January 26, 2008

The rise and fall of a genre

I got introduced to computer gaming almost as soon as I owned a computer. My first (ah, we all remember our first, don't we?) was a Radio Shack Color Computer, and among other things I spent a lot of time playing games on it.

Later I upgraded to an Amiga, and that was an even better platform for gaming.

But I started playing computer games long before that. I developed a space war game when I was in college, about 1974, that ran on the CRT on a PDP-12. When I worked at Tektronix, someone installed "Colossal Cave" on the company mainframe, which many consider to be the original "adventure". Later, when we got a PDP-11/45 for our development, someone installed the original version of Zork on it.

Adventure games were among my very favorites, and a lot of the early ones, even though text based, were very good. Then you started getting graphics adventures. Myst and The Seventh Guest? Seventh Guest wasn't really an adventure, in the classic sense, but it was an exploration game which involved unraveling a story, so it sort of fits into the genre. Myst was not as good a game as it's reputed to be, but it set an entirely new standard. Between those two games, and "Wing Commander" (a different genre) the CD drive became a standard feature for home computers. I myself bought a CD drive just so I could play Seventh Guest.

For a while the adventure genre was a pretty hopping place. Zork begat Infocom, whose games are still legendary. And then LucasArts got into the field and turned out some classics, most notably "Sam and Max: On the Road". A lot of great times to be had. Some amazingly good titles came out of nowhere (Under a Killing Moon).

Meanwhile, Myst begat a Macromedia development package, and that's where it all began to go wrong. When development of such games was complex and difficult, then only people who really were good at it got involved. Only a few titles came out every year, but most of those were excellent. The problem with the Macromedia package is that it made development of Myst-alikes too easy. A small team could crank out such a game in fairly short order -- and a lot of people did.

The "attraction" of this package, based as it was on Apple's Quicktime, was that the game itself was encoded using a Pcode. Interpreter packages existed both for the Mac and for the PC, so any game developed with the package could be installed on a CD which was usable on both platforms.

But the development package itself only ran on the Mac. And the Macs of that generation had been left behind by top end gaming PCs in terms of features. That's why all those games were limited to 256 colors and only one sound stream at a time, even though contemporary PCs usually could display 16 bit or even 24 bit graphics, and usually four sound streams plus MIDI background music. The Mac's display size was typically 640*480 even though most of those PCs had 800*600 or 1024*768 displays. The package created Mac-compatible graphics and sound, so most of the power of those PCs was wasted.

Moreover, a lot of those Mac developers were snobs. The runtime package ran better on the Mac, and the developers optimized their games for the Mac. And then they cast their pearls in front of the PC swine, who were supposed to be grateful. They were supposed to buy, so as to get volume up, so that the Mac developers could continue to develop games for the Mac, which of course was the only true path to computing enlightenment. (Bitter? Me?)

But that, ultimately, wasn't the real problem. The real problem was just that the package made development of those kinds of games too easy. I know that sounds like a strange thing to criticize, but it's true. The market was flooded with games which prominently featured the Macromeda and Quicktime trademarks, and after a couple of years of buying such games, and invariably hating them because the writing was so derivative and the puzzles so tedious and the graphics so shitty, I reached the point where I would boycott any game having either logo.

And apparently some publishers realized that people like me were out there, because they stopped putting those logos on their games. I found that a lot of the adventures I bought ended up being Macromedia-based even though I tried to avoid that. (I even got to the point where I wouldn't buy any game that said it ran on both platforms, and that still didn't fully protect me.)

The average quality was too poor. There was still good work going on, though. LucasArts kept turning out great games, maybe once every couple of years. Infocom, unfortunately, couldn't keep up. There just wasn't any market any longer for text-based adventures, and when they tried to create a couple of graphics-based adventures (Want some Rye? Of course you do!) they were still behind the times, and didn't really do very well on the market.

Or didn't. Infocom died before that. "Return to Zork" was released under the InfoCom brand, but was developed by Activision. Activision also released "Zork: Nemesis" and "Zork: Grand Inquisitor", both of which were really good, but that was the end of it.

The glut of totally shitty titles meant that an impulse-buyer who picked up an adventure game at random and bought it was nearly certain to dislike it. That meant that potential new customers who were experimenting with the genre decided not to continue with it, and it drove away old addicts like me who were tired of being ripped off. I stopped buying adventure games 10 years ago. There wasn't any point.

Thus the paradox: too many titles on the market was a bad thing. It meant the average quality sank to abysmal levels. The few decent titles were lost in a sea of excrement. The good companies were swamped by the lousy ones. Eventually even LucasArts gave up. (Their "Grim Fandango" was the last adventure game I ever bought.)

In comments, Toren asks why the R1 anime market is in trouble. Obviously there is no single reason why, but one of the big reasons is that it is a victim of its own success. In the late 1990's, there were only a few houses doing R1 releases, and they didn't have very much capacity. So they had to pick and choose which titles to license and release and they largely picked the best ones from Japan.

But now the industry is bigger. Or at least it was as of about 2006. Lots of houses, multiple production pipelines in some of the bigger ones. Far more titles being released, and that means they're dipping further down into the Japanese bucket. Greater release volume means lower average product quality.

Oh, the technical quality has never been better. But I mean the entertainment value: the "I'm really glad I watched that" value. It's pretty much a statistical necessity: as a larger percentage of new Japanese titles get licensed and released in R1, a greater percentage of stinkers come through.

Which means that old time buyers like me find that a greater percentage of their purchases are disappointing, and new buyers who pick titles at random are more like to get something lousy, which dissuades them from trying again. Thus the same paradox: too much product is driving customers away, leading to lower total sales.

Could this be cyclical? Well, the adventure genre of computer games never recovered. (And just in passing, if you want to know the real reason I hate Apple, this is it. Apple's Quicktime was the poison that destroyed my favorite computer game genre, and I will never forgive Apple for it.)

Sometimes a downward spiral becomes unstoppable. Toren brought up one such scenario: Japanese anime companies, trying to maintain the Japanese DVD market with its preposterously high prices (up to eight times what we pay per episode) might decide that reimportation of R1 DVDs into Japan costs them more than they make in R1 license fees, thus representing a net loss. If so, they could stop selling licenses for R1 entirely.

Or, if the current ADV fire sale over at Brand X represents a substantial chance that ADV is going to bag it the way Geneon did a year after their comparable fire sale, and if one or two other R1 companies go, too, it might begin a vicious circle. Fewer titles and fewer suppliers means less shelf space in big-box stores, leading to lower sales for everyone, resulting in further cutbacks, and down it goes until you hit the ground.

But you could see a different result. The downward spiral could level out at a new, much lower equilibrium. Fewer houses, doing fewer releases, means they go back to only releasing the best stuff (not counting MediaBlasters, which will still bottom-feed). The same amount of cream on the market, but a lot less whey. The buying experience becomes better, both for old timers and for new experimenters, and begins a new buildup -- leading eventually to another bust cycle as the quality stuff once again gets diluted by all the crappy stuff. Sob.

UPDATE: There's a different way to look at the death of the adventure genre. It doesn't discount the factors I brought up, but it explains why the spiral didn't end until it crashed and burned: interest in adventure games was replaced by graphical RPGs and first person shooters.

Both still told stories. (Well, sort of. RPGs more so, FPS's usually less.) But they were different, more intense play experiences. Instead of simply walking to some particular place to get a thing you needed to advance the plot, you had to fight your way there.

And the development of those two genres drove hardware development, and some modern graphical RPGs are almost back to being part of the adventure genre. In a sense, the graphical RPG is the lineal successor.

It's possible that the R1 release market for anime DVDs could spiral into the ground, partly because of the sales vicious circle as well as deliberate killing by the Japanese anime companies. But new technology could bring about a new generation.

That being high density DVDs. As Toren says:

Most anime fans over there only buy a few select favorite series, and copy the rest from rental stores or off of friends.  Anime DVDs are generally priced to be sold to crazed otaku and rental shops.  It's a bizarre situation when you think about it, considering how mainsteam anime is in Japan.  And yet, the anime DVD market over there is almost like the old US comics market, caught up in selling collectibles at high prices to a small group of the hard-core.

The reason they can do that is because DVD DRM is so easy to crack. (ADV doesn't even bother encrypting their DVDs; it's a waste of time, and they know it.)

IF a winner emerges in the new format war (and it's now beginning to look like that's happened) and IF the DRM is less vulnerable this time and doesn't fall (and that's anybody's guess), then the market dynamics in Japan shift. Or could.

IF the Japanese anime companies then decide to cut prices in order to increase volume, because more of their customers are buy-and-hold instead of buy-and-copy-and-resell, then the price differential with the US market declines and there's less incentive to reimport R1 titles. And in turn you could see a resurgence of R1 releases, in high density format.

You still need a way to make DVD purchases attractive to people who can capture broadcast. Including omakes isn't enough. My suggestion: release in higher, clearer resolution on DVD than you broadcast. Of course, that means the original art has to be good enough to be worth seeing in high res -- but as computer animation tools improve, that may be possible too without breaking the bank on production costs.

Absent significant technological change, the future for our hobby doesn't look good. But technology may save us. Much as I despise DRM, that's the key.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in General Anime at 08:16 PM | Comments (14) | Add Comment
Post contains 2052 words, total size 12 kb.

1 I believe that DRM on both Blu-Ray and HD DVD is pretty much cracked now. Not as comprehensively as DVDs are, but to the point that the only way to patch the holes is to start revoking keys and effectively breaking existing titles and/or hardware.

Almost all new shows are being produced in HD already, though only a limited number are broadcast that way. I have a few HD fansubs in my download queue, but by the nature of fansubs, they're compressed to hell and back and have quite noticeable artifacts. (Which is not to say that compressing 720p down to 10MB a minute while retaining watchable quality isn't an achievement.)

The first thing I thought when I saw Toren's comment about expecting things to plateau rather than collapse was that you only get a plateau if you're smart and lucky. Boom and bust is the far more common situation. Positive feedback loops and all that.

Oh, and Color Computer and then Amiga?  Same here.  I saved up for over a year to buy a 16k Color Computer.  Never did get the memory upgrade, either...

Posted by: Pixy Misa at January 26, 2008 10:37 PM (PiXy!)

2 The problem with high-res home releases is twofold. First, HD penetration in the US market still isn't that deep. Better than this time last year, to be sure, but there's an awful lot of people with no HD-TV at all, and a heck of a lot more who have one HD set and a bunch of old TVs. Hell, I don't have an HD set yet.

The HD anime market, right now, is thus a niche -of- a niche. Add that to significantly higher mastering costs (because you have to replace practically all of your studio equipment, not to mention the smaller Blu-Ray production facilities which you're competing for time with big Hollywood companies...) That's not to say that such a solution could never work, but it's not something that will work in the short term. Take the DBZ HD releases, whose sales figures weren't merely poor but schadenfreude-inducing in their competitors.

The other problem is that, by the time that HD penetration is far enough along that it won't matter, copying the actual content of the discs will probably be pretty trivial, just like it is with DVDs now.

Lots of stuff to distinguish Geneon and ADV. Geneon had, to put it bluntly, a high-cost model - they contracted out for everything, which is actually much more expensive than doing it yourself. They paid huge licensing fees (Heat Guy J, for example, at $70k per episode...) Title selection was pretty scattershot, but that's the case for more or less everybody. ADV works the other way around - everything is done in-house, and that house is in Houston, so costs are about as low as you can manage and still get it done in the US. So ADV can release a show at a revenue level that would be a big loser for Geneon and still come out ahead... The biggest difference, though, is that Geneon was owned by a multi-billion dollar Japanese company, who could shrug and make their US arm go away and not even notice the difference. John Ledford is not going to fold up ADV and go back to selling video games. ;p

That's not to say that there won't be any kind of contraction - boy howdy, do I know about those. But this round looks to be different. Previously, they were cutting excess production capacity in preparation for throttling back on the release schedule; now they're concentrating on the marginal side enterprises that never really did a whole lot for the bottom line. I don't know of any cuts in US production this time around. I'm not saying that they're super-happy with how sales are going, but it's not an imminent-death situation, from how it looks from here.

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at January 26, 2008 10:56 PM (LMDdY)

3

I don't see HD as a savior for the industry in an interval of months. But it could save the industry in 3-5 years.

Two things will speed adoption of HD here. First is the end of analog TV broadcasting this year, as decreed by the FCC. After 2008, old-style NTSC televisions won't be able to receive anything without a decoder box. All broadcast (and all cable? I'm not sure about that) will be digital, high res.

Second is if Blu-Ray really is digging HD-DVD's grave. If one standard really does win, then several cascades kick in. Worriers stop worrying. Economy of scale starts bringing costs down. Lower prices mean more purchasers. It's a slow process, though, and that's why I don't expect it until maybe 2011.

The DRM used on both high density formats is the same, and as to whether it's been cracked, it's sort of yes-and-no. What's happened is that a couple of keys have been found. There are a bunch of DVDs for which the session keys are known; those DVDs are cracked. The DRM system being used is extremely sophisticated and I don't fully understand it, but there's a kind of second-tier of keys, and one of those has been found.

But that doesn't mean the system is fully open now the way that CSS is. Any DVD which includes that particular second-tier key can be read, but that key can be, and probably will be, revoked. That means it won't get used on future DVDs, which thus won't be at risk. This new system was designed to be more robust in the face of hacker attacks than CSS was, and this fortress has multiple walls. When one wall is broken, they can retreat to the next inner one.

Or at least right now that's the expectation. You never know; there might be a back door or some sort of master key to the inner sanctum, and if so then the whole system comes crashing down. But for the moment what's happened is that some high density DVDs are cracked and some are not. The system itself is not yet compromised.

I'm glad to hear that ADV's situation isn't as dire as Geneon's was. For all my bitching about them, I'd definitely miss them if they bagged it.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at January 26, 2008 11:56 PM (+rSRq)

4 You can say "the key will be revoked", but that's actually a really big step; it means that you're going down the road where certain players which are completely functional will no longer be able to play new Blu-ray discs. In other words, you effectively break your format brand; people can't buy a Blu-ray player and a Blu-ray disc and assume that the one will play in the other.

That even assumes that you can do it at all; if the manufacturer comes to you and says "if you revoke the key from one of our models, we'll sue you into a smoking hole", what are you going to do?

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at January 27, 2008 12:16 AM (LMDdY)

5

I'm not completely clear on just what the ramifications are if one of the player keys gets compromised and they decide to revoke it. But it's hard to believe that they'd put in a system with these capabilities and then decide not to use them. If all the player keys have to be maintained for eternity, then there's no point in having separate ones.

When the player key got cracked, about a year ago, I tried to read up on how that particular DRM system worked. But I don't have the math; they lost me completely.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at January 27, 2008 12:27 AM (+rSRq)

6 Infocom couldn't keep up because they blew all their money on Cornerstone, their business database product. As I understand it, this was largely because the founders had always thought of themselves as a business company, and just used Zork to get off the ground. Once they had a solid, profitable business (that just happened to be adventure games), they focused their attention on "the real product".

-j

Posted by: J Greely at January 27, 2008 12:33 AM (2XtN5)

7

From what I understand, there are several dozen keys that are valid with Blu-Ray, out of a number space of over a billion possible 1024-bit keys. Any Blu-Ray player will accept any of these keys as valid, and Blu-Ray assigns one of each given key to each company to use on its discs. When one key is compromised, the company can request another. This doesn't stop the previous key from working, but in theory discs that used the previous key to be duplicated (pirated) at will, so the company will use the new key for all future releases.

Unfortunately, this is a case of Blu-Ray being magnificently engineered to protect a pile of glass, while the real treasure is dumped right in plain sight in the first room of the castle. Duplicating the disc is as simple as intercepting the signal stream as it's being sent to your TV, after all the fancy Blu-Ray technology has done the decrypting for you. The real trick is to make that duplicate work on another Blu-Ray disc player. Using the one key that was hacked, the pirates can just encrypt the signal stream using the hacked key, and the new pirated disc will work fine on any Blu-Ray player. In the end, the only solution that can save Blu-Ray's DRM is the "format brand self-destruct" button Avatar mentioned.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian at January 27, 2008 06:18 AM (j8zCH)

8 Tatterdemalian, the second level key that was cracked was a player key, not a vendor key. Vendors don't have individual keys.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at January 27, 2008 08:03 AM (+rSRq)

9 Correct, but I don't think that functionally disrupts Tatterdemalian's argument.

On the other argument, I've enjoyed several of that style of game, but the biggest weakness of the genre has always been the obviousness (or, more to the point, the non-obviousness) of certain puzzles.

Take, for example, the old King's Quest series. I remember at least one of them requiring the player, at one point, to check a barrel that was tucked into the background and removing a fish from the barrel. Said fish was used to advance much later in the game. There was no reason that the player should look in the barrel, no reason to take the fish from the barrel, no way you could have planned to need that item... except that you're playing an adventure game, and thus forced to attempt to take virtually every item that's not bolted down, in case there's some function that it will fill later.

(Good examples of the genre came to make fun of that. Remember Full Throttle? Huge variety of responses to "I want to use this" or "I want to take that", as the developers clearly expected the players to try to do both to everything. Then again, we're talking about a game where you use a box of wind-up chicks to clear a minefield, to the sound of Ride of the Valkyries...)

Very few games didn't share that problem. The Monkey Island series was pretty good about kicking the player and saying "hey! Take that thingy!" By contrast, Space Quest would slaughter you remorselessly because you forgot to do something 70% of the game ago, and chide you for not having created 700 separate save files to prevent that situation.

Myst was the pinnacle of stupid non-obviousness. There's no player identity, there's no goal, there's no reason to be doing anything in the game, except in bits of "get me pages" that are dribbled out to of the player. Why are you, at any point, poking at a puzzle? "Because it's there!" Ugh. That's not good gaming.

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at January 27, 2008 06:17 PM (LMDdY)

10 http://www.tvtropes.org has a huge number of tropes in its Video Game section on old style adventure games, most of them non-flattering in the extreme.  I think my favorite is Unwinnable, which is *exactly* why I didn't play adventure games.

( I don't normally plug sites, but its a really fun, and really funny, site )

Posted by: metaphysician at January 27, 2008 06:53 PM (9Lztf)

11 You probably learned about it here. I've linked to it many times.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at January 27, 2008 07:08 PM (+rSRq)

12 In general, I think it was the Sierra games that had all sorts of death traps and dead ends. The LucasArts games were (in terms of gameplay, IMO) much better designed. Chalk me up as another gamer who stopped playing graphical adventures once Myst-style games became prevalent.

Posted by: ambulatorybird at January 27, 2008 08:25 PM (kcZq6)

13 Minx has a tvtropes tag.

[tvtropes="cherry blossoms"] produces cherry blossoms.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at January 27, 2008 08:27 PM (PiXy!)

14 Heh, oops. 

Posted by: metaphysician at January 27, 2008 08:42 PM (9Lztf)

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