The tricky business of making modern adventure games

Adventure games are alive and well, but they're a tough sell in the current PC gaming landscape.

This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 302. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.

The popular narrative for adventure gaming is that it died with the commercial failure of Grim Fandango before re-emerging a decade later, largely thanks to an explosion of indie developers as well as Telltale’s new spin on the genre. Words like “renaissance” are thrown around a lot. The reality is a bit more complicated. 

Who plays adventure games now? Wadjet Eye’s Dave Gilbert, currently working on Unavowed, says that it’s people like himself. “People who grew up playing games with a story or narrative bent to it; people who maybe don’t have a lot of time to play a game. That’s why our games tend to be on the short end.” 

These people make up the core, Gilbert tells me, but they’re not the only adventurers. Owl Cave Games’ Olivia White, whose latest project, Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, is an adaptation of the famous MR James ghost story, believes that her audience is as diverse as they come. “A cross-section of pretty much anyone across society,” she says. 

A broad audience doesn’t always translate to a big audience, however. When Gilbert released the final chapter of his well-received Blackwell series, before it was in any bundles or sales, he sold 7,005 copies on Steam. It can be hard to get the word out.

“It’s been a challenge, especially in the last few years, particularly after the Kickstarter bubble burst and when the Tim Schafer thing happened. It was really cool being me because people suddenly wanted to talk to me and get my opinion, I totally rode that wave. But then those games started to come out and people weren’t really impressed, and writing about adventure games became a hard sell.” 

SkyGoblin’s Theodor Waern, who is in the middle of creating the third chapter of his Afro-Caribbean adventure, The Journey Down, notes that a lack of previews doesn’t help. “For a point-and-click adventure game to be able to make any sense, as a player you need to invest yourself in it. You need to pay attention for a while. Get the context. Without these things adventure games are crap. That’s why previewing an adventure game is virtually impossible.” 

Other methods of engagement, like Let’s Plays, come with their own problems for narrative-focused games. Waern and Gilbert aren’t sure if they’re a good fit, but White has a different perspective. “We’ve had some huge success from YouTubers and streamers; Cryaotic did a Let’s Play of Richard & Alice very early on, and it made the game a lot more well known than we ever expected in the days before a publisher. Plus we quite regularly get a Twitch streamer or YouTuber who discovers the games, then get a burst of interest.” 

Aside from exceptions like Telltale and Daedalic, most adventure game developers are tiny, often independent teams. This can make them vulnerable. Waern explains that SkyGoblin generally lives paycheck to paycheck, while Gilbert became a publisher to spread some of the risk. “I wanted to hedge my bets and have more stuff to sell, because I knew that these games take so long to make that if I had one bad bomb, I’d be finished.”

White partnered with the now defunct Mastertronic, which offered her a lot of support, and she hopes to find another publisher for Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, and for the sequel to The Charnel House Trilogy, Augur Peak. The assistance was a boon, she tells me, especially since she is unable to take her games to shows due to serious back problems. Support for developers with disabilities is something she thinks needs to increase. 

“The amount of disability awareness and support in the games industry is woeful. Event organisers could help by catering specifically to people who have mobility issues that prevent them from attending – some kind of funding or support for devs who need to pay extra for travel because of disabilities. Plus making sure the venues are disability-friendly is a must.” 

Appearing on Steam used to be a coup for small developers, but changes to Valve’s platform now mean that Waern, White and Gilbert must rely on bundles and big sales. “Bundling and putting the games on sale has been a quick and easy way to solve immediate financial shortcomings,” Waern says, while White says that it’s where she makes any meaningful money.

Although Wadjet Eye’s games have benefited from being in bundles, Gilbert tells me that you’ve got to be smart about it. “If your game has been out for a long time, and it’s been very slowly ticking along, why not put it in a bundle and get tens of thousands of dollars all at once? It makes a lot of sense for old games, but less so for new games because it devalues it. If you release a game and then three months later put it in a bundle, you’re admitting defeat. Your sale cycle is pretty much done.” 

Despite the challenges, the developers remain optimistic and keen to continue evolving the genre. “I’ve come across a lot of experimental and very bold adventure games,” Waern says, “both when it comes to experimenting with new ways of interacting with the game and also in tackling a lot of mature and sometimes very difficult theme. It’s fun to see that the indie scene is bubbling with bravery and is constantly pushing the envelope.” 

Unavowed, The Journey Down Chapter 3 and Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You are due to launch in 2017.

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