Monthly Archives: June 2011

How the Graphic Adventure Video Game Genre Can Save Your Kids’ TV-to-Game 360 Transmedia Strategy

UGAGS, the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System, is a framework and toolset that we use to create graphic adventure games.

A graphic adventure game often adheres to these conventions:

  • Third person perspective (you can see your character’s body), rather than first person (you can see through the eyes of your character)

    Third person vs. first person adventure game perspectives

    Full Throttle (left) is a third person adventure game, while MYST is atypically first person

  • Emphasis on story and character
  • Inventory system (the player can carry objects)
  • “Puzzles” … these are choke points in the game which can be overcome through various means (read: The 12 Types of Puzzles in Graphic Adventure Games)
  • Dialogue. Characters “speak” either through on-screen subtitles, or voice-over, or both.

    Day of the Tentacle

  • Conversations. Many graphic adventure games use branching dialogue trees for character interaction.

    Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis conversation system

  • Humour. This is one of the only video game genres that consistently uses humour as a selling point and main attraction.

Some famous examples of graphic adventure games are The Secret of Monkey Island, King’s Quest, and Simon the Sorceror. (Note that games involving adventure, like The Legend of Zelda, are often called “adventure games”, but the “graphic adventure” moniker applies only to this very specific genre we’ve outlined.)

The graphic adventure game genre suffered its demise in the mid-90’s at the hand of more popular action-oriented games like DOOM. The criticism of graphic adventure games, at the time, was that they were too expensive to produce and didn’t provide the player with enough replay value. Games like LOOM could be completed in a single day, and carried a $50-70 price tag.

Advantages of the Genre

The causes of the graphic adventure game’s fall from grace have, in a strange way, become its new strengths – particularly in the context of extending children’s brands to new platforms.

Replayability and Kids

Graphic adventure games are not very replayable for adults and older, because the experience is the same every time; adults are constantly seeking something new and challenging. But this is actually a strength when it comes to children’s entertainment. Young children will watch a movie or a teevee show again and again, with each viewing immediately following the last. In fact, certain teevee properties have acknowledged and leveraged this fact: Nickelodeon aired each new Blue’s Clues episode five times in a row from Monday to Friday, and test results found that this increased viewers’ attention and comprehension. Every episode of Teletubbies contains a live action segment of children performing an activity. This exact same live action segment is repeated within the same episode.

Teletubbies and repetition

(It’s a real shame kids have to relive this.)

To a young child, everything is new and challenging. There’s a distinct comfort in knowing the answers. Just as a child will proudly repeat a newly-learned task to demonstrate his mastery (standing on one leg, clicking his tongue, drawing the letter “A”), children delight in playing and replaying graphic adventure games because they’re predictable. Children like knowing that they can play a game from beginning to end, predictably experiencing the same events and confidently overcoming the same challenges.

Development Costs

The entire aim of UGAGS is to reduce the cost to develop graphic adventure games. While it was once true that graphic adventure games have demanded high budgets for low value, the cost of developing games in other, more action-based genres, has skyrocketed.

Brand Extension

Very often, we see kids’ television brands being extended to other areas, most notably video games. The mistake people usually make is to figure “well, teevee shows are about story and character, while video games are about defeating enemies and jumping on platforms … so we’ll take our teevee character and make her defeat enemies and jump on characters.”

This errant thinking stems from a very narrow understanding of video game genres. The result is games like That’s So Raven for the Nintendo Gameboy Advance:

That's So Raven GBA

This game is the epitome of lazy and uninformed content development for kids.

That’s So Raven was based on the Disney show of the same name. The game’s genre is best described as action … as Raven, you have to navigate the halls of your school, dodging book-throwing baddies and spraying your enemies in the face with perfume.

On the Disney site itself, you also have That’s So Raven Pinball:

What do these two games do to extend the That’s So Raven brand to video games? As a That’s So Raven fan, is this how you want to interact with the brand? It’s the equivalent of just throwing That’s So Raven on a sleeping bag or a pencil case and calling it a day. What does That’s So Raven have to do with sleeping, colouring, or pinball? Are there any moments in the show where Raven has to make it from one end of the school to the other, while dodging thrown books? Nope.

HERE is an excellent pinball game brand extension:

Wizard pinball game

The Wizard pinball machine extends the Tommy brand, which is all about pinball.

HERE is a great sleeping bag brand extension:

Taun-taun Sleeping Bag

The Taun Taun sleeping bag unzips to reveal guts, just like in The Empire Strikes Back.

What’s That’s So Raven all about? Well, she can see the future. How about a That’s So Raven Tarot Card deck? Fortune cookies? A magic 8-ball?

As a fan of the show, i want to play as Raven (they got that part right), but i also want to do the things that Raven does. i want to talk to all my friends, crack jokes, use my future-seeing powers, and get up to zany hijinks. The Game Boy Advance game pays lip service to this, by relegating your hijinks to cutscenes (non-interactive segments that play between levels). This game treatment is the equivalent of slapping a logo on a toothbrush. It’s essentially a white label game with an irrelevant brand make-up job.

The good news is that you can extend the brand logically to video games with a That’s So Raven graphic adventure game. Instead of hijinks being tacked on superficially, the entire plot of the game can unfold like an episode of the teevee show, with the player as the central character. You can even produce a few games, and release them episodically, just like the show. It’s a mode of production that teevee people understand, and it can even employ the show’s writers and actors in its development.

Lost in Translation

When considering how best to parlay your teevee show into video game format, consider how your show’s fans may want to engage with your brand, and try to match the genre to the show. If you have a boys’ action series, it might make sense to do a top-down space shooter with lasers and power-ups. But since a majority of kids’ content is about story and character, a graphic adventure game is going to give the audience what they want, and will make for a much smoother transition into games if you don’t fully grasp their nuances.

iCarly I Dream in Toons

iCarly: I Dream in Toons is a hidden object game where you have to search for items on a list. The iCarly show is about a girl who has a popular web series. i spy with my little eye: a brand disconnect.

Slaves of the 80’s

Again, here’s a scenario i see all the time, and it’s a perfect example of what not to do: your show’s lead character doesn’t ride a skateboard, but you once heard of a popular game franchise called Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (your nephew plays it … or he used to, a few years ago. You can’t remember – you don’t follow this video game stuff too closely).

So you cook up the idea to put your character on a skateboard, jumping pylons and ducking seagulls, because you figure you’d basically be producing the same effect as the Tony Hawk game and reaping that popularity for your own brand.

There’s a (hopefully) obvious disparity in development time and budget here (a Tony Hawk game costs millions, and has a bona fide cool factor, celebrity endorsements, and legacy of prequels wherein the gameplay was refined over the course of a decade). Then there’s the brand disconnect: you feel your character should ride a skateboard in the game, simply because it’s more “gamey”; your show doesn’t have enough video game-like action in it, so you need to manufacture some. The good news is that if you understand game genres, and are aware of the graphic adventure genre in particular, you don’t have to squeeze your characters into genres and scenarios that aren’t a good brand fit.

You’d never market a Smurfs Chainsaw. You’d never redraw Martha Speaks anime-style and have her punching and kicking as a ninja in feudal Japan. It’s just as inappropriate and off-putting to have a Suite Life of Zack and Cody Pac Man clone:

i know exactly what happened here: a group of folks who don’t fully understand video games got together in a board room to decide on a video game concept for the Zack and Cody. The most recent frame of reference they had was Pac Man (25 years ago), so that’s what the game was modeled after. i’ve seen this situation unfold time and again. By leaning more on the understanding and expertise of game developers, you can avoid this brand disconnect and still end up with a fun video game that engages and entertains your players. Building a graphic adventure game from a show property is the most straightforward way to avoid this brand disconnect.

If your show is about putting on shoes and going on adventures, like in Frannie’s Feet, you can do exactly that in a graphic adventure game. If your characters have to visit planets to learn new things, as they do in Rob the Robot, a graphic adventure game makes the perfect brand extension. In fact, i’ll go so far as to say that the genre works with any narrative kids’ teevee show on the market today. Give the graphic adventure genre a shot for your next teevee-to-game project!

For more information on UGAGS, please contact

Here is a list of games that have been made to date with UGAGS:

And here are some movies and teevee shows that have been logically extended into the video game realm within the graphic adventure game genre:

Dr. Who Adventure Games

Dr. Who

Beavis and Butthead in: Virtual Stupidity

Beavis and Butthead in: Virtual Stupidity

Duckman: the Graphic Adventures of a Private Dick

Duckman: the Graphic Adventures of a Private Dick

Star Trek 25th Anniversary

Star Trek 25th Anniversary

Blade Runner

Blade Runner

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Back to the Future

Back to the Future

Summer in Smallywood

Summer in Smallywood by Untold Entertainment

Summer in Smallywood is an online educational game built with UGAGS, the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System.

The project was funded by the Government of Canada’s Office of Literacy and Essential Skills, and was produced by the Center for Skills Development and Training in Burlington Ontario. It aims to teach three workplace skills to 15-30 year olds. Here’s how the project came about:

All Thumbs

Ontario employers have apparently had as much trouble hiring young people as i’ve had teaching them. They’ve identified nine “Essential Skills” they want the Ministry to help instill in young people, so that those young people can thrive in the workplace. What are these “Essential Skills”, you ask? Poetry recitation? Wire-walking? Differential calculus?

‘Fraid not. It’s stuff like “thinking.” Really. This is where we’re at. We need to teach thinking.

Summer in Smallywood by Untold Entertainment

Historically, these Essential Skills have been taught via somewhat dry worksheets and booklets – the kind you’d see in a typical guidance councilor’s office (next to the 1986 Ziggy desk calendar and the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels). Summer in Smallywood presents the information in a far more interesting format: as a video game.

What Went Very, Very Right

Teaching three of the nine Essential Skills in video game form was the brainchild of the Center, and our client Matt Markowiak in particular. The Smallywood project was the perfect example of everything that can possibly go right on this type of project:

  1. Video games are very much a generational thing – you either grew up with them in your life, or you didn’t. Matt was asked to take the reigns on this project because he understands games. It was an excellent decision.
  2. The Center involved a game developer (us!) very early in the development process. Often, we’re approached to pull the trigger on a project long after the stakeholders, who may not have a strong grasp of video games (“i used play Pac Man”), have decided on every minute aspect of the project … without benefit of a game developer’s involvement. Hiring a game developer to consult at the beginning of a project is a very smart move! It keeps your vendor invested and interested in the project, and often results in a better final product.
  3. The Center wasn’t completely hyper about hammering home the message. There’s a real fine line to walk when you use a game as a teaching tool. If there’s too much preachy instruction, it becomes a complete bore and you might as well have put the info in a 3-ring binder to begin with. If it’s too gamey and not learny enough, the stakeholders might kick up a fuss. Summer in Smallywood strikes a really nice balance between its “edu” and its “tainment.”

i do feel the game is too dialogue-heavy, but it’s difficult to convey this information in this genre without having a lot of lip-flap. It would be amazing if Summer in Smallywood could have received a full voice-over treatment, if time and budget had permitted.

I Don’t Have Time To Play It – Give Me the Gist!

Summer in Smallywood pits you as a shift supervisor at a low-rent amusement park called Smallywood, where the rides and attractions are upsettingly tiny. One exhibit features miniaturized versions of Canada’s largest roadside attractions (Sudbury’s Big Nickel is an actual nickel).

Summer in Smallywood world's smallest roller coaster

Thrill to the spectacle of the World’s Smallest Roller Coaster!

The boss, an eccentric entrepreneur named Mr. Wood, challenges his employees to learn three essential skills: Oral Communication, Thinking Skills, and Working with Others. Master these, and you may be up for a raise and a promotion at the end of the summer.

Matt’s obviously played a lot of Pokémon. in the Oral Communication module, you face off against customers against an anime action background. Instead of choosing combat moves from a list, you choose helpful customer service responses.

Summer in Smallywood customer battle

Player uses “nod in agreement”. It’s super effective!

There are other classic video game references to spot. The dialogue window is pure Final Fantasy. Mario’s 1-up mushroom makes an appearance. Matt even had class NES-style video game boxes and instruction booklets printed to play up the initiative’s unique format:

Summer in Smallywood game box and instructions

Summer in Smallywood game box and instructions

Summer in Smallywood game box and instructions

In hindsight, i should have rigged up a Konami code easter egg.

Matt’s love of retro gaming came out in the video he produced to promote Smallywood to schools. Check out this trailer, dripping with “Zelda rap”-esque cheese:

The reception from both students and educators has been very positive. Here are some comments from students who look very grateful to not have to fill out dull Essential Skills questionnaires:

UGAGS Enhancements

Summer in Smallywood made possible a handful of important new features for UGAGS version 3:

UGAGS v3.0 branching dialogue feature

1. Branching conversations/dialogue trees

UGAGS v3.0 profiles feature

2. Multiple game profiles

UGAGS v3.0 auto-save functionality

3. Auto-save functionality

UGAGS v3.0 navmesh feature

4. Navigation meshes (instead of waypoints) for character movement

UGAGS v3.0 variables panel

5. An admin panel for tweaking game variables

FUN FACT: Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure was made using UGAGS v3, adding character voice-over, which brings the framework to v3.5.

Maybe it’s a weird quirk in my brainthoughts, but i really enjoy the challenge of presenting bone-dry material in an interesting and engaging way. Summer in Smallywood was Untold Entertainment’s first foray into educational gaming. i’m definitely interested in working on more games like this one, with great clients like Matt.

For up-to-the-minute news on edutainment and educational games, follow @smallywoodgame on Twitter.


For The Center for Skills Development and Training:

  • Project Coordinator, Game Design, Script:Matt Markowiak
  • Script Editors:Christine Prieur, Lorna Hart and Maria McDonald
  • Graphic Designer:Rita Ladjansky
  • Project Assistant: Dawn Walker

For Untold Entertainment Inc.

  • Art, Animation, Additional Game Design and Programming:Ryan Henson Creighton
  • Character and Title Art:Kelly Conley
  • Additional UGAGS Programming:Jeff Gold
  • Script Editor: Chris Clemens

Study: Video Games Can Make You Less of a Cock

i write a lot about violence in video games, and i’ve spoken to the press a few times about it. People who are anti-game-violence are always looking for that smoking gun – the kid who shoots up his school, and leaves a note at home that says “Halo made me do it.”

i’ve never claimed the effects of murdering hookers for 40 hours straight in Grand Theft Auto are 1:1. i don’t think that murdering video game hookers means you’re going to go out and murder a real hooker. i do however believe very strongly in the garbage in/garbage out concept: playing violent games may not turn you into a rampaging murderous psycho, but it’s not very far-fetched to believe they may turn you into a bit of a dick. Cutting people off on the highway, treating wait staff poorly, raising your voice more often … i think these are the results of practicing aggression and putting your brain on constant offense.

Chet from Weird Science

True story: i keep pictures of Chet from Weird Science on my desktop for whenever i write blog posts about a-holes.

Four Dead in O-Hi-O

It looks like i may have my smoking gun to back up my wild claims. A study out of Ohio State shows that playing calming games may make you a better contributor to your society, while playing aggressive or violent games may make you more of an asswipe.

During the first experiment, participants were asked to compete against another player — who did not actually exist — in pushing a button as quickly as possible. The winner would be awarded a small financial sum; the loser would be punished with a brief noise blast. Before each trial, participants could determine how much their competitors would receive if they won, and how strong a noise blast they would receive if they lost.

“Those people who had played violent games punished their partners the most and rewarded them the least,” Bushman said. “Those who had played relaxing games gave the lowest levels of noise and most amount of money.”

Before you go all knee-jerk on this (as gamers are wont to do), chill out: no one’s going to take your crappy violent games away. You may still freely choose the way in which you feed your brain. It’s very satisfying to me, though, to have a study that not only extols the virtues of gentle fare, but also demonstrates the real risks involved in meditating on aggression.

Flew the Coop: Playing Chicken with Indie Game Marketing

Toronto is developing quite the reputation for being a hub of indie game development, and for good reason: the city is packed with small teams and individual devs making games, some to great acclaim. But for all our creative strength, i worry that a number of our devs are doomed to failure because we, as a community, lack the business sense required to get our games noticed … and sold.

We’re running a lot of game jams in the city. In addition to TOJam, we’ve had Clam Jam, library jam, and the ongoing Game Prototype Challenge led by Jason P. Kaplan, which runs almost monthly. So a lot of small games and prototypes are getting made, but how are they selling? Are they even being sold? Who knows about them, or their creators? If you’re living outside of Toronto, how many Toronto game devs can you name?

Jason P. Kaplan

Here’s one:Kaptain Kaplan himself. (Photo by Brendan Lynch)

Stop Building, Start Selling

i can’t remember who to credit this idea to, but recently someone suggested that instead of running game jams, Toronto should have a marketing jam. The need for us to get better at business was never more clear to me than when Jason announced the release of his first indie game, Flew the Coop, on iOS. i asked him “what’s your marketing plan?”, and he just kind of shrugged sheepishly.

i can haz farm puns?

i know where he’s coming from. The rule of thumb i’ve heard is that for every dollar you spend on game development, you need to spend a dollar on marketing. To begin with, very few indie devs actually bother putting a dollar value to their time. “What was your budget on that game?” “Nothing! It was all sweat equity!” Well, fine … but it costs you a certain amount of money to LIVE and EAT, Mr. Clever. From there, you can find out your annual cost of living. Factor in the number of hours you work in a week, on average, and you can determine your hourly rate. Multiply that by the number of hours you sunk into your game, and that’s the game’s budget.

Let’s say your game took $5000 to make. That’s $5k in sweat equity – “free” money – because you didn’t actually have to produce cold hard cash for development. But if the marketing rule of thumb is to be believed, you now have to cook up five thousand real, actual dollars to market the game … Facebook and iAds don’t accept a service barter. Cooking up that marketing cash is often beyond the ability or appetite of small indie devs. The result is that they release their games, hoping they will somehow magically catch like wildfire through word of mouth because they’re so good, and they’ll be the talk of the town. If you’ve spent even an hour reading articles on the success rates of iOS developers, you’ll know that there are thousands of devs out there still waiting for their ships to come in.

The Holy Grail of 3-Figure Sales

The challenge, then, is to come up with marketing plans that don’t cost any money. You’ve already seen what i’ve done to promote my game portals with The World’s Most Meager Marketing Budget – a miniscule $100 pot and a LOT of sweat equity. My pal Matt Rix, the successful developer of Trainyard for the iPhone, set up a great David vs. Goliath battle when he asked the Reddit community to help him dethrone Angry Birds in the App Store. Zero marketing money paired with a good story (and a GREAT game) rocketed him to the top of the charts.

(and it doesn’t hurt that his beard is dead sexy)

i took a look at Jason’s Flew the Coop and thought “if this was my game, how would i market it with zero dollars?” The game is a Canabalt clone that pits you as a baby chicken running away from a farm, bouncing on the backs of animals and avoiding the inappropriate grasping of farmers. The first thing that came to mind is the involvement PETA had with Super Meat Boy, where they created a parody game called Super Tofu Boy. So i tweeted PETA about Flew the Coop:

i don’t think they noticed.

Make a Suggestion, Win a Free Game!

So! Maybe i’m not the free marketing master i thought i was. Or maybe i’m just not trying hard enough because it’s not my game. But have a promo code for a FREE COPY OF FLEW THE COOP for the reader who can cook up the best free marketing idea for the game by next Wednesday June 22 2011.

Can you really market a game with no money? Or are those who have done it just incredibly, incredibly lucky? Post your best idea in the comments section below, and let’s see what Jason can do for Flew the Coop on a … ahem … wing and a prayer.

Further Reading:


Our entry for TOJam 5 (the Toronto independent game jam) was Heads.

Heads by Untold Entertainment

The jam theme was “missing”. Heads is about a fellow who wakes up one morning missing … well, his head. The first puzzle in the game sees you constructing a makeshift head before you can leave the house. From there, we introduce a somewhat novel mechanic where you can switch heads with other characters to use their abilities. The game was the second title we created with UGAGS – the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System.

Worth 1000 Words

Heads was one of the games on Untold’s “Games to Build” wiki. The intended scope was much larger than what we ended up with, but the advantage of creating Heads at a weekend game jam is that we finished it and got the idea out to the world. The innovation we attempted with Heads came directly out of the first UGAGS game we created, Jinx 3: Escape from Area Fitty-Two. Jinx 3 had a LOT of character dialogue and was very wordy. Heads was a reaction to that; we tried to create a game with absolutely no character dialogue whatsoever.

The resulting challenge was that everything we needed to communicate to the player required a new animation. The unique Heads style required us to draw every frame 3 or 4 times to achieve a Squigglevision-style effect. This all added up to a very time-consuming process that tested the limits of what we were able to pull off in a single weekend.

Heads by Untold Entertainment

Most goals and challenges are communicated to the player by shrugging and thought bubbles.

Acclaim for Heads

Heads won “Best Use of Theme” at the public TOJam Arcade exhibition. It was featured in the START video game show at the Ontario College of Art and Design. You can play Heads for free on the Blackberry Playbook.