Ingmar: Please talk about the reasons for the adventure renaissance in the last decade and try to explain why Germany played such an important role.
Jan Klose: I think that Germany played a role because Germany was much more of a PC country than other countries in Europe where consoles were used much more frequently. There were two reasons that explain the situation, I think. First, with such a strong presence of personal computers, there was a solid foundation for point-and-click adventures, which work best with a mouse. So I feel like there was a good precondition over here in terms of hardware. There were also a lot of developers and programmers in Germany whose PCs were a useful tool for developing games that didn’t require squeezing out every last byte before you could even come up with something that looked good. That was what it was like on consoles where you, as a developer, might already have gained ten years of industry experience and perhaps even worked for one of the big studios.
You could also see this in terms of the adventure games that were released in Germany when things took off. Many, many adventure games that came out during that time were developed by very small teams, and/or teams that hadn’t developed games before, and their first game was an adventure game. You know, constructing an adventure isn’t that difficult when you’ve got a bit of general knowledge on computer game development. You don’t need a huge amount of resources; what you need are good ideas, and a pretty art style… I think that worked out quite well. Some people might say that the Germans are particularly talented at telling stories, but I’ll leave that undecided. (laughs)
The first version of Ankh, which we developed as Artex Software – the predecessor company of Deck13 – was not developed for PCs, just for a computer called Acorn RiscPC, which was similar to an Amiga. Since that platform was only available in England, we also had to sell the game in England, and we said, “We’re Artex Software, we’re developing a humorous adventure game!” The first reactions that we read on the internet were like, “Humor? Since when do Germans have humor?” Of course, we just thought to ourselves: “Great, thanks a lot! What an excellent start!” (laughs)
Ankh was originally created under the studio name Artex Software for a computer called Acorn RiscPC.
Having said that, I don’t know if storytelling was really always to our advantage. I believe that the market was responsible. You had good ways of developing games, and you were able to sell them. Also, and this was always the blessing and curse for the German market: Germany is big enough to develop a game and entirely sell it in Germany – at least, when you’re working with a very small budget. This is not possible in other countries where you need to develop a game in a way that enables you to sell it in more countries. You know, in the case of Germany, developers were able to be quite German in terms of their stories and other game content and they were able to find fans in their home territory. So, perhaps if you had a very small budget and your game sold 10,000 or 20,000 units, you could already say: “alright, we can continue doing this, this is going to work out, and we’ll find a German publisher who’s going to sign our new game.” For me, the German adventure renaissance was connected to lucky circumstances. On the other hand, conditions were also unlucky as most of these games – super-hardcore fans aside – didn’t really get too much attention outside of Germany. This might have been the drawback of the whole situation.
Jan Theysen: In addition, I feel as if it was just about time; you know, kind of a natural market movement. There was this period of time when people said: “adventure games are a thing of the past; I want to try out something new, cool 3D games, whatever.” Then, at some point, you have a backward movement or perhaps a certain kind of nostalgia, and some people say: “I haven’t played an adventure game for five, ten years, even though they were actually pretty cool, and I enjoyed playing them. Why aren’t any adventure games out there anymore?”
So at some point when there is a new adventure game, and perhaps, simultaneously, the novelty of the allegedly fancy hot games has worn off a bit, there might be enough people who say: “actually, these games used to be a hoot. I’m going to play an adventure game again; haven’t done this in a long time.” Of course, the first adventure games that cause a renaissance benefit from not having a lot of competitors. Also, everyone who’s interested in playing an adventure game again – or who wants to get an idea of what adventures look like in the present day – is going to buy these particular games. Yet there might be a saturation after some time has passed. Maybe, after having played a couple of these adventure games, some might say: “Alright, that’s enough for now, let’s move on to a different kind of game.”
Games like Deponia are still made in the style of classic LucasArts adventures of old, but does the market still exist for developers to survive on them?
Poki: My theory is that – looking at the concept of supply and demand – the reasons for the temporary vanishing of adventure games can be found on the side of publishers and game writers who started focusing on other kinds of games. When it comes to me, and I guess that Jan and Jan feel about this a similar way, if LucasArts had continued creating adventure games of the same quality, I’d still be playing them today. We see that the genre also works for a new generation of players. The generation in between, which had their “best player years” during the slack season, were kind of left out in the cold.
However, I don’t feel like they would have rejected this genre just because other games were more en vogue. I believe that there is always a sufficient group of players who are interested in adventures. The question is whether the market is able to satisfy that demand in a reasonable way. Does this make sense for us when it comes to cost and benefit? Do people actually buy these games? How can we sell and market them? Are we perhaps better off if we do something else?
In the end, I don’t think that things changed tremendously on the user side. What has changed is the market; there are different platforms, an emphasis on other aspects, and so on. You know, I guess these are a few optimistic words to prevail through a new wave of “adventure games are dead and can’t be resurrected” rumors we’re going to hear in upcoming years. (laughs)
Jan Theysen: In general, I’m a fan of being optimistic, and I don’t think that adventures are dead and are never going to be back. However, I don’t think that there always was and is a sufficient group of players that is willing to spend a lot of money on a new adventure game. You know, when The Book of Unwritten Tales 1 was released in 2009, the game cost around 45 euros in Germany. That was a totally normal price for an adventure game, and nobody would have complained about that price. In the present day, you might be able to ask for 29.99 euros, and you’ll already have a bunch of players twitching, asking themselves whether an adventure game should cost more than 20 euros, and so they wait until the game is on sale or gets sold by Humble Bundle. This results in a way smaller income for you as developer/publisher per unit sold.
Less than a decade ago, The Book of Unwritten Tales sold for 45 euros, a price few modern adventures can bear
If there was a stable group of adventure fans, and if that group was big enough nowadays, adventure games would sell at least as much as they did several years ago when more high-profile adventures were released, but that isn’t the case. There are some really good adventure games out there with good review scores. You know, even if 90% of the people who played these games say that they’re terrific, these games don’t reach the sales figures they might have reached some years back – and the newer games even have lower prices.
We don’t know if we’d do another adventure game in the short-term. The decision that we’re confronted with is whether we’d do an adventure with smaller production values as we wouldn’t make the income of the past that would justify the production of a bigger game. Having said that, one option could be something smaller, shorter, etc. Or do we say to ourselves: “if we do an adventure game, we want to keep on doing big games with respective production values?” However, when it comes to the second scenario, as of today, we’d have trouble justifying such costs. I feel like there have been some unambiguous developments throughout the last six, seven or eight years.
Poki: But actually, technically speaking, it doesn’t make sense that this problem is an adventure-specific problem.
Jan Theysen: No, not necessarily, I’m not saying that.
Poki: The processes that you’re describing aren’t even specific for computer games in general. With digital distribution, we see the same things happening in all kinds of entertainment. Well, perhaps not in the case of TV series where companies are trying to undersell each other because each company wants to be provider #1. However, just like Steam in the case of PC games, Spotify is actually a pretty nasty, perfidious thing for the music industry. It is great for customers, as tons of music is available to them dirt-cheap – if they even pay at all. The thing is, if your music is not on Spotify, you’re screwed as people barely go to a store anymore and pay ten euros for a CD.
Jan Theysen: I agree, it’s not an adventure-specific problem. I do think, though, there is a reason why this is even more of a problem when we look at adventure games. Even during the “good days”, ten years ago, eight years ago, whatever, adventure games sold a lot less copies than games in other genres. Even then, adventure games were a niche product, and even the best adventure games commonly didn’t reach the sales figures of a mediocre role-playing game.
Poki: You mean, during the prime of the renaissance? During our era… our golden era. (laughs) Unfortunately, our golden era was never as golden as the real golden era.
Jan Klose: In our case it was rather bronze. (collective laughter)
Jan Theysen: Right, and with that in mind, it is even more significant when you’re able to say: “developing a game in a different genre might cost three times as much; at the same time, you’re able to sell ten times as much.” While their numbers decreased, too, this is still a much better deal than it is in the case of adventure games.Continued on the next page...