Designing Modern Adventure Games – Ace Attorney, Danganronpa, and More ~ Design Doc

Designing Modern Adventure Games – Ace Attorney, Danganronpa, and More ~ Design Doc


The turn of the new millennium was a rough
time for adventure games.
Sales were collapsing, and so were the developers.
Sierra’s adventure games division had gone
through rounds of layoffs in 1999, and would
never recover.
LucasArts released Escape from Monkey Island
in 2000, but it wouldn’t take, and their
other planned point-and-click adventure sequels
were cancelled outright.
The fall of the two major pillars of the American
adventure game ecosystem had marked the end
of an era, but not the end of the story.
Another chapter was brewing, overseas…
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In Europe, the public hadn’t soured on traditional
point-and-click adventure games as much as
the American market had.
Norwegian developer Funcom made The Longest
Journey with a small development team lead
by Ragnar Tørnquist, released it locally
in 1999 and globally the following year.
It was similar to the later LucasArts games,
with a contemporary point-and-click interface
design, but with a more atmospheric feel.
Full voice acting, 3D character models, pre-rendered
backgrounds, but they didn’t break the bank
making it, like their American competition.
It was received as an instant classic and
sold half a million copies, which was enough
to greenlight its sequel.
“Dreamfall: The Longest Journey”, released
in 2006.
France had a couple of stand out adventure
game developers, too.
Syberia, from Microids, was another atmospheric,
traditional point-and-click adventure game
set in a mysterious town.
Quantic Dream, led by David Cage, put out
Omikron: The Nomad’s Soul in 1999 – an especially
bold take on the genre.
In addition to exploration and inventory-based
puzzle-solving, the player could possess over
40 different NPCs and reincarnate as any of
them if they die in one of the game’s…
AWFUL… combat sequences.
Very ambitious, but very messy.
And David Bowie composed the music!
Omikron was not great, but it did well enough.
And it would be a sign of things to come.
We’ll check back in on Quantic Dream in
a bit.
Japan, too, had a thriving adventure game
market at the turn of the century, and the
path that Japanese-style adventure game developers
had taken looked a little different.
Wind the clock back.
Japan’s unique adventure game style is rooted
in a game from another time: 1983’s ‘The
Portopia Serial Murder Case’.
Yuji Horii, father of Dragon Quest, created
a more streamlined adventure game about investigating
crime scenes.
It feels more like a branch off of Sierra’s
first game, Mystery House, sharing a first-person
perspective, the mystery focus, and yes, that
text parser.
The Famicom port of Portopia would streamline
this into a simplified menu interface.
Good work, uh…
huh.
Chunsoft.
Hmm… we’ll catch up with you in a minute,
too.
Over the next decade, just as lots of American
adventure game developers were iterating on
King’s Quest, other Japanese developers
were iterating on Portopia like Square with
Suisho no Dragon.
Many games stuck to the mystery and crime-solving
genre, like Hideo Kojima’s ‘Snatcher’
in 1988, and ‘Policenauts’ in 1994.
You do see some cross-pollination of the Western
point-and-click style into Japan, like in
1995’s Clock Tower for the Super Famicom,
but the Japanese style still felt distinct.
Instead of the American style visual puzzles,
Japanese style adventure games started to
emphasize long stretches of dialogue and more
in-depth characterization.
It tended to be a much more linear design,
and interactivity generally took a backseat.
In Japan, the genre was starting to split
into two distinctive flavors – adventure
games with more interactivity and puzzles,
labeled ADVs, and the adventure games with
almost no interaction, called NVLs.
Both styles were lumped together under another
new name: ‘Visual Novels’.
And while the American market was collapsing
in the late 90’s under the strain of scope
creep, exploding budgets, and mechanics that
were quickly becoming old-fashioned, the Japanese
style’s focus on characterization was aging
much better.
In the year 2000, Capcom gave Shu Takumi free
rein to take half a year to make any kind
of game he wanted.
Takumi had a passion for mystery novels, so
he took the opportunity to make his dream
mystery game.
He centered the game around a lawyer, which
immediately got pushback from his bosses,
who feared the concept would be tough to sell.
But since he had a mandate to make whatever
game he wanted, he pressed on.
With a team of 7 relatively inexperienced
developers, including himself, they finished
the first Ace Attorney game for the Gameboy
Advance in 2001.
The game is split into two phases: investigation
and trial.
It’s largely an ADV-style visual novel with
some light interaction during the investigation
phase.
You go around static environments in a first-person
perspective, talking to characters and investigating
crime scenes to uncover evidence to reveal
the true nature of the crime.
The interactive elements do suffer from the
typical adventure game problems of pixel hunting
and bits of moon logic, especially in the
earlier games in the series, but the plot’s
linear design and streamlined structure helps
mitigate the problem a little.
The trial segments are where the game shines.
During trials, you have to not only prove
your client’s innocence but also reveal
the true culprit who 95% of the time ends
up being one of the witnesses because apparently
you’re the luckiest lawyer in the world.
You perform cross-examinations of witnesses
and uncover contradictions using the evidence
you either found in the investigation segment
or obtained during the trial.
It’s a much more integrated puzzle design
than the usual point-and-click adventure game
puzzles.
Using inventory items to contradict testimony
feels way more intertwined into the story
than, say, Gabriel Knight’s cat hair mustache
disguise.
Or the part in King’s Quest V where you
murder a yeti with a pie in the face, even
if the basic mechanics of the puzzles aren’t
all that different from each other.
The first Phoenix Wright game wasn’t a rousing
success, but it did well enough for Capcom
to task Takumi to write two more sequels and
make the series a trilogy.
The sequels would be brought over on the Nintendo
DS starting in 2005.
The tension building courtroom segments and
cross examinations made the game stand out
in the genre, and Phoenix Wright became one
of the first visual novel adventure games
to really catch on in the West.
While still niche, the series sold over 7
million copies worldwide with 6 mainline entries,
5 spinoffs, an anime adaptation, a live action
movie, and even a few crossover cameos.
And it wouldn’t be the last visual novel
to find an audience outside of Japan.
Level-5 would also create a very successful
visual novel.
Professor Layton and the Curious Village was
released in 2007 for the Nintendo DS and was
another ADV style game where you investigated
a large scale mystery with an emphasis on
isolated puzzles between story segments.
The game had a charming cast, and a wonderfully
quirky art style, and caught on in the West
as well.
They made a buuuunch of them, too.
They even made a spinoff game in the Ace Attorney
series!
Chunsoft, the little company that developed
the Famicom port of Portopia, was chugging
along as well.
They found success with the first five Dragon
Quest games, they created the Mystery Dungeon
series, but also here and there they developed
and published more visual novels.
Most of them were geared for the Japanese
marketplace, but in 2009 Chunsoft made ‘9
Hours, 9 Persons, and 9 Doors’ (everyone
just calls it 999).
999 stars Junpei, a young man trapped with
8 other people on a cruise ship, fighting
against an enigmatic mastermind named Zero.
The game is filled with elaborate puzzle sequences
placed in between lengthy story segments.
It’s part of the ‘escape the room’ adventure
game subgenre, with a heavier emphasis on
puzzle-solving and investigating isolated
rooms for items and clues to help you escape.
999’s story featured a branching path structure
that lead you to multiple endings, including
some dead ends.
It was designed for you to go back in time
and explore these narrative branches to get
a more complete picture of the story.
The game was a commercial failure in Japan,
but in the US it was a shocking hit.
The game sold well enough for Chunsoft to
make two more, making 999 the first part of
the Zero Escape trilogy.
Besides Chunsoft, Level 5 and Capcom, there
was another new studio finding success in
the west: Spike.
Spike was largely made up of developers laid
off in the year 2000 from Human Entertainment,
the makers of Clock Tower.
A year after 999, Spike released their twisted
and stylish take on the visual novel: Danganronpa.
In it, you play as Makoto, a high school student
trapped along with a group of other very talented
students in your new school for the gifted.
The cast is pitted against each other in a
vicious battle royale set up by Monokuma,
an evil robotic bear.
To escape the school, one of the classmates
must get away with murder, and not get caught
by the others.
The majority of the game isn’t too far off
from Ace Attorney.
You investigate a series of crime scenes to
find clues and use logic to find holes in
heated group debates as you work to determine
who the killers are, all while the cast slowly
whittles down.
Trials are a little different from Ace Attorney,
with a light rail shooter twist where you
literally shoot through the arguments of your
fellow classmates.
There are also dating sim elements in between
the investigations and trials where you can
learn more about the cast.
Just don’t get too attached, ‘cause they
drop like flies.
Both Spike and Chunsoft were bought by Dwango,
and the two companies merged to form…
Spike Chunsoft.
The combined company went on to release a
bunch of sequels for both Zero Escape and
Danganronpa.
Around the same time that Ace Attorney was making waves in the States,
Europe was experimenting
with the genre, too.
Back in France, Quantic Dream’s next major
game was 2005’s Fahrenheit, or Indigo Prophecy
in the US.
It was an adventure game with a much more
cinematic angle, closer to an interactive
film with a ‘choose your own adventure’
structure built-in.
It featured multiple branching narrative paths
and an abundance of quick-time events, elaborate
setpieces, and motion-captured animation.
It paved the way not only for Quantic Dream’s
future titles like Heavy Rain and Detroit,
but other cinematic games.
So in the mid-2000s, Europe had a stable adventure
game pipeline and some studios were experimenting
with a more cinematic angle.
Japanese publishers had found success with
visual novels, focusing on deeper characterization
and more integrated puzzle design.
Time to check back in on the US.
The American adventure game scene was trying
to restart itself.
Right after the fall of Sierra and LucasArts,
there were still other small American studios
creating point-and-click style adventure games.
Her Interactive had been putting out a couple
of Nancy Drew games each year.
Each was much smaller in scale than the late
Sierra and LucasArts games, but they were
for a fanbase that wasn’t often catered
to in the US.
The lower costs of production and dedication
of its fans meant the company wasn’t going
to go bankrupt with a niche style of game.
Elsewhere, after LucasArts cancelled a planned
Sam and Max sequel and stopped developing
adventure games, three former employees ventured
out to keep the genre alive.
In 2004, Kevin Bruner, Troy Molander and Dan
Connors started Telltale, an indie studio
dedicated to making classic style, shorter
adventure games.
They chose smaller licensed properties to
focus on, and created adventure games for
Bone, Wallace and Gromit, and my personal
favorite: Strong Bad’s Cool Game 4 Attractive
People.
They even picked up the rights to make another
‘Sam and Max’ game themselves.
They were building their games on an in-house
engine, and it let them crank out small-scale
releases fairly rapidly.
They were one of the pioneers to the episodic
game release schedule, which made it less
financially risky to develop a big game on
a long timeline.
Early Telltale games were firmly in the old
point-and-click style, with maybe a smidge
more puzzle-focus in games like Puzzle Agent,
but nothing revolutionary.
None of the early Telltale games were huge
hits, but their writing, the dedication of
the fanbases of their licensed properties
and, really, the lack of other options for
point-and-click adventure fans at the time
led them to rack up lots of modest successes.
In the late 2000s, Telltale started signing
bigger licenses left and right, like Back
to the Future and Jurassic Park.
They were also beginning to play around with
the traditional point-and-click adventure
formula.
Jurassic Park was poorly received, but it
did hint towards how their design was changing.
It was starting to mix in things that the
international developers were doing, implementing
branching narratives and quicktime events
to add some tension to their dialogue trees,
and focusing on characterization more than
puzzle solving.
But the design would click into place in their
next big licensed game: The Walking Dead.
The Walking Dead focused on quick, narrative-driven
decision making, with lots of branching dialogue
paths that affected story events immediately
and through later episodes.
Whatever you did, characters would remember
that.
Branching dialogue trees and deeper characterization
had been successful in Japanese-style adventure
games and visual novels, and in Quantic Dream’s
later games like Heavy Rain.
It made the games feel much more cinematic,
but still interactive, and by tying it to
a pop culture juggernaut like The Walking
Dead circa 2012, it was explosive for sales.
The Walking Dead took home lots of Game of
the Year awards, sold millions of copies,
and led to a major expansion of Telltale’s
ambitions.
The American adventure game landscape had
regained some momentum, and there were a lot
of veteran developers that were taking notice.
After the crash of the adventure game market
in the 90s, publishers were very reluctant
to give a second thought to a pitch for a
new adventure game.
In 2005, Ron Gilbert wrote “From first-hand
experience, I can tell you that if you even
utter the words “adventure game” in a meeting
with a publisher you can just pack up your
spiffy concept art and leave.
You’d get a better reaction by announcing
that you have the plague.“
The audience was too small, the budgets needed
were too large.
But by early 2012, it had been more than a
decade since the collapse.
Was that all still true?
This was a couple months before The Walking
Dead would be released, so it was still an
open question.
Maybe there would be an audience again, but
how could you get a new adventure game off
the ground?
Hmm, maybe there was a way to… kickstart…
development.
In 2012, Kickstarter was a niche, but promising
platform for directly funding projects.
Tim Schafer thought to use Kickstarter to
get around the publisher reluctance to fund
the classic style adventure game.
He made a compelling pitch.
For just $400k, Tim Schafer and the developers
at Double Fine, a company created by people
caught in a wave of LucasArts layoffs, would
make another classic point-and-click adventure
game and create a documentary of the entire
development process.
For Tim Schafer, it was a really low-risk
way to fund development – get the money and
prove interest up front.
For the gamers funding the project, it seemed
low-risk, too.
Double Fine had the track record, it felt
a lot like pre-ordering the game, and it seemed
like the best way to get another point-and-click
adventure made.
The Kickstarter was a MASSIVE success.
It met the funding goal in nine hours, and
wound up raising $3.3 million.
With that increase in funds came an opportunity
for Tim Schafer to broaden the scope of the
game, whose development time increased substantially.
The game, now named Broken Age, had originally
been estimated at less than a year of development.
After the Kickstarter ended, it expanded to
one that would take 3 years to complete.
Their documentary, which is fantastic by the
way, explained in great detail how that scope
creep happened.
However, the scope had increased to something
that would cost more than what the Kickstarter
campaign brought in.
To help finish the game, it was then split
into two acts, with the first releasing in
early 2014, and the sales for the first act
funding the development of the second.
The entire game was finished and released
by mid-2015 to decent, but not spectacular
reviews.
They had successfully made an old-style point-and-click adventure, but Broken Age was striking
in how much its design, development and release
mirrored the 90’s adventure games it was
emulating.
Much of the design problems that plagued the
last wave of American adventure games were
still there in Broken Age.
Nonsense, obtuse, trial-and-error puzzles.
Repetitive VO.
Dull, very slow gameplay.
The split into two acts dragged out the experience
for the original backers, and there was a
lot of repetition from the first act.
But the writing was solid if nothing spectacular.
The game was totally serviceable but other
than the novel way it was funded, it just
wasn’t groundbreaking anymore.
The success of the Double Fine Kickstarter
led the creators of Gabriel Knight, Leisure
Suit Larry, Space Quest, Broken Sword, and
Tex Murphy to each make their own successful
Kickstarter pitches.
Some wanted to reboot their franchises directly,
and some chose to make spiritual successors,
like Ron Gilbert’s Thimbleweed Park.
The games that made it to release were all
perfectly fine as games, but that wave did
not lead to a sustained revival of the style.
It just confirmed that the design issues of
the 90’s games were still issues, and even
though the games could do alright as comfy
nostalgic throwbacks, that design wasn’t
a recipe for a new breakout hit.
Though, Telltale wasn’t faring much better.
After The Walking Dead, the studio released
The Wolf Among Us, which also came out to
very solid reviews.
The studio expanded dramatically, quadrupling
their employee count over the next few years.
They acquired even more major licenses, like
Game of Thrones, Borderlands, Minecraft, Batman,
and Guardians of the Galaxy.
But quickly, developmental and creative problems
appeared.
The company had signed up to make a ton of
games, and was struggling to develop them
on tight deadlines.
The Telltale Tool, their in-house engine,
was not helping either.
They used it to make almost every one of their
games since the very beginning and by the
mid-2010s it was positively ancient.
Game after game, episode after episode, the
same bugs were popping up again and again.
Their games could look really rough at times.
It couldn’t do dynamic lighting.
It didn’t have a physics engine yet.
Any scene with physics had to be animated
manually.
Telltale simply did not have enough time or
resources to spare to modernize the engine.
But the biggest problem was with Telltale’s
hallmark – the branching dialogue trees.
The system was lauded at first because it
felt like the branching paths impacted the
story.
But as all of their series continued on, it
became more clear that the choices didn’t
matter as much as they advertised.
Lots of dialogue options would resolve with
minute differences and quickly rejoin the
same point.
At best your choices would change the tone
of the narrative, but too often the way the
paths were handled felt like they were hand-waved
away, or written out of the story.
Making dialogue trees matter is inherently
a very tough problem, but by the end, it was
becoming clear that the major selling point
of the Telltale style of games was mostly
smoke and mirrors.
Developers were under extreme pressure to
crank out game after game, with perpetual
crunch killing studio morale.
But the games were coming out buggy, underwhelming,
and similar to a fault to Telltale’s previous
work.
Sales suffered.
Nothing was living up to the first Walking
Dead game, and the company was hurting financially.
They signed a deal to adapt their Minecraft
game for Netflix, and make a Stranger Things
one too, and chose to build it on Unity instead
of the Telltale Tool.
But by this point it was too late.
The Minecraft game came out, but the stream
of mediocre to bad sales had taken their toll.
After having announced a second season of
Game of Thrones and The Wolf Among Us, and
before Stranger Things could be released,
Telltale suddenly laid off 90% of their employees
and soon after filed for bankruptcy.
Telltale’s story is strikingly similar to
the fall of Sierra and LucasArts two decades
earlier.
They caught fire with a new spin on an old
genre, found massive success, started making
bigger and more expensive games, became trapped
by their toolset, saw their sales decline
dramatically after a few too many underwhelming
and same-y releases, and closed up shop.
But this time, the adventure game market isn’t
collapsing alongside Telltale.
This time, there’s a much healthier indie
scene pumping out new and interesting spins
on the adventure game.
Games like Gone Home, Firewatch, Oxenfree,
The Stanley Parable, Dear Esther, Tacoma,
Edith Finch, basically the entire Walking
Sim genre are takes on the adventure game
as a vehicle for story-driven exploration,
just without the contrived gameplay that bogged
down the point-and-click style adventures.
Steins Gate, Hatoful Boyfriend, all of these
ones, and Doki Doki Literature Club tilt the
balance even further to the narrative side,
which is all of what some wanted from their
adventure games.
Botanicula, Deponia, Gemini Rue, and Resonance
put modern design sensibilities onto the old-style
point-and-click formula.
And other games like Detective Grimroir, Ghost
Trick, The Witness, Her Story, and The Room
are all takes on the adventure game as a vehicle
for comprehensive puzzles, with a little more
narrative to keep it all more coherent than
the basic puzzle game.
The genre has split and splintered, but it’s
as popular as it has ever been, and much more
stable, without the chance of disappearing
by the failure of a few companies.
Adventure games may not be exactly what they
used to be, but that’s a change for the
better.
Adventure games are alive and well.
*chill vibes outro from Professor Layton and
the Unwound Future*

14 thoughts on “Designing Modern Adventure Games – Ace Attorney, Danganronpa, and More ~ Design Doc”

  1. If your favorite adventure game was from before the year 2000, it might be in the first half of this series, Classic Adventure Games: https://youtu.be/qkMTS8NvwQA
    Games: (by order of appearance)
    0:09 – Grim Fandango
    0:16 – Gabriel Knight 3
    0:20 – King's Quest VII
    0:25 – Escape from Monkey Island
    0:30 – Sam & Max Freelance Police (Cancelled)
    0:41 – Syberia
    1:45 – The Longest Journey
    2:24 – Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
    2:39 – Omikron: The Nomad's Soul
    3:13 – Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
    3:18 – Professor Layton & The Curious Village
    3:30 – The Portopia Serial Murder Case
    3:42 – Mystery House
    4:00 – Suisho no Dragon
    4:12 – Snatcher
    4:18 – Policenauts
    4:21 – Clock Tower
    4:53 – Kamaitachi no Yoru
    5:15 – Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (start of segment)
    6:57 – King's Quest V
    7:09 – Ace Attorney: Trials & Tribulations
    7:30 – Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney
    7:34 – Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice
    7:48 – Professor Layton & The Curious Village (start of segment)
    8:09 – Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
    8:22 – Dragon Quest
    8:25 – Shiren The Wanderer
    8:31 – 428 Shibuya Scramble
    8:34 – Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors
    9:19 – Virtue's Last Reward
    9:31 – Danganronpa
    10:50 – Indigo Prophecy
    11:18 – Heavy Rain
    11:39 – Myst V
    11:48 – Nancy Drew: The White Wolf of Icicle Creek
    11:56 – Nancy Drew: Curse of Blackmoor Manor
    12:21 – Wallace & Gromit (Telltale)
    12:26 – Bone (Telltale)
    12:38 – Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People
    12:40 – Sam & Max Save the World
    13:01 – Puzzle Agent
    13:07 – Tales of Monkey Island
    13:20 – Back to the Future (Telltale)
    13:26 – Jurrasic Park (Telltale)
    13:54 – The Walking Dead (Telltale)
    15:04 – Full Throttle
    15:18 – Monkey Island 2
    15:26 – Kentucky Route Zero
    16:20 – Broken Age
    17:46 – Moebius
    17:50 – Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded
    17:51 – Spaceventure
    17:52 – Broken Sword 5
    17:54 – Tesla Effect
    18:00 – Thimbleweed Park
    18:28 – The Wolf Among Us
    18:38 – Game of Thrones (Telltale)
    18:41 – Tales From the Borderlands
    18:42 – Minecraft Story Mode
    18:43 – Batman (Telltale)
    18:44 – Guardians of the Galaxy (Telltale)
    18:49 – The Walking Dead Season 2 (Telltale)
    19:56 – The Walking Dead Season 3 (Telltale)
    20:28 – Stranger Things (Telltale) (Cancelled)
    21:15 – Machinarium
    21:20 – Chuchel
    21:23 – Life is Strange
    21:25 – Gone Home
    21:26 – Firewatch
    21:27 – Oxenfree
    21:28 – The Stanley Parable
    21:30 – Dear Esther
    21:31 – Tacoma
    21:32 – Edith Finch
    21:43 – Steins Gate
    21:44 – Hatoful Boyfriend
    21:45 – Oh…wouldn't you like to know?
    21:47 – Doki Doki Literature Club
    21:55 – Botanicula
    21:56 – Deponia
    21:57 – Gemini Rue
    21:58 – Resonance
    22:04 – Detective Grimoire
    22:06 – Ghost Trick
    22:07 – The Witness
    22:08 – Her Story
    22:09 – The Room
    22:18 – Hotel Dusk
    22:28 – King's Quest: A Knight to Remember

  2. Got to say that, though not really THAT popular, I'd say both Oneshot and Night in the Woods definitely got something that can help the whole genre. Oneshot is good for making the choice less of a branching point but more of asking the player what do they think of the story. NITW is good for making the story go without player's involvement, such that it feels less like acting but more grounded to real life. Also notable is the adventure map scene for Minecraft, for it can push the limit of how much interactivity you can put in an adventure "game", but, TBH it's usually at the cost of making pixel hunting even worse.

  3. I think the recent games by Pendulo Studio deserve a mention here. Especially 'Yesterday: Origins', and 'Next Big Thing' have given me new hope for the point-and-click genre.

  4. Professor Layton was my very first game. It was amazing. Even though as a child I had some real problems with a few puzzles. And the spinoff game with Phoenix got me into that one, so … yeah. I love those games. Danganronpa is also awesome.

  5. I think it is interesting that you haven't included Until Dawn or Detroit: Become Human or other games that include the "Butterfly effect", because those seem to be natural successor of this type of game.

  6. I'm so happy to see The Room get some spotlight in this video, it's such an incredibly atmospheric and intriguing series of puzzle/adventure games.

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