Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures Post-Mortem


Today, May 17, is the tenth anniversary of our first book, The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. Since then, we’ve published over twenty more books. Fairly productive for a decade’s work, I’d say! A few months after the adventure game book was published in 2011, I actually wrote a post-mortem that was meant to be published on the site’s old blog. For some reason, I didn’t, and it’s been sitting in the drafts since. To commemorate its birthday, I dug it out and edited it a bit – some of it isn’t really relevant in 2021 but it does give an idea of the process we had to go through to get things completed.

Also, in celebration the book is 50% on itch.io for the next few days if you want to grab it cheap! Plus, a few months back I also appeared on The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast to discuss the book, along with Julia Minamata of the forthcoming classic-style adventure game The Crimson Diamond.

Post Mortem

There are a whole ton of advantages to having a physical book, the least of which is that it’s simply much easier to browse and flip through than clicking through myriads of links or only searching on what precisely you’re interested in. If Racketboy or Sega-16 or Chrontendo (after transcribing them, anyway) or even non-video game sites like The AV Club would compile some of their reviews into a huge compendium, I would most certainly be all over it, and I think a lot of other people would be too. The glorious thing about self-publishing is that the start-up cost is fairly cheap, making it easy for pretty much anyone to get something out there with a minimum up front investment.

Picking the Printer/Publisher

At first, I was only aware of Lulu and Blurb – Lulu was pricey, and Blurb had some nice products, as indicated by the Gamespite books, but wouldn’t list on Amazon, which I felt was extremely important. At some point I stumbled upon Createspace, which was a subsidiary of Amazon, and would not only list on the site, but was also significantly cheaper than Lulu. (This eventually became KDP, or Kindle Digital Publishing.) I’d intended to put out a book of 500 pages and price it at around $20, and these guys seemed doable. (That spiraled out of control, but more on that later.)

Layout

Originally I’d wanted to go for a standard 6×9 trade paperback, but Createspace offered several larger formats, for the same price. I went with 6.69×9.61 – slightly non-standard, but allowed more words on a single page.

I was absolutely terrible at formatting or doing any kind of graphic design, as the 2011 era HG101 site can attest. The layout was thus very simple and straightforward – a small info box with a box cover shot, along with pertinent information, followed by text, broken up with occasional centered screenshots and captions. I wanted the screenshots to be big, so that way you could read the dialogue or text on screen. (It was also the default size for when you insert an image of a VGA resolution screenshot.) The captions were added because the books were designed for browsing – you might flip through it, see a picture and get a small grip on what was going on or what the game was about.

I didn’t feel too badly about the slightly stark design because the goal was to squeeze as most as possible into it. So the text is sort of scrunched in, and sits at a not-very-large 10 point Garamond font.

The book had to be black and white since color printing is still very expensive. That’s why subsequent HG101 books are only 150 pages, priced at $25, while the adventure game book was 772 pages and priced only a few dollars more.

Content

I’d already written a good amount of stuff when I decided I wanted to compile a book on adventure games, but there were still certain bases I wanted to hit – in the interest of comprehensiveness, I wanted to make sure all LucasArts and Sierra games were covered, since when people think classic point and click adventure games, these are the ones that most commonly pop up. I also wanted to cover Legend completely, since they put out some great games which you don’t hear people talk about too often. The spark of this was an episode of the Retronauts podcast where they talked about some of the Legend games, and other games that sat outside of the usual adventure game discussions. As a result we sort of broke one of our initial internal rules that we weren’t going to cover text adventures – more out of an issue of volume rather than quality concerns – but revised the “graphic adventure” definition to include anything with a graphical interface, which all Legend games had.

We also wanted to cover the bigger series, or at least more well known, like Broken Sword, Simon The Sorcerer, The Last Express, The Longest Journey, and so forth. Originally the plan was just “any and all adventure games” to include, but this was eventually revised to the “golden age” from the time that the original Kings Quest was developed up until the closing of LucasArts and Sierra’s adventure development teams, from about 1984 to 2000. There are some remnants of the initial plans there when I called for contributions, which is why Runaway, Secret Files and Strongbad are in there, but I wanted to keep them, and justified them as being strong descendants to classic games. (I also put in Syberia because it was pretty well known.)

It still got out of control regardless though. Whenever there’s a catalog of something, inevitably there’s someone on a message board that will complain that one of their favorite games was missing. There’s no way to completely avoid that, but I did want to minimize it. I spent a lot of time combing over the forums of Adventure Gamers, SCUMMVM, NeoGAF and so forth, picking up all of the favorites everyone had mentioned. I initially broke everything down into three lists: Essential games, which needed to be included; Secondary games, which I’d like to include and would probably make it in; and Tertiary games, which I knew little about and may or may not include based on my inclination or whether I could find a freelancer to cover it.

At some point these all gelled together and everything that was on my list made it in. The big issue came up with digging upon information on certain games, and the few people that wrote about them on the internet would recommend them unequivocally. This sort of turned out to be an issue, because I would devote time playing through numerous games that were proclaimed to be just as good as LucasArts games, and they weren’t. But I’d already spent time with them, so why not write an article to justify my time, and stick it in anyway?

Up until this point most articles ran between two and four pages a game. But there still tons of games that I wanted to add in even if they weren’t all that great or important or even relevant, but wanted to cover just as a reference. So for certain lower profile games, I started to do single page articles – not in-depth criticisms by any means, but enough to give the reader a basic gist of the concept and an idea of whether it was worth checking out. Would anyone get all upset if we only devoted 300 words to the Wayne’s World adventure game? Probably not. Contributor Ryan McSwain came on at this point and did a bang up job with these – a few he even liked enough to justify expanding them into larger articles. Maybe there were a few that may have deserved more than a page – the Dune game, in particularly, because there’s a lot more interesting to say about it (and indeed, there’s a much larger article on the site now) – but I still think these turned out pretty well.

In the process, some already written articles had to be cut back. Grey Matter was originally 8 pages and had to be trimmed to 5. The Feeble Files was 4, and needed to be cut to 2 – I figured people didn’t need to hear me whinging for so long. However, if editing this book has taught me anything, is that less can definitely be more when it comes to this stuff. The unlimited space of the internet means that word limits are no longer a necessity, resulting in articles that are way, way longer than they need to be. The full articles for both these games are still on the site, but I don’t think the shorter articles are any less because of it – they’re just more focused.

There was also an issue of the articles themselves. HG101 has been around in some form since 2003 or so, and so the content varied wildly. In the early days, there wasn’t much editorial oversight, because the site was something I did for fun, and since there wasn’t any money back then, I was happy to have anyone else writing for it. As a result, there wasn’t much consistency in tone. When you’re at a website and reading just one or two pieces at a time, this doesn’t really sink in, but when you have a book in your hand and you read several pieces at once, in a linear fashion, the fact that they were all over the place really stood out. Plus, this was something people would be paying money for, so I wanted a more coherent, more professional product. So not only were the articles for the adventure game book edited for consistency, but from that point forward, I was implemented editorial guidelines to ensure that submitted articles had a similar voice, hit the same bullet points, and so forth. I also think this drastically improved the quality of the site itself.

I still ran into issues with title selection. When the game list came out, people were asking, why no Phoenix Wright or Hotel Dusk or any DS adventure games? Well, I’d wanted to stick them in, but at this point it was March 2011 and I needed to get it done. There were already articles for both Phoenix Wright and Trace Memory on the site, but they needed to be edited, and I didn’t feel right sticking in just a few games without giving a broader indication of other titles like Hotel Dusk, and I didn’t have time to write them myself or track down someone who did. Indeed, even initially I wasn’t going to stick in Snatcher or Policenauts, since the focus was on LucasArts-style games. But they were sitting around, and Retro Gamer magazine had done an excellent piece on non-LucasArts games that worth checking out, and they included them, so I said “what the hell, why not”. The round it out a bit I stuck in Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom, and a brief article about Portopia by John Szczepaniak, since he had been playing it for a different Retro Gamer article, which showed the origins of the Japanese adventure game genre, at least the ones that were playable in English. (There are dozens upon dozens more, but remain in Japanese – even out of those four games, two of them never got official English releases.) But the DS games were still too new in my mind, and new Phoenix Wright games were coming out and I didn’t want the book to be immediately outdated.

More importantly, I was running out of space. The limit for Createspace was 828 pages and I was clocking in at 760. It was already over 200 pages longer than I’d planned, four months overdue, and would need be priced $7 higher than I’d wanted to make up for the size. So the hammer had be dropped.

Still, in the very last stages, someone made a post on the Just Adventure forums about how the book was very dismissive of Myst-style games. Myst was covered, and covered quite well by a contributor (and might be one of the best pieces in the book) but it sort of glazed over many other titles, on the basis that most were samey, and not all that interesting important. But no – here these posters were listing off dozens of games that I’d neglected. Was I being short sighted by skipping them over? So I torrented a whole bunch of them and sat down with a few of the “best” and…nope, they were still mostly pretty bad. Still, I did happen on to one that I liked – Amber: Journeys Beyond. The extra two weeks I gave myself also allowed me to find a few other things I’d missed – namely, a really weird game developed by a team founded by Robert DeNiro of all people (called 9: The Last Resort, which was really bad), the EcoQuest games, by Sierra, which I’d initially written off as edutainment and didn’t want to cover, but eventually came back to, because they’re not all that bad (the first one, anyway), and two really early Interplay games that, similar to the Legend titles, used a combination graphical/text interface, were some of the first titles to do so, and were therefore historically relevant. By the time these were all covered, the content was good to go.

There’s still stuff we missed. Right after I’d published it, I saw a Chrontendo video of a game called Dream Zone, which used black and white digitized photos – I’d seen it when browsing Abandonia and had written it off for some reason, but apparently it was an early title by Naughty Dog, which would’ve been neat to cover. A few contributors actually sent in some articles on smaller things I’d missed, like the Wild West-inspired Silverload and the French developed Eternam, by the team who later did Shadow of the Comet. And then there were certain things that I knew would need revising – only three of the five episodes of the Kings Quest fan game were completed, plus Telltale had just announced they would be working on a new official entry. (This was eventually cancelled and a different reboot released.) If there’s ever a second edition, these will be addressed.

But even then, there were some articles that were rewritten or expanded, and a few other articles that were updated to include reviews of remakes (like Shadowgate and Gabriel Knight). There’s still an upper page limit, so would I be able to squeeze everything in? Or would it be a better idea to pitch it to a publisher and completely overhaul the text/layouts? If anyone’s interested, I’d be happy to revisit it for a proper revised edition!

Copy Editing

The copy editing on this site is not the best – it’s gotten better since the site moved to WordPress – but this is also stuff people are reading for free on the internet, and this isn’t exactly my or anyone else’s full time job, so compromises need to made somewhere. However, if you’re paying for something, it should be, ideally, as clean as possible. I figured this wouldn’t be too hard, which ended up being the biggest mistake I made with the book.

There were a handful of articles that I’d written for the site that, while not really terrible, were not on the standards for ones written later on down the line. So those needed to be revised and, in a few cases, entirely rewritten. The rest just needed standard tuning, but it brought to like consistency issues I’d never thought of before. Was the term “point and click”, “point-and-click” or “point n’ click”? Was it “Gameboy” or “Game Boy”? Would we capitalize “Game Over”? Many of these could be addressed with a search and replace at the end, but they were things I’d never even considered, things which don’t mean a whole lot for a web site updated over the course of many years, but become totally apparent when you’re reading a book.

So four of us – myself, derboo, Sketcz and Kevin – worked off the word documents, put in fixes and eventually assembled them. I wish I’d started the process earlier – I believe it began in February, and went up until late April when the book was finalized – but I’d intended that a whole month would be good enough to make everything 100% clean. It wasn’t. Sketcz has actually professional experience with stuff like this, and he reminded me that most, even short 1000 word articles, often required four or more combings to get totally error free. In the meantime, we were four dudes looking over 290,000+ words in our spare time. Once every article has been given a single revisions – many two revisions – I compiled everything and had a proof printed, believing that it would be pretty error free. Then, of course, I got in the mail, realized that there were still tons of typos that just leapt of the page – they’re much easier to catch when printed then on the screen – so I kept that as my draft copy, and, over the course of two weeks, went over all 772 pages from head to toe with a pen, then made the changes in the master document.

This was terrible. It was grueling. Even if, at its best, I could do a page every two minutes, that’s still more than 24 hours of just sitting, reading, and marking up. I brought it into my day job and edited at lunch breaks. I spent two entire weekends holed up in my room on my couch. I even brought it on a mini-vacation out in the Poconos. It drove me nuts.

There might still be some typos left in there. There probably are. I kind of don’t want to think about it. So I apologize if there’s some typos leftover – we did our absolute best, we really did.

The Cover

My initial idea for the cover was to included a small pile of homemade props, or “feelies”, like the ones in old Infocom games. I knew someone, Brandi Swenson (of Megaten Haven) who would do cross stiches of pixel art, so I figured one of Purple Tentacle would be cool. And have it in a very classy frame, like it would be something you would find hanging in your grandmas house. Why would she had a picture of Purple Tentacle? Who knows, but that’s sort of hilarious!

I wanted a doll of Max, since he’s a pretty iconic character, and recognizable. I was sort of worried about copyright or whatever issues, so I was careful not to use direct graphics – if worst came to worst, we could claim it was a Max parody or something. I also had a hat for King Graham made up, along with a decent replica of the Shatterjaeger talisman from Gabriel Knight. My idea for a back cover was inspired by some episodes of podcast Retronauts, whereas various speakers professed their crush for Roberta Williams. I thought it would be funny if someone had a shrine to her – as classy as possible without being creepy – and this turned out extremely well. I wasn’t able to get in contact with her to get her approval, but if she sees it, I hope she understands that we mean it with the greatest of reverence.

These were all made by Kate Eggleston, a friend of mine from college who also happens to be an art teacher. She also knows how to use Photoshop and take nice pictures, so she took care of that all for me too.

The only minor issue had to do with, again, a lack of foresight – the cover is blue (it’s the same shade as the walls in my “office”, since that’s where the photo was taken), so we made the spine the same color. But the back cover was black. I figured we’d just be really careful about the dimensions so that the black on the back cover wouldn’t seep onto the spine, but I didn’t account for slippage – that is, the cover will always being positioned slightly differently, usually no more than a tenth of an inch, with each and every copy printed. I fixed it as much as I could for the final batch, but due to the slippage issue, some will look perfectly fine (with a tiny bit of blue from the spine on the back cover) while others will have a teensy sliver of black on the spine. I see this still all of the time on professionally printed books, so it’s not really a big deal – but with subsequent books I tried to ensure that the front, spine, and back covers are all uniformly colored.

Publication

I was happy with this, so I hit the “finalize” button. It was available immediately from the Createspace web store, and would appear on Amazon “in a week or so”. I updated the main site, and gave a coupon code to account for the cheapest shipping, since that’s what Amazon would offer when it eventually showed up. As it turns out, that only took two days or so, which was much faster than I anticipated.

Furthermore, after two months or so, Amazon, actually put the book on sale, for $19.44 rather than $27.00. I absolutely hadn’t anticipated this at all, since I had no say on whether this would happen, but it not only gave sales a kick in the butt, but it also didn’t affect my royalties, which was fantastic.

Kindle Edition

The Kindle publishing program will try to convince you that converting a manuscript into their format is a quick process that will only take a few minutes. I foolishly believed this.

The images were a big issue. Amazon has two pricing tiers – either you get a 35% cut, or a 70% profit minus a “delivery” charge based on how big the file size is. The initial Word document file was 96 megs, which would translate, profitwise, into me paying you $10 or so every time you bought the book. Thankfully, with some resizing and compression, it got the file size down to about 13 MB. It still took a reasonable chunk out of the profit margin, but put it more around 50%, still making it better than the other program. For anyone complaining about the compression and size of the images – sorry! This is Amazon’s fault for instituting an absurd policy.

The formatting of images also caused problems. The MOBI format is some kind of sub-HTML, in that it generally works like it but doesn’t like tables. The only solution was to “linearize” them – that is, to show the contents in a linear order when removing the table, meaning that the box shot would show up first, followed by the title and publication info, before the article began. It looks inelegant, but was the only solution that worked. Also, the conversion program liked to stick in spacing and indents where I didn’t want them, and furthermore, these differed depending on whether you were using an actual Kindle or another device like an iPad. Unfortunately you can’t directly edit MOBI files so any changes require editing the HTML file, waiting 10 minutes for the conversion, hoping that it fixed any issues, realizing that it didn’t, and then moving on. So yeah, the pictures Kindle version does look slightly janky, but the core text looks fine, so I guess in the end it’s all good.

Sales

I mentioned that the up-front investment was minor, but there were still costs associated with it. The price of several proofs and the Createspace startup fee ended up being around $150. (The startup fee, to my knowledge, no longer exists.) Everyone who contributed, including the interviewees, ended up with a free copy, which ended up costing $15-$20 each, plus numerous more sent out for promotional purposes. Plus some extra cash to pay for chipping in with the copy-editing, and the whole cost ended up being somewhere in the neighborhood of $800.

Initially I was scared that the sales wouldn’t even generate enough profit to make that back, but I hit that point fairly early on, and, while it’s not exactly setting any charts on fire, is certainly doing far better than I expected. Outside of the credit and the free copy, most of the articles were done on a volunteer basis, but the relative success of this book, started the gears to allow me to start paying contributors.

The problem that stops a lot of awesome stuff from happening is that they require a monetary investment and an up front risk. I’m an adult with a full time job, and when I put this book together, I was just entering the world of marriage, mortgages and a kid. Because of all of these real-life responsibilities, I only had so much money I can sink into projects like an extremely in-depth book on an extremely niche subject matter which would likely get laughed out of any big publishing house. But this particularly self publishing venture has shown that there is an audience out there for things like these, enough that I deemed the whole project a success.

The Next Project

Immediately afterwards, I began work on a large book focused on Konami. It would still be black and white, but the designs were going to be a little more elaborate than the adventure game book was.

However, MS Word has its limits when it comes to design, and eventually I gave up on that and moved to an actual graphic design program. I also ended up abandoning the Konami book as a whole, in favor of smaller volumes. This was because they could be printed in color, and also made it much easier to produce from both a writing and an editing standpoint. It also meant we could theoretically put out two or more books a year, rather than one book every two or three years. The remnants of the Konami project are available to Patreons, though much of its content was weaved into the Castlevania, Konami Shooter, and Contra and Other Konami Classics book. We’ll do another Konami books (focusing on Metal Gear, Silent Hill, and other stuff) at some point in the future!

So originally the Castlevania book was going to be the second book we did, but at the time I was really into revisiting Sega games on MAME. Plus, the articles already on the site were in pretty good shape, quality-wise, and didn’t need much editing. For the Castlevania book, there was a foundation with some of the pieces on The Castlevania Dungeon site, but they were much older and needed a lot more work. So ultimately the Sega book was given priority. But all of that, and the books that came afterward, is a story for another time…


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