HISTORIAN

Précis:

I have a degree in modern history from Pembroke College, Oxford. History - mainly military and art history - continues to be a hobby and I have given several lectures on the history of computer games. This is a transcript of a speech I gave on the history of computer games at the Game Developers Conference Europe in the summer of 2001.

History of Computer Games

Of the twenty plus games I produced, it was the game I was most proud of but I think it marked the end of the road for the adventure game.  Interestingly, it’s the only game we’ve done which got fan mail.  It was developed by Intelligent Games and published by Mindscape in 1996.  Designers: Ken Haywood and Richard Guy.  Lead programming Philip Veale and lead art by Richard Evans.

Hands up everyone who played it? Who even heard of it? You probably haven’t heard of it and you definitely won’t have heard of its unpublished sequel DHO. Ironically, it was also the hardest game to find a playable version. My PC will emulate a BBC, a Spectrum, an Atari 800, even a PDP-1 but I can’t get it to run a DOS game any more!

It did some things really well: use of music, speech and sound effects; creating a 3D environment and solving the problems of creating an adventure game in it (DHO was even better with its scripting language), creating an thoroughly-imagined and detailed world. But, it didn’t sell and the sequel was cancelled. I expect there have been some, but I struggle to recall any adventure games since AT – except perhaps Blade Runner which had many virtues but also stiffed. So what went wrong?

  • Simply updating an existing genre (e.g. text adventures) with new technology (e.g. 3D graphics) doesn’t work.
  • User interface and learning curve matter a lot – there’s no point having a great storyline if nobody gets to see it.
  • Programmers work in darkened rooms, give the user a brightness control / gamma correction.
  • It was for the wrong platform (DOS) at the wrong time (when Quake came out and when Tomb Raider was first appearing)
  • Stupid name
  • It ran really slowly – creating the sort of luscious 3D environments we wanted – it was originally intended to be a Myst-style pre-rendered game – required a lot of polygons.

But I think the biggest problem was one of sentiment. The audience had disappeared – people didn’t want a puzzle adventure game dressed up in 3D. Quake and Tomb Raider simply provided more bang per buck. I do sometimes wonder whether the immersive story telling that happened in AT and its predecessors can be evoked somewhere else, perhaps to replace the nonsense of FMV segue sequences. Perhaps instead of puzzles, the player can make character or plot choices? We mustn’t let ourselves forget about story, emotion, character and setting.

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Azrael’s Tear is the hardest game in this history to find and play. There was a Windows version but no Windows demo. The DOS demo still works but is very hard to track down on the web. I found a version here and a walkthrough here

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I recently (2014) published a post about Azreal’s Tear on Bad Language that contained links to the original design documents.