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The adventure continues
BY GREG COSTIKYAN | On Oct. 8, Salon ran an article by Greg Lindsay that proclaimed "immersive reality" games like Myst and Riven dead -- and that the future lies in online play of real-time strategy games like Myth.
It's time for a reality check.
First, the term "immersive reality" is the kind of loathsome hype to which computer game publishers are notoriously prone. Myst and Riven are "immersive realities"? Actually, they are nothing of the kind: They are adventure games. They did not spring, like Athene, full-blown from the heads of the Miller brothers; they are the products of a long tradition of adventure-game development, starting with Lebling & Blank's Zork (Infocom), continuing through the Infocom and Scott Adams text adventures, through the Monkey Island series and other LucasArts adventure games, through to the present day.
For journalists outside the field, it may have seemed as if Myst were some kind of startlingly original eruption. Actually, if it was innovative at all, it was merely in using the multimedia capacities of CD-ROM. Myst was beautiful. It was not original.
The adventure game as a category happens, at present, to be somewhat out of style. It's far easier to get development funding for real-time strategy games, like Myth and Total Annihilation and StarCraft -- or for first-person shooters like Quake and Unreal -- than for adventure games. But that doesn't mean that adventure games are dead. Categories go through cycles in computer gaming: down today, up tomorrow.
Last year, for instance, everyone and his brother announced that they were developing "massively multiplayer virtual worlds" -- another example of loathsome hype. What they meant was graphical MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons). MUDs have been around for years; they're text-based role-playing games played over a network, with many people online and in the same "world" at the same time. They're fun, and they allow people to socialize online in a more engaging way than straightforward chat. Most traditional MUDs were nonprofit, for-fun operations run on academic computers -- although a few, like Simutronic's Gemstone, were fee-based. The sole insight of the "massively multiplayer virtual world" crowd was that if you added graphics and sound, you could probably get people to pay actual money to play a MUD.
That's what Ultima Online was -- not a staggeringly original departure, but a MUD with pretty pitchers. And a poorly designed one, too. As a result of Ultima Online's well-reported problems, most of the other projects in this direction have been quietly dropped. The graphical MUD was last year's flavor of the year; this year, its name is mud.
Riven, the sequel to Myst, has not been a sales disappointment; its sales to date actually exceed the analysts' predictions. True, it's sold far less well than Myst. That's because Myst was a staggering sales phenomenon never seen before or since -- more than 4 million copies sold at last count. People still debate why Myst did so enormously well -- I have my own pet theory -- but it's almost irrelevant. Of course Riven was not going to sell as well. Sequels never do, and the market conditions that spawned such a monster hit in Myst no longer pertain.
Incidentally, Riven was the bestselling computer game of 1997, despite the fact that it shipped only in the fourth quarter of the year and therefore was only on sale for a few months of the year. Titanic, another adventure game, was also in the top 10 for 1997. I guess that means the category is dead, right?
Let's look at the Last Express, which reportedly took $6 million to develop. If so, it's hard to see where the $6 million went. First, the graphics basically suck. Conversations and interactions with characters involve slow transitions from one static image to another; no video, no animation. The look itself is almost rotoscoped; it feels clumsy and second-rate by contrast to almost every other game on the market at present. And the adventure itself is poorly designed: I defy you to play Last Express for more than 10 minutes without dying -- unless you download some hints from the Internet before you play. Personally, I'd be ashamed to ship a game this weak with a development budget of $1 million, let alone six.
Obsidian? A better effort, here. It is at least visually interesting, and the surreal story is more engaging. But it has severe flaws, too. For one thing, the graphics are so dark it's very difficult to see almost anything in the game -- a fundamental problem for graphics designed on the Mac and transported to the PC, which always displays things more darkly. For another, the surreal nature of the game makes it difficult to keep your bearings -- and harder to solve the puzzles, since "logic" doesn't always apply. Never mind the fact that it was one of the few products Rocket Science shipped before it went under -- and that Rocket Science was notorious in the field for poor project management and throwing too much money around.
The game cost $3 million and sold 80,000 copies -- nowhere near enough to earn a return. But consider the context: Somewhere upwards of 2,000 interactive entertainment titles are published annually; typically, around 100 achieve sales of 100,000 or more. Given the game's severe flaws, 80,000 in sales is quite respectable.
The problem with Obsidian isn't that adventure gaming is dead; the problem was that the developer threw too much money at a second-rate product.
The Curse of Monkey Island was also a sales disappointment, despite being (in my opinion) one of the best games of 1997. But that alone doesn't support the argument. Bob Bates, of Legend Entertainment, one of the most accomplished designers of adventure games, said at the Computer Game Developers Conference this year that his company typically sells 100,000-150,000 copies of the adventure games they release, with overseas sales basically doubling the total number sold. These are perfectly respectable numbers; they're not enough to set the world on fire, but they are enough to keep this category chugging along very nicely, assuming you're not stupid enough to throw a $6 million development budget at an adventure game. (Most computer game titles have budgets in the $1 million-$2 million range.) And it helps, to be sure, that adventure games tend to do rather better overseas than many other gaming styles.
If adventure gaming is dead, the publishers don't seem to be aware of it. This year promises a number of high-profile, big-budget releases, including the much awaited Grim Fandango from LucasArts and Gabriel Knight 3 from Sierra Studios.
The simple fact is that people have been predicting the imminent demise of the adventure game at least since 1986, when Infocom fell on hard times and was taken over by Activision. The adventure game is not dead. It will not be dead anytime soon. It has a coterie of avid fans, and while it is not the flavor of the month today, it survives. And fashions change. Who knows but next year the pundits will cry in amazement at its revival.
The problem was never that adventure gaming is dying; the problem is that people had unrealistic expectations for adventure games based on Myst's unreproducible success.
Enough for adventure games. What of online?
N E X T_ P A G E .|. Why the "boxopoly" makes the bucks and online games are still penny-ante