Q-Bits From my Personal Collection – The 7th Guest, the next big thing

Welcome to another Quick Bits article. As time is sparse at the moment I’m trying to keep momentum by doing shorter and more quickly written articles, hopefully, I’ll be able to come back and revise these in the future.

By 1993 the concept of putting games on CD-ROM was still relatively new. The Manhole, Cyan Productions‘ first game, was initially published by Activision on floppies in 1988, but with a few forward-looking people at Activision, the game was re-released a year later, as the world’s first home computer game to be released on CD-ROM. The media, with its larger-than-life capacity, soon proved not only perfect for spoken dialogues but also for live-action video clips and high-resolution prerendered 3D graphics. While the adventure genre still was in its heyday, times were starting to change. With a need to follow the technological advancement and as importantly what the mainstream consumer market seemed to desire, the genre had to invent the next big thing or risk fading into obscurity.

One of the early companies that would see the potential in the CD-ROM was Trilobyte, a company founded in 1990 by game designer Graeme Devine and artist Rob Landeros. Together, they would commence designing a new interactive puzzle game and in the process pioneer a new sub-genre of adventure games that not only would try and keep adventure games on top and alive but also ended up creating a rift dividing fans of the genre.

Trilobyte’s The 7th Guest would feature beautiful and eerie rendered 3D backgrounds, but would unlike other games of the time, use live-action sequences of actors, superimposed on top of the 3D. The Full Motion Video (FMV) approach was not new per se, it had been used earlier in arcade games, best known is probably Dragon’s Lair, from 1984, which used the LaserDisc format to store its data. While the LaserDisc proved to be relatively expensive and prone to damage, given its big size and heavy weight, the technologies and concepts behind it became the foundation for later optical disc formats including the CD and CD-ROM.

With the use of full-motion video, a whole new set of challenges arose, not only was the video technology on home computers still in its infancy, making the computer requirements for players to be able to enjoy the full experience pretty extensive but also a complete change in the production pipeline was needed. Hiring directors, and actors, setting up sets with lighting, the post-production phase with chromakeying and video encoding, etc.. would all prove to be a challenge. The 7th Guest’s live-action was shot on a blue screen and chromakeyed out in postproduction, this early technology left a blue fringe around the actors, with the material shot in relatively low resolution it was almost impossible to completely eliminate, and was therefore left as a part of the look.
Trilobyte ended up spending well over half a million dollars on the development, a substantial amount back in the early ’90s, and an indication of the budgets required for future adventure games to be on par with technology. Luckily, Virgin Interactive Entertainment, which was going to publish it, had from the very beginning seen the potential and had aided with financial support.
When released in the spring of 1993, it was the first adventure game to be in high-resolution graphics, 640×320 in 256 colors, the beautiful 3D pre-rendered backgrounds, and many video clips would span across two CDs.

Trilobyte’s The 7th Guest, published by Virgin Interactive Entertainment in April of 1993.
The title was one of the first computer games to solely be released on CD-ROM, utilizing the format’s vast amount of space to accommodate its live-action video clips and pre-rendered 3D graphics in 24-bit Super VGA resolution

The 7th guest received a great amount of press attention during its development and was when released, received with critical acclaim and won numerous awards. In its first year, it sold 450.000 copies, earning more than $15 million. Alongside Brøderbund‘s Myst, The 7th Guest became the multimedia game to have and spearheaded the sales of CD-ROM drives for years to come.
By 1994 sales had reached 500,000 copies and exceeded one million by 1995. In 1997 the game had sold in excess of 2.3 million copies worldwide, a remarkable feat that only a few had ever managed to do.

The 1994 alternative box, the same used for the Macintosh release

A complete playthrough of the 7th Guest.
The SVGA pre-rendered 3D backgrounds with live-action clips composited on top were state of the art back in 1993.
The majority of the puzzles Trilobyte initially intended to use throughout the game showed to still be under copyright, resulting in puzzles derived from puzzle books from the 19th century

The 7th guest is considered one of the first, if not the first real full-motion video adventure game for the home computer. While there had been earlier games featuring footage of real actors, these were all digitized and used purely as 2D sprites, the full-motion video, as the name implies used the live-action video material directly in the game. The 7th Guest was a pioneering title in the adventure game genre, utilizing and pushing the multimedia technology forward, accelerating the sales of CD-ROM drives, and leaving players hungering for more of the same.
Before the completion of The 7th Guest, Trilobyte had announced that a sequel, The 11th Hour, was in the works and would be ready for release in October of 1993. It would take another two years before it finally was ready to ship.

Trilobyte’s The 11th was over two years late to market, it was published by Virgin in December of 1995

When finally released, The 11th Hour, received mixed reviews, essential it was a more elaborate version of The 7th Hour, and while it initially failed to meet sales expectations it did, over time, become a commercial success.
The 7th Guest was a blockbuster of an adventure game title and the unprecedented commercial success spawned a myriad of full-motion video games for the rest of the decade, including Sierra On-Line, king of adventure games, which published their own first full-motion video game, Phantasmagoria in 1995.
Ken Williams, co-founder of Sierra had from very early on always seen adventure games as interactive movies, and with Phantasmagoria, adventure games were closer than ever. Sierra hired a real film director to work with writer Roberta Williams, together, they would collaborate, getting the best from both a filmmaking and game design perspective. Production ended up being extremely complex and elaborate, and when the game finally hit the shelves, after many delays, it had cost a staggering $4.5 million to produce. Phantasmagoria quickly became the best-selling game in the United States and was Sierra’s best-selling computer game to date, further fueling the fire that full-motion video games were the future of triple A adventure games.

The latter part of the ’90s would see numerous full-motion video adventure games being released but most often these failed miserably with lackluster performances from actors and budgets too low to facilitate the requirements of putting Hollywood in a game. The shrinking consumer market and sky-rocketing budgets were a dangerous cocktail. The initial success of the first full-motion video adventure left the impression that the adventure genre was saved from being left behind by technology and other genres but in reality, it was indisputable moving towards a niche market, full-motion video or not, the majority of players simply wanted other genres, ultimately resulting in the genre nearly completely vanishing from the mainstream market for the better part of a decade.

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