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Bring Out Your Dead! Can Nintendo Breathe New Life into Adventure Games?

Adventure game veteran, Wii developer, and AWE Games project director Scott Nixon (Agatha Christie, SpongeBob Squarepants franchises) steps up to the Gamasutra Soapbox to give his positive outlook on the future of traditional adventure games on the Wii and DS.

When all is said and done, I think I’m a realist. I flatter myself that no matter what the scenario, I’ll take reality over a pleasant delusion every time. The truth - no matter how painful - is a comfort in and of itself, as I am fond of endlessly repeating to myself in a compulsive murmur during dental work. Great. Glad I got that out of the way.

Did I mention that I think adventure games are primed for a comeback?

I resent the snicker. I know it’s been heralded before, not that many people seem to care. If confirmed as true, the reaction would be undetectable by even the most precision seismometer - it’s quite a powerful thing to feel the hairs on the backs of millions of necks failing to rise.

Many gamers and game writers today refuse to dignify adventure games as an official genre at all, and each year the category slips quietly from the dockets of more and more publications, or gets appropriated by the dreaded catch-all that is the “action-adventure.” As public interest wanes, fewer companies are willing to risk development costs (or is it the other way around?), and those that do are slashing budgets with the ruthless abandon typically found in FPS enthusiasts.

Grassroots Threepwood

Despite this seemingly hostile climate, there is a ray of hope. A rapidly growing movement - plainly visible on sites like Adventure Gamers and in the sales figures of games like Phoenix Wright - is throwing their support behind Nintendo to get the ball back into the adventure gamer’s court.

Along with tycoon and real time strategy games, adventure games have been, by and large, stranded on the PC. One look at console sales figures is all it takes to realize this is not where the action is. A symbiotic relationship between consoles and PCs is beneficial to both sides; consoles offer a much wider user base and its accompanying revenue, and PCs offer an easy development platform where risky IP can be tested before the cross-platform SKUs run budgets into the millions.

It is no secret that adventure games need to break into the console market to remain (some would say become) viable. There is no reason to think Nintendo couldn’t help usher in this era if they chose to do so; after all, they’ve changed the rules before. Ironically, they may have done much to seal the fate of classic adventure games in the 80’s by creating the aforementioned action-adventure genre. You can keep your Link - I’ll take Guybrush, thanks.

According to the ESA, computer game dollar sales in 2005 were just under $1 billion. 5.8% of that revenue came from adventure games. Over on the console side, although sales were in excess of $6 billion, adventure games don’t even make it into the pie chart. If adventure games - once introduced in a tangible way onto consoles - kept their PC market share equivalent, it would be a tremendous shot in the arm.

I don’t think this is an unrealistic expectation; I’m inclined to argue that it’s rather conservative. Given the extra manpower and marketing inherent in bigger development budgets, it seems logical that adventure games would surpass their current standards both in quality and quantity (I am aware that throwing money at a development team does not guarantee a higher quality end result, but I’m speaking in broad strokes here.) Would this result in higher percentages for adventure games across the board? I hope so. After all, many of the bullet points for recent shooters read like a list of adventure game staples – a high density of character dialog and interaction, a strong narrative, and a high density of environmental interaction. That particular niche of gamers is starting to demand more from a game than three-figure frame rates and the odd scripted sequence. They would do well to look to adventure games for a change of pace.

To be fair, adventure games have long suffered from a drought of meaningful innovation. I’m not entirely certain where this culpability lies. I realize it’s a cop out to blame he-who-holds-the-purse-strings for all developmental woes. It’s easy to complain that you simply do not have the time or money to experiment with non-linearity or a new mechanic that might improve gameplay slightly, but will most certainly add a plethora of bugs.

I suppose the key ability here would be recognizing those ideas that give you an efficient ratio of manpower vs. return. It’s a skill that draws more from experience than precognition, and I wish I had it. Again, I realize that the solution is not to throw more money at the problem, but surely if more adventure games are being attempted, more minds are bent upon turning the genre on its ear - and occasionally one of the more insightful or lucky of them will strike gold.

As Marek Bronstring points out in his excellent article on the subject, a major obstacle to mainstream success for adventure games lies in the long periods of downtime between ‘eureka’ moments. Killing an alien every twenty seconds is an IV drip of positive reinforcement for the player. Adventure games are more accurately comparable to time-release capsules. He suggests that the Wii - and specifically, the Wiimote - would do much to bridge this gap, filling the downtime between major breakthroughs with tangible actions that would tickle our rapidly diminishing attention spans. Opening doors would no longer be a matter of clicking on the door, but of turning the controller in a real-world analog of twisting the knob. Opening a drawer would require pulling the controller towards you.

Yes, these examples are monotonous and highly repetitive, and will likely remain equally so (they may even cross the line into the territory of annoying) on a Wiimote; menial tasks stay menial no matter how innovative the control scheme. But the main point he makes which adventure game developers (myself certainly amongst them) should take careful note of is that adventure games need an increased density of short feedback loops to capture the attention of mass mind, instead of concentrating all our efforts on the less frequent, albeit more significant, story-progressing milestones. As he states: “rewards are the carrot dangling in the player's face, keeping them invested in the game's long-term progression. But they are only truly effective in the presence of many shorter feedback loops, the ones that maintain your interest in between.”


Day of the Spectacle

Almost certainly the first generation of Wii titles will gleefully overexploit the novelty of the Wiimote, using it in every imaginable scenario whether it is appropriate or not, until the gaming public tires of it. Indeed, AWE Games has been approached by multiple publishers in the past six months who seem to embody this attitude: use the Wii controller everywhere and on everything.

I don’t know about you, but I often play games in the wee hours (that is not a pun; in a break with recent convention, there will be nary a ‘Wii’ pun in this entire article, I promise) and the last thing I want to do after midnight is thrash about trying to get the system to recognize that I’d like to pick up the crowbar, please.

In fact, this is an argument that has hounded adventure game developers before in a different guise, that of the smart cursor. I’m a huge proponent of the smart cursor in adventure games, one which is context sensitive and could in theory (much to its opponents’ dismay) parse an ambiguous action in the player’s favor automatically. In practice, this is rarely the case.

Call me a lazy gamer, but I believe that obvious and mundane actions in a game should occur with as little input from the player as possible, e.g., if I click on a door, I want it to open. I don’t want to select the open button and then click on the door, I don’t want to cycle through 8 different cursor states to find the open icon, and I imagine I’d enjoy twisting my wrist in a simulated open motion even less appealing. Skip the minutiae. A ‘no guesswork’ style of interpretation seems more appropriately saved for important actions - disarming a bomb, or picking a lock. Things that I don’t often get the chance to perform in real life.

Broken Sword

Even the most obvious application the Wii offers in the context of this article – that of Wiimote as mouse replacement – is fraught with issues. This became painfully obvious to me personally while playing Ubisoft's Red Steel. Now, I realize this is a shooter, and as such, requires both more accuracy and diligence when operating the controls than an adventure game. Nevertheless, what I found was that, since there is no ‘neutral’ position for the onscreen targeting cursor, I had to remain on my toes at all times, gripping and aiming the Wiimote without respite.

This was uncomfortable at first, and soon became unbearable. As a makeshift solution, I held the Wiimote with my thumb at the back, my elbow resting in my lap, and my forearm extended to about chin height. This shift in position may have increased my aiming accuracy, but it too became uncomfortable after a short time.

A few more half-hearted attempts later I stopped playing the game entirely. If the game had the aforementioned ‘neutral’ position, that is, if moving the Wiimote blatantly off-screen centered the target, this might not have been such a problem.

I am of the opinion that the developers of this game were ‘encouraged’ to include every motion sensing aspect of the Wiimote, whether they thought it enhanced gameplay or not. A blatant (in my opinion) example of this was the tilt sensor. Apparent out of the gate was the fact that my natural sitting/gaming position tilts the Wiimote towards my left hand at an angle of about 15 degrees. This was reflected by my on-screen gun hand, which was perpetually angled in a similar way. As far as I could tell, this added nothing to gameplay – it was simply annoying.


Is Red Steel's gun tilting really necessary?

This is not to suggest that there aren’t unique gameplay opportunities to explore via the Wiimote, just that the best suited control choices will likely be natural extensions of gameplay, not contrived elements concocted near zero hour to fulfill a quota imposed from above.

Adventure games on the Wii would be better served by a more subtle control scheme, using the motion sensors more as adjuncts than as principal players. Use the Wiimote as a mouse replacement, sure, but keep your hotspots forgiving and don’t bother translating tilt if it isn’t needed. The same basic tenets apply to the DS. For adventure games and other story driven genres at least, let the gameplay dictate the control, not the other way around.


Screen resolution may also prove to be an issue for adventure games. They are historically text-heavy, and 480p simply isn’t conducive to reading large amounts of on-screen text or scrutinizing backgrounds for a dropped cufflink or misplaced hairpin.

Then again, these conventions could probably go the way of the dodo wholly unmissed. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing for adventure game designers to completely rethink the way certain tried-and-true mechanics operate. More dialogue does not necessarily equate to more immersion, and the pixel hunt went out the window many years ago - although apparently not all designers were informed.

As a rule, adventure game designers are used to working under very tight restrictions, one more limitation thrown their way is unlikely to faze them. So, from a content standpoint at least, perhaps resolution won’t matter much in the end; however, it does make multiple SKUs markedly more difficult. They cease to be money for old rope and turn into logistical nightmares for all involved. When a relatively simple Cyrillic localization requires you to redesign your interface, imagine what losing half your screen resolution will do.

The easiest solution is to design for the console and tweak for the PC. Dear God, don’t! PC gamers (me included) are notoriously resentful of design choices dictated by console limitations - developers should probably bite the bullet on this one. In any case, this is well-trodden ground by now; other genres have already tackled this issue with varying degrees of success. Adventure games will have to do the same, and will no doubt take many knocks before an equitable compromise is reached.

Grim Nintendo

Perhaps the Wii is not the clear-cut torch bearer for the adventure genre that was hoped for by many when it was first demonstrated at the Tokyo Game Show. This isn’t to say that I think the Wiimote is a fad or a soon to be sidelined gimmick. It’s simply a tool - how game designers choose to integrate it is what matters.

Yes, there will be plenty of games which focus exclusively on the more esoteric side of the Wiimote, but I don’t believe that the adventure genre will have many of these beyond the initial wave of novelties. I can look back on dozens of scenarios in adventure games past that screamed for all the unique functionality a Wiimote has on offer. Use it liberally where appropriate. Forget it exists elsewhere.

Admittedly, some of my initial enthusiasm for the Wii has dimmed over the past couple of months. As AWE received Wiis and dev kits, some of the ensuing issues were just too big to ignore. However, I remain firmly optimistic in Nintendo’s attitude towards developers and games in general. Inexpensive dev kits and a focus on a broad game library is nothing but positive for a small developer.

For a system that is likely to have such thorough penetration (600,000 units sold in the first week of release) this is a welcome change. Additionally, since your typical small developer simply cannot compete with the big boys when it comes to bells and whistles, it’s refreshing that a powerhouse like Nintendo is primarily concerned with innovation and content.

Adventure games and currently marginalized developers have been offered a window of opportunity by the console powers that be. This sense of empowerment (dare I say, adventure?) is infectious and can have a much bigger effect on game quality than money.

Most of these developers are hungry to prove themselves if given the chance, and I believe some of the best writers in games today are thanklessly slaving away at adventure games with little or no funding; play any game written by Ben Croshaw and I’m sure you’ll agree.

So, Wiimote be damned, I am very optimistic about the future of the adventure game, and firmly believe that within six to twelve months there will be plenty of console evidence lying about in a living room near you.

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