Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Adventure games are back ... are they ?

Adventure games ... remember them ? We used to play them a lot: Myst, The Curse Of Monkey Island, Syberia, Gabriel Knight, the Seventh Guest, Broken Sword, ... I am sure it brings fond memories to some of you.

Adventures games used to represent a large share of the market but over the years, they have slowly but surely faded away from our scopes. There are a few studios who make good point-and-click adventures but they are struggling to make them as cheap as possible to produce. No publisher today is ready to support ambitious adventure

The reason is simple: Publishers don't make money with them anymore. There are just not enough buyers. Interest for adventure games seems to be gone ... but is it really the case ?

An adventure game delivers two promises to a player, two benefits: 1) It takes him or her along a compelling and mysterious story and 2) it challenges his brain. To summarize, a good adventure game must bring a story and puzzles.

Recent successful development has shown that there is a strong interest from the public for at least one of those two components: Puzzles. Machinarium ( is a successful well-crafted flash games that relies on very smart puzzles. The first few levels are free and once you have completed them, the urge ot buy the full game is strong. The game costs $20 or 14€. It is not cheap but it good value for your money. Another well-known example is Professor Layton on DS. More expensive to develop, this game has been hugely successful. An older example on DS is Phoenix Wright - Ace Attorney.

Now, what about the other component of successful adventure games, the story ? Can we build a successful game with just that ? I see one example: The Hysteria Project on the iPhone. Developped by the french studio Bulky Pix, this game offers little puzzles but is quite immersive. It has been quite successful and follow-up episodes are in the making.

Who could say there is no money to make in adventure games ?

Hence my conclusion; The traditional format of adventure game is probably dead but there are still players out there who are looking for their specific thrills. We have to offer them in new formats and we have to brush up design concepts in order to renew their appeal.

What are your thoughts on this topic ? Do you believe, as myself, in the future of adventure games ?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Difficulty curve - Is there such a thing as the ideal curve?

The construction of a difficulty curve is one of the key tasks in level design.

If the difficulty is poorly tuned, the game can become either impossible or boring. We all have memories of difficulty peaks in game that led to the distant throw of a pad or a mouse. on the contrary, how many games have we stopped playing because there was no more challenge ?

Does that mean a difficulty curve should always be smoothly upward ? Of course not. There is no ideal difficulty curve. Recent triple-A titles have shown that totally different approaches are quite valid.

For its shooting sequences Uncharted - Drake's Fortune follows a classical approach to difficulty curve construction . It is built like a staircase. Difficulty is flat, then it increased significantly and remains flat for a while until the next step. The introduction of a new category of enemies or the total number of them in a given firefight often trigger such steps.

Gears of War 2 or FEAR 2 follow a different approach. Their difficulty curve is basically flat. There are a few difficulty peaks from time to time but those are exceptionnal. Of course, if you change the difficulty setting, the game's experience will change but the level design does not.

The designers of FEAR 2 and GoW 2 are not using the difficulty curve to "glue" the player to their game machine. Epic designers constantly renew the player's experience while Monolith's designers use storytelling to achieve the same result: Getting the player hooked to the end of the game.

I draw two lessons from my analysis:
  1. There is no single approach to the construction of the difficulty curve
  2. The profile of the difficulty curve in the game should be planned as one of the components that build a player's experience and should not be an afterthough.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum - The proof that a license can be turned into a great game

Many attempts to develop a game after a movie license have yielded lukewarm results.

Some games are good but don't seem to draw heavily from their source material, except for the characters and the overall graphic style. In other words, one feels like the license's characters have been pasted onto a generic gameplay.

Other games are just too weak on gameplay.

This has resulted in the common wisdom that games based on strong licenses are just not up to the job. Therefore, any upcoming title based on a license is ususally welcomed with skepticsm.

The release of Batman: Arkham Asylum is showing us that one can develop a great game based on a license. What have they done that other developers have not ?

first, the developer, Rocksteady, did not attempt to follow the script of a movie or a comic book. They did build a real story but based on the very specific constraints of a game.

Second, they identified the elements that are most representative of the license. I am talking of the graphical style of course but also the type of actions available to the hero, the way the combats are introduced, the overall pace of the game, the combat situations, the dialogs style, etc.

Third, they build a game system and a level design that showcase those elements. They applied good old-fashion game design recipes. They probably got great support from their publisher, Eidos Interactive: The time and ressources to polish and tune the game.

Success did not lie in innovative game mechanisms but simply in the understanding of what makes a great license tick and the wisdom to do a well-crafted game.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Direct digital distribution: Heaven or hell for independent studios ?

The fast development of direct digital distribution (Steam, XBLA, PSN, Wiiware, iPhone, etc. ) is opening up a world of opportunities to small studios who don't need a publisher anymore to get their titles to the market. The internet if filled up with success stories of small studios that successfully marketed their games through this new distribution media.

But is it as good as it sounds?

A good friend of mine, Pedro Guanaes, the co-founder of Uacari, a young but promising french studio, pointed out to me that the very nature of digital distribution will actually decrease the visibility of new titles and therefore, will make it harder to sell them, especially without marketing support.

Why ?

In traditional distribution, new titles push away older ones. It does not matter if your title looks like an older one because that one will not, most likely, be present on retailers' shelves. With traditional distribution, all titles get their chances on the shelves because retailers make spaces for new ones.

But, with digital distribution, all titles, no matter how old they are, remain available. If you release a driving game, you'll have the face the competition of recent titles and older ones as well. And since distributors are likely to promote the best-selling titles, older reference titles will eat up most of the market.

For small studios or publishers, digital distribution makes it easy to publish a title but it will probably make it harder to promote it.

I see several solutions to this situation:
- Develop games that foster a community. Players are your best sales representatives. Games that provide regular download content, free or not, games that encourage players to build their own content, games that allow players to compete against each other and to organize themselves are the way to go for studios or publishers with insufficient marketing punch. Think of game universe, not stand-alone game. Think of a game as an on-going experience that will be regularly fed with novelties that players will buy or develop.
- If you have to stick to one player games, be creative so your title will stand out.
- Lastly, don't forego traditional marketing. Communicate. Traditional publishers can be powerful allies because that's the core of their know-how.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

E3 2009 - The software show that was about ... hardware

Greetings to all !

Every week or so, I will share my thoughts and analysis of the video game industry from the game design perspective. I don't expect everyone to agree with everything I write but all comments are welcomed as long as they respectful. By sharing ideas and thoughts, we'll get smarter as a group.

Today, I would like to talk about an interesting evolution in our industry: The
development of motion-based controllers. The Wiimote has been a precursor. That peripheral is now witnessing a drastic improvement in performance thanks to the Wii MotionPlus, Microsoft is introducing its motion camera, Sony will soon have its own motion-sensing controller and let's not forget the iPhone/iTouch with its accelerometers.

Those improvements in hardware are no gimmick. They make games easier to play but they also create room for new skill-based gameplays. When the damage inflicted by a sword will depend on its stike angle and the positioning of the body, a whole new dimension in gameplay will open up.
From the commercial point of view the announcement of a new platform is a major event, but not necessarly from the design poijnt of view. However new peripherals will have an influence on game design and game concepts
. That's why I believe the recent development of new methods to control games will have a deeper influence on our industry than it looks like.