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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

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:

i Touched Ron Gilbert

You wouldn’t know it, but this is a story about ponycorns, and how something really amazing happened.

One Life, No Continues

One of the best things about being a game developer (aside from having a job that’s ALL FUN ALL THE TIME, with NO HARD WORK INVOLVED WHATSOEVER), is that all of my heroes are still alive. If you’re a mathematics fan, most of the biggest names in your movement have been pushing up daisies for centuries; if you’re into philosophy, your guys have been gone for millennia. (But what is death, really?)

We’ve lost a few folks: there’s Gary Gygax (but i was never a big D&D player), and Dan Bunten (but again, i could never figure out how to play my friend’s cracked C64 copy of M.U.L.E. without an instruction manual). Whenever i mention this, my 1337 gaming friends bring up a Japanese designer whose name escapes me … i only really follow Miyamoto, who’s still alive and kicking, with that almost unnerving Peter Pan grin.

Shigeru Miyamoto

He believes in fairies.

Da-Doo Ron Ron

One of my favourite developers is Ron Gilbert, who created Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island (as well as The Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, which happens to be my favourite game of all time). He went on to develop a number of kids’ games with Humongous Entertainment. That makes us both kids’ games designers, so i feel there’s a certain affinity there. He worked on the first Penny Arcade game and designed DeathSpank with Hothead Games. After leaving Hothead, he eventually fell back in with Tim Schafer, a former LucasArts intern who worked with Ron on the Monkey Island games.

Back at Game Developers’ Conference 2011 a few months ago, i shamelessly geeked out when Ron delivered his Maniac Mansion postmortem, and he agreed to pose for a picture:

Ron Gilbert and Ryan Henson Creighton

i would have been satisfied just touching the hem of his garment.

What’s more, he even deigned to sign my two original Amiga 500 Monkey Island game boxes from the games i actually played as a kid in the early 90′s. They’re hanging on my office wall right now:

Monkey Island Game Boxes in the Untold Entertainment offices

… opposite the gigantic plaque-mounted Monkey Island posters:

Monkey Island posters in the Untold Entertainment offices

It Began, Fittingly, With Piracy

What’s the big deal about Gilbert’s games? As i explained to him, here’s how it went down:

i didn’t have my own computer growing up in the 80′s because we were cash-strapped, and at that time home computers were toys of the idle rich. In one of the few times when i saw him, my father bought me an Atari 2600 for my birthday a few years after the crash, when 2600 shovelware was filling the bins at $1/cartridge (it’s actually not far off the situation in the App Store, actually. History repeats itself.)

i got a lot of play time in at The Twins’ house … that’s where i’d go to fill in the gap between the end of the school day, and the end of my mom’s work day. The Twins had a C64 and a massive treasure trove of over 400 pirated games. i used to love flipping through those big plastic floppies, reading the cryptic names written to the disk labels in the handwriting of multitudes of mysterious people, using a variety of pens.

Me: What’s ‘Whirlinerds’?

Twin #1: (from the other room, where they were playing with G.I. Joes) Oh – it’s this game where you’re a guy with a propeller on his head. It’s really hard.

(flip flip flip flip)

Me: What’s ‘Transformers’?

Twin #2: Sucks.

(flip flip flip flip)

Me: What’s ‘GEOS’?

Twin #2: Educational.

Twin #1: Sucks.


Always heed the wisdom of The Twins.

From there, it was just a quick LOAD *.*, 8 (load load load) CTRL+CURSOR UP,CTRL+CURSOR UP,CTRL+CURSOR UP,CTRL+CURSOR UP, LOAD, CURSOR OVER, 8, 1 ; , (load load load load load) (rainbow vomit-coloured pirate screen) (glitch) (load load load load load) (title screen), and i was playing a game!

C64 boot screen

(Did i mention how much i hate the command line … ?)

Twitch games were okay (Whirlinerds was actually pretty difficult), but the games i really took to were the text adventure games. There were a bunch of them in that disk tray. i didn’t get to play any of the best-in-class Infocom titles (The Twins had Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but we weren’t allowed to play it. Here are a few games i came back to time and again:

C64 Dallas Quest

The Dallas Quest was based on the popular prime time soap drama Dallas. Oh yes it was.

C64 Windham Classics: The Wizard of Oz

Windham Classics was a series of text adventures based on kidlit. Even though the Wizard of Oz displayed all of the relevant parser commands in a sidebar, i still couldn’t beat it.

C64 Windham Classics: Alice in Wonderland

C64 Windham Classics: Below the Root

Some people really went gangbusters for Windhan’s Alice in Wonderland and Below the Root, but i found the graphics so low-fi that i had no idea what was going on. (That’s an umbrella? … Seriously?)

C64 Law of the West

Law of the West was a game about moral choices that ah hear tell still influences game designers to this very day.

C64 Questprobe: Human Torch and the Thing

C64 Questprobe: The Incredible Hulk

C64 Questprobe: Spider-Man

QuestProbe was a trilogy of text adventures based on the Marvel license. The games had terrible graphics and a really primitive parser, but they were awesome cuz superheroes.

C64 The Wizard and the Princess

C64 Ulysses and the Golden Fleece

In the early days of Sierra, before King’s Quest, they released a few adventures like The Wizard and the Princess, and Ulysses and the Golden Fleece. (They’d obviously never cracked a Classics text book … Ulysses/Odysseus never touched that fleece … it was Jason.)

The schtick was the same with all of these games:

> get shovel

(wait wait wait)

You pick pup the shovel.

> dig hole

(wait wait wait)

(slow-ass graphics refresh)

You dig a hole in the ground. There is treasure here.

> get treasure

(wait wait wait)

I don’t understand “treasure”.

> well, sssssuper.

Enter the Maniacs

i’ll never forget the day The Twins came home from their friend’s house, breathless and sweaty, and recounted the incredible things they’d seen on another C64.

Twin #1: It’s this GAME, and you get to pick like three people …

Twin #2: from a list of TEN …

Twin #1: Yeah, and you have to break into this mad scientist’s house and rescue your girlfriend …

Twin #2: and you get chased out of the house by this nurse with a knife …

Twin #1: … and later you have to call her on the phone and she teaches you how to make a dirty phone call …

Twin #2: … and you have to ring the doorbell and this guy comes down to the front door while you hide in the bushes, and you have to switch to another kid and break into his bedroom …

Twin #1: … and steal his hamster and put it in the microwave …

Twin #2: … and it’s totally …

Both Twins Together … AWESOME!!

It was pretty clear to me that The Twins had been enjoying some hallucinogens at their friends’ place. What they were describing wasn’t even possible in a video game.

Me: So you … so you type out your commands, and all this stuff happens in text descriptions?

Twin #2: NO! It actually happens on the screen. And it’s like …

Twin #1: It’s like animated, and stuff.

Twin #2: It’s like playing a MOVIE.

Me: (after a long, thoughtful pause) … You guys are full of CRAP.

C64 Maniac Mansion

Maniac Mansion: the fever-dream of 10-year-old boys

Legacy of the Tentacle

As it turns out, they weren’t full of crap. It was some time later that i actually got a chance to play Maniac Mansion for myself, but since that day, i’ve been enthralled with the graphic adventure genre and the possibilities it pioneered. Now, nearly a quarter century later, i run my own video games studio making games in the same style, using UGAGS (the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System), a tool very similar to SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) that ran those wonderful old games.

We just released a game that i made with my 5-year-old daughter called Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure. It’s a graphic adventure game that went viral, and eventually found its way to Ron Gilbert, who talked it up on Twitter:

Ron Gilbert tweets about Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure

Shit just got real.

Friends … dear readers, you have to understand … i’ve never cried tears of joy in my LIFE – not even on the day that Cassie herself was born – but when i saw that tweet by Ron, my living game dev hero, my face leaked. If Cassie’s ponycorns day in kindergarten was the best moment for her in all of this, Ron’s shout-out has been the absolute highlight for me.

i wasn’t the only one at Ron Gilbert’s GDC Maniac Mansion postmortem to credit him with my career in the games industry. He heard the same story numerous times that day, and whenever someone would tell him “you’re the reason i got into the video games industry!” his response was always the same: “i’m sorry.” Don’t be sorry, Ron. It’s largely because of you that i’m here to begin with, making the things i make, and striving for the things i strive for.

i touched Ron Gilbert, and he touched me.

i mean, i don’t want to kiss the guy on the mouth or anything. i just wanted to say thanks.