The work-to-fun ratio

27 March 2011

You know how adventure games went from being the most popular kind to becoming a minor niche? Much has been written about the why and how of it, and whether it was deserved or not. But nothing compares to discovering for yourself the trade-offs involved in making adventure games versus any other kind.

See, working on a text adventure so soon after an arcade game made me notice a simple fact that should have been obvious in retrospect: the ratio of effort spent to entertainment provided is terrible for the former. So bad, in fact, that I can understand any game developer (whether professional or hobbyist) who decides it’s simply not worth it.

Look at it this way: [[Buzz_Grid?]] supports exactly five commands — north, south, east, west and “skip level”. It also features exactly four types of interactions, one of which you can’t even control. Despite that, it can provide countless hours of fun. By contrast, Catch That Cat has 17 explicitly programmed interactions just in the first room, and I haven’t counted the exits or the many implicit and predefined interactions, every single one of which had to be programmed in or otherwise set up. And you can exhaust all of them in just a few minutes, after which the game loses all its appeal. Not to mention that as the developer I already know them all, so I can’t play my own game.

You could argue that it takes one year to write a novel which you can read in a few days. Worse, it takes two years to make a movie that you can watch in a couple of hours. The ratio is much, much better for an adventure game.

But you see, any other type of game trumps adventures in this regard. And that’s what matters when a developer decides what kind of game to do next.

Can this situation be improved? Likely, yes. There is talk of applying procedural generation to interactive fiction, a technique used successfully in everything from roguelikes to high-profile titles such as EVE Online and Fuel. And even without PCG, murder mystery-themed adventure games such as Blade Runner can offer surprising amounts of replayability. But that’s a rather narrow sub-subgenre. Hopefully with PCG we’ll be able to make any adventure game as replayable as, say, a Japanese RPG (where the only things you can vary are your party build and tactics).

Are we there yet? No way. In fact, I’d say we’re barely starting in that direction, and not for lack of trying. But whoever figures it out first might just trigger a revival of the genre, and make a fortune out of it (thanks, Iain). After all, the success of the recent Monkey Island remakes, or the new Sam and Max series, are evidence that the public still loves adventure games; it’s us developers who have grown disillusioned. And I really hope that new technology will change the equation for us, to everyone’s benefit.