The ‘GDC 25’ Chronicles: The Sound of Adventure

digitizeyourtapes.jpg

[Continuing his ‘GDC 25’ archival mining ahead of the 25th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next February, official GDC historian Jason Scott presents newly unearthed audio of a 1998 Game Developers Conference lecture led by Steve Meretzky.]

Besides the comprehensive pile of material from Game Developers Conference organizers itself, attendees have been sending in photos, stories, and home movies of their times at various conferences throughout the years. Sadly, nobody is has yet mailed in any console prototypes or cardboard standups, but I’m patient. I’ll wait.

Meanwhile, there’s this massive pile of tapes, both audio and video, that need some digitizing. I’ve started with the audio tapes, recordings of sessions and symposiums at GDCs past. Pretty much all I have are recorded professionally, by companies hired to capture the event, and therefore recorded off the mixing board. Eventually, GDC moves away from audio tapes (actual tapes) and shifts over to CD-ROMs with recordings on them, and of course video.

I’ve always had a soft spot for adventure games, so I thought our first digitized exhibit on this ‘GDC 25’ journey would be Tape #109 from the 1998 Game Developers Conference, held in Long Beach, California from May 4th-8th. The title of this tape is ‘Are Adventure Games Dead?’, hosted by Steve Meretzky, and it’s now available to listen to on GDC Vault.

Meretzky, now at social game giant Playdom, probably needs no introduction for most of you, but if so, by 1998 he was already recognized as a giant in the field of game design, having made fifteen games for companies such as Infocom, Legend Entertainment, and Boffo.

Many of these were adventure games, of both the text and graphics variety, and in this hour-long seminar (which he calls “a roundtable but with a lot more people”), he presents his thoughts on the state of adventure gaming in the late ’90s, and then invites audience members to comment and questions.

While I think the whole tape is worth listening to, I’ll just mention some highlights. After a short introduction about how the seminar will go, Meretzky shows the audience (unfortunately, not in a way we can know what was shown) the sales of 18 recent adventure games (1996-1998). The list is dominated at the top by Myst and Riven, with other games’ sales leaving Meretzky “shocked” at how low they are.

He considers the state of game publishing in 1998 to be hit-oriented, which makes a tough sale for adventure games, which are so intensive in their creation. He wonders if the issue is just cyclical, where games of a genre are unwanted until a hit shows up, and then that’s all they want. He talks about the advantages of the adventure game genre, and it’s interesting to hear him laud what he likes about it.

He speculates that the DVD-ROM format and voice recognition may help re-energize games of this sort, since some people want to play adventure games “without typing and reading”. At around 30 minutes in, he opens the floor to the audience, and this is where things get very interesting indeed.

When you have an open floor for questions and comments on a recording like this, all sorts of folks are caught up in this historical net. The room is filled with fans of Steve Meretzky, of adventure games in general, and creators/would-be creators of adventure games.

Mark Moran, co-creator of The Last Express, tells the story of how the game cost $6 million and didn’t make anything close to that. He mentions a movie possibly coming out in the future (as of this writing, there hasn’t been any.) A developer who worked on an unreleased game called Dog Eat Dog for Trilobyte tells the story of the game (about office politics) and how it was unsuccessful at being finished.

Marty O’Donnell, at the time a sound designer for Riven at Cyan, asks if the adventure gaming community feels outcast and not a part of the game industry. (He also mentions a comment by an employee at Bungie, a company he would later join.)

Teaching with adventure games, whether characters are important to the saleability of a game in the face of 3D graphics, and the place that adventure games will play in the future. In all, it’s a wise and fun delving into the potential for these games, with some great moments.

Towards the end, a particularly fun comment comes in about how the future for adventure games should include online voice chat, so you feel like you’re sharing it together. One last notable commentary throughout the session is that everyone just punches Myst and Riven in the gut. The simplicity of the experience, the puzzles, and the story all come under criticism.

The tape flutters in some locations, a reflection of the tape aging and losing some of its recording. You can always make things out, but it’s not always a smooth ride. This was the copy in the GDC archives, and if someone has a better copy, then I ask if it’s possible to borrow it to replace the version that is now online. Something is better than nothing – but there’s always room for improvement. Feel free to help things improve.

I’d love to hear comments about the content of the tape – were you there? Do you know more than the speakers about the subject? Please share – that’s all history too.

[NOTE: We’ll be adding all of the important historical audio and video that we talk about during the ‘GDC 25 Chronicles’ to the free section of the GDC Vault. Full access to Vault, including near-complete video from all of the recent GDCs, is available to GDC All-Access Pass holders after attending a current GDC show, plus Individual Vault subscribers and studio/school-wide subscribers.]