royalties, a decision they later came to regret. Their second game, Wizball in 1987, achieved Game of the Decade status in top Commodore 64 magazine ZZap!64, but was once more compensated on an advance-but-no-royalties basis. The same year they took one of their design tools and released it to the general public to widespread acclaim. That utility was the Shoot-em-up Construction Kit, which allowed users to create their own simple games, including four demonstration games to work with.
For a while they worked with Origin, a major force in roleplaying games at the time, to create a game called Touchstone. In this game the hero sought a cure for his wife’s illness, and travelled between four worlds to achieve it. Three of the worlds, Body, Brain and Soul, were within his wife’s ravaged body, the fourth being reality. Whilst its designers were enthusiastic for the project, unfortunately it ended up being cancelled. In the early 1990s, Hare and Yates made a move to the Amiga with a game called Mega-lo-Mania. In this game a new planet was forming, and the player, seeking to be the new god of this planet, guided their followers to conquer the land. This concept took some inspiration from Populous, which came out earlier that year, having cavemen advance through different levels of innovation. However, Mega-lo-Mania is believed to be the first game with a researchable tech tree, having beaten Civilization to release by a matter of months.
Having learned their lessons on contracts, Sensible Software’s arrangements with Mirrorsoft had 50% royalty arrangements built in. It was here that the first instalment of the company’s most famous game series, Sensible Soccer, was born. Whilst still featuring fairly low-resolution graphics, the game featured teams from leagues all round the world, with colours matching those of the real teams as far as possible. This gave the game international appeal, because it was possible for nearly everyone to play with teams they knew well. Mirrorsoft was subsequently brought down by revelations of financial fraud following the death of Mirror Group founder, Robert Maxwell. Fortunately, Sensible Software recovered the rights to the game in this collapse.
Jon details a career dating back to 1986 (photo courtesy of AdventureX)
In 1993 came Cannon Fodder, a war game with a difference. Whilst the gameplay made its simple top-down shooting action fun, each soldier in the game was individually named. Successfully completing missions saw soldiers go up in rank, marked by a change of insignia in the mission review screen. The same screen also provided a list of all those who had been killed in the mission. Crucially, this review was unskippable, forcing the player to sit through the entire list of the dead, which could take quite some time on the tougher missions. This brought the horror of war home to players in a way that was often ignored in war games. That reality was reinforced by the hill on the title screen, where a line of recruits waited to sign up for future missions, having a grave added to it for each dead soldier. In a macabre twist, the higher the rank of the deceased soldier, the more ornate their grave marker. When a sequel was created, the development was largely left in the hands of an independent team without appropriate oversight, resulting in fantastical elements being introduced that watered down the game’s impact.
With the arrival of the late ‘90s, the two friends’ previous success drove them into some self-indulgent development that did not see commercial release. A huge amount of resources were put into a game titled Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll. This was intended to be an adventure in which the lead character had a variety of addictions, with the player required to try to keep them all satisfied at once. Whilst a lot of work went into the production, this game never saw the light of day, ultimately being dropped by the proposed publishers. Fortunately for Sensible Software, the decision by the publishers to pull the plug meant they did not have to repay the advance for failing to deliver the game.
Sensible Software was ultimately sold to Codemasters in 1999, along with the intellectual properties associated with the business. Jon Hare continues to work in game creation to this day, including adaptations of some of the earlier works to different platforms.
Joey Jones – Interactive Fiction Today
When he was a young man, Joey Jones had a passing interest in point-and-click adventure games. Then a friend of his had an idea for a philosophy-based game that, partly due to the difficulty of covering the content in any other form, was a text adventure. It was the first game he had really played, and Joey was hooked. Now a leading member of the Interactive Fiction Community Forum, Joey sought to share his love of the medium in a short talk.
Joey Jones discusses modern IF
Interactive Fiction refers to games that are primarily text-based, with minimal visuals, if any. Their heyday was in the 1980s and early ‘90s, where the limited graphics capability of computers meant visuals weren’t so much of a draw. Though undoubtedly no longer a mass market format, text adventures continue to be made to this day, even thriving within its independent community of fans. There has been some evolution over the years, eschewing the often brutal difficulty and dead ends that were common in the early text adventures. Browser-based games, using hyperlinks within the text rather than requiring the player to type, have also risen in popularity. So what’s behind this enduring fascination with a commercially-antiquated game style? As Joey Jones sought to demonstrate, IF games have qualities that give them distinct advantages over other presentational formats.
The most obvious is how easy they are for their authors to change. The look of a location can be completely altered in a text adventure by just rewriting the description. Depending on the detail, the same alterations can take weeks or months for a graphic adventure. This also makes it a lot easier for individual developers to create games without the need for a lot of assets. More importantly, text adventures allow you to do things that would be impossible in other formats. Wordplay has been used extensively in some games. The Infocom adventure Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It was entirely made up of chapters using such things as common expressions and homonyms to change the environment. More recently, Counterfeit Monkey incorporated a device that allowed you to remove letters, changing objects like plans into pans. With the results of the 20th annual Interactive Fiction competition attracting 42 entries, it looks like text adventures are still a major force to be reckoned with today.
Ernest W Adams – The Future of Computer Entertainment to 2050
As founder of the International Game Developers Association, Ernest Adams could be said to know a thing or two about gaming. Starting as a software engineer in 1989, he waited for the hardware to reach a point where games would be more than just square blobs on a screen. The advent of 256 colours, the Sound Blaster and the 386 processor saw him launch his game career, joining Electronic Arts in 1992. As with many game programmers of the era, he started in the sports division, intending to spend a year or so there. The next six years saw him working continuously on the Madden NFL series of games, ultimately taking the role of game design. Whilst possibly not the most exciting of jobs, the flagship nature of the series at least meant his job was safe when lay-offs were in the cards. In 1999, Adams moved to Bullfrog in the UK and worked there for a year. His immigration status prevented him from getting a new job beyond that, forcing him to become an independent. Now with dual UK/US citizenship, Ernest is a consultant and lecturer in games design theory.
His review of the future of gaming started from where we are now. Graphics have reached a point where near-realistic modelling is perfectly possible, but animation still has a way to go to catch up. This is particularly true when human models physically interact with one another, with the malleability of the body on impact proving tricky to get right. Adams believes that inverse kinematics, where you consider the end result and then work back how you’d get there, may help solve a lot of problems. If nothing else, it prevents someone from designing a smooth animation only to discover that it causes limbs to overlap with the floor when put into action.
Artificial intelligence has also reached something of an impasse. Programmed opponents have started to overcome the limitations of early games. A wall of sandbags or a lone soldier in one corner of the map should not plague games anymore. More difficult is AI for teammates, who are supposed to work alongside the player, reacting to their unpredictable actions almost immediately. Anyone who has ever groaned at the prospect of an escort mission knows just how painful poor teammate AI can be. With headset mikes and fully-voiced games being the norm these days, voice recognition is also a problem. To get a game to recognise any gamer’s accent without training is next to impossible. Even if it can recognise the words, interpreting natural language as opposed to pre-set commands is an unsolved issue at present. Generating natural responses, as opposed to pre-recorded sound clips the player hears repeatedly, is proving equally difficult.
Of course, as games have got more detailed and complicated, the costs in both time and money for creating that content has risen. Pre-rendered procedural content generation is partly an answer to this, especially for objects that largely follow a similar pattern. There are already companies specialising in creating certain sorts of assets for games, such as SpeedTree which solely creates trees and plants. With the essential structure created automatically, game developers only have to tailor the results for the specific content they need. Real-time procedural content generation is the ideal, but doing this requires a lot more processing power than current home devices have.
This will no doubt change in the future, however. Over a very short space of time, the speed, RAM capacity and overall power of home user hardware have increased dramatically. Even mobile devices now contain more computing power than mainframes had less than a lifetime ago. Specialised peripherals have grown in recent years, devices like the Kinect offering new ways of interacting, though as an extra cost add-on at present. Artificial Intelligence hardware is being developed, and parallel processing is already seeing some use. A specialised piece of hardware, the AISeek chip, is also being created with the aim of solving the problem in a smaller package.
Demographic challenges also face developers. With 1.2 billion people owning 57 million PCs and 400 million mobile phones, India is undoubtedly a big market. But for games to be successful in a non-Western market, the games themselves have to adapt to local culture. Gamers will buy games made for a different market if that is all that is available, but locally relevant content will always make better sales. The main problem holding back development in these areas is piracy. There are organisations which, if they can get a gold disc, will within hours make a product virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Properly enforced legislation is likely to be needed before these markets see their full potential. Alternatively, other business models such as free games with in-game purchases to assist the player may be the way forward. D & D Online saw its revenue go up 500% when it switched from subscription to a fee with in-game purchases. The age and gender of gamers have also seen a shift. The average gamer is now aged 31, and the under-18s are no longer a single child market, but a series of age bands with different demands. At the same time, 48% of players are now female (52% in the UK), so targeting teenage boys is now cutting out a large part of the market.
Ernest on stage at AdventureX 2014
Ernest thinks that the future will see some things change, but not all. Processors will get better, and specialised processors or parallel processing is likely to be the next big advance. Controllers should also improve, with motion-sensing devices giving precision far in excess of the current Kinect technology. Electronic distribution has made a big difference to the market for smaller games, but downloading epics with gigabytes of content is still too slow. As speed improves, larger games will be offered, and it will even be possible to have on-demand gaming, where the game is only stored locally when it is being played. The growth in online use has also vastly expanded the available display space from the physical shelves in a shop to a practically infinite size. Big publishers can no longer dominate, and niche developers with small markets can now get product to their target audience more easily. Mobile devices have also taken over a lot of gaming, though the multiple platforms and interfaces mean that no single device can yet do everything. Whilst these devices are likely to gain greater functionality in the future, Adams doesn’t think any single platform will be suitable for all gaming. History has shown that the rise of the console has not killed PC gaming, with each being best suited to different types of games.
New approaches have to be found for the games themselves as well. Graphics have reached a state where the level of realism no longer impresses. Instead, developers have had to adopt distinctive art styles, such as the impossible architecture design of Monument Valley. Developers will also need to consider that many of their future customers will not have been brought up on standard gaming conventions. Those who have played many traditional shooter and roleplaying games have got used to the idea that you should break everything you can to look for good stuff inside. The worst example of this for Ernest was in Goldeneye, where shooting an oil tanker caused it to explode, bizarrely leaving a medikit in its wake. To someone unfamiliar with the convention, deliberately shooting a nearby explosive object is extremely irrational behaviour. As doing so produced a useful item, such gamers are effectively penalised for not knowing “the rules” and future game designers need to avoid that.
At the end of a detailed lecture, Ernest Adams left us with this final thought: “It’s not about the technologies. It’s about the human beings. Don’t ask what we can build. We can build nearly anything. Ask what you want to build for whom”.
And that's it for another year. AdventureX 2014 was another great convention, with a variety of games on show that bodes well for adventure gaming's foreseeable future. The weekend was intense but fun, and I got the chance to meet some of my gaming heroes along the way. Apologies to those that I didn't manage to cover. Thanks to the organisers for another enjoyable event, and all those game developers that gave their time to make it worthwhile. (Special thanks to Dave Seaman for providing the paracetamol I sorely needed after two days of intense reporting.)
Looking forward to doing it all again next year. Here's to AdventureX 2015!
Article teaser photo provided courtesy of Adventure Treff.