Quest for Glory: a quest through the history of adventure games
First posted on 20 October 2010. Last updated on 20 October 2010.
About the interviews
The interviews with Corey Cole and Chris Warren were originally conducted between May 2009 and June 2009. Their assistance in the preparation of this article was greatly appreciated.
It is no secret that adventure games, once amongst the most popular game genres, are now largely on the fringes of the video game industry. At present, it is estimated that adventure game sales account for only about 5% of all software sales in the United States and Canada, according to NPD. Massively multiplayer online games, first-person and third-person shooters, and real-time strategy games have all but replaced a genre seen now by most game critics to be too slow or too complex for a generation of gamers raised by Doom, Half-Life, Halo, and StarCraft.
There are a handful of exceptions, however. Phoenix Wright brings point-and-click style adventure to mobile gaming, and Professor Layton bears more than a passing resemblance to hybrid puzzle adventures like Myst on the same platform. Sam & Max has succeeded in digital distribution as episodic games, and Monkey Island has undergone both a remake and a revival as a new series. However, when compared to the sales commanded by games of other genres, adventure games—with cartoon style graphics, silly but engaging plotlines, and obtuse puzzles—have fallen very much into a niche genre.
So, how does the once popular genre slide from a dominant force to passing irrelevance? To explore the decline and fall of the adventure game genre, it helps to go back in history to examine first the genre's golden age from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, then the genre's slow decline in the mid 1990s, and ultimately the genre's final collapse around the late 1990s and early 2000s.
There is a single adventure game series that spans this entire timeline, making it an ideal exemplar to examine the history of the genre: Sierra On-Line's Quest for Glory. It is a series whose rise and fall almost precisely mirror that of the adventure game genre as a whole. Admittedly, Quest for Glory is itself a hybrid adventure role-playing game. However, the many directions that the series has taken from 1989 to 1998 during its tenure succinctly demonstrate the various successes and failures of the adventure game genre, as it attempts to adapt itself to the changing tastes and expectations of gamers.
In an editorial in the Fall 1991 issue of InterAction magazine (an advertorial publication produced by Sierra On-Line that was sent to game fans who filled out the registration cards for their games), Ken Williams, co-founder of Sierra On-Line, wrote,
"My wife and I began a little company making 'interactive films.'"
Ken, whose wife Roberta had created some of the best known and beloved adventure games of all time (such as King's Quest and Phantasmagoria), continued to discuss the label of interactive films in his editorial,
"If others were describing what we do, they would say we made 'computer game software.' But, while 'game' might be applicable because our products are fun to play, I think of them more as interactive stories.
Looking back, I will be the first to admit that back then calling our products 'interactive films' was little more than wishful thinking. They were little more than interactive picture books or cartoons then."
These interactive stories—films, picture books, or cartoons—formed the basis of the modern adventure games. Sierra On-Line pioneered what became known as graphic adventure games. Mystery House, the first graphic adventure game, introduced the combination of text and graphics in computer games. Later, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers was advertised by Sierra On-Line as an interactive graphic novel.
Graphic adventure game is inherently an useful descriptor. It describes a game in which the player guides a character through a series of scenes or screens, much like the panels and pages in a graphic novel. Some are big and splashy, while others are small and restrained. The player guides the character to some ultimate goal, which lies usually behind a series of puzzles that require the player guiding the character through some preset obstacles.
Like a graphic novel, an adventure game tends to be linear, with a predefined solution for each puzzle and a limited path of progress. If the player tries to deviate from the plot, the game immediately penalizes the player's action by causing the story to reach a dead-end or, in more drastic cases, the character's death.
Quest for Glory (originally called Hero's Quest), released in 1989, was Sierra On-Line's first attempt to catapult the adventure format into a role-playing setting. In a way, Sierra On-Line regarded adventure games and role-playing games as close cousins: in both genres, the player would take on the role of a character to progress through some kind of story.
Role-playing games, especially early computer role-playing games, tend to focus more on combat than actual role-playing. Still, they allow a great deal more freedom than adventure games. In Wasteland, for example, the entire world is accessible to the party from the very beginning of the game, even if the more dangerous areas will mean almost certain death for low-level characters. These games, however, are naturally limited in the stories that they can tell, because the characters are little more than a collection of numerical statistics with names.
By contrast, Quest for Glory elegantly marries both the adventure and role-playing game genres in a way not achieved by either genre alone. The series focuses on the exploits of a blonde haired, broad shouldered young man who goes from wannabe hero in the tiny Germanic village of Spielburg to the Prince of the desert land of Shapier, averts a war in Africa, saves a Slavic village, prevents a Cthulhu like being from conquering the world, and finally competes to become the king of a Grecian inspired island kingdom.
In the game, the player can choose 1 of 3 classes: a Fighter, a Magic User or Wizard, or a Thief. A special class called the Paladin is also available if the player fulfills certain qualifications in each game. Each character class yields different solutions to different puzzles and often experiences different parts of the story. For example, a Wizard can compete in magical duals or talk to the Fairies, the Thief can break into buildings and sneak past guards, and the Paladin can engage in special dialog and open up extended pieces of the story.
I asked Corey Cole, co-creator of Quest for Glory, to explain the design ethos around the series. He replied,
"Our main goal was to recreate the experience of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a great dungeon master on a computer. To some degree, this is impossible, since we never have an infinite amount of time to come up with appropriate responses to anything the player might try. But we think we did a good job of working within the limitations of the medium to make an enjoyable role-playing adventure experience.
We didn't specifically plan for Quest for Glory to be nonlinear, but our approach to game design worked out that way. Rather than trying to tell a particular story, we set up an environment with many story elements and interesting characters. Our rule was that any character or situation we put into the game had to make sense in the setting and be able to fit into the overall story in a meaningful way.
We introduced some linearity by making it difficult to reach areas that "belonged" later in the player's story. But we didn't force the player down any one path, because in the end it is the player's story, not ours. Each player finds an individual path through the game and ends up with a unique story built around the elements we established.
We did introduce a few linear elements. Some events only occur if they have been triggered by previous events. However, the player still has to find her way to them. We used this technique more as we went along and learned more of the capabilities of Sierra's technology. Quest for Glory 2: Trial By Fire had certain "scheduled events", such as elementals attacking the city on certain days. In the last three games, we used more "triggered events" so that players could choose their own pace."
Through the ages
Unlike previous games made using the older Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI), Quest for Glory was made using the newer Sierra Creative Interpreter (SCI), a scripting tool created by Sierra On-Line to develop its own games. The enhanced engine allowed for a far greater degree of graphical realism than older games made using AGI; it also allowed the use of full music soundtracks by supporting sound cards such as AdLib and MT-32 MIDI synthesizers (in fact, King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella was the first game to support dedicated sound cards). Further, the game stretched design directions that had never gone before, adding real-time arcade style combat, character stats, a character sheet, an inventory system, and—most importantly—a new, nonlinear style of play.
At that time, Sierra On-Line was also in full-on experimental mode, releasing updates of old adventure games, such as King's Quest: Quest for the Crown and Mixed-Up Mother Goose (both of which were remade using SCI), as well as a bevy of new games, such as The Colonel's Bequest and Conquests of Camelot: The Search for the Grail. Only Quest for Glory went on to form a new series, though many of the other franchises got sequels or additions at some point.
When I asked Cole whether or not the series was intended to be an interactive film, akin to other adventure games from Sierra On-Line, he responded,
"No. As game players, we understood that films and games are very different environments for telling stories. We created an environment in which each player could help tell her own story, and in which two different players might experience two very different stories. Of course, they would have common themes and similar endings both because our time was limited and because we wanted to craft an environment that would lead to interesting stories.
An "interactive film" implies that the author has written a story and wants players to experience it. That seems to us a waste of the power of a computer game environment. How often have you watched a film and cringed when a character did something incredibly stupid? In our games, you can choose how careful, or brave, or clever, or silly you want to be. Each approach leads to a different story experience within the overall setting of the game."
Cole went on to explain the differences between developing Quest for Glory and other games from Sierra On-Line at the time (and in the future),
"The major differences were in how we thought about games. Since we were heavily influenced by D&D and computer RPG's such as Wizardry, we used some of their conventions of stats, health points, and so on. We diverged from D&D's "level" system because we had run a successful home game with a skill-based system and liked it. By working on and improving individual skills, players get more frequent positive feedback. We consciously used some ideas from psychological research on "occasional feedback" to keep players involved in the story.
I was told by a Sierra programmer that Roberta Williams's initial design for the first King's Quest games consisted of a rough map with a few words describing each room. Everything else was either described verbally or filled in by the development team. We had a much more involved design approach in which rooms and characters were described in detail on paper. The descriptions included appearance, purpose of the scene or character, handling for various things the player could try, all of the dialog, and so on. Of course, we still filled in a lot of the details during development and play-testing, and team members were encouraged to provide ideas and fill in anything we had missed."
Quest for Glory I: So You Want to Be a Hero? takes place in Spielburg valley, a locale that is small in size for an adventure game: about 30 screens spanning the town and the forest in the immediate vicinity. The game leaves the valley entirely open to be explored on the player's own, with almost every area accessible from the very beginning of the game. The game even has a day-night cycle, so that it is possible to spend in-game years in the valley without ever finishing the game.
In addition to the nonlinear, discovery style gameplay, it is also possible to miss, ignore, or outright fumble vast portions of the game. Baronet Barnard, for example, can be killed rather than saved if the player does not realize that is he is the bear in the cave. Baba Yaga, the ogress and the game's main antagonist, can be driven out of the valley, depending on whether the player chooses (or knows) to do so. In fact, technically speaking, the only true victory for the game is rescuing Else Von Spielburg from the brigands then somehow arriving back at the castle, all the while solving the various challenges that the player encounters in between. As a point of reference, it is technically possible to finish the game while collecting only about 200 of 500 total points possible in the game.
Subsequent sequels in the series introduced more linear elements. Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, the second game in the series (and the last game released by Sierra On-Line that uses a text parser) released in 1990, required the player to deal with a series of challenges that would occur on certain days, although the open exploration model of the first game was left intact. Moreover, the vast city of Shapeir, undoubtedly inspired by Arabian Nights, and its desert were vast compared to all other adventure games from Sierra On-Line up to that time.
Quest for Glory III: Wages of War, the third game in the series released in 1992, finally adopted an icon based interface and 256-color VGA graphics, similar to the VGA remake of the original Quest for Glory released in 1991. As well, the elimination of the text parser in this game (as well as in King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!) marked a turning point in Sierra On-Line's design philosophy: the removal of the text parser eliminated the frustrating need to guess a game's "word" for a specific object (Is it a sword? A knife? A dagger? A blade?) and encouraged the player instead to use the mouse exclusively rather than for just movement and looking. The game also took full advantage of a newer version of SCI to feature lush African based locations and icon based combat. However, it still lacked a CD-ROM "talkie" version like many of other games from Sierra On-Line at the time.
Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness, the fourth game in the series released in 1992, was the last game in the series made using SCI. A CD-ROM version of the game was also made featuring full voice acting (Hollywood actor John Rhys-Davies narrated the entire game). Unfortunately, the initial release of the game was plagued with a number of bugs that made the game almost unplayable.
By this time, Sierra On-Line had begun to show a tight focus on production budget, even at the expense of playability, in a way that had not been seen before. While the game had been scaled down in size, the production cost had skyrocketed compared to previous games of the series, in no small part because of the need to hire costly voice talents that Sierra On-Line saw as a necessary production expense. Still, the game managed to further bridge the gap between interactive films and interactive graphic novels (in fact, a CD-ROM version of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father, released around the same time, featured Tim Curry voicing the title character).
Phantasmagoria was released in the following year. Although the game itself was short by comparison (it could be finished in just a few hours), it was packaged on an unprecedented 7 CDs because the entire game was done featuring Full Motion Video (FMV) with live actors and a combination of real and virtual sets. Sierra On-Line also used this game to loudly trumpet the arrival of interactive films, which was then followed by a number of other FMV games, including The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery (the second game in the Gabriel Knight series).
It was around this time that adventure games began their fairly rapid decline. By the time Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire was released in 1998, the fifth and last game in the series, the games industry had experienced a major revolution. The release and commercial success of Doom, Diablo, and Quake shifted developers' focus from adventure games to action games. Hand-in-hand with this change was the rise of 3D animations, which was a far more economical way to tell a story in games than the complicated and space consuming process of FMV filming. Furthermore, online gaming started growing in popularity, and game companies began shifting their development budgets accordingly.
Even so, the final game in the series reflected many of these changes and stood as a kind of monument to the end of what had been referred to as the golden age of adventure gaming. The game used a brand-new engine featuring fully rendered 3D characters and a much more action oriented style of combat, coupled with full voice acting and a complete digital orchestral score. Even though it remained to be a matter of conjecture as to whether the game was a commercial success or failure (no sales data of this game has been released by Sierra On-Line), the series finale signaled the beginning of the end to Sierra On-Line's focus on adventure games. The subsequent release of Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned marked the last adventure game to be developed by Sierra On-Line.
Questing for glory
So, how did a game genre go from a leading sales platform to a trailing market niche? In short, there was no single specific factor to blame apart from the general upheaval in the industry, redirected budgets, and changing gamer expectations. First-person shooters introduced a new kind of gameplay in computer games: the platform lent itself well to slower paced adventure games but until the arrival of arcade action games like Wolfenstein and Doom. The internet provided easy access to game walkthroughs so that the expenses of buying hintbooks or calling hintlines no longer applied. The largest factor, however, might simply have been the budgets, as Cole elaborated,
"It's really a question of, "If you build it, they will come." The first FPS games totally amazed people, because they were the first games to really use 3D (although crude) graphics. As a result, there was a period when gamers bought any new FPS. FPS games - at least the early ones - were much cheaper to produce than Adventure and Role-Playing games.
Publishers are in business to make profits, so most of them jumped on the FPS bandwagon. Others jumped onto the Warcraft-style strategy game bandwagon. If you're in business to make money, would you rather spend $3 million producing an adventure game that might sell 200,000 copies, or $1 million making an FPS that will probably do just as well? So for several years, you just couldn't buy an adventure game, because nobody wanted to make them."
Cole further explained the rising development costs of the games,
"I like to joke about the 80-80 rule of project management - The first 80% of a game takes 80% of the development time, and the last 80% takes the other 80%... so that's why games are always at least 60% over budget and schedule. We actually did much better than that with every game except Quest for Glory 5: Dragon Fire, but we saw steadily rising costs through our time at Sierra. I estimate that Hero's Quest (the original 16-color version) came in under $200,000. By QG4: Shadows of Darkness, we were up in the $750,000 range. Dragon Fire came in closer to $3 million between the new technology and the much more difficult 3D art assets. I think Phantasmagoria cost at least that much, possibly $5 million or more, to develop.
So, yes, that's pretty much it. Games kept raising the bar on expectations, and to meet that level required very expensive assets and development. They didn't sell enough more copies to justify that additional cost. QG5 sold perhaps twice as many copies as QG1 at 15 times the development cost. That's not a formula to excite a publisher about producing adventure games."
I asked Chris Warren, a developer from AGD Interactive that released a fan remake of Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire in 2008, about the factors that led to the decline of the adventure genre. He replied,
"I attribute the decline more so towards the growth and accessibility of Internet which started to grow at exactly the same time the adventure genre started to shrink. No longer did players need to use their own brains to solve the puzzles, as the temptation of using a walkthrough was now only a mouse-click away. Adventure games that used to be challenging and provide hours of 'entertainment' back in the golden days forced the stumped player to turn off their PC, ponder over the solution in their off-time, maybe discuss the solution with some like-minded friends, and return to the game at a later time to continue playing. The logical intent of players to want to solve all the puzzles and finish the game quickly was still present in the pre-Internet days, but the limited means of conveying information meant that the process was longer and more drawn out. As soon as walkthroughs on the Internet became instantly accessible, players simply adapted to this newest logical (and faster) solution whenever they got stuck, which reduced waiting times and provided instant gratification. I don't think this single-handedly killed the adventure genre, per se, as there are still traditionalist adventure players who refuse to ever consult walkthroughs or hintbooks, but it's certainly a contributing factor.
I think the decline is certainly due to this, combined with... FPS and action games becoming more abundant and occupying a larger share of the market space. Initially, these action/FPS games were cheaper to produce than Adventures, so naturally, developers started to gravitate towards them as a way of increasing profits and minimizing development expenses. These days, however, most FPS and action games (such as Resident Evil 5 and Grand Theft Auto 4) are highly polished, have multi-million dollar budgets, and are being created by huge powerhouses. Adventures are certainly not appealing to create for most developers because of the current market trends and consumer interests, which is why Adventure development has been left mainly to indie groups and fan creators.
Personally, I don't believe that introducing action and Diablo-esque elements into traditional adventures is the right way to go about re-popularizing them or increasing profits. That's more of a sell-out than anything else and dilutes the adventure game, even further distancing it from its roots. I believe that Adventure games need to return to their origins, while also expanding in other innovative ways which uniquely incorporates exploration, expansive environments, interesting characters, and multiple puzzle solutions and scenarios. The very nature of adventure games means that the player must use their own brain to solve puzzles, so there's really no way of getting around the aforementioned "problem" of players consulting walkthroughs. What I think CAN be done is in order to mask the boredom of playing the waiting-game when a player gets stuck, is to distract them or give them other things to do in-game while they mull over the solution. There's more to it than that, but I think that's the basic gist."
Warren did not entirely share Williams' vision of interactive films, which he explained,
"I didn't like the FMV games that Sierra produced. To me they seemed limiting and I felt that the "realism" of the characters being portrayed by digitized actors forced me into accepting that the character looked like that in "real-life" rather than leaving anything to my imagination. In the case of Gabriel Knight 2, this seemed particularly jarring to me and stood in stark contrast to the VGA, Point & Click "Sins of the Fathers", which I considered to be a very well-rounded, neatly designed, and polished game.
I think Sierra Adventure games generally started to decline from 1995 onward (ironically, I've heard that this was Sierra's most profitable year ever). Post-1994, Sierra's games began using what I would consider experimental technology and simplified interfaces which removed (or drastically altered) the level of immersion and the overall experience of playing the EGA parser-driven or VGA Point & Click titles that were produced with their earlier SCI engines. I think the FMV interfaces were clunky and limited the movement of the player.
I have always admired Ken Williams' innovative approach towards bettering Sierra's successive games and technologies, but after 1994, Sierra began to have a lot more commercial competition from other gaming companies (not necessarily adventure companies) which may have forced them to attempt branching into other gaming markets. I guess their adventure games suffered because focus was lost on what the company became famous for in the first place."
If the demise of the Quest for Glory series was the result of Sierra On-Line trying to find its footing in a rapidly changing game market, then the decline of the adventure game genre might well be able to trace its source to all those factors that influenced the series' development near its end.
A brighter future
Not all is doom and gloom, though. The adventure game genre continues to live on today, thanks to dedicated communities of fans—whether they are remakes of old favorites by loyal fans or new games based on old franchises by commercial developers.
Warren, however, remarked that the actual payoff from creating fan games might be akin to that from writing fan fiction. He said,
"Making fan remakes can be a fun and rewarding as a hobby, but if you want to branch out with this in mind as a career, then fan games will not get you very far and can actually hurt your goal in the long run, as you'll always be very limited in a financial aspect and cannot profit from your long and hard work. My advice, based on years of accumulated experience now, would be to steer clear of other people's intellectual property and create something original instead."
Telltale Games has had a good deal of success with the new Sam & Max and Monkey Island episodic series, due to in no small part the large number of dedicated fans. Equally, LucasArts has generated enough fan interest from the Special Edition remake of Secret of Monkey Island that a similar remake of LeChuck's Revenge: Monkey Island 2 has also been made.
I asked Warren on whether or not it would be possible to create an indie commercial adventure game and sell enough copies to put bread on the table. He replied,
"I still think it's possible to make a commercially successful adventure game, but it must be approached in the correct manner and appeal to the largest denomination of the adventure fan-base to maximize the chances of success. This tends to be games that encourage exploration and storytelling in a fantasy/medieval type setting. Ideally, it should also be marketed as a casual online game to cut overhead costs. I think it would also help to have a series of games, which sequels are released for at somewhat regular intervals, much the same way Sierra operated in the old days."
To this end, there may very well be an opportunity to create a new Quest for Glory game. The fan based Hero6 project has been trying to do so. However, the bigger opportunity may lie within the allure that has made Quest for Glory stand out among all other adventure games in the first place: mixing genres in a new and innovative way that has never been done before.
Cole's closing thoughts bore this out the best,
"World of Warcraft, in my opinion, gets a large part of its success because it is so many different games to different people. It is a social game, a cooperative battle game, a solo adventure, an RPG, a financial management game, a player-vs.-player combat experience, and several other styles rolled into one. Players who like one type of activity can spend most of their time doing that activity, ignore most of the others, and still have a good time. So yes, having choices (the "nonlinear nature") helps attract and keep a wider range of players.
Part of the reason Quest for Glory was successful is that we mixed adventure and role-playing gaming to create an experience closer to a live D&D game than either style could manage alone. At the time, that was a very risky concept. Sierra brought us in to make them an RPG to compete against the Ultima series, but their tools were much better suited for adventure gaming, so we decided to create the hybrid."
I believe that that there is still plenty of room for innovation within the adventure game genre. It is only a matter of time before some talented game developer figures out the next hybrid to capture the imagination of the new generation of gamers, in much the same way as how a young hero from Spielburg valley once captured the imagination of all Quest for Glory fans.