If you happened to miss the first half of my extensive conversation with Jan “Poki” Müller-Michaelis, Jan Theysen and Jan Klose, you'll want to catch up and come back. If you're all up to date and raring for more, then read on as the Creative Directors of Daedalic, KING Art and Deck13 continue talking about the past, present, and possible future state of the genre both in our own country and around the world.
Ingmar Böke: During the second half of the 2000s, German publishers like dtp and Crimson Cow started signing genre veterans like Jane Jensen, Hal Barwood, Noah Falstein, Bill Tiller and others. Did this business model have an effect from your point of view?
Jan Klose: Yeah, a negative one, I’d say! (laughs) A lot of money was burned during those days.
Poki: I think the problem was that most of these games were heavily publisher-controlled.
Deck13's Jan Klose
Jan Klose: That’s one aspect; the other aspect is that you might have a genre veteran on board who calculated the way he used to, and then he said: “I need millions, I need another six months, I’ll re-write the script, I’m not satisfied with these people.” Perhaps that’s what he was used to, but this wasn’t a good match with smaller budgets, and not perfectly equipped for publishers when it came to their capacities, flexibility and the producers that supervised these projects. I think some of them just argued – I believe some ended up in court, several games had a huge delay and some of these people just ended up saying: “Screw this! I’m getting out of here!” Then they were gone, and these games had to be completed somehow. That was a pity because not a lot of good games came about at the time. But guys, please correct me if I’m wrong. Perhaps some of these games ended up being terrific. Let me know what comes to mind!
Poki: Well, no. For example, Bill Tiller is not a writer, he’s a visual artist, and games like A Vampyre Story looked phenomenal...
Jan Klose: They looked mind-blowing!
Poki: Yeah, but these games somewhat suffered because of their gameplay, and perhaps also their storytelling. Like I said before, an adventure game needs many different competencies to become a well-rounded game. I think that, partially, publishers felt like, “if we sign a big name, we’re out of budget, but people are going to buy the game anyway.” In the end, a lot of damage was done at the time because the expensive names ate up the quality in other departments, and this resulted in an outcome which wasn’t well-rounded. But same here, please correct me if I’m wrong. I haven’t played every game from that era, and I might be overcritical. Certainly, you can get something out of these games from one perspective or another, but for me, each of the respective titles that I played had flawed elements or didn’t feel like their design was thought-out down the line.
Ingmar: I remember the example of Gray Matter, which was in production for many years. At some point, the game’s publisher dtp exchanged the Hungarian team Tonuzaba, and brought in Wizarbox as a new developer. From that point on, the game still needed a few years until its release. It’s hard to imagine this kind of project was too profitable.
Jan Klose: No, I really don’t think it was. If such a project had been profitable, they would have continued making such games. Unfortunately, this whole approach often didn’t lead to the desired effect at all. I feel like you also see this in reviews, where none of these games got the grades one might expect because of the names involved. This also shows that it’s often super-difficult to come up with a really cool hit.
You know, you might have the team of your dreams, consisting of three people or so, and everyone has blind understanding of each other, and everyone knows their craft. This is the other aspect: back in the day, it was possible to develop a great game with three or four people – even though you might have had a lot of additional support for the graphics. Imagine that suddenly you must work with 30 or 40 people to create a cool game… first, this is way more expensive, and second, not everyone who can develop a great game with three or four people – even if he’s an adventure star – is able to cope with outsourcing, a development team and publisher in another country, etc. I think that a lot of projects also failed because not all the people working together were professionals – even if each project had someone professional on board.
I think this is another reason why the whole thing didn’t work out, and I feel like this wasn’t a renaissance but was rather one part of the decline, which consisted of many different components. If more things might have worked out at the same time, some of these games might have ended up being terrific. I guess that the real renaissance rather happened with Kickstarter projects where developers said stuff like: “now I’m doing what I always wanted to do for the people who always wanted to have this.” (laughs) Yet I don’t know if it can be said that this caused a whole wave… probably not, or perhaps just partly.
Poki: Well, in terms of quality, there have been mostly so-so kind of titles. I’m glad that the whole thing had a happy ending with Thimbleweed Park…
Jan Klose: At least one thing! (laughs)
Poki: This is a game I really liked a lot! (laughs)
Ingmar: Thinking of SpaceVenture and Hero-U, at least two of the big adventure games that were on Kickstarter during the “hype days” come to my mind that haven’t even been released yet. Jan Klose mentioned industry veterans before who seemingly approached a new game with a mindset of how games were created during their prime. I’m under the impression that this might also be an issue with some crowdfunded projects.
Jan Klose: Did any of you back projects that you’re still waiting for?
Jan Theysen: I guess so, but I have backed so many games that I don’t remember the adventure games that I’m still waiting for.
Ingmar: Hmm, good question. I feel like you just lose track of some of the projects at some point.
Jan Theysen: There’s one remarkable thing to me, and certainly this is kind of a general thing with Kickstarter, but when it comes to Broken Age from Double Fine, we at KING Art thought: “this game probably costs as much as five of our adventure games, and probably the adventure games of Daedalic or Deck13…”
Poki: It depends on the era, but this is probably even an understatement. (laughs)
KING Art's Jan Theysen
Jan Theysen: It probably is an understatement. Well, it took quite a long time until Broken Age was released, and it’s arguable how good it was, but in any case, it wasn’t a super-extensive game. I mean, I like Tim Schafer, and of course they’re doing good games, but he got the money because of his name and the games he used to create. I would say that it’s unlikely too many people feel like Broken Age was worth that kind of money and time. You know, occasionally it seems like a name, nostalgia, or the hope for new a game that holds up with the classics seem to be more important than the question of who managed to develop good games throughout the last few years.
Poki: This is also a loss of confidence. I remember when LucasArts stopped producing adventure games, I was browsing the shelves for other adventure games. I was forced to expand my horizon here and there, but after the fourth or fifth game tremendously disappointed me because it wasn’t the same, and because I could barely recognize my favorite genre, I stopped playing them. It’s not the genre per se, it’s the good games of this genre that make this our favorite genre.
Ingmar: We have raised the subject of budgets already. Just to give our readers a better understanding, when we’re talking about the most recent, large adventure games from KING Art or Daedalic, what kind of budgets are we talking about?
Jan Theysen: The last traditional point-and-click adventure that we developed was The Book of Unwritten Tales 2, which goes back a few years. By now the game has been released on 10 different platforms and even in comparison with our other adventures, which were pretty extensive, this one is particularly extensive with roughly 25 hours of play time. It was the most expensive adventure we've done so far, and we had development costs of close to a million euros. Keep in mind that you must add marketing costs and production costs for the physical versions and so on. This means that you can roughly calculate that you’ll have to make an income of around 1.3 – 1.5 million euros before you break even and start being profitable!
Actually, the big adventure games we’ve done all had medium or high six-digit development budgets. For smaller adventures, and smaller teams, the numbers can be lower, of course, but let me tell you, even the development of an adventure for such numbers isn’t easy. Of course, it sounds like a lot of money at first, and it is a lot of money, but if you consider how many people work on it for how long, and what kind of income is generated in the end, then it really isn’t that much budget. I mean, even for this kind of budget you’ll have to get things right, and we’re not able to say: “You know, last time, we were lavish during the development, but next time, we’ll be twice as fast and we’ll do it for half of the price!” We’ve already been very careful with keeping control of our budgets in the past. Yet, we ended up at the aforementioned numbers.
Poki: Right! The times when we were able to make games for mid-six-digit numbers were also over quite some time ago. (laughs)
Jan Klose: Didn’t Telltale Games spend around 500,000 dollars for a single episode even by the time they started out? If you know these episodes, and compare them to a full game, you can see that it doesn’t take long to spend this kind of money. Even if you economize, when we’re talking about a game with a lot of storytelling, with graphics and content, it doesn’t need much time until you have spent between a half million and one million. Looking at how many people work on such a game, let’s say for one or two years, you’ll get there quickly.
Poki: Or you do it the way that we did before, double the size of your team, and run through production in eight months. (laughs)
Jan Klose: Well, that’s another option. (laughs)
Ingmar: Looking at companies like Telltale or Double Fine, which are both located in San Francisco where living and working is very expensive, just their labor costs must be enormous.
Jan Theysen: I mean, I don’t want to badmouth colleagues; on the other hand… yes, the costs are enormous. The question is whether that makes their games enormously better. When I look at the graphics of these games, sure, they look awesome. Daedalic, on the other hand, does awesome graphics, too, you know? Like I said before, when it comes to nostalgia and the question of who used to make great games in the past, a lot of people have given developers a trust bonus. That trust might not always have been fulfilled. Therefore, it has become more difficult for a lot of other developers, and smaller developers, to get money for their games.
I get upset each time a Kickstarter game has been canceled or if someone came up with a crappy game. At the same time, I’m happy about each Kickstarter game that comes out and turns out as a cool game. Each time, it rebounds on us too… the ones who are trying to fund games on Kickstarter or develop games in general. Every time someone had a good time with a game, and feels like it was worth spending money for it, he might also buy the next (adventure) game. However, if someone feels like: “this wasn’t as good as I remembered” or “turns out that adventures do suck/are dead” or whatever, it’s going to be difficult to sell the next game to that person. Hence, it’s always a bit troublesome if players have so-so kinds of experiences.Continued on the next page...