Al Lowe on adventure puzzles…and text?

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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  1. BigBossSNK
    Posted February 8, 2008 at 11:32 AM | Permalink

    “Perhaps, as the graphical interface became more widespread, people became less tolerant of having to use the keyboard”
    True, and there’s no reason to go back.
    It might help if you talk to a human language researcher: language becomes simpler over time (frequently used terms are truncated and words that are hard to pronounce marginalized)
    The same stands for computer interfaces, the way people “talk to” / interact with the computer.

    “Perhaps the old text interface allowed people to be more comfortable with this type of system interaction.”
    Not really. It’s just that you were already selling your game to a small niche, that didn’t mind obtuse irritations as long as it got to play a game. People don’t have to put up with that any more, because the market has accommodated people outside the initial niche.

    “Won’t it be wonderful when 10% of American households have a computer? Think how great sales will be?”
    People will always buy your game if you give them what they want. The adventure game isn’t dead, it’s just that people don’t put the effort required to make it fun again (which first of all requires accessibility, then inspired content).

  2. Rubes
    Posted February 8, 2008 at 1:20 PM | Permalink

    Some interesting thoughts there.

    Starting at the bottom. I can’t tell for sure, so perhaps I’m off base, but it sounds like what you’re saying is that adventure games got the accessibility part right when the keyboard was abandoned and the user interface simplified, and now all they need to do is get the inspired content part down and sales will follow.

    I think there is some truth to that, although I might argue that a simplified interface does not always equate to a better interface. More efficient, perhaps, and probably more preferred, but I think the interpretation of better depends on your perspective. From a market perspective, I would say it’s the preferred one; from a niche product perspective, I suppose it’s whatever best achieves your goals.

    Related to this is your first comment, that “there’s no reason to go back.” A strong statement, for sure, and I’m not so certain I agree.

    I think many people may find no reason to go back, and I wouldn’t dispute that there are a majority of adventure gamers that would agree. But I think there are a number of interactive fiction players who might disagree, and perhaps a number of individuals who find the simplified point-and-click interface to be shallow and unsatisfying. That’s something I was planning on touching upon in a future blog. And of course there are still a lot of Linux/Unix users out there who continue to enjoy the command-line interface, although this certainly represents more of a niche group.

    I think, perhaps, it would be more applicable to say that there is no economic reason to go back to text entry — I think the market has shown that the simplified point-and-click interface is probably the best bet for making a profit. I also suspect the market is probably not large enough to make a useful profit from a text-based-entry game, although I suppose we’ll find out once Textfyre is off and running.

    That is, in the end, part of the experiment here, though. And I think it should be pointed out (which I will get to eventually, someday) that Vespers will not be text-entry-heavy. It’s likely that the mouse and single-key commands will account for the majority of player actions, leaving the keyboard for the less common commands.

  3. BigBossSNK
    Posted February 8, 2008 at 3:57 PM | Permalink

    IF is interesting when it allows you to attack a problem through many diverse angles. You have to get someone’s attention. You can speak to them directly. Or get someone else to introduce you. Or set fire to your hair. This kind of freedom of interaction was abandoned when high production values became the norm.
    Ultimately, nobody legitimately cares whether you type your next action or you select it from a context sensitive drop down menu. If you recreate the level of freedom you get from IF in a 3D world (regardless of production values), that alone will set your game apart.

  4. Rubes
    Posted February 8, 2008 at 6:46 PM | Permalink

    I definitely agree with you there. I think IF has done a good job maintaining, for the most part, that type of freedom of interaction. I hope that we are able to replicate that in our project, although there will almost certainly be obstacles.

    I’m not so sure I’d go so far as to say that nobody cares if you use a text parser or a context-sensitive drop down menu, however. While I do think a lot of people would agree with that, I do think there are many (myself included) who see some small advantages to parser-based input.

    Some of that relates back to one of Al Lowe’s comments, that the parser is like the DOS prompt: “Our games were that way. The cursor would flash, and you’d think, ‘What am I supposed to do now?'” It’s part of the puzzle. And in many cases, context-sensitive drop downs that provide you with the possible verbs for a given situation remove some of the possibilities.

    Of course, on the flip side, poor game construction would just lead to infuriating “guess the verb” problems which have plagued many IF games over the years. But done well, and fairly, the parser can in a small way add to the challenge and open-endedness of these games.

    Granted, it’s a small benefit, but one which I think many people can still appreciate.

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