The classic style Point & Click adventure is a problem child. The genre has been claimed dead many times now, the question "Are Adventure Games Dead?" has been asked and discussed many times. While some brave developers still publish new Point & Clicks, a lot of experienced developers stepped back from the genre. The genre is tough to market nowadays, and my question is: why exactly is that?
As a maker of Point & Click adventures, I was wondering what the flaws of the genre actually are. Why is it that they are so hard to sell in comparison to other games? What are the things that players dislike about the genre? How can we as game designers create new and fresh adventure games with modern gameplay?
To get behind the problems classic adventure games have, we asked Twitter about the flaws of the genre. We addressed both fans of the genre and people who'd never touch Point & Click adventures nowadays and asked: What is it you liked the least, or what is the reason you don't play these games? Luckily, we got a lot of feedback. People love telling you what they hate. This is a summary of what people think.
"Why Adventure Games Suck" by Ron Gilbert
Before I start, I need to mention an article Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert. Most adventure game designers are well aware of the set of design rules for adventure games published in 2004. If you don't know about this article, I recommend reading it before you continue reading this post. If you already know the article by heart and are dying to finally get to know the 2018 problems the genre has (and I know you are), skip to the next section.
Some of those rules appear taken for granted nowadays, but the Twitter feedback showed us that people feel some games do still have troubles with some of these issues. In summary, the design rules are:
- Make the end objective and sub-goals clear at all times. Don't let your player wander around wondering what they need to do next.
- No puzzles that require the player to die to get to know what to do next.
- No "Backwards Puzzles": never find the solution before you face the problem.
- Do not require players to pick up items that are used later if they cannot go back.
- Puzzles should emerge from the story; they should be part of the story and not slow down the game for no reason.
- Don't use real time in time-based puzzles but allow for some clearance.
- Reward players (by revealing new areas, new plot elements, twists, ...) for proceeding in the game.
- Design puzzles that make sense.
- Reward the intent of the players - don't design interfaces that punish the players even they already got the right idea.
- Don't have unconnected events that allow for access to new areas.
- Allow for options and exploration in the world, don't lock the players up in restricted areas.
Some of the feedback on Twitter included points Ron Gilbert mentioned in his article. I will ignore these points in the following and instead point out things that have not been suggested by the person people call 'the inventor of the genre' 14 years ago.
Though, it's worth noticing that people still mentioned stuff described above even if many game designers have applied those rules. The genre has a somewhat bad reputation, and we want to explore why. So what is bugging modern players nowadays? Let's see what people on Twitter mentioned.
Getting Stuck In Static Worlds
People complained about the passivity and slow pace of classic adventure games. You can get stuck in Point & Click adventures. You have to lean back from time to time, maybe leave the game for a few hours and come back with a fresh mind. Some patient players can enjoy this.
However, there are people describing this as "dead air". Some complained that they're learning almost nothing new when they're stuck in an adventure game. It's true. You re-visit places, talk to characters you already know, are looking around in already known areas.
People argued that they could do different things in other games to get some time off their current focus like doing side-quests, level their characters, fight some enemies. I'm not saying let's make RPGs instead of Point & Clicks.
I'm also not saying don't let your players get stuck. Getting stuck and having to think about the puzzle is an essential part of Point & Clicks. But maybe that's a problem. Can you think of gameplay elements modern puzzle-heavy adventure games can have that add some depths to the story while the players are stuck in a puzzle? Maybe add additional elements to your story that only emerge when the players get stuck, or to phrase it differently, need more guidance to proceed in the story. Why does it need to be the characters and places you already have that point your protagonist in the right direction? How lazy is that?
Another approach to this is not to let your players get stuck for a long time in the first place. The problem is that this can easily result in designing puzzles that are too easy for experienced players and balancing puzzles is not easy. We'll get to hint systems later. But in my opinion, not even needing a hint system would be the better design approach. Don't let your players get bored.
Look at games like Night In The Woods where the player at all times has something to do, even if it might be mundane stuff. The world lives, and things seem to be happening, even if you only sit at home and play the base guitar. Maybe players expect games to feel livelier and less static than classic Point & Clicks where nothing happens until you do the right thing do.
No matter how you do it, getting stuck, not being able to proceed in the story and having the game world seemlingly “stop” at this point seems to be one of the biggest complains people have about Point & Click adventures nowadays. With this in mind:
Takeaway #1: Reduce Dead Air.
Reading The Designer’s Mind
People complained a lot about “Moon Logic”, illogical puzzles that don't make any sense. I think we have to look at this more closely. I think what people actually complain about, mostly without phrasing it themselves, are cartoony puzzles in non-cartoony settings and solutions that are too far-fetched. A puzzle is considered illogical if it doesn’t fit the logic of the world.
A lot of successful Point & Click games from the glorious age of adventure games aka "The 90s" were cartoon adventures. Weird item combinations and somewhat whacky logic can fit a cartoon adventure. But please consider if your game is a cartoon game or not before you implement puzzles that logic does not fit the world’s logic. And, even if this should go without saying: if you’re working on a cartoony Point & Click, design the puzzles in a way the players can actually solve them without needing a walkthrough.
Takeaway #2: Don’t implement puzzles that do not fit the logic of your world.
Usually, a puzzle in a point & click adventure is designed as follows: the game designer takes a point in the story, an obstacle or problem and comes up with a creative way to overcome this obstacle.
A lot of people mentioned that they don't like that they have to get behind precisely that solution - the one the game designer thought of. In most games there's one way to solve a problem. Some games offer multiple solutions to puzzles. But even then, you as a player have to somehow get behind what the person(s) who designed the game has thought of.
This is of course very hard to tackle from a game developer's perspective. What comes to mind is to do a lot of early testing to get behind what people who play the game would try. It is somehow 'by design' that players cannot come up with new solutions for a puzzle that the game designer did not think of in advance at some point - unless you have mechanical or physical puzzles. As soon as you don't have very precise rules (like in The Witness) and freedom and exploration in the game, you'll have a hard time coming up with ways the players can solve puzzles in the final game with solutions you didn't implement yourself.
Maybe that is something we need to overcome to make puzzle-heavy narrative games more modern and innovative. Try to think of ways you can implement more flexibility in your puzzle solving. How this can work depends on the game you’re making.
Takeaway #3: Allow for flexibility in puzzle solving
Need For Hints
Even if we consider all good advice regarding puzzle design and even if we do a lot of testing during development, and even if we manage to reduce dead air as good as we can, people will get stuck in puzzle-heavy adventure games. We might be able to improve our designs a lot and make hint systems almost obsolete - the thing is, IF players get stuck after all, they expect a hint system in some way anyway.
Twitter feedback showed us that players want hint systems. It also showed that there are a lot of games handling hint systems very well already. Thimbleweed Park's hint line has been mentioned a lot. Players appreciate it if the hint system is integrated in the world. I like it when hint systems don't break the fourth wall too much. Games can recognize if the player is stuck on their own and characters can start giving hints.
I mentioned possible frustration by Dead Air and introduced the idea of having whole sections of the world dedicated to such situations earlier. No matter how you do it, a hint system is almost standard nowadays and players almost expect puzzle games to come with some sort of hint system, so my advice would be not to delay implementing a hint system for too long and not to put it on top of the rest of the implementation, but create a hint system that is integrated in your world and story.
Takeaway #4: Integrate a hint system.
Some people argued that they like story games but don't like puzzles. So should we just proceed to cut out puzzles and make explorative, narrative story-driven games?
No. Puzzles are still appreciated by many players. There are different kind of games for different audiences. Point & Click adventures might just not be for people who don't enjoy puzzles because they perceive solving puzzles as work and they might just tend to like games like Firewatch, Oxenfree or Everybody's Gone To The Rapture more (all of them are beautiful games that I loved).
Maybe puzzle hate is a result of poorly designed puzzles or frustration with Dead Air in puzzle games they played. Long puzzle threads that lose focus are annoying. Illogical puzzles are annoying, as stated previously. Someone suggested making puzzle-solving optional, which certainly won't work in many Point & Click adventures since the experience of puzzle-solving is an essential part of the gameplay.
I know it's a weird thing to consider making your puzzle-driven game accessible to players who dislike puzzles. But, depending on the kind of game you're making, it might we worth thinking about it. A lot of us mainly want to tell a story and chose point & click as a medium for it. If the story is the main content you want to deliver, think about if that needs puzzles. Yes, once you've made the decision of using Point & Click as story medium and designed and fleshed out your story, getting rid of puzzles might very well impair your plot designed for a game with puzzles. So be careful. If you wrote a story that relies on the player to interfere and achieve plot points via puzzles taking that away might spoil the experience.
And we don’t need to get rid of puzzles in our games because some people don’t like puzzles. But I think it’s worth listening to them and trying to find out why they don’t like this element. Look at your idea, your story and what you’re aiming to convey. Does this benefit from puzzle solving and will puzzles improve the game experience? If yes, go for puzzles. If no, consider a narrative game that focuses on other gameplay elements.
Takeaway #5: Consider making your game accessible to players who don't enjoy puzzle solving.
People complained about adventure characters moving too slowly. Traveling the worlds takes too long. You have to wait for interactions because the player character first needs to walk to the interaction point. From a designer's perspective, you almost immediately translate this into it's not the time it takes for the character to walk to the object, the problem is that you lose control over the character when you wait for her to approach the object you clicked. One of the major problems of Point & Click adventures in 2018 might be, ironically, pointing and clicking. The control scheme takes control out of the player's hands. People got impatient and they dislike the waiting times resulting from these indirect controls.
We should consider having our characters walk very fast or going for a direct control scheme. Some modern Point & Clicks solve this by not having the character move at all. That sounds immersion-breaking, but it might work in some cases.
There have been people who said they actually liked the indirect mouse control. It has been mentioned that the control scheme is more accessible. I think the best approach would be to have multiple options for the control scheme. From the feedback we gathered, I tend to believe that direct control feels more modern.
Takeaway #6: Speed up your characters, think about direct controls.
Annoying Gameplay Elements
A few other things came up that I would sum up as "annoying gameplay elements" in point & clicks.
People play adventure games to experience a story and to feel clever after solving fair, well-designed puzzles. Searching every nook and cranny for interactable hotspots is annoying, so avoid pixelhunting at any cost. Having a button to highlight the hotspots of the scenes is standard in point & click adventures nowadays. In a perfect world, we wouldn't need this button. Don't hide objects that the player is supposed to find in the background drawings. This is just a source of frustration. Finding an item that the character immediately collects when you click it should not be a puzzle.
Takeaway #7: No Pixelhunting.
If you have mazes in your game, make sure you guide the player through the maze in some way in your corresponding puzzle. Twitter feedback mainly referred to very old games, but since it came up quite often, this seems to be something that stuck with the players and should be considdered if you think of implementing mazes in some kind.
Takeaway #8: No Mazes without guidance.
Many people said that action sequences in Point & Click games do annoy them. That might be because game designers did not properly implement the golden rule "Thy shalt not use real-time in time-based puzzles". But in general, it sounded like a lot of people dislike sudden change of pacing and the sudden appearance of time-based puzzles. Often enough game engines and frameworks made for the creation of point & click adventures are not made for the implementation of action sequences which might be a problem for smaller indie developers that aim for a classic style gameplay feel.
I can just recommend a lot of playtesting here and if you see that your action sequences don't work, do some fine-tuning and maybe, as a last resort, don't be reluctant to automate processes and implement cutscenes instead of playable action sequences.
Takeaway #9: Be careful with playable action sequences in slow-paced adventure games.
Also something that especially old Sierra games were criticized for, and has already been mentioned in Ron Gilbert's article, but worth noticing because it came up a lot: people get frustrated when they die in adventure games and lose their progress, especially when it happens unexpectedly. Who can blame them for that? So, even if that should go without saying nowadays:
Takeaway #10: No unexpected, unfair deaths.
We asked what people didn’t like in Point & Click adventures. We asked fans of the genre what they liked least, and we asked people who don’t play Point & Clicks why they stay away from them. What caught my attention was that many people named things that have been improved in lots of modern and new adventure games already. Especially the points listed under “Annoying gameplay elements” are things that modern games often do a lot better than the classic games from the 90s.
Do people not play modern Point & Click adventures because they remember things that annoyed them when they played LucasArts and Sierra games? Do new games fail to communicate that certain flaws have been dealt with? Do players think of old school games that are 20 years old and thus also of everything they did terribly wrong when they hear the term “Point & Click adventure”?
Then there’s certainly the tendency of game developers that loved the games from the 80s and 90s so much that they copy too much of them and make the same mistakes again. That stops the genre from evolving and finding a new, modern form.
Adventure games are suffering from their slow, static pacing and their restrictive game design. They are often missing a lively, evolving world and copy outdated game mechanisms. But adventure games are not dead. Puzzles are not dead. We are not dead. Let's design new, great adventure games!
What do you think are the most significant flaws of classic style adventure games and how should a modern, narrative game look like? Please leave your opinions in the comments.