Adventure Games · Thoughts

The Vanishing of the Medium-Budget Game

Veteran game designer Jane Jensen, creator of the Gabriel Knight series as well as a slew of other adventure games, has set videogames aside to become a prolific author of erotic novels. She has written novels before, but this time she seems to have found her audience and a good creative space. I’m happy to hear she’s found a rewarding avenue for her creative energy–making a living out of your art is hard, people. And she’s successful and has a following–what is not to like?

Well, I for one don’t like that the games industry loses someone with her extensive experience as a game designer, especially when there’s such a dearth of women designers. The article that covers her career pivot explains in detail the tribulations of developing and releasing Gray Matter (2010) and Moebius (2014). Jensen’s heartbreaking conclusion is that “There’s not much opportunity in adventure games anymore.”

The article linked above encapsulates the dilemma of being a creator in games and trying to get the financial support to make new games in the following passage.

“The very particular path Jensen had to carve out for herself is revealing of how the industry treats its superstars. There’s no real opportunity for an independent writer-director to lead a large budget work without either submitting to employment within a massive corporate structure or building a corporate structure of their own. The industry does not give any one person power and independence at once, especially not at the scale Jensen once enjoyed.”

The budget of adventure games is far, far from that of AAA games with filmic aspirations, which are made by hundreds of people over several years, to be released to thunderous PR in all platforms. Why wouldn’t publishers or investors give a chance to someone with the track record of Jane Jensen? Compared to the millions and millions that big companies spend in their games, making a story-driven game for a devoted fanbase should be a sure bet–may not make a fortune, but probably could get recoup costs and then some if they can reach their audience. Part of the struggle of creating the games Jensen wanted was that she and her husband were spending their own money to make the game, which adds to the stress and raises the stakes of making an independent game; when the budget is also tight, it can also stretch the development of a project over years because developers end up working on commercial projects to make ends meet.

Gabriel Knight in the streets of Munich in The Beast Within (1995)

One of the reasons why publishers and investors are reluctant to give money to make classical adventure games is the trite and untrue phrase that “adventure games are dead,” which the article linked above perhaps inadvertently contributes to. Publishers and investors tend to seek not only sure bets, but projects that have the potential to make obscene amounts of money–something that most adventure games are unlikely to do. And when there is a successful story-driven game, be it an adventure game, walking simulator, or something of that ilk, it is always taken as an anomaly, an exception. The money people just want more of the same.

My problem is that the tone of articles like these contribute to the insidious idea that there’s no money not only in adventure games, but in story-driven games that aim at being original and veer away from the cookie-cutter popular games , when it is patently not true. Surely, there is no AAA money to be earn, but there are plenty of people releasing so many exciting, original and refreshing games, and making a living out of it. Some of them make games evoking the style of 90s adventure games, and in some cases are directly inspired by Jensen’s work, others tell heartfelt stories with animals or mutants; some others retell works of literature from the point of view of women, there is an explosion of fantastic visual novels that tell LGBT+ stories, and a lot of the population that is wearily underrepresented in games. These developers, alongside many more, have managed to release fascinating works and find their audience, which is no mean feat. If we think about game development as an artistic career rather than software development, it becomes evident that the game developer life, particularly when one puts creativity over product, is really hard. That is why having the financial security and endorsement of publishers and investors helps being able to focus on one’s game and help developers find their audience through PR, and the final result is all the better for it.

There is a dearth of support to middle-sized games, in a similar way to how the middle-budget films disappeared for a while – think of the independent movies of the 1990s, for example. These are the kind of works that take a moderate investment, bring a gust of fresh air to the mediascape, and can recoup costs and occasionally provide a hit. This is where one can reach the myriad smaller markets, rather than one large mainstream; where we can find the works that are personal, political, innovative, quirky. As we say in Spanish, variety is where taste is. In film, this kind of works are now being produced by streaming services, which a loss for those of us who used to love watching movies in a dark theatre with other people before that was brought to a halt. Games have not quite found their equivalent yet, the space for these middle-sized games that need more than a Kickstarter, but much much less than Call of Duty. This is the budget size that Jane Jensen needed and couldn’t get. There are a few publishers who are aware that there are audiences who crave new, daring, original games, and are willing to bet on them, and work more as patrons of the arts rather than venture capitalist looking to hit the jackpot. But we need more.

I do not have enough information state with absolute confidence how the industry failed Jensen, particularly after she created her own company, Pinkerton Road, to make shorter, low budget games, which should have been the right move for her. The outsourcing of development, where she wrote the game design document for the team to work on seems to me a bit odd approach, since it may leave out the processes of playtesting and iteration that are also part of adventure games, albeit at times iterating based on player feedback can be a production challenge. Perhaps it was a matter of PR, and making sure that the game got to the right audience. Perhaps the games didn’t live up to Jensen’s ideas since she didn’t have access to the resources that she would have liked to have. Perhaps she needed better PR to get to her players–there are many wonderful games that get lost in the deluge of releases every week. I’m sad we couldn’t get Jane Jensen to stay making more games, and I hope one day the industry can lure her back to make the games she wants.

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