Investigating the Police Quest spiritual successor
It’s 1987. Politicians are terrifying people with Cold War rhetoric, The Simpsons is born on The Tracy Ullman Show, U2 releases The Joshua Tree, and Bono has yet to become completely intolerable. I’m two years old, and I’m too busy irritating my parents to take notice.
More cognizant folk are aware of something special brewing in the mountain town of Oakhurst, California, home of Sierra On-Line. The adventure game developer founded by Ken and Roberta Williams had already made a name for itself through the puzzle- and pun-laden science-fiction and fantasy romps Space Quest and Kings Quest, but for its next adventure outing, the studio had something very different in mind: Police Quest.
Proper police procedure and investigation take the place of puzzles and puns, and with 15-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol Jim Walls as both the face of the game and a key developer, Police Quest has an air of authenticity about it that few games outside of simulators have been able to achieve.
Leap forward 26 years, Sierra On-Line is no more, but Police Quest is primed to receive a second life in the form of spiritual successor Precinct. Jim Walls and fellow Sierra veteran Robert Lindsley are recreating the core experience of the original series for a modern audience, and took a wee bit of time out of their day to get interrogated by yours truly.
Contrary to the path walked by many developers, Jim Walls did not enter the industry after being surrounded by videogames, playing them to death, and then thinking “I could do this.” Between 1971 and 1986, he was a California Highway Patrol Officer — far more familiar with catching criminals than using a computer.
It wasn’t until Jim was on leave from the Highway Patrol following a shooting incident that he found himself working for Sierra, at the request of Ken Williams. The studio co-founder wanted to draw from Jim’s experiences and knowledge to make Sierra’s latest title Police Quest as realistic as possible.
That desire for authenticity continues today, at the heart of Precinct. “The main thing, for me, is to take the player and put him into the shoes of a police officer,” Jim tells me. “Let him experience how his hands are tied, and the things he can do and can’t do.”
Precinct will be Police Quest for a modern audience, according to Jim and Robert. One aspect that sets it apart from its forebearer is the change in setting. While the first three installments in the original franchise took place in the small town of Lytton, Precinct follows rookie cop Maxwell Jones as he works his beat in Fraser Canyon, a drastically different locale.
Inspired by the likes of Chicago and Detroit, Fraser Canyon suffers from the crime problems found in larger American cities. Even though Maxwell starts off on a foot beat, he’ll face crime and corruption as he attempts to make a difference, rather than beginning with the more sedate pace that Police Quest protagonist Sonny Bonds experienced, initially.
And where Sonny was a veteran police officer, Maxwell begins on the lowest rung, learning the ropes. “You start as a rookie officer, fresh out of the academy,” Jim clarifies. “You’re going to start off on a foot beat, rather than directly into a car, and then you’ll work your way up into traffic, and you’ll expand your world as you become a car cop a little later into the game.”
Police Quest was infamous for demanding that players follow proper police procedure. Sonny could go deaf because he didn’t wear the proper safety gear at the gun range, had to properly maintain his firearm, and the only leeway that was given was in one instance where he could overlook a speeding motorist. Jim explains that Precinct will be a tad more relaxed in terms of punishing players for mistakes, but there will still be consequences for not playing by the rulebook.
“If you arrest someone, and don’t pat them down first, we might set some flag that says the very first time… maybe nothing happens,” Jim offers as an example. “You cuff him and he goes to jail. But if you develop that habit, two or three arrests down the road, he’s going to have a weapon of some kind, and that’s going to teach you your lesson.”
The end result could be that Maxwell gets fired, or worse: shot and killed.
Unlike Jim, Robert Lindsley has been part of the industry for most of his life. From 15, he worked at Sierra, boxing games and doing other small jobs, until Roberta and Ken allowed him to show off his programming talents, leading to roles in Kings Quest V and Phantasmagoria 2, to name but a few. After Sierra, Robert joined Microsoft and the original Xbox launch team, and has since worked at both Atari and Harmonix.
Robert stresses that many parts of Precinct are still at the conceptual stage, with the team exploring potential mechanics, some of which sound very ambitious, and may have to wait for future games — Precinct will be a series of five titles.
Perhaps most intriguing is the “bad cop” route, with Maxwell not just fighting corruption, but becoming part of it. “I think it’s an interesting concept to explore,” Robert says. “It’s just how deep can you go down that fox hole? How corrupt do we want the player to become?” He’d like to see surface-level corruption, but not necessarily allow players to experience the bowels.
Jim’s explored the idea of allowing players to become corrupt, to the point where he’s considered some rather deep ramifications. “You’re going to be tried in a court of law, and then Internal Affairs comes in, and they try to work a deal with you, where if you agree to do an undercover operation, you could have the charges dropped… and be redeemed.” At this point, such mechanics exist only in Jim’s notes, but they are certainly fascinating.
Good cop or bad cop, there will be moments where Maxwell is called upon to use his firearm or get physical, but this is another aspect of the game that’s being debated. I brought up Telltale’s The Walking Dead as an example of an adventure game that I thought pulled off physicality rather well, but Robert made it clear that QTEs would not be a good fit for their vision.
“They’re just too restrictive,” he tells me. “We want the player to have the opportunity to make the wrong decision.” Precinct is being designed with the classic Sierra adventure game player in mind, and Robert doesn’t see the linear action offered by QTEs appealing to that type of player — one that prizes choice.
In regards to specifics, the action is still being hashed out by the team. The consequences of said confrontations is something that Jim’s been contemplating, however. “You have a shooting board… see that’s the experience I want to try to put in there. What you do in a split second of time is going to be picked apart by a panel of people, and they’ll tell you what you did right and what you did wrong, and we want to put that in there.”
Chatting about police procedure and shooting boards got me thinking about how policing has changed in the last 20 years. “Steadily it’s become more dangerous,” Jim laments. “The nutcases out there has grown, exponentially. And the predators…” We discuss the differences between the American and British police, notably the fewer firearms in the UK. As a child, this altered my experience of the original Police Quests. While serious in tone, the gun violence, dangerous gangs, and armed police seemed like a world away to a young lad from rural Scotland — it was almost fantastical.
Of course, things have changed here, too. We have a lot more armed police, and gun violence is very much a reality we live with. Just last month I unfortunately witnessed a gang scrap outside my bedroom window, one which led to the murder of a young man with an illegal firearm. Such gangs will feature in Precinct too, according to Jim. “Every bad guy out there has a gun. The gangs are so prominent, and that’s going to be part of our story, but I don’t want to give too much away.”
Gangs are far from the only lawbreakers that Maxwell will have to tackle, though. Jim describes a database of crimes that would spawn illegal activities throughout the city of Fraser Canyon. He wants to make the world feel like it’s full of life, with dynamic crimes that might lead to life or death confrontations. Some of them will even take place on the roads of the city.
While the moment-to-moment details of the driving is still being hammered out, Robert admits that driving is something they really want to do right, since it was frustrating as hell in the original series. Using Unity and working in 3D has allowed the team to work on crafting a more realistic approximation of driving in a squad car.
Jim’s description of what he wants to do with the driving aspect sounds significantly more exciting than what one would expect from an adventure game. “It’s going to be an experience. Getting in a high-speed pursuit, having to terminate the pursuit with a PIT maneuver or something, or maybe a slower speed before you ram the person to get them to stop, and that’s the main reason I want to use a first-person perspective, because I think that can bring it home more effectively.”
When Precinct was first announced, it was revealed to be employing the crowd-funding model, with it going up on Kickstarter soon after. Not long after this, the kickstarter was canceled, and the studio has since been getting funding through its own site. One reason for dumping Kickstarter was the lack of traction Precinct gained on the platform, and Robert didn’t see it achieving its goal, which would lead to it getting none of the funds.
“We rolled up our sleeves, and said we’re going to build a platform on our own, and we’re really going to think about what worked with the Kickstarter campaign and what didn’t work.” One of the key problems that Robert cites was the lack of information about how the game actually functioned. Instead of trying to convey it in text, Jim and Robert want to actually show off a functioning proof of concept, and that’s where the four-stage funding campaign they put together comes into play.
The first stage is the $25,000 mark. This will allow the team to develop a proof of concept, a “short but playable sample of Precinct.” The goal of this phase is to showcase the interface and navigation. At $90,000 a “vertical slice” will be delivered to backers, revealing a partial or completed mission. The $250,000 mark will be the game demo, and $400,000 will be the amount needed for a finished game.
There does seem to be a bit more risk for backers with this method. However, each backer, no matter how much they donated, is being promised a digital copy of the game. Employing this model, Jim and Robert hope to be able to engage backers more, not asking them to wait for a long period with nothing to play.
Throughout development, backer feedback will be integral, Robert tells me. Yet — and this is something that always concerns me about crowd-funded games — I wonder how they’d strike a balance between maintaining their creative vision while working in backer feedback. “Design by committee is a tough way to go, and doesn’t make for a great product,” he acknowledges. Community involvement is built into the design process for Precinct, it’s an extra layer feedback that creates a series of checks and balances.
It’s clear that while Precinct is being developed with modern sensibilities for distribution on consoles as well as PC (should the stretch goals be reached), the Sierra community is always being considered. Jim and Robert want to make the type of game they would have made at Sierra On-Line in the ’90s, had they the technology that they have now. It’s a new game, with mainstream appeal being considered, but it’s very much for the people who loved the Sierra classics and, despite the many years since the name Sierra On-Line was relevant, still consider themselves active fans.
If ever there was a time where a spiritual successor to Police Quest could succeed, now would be it. With Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire, and The Walking Dead gaining mainstream success while ostensibly being adventure games that eschew the tropes of scene-stopping puzzles and illogical inventory shenanigans, focusing instead on investigation and action, then the pioneer of that style is well positioned for a comeback.