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October 2012

Telltale Games and Anomalous Developers

Telltale_Games_logo Are Telltale, makers of The Walking Dead episodic games, reviving point-and-click adventures? Or are they just an anomaly?

In 1998, the commercial failure of Grim Fandango marked the death-knell for point-and-click adventures. The darling of the 90’s was nowhere to be seen at the start of the next decade, and many companies (including my original employer, Perfect Entertainment) went under as the market moved into more action-oriented 3D titles on the back of the successes of Quake, Tomb Raider and Resident Evil. Then, in June 2004 – six years after the adventure game crash, Telltale games popped up with new point-and-clicks based on licensed IP and gradually established themselves as a thriving business. But we’re they an anomaly? Could other companies hope to succeed in the same niche? This is less than clear.

It’s always dangerous to talk of anomalous markets in games since, by definition, there is something unexpected about each anomaly that defies explanation. I remember when Gregg Barnett and I were working together on Ghost Master, as his new developer Sick Puppies was being established, Electronic Arts hit franchise The Sims was the anomalous market. Since our game purported to be in the same marketplace, it was necessary to overcome the industry inertia that said The Sims was a freak that couldn’t be duplicated. In fact, this was a half-truth: no-one in the West did successfully take on The Sims. But this was mainly because no-one made a game of the same kind. Ghost Master – for all that I think this is my best work as a game designer – was not build to appeal to the same audience as The Sims. I – and everyone else chasing a piece of that pie – fundamentally misunderstood why players loved The Sims. We saw its flaws in respect to our own play tastes and tried to fix them. We didn’t see what had made The Sims appeal to a whole new audience.

The Sims was an anomalous franchise for two crucial reasons. Firstly, EA had cornered a fresh market as first mover (always a major advantage) and at the time no other publisher had the chops to tackle them head to head. Secondly – perhaps more importantly – no developer had the right culture to produce a game like The Sims that moved in directions far from the challenge-oriented biases of the commercial mainstream for games. I won’t say that a viable competitor to The Sims was impossible - Animal Crossing proved that toyplay had far more to offer than most publishers believed – but The Sims was primarily an anomaly because the team at Maxis that had made it was also an anomaly. It had greater gender diversity than any major title before or since. It had the deep pockets of EA to support it, and a major name like Will Wright to ensure it received the space it needed to work out its kinks. Rather than The Sims being a market anomaly, it might be fairer to call Maxis an anomalous developer.

As with Maxis, so with Telltale. The anomalous characteristics of this company are legion! For a start, much of Telltale's staff are ex-LucasArts, people who had worked on the big point-and-clicks and knew first hand how to make them. They had the right development culture to make a genre other companies neither wanted nor could viably make. Secondly, they had the deep pockets to self-publish – vital, since none of the major publishers had any faith in the commercial prospects for an apparently moribund form. Thirdly, they were based in California and could easily hook up with strong IP from other media sectors; a company in (say) Austin, Paris or London would have found this much harder. Fourthly, Telltale were perhaps the only company to make episodic content work. Many tried, everyone else failed, mostly because of a misunderstanding about what episodic content needed to do to succeed, namely release content regularly (yes, I’m glaring at you Valve). The fact that investors in the early 2000's believed episodic content was the next big thing may have helped Telltale; the investors were wrong, but if they put funds into Telltale they made a good choice all the same.

I now doubt there are such things as anomalous markets – there are niche markets, but no niche is so strange or narrow it can’t support more than one company, if the companies in question are set up to fit the gap in question. But there are certainly anomalous developers – companies like Maxis and Telltale that have unique development cultures capable of producing something more than yet another gun game. Will Telltale revive the fortunes of the point-and-click adventure? Of this I am doubtful. But that doesn’t mean Telltale won’t be able to thrive off a gap in the market they are uniquely positioned to exploit. Like The Sims, the games Telltale is making lie outside the ordinary; they are continuations of an otherwise dead lineage by a team perfectly positioned to do so. There is something worth celebrating here – a victory against the lowest common denominator economics that dominate all media industries. Long may it last.

Mike Singleton

Mike Singleton Yesterday, I was saddened to learn of the death of Mike Singleton, who passed away last week at the age of 61. This was especially moving for me as the news came as I was putting the finishing touches to my Game Narrative presentation on Open Worlds, which opens on Mike’s classic The Lords of Midnight, and spends some time discussing his truly visionary contributions to digital gaming. Open Worlds are a truly British creation, and all the early manifestations were developed in the UK – David Braben and Ian Bell’s Elite (1984), Andrew Braybrook’s Paradroid (1985) and Novagen’s Mercenary (1985), and of course Mike Singleton’s Midnight and Midwinter series. I wrote about these landmark titles several years ago under the title Early Playground Worlds, and this is the heritage that leads to DMA Design’s Grand Theft Auto (1997) and the creation of the contemporary Open World concept.

Of all the games released on the ZX Spectrum, The Lords of Midnight had the greatest impact, attracted the most dedicated fans, and truly pushed that little rubber-keyed black plastic brick to its limits. Mike had already made a name for himself in the nascent games industry as a visionary programmer who could squeeze impossibly ambitious content out of very limited hardware. With The Lords of Midnight, Mike took direct inspiration from (some might ungenerously say ‘ripped off’) The Lord of the Rings and found a way to do what no-one else thought possible: to make a game that offered both the adventure story and the strategic battles of Tolkien’s epic trilogy. Using a ground-breaking technique he called landscaping, Mike realized he could simulate thousands of locations from small component images that could be composited into first person views on the basis of situational data. The result was magical.

Although it is at it’s most impressive when measured against its contemporary games, The Lords of Midnight still has a following today. Within a week of discovering a Spectrum emulator, I had dug out my old maps of the land of Midnight and set to work trying to win it. I managed to overcome the nefarious Doomdark by melting the Ice Crown easily enough, thanks to recruiting the dragon Farflame as an ally, but never quite held the citadel of Xajorkith from the horde of armies that overrun it. Still, I had great fun trying, and the sense of scale provided both by the size of the world, and the number of allies that could potentially recruited kept me coming back for more. There’s always the sense that there was something different you could have tried, some different way to petition a neutral leader to join the fray, or some better place to ambush advancing forces. It showcases what makes strategic play fun at a time when most such play was confined to board games.

Originally intended as a trilogy, Mike did release a sequel the following year, entitled Doomdark’s Revenge, but the final instalment never emerged. The final game, Eye of the Moon, was foreshadowed in the manual of the second game, and much of the engine was apparently developed. However, a combination of circumstances, including the arrival of 16-bit home computers, contrived to prevent the trilogy from being completed. Mike did later release another game set in Midnight for the PC, but it suffered from a surplus of ambition and a deficit of resources, and arrived in an industry that had already moved off in other directions.

The 16-bit era saw Mike advance the roots of the Open World concept even further with the universally acclaimed Midwinter series. The first game, published in 1989, dabbled in rendered 3D years before the technology for doing so became commonplace (although Carrier Command, released the previous year, had slightly beaten him to the punch with its shaded polygonal vehicles). With a giant island produced by a fractal algorithm, Mike used the strategic team management elements of the Midnight games to present a futuristic battle for survival in a frozen wilderness. Characters could ski, fly delta wings and use other vehicles to wage guerrilla warfare against an invading foe, with the action occurring in real-time but the game divided into turns of two hours game time per character, adding strategy to action – and offering first person shooting years before the classic first person shooters began to emerge. The sequel, Midwinter II: Flames of Freedom (or just Flames of Freedom) increased the variety of vehicles that could be used to roam its vast sprawl of tropical islands, and enjoyed the same critical success as the original two years earlier.

An English school teacher turned programming ‘superstar’, Mike’s legendary games came too early in the history of the games industry to net him millions, and like his contemporary Andrew Braybrook, he lacked the business acumen that rocketed other 8-bit visionaries to fortune and fame many years down the line. Despite this, Mike’s legacy is a catalogue of exceptional games that are still beloved today, and which influenced generations of game designers to follow. On more than one occasion I designed a map module for a game that was inspired by Mike’s early designs, although sadly none were ever built. It took incredible genius to produce games within the savage constraints of early computers – The Lords of Midnight fitted into fewer than 48 kilobytes, smaller than the draft file of this obituary. Mike will be sadly missed by his fans, and remembered as a true pioneer who took games where no-one knew they could go, and from where they could never be the same again.


Noctis It has awful graphics, absolutely no sound, rules that are utterly incomprehensible and a terrible interface design certain to frustrate anyone used to traditional 3D game control schemes. So why can’t I stop playing Noctis IV?

I first learned about Noctis from Proteus’ Ed Key who mentioned it in a discussion that broke out on Twitter in the wake of the recent explorable xkcd cartoon, “Click and Drag”. Brendan Keogh expressed his delight that his entire Twitter feed was exploring the vast image, comparing it to “a great big MMO.” This prompted exchanges with Ed and myself about explorer MMOs, and why Minecraft can't quite fit the bill in this regard. Ed casually mentioned Noctis as something close, which caught my attention, although it was a while before I understood why Noctis could be compared to the chatter on Twitter surrounding the cartoon.

I downloaded and installed Noctis IV (the latest version) later that day, and started messing around. It places you aboard a small ship known as a Stardrifer that is able to travel within a vast galaxy, within which there are no other ships, no other sentient life forms, and very little to do other than explore. The game could be compared to the classic Elite but with the play thinned down to almost nothing. No fighting, no trading, no mining, no docking, no way to win, and the only challenge being comprehending the inscrutable design of the interface systems. The introduction on the website claims: “From the moment you first play Noctis, you'll be hooked.” It would be fairer to state: “From the moment you first start Noctis, you’ll be confused.”

Rather than a space simulator, Noctis is a galaxy simulator – myriad stars with a multitude of planets, all procedurally generated. You search. First, for stars with habitable planets. Then, when you work out the arcane sequence required to send a capsule to the surface, you explore the planet itself essentially as a hiking simulation. There are a few things to find on a few of the worlds – plants and animals, even ruins on some planets. But there is no sense of progress, and certainly nothing that could be considered a goal. Mostly, you poke around for your own curiosity and aesthetic enjoyment of the strange new worlds it offers.

What Ed Key alluded to in the original discussion was the entirely optional galactic guidebook that is accessed from one of the mysterious side screens in the ship. Players can record comments – and name previously unexplored stars and planets – then send their notes to the game’s creator for incorporation into the guide. It’s unobtrusive, yet oddly intriguing when you examine the places that other players considered noteworthy; a home-brew Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that reassures you that despite the apparent unplayability of the game, it does indeed have an audience.

Noctis IV is the crummiest game I’ve ever loved. It could be so much better than it is in almost ever conceivable way, yet this is a galactic sim with more charm than anything the AAA system has produced in years. It is not a game for everyone – it doesn’t even seem like a game for anyone! But if you have a taste for oddities and the patience to read a manual describing the most absurd collection of esoteric game actions imaginable, you may find the galaxy in Noctis well worth a visit.

Gametrekking Omnibus Marks End to the Project

After 236 days, 5 countries and 10 games, Jordan Magnuson’s Gametrekking project is coming to a close. To celebrate its conclusion, Jordan has made an Omnibus edition of all the games made for both Windows and Mac available from the Gametrekking website.

Jordan comments:

This is going to be the final official release of the Gametrekking project, because it’s been two years since the project launched, I’ve clearly finished “the journey proper,” and a downloadable collection of the work I’ve managed to produce so far seems like as good a place to wrap things up as any. I say this is the “official” end of Gametrekking, because I see the project continuing on indefinitely in some sense… It seems certain that I will keep traveling into the future in some capacity or another, and that I will continue to experiment with interactive sketches and notgames about the things that impact me. But still, I think the Kickstarter project deserves some kind of closure, and that’s what I’ve tried to create with this downloadable collection.

I’d like to congratulate Jordan on this project, which has produced some truly memorable art/games such as The Killer and I shall look forward to exploring the titles in the Omnibus edition I’ve not had a chance to try yet, as well as his work in the future.