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Twelve Interviews #2: Jozef Purdez

May 19th, 2006 @ 3:36 pm
by Vince Twelve

The following is the second of the Twelve Interviews series. This was originally published August 2nd, 2005. The third interview (and first new interview for almost a year) will be coming along shortly.

This one is, again, very specific to the amateur adventure scene. We focus our discussion on the common mistakes that amateur adventure developers make when creating games.

Oh yeah… and it’s pretty long…

Jozef Purdes has never released a game. He’s not a frequent poster to the message board. He has never even used AGS. Nevertheless, he is a well known and important figure among the AGS community.

Jozef is the author of the relentlessly thorough Independent Adventuring column over at DIY games. [Editor’s note: DIY games has since died. He now runs his column on his own blog over at Independent Adventuring.] In his monthly column Jozef does his best to play and review EVERY independent adventure game released. It’s a daunting and unenviable task, but nevertheless, Jozef continues to deliver.

Seeing as how he has turned a critical eye to more AGS games than just about anyone, I knew that he would have some excellent insights on amateur adventure game development. I was lucky enough to bump into him at the Bloody Towel and have a fabulous confabulation over some baconburgers. I wanted to hear his thoughts on common flaws in amateur adventures but got sidetracked on some other subjects first.

The following is a transcript of our discussion:

First off, tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born slightly over 29 years ago in Bratislava, Slovakia. Came to the US in 1995, went through college in New Jersey, where I then stayed for another four years working as an investment analyst. Last August, I moved to Atlanta, where I entered the MBA program. I’ve got one more year to go, and then I hope to find a job in the business incubation area.

As far as my gaming past goes, I started out with the Zinclair ZX Spectrum. After two years or so, I got a bootleg tape full of interactive fiction; my first exposure to adventures. I got exposed to PCs as part of my part-time work in Slovakia. They were PC 286 computers, and my first game, Crystals of Arborea, I was hooked, spending nights mainly with strategies at that time, especially Warlords and Civilization. I went through the usual Monkey Island series and Sierra adventures, but got really hooked only after I played Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Since then, I’ve been gaming all the time, but stayed almost exclusively with adventure games, puzzles and turn based strategies.

How long have you been involved in gaming journalism?

I started writing for my abandonware site in 1997. I later abandoned it, and in 2000 I started writing reviews for I soon became an Expert in gaming, which on the site was a function for the top reviewers in each category. They served as a buffer between other reviewers and the site management, and to advise new members (the function later transformed into two, Top Reviewer and Adviser, which I retained till I stopped writing). In 2002, me and a few of the top reviewers from Epinions created, where I’m still writing, even though not as much as before. In early 2004, the editor of DIYGames has asked me to join the site, and since then I’ve been writing the monthly columns and the occassional reviews when I found some extra time. [Editor’s note: No he’s not]

How important, in your estimation, is objective evaluation (that is to say, reviewing a game based on its merits and not on one’s own biases as a gamer) to mainstream gaming journalism?

I think that objectivity is overrated. Especially if I read five reviews of the same game, I don’t want to read the game description over and over again. Instead, I’m much more in favor of consistency. There are simply game reviewers who have been consistently rating games for years now, and even if I don’t share their tastes, their score and review can tell me more about how much I’d like the game than any consistent review. The most notable example here is Tom Chick, the writer for Quarter to Three and most recently Computer Games. He dislikes some genres that I like and vice versa, but having played some of the games and compared them against his reviews, I know what to expect now, whenever I read one of his game reviews, because he’s been so consistent over the years.

How about non-mainstream or specialized journalism such as DIYgames?

I’d like to see more objectivity here. Not for the sake of objectivity, but I think the non-mainstream media is skewed too much towards the subjective. The problem I’m seeing here is that the media have too few dedicated reviewers. Even DIYGames, which is relatively well staffed, is struggling with the amount of games that are flowing in. As a result, we all are free to select from an enormous number of games to review, and we naturally gravitate to the best or most appealing ones, so we consistently rate between 3 and 5 stars, out of 5. While we may be right in our rating, the review selection is not representative of the independent scene.

Can bias be blamed for the fairly consistent low scores garnered by adventure games in mainstream reviews, or are the games of today that still follow the tried-and-true adventure game formula just not as good as they used to be?

That’s difficult to say. I’d say that adventures are being misunderstood by magazine editors, and they are being assigned to the wrong people. As I understand it, console adventures are mainly platformers with adventure elements, and so if a fan of such games gets a PC adventure to review, he or she may be disappointed. I consider myself to be a fairly hardcore adventurer, and it reflects on my ratings: I rated games like Salammbo and Journey to the Center of the Earth very highly, much higher than the average, while games like Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon and Wanted received quite low ratings, due to their simplicity, interface and non-adventure elements.

In fact, if you look at Gamerankings, you’ll see that many adventure games are highly rated by adventure-reviewing sources, while more mainstream media rates them lower. Good examples of this are in particular Journey to the Center of the Earth, and A Quiet Weekend in Capri. More than bias, I think that the mainstream media simply don’t have any adventure-dedicated reviewers anymore.

Quite frankly, I didn’t think of looking at game journalism before, so these are only my opinions, based on absolutely no facts, so take them with a grain of salt.

Lets move on to your Independent Adventuring feature. What made you want to take on the daunting task of playing and reviewing every amateur adventure game released?

I appreciate art, and I see amateur adventures as art. Nobody can agree on a definition of art in gaming, but for my purpose, it’s a game that has been created by a real developer, not by marketing consultants. And even though there are quite a few titles that I wish I haven’t played, others more than offset this.

But to be entirely honest, it wasn’t my idea. Greg Micek, the editor of DIYGames, has come with the idea, and I told him I’d try to do it, but I wasn’t too enthusiastic until I wrote the first column and realized how much fun it’s been to play all the games.

Do you enjoy it? I mean… there are so many! … Aren’t there some real stinkers out there?

You’re right; there are quite a few poor games. Still, there are so many great games that I can live with the relatively fewer stinkers. Also, I tend to give a lot of benefit of the doubt to people, so the worse games don’t hurt too much ;)

Any recent or classic favorites, AGS or otherwise?

Most recently, I fell in love with Adventures in the Galaxy of Fantabulous Wonderment. I’m also very fond of games that are slightly out of the ordinary. For example, SSH’s Princess Marian series is one of my favorites, because of its very unique and cute personality. Last year, some of the games I enjoyed the most had either very unique graphics, such as Biwa of Blood, or great humor, like Who Killed Bambi?. And while I enjoyed larger games, such as titles by Pinhead Studios or the Ben Jordan series a lot, there’s so many of those that after a while they tend to blur together.

Do you feel that the underground adventure game scene is important?

I think it’s very important! For some reasons. First of all, it proves that game genres can never die. In the days before Dreamcatcher (and even now), the vast majority of adventure creation activity takes place with independent developers. As a result, commercial adventures are always pushed a step further in their development, to justify their price in the face of free competition. Consequently, the overall quality of adventure games is higher than it would have been otherwise. Second, the underground adventure scene is quite important to me. I really don’t like any action games, and with such titles dominating the store shelves, without independent adventures I’d have nothing to do. And finally, just look how much creativity is being allowed, thanks to AGS and other engines. I grew up primarily with books, and I never dreamed of self-publishing or reading self-published stories. Even today, we don’t see too many of them. Yet, lots of people are coming up with their own stories, and an entire vision of a world where the stories take place. With so much creativity going on, I can only expect computer gaming in general to greatly benefit in the future.

Compared to the other amateur adventure game engines and communities, what are your thoughts on AGS and its community?

Now this is a difficult question. I have never tried to create anything with any adventure engine, so I can’t comment on the AGS software. However, considering the number of games released every month, I can imagine it’s easy to use.

As far as the community goes, I believe that AGS is the only significant underground adventuring community. There are others I visit, especially the Adventure Developers and Adventure Gamers forums, most of the activity takes place on AGS, especially after The Crow’s Nest closed. That said, however, I found the AGS community to become too entrenched. There are very few new people joining, who actually contribute on the boards for the long run. While things like the Mittens show that the community is very close, I’m also afraid that the community is becoming a little exclusive.

Concerning amateur adventures, how important are the different aspects of the game (graphics, sound, story, programming, gameplay, etc)?

That’s difficult to say. Obviously, story is very important, but I found that my favorite games are those with a unique personality. This is usually a result of unique graphics and writing. But I wouldn’t be too worried about what’s more important. Instead, I personally focus on things that hurt the game. The most visible problem tends to be poor grammar, but in the long term, I find lack of originality to be the biggest problem. I don’t think we need another haunted house or a mystery detective; Ben Jordan should be enough. Chances are I’ll remember the original story, not its clone.

Having played so many amateur adventures, you must have spotted a multitude of common flaws that even the most experienced amateur developers drop into their games. Lets discuss some flaws in each aspect of the game’s production: What are a few common missteps that you see regarding a game’s story? How can these flaws be avoided?

As I said, the one flaw I tend to pick up really quickly is grammar. This is not as much a problem with experienced game developers, but even a single typo can stand out. That’s just me, though.

Probably the biggest design problem that I’m seeing is the lack of explanations. Sometimes, the authors have the entire setting in their heads, and they make assumptions that they don’t communicate to the player. This, in turn, makes some puzzles or actions appear illogical. This has killed very many adventures for me.

But at the end, most seasoned adventure developers have their game mechanics pretty well covered. I just wish they added a little more emotion to the story, to make it more engaging to the player. Very often, even in otherwise great games I feel absolutely no attachment to the main character. Maybe it’s just me, but in those cases I feel like the developers created a game they thought the gamers would like to see, and not the one they wanted to create.

What common mistakes do you see regarding a games graphics?

There are two, both having to do with the character animation: characters facing the wrong direction, and poor perspective. In the former, I see way too often that the characters seem to walk sideways. As far as perspective goes, sometimes the character size doesn’t seem to change appropriately, according to their location. I guess both problems are connected with the AGS editor, so I wouldn’t know how to fix them.

Discuss a few commonly-recurring flaws that you’ve noticed regarding a game’s sound. How can these flaws be avoided?

There’s only one thing that irritates me: full mp3s, which inflate the overall file size. Other than that, I only have a problem with music I recognize. That’s not inherently wrong, but sometimes the music clashes with the setting. I don’t mind listening to “We Don’t Need Another Hero” and “Eye of the Tiger” in Supergirl; in fact, the music selection was appropriate. However, if I heard “Chariots of Fire” while exploring a haunted mansion, I’d be very unhappy.

What about the gameplay design? Where do you commonly see mistakes and how can they be avoided?

There’s only one flaw I can mention here: action or timed sequences. Avoiding this problem is easy: avoid adding them into your games. I don’t mind what anybody else says, I’ll be always whining about them. But to be fair, sometimes they work, such as in the Adventures in the Galaxy of Fantabulous Wonderment, where they were very easy.

And finally, the game’s interface. Discuss a few commonly-recurring flaws that you’ve noticed in this area.

One problem I’m seeing, especially with new developers or people who want to use intricate interface graphics are very large cursors, which you don’t know where they point. This can be avoided very easily; some games added a bright pixel on each cursor, indicating where it points.

What about programming? How often do you see minor bugs? How much do they affect your opinion of a game? What about major bugs?

I don’t see too many major bugs. In fact, I’m very happy to say that I haven’t seen a game-ending bug for a long time. However, I wish people would be more careful when flagging non-recurring things. Sometimes even very good games allow for the came conversation to take place over and over again.

Let’s talk about innovation for a second. Most of the games coming out use one of the tried-and-true interface models (LucasArts or Sierra). Few attempt to add real innovation to the adventure game formula. What kind of laudable innovation have you seen coming out of the community? How important do you feel innovation in gameplay is to the amateur adventure game scene?

I think innovation is overrated. And this is coming from somebody who just spent the summer commercializing new technologies developed at Georgia Tech… I don’t think you can innovate too much in adventure games, as far as the interface or game mechanics go, mainly because so many people associate certain elements with adventures. In fact, I would say that no other genre is being so narrowly defined by its fans as adventure games (there’s been a really good article about it recently). As I said before, I see underground adventure games as pieces of art, and thus I’d like to see more artistic innovation. People should not be afraid to use new, innovative graphics (the Critics Lounge people may hate me for this). The same goes for stories. Even reworking some older stories, especially from public domain books, would be better than the amount of repetition I’m seeing.

When it comes to game mechanics, though, the game I mentioned a few times already, Adventures in the Galaxy of Fantabulous Wonderment, shows one way to innovation. It is simply a series of minigames and a trade simulator, with strong adventure elements. Jane Jensen’s BeTrapped! is also very innovative, adding adventure elements to Minesweeper game mechanics. It seems to me that in the future we’ll see many more games from other genres, which would have enough adventure elements to be considered adventure games. So instead of improving traditional adventure games, other genres will be transformed into adventures.

In this respect, the underground scene plays a huge role. Innovation is largely gone from large commercial products, and so if we’ll see any significant change, it will come from the bottom up.

Do you have any game-making aspirations of your own? (If you’ve made a game previously and I just don’t know about it, chalk it up to my piss poor research department.)

Sorry; you won’t find anything made by me. I did a few short games in ZX Spectrum, and the only larger project there was to make a Monopoly clone. I’m currently thinking about trying my luck with AGS, but so far haven’t gotten to use the software, as I just finished the story, and currently keep busy with the graphics. I am hopeful I’ll release it before the Universe collapses unto itself again.

Any clue as to what we can expect to find in your game, whenever it may be released?

It takes place in an alternate past, but it could just as well take place elsewhere. At the heart of the story is a person with a dilemma: whether to stubbornly keep destroying other people’s lives for the greater truth (possibly an unattainable ideal), or whether to give up, and save those he loves.

I must admit that my main problem with writing this story is that I tend to be a little verbose, as you may have noticed, and I also love to quote people from the books I’ve read. The first version of my script was choke-full of quotes from Thoreau, Emerson and Muir. I took some of them out, but it still will be a game I’d want to play, so others may be disappointed.

As for when it will be released, I’ve got absolutely no idea. I’m learning as I’m going, and after I finish the backgrounds, I’ll have to learn character drawing and animation, before even trying to power up AGS.

Where would you like to see the amateur adventure scene in five years?

Just where it is now, with fresh blood. I’d like to see the best current amateur developers to have their games in the local Best Buy five years from now. Others should be able to release commercial independent games, and those who just started would be the veterans, training a new generation of adventure developers.

How long do you see yourself continuing the Independent Adventuring feature?

At least as long as there is nobody who’d do it better, or until I marry, and my wife confiscates my computer ;) So far, I’ve had too much fun to stop writing.

Say something clever and profound to finish the interview.

Now this is by far the most difficult question I’ve gotten. Please bear in mind that I’m too sober to think of something really good.

Amateur adventures are art, and their authors are true artists. As such, I don’t feel comfortable with criticizing any of them; I’m trying to merely report what’s going on, and to point out those art pieces that I liked. I’m very happy to be able to contribute to the independent adventuring scene, and I hope that five, ten years from now, we’ll still be all here. Some of us creating new games, others reporting, and all of us enjoying them.

Thank you for your time, Jozef.

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