To anyone who’s grown up gaming in the nineties, point-and-click adventure games are as iconic as Super Mario Bros. Companies like LucasArts and Sierra produced classics like The Secret of Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, and Gabriel Knight during the golden age of PC adventure games, but for the last decade, the genre has been declared all but dead.
But about a year ago, the genre’s revival began with a landmark Kickstarter campaign from legendary LucasArts adventure game designer Tim Schafer for his as-of-yet unreleased project Broken Age. Kickstarter is a crowd funding website that allows regular people to fund the development of products they want to see get made. Schafer asked for $400,000 on Kickstarter, but the project exceeded all expectations, ending at around $3.7 million raised. Not bad for a genre many called dead.
Interestingly, some people had said the same thing about Vancouver’s gaming industry. About a year ago, big studios like Rockstar, Ubisoft, and Radical started shuttering in Vancouver, and while many panicked and looked to cities like Montreal to invest in Canada’s game development industry, a fresh, innovative, and robust independent development scene has since risen in the city. Sam Chandola, a fresh-faced graduate from Vancouver Film School, immediately jumped into the fertile indie scene and incorporated Victory Square Games, a brand new studio formed in July. Their first major project is an adventure game called Elementary, My Dear Holmes!, which sees players stepping into the shoes of Sherlock’s sidekick John Watson, as he tries to prove he is every bit the detective that his famous partner is. Following in Schafer’s footsteps, they have put their game up on Kickstarter to raise money and get fans involved.
With less than 17 days to go, they’ve already cleared their $50,000 goal, and as part of Ouya’s Free The Games Fund, the money earned through their Kickstarter will be effectively doubled.
I visited the Victory Square office recently in Vancouver to speak with project lead Sam Chandola, and learn about the magic of adventure gaming, Kickstarting, and a little box called the Ouya.
Chandola formed Victory Square less than two months ago, after working at Matt Toner’s media company Zeros 2 Heroes Media in Gastown since graduating in December. When Toner entered politics, running as an NDP candidate last year, Chandola became his campaign manager, working out of the same office that Victory Square Games now calls home, which is right around the corner from VFS. “It’s like I can’t leave this building,” Chandola laughs. “And I went to school at VFS, so it’s like I can’t leave this block.”
The fledgling studio’s love letter to adventure games started as an idea Chandola had while studying abroad. “When I first had this idea about doing a Holmes and Watson game, I was living in Germany at the time,” says Chandola. “I was reading the Sherlock Holmes books and I thought poor John Watson, he’s always there and he’s always the narrator like ‘and then Sherlock stupefied everyone in the room by drawing a conclusion.’ And like, how does the poor guy feel about these things? I mean that can hurt a guy’s ego.”
The game centres around that relationship between Holmes and Watson, and Chandola says that the team is drawing upon the lore of the original Holmes stories, and the gameplay of those original adventure games. “In terms of gameplay, I think they had the game design right in the nineties,” he says. “They had fantastic game design, they had fantastic narratives. In terms of art we have access to better tools, to better technology, and people are more trained right now, so definitely we’ll be upgrading the art.”
Chandola doesn’t want to stray too far from what made the old games classics. “I like those games because they not only have a great narrative but they make you think. If he needs a pot of gold to clear the path so I can pass, how can I get a pot of gold? Maybe I can talk to the rich guy in town, he needs milk for his cat or something, then I go to the store. So they’ve done this thing that makes people think in a logical fashion, and more often than not the logic succeeds as well. We want to tell a great story and we feel like we can tell that great story if we can kind of control the shape and mold it more like a film than anything else.”
What sets Elementary, My Dear Holmes! apart from most other indie games is its platform – the game is being made first for the brand-new Ouya console, a palm-sized box that plugs into your television and allows you to play downloadable Android games. The Ouya itself was a Kickstarter-funded project, and they are helping to grow their platform library with their Free The Games Fund, which goes towards video game Kickstarters being made for Ouya.
Through the fund, Ouya promises to match how much money a project raises, providing it reaches its initial funding goal, effectively doubling the money a successful project earns. Chandola heard about the initiative scrolling through news on his phone, and immediately thought that Elementary, My Dear Holmes! would be a perfect fit. “I said I think this one will work very well on Kickstarter, and in all honesty, all that’s happened in a matter of days. I think it was four days between when I read the news item and when we launched our video. We wrote the script fast, came here on the weekend, shot everything in a couple of parts, and four days hence we were on Kickstarter.”
Chandola says that though they plan to release on Android and potentially other consoles in the future, being part of the Free The Games Fund requires that they develop for Ouya first, and Chandola admits that comes with it’s share of positives and negatives. “Some people are very excited about the fact that Ouya is going to get some great games, because Ouya is a great console. They are suffering from a lack of awesome content on it, which is the reason Ouya’s been doing the whole Free The Games initiative as well,” Chandola explains. “Others – and this is the people who don’t have Ouyas – now they have to wait six months until we port the product to other platforms. And funny enough, most of our backers don’t have Ouyas.”
Victory Square is making sure that when gamers on all platforms do get ahold of the game, that it’s the game they want to play. In their Kickstarter pitch, they write that they believe that crowd-sourcing shouldn’t end at funding, and that they want to see the community get involved at a development level as well. “I feel it can be a two-way conversation. Game design is very iterative, so what we do is we build something, we test it out, and if it doesn’t work we test it out again. What we want to do is build something, show it to our backers in a private forum and get their opinion and feedback on it,” Chandola says. “Classic case in point is, we are right now finalizing our art style, and we have done like four different mock-ups, we’re going to ask the public, tell us which is the style that you guys like the best. The one that gets the most hits, the one that gets the most interest from people is the one that we will go for. We are developing for them.”
Now that the team’s $50,000 goal has been reached, the game is expected to release on Ouya in March 2014, and the team has now updated their Kickstarter page saying that a Linux version will most likely follow around September 2014. With over two weeks to go, there is plenty of opportunity for more money to come in, and more stretch goals to be reached, which includes things like extended puzzles, narrative, and voice acting. To contribute to the Kickstarter and to follow the updates, visit the game’s Kickstarter page.
With one game, Sam Chandola’s team at Victory Square Games hopes to prove that both adventure gaming, and Vancouver’s development scene, are anything but dead.