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.