Rock, Paper, Shotgun has posted a nice interview with Al Lowe, the creator of the famous Leisure Suit Larry series of games from Sierra. I recommend checking it out, as Al provides a nice perspective on those old Sierra games and the current adventure game market.
In it, Al makes an interesting observation that I think is important to reflect upon:
RPS: I’ve noticed that we seem to have lost our patience with puzzles. Developers seem to be frightened of a player getting stuck. Why do you think this happened?
AL: I have a definite thought on this. I hesitate to share it as I don’t want it to come out sounding the wrong way, but I believe that in the early 80s, you had to be ridiculously determined just to make those damned computers work. It was near impossible. Set high mem. Deal with QEMM. Customize boot up settings. Hell, I had a whole subdirectory full of autoexec.bat and config.sys files…
RPS: [Large groan as the hideous memories came flooding back]
AL: … I would save off the current pair of files into a subdirectory and copy up another pair so I reboot, all just to run a game. I probably had ten different set-ups. Just geeky shit like that drove people crazy. So puzzle solving was a requirement just to get the damned things to work. And therefore puzzle solving in games fell right into place. It’s what you were already doing. And the parser? It was just like the DOS prompt. You got a flashing cursor and that’s all. If you didn’t know what to type, you had to try things until something worked. Our games were that way. The cursor would flash and you’d think, “What am I supposed to do now?” I remember a conversation once where we speculated, “Won’t it be wonderful when 10% of American households have a computer? Think how great sales will be?” Well, now it’s well over 50% and the people that we added aren’t the people who subscribe to Games Magazine, or solve New York Times crossword puzzles, or watch PBS or BBC America. They’re the people who watch Fox! Their demands for entertainment didn’t include slapping your forehead over and over while you tried to figure out what to do next. They wanted some action… and wanted it now!
An interesting point, for certain, but I think you could apply this answer not just to the question, “Why might players be less tolerant of puzzles?” but also, “Why might players be less tolerant of text-based input in games?”
I think it’s a great point that, back in the 80s (and even into the early 90s), the graphical user interface wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it is now. Heck, I can attest that even the University of Utah hospital in 1997 was still using a DOS-based computer system — no graphical interface at all. People were used to operating with text. Like Al says, you got a flashing cursor and that’s all, and “if you didn’t know what to type, you had to try things until something worked.” Text was how we communicated, whether with games or with operating systems.
I think there are probably a few things operating here:
1. Perhaps, as the graphical interface became more widespread, people became less tolerant of having to use the keyboard. You could accomplish most things with the mouse, in a much simpler and straightforward fashion. The interface for adventure games likely followed suit, with text commands eventually being replaced with mouse-driven command options, and in many cases with just a simple point-and-click interface.
2. Back then — and this could be pure recall bias — it seemed that you had to know more about how to use a computer than you do now. The text interface almost demanded it. But with the rise of the graphical interface, alongside the rise in popularity of computers in general, we perhaps now find that many (if not most) computer users know little about the systems they use. It’s one of the main functions of the graphical interface: replacing arcane and enigmatic text commands with simpler and more natural visual representations. Perhaps the old text interface allowed people to be more comfortable with this type of system interaction.
The continued — and growing — use of Linux would possibly argue against this to some degree, but I think you could even argue that Linux is rising in popularity, at least in part, because of the graphical interfaces that are now available for it.
A lot of adventure gamers out there now prefer the simpler interface, whether it’s as simple as point-and-click, or mouse-driven contextual menus. Text parsers, I believe, have borne the brunt of the responsibility for this, but I think the argument above contributes a great deal as well — there exists now an alternative which is simpler and less finicky. Text as an input method in games has been all but abandoned, except for the persistent interactive fiction crowd.
With Vespers, I have decided to use text-based input for a number of reasons, which I will likely address in future blogs. But the interface, like the game, is really a hybrid — there is a point-and-click interface with mouse-driven commands in addition to the text parser. I think, if you could look at transcripts of a large sample of IF games, that the vast majority of commands issued by players would amount to the compass directions and movement (N,S,E,W), LOOK, EXAMINE, TAKE, and INVENTORY. I don’t have any hard numbers to back me up, but I would guess that these would account for somewhere around 75%-80% of all commands in a given game. In our hybrid game, these are all commands that can be issued with either the mouse or with a single key on the keyboard (e.g., X for EXAMINE).
Still, will players tolerate any text input? In general, I think players don’t like the thought of having to use the keyboard — or to switch between the mouse and keyboard. But we’ll see. I think the benefits, which I’ll discuss later, still outweigh what I feel is a (relatively) small inconvenience.
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