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State Of The Point-and-Click Art

The graphical adventure genre has some life in it yet, and here experienced contemporary developer Andrew Goulding turns his experiences with PlayFirst's Avenue Flo and Emerald City Confidential, as well as his own Jolly Rover, into salient design rules.

[The adventure genre has some life in it yet, and here experienced contemporary developer Andrew Goulding turns his experiences on PlayFirst's Avenue Flo and Emerald City Confidential, as well as his own Jolly Rover, into salient design rules.]

A Brief History: The Past

The '80s saw the emergence of the text adventure. Increasing computer power allowed this to evolve into the graphical adventure. Further advances in technology saw mainstream use of the mouse, replacing the text parser with a cursor, evolving this into what we now know as the point-and-click adventure.

The golden years

The early '90s saw a rise in the popularity of the point-and-click adventure, the heavy hitters being Sierra and LucasArts. LucasArts' adventures, first arriving later into the game than Sierra's, did away with the text parser from the start and began their life with the verb interface.

They also summarized the standard text commands, and more importantly, focused more on characters and story. Further evolution was made to reduce the interaction into its base components: look at, talk to, interact with, and walk to.

The early '90s was a golden era of point-and-click adventure, most fondly remembered by today's fans, but by the mid '90s the genre was waning.

Maybe it was the emergence and dominance of the first person shooter, maybe the growth of multiplayer games, maybe the obligatory need to go 3D, maybe the home console; whatever it was, by the late '90s many were calling the point-and-click adventure a dead genre.

The resistance movement

But it was never dead to some people; there was still a diehard fan base, dedicated to keeping the genre alive, refusing to believe the genre they loved so much was dead. This fan base was considered too niche for mainstream developers to focus their attention on.

So what was the relatively small group of fans of this fading genre to do? The answer of course was to start making their own games. The growth of this can be directly attributed to adventure game creation engines like Chris Jones' Adventure Game Studio.

This tool helped spawn the careers of several noted adventure game developers, such as Dave Gilbert and Yahtzee Croshaw. But these games, while giving fans exactly what they wanted, and possessing compelling stories, characters and puzzles, followed the same conventions as their predecessors -- doing little to evolve the mechanics of the genre to open it to new players, as was happening other genres during this time.

The rise of digital distribution

Meanwhile, a new type of game was being coined: the casual game. This arguably started with someone realizing millions of people were playing Minesweeper, Solitaire and other card games on their PCs. These were simple, accessible games, with small time commitments, big rewards, and small budgets, reaching a wide audience digitally, and the best part is that they were making money!

With the growth of these casual games, distributed digitally, there was a new accepted method of reaching customers. And there was also a new way small developers could make small games and make a profit.

Indie adventures... earning money!?

The rise of digital distribution suited developers of point-and-click adventures to a tee. Games developed in Adventure Game Studio were being sold for a small profit.

Then Telltale Games appeared on the scene, not only successfully implementing the idea of episodic content, but breathing life into the old classics, such as Sam & Max, that defined the genre back in the golden years. Finally, the niche adventure game audience was being fed again. But were the new games hitting the mark?

Lack of evolution

One problem with adventure games having lain dormant for so long is that they didn't have a chance to evolve with the rest of gaming's foundational genres. In some respects, adventure games have been stuck in the '90s, and the recent resurgence has picked up right where things left off.

The need for evolution

What we are seeing now is successful adventure game developers going through a period of rapid evolution as they come to terms with an audience with a very different set of circumstances -- an audience with limited time and spoiled for choice.

No longer are people going to wander around for four hours until they happen to use one particular item on another, or find that 2 by 5-pixel area. Even hardcore fans begrudge this kind of treatment as they turn to Mass Effect 2, Halo, or Grand Theft Auto for a more user-friendly experience.

The casual point-and-click adventure?

When I began development of my game, Jolly Rover, I had just come from two tours of duty working as a contract programmer on two adventure games being published by casual game developer PlayFirst. The first game was Emerald City Confidential, working for Dave Gilbert, the second was Avenue Flo, working directly for PlayFirst. Emerald City Confidential's design was approached from the traditional adventure game side, while Avenue Flo's design was approached from the traditional casual game side.


Round 1: Emerald City Confidential - Point-and-click adventure, meet casual game

I was in the interesting position to witness firsthand the two genres collide as we set out to make Emerald City Confidential, a noir Wizard Of Oz-themed graphical adventure. To a certain extent, we thought we were making a game for Dave's adventure game audience, while PlayFirst thought we were making a game for a their casual audience.

PlayFirst's audience is the typical casual audience; PlayFirst knows its audience and its success is built off this. Partway through the project, the alarm bells went off when it became apparent that we were making a traditional point-and-click adventure. It was at this point we learned what was needed to make a point-and-click adventure... go casual.

Reduce dialog

The first thing that was flagged as a problem was dialog; there was too much of it. It was an average amount by adventure standards, but way too much by casual standards. A fact learned through countless hours of user testing is that the average casual player doesn't read.

Well, that's not entirely fair -- they do read, but with little patience, and generally only the first and last lines of dialog. We had to assume that anything in between was essentially ignored. The instructions were to cut by half, then half again.

Tell players what to do

Secondly, casual players just want to know what they have to do and how to do it, so they can get on with doing it. Traditionally in adventure games, part of the puzzle is figuring out what you're supposed to be doing.

We thought we were doing well by having a journal with the current and completed quests, but this required players to click on the journal and read their task, which many players didn't do. So we had to implement an on-screen task system that let players know as boldly as possible when they had a new task, when that task was finished, and cycle the list of current tasks. The journal was kept as a backup.

Give players a clear sense of progression

Thirdly, casual players need to know exactly how long the game is, where they are in the game, and be rewarded well for progressing. So our task list was linked with a series of gems that would pop up large in the center of the screen before sliding into one of a set number of slots in the task bar at the bottom of the screen each time the player had finished a task. This was a flashy sequence with rewarding sound and particle effects, geared to make the player feel they had won the lottery after every task, such as finding the journal.

Reward early, reward often

This leads to the fourth point, which becomes apparent after you read the above; reward early, reward often.


Emerald City Confidential

Make the tutorial clearer

The fifth point covers the tutorial. Dave thought he had created a tutorial that introduced players to the process of using inventory on the world, by suggesting the use of a crowbar on a door, but casual players just didn't get it and had trouble both picking up the crowbar and using it on the door.

Our final solution was not unlike the solutions I remember from programming games for the Leapster, aimed at kids: bright flashing objects compel players to click on them.The final tutorial sequence proceeded thus:

  • hint at the crowbar/door task with dialog
  • pop up a dialog box explaining what to do
  • flash the crowbar
  • when the user clicks the crowbar, it pops up large on screen with particle and sound effects and flies into inventory slot
  • crowbar flashes in inventory
  • door flashes when crowbar is picked up
  • big reward for using crowbar on door

Hardcore gamers might read this and wonder if all casual game players are idiots, but this is not the case; they just need a very clear explanation what is required of them, as they're not compelled to figure it out for themselves like mainstream gamers are, and don't have years of stored up experience with gaming's tropes. It's a different mindset.

Give players the hint book

Finally, casual players can't stand getting stuck for more than a few minutes; it's enough to stop them playing entirely, and hate your game forevermore. To address this, we included a section of the player's journal that resembled the hint books of yore. Players could see their current quest, and click on a series of hint texts to have the solution to their task slowly revealed to them, with no penalty for doing so.

Finding hidden objects

In addition to this we were required to add a subgame, which was finding colored buttons, one in each scene, which could be traded for concept art at the in-game store. This would allow the casual player to be always engaged in searching for something on the screen. Funnily enough, this was noted as some people's favorite part of the game, even though I felt it would be the most boring gameplay element.

Result...

Emerald City was a success, but perhaps not the blockbuster it was meant to be. I would hazard a guess that one of the reasons for this is that we didn't go into development with these casual mechanics in mind, and as a result, they weren't integrated well enough into the game and story.


Round 2: Avenue Flo - Casual game, meet point-and-click adventure

Moving on from this I worked directly for PlayFirst on the casual adventure title Avenue Flo, which was taking a casual license -- Diner Dash -- and turning it into an adventure game. As opposed to Emerald City Confidential, not only was this approaching development, from the very outset, from the casual side, but it was in design for many months before development began, with all the known casual principles integrated from the beginning.

Minimal dialog

Dialog was minimal, for a start, and dialog trees were not even considered; even still, the dialog ended up being cut down.

All dialog was context-specific based on the current task the player was on, and was geared to progressing the story. Part of the advantage of working with an established license was that many of the characters required little introduction.

Multiple clear ways to track progress

Avenue Flo included several ways for players to track their progress in the form of a task tracker, map screen, and collectable item list, all accessible from the task bar.

Even though there wasn't a mechanism for getting the solutions to problems, clicking on the main character would give hints, and each of the well-integrated minigames came with a set of hints that could practically solve the game. The main tasks for completing the game were clearly identified from the start, and packaged into three distinct sections, so players always had a clear goal from start to end.

Constantly rewarding actions

Moving straight from Emerald City and using the same engine, Avenue Flo included the same rewarding popup inventory mechanic. Of course every action was followed by a pleasing sound and particle effect, with major progression actions being rewarded with a short animation sequence or large sound and particle effects. The goal: making the player feel rewarded consistently throughout the game.

Integrated subgames

The sub-games of collecting bottles and butterflies were seamlessly integrated in the story, and the rewards were tangible and progressed the story. And of course the tutorial was geared perfectly to casual players with many flashes and prompts.


Avenue Flo

Result...

Avenue Flo did well with its intended casual audience, because of the design principles employed, and also because of the strength of the license. Probably its only flaw was that minigames could not be skipped and one in particular contained an action sequence that prevented some players from being able to complete the game without the physical assistance of the nearest gamer or 12 year old.

However the game contained very little for an adventure game audience to get their teeth stuck into -- possibly due to its simplicity and predictable story.

Round 3: Jolly Rover - Adventure for all

Moving forward with my own game, Jolly Rover, I wanted to make a classic point-and-click adventure, but employ the valuable lessons learned from working on casual titles to make the game accessible to a wider audience while not alienating the adventure game audience. In doing so, I hoped to at least be able to sell enough copies to continue practicing my craft. Jolly Rover was the first commercial-scale title I would be the designer on; it was also the culmination of a lifelong dream, so I wanted to do all I could to make it a success.

As I mentioned before, even a hardcore adventure gamer doesn't like walking around for hours not knowing what to do, so they're not entirely dissimilar to the casual player, even if they're operating on a different level. This means that ideas such as implementing methods to keep players on track and give them optional hints and even solutions to problems benefits both your casual and hardcore players.

The balance I felt I wanted to achieve was to make sure the game wasn't too easy and too shallow for players that wanted their brain tickled and dig a little deeper. Casual players aren't fools, but they come from a different set of experiences and knowledge; consider the person with a PhD who can't work change the settings on their new DVD player.

So without further ado, here are some things I included in Jolly Rover to attempt to make adventure games accessible to all:

One button does everything.

My belief is the fewer controls you have in a game, the better. Also, when targeting Mac, you have to be aware that its users are used to one button. Moving to iPhone/iPad is also easier. The button click is context sensitive, so one click can mean "look at", "talk to", "walk to", "open", "close", "pull", "push" etc. An exception to this is a feature I just added recently, which is right clicking to put away an inventory item. It's not necessary, but adventure gamers miss it if it's not there, and putting it in doesn't increase control complexity.

No pixel hunting

It is with some humor that I realize my next feature may contradict what I've just said. Pressing the space bar will highlight every interactive item on screen. Adventure games shouldn't be a pixel hunt; nothing should be lost by showing players all items of interest. This is a big distinction I make between adventure games and hidden object games.

Help the player reduce repetition

The game remembers what you've done, so you don't have to. A frustration I have in adventure games is returning to a scene and forgetting what I've already interacted with. To combat this I have a simple text roll-over system for interactive areas. Blue text appears on items the player has not interacted with, white text for areas they have.

Sometimes on returning to a scene, or after performing an action, an item that has already been interacted with will elicit a new response; in this case the item will have blue text once again, signaling the player can get a new response by interacting with it again. This is the same for characters that have new dialog options available.

In addition, this is implemented for using inventory items on areas, and using inventory on inventory. This simple feature will prevent players from wasting their time, and ensure future actions are productive.


Integrated Hints and Task Tracking

I realize this is two points, but in this example the solution is interlinked. What is the point of having a player need to exit your game to consult a walkthrough? Why not include this for players that need it?

Jolly Rover's hint mechanism was integrated in the design phase. The player finds a parrot early on that becomes their hint book and task-tracking system. Initial hints are given for free, but the full solution requires players to give the parrot crackers that are easily found by exploration of the world (not by pixel hunting, though!)

The player can also ask the parrot what they're meant to be doing at any time. In addition, clicking on the main character will give a similar hint to keep them on track. And if that's not enough, there is a task bar at the top of the screen displaying the current main task.

This leaves no excuses whatsoever for not knowing what to do! This task bar also doubles as another way to deliver humor to the game, occasionally changing to a joke quest, but never leading the player astray.

Encourage replay

Adventure games are often criticized as lacking replayability. For my solution, I've borrowed some ideas from casual games, Xbox Live Arcade, and Steam: collectable items to unlock bonus content and medals gained from this and gameplay decisions.

The crackers for the parrot serve an additional use for unlocking concept art and a medal for collecting them all. There are also pieces of eight to find, which unlock music tracks, and can be used as alternate solutions to puzzles. Finally, there are pieces of pirate flag to unlock pirate Captain Biographies. Everything was integrated in the design phase to keep in line with the theme of the game.

But wait, there's more! Completing the game unlocks developer commentary, which can be turned on from the options menu. This spawns scrolls in each scene, which the player can click on to hear things such as original actor voice auditions, outtakes and me chatting about design decisions, influences and other bits of trivia. This was actually something I decided to implement partway through development because I saw it as cheap to add, and a good re-use of otherwise discarded resources.


Jolly Rover

Progress Indicator

Each action the player performs that progresses them forward adds to their progress score, which is shown as a percentage in the player's log. This is a throwback to casual games' necessity of showing the players progress through the game, but it's done here in a more low key way, for players that care about that, and from the results of the beta testing, I've found that a lot of hardcore adventure players like knowing their progress, too.

Score

Okay, this one isn't exactly an example of increasing usability, but I feel it's worth mentioning, and it's something which made sense to me. Because I was implementing a progress system, I thought it would be easy to implement score as well.

One fond memory I have of the old Sierra games is the pleasing jingle you would hear every time you would perform a correct action in the game. I didn't understand why adventure games stopped doing this. I wanted to bring it back by having a score bar and sound each time the player progressed, additional score is obtained by finding collectables such as pieces of eight and crackers, but the score is reduced by using these items to solve puzzles or get hints.

The addition of this really tied together a lot of elements in the game. A cool feature that flowed from this was a series of jokey pirate ranks, from "Lily-livered Land Lubber" to "Barbarous Blaggard" to "Pirate Lord" which were linked directly to score. Score, Rank, and Task are all displayed in the task bar at the top of the screen.

Final concerns

One of the failings of Jolly Rover is that some sections do have more than the casual game recommended maximum three lines of dialog per conversation option -- sometimes many more! I normally try to break up dialog with actions, and switching between various emotive talk animations.

For the most part, players can skip through this and still find out what they have to do, but in doing so will miss out on the keys of what make great adventure games, which are the characters and story. This, in my opinion, is like watching a movie in fast forward and complaining that it wasn't any good.

Another "failing" is that while there is a progress tracker that lets you know your progress percentage through the game, the end goal of the game changes several times throughout the game as the player is taken on a journey of changing priorities. My feeling is this is what makes a good story, and that players appreciate surprises and not knowing how things are going to end up. Time will tell how this will affect the success of the game.

Onwards to glory!

I'm not saying I'm the champion that is going to bring point-and-click adventures back to the glory they once had; there are already a handful of developers doing a stellar job of pushing the genre forward. That said, I still think we have a way to go, and each adventure game will appeal to a different group of people for different reasons.

At their core, however, adventure games can attempt to make the user experience as friendly as possible by improving their mechanics to appeal to a wider audience while not alienating their core audience. Already I have a few ideas for how to increase usability of future games, but I want to test them out before going on about them here.

As a parting word, I'd like to add my view that the adventure game genre is not dead; it's alive and well, but like stop motion films, it's become a niche and a labor of love --and that's part of what makes them great! That's not to say it wouldn't be nice to earn a good living off making the games I love, but let's not kid ourselves here.

Jolly Rover is out now in glorious hand painted 2D. Get it at a digital distributor near you!

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