All Your History: Adventure Games Part 5
Ever since Sierra On-Line had first introduced graphics into home computer games with Nineteen Eighty’s Myster House, the adventure genre had led the entire PC market. Major franchises like King’s Quest and Monkey Island all broke sales records and heavily innovated the creative possibilities of the medium. It all peaked in Nineteen Ninety-Three with the release of Cyan’s Myst, a challenging, frustrating, and addicting puzzler set against a gorgeous pre-rendered 3D environment. Myst became the best-selling PC game of all time and helped CD-ROM drives become a standard accessory. But little did Cyan realize that popularizing 3D graphics would circle back to them in unexpected ways, and indeed, they would sink the entire genre. Kings of PC gaming for nearly two decades, the fall of adventures would happen almost overnight.
In Nineteen Ninety-Six, Ken Williams sold Sierra On-Line to CUC International. Sixteen years after turning his one-man productivity software company into a game studio, he chose to step down as its business chief. Keep in mind, he sold it for a truly mind-boggling one point five billion dollars, and he and his wife Roberta owned a sixty percent stake. Not a bad move, right? It wouldn’t look so good, a few years later.
Nineteen Ninety-Six also happened to be a turning point for the games industry as a whole. Developer id Software’s Quake released that year, bringing real-time rendering of polygonal 3D graphics into homes everywhere — and combining it with hyper-fast-paced action. The slow and thoughtful approach of Myst was thrown out the window: now, everyone wanted adrenalin-pumping experiences. That same year, Capcom’s Resident Evil and Core Design’s Tomb Raider started hybridizing elements of the adventure genre with the action genre, resulting in more intense 3D experiences that still satisfied most of the puzzle audience. The market was voting with their wallets: they wanted constant stimulation in gorgeous 3D. The adventure genre was simply not equipped to do that.
Very quickly, sales for the genre collapsed. Nineteen Ninety-Seven’s The Last Express, from Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner, was a financial catastrophe. It took four years and five million dollars to make. Fortunately, the result of this hard work was a great game, with rotoscoped animation, fantastic dialogue, and branching writing. Unlike other adventure games, it actually unfolded in real-time: the game’s many characters would stick to their own schedules, so if a player didn’t show up to meet them at a certain time, he would miss them completely. There was one, minor problem, however: just before it released, publisher Broderbund’s entire marketing department… quit. Yup. The whole thing. With nobody to actually market the game, it unsurprisingly flopped despite great reviews. It was out of print in under a year. Though Mechner and company had a good excuse for the game’s financial distress, most executives took it as a sign that adventure gaming was dead.
To be fair, Nineteen Ninety-Seven’s Riven was a smash hit. The sequel to Myst from Cyan improved on the first game in nearly every way, and even gave players some actual direction in what they were supposed to be doing. But even its success wasn’t enough to stop the industry’s shift to 3D action, and in fact, Riven would be the last hit adventure game.
But some people saw the changing trends, and instead of fighting them, tried to adapt adventure games to evolve with them. Tim Schafer, one of the core members of the Monkey Island team, created the first real-time 3D adventure game with Nineteen Ninety-Eight’s Grim Fandango. Schafer brought to the game all of his trademark creativity, wit, and charm.
Its bizarre mixture of Mexican mythology and film noire could only have come from his mind, and sure enough, he somehow made it all feel exactly right. Fantastic puzzles and even better characters resulted in what is still considered one of the greatest adventure games ever made, a magnum opus from a master of the genre. And still, it wasn’t enough. Innovation and humor could only produce one hundred thousand units in sales. This, in itself, was a sign of the times. Ten years earlier, a hundred thousand units would have been considered a hit. But as the market had grown, so too had expectations. Six figures just wasn’t what it used to be.
However bad Schafer and LucasArts had it, Sierra had it worse. Under their new management at CUC, which later became Cendant, the studio produced… garbage. The all-around quality of the legendary company’s games went through the floor. Then, came the year Nineteen Ninety-Eight. In that one year, Cendant was found guilty of the single largest case of accounting fraud in corporate history; Sierra published the first 3D King’s Quest game, which flopped miserably; and Sierra also published Half-Life from Valve Software, a shooter so good that it forever proved that adventure was dead.
Cendant’s accounting fraud, and subsequent SEC investigation, massively devalued the company. This meant that Ken and Roberta Williams lost a good deal of the money they thought they’d earned from their sale of Sierra. Meanwhile, King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity was made largely by a new team at Cendant, with Roberta Williams only having partial control. She was forced to watch as the series she’d created became something else, a darker, grittier 3D game with — you guessed it — a heavy emphasis on action. The end result was horrible, a commercial disappointment and a saddening end to one of gaming’s most iconic series. Ken and Roberta became so fed up with the whole situation, that they not only quit Cendant, but retired from gaming altogether. They have never made another game. At the same time, Sierra thought they’d struck gold when Valve’s Half-Life became a megasmash and instant legend in the gaming community. What they didn’t realize at the time was that Half-Life only cemented the idea that action games were cooler than adventure games, a fact that would pull the rug out from under Sierra and sink the company several years later.
To all intents and purposes, the Sierra that had led the genre for decades was gone. It didn’t take long for LucasArts to follow suit. They released Escape from Monkey Island in Two Thousand… and it flopped. Despite great reviews and the golden name of Monkey Island, the audience had quite simply moved on. LucasArts never made another adventure game, and soon after shifted its focus to Star Wars-branded games. With LucasArts’ departure, the adventure genre became all but defunct. A few more Myst sequels were released over the years, to ever-dwindling sales. But by and large, point-and-click was a thing of the past.
What had happened? Why had the market turned so suddenly? For one, graphics cards exploded in power during this time. To show off the latest and greatest machine, a tech enthusiast would want to buy the best-looking game on the market. These were increasingly action games, espcially with companies like id and Valve pushing the envelope in ways that LucasArts and Sierra simply weren’t. For another, there was an overall shift at this time from PCs to consoles, and adventure games had never done well on consoles. As the Sony PlayStation grew to dominate the industry, the platformers and shooters on it grew with it. Plus, games with instant, adrenalin-pumping action would always be more broadly popular than games that forced players to patiently think through a puzzle.
But that being said, that didn’t mean there was no market at all for adventure games in the new world. In Two Thousand Five, developer Telltale Games acquired the rights to the Sam & Max franchise from LucasArts, who no longer had a use for it. Telltale then created a TV-like episodic run of games, that were collected into “seasons.” These were distributed through the Internet at a low price point. To the surprise of many observers, these ended up selling decent numbers. Not great, but decent. The market was still out there, somewhere. Telltale would go on to make similar adventure series for Jurassic Park and Back to the Future.
In the meantime, some modern AAA games started to show strong influences from old adventure titles. Games like Heavy Rain and LA Noire featured long sections of slow, deliberate puzzle-solving, and were based more on story and tone than they were on twitch-reactions. Both were critically respected and sold well.
Then on February Ninth, Twenty Twelve, the old grandmaster returned from exile. Tim Schafer had left LucasArts in Two Thousand and started his own company, Double Fine Productions. After making a few games in other genres, he wanted to come back to the one he’d made his name with. But no publisher would give him even the modest sum he’d need to make it. Ever the crazy one, Schafer did something no sane person would ever try: he asked the Internet for money. On the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, he promised to make a new 2D adventure game and a making-of documentary, if the community could collectively donate four hundred thousand dollars. He gave them a month. In one day, he received one point two million dollars in contributions. Over time, this grew to a staggering three point three million, close to ten times what he’d asked for. Needless to say, the mastermind of Monkey Island will be making an adventure game once again.
The question remains: where does the genre go from here? Thought dead for most of the past decade, all of the sudden it seems it has life in it again. Was it always there, or has the genre gained a second wind? Even with Schafer’s success, will publishers renew their interest in the category? Much of this will depend on the financial performance of the game itself, whatever it ends up being. Regardless, with a clearly demonstrated market, it is possible that smaller, independent studios will begin cranking out more point-and-clicks. The future, as always, lies in the hands of gamers and their wallets.
It’s been a wild ride for the genre, starting as the side-project of a programmer, through technological innovation and commercial success, to death and possible rebirth. The genre paved the way for story, character, and plot in video games, and at one time, even changed home computing technology for the better. It could make players think, could make them frustrated, and could make them wonder. It could make them cringe or it could make them laugh. The genre’s failure stands as a cautionary tale for businesspeople and creatives alike. But at its best, adventure games were proof positive of what a few passionate people could accomplish, in a kitchen, in a garage, or even in a cave.