There’s one photograph from my past i desperately want to find, but i fear it was lost to the voracious pagan god of bits and bytes years ago – another case for printing your digital photos as soon as you take them. It’s a picture of a fresh-faced young me, Ryan Henson Creighton, posing next to Tim Schafer, almost ten years ago. Tim has his jaw twisted up in his best Bill Murray impression, possibly trying to hide the fact that he’s uncomfortable being in the photo. i’m standing there with my best” OH MY GOD I’M GETTING MY PICTURE TAKEN WITH TIM SCHAFER” face on.
i can’t find the photo, but i scoured the internet for the closest thing to it:
(except that neither one of us was wearing a hat)
It was E3 circa 2003, during the little-known GDC-like conference portion of the event. Shamelessly geeking out by taking pictures with your long-time game design heroes was NOT the order of the day, but friends … i just couldn’t help myself. If you’ve seen pictures of the Untold Entertainment offices, you’ll know it’s a veritable shrine to the glory days of LucasArts graphic adventure games, back when story and character development and humour ruled the day (in stark contrast to today, when all three of those elements are routinely botched and butchered – almost deliberately, it sometimes seems).
No, visitor, i didn’t create those two games. But thank you for asking.
Ron Gilbert signed my original Monkey Island game boxes in a similar surprise geek attack at GDC last year.
Before i accosted Tim, he was on a panel talking about the difficulty of financing video games in his new venture, Double Fine. This was pre-Psychonauts. i asked him a question from the gallery: “The graphic adventure genre had clearly tanked, and action games ruled the day. But if you look at the free-to-play Flash game ecosystem, you’ll see a lot of young designers creating graphic adventure games, and they’re quite popular with a certain niche. Would you ever consider building another one?”
Tim screwed up his face in thought. i paraphrase: “I … yeah, I’ve seen that. Those little adventure games are great. And it’s tempting, but … I think we need to move on from that genre, and do something different. We can make games with graphic adventure-like elements, like character dialogue and picking up items, but as for those old-school adventure games, i … i don’t think we can go back.”
On Wednesday February 8 2012, Tim went back. Double Fine Productions launched a Kickstarter project asking for $400k to produce an old-school graphic adventure game and a making-of documentary, with creative involvement from Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert. In 2 hours, the project had crossed the $100k mark, and Tim remarked on Twitter that that was more than the budget of the original Secret of Monkey Island. In just under 12 hours, donated funding had shot up past $500k: half a million bucks in good will and high hopes, built on a legacy of some of the most enjoyable and fondly-remembered moments in video game history.
These games, friends – these games are why i am in the industry today. The graphic adventure genre is far from dead, and i hope this groundbreaking experiment proves it. It’s a great comfort to me to see these guys pump life and attention and revival into the genre, even as we work to release Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure on new platforms, and toil away on Spellirium, our trashpunk graphic adventure/word puzzle game mash-up.
God bless you, Timothy.
But what does this all actually mean? Have Double Fine proven that the standard publishing model for funding video games is dead and buried? It’s certainly coughing its death rattle, but i don’t think that’s the take-away here.
Is it that graphic adventure games are alive and well, and that we’re going to see a huge resurgence in the genre? Selfishly, i hope so. But the fact remains that the problems that sunk the genre to begin with are still present: lack of replayability, high cost of development for content players can chew through in a chicken minute, pixel hunting, nonsensical puzzle design, verbosity, randomly rubbing items together in the hopes of discovering a solution, and just plain ol’ getting stuck with no hope of moving the game forward. Imagine if, in a first-person shooter, your gun jammed, and you couldn’t keep killing Nazis unless you learned how to take your whole rifle apart and put it back together, which inexplicably required some knowledge of colour theory. That’s what we’re dealing with.
“You can’t do that – at least not now.”
i think the take-away here is that the video games industry has honest-to-goodness celebrities, and that we will pay those celebrities money to build games for us. It’s the dawning of a new age during which the video games studio system, a la the Hollywood studio system, is finally born, and personality becomes a business model. Here’s a short list of personalities and games that i would personally help fund:
Game designers are my celebrities. i’m far more interested in the work of Al Lowe, Jordan Mechner or Eric Chahi than i am in Michael Bay, Charlie Kaufman or Steven Spielberg (The Dig/Boom Blox notwithstanding). And just as Joe Public will pay money for tabloids full of photos of their favourite celebrities, will pay to see their movies, will pay to buy their clothing lines, i will pay you to build games for me.
Who are your game design heroes? What do you want them to create for you, and how much will you pay? Thanks to Double Fine blazing the trail, you may well get your wish.