Ingmar: No matter what genre we’re talking about, Steam provides players with a gigantic amount of choice. For adventure games, though, we’re talking about a defined niche community of fans. Yet there is an enormous number of indie adventures on Steam, some of them created by very small teams. This seems like quite an oversaturation to me. Is it perhaps possible to say that the increased volume of small indie games somewhat “hurt” bigger, established adventure studios?
Poki: Hurt is kind of a hard formulation.
Jan Theysen: I don’t think these games hurt us; it’s great they’re out there! Right now, they’re kind of keeping [the genre] alive. If KING Art or Deck13 end up doing a new adventure game sometime, it’s probably going to be because several small indie studios have developed great adventures, and players have realized again that adventure games are awesome. We at KING Art hope that some indie, Daedalic or whoever, sells a million units because this would enable us to say: “alright, there’s enough interest again to warrant the type of adventure game that we want to make.” If something like that would happen, of course, we’d return to the genre in an instant!
Ingmar: Generally speaking, genre aside, what kind of consequences do you predict for the industry when it comes to the current oversaturation?
Jan Klose: I’m not sure if I would really call it oversaturation.
Poki: What would you call it? (laughs)
Jan Klose: You would call it oversaturation?
Poki: Yeah! (laughs)
Jan Klose: I don’t know, I’m not sure. Actually, oversaturation means that there’s more available than people buy, and that’s kind of bad.
Poki: But it’s not like that anymore because you can buy everything, you just can’t play all of it. People buy games in bundles, sales, special promotions, whatever, and they’re being bombarded with games. Nowadays, it’s even impossible to just play all of the stuff that you can get for free. You have games in loads of different price segments, and you can, like, buy this 60-hour indie game on Steam for 2 euros or you can consider buying something that an established German company puts on shelves for a price of 40 euros.
Jan Klose: Hello!? German workmanship? What needs to be considered here? (everyone laughs)
Seriously, I do think you’re right with what you’re saying, and this is kind of a problem. On the other hand, if I think about the games that really interest me…. I mean, sure, I can be a fan of indie games, and perhaps I’ll play an indie game here and there. Actually, though – and this is a feeling I also have about Steam – I’m a fan of the particular game that seems the coolest to me. Certainly, once in a while, a really sublime game can be made by an indie studio and can have a very small budget. In the end, however, I feel like this is rather the exception. I don’t want to make a 1:1 comparison with the old, old times where you could buy shareware games on dubious floppy disks. But perhaps you had four small, below-average games on such a floppy disk that were also made by people who did their best to come up with something good. I’m not sure if this aspect of browsing through games – and, after all, not playing a lot of them – is something new.
Even when I was in school and owned a Commodore 64, you just swapped – uhm, well, at least friends of mine… I have heard (everyone laughs) – floppy discs on the schoolyard. And then you had 120 games at home, and may have played three of them properly. I’m not sure people don’t really focus on the bigger, really good games anymore. To be honest, particularly with adventure games… the LucasArts games were being made by one of the biggest and most acclaimed gaming companies in the world. They had great advertising, great marketing and stunning IPs [intellectual properties]. I mean, look at Indiana Jones; this IP pretty much made you buy a product automatically.
I believe that there still is a general tendency to say that really big, cool games with good marketing appeal to people, and I don’t think the problem is that there are many small developers around with many small games. I rather think the problem is that by the time we started developing adventure games, there was kind of a middle tier. You were able to say: “Our game doesn’t cost 60 euros, perhaps it only costs 40 or 30 euros. It’s not as superbly produced as games used to be in the golden era, and you might not be able to impress your friends with it anymore, but you’re going to have a decent amount of fun with it.”
You know, I think that this is the problem itself. Even for us it was hard to compete with the quality of the original classics. I also think that is going to remain the problem in the future. Either you come up with something huge and brilliant, and it breaks through globally, or you come up with a small but cool indie game that you can always slot in somewhere. However, what do you do as a German company with 10-60 employees? Where does your game fit in, so that you distinguish yourselves enough from one side of the spectrum, that you’re good enough, and that the other side of the spectrum doesn’t feel like you’re a cheap rip-off – like a direct-to-DVD movie that didn’t make it to the cinema.
To me, it is a lot worse that many midsize studios maneuver themselves into the trap of saying: “There’s no room for us in this market anymore. We’re not the small indie studio that is able to create a low-budget game which brings joy to a few people, and neither are we a big corporation that manages to please everyone with its legendary IP so that people are going to say: “Wow, THIS is the game that I want to play!” We’re in a really complicated situation right now, but from my point of view, the reason for it is not that so many people are able to develop and release games these days.
Poki: I do think that this is at least one factor, but I also know of two others. First, one reason for our golden era not being as golden as the one from LucasArts and Sierra is simply that our home territory is much, much smaller than theirs. While we did manage to find our way across the pond, people in the US don’t take us as seriously as many American studios and games. The effect of gaining a foothold in the really big territories is enormous. For a German company, we’ve done an okay job so far; nevertheless, we’re not on eye level with established companies from the US.
Jan Klose: Sorry, I would love to jump in here because I entirely agree with you. You know, we had a Polish publisher for one of our last games, and he gave a spot-on explanation when he said: “that’s the problem of the German market. It is big enough for you to make a game just for the German market. We in Poland are not able to think that way because the Polish market is too small. If we want to make a game, we have to sell it globally. If we want to survive, we’re forced to make games that work internationally. The other option is not to make games at all.”
German companies were always kind of able to keep their heads above water with middle-sized games. We used to have a lot of publishers over here that said: “We’ll sign your adventure game, but we only calculate the income that we hope to make on the German market. Therefore, we’re only going to give you a respective budget. Any kind of international income is going to be a nice additional income on top.” The way publishers worked with you, and how they sold your games, gave you an idea of their priorities. The blessing of the German market was that it allowed you to release your game; the curse of it was that it didn’t require you to compete the way that companies from other countries needed to. The Witcher is from Poland, not from Germany, and this example might be a good illustration. Sorry for interrupting, Poki, you had another point.
Poki: Right. The second point is related to something that we haven’t talked about yet. I think this is very, very important, and it might explain why both of us were right: the audience has not gotten smaller, which was my theory, but at the same time fewer people buy adventure games. What comes into play here is an issue that seems like an adventure-exclusive issue. We should not forget that the way that people inform themselves about games has changed tremendously. It’s not possible to play all the stuff out there, and to get an idea of what game to buy and play, these days many people watch Let’s Play videos. The thing is, if you have seen a Let’s Play video of an adventure game, you don’t need to play it anymore. Ultimately, adventure games are a rather linear kind of entertainment. If you know the solution to puzzles, it’s quite a stretch to say: “alright, now I’m going to buy the game and play it.” It’s like saying: “I’ll directly buy the DVD of this movie, even though I have just seen it at the cinema” or “I’m going to buy the book even though I have just listened to the audio-book.” Enthusiasts do this kind of stuff, but not the majority of people. Here we can see an entirely new effect that has quite a negative impact on the adventure game genre.
This may seem like the end of our in-depth discussion, but really this is just the half-time break. So stay tuned for part two still to come. Among other topics, our continued dissection of adventure games in Germany and beyond will cover budgets, Kickstarter, the results of German publishers signing big-name industry veterans, the evolution of adventures, and obstacles the genre faces as an interactive storytelling device.