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Exploring The Studious World Of Adventure Game Studio

A Game Studio Adventure

Adventure Game Studio is a free engine and toolkit for the creation of point-and-click adventure games. Since its appearance in 1997, it’s grown in scope to the point where it’s now utilised in many commercial titles. Lewis Denby put on his fictionsuit and plunged face-first into the world of AGS - taking a look at the games and speaking to some of the developers who swear by it. Let's see what it means to them.

Last summer, I set myself a project: to learn Adventure Game Studio and try my hand at making a couple of small games. I knew that it was a free engine and toolkit for the development of classic point-and-click adventures, and had the idea that it was a stripped-back, basic engine-in-a-can that was capable of some interesting stuff in the right hands, but mainly targeted at amateurs. Even knowing this, what I found surprised me.

AGS is, in fact, an enormously capable toolkit, brimming with possibilities. It’s true that it can’t handle 3D graphics or much other fanciness, but with just some basic scripting knowledge you can create surprisingly complex adventure game logic. It’s aimed at amateurs, but that doesn’t always restrict what you can do with it.

I’ll wager that quite a few people reading RPS have played AGS games without knowing it. You might have even bought one in a shop. Bold and intricate games like Gemini Rue - which Comrade Cobbett called “one of the best commercial [adventure games] in ages” - were built using this toolkit. I’d be fascinated to know what AGS creator Chris Jones would have thought if you told him this back in 1997...

It began life as a personal project for an ambitious young man who wanted to make an adventure game, but didn’t have access to an engine in which to do so. But Jones quickly realised it was the development of the toolkit, rather than something using it, that truly excited him. To this day he’s still not made a game of his own. He is, like so many people in the games industry, someone who helps other people do the final order game creation. He is one of the grand facilitators.

What he has done is update AGS beyond recognition from that early plan. The more I delved into the software, the more I realised how much work must have been done to deliver something so powerful. Quite easily, and with a bit of creativity, you can make some startlingly good games - as many have done, both as freebie releases and as professional products. Among my favourite are those in the free Technobabylon series, created by James Dearden, also known as Technocrat.

“I wasn’t big on using anything like C# or Java when I started making games, but I’d been using things like Game Factory,” Dearden tells me. “AGS had the right balance of ‘simple’ and ‘powerful’ to keep me going with it.”

Technobabylon - a powerful story-driven series set against an uneasy sci-fi backdrop - wasn’t the first AGS game Dearden made. But, oddly, it was the first adventure game. With a splash of creative coding the toolkit can be employed for a range of different genres, from strategies to RPGs, and it was those that he began with.

It wasn’t until 2008 that Dearden became involved in the passionate community that’s sprung up around Adventure Game Studio. It’s a broadly helpful and pleasant place to spend your time, but I’ve also always found it to be strangely insular, sitting far away from the usual indie development scenes and generally keeping itself to itself. And, just as it often seems to struggle to reach out, it has a slight reputation for being difficult to penetrate for the outsider.

I’ve certainly got that impression when approaching it as a member of the press. Usually if you drop a name like RPS indie devs are very interested in having a chat, but this doesn’t always seem to be the case with AGS community types. Recently, an impressive-looking commercial title turned up, and I thought I might like to give it a bit of attention. After an odd, suspicious back-and-forth between myself and the developer, the conversation simply went quiet, and repeat emails enquiring about the possibility of review code were ignored. I’ve yet to see the game reviewed anywhere, even though it costs about $15 to purchase, and word on AGS Street is that it’s pretty damn good. Strange. Why?

“The idea of promoting your game to the press is a little strange within the community,” prolific AGS developer Ben Chandler tells me. Chandler has made more games with the toolkit than anyone else I’ve come across (he admits he’s lost count, but thinks it’s somewhere around 30), but even he says it’s only recently that he’s learned the value of looking beyond the AGS boards. “The idea of mailing journalists a copy of one’s game before release was something I’d never heard of until a writer asked me to do it one day. Then it made sense to me.” But he says many developers simply release within the community, and make no effort to promote elsewhere.

This, says Chandler, is in a large part because the AGS website and forums triple up as an arena for gaming discussion, development help and marketing. “Being such a versatile community means that a lot of people don’t feel the need to engage in other communities across the web,” he says, “and therefore newly released games only get announced here by these developers.”

Dave Gilbert, creator of the Blackwell series, says not falling into this trap is essential - especially if you want to sell your game. There are minimal restrictions to doing this (basically: replace all the default art, don’t use MP3 audio), yet relatively few AGS developers actually do - and there’s sometimes a little resistance to the idea within the community.

A thread exists where players and developers discuss the notion of ‘going pro’ with AGS. There are a range of thoughts on the matter, but the most prevalent one seems to be: “Go for it if you want, but don’t expect everyone to be happy about it.”

“AGS is a community that is founded in the tradition of freeware,” explains Gilbert, “and there are so many free AGS games available that most wouldn’t see a reason to pay money for one. Of the several thousand members of that forum, only about 50 have actually purchased my games.”

But reaching out is a daunting task, he adds, especially if all you know is AGS. Perhaps all this accounts for the community’s reputation for being insular. “This conversation comes up every couple of years,” Gilbert says. “Honestly, nothing could be further from the truth. The one thing that surprises me about the AGS community is how there’s a regular stream of newbies coming in. It’s a very welcoming group.”

Dearden agrees, and - contrary to my assumptions - thinks commercial releases are especially well supported. “In the community, I think [going pro] is a goal of serious developers, and among other watchers it’s something they’ll commend, as long as it’s realistic,” he says. “If someone leaps in with a Final Fantasy knock-off that they insist is going to sell for $10 plus DLC, there’ll be a few eyebrows raised. Otherwise, there’s a lot of encouragement and support from the community, with so many people willing to lend a hand.”

“If you want to make an old-school point-and-click adventure game, there is no better choice than AGS,” concludes Gilbert. “It is specifically designed with the assumption that you are making that kind of game, and it takes a ton of the gruntwork out of the process. Not only that, but the support community is one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

Ben Chandler - who, as well as his free games, has collaborated with Gilbert on the Blackwell series - is similarly full of praise for what Chris Jones has engendered over the years. “It often amazes me that the thing I always wanted to do as a child is achievable without any training or education about the topic whatsoever,” he says. “The fact that one can, in the privacy and comfort of their bedroom, create the games they wish to without the need for any specialist equipment, and then share it with players all over the world, is pretty incredible. Being able to do this has changed computer game development from something I always held as an unachievable dream into something I can’t imagine not doing. Tools like AGS give common people like ourselves the ability to realise a dream - and that is something I am very grateful for.”

If there's a message in all this, it's this: You’ll probably need to be good with logic, be prepared to read some manuals and learn some simple coding, but that patience will be rewarded. I can’t think of another development toolkit that offers more flexibility considering the minimal specialist knowledge required. You can make a simple, functional game in half an hour, or spend years fine-tuning your latest masterpiece. If you have an idea for a 2D game that’s not enormously mechanically ambitious, the chances are you’ll be able to hack it together in AGS.

And the community continues to thrive. Isolated it may be, but it’s a dedicated group of people following their game development dreams, always eager to help others along the way. At the moment there’s talk of iOS and Linux ports of the engine, monthly design competitions, and even entire game worlds that have been collaborated on and shared between different developers’ games. A teenage Chris Jones wanted to make a point-and-click adventure, but he’s arguably delivered something far greater: the chance for anyone with an idea to make it real, and a forum full of the people, knowledge, and ideas required to succeed.

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