"These days it seems like adventure games are almost a bit of a lost art form...they exist in our dreams, in our memories and... in Germany."
While this statement by Tim Schafer back in 2012 might be slightly exaggerated, there is no doubting the importance of Germany when it comes to the “adventure renaissance” of the last decade-plus. While the genre was reduced mainly to small indie studios throughout many parts of the world, German developers continued to produce high-quality and relatively large-budget games reminiscent of the Golden Era.
Lately, however, it appears that even Germany isn’t immune to changing and challenging market forces. The video game industry has continued to evolve, including the way games are being sold and consumed, and adventure game designers have had to adapt right along with it. Companies like Deck13, KING Art, and Daedalic have all experienced these developments up-close, so the time seemed right to invite each studio’s creative director to a lengthy Skype conversation.
Our first attempt was unfortunately impaired by technical issues, but thankfully Jan “Poki” Müller-Michaelis (Daedalic Entertainment), Jan Theysen (KING Art), and Jan Klose (Deck13) agreed to take part once again, and the extra effort was certainly worthwhile. Over the course of nearly two hours, we discussed the state of adventure games in Germany and beyond in such detail that we’ve decided to split the transcribed talk into two parts, each containing many insights from a developer’s perspective, plus lots of juicy anecdotes. Enjoy reading on as Jan, Jan, Jan (we'll help you keep track!) and I not only discuss our native country’s history with adventure games, but also dissect the general outlook and evolution of the genre.
Ingmar Böke: Thanks a lot for taking the time for this discussion. Please introduce yourselves briefly and tell us how you turned from adventure game fans into adventure game developers.
Jan Klose: I’m Jan Klose, creative director and co-founder of Deck13. We started out developing several adventure games, and the reason is that I really enjoyed playing adventure games myself – adventure games and role-playing games, to be precise. In elementary school I had a friend with an Apple II computer, and it was a fascinating experience to watch him play Maniac Mansion. I was particularly intrigued by the adventure games from LucasArts, which felt a bit like a movie with loads of humor. At some point you start thinking to yourself, “well, creating something like this seems doable,” and so we started developing our first adventure game many, many years ago. That game was Ankh.
Poki: In the broadest sense, I also ended up in the industry because of my love for adventure games. Eleven years ago, I co-founded Daedalic Entertainment as creative director. Just like Jan, I played plenty of adventures in my youth, and got really sad when they vanished. I was educated in media technology at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. That’s a pretty broad kind of study program, and for quite some time I wasn’t sure what I would end up doing. What I did know was that I preferably wanted to tell stories in some way; that was always the driving thing for me. At the time, I didn’t have a particular kind of platform in mind. However, because of my own experiences as a player I knew that it was possible to tell great stories with computer games.
I studied for a long, long time – for 16 semesters, to be precise. (laughs) Parallel to my studies, I worked on all kinds of projects in various types of media. I did short movies, recorded an album, did freelance work as a web designer, and did a lot of graphic work during that time. Actually, I moved away further and further from computer games. However, at some point I said to myself, “oh my god, I really have to wrap up my studies!” The shortest way of getting there was a module called “computer-generated media”. To motivate myself for my diploma thesis, I chose a subject matter that I was passionate about, and that was storytelling in a computer-generated media. From there, it wasn’t a long way to the adventure games I used to love playing and started missing at some point. The subject of my diploma thesis was “computer games as a non-linear storytelling device” … or something like that. (laughs)
For the practical part of my thesis, I started development on my own game. By the time I had to hand in my thesis, one version of the game was playable from start to finish. That game was Edna & Harvey: The Breakout. During my thesis colloquium, I got to know Carsten Fichtelmann, who was the marketing director of Hamburg-based publisher dtp at the time. One week later, he called me up and asked me if I would like to stop by at dtp. I did, and a half-year later, both of us quit our jobs and founded Daedalic Entertainment together.
Poki accepts the Best Story award for Harvey's New Eyes at the 2012 German Developer Awards
Edna & Harvey: The Breakout actually ended up being the first game that we published at Daedalic. A New Beginning was the first game at the company that we started fleshing out from scratch. I also did Harvey’s New Eyes, a sequel to Edna & Harvey: The Breakout, four Deponia games, and a few other projects in between. Like, I also did a lot of work on The Whispered World. (contemplates) Hmm, I nearly forgot one particular adventure game. As contract work, we did a game for a German movie with [German actor] Til Schweiger, 1 ½ Knights. It was an awful film! [collective laughter] The game was great, though!
Jan Theysen: I‘m Jan Theysen, creative director at KING Art. I remember that the first adventure game I ever saw was Zak McKracken on my brother’s Amiga 500. I also remember that I couldn’t stand it. (laughs) Why on earth would someone put an egg into a microwave on a plane and all that kind of stuff? I just couldn’t relate to any of that and didn’t like it. (laughs) About a year later, though, I played Monkey Island on PC, and this game not only convinced me of adventure games being a good thing, but also computer games in general.
My old friend – and today’s business partner – Marc [König] and I then played all of the classic LucasArts games and said, “hey, that’s what we’re going to do!” At 10, 11, 12 years old we started dealing with how to develop computer and adventure games and started working on a Star Wars game and an Indiana Jones game. Of course we never finished them, and even if we had, we surely would have gotten into quite a bit of legal trouble. (laughs) Yet we knew that we would like to work in computer games at some point, and adventure games always were an important reason for that. When we founded KING Art, we said to ourselves, “alright, what do we start with?”, and felt like point-and-click adventure games could be a good genre for us to come up with something good.
Then we started pitching our first adventure, The Book of Unwritten Tales, and dtp asked us if we would like to do Black Mirror 2 instead. They really liked our pitch for The Book of Unwritten Tales but were toying around with a new Black Mirror game at the time. We created the story, concepts, etc. for them, so this was just the preproduction. When Black Mirror 2 ended up being continued internally, we did The Book of Unwritten Tales instead. Afterwards, we did a sequel called The Critter Chronicles, a whodunit adventure called The Raven, and The Book of Unwritten Tales 2.
We always liked doing adventure games, and we would like to continue doing so, but for now we’re not developing games in this genre – which is surely going to be discussed at a later point – as it’s gotten harder and harder to create high-quality adventures that sell enough copies to justify their production.
Ingmar: How do you evaluate the demise of adventure games in the second half of the 1990s?
Business partners Marc König and Jan Theysen are childhood friends who grew up hoping to design adventure games
Jan Theysen: I think the main aspect at the time was that adventures used to be the AAA games of their time. They used to be cutting-edge in terms of their visuals, and perhaps the games that impressed a lot of people the most. At some point they lost that kind of status, and there were other games that looked different or that were bigger and more complex. There was this kind of thinking in the mainstream that adventure games are a thing of the past, and that there are newer, cooler, and better games. Also, the effort that was needed to make good adventure games increased, and at some point the ratio between effort and income diverged. Fewer people bought adventure games while their production got more expensive, and I think that resulted in a lot of developers and publishers focusing on other games that were more likely going to make a profit.
Jan Klose: The aspect of increased costs actually comes from a different direction, I think. I definitely agree with Jan about adventure games being the highlight back in those days. Whoever saw The Secret of Monkey Island or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis on Amiga or PC back then saw some of the visually most impressive games out there. These games had great audio, neat cut-scenes, close-ups on characters… all of that looked really, really awesome!
When 3D graphics became the hot new thing during the late ‘90s, it became difficult for adventure games to hold up. You know, adventure games were particularly about stories and characters, and the characters’ facial expressions were really important. The genre had found a pretty cool visual style with low resolution pixels, and it was possible to get emotions out of the smallest pixels, but now you had these new 3D graphics where you could only bring a few odd polygons to the screen. Perhaps you could use that approach to come up with some nice spacecrafts or a level for a game like Doom – even if that particular game wasn’t using “real 3D”. But it wasn’t possible to do much more, especially when it came to characters, so the cool games with impressive visuals were 3D games, but 3D adventures just didn’t work – no matter how much effort you’d put into a game. This was the time when a new way of adventure presentation had to be found.
The first adventures that tried as computers got more efficient – I think Simon the Sorcerer 3D was one of the first – they looked awful, and nothing of the vitality and emotions of the characters was left. Perhaps this scared even more people away from the genre, leading them to say: “I never want to touch one of these things again!” I think there is a reason why the first adventures re-appeared around 2004, 2005 – at a time when we started with Ankh – because by then it was possible for a computer to illustrate good-looking 3D characters, and there was also 2.5D, something like pre-rendered backgrounds along with 3D character models. Suddenly, it was possible to make characters look lively and cool again, and I think that was one important reason.
Deck13 co-founders Florian Stadlbauer and Jan Klose doing what German developers (allegedly) do when not making games
In the beginning, adventure games were awesome for players, and people bought computers to play Monkey Island or Indiana Jones. Later on, they bought computers so they could play Doom, Quake, and Duke Nukem, and adventures stopped being hot. I think the time in between [the golden era of adventure games and the genre’s renaissance] might have been the worst ever for adventure games and storytelling in games. No matter if you had little resources or any other kind of resources… it just wasn’t possible to bring cool faces and emotions to the screen in a decent way.
Poki: I agree with what the others said, and I think it’s always kind of a mixture of reasons. The straightforwardness of the industry shouldn’t be forgotten. The front-runner companies that did adventure games – hence the companies that pushed the genre forward – there were just two or three of them, and perhaps even within these companies, just two or three teams were working on adventures. Well, I mean, in the case of Sierra it rather might have been around five teams or so. (laughs) But in the end, it was a straightforward amount of people. Just think of the consequences when a company like LucasArts starts to re-orientate.
We have already heard that Jan, Jan and I primarily became fans of the genre because of that company. Of course, I also played all kinds of games from Westwood, the Simon the Sorcerer series, and I tried to soak up whatever was out there. In the end, though, adventure games are also a medium for writers, and this genre requires different kinds of competence, ranging from the technical abilities to develop such a game to the artistic abilities that could, for example, compete with the hand-drawn visuals that Monkey Island 3, Full Throttle or King’s Quest 7 had. Besides that you also need qualified designers, programmers, etc., and good writers that come up with good stories. A great adventure game consists of many different components, and if something’s wrong in that mixture, a game is not going to be a classic. Fans are going to play it because they’re looking for the next hit; just as if you’ve finished reading all the books from a writer you love, and then you start looking for other writers in the same genre. Then you realize that there’s nothing in the genre that you like as much as you liked the first writer’s work, and that writer might just have retired, needs ten years to write a book, or even died recently.
This is an even bigger issue for a game because, unlike the book market, there aren’t that many people around who work in the same genre. During the ‘80s and ‘90s you could even enumerate that number on two hands. When LucasArts and Sierra – for whatever reasons – turned their back on adventure games, it is well possible that the ratio between costs and income was a problem for the realization of 3D adventure games. Perhaps this resulted in LucasArts saying: “well, let’s focus on our movie licenses instead, and get a lot of Star Wars titles out of the door. These games are a lot more suitable for 3D and are probably going to sell way better.”
Several reasons play into each other. With all that technological progress, I can imagine that it was probably also hard for developers of 2D animated games to say, “we’ll keep up.” We at Daedalic know this ourselves from 11 years in the industry. The players want to see beautifully hand-drawn animations, and effectively want to have a 20-hour movie. It’s no secret that hand-drawn 2D animation movies are a tough business case in their own right. We have to come up with five times, ten times that to even create some attention.
Jan Theysen: The thing is that, as a game developer, you’re not only being compared with other games. Particularly when it comes to 2D animations – and partly this also goes for 3D – you’re going to get compared with movies or TV series. It’s just that an average computer game might be as long as a whole season of an animated series. Having said that, it’s tough to reach the quality level that players are used to from their other media consumption. We’re talking about an effort here that is entirely different from the effort required to animate pixel characters in the ‘90s.Continued on the next page...