Recasting the East Vs West RPG Discussion

A lot of gamer discussion has lately been focused on the failure of the Japanese RPG and the ascent of the Western RPG as the genre of choice for interested console gamers over the last few years. Mostly it focuses on the Japanese taste for linear plot progression, cutesy graphics and incoherent narrative of “JRPGs”vs the more “realistic” graphics and open-ended gameplay of Western RPGS. The criticisms are mostly appropriate, but I think they’re missing a big point, one that I come back to time and again:

When Microsoft launched the Xbox, they permanently shifted the American gaming landscape towards western developers.
Although it ran head to head against the PS2 for most of its lifespan, the Xbox stealthily became a platform for PC game developers to try their hand at converting their PC styled games to consoles. Because they had no leverage (and indeed outright hostility) in Japan, Microsoft sought out and perhaps outright paid off software developers whose product was traditionally on home computers. Because those games were on home computers, they were also able to approach the RPG with a great deal more complexity than a console developer really could. You can even reach back to the early 80’s and watch the lineage of Western RPGs and JRPGs branch out from the same root, as Ultima-styled computer games gave rise to ever more complex and open games while staying true to their board game roots (Bioware, Interplay) and Ultima-styled console games maintained their simple world map and focused more on narrative (Square, Enix). One can argue it is a cultural difference, but it could well have been one of circumstance: Video game consoles had limits on graphics and memory that resulted in games that had to be epic through text and sprites.

Once PC developers really shifted to console development, they found ways of bringing their now complex RPG systems to consoles without completely losing them. Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic even bragged of including dice roles in its play mechanics while presenting an incredibly cinematic experience. So now the western gamer has a choice: Big, graphically advanced cinematic RPG experiences made palatable to them by being on a console or the poorly translated and graphically unimpressive (save the cut-scene of course) JRPG that up until now was their only option.

It’s a shame that Japanese developers seem to consistently misinterpret the advances in Western game development in trying to come up with their own response to the popularity of games made by Western developers. In the case of Final Fantasy 13, they took the linear progression of the Call of Duty games but forgot to provide a sense of openness and spectacle those games also provide. If they are continue providing content to the world at large, and not just the relatively small Japanese market, they are going to have to look a lot more closely and let go of many of the traditions they now hold- traditions that developed out of necessity but are now held to as sound game design despite their obsolescence.

Update: While sleeping on this it occurred to me that Demon’s Souls is a great and successful example of combining the complexity of old school PC RPGs with an interface and gameplay design that fits perfectly on consoles.

Well versed

I was trying to explain to a game playing coworker of mine today that Dragon Age: Origins really didn’t seem all that different from Torchlight.  As little I played of DA:O, I’d entered a dungeon and fought some giant spiders.  Basically ditto for Torchlight.  Both have similar inventory management and icons placed around the screen to quickly access spells and tools.  I suppose they both owe something to World of Warcraft, or Diablo, or etc etc.

Dragon Age
Torchlight

He felt they were nothing alike, many games use this relatively common interface.  The only thing I could think of was listening to a techno fan from the 90’s try to explain the various permutations of Drum’n’Bass to me, someone who’d only heard “the good stuff” in passing, or even a Phish fan explaining why this part in this individual performance stood out from the hundreds of concert recordings he’d listened to.  There is a whole language you learn as you become familiar with media, and on the outside it can all seem incredibly similar.  My take has usually been that the minutiae of any musical culture were likely not as important as what “floated to the top,” but in retrospect I’ve probably missed out just in not being able to examine the entire breadth of such things.  Not the case with Phish, I guarantee.

Tension

Now that I’ve exiled Mass Effect 2 from my life I’m back with Dead Space and I forgot how tense it can be.  The whole game is tension and release, with your heart racing near the end of a level and a huge exhale as you board the tram when its time to move on.  It is so tense that I generally can’t play more than a stage at a time, and today when I was done I booted up the Blur beta just to bring myself down from the near-heart attack.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed that seem to contribute to the game that increase the tention to a level where it is almost unplayable:

  • Strobe lights:  The game is dark and almost every stage  has some kind of broken lighting system blaring flashing lights at you
  • Darkness in general.  The game is dark.
  • Limited ammo- You are constantly hunting for more weapons, and constantly scared that you’re going to run out.  The monster design is pretty corny, but when some big tentacled freak is running at you and you just ran out of bullets, watch out.
  • Delayed response. Reloading your weapon, performing a melee attack, switching weapons- all of these things take enough time to crank up the tension.
  • Sound design:  There are sounds coming from the ship at all times.  Collapsing parts, screaming people, etc.  In 5.1 you can hear it all around you, but you’re never quite sure where.
  • Shakey cam- on certain stages the ship is literally shaking apart and the game presents this as a constantly vibrating and shaking camera.  This isn’t the quick whip-around sci-fi of Firefly or Battlestar Galactica but just vibration.  It was so disorienting I was starting to get nauseous.
  • Uncertainty.  While the game is generally really good at telegraphic what exactly you should be doing, a lot of puzzles demand that you make use of the environment in ways that aren’t necessarily expected.  It can take a while to realize just what you’re supposed to be doing.  Of course this could just be me.
  • Live inventory- you don’t pause the game to go through your inventory.  Your character brings it up in front of him in real time, and god help you if you try to do so when there’s an enemy in the room.  Another push and pull between surviving and trying to stay one step ahead of things.
  • Architecture- not only are the hallways and rooms of the Ishimura cramped but they’re filled with detritus.  On top of that the walls themselves have a tiered look that makes them seem even more intrusive than they are.  They all seem to be shooting out at you.
  • This may be the worst one of all, and in a way it is due to the how I play games: The constant question of whether or not I’m making the right choices. When it comes to ammo and armor, purchasing and selling goods at the store, and which weapons I should be taking with me, I’m constantly second guessing myself, and the scarcity of resources makes this a real challenge.

Of course, there’s always the Zen Garden should things go too far.

Microsoft Writes Itself out of CE

This morning I thought I’d look around and see what bombshells Microsoft dropped at their CES keynote last night but I really couldn’t find much, and what I could find seemed really insignificant in light of things like this, this and this.

Ballmer is driving the company into the ground.  I don’t know if it is zealous focus on “winning Search” or his love of the cash cow that is Microsoft in the Enterprise but all of their Consumer Electronics seem to be flagging or flatlining.

Off the top of my head.

  • Did they even mention Windows Media Center?  What was once the centerpiece of Microsoft’s attempt at taking over the living room has been completely overshadowed by cheap set top boxes and game consoles.
  • Hardly touched on WinMo 7 and Zune, out of what I can only assume is embarrassment.  They have nothing even approaching Android let alone iPhone OS and they know it.
  • Their Xbox announcement wasn’t really the “game changing” user interface breakthrough Project Natal, but a pay-to-play MAME ripoff for old people?
  • Their game lineup for 2010 is pretty lackluster (not including Mass Effect 2)
  • They even kind of waffled on their “Slate” announcement.  For good reason though- no one really has any idea what Apple is up to with their new tablet concept, and from what it sounds like, “iSlate” is so far removed from the tacked on uselessness that was Microsoft’s Tablet PC initiative that they might as well not show anything at all.
  • Huge focus on Windows 7?  That’s all well and good but “Windows Everywhere” ain’t exactly what it used to be and we’re seeing Linux (Android, embedded, etc) ALL OVER THE PLACE at this show.

Bottom line: Microsoft’s corporate inertia has rendered them unable to keep up with the ecosystem they had a huge hand in creating.  Blame Steve Ballmer, blame their org chart, whatever, they’re done.

Overreacting Echosphere

So some time yesterday someone in the blogger/twitter-sphere picked up on an interview with James Cameron where he claims the Sigourney Weaver character in Avatar smokes because its “a negative comment about people in our real world living too much in their avatars, meaning online and in video games.”

Note:  He did not say, “a negative comment on video games and online culture.”  He did not say, “Video games derive us of the ability to enjoy life.”  The resulting eruption on gaming blogs would lead you to think that he did just that, and maybe killed Shigeru Miyamoto in the process as well.  The man lives and breathes digital tech.  He talked for an hour at a games conference about the game for his movie- a game that nobody even cares about.  He BUILDS SUBMARINES! This guy is no luddite.

This whole mini-controversey is a really telling example of:

  • How gaming culture is so incredibly sensitive about itself that it can not handle even the most slight criticism.
  • How quick paid-by-the-post bloggers are to seek controversy magnet headlines and write stories about them without thinking for even a second about what they’re writing.

Surely many gamers out there know someone who played a little too much WOW.  Girlfriends who left because of too much COD4?  PEOPLE WHO SPEND $300000 on VIRTUAL REAL ESTATE!?

In no way was Cameron indicting all gamers or even gaming culture, but simply showing that there are those who let go of their meatspace lives a little too much in favor of their online persona.  Is it so wrong to even consider the possibility?  The whole thing was so insignificant that no one even noticed until Cameron pointed it out in an article about smoking in movies.

The funniest thing about the entire episode is that in all of the above articles the commenters are more level headed than the authors.  How often does that happen?

Update (spoilerific):
AND ANOTHER THING: If then the movie contains a metaphor for living out experience online, what does it say that its crippled main character chooses to completely abandon his human self and that it is depicted as a triumph?

Assassin’s Creed 2’s Big Disconnect

I don’t mean to harp on AC2 as much as I am, but in probably less than a few hours of total game time I just can’t seem to get comfortable with it.  Thinking about it, I believe a lot of my disinterest and frustration comes down to user interface and rewards.

UI and Controls

To say AC2 has a busy interface is to put it mildly.

  • On one corner of the screen you have a map littered with icons.
  • Another shows how much  money you have and (I assume) the weapon you are armed with.
  • The top right shows you the assignments for the four face buttons on the control pad- it needs to because they are context sensitive depending on the situation you are in and whether you are pressing R1.
  • The top left shows your health as well as an Assassin icon whose use I’ve not yet discerned.  There is also a floating double helix behind your health bar.

As you run through the game, there are additional messages displayed in the middle of the right side of the screen, sometimes too quickly if you are actually watching the action on screen.

I’d show a screenshot here but Ubisoft was tricky enough to allow you the option to turn off the GUI so you could take clean shots.  It’s really a shame because when you look at video or stills of the game it seems like this immersive, beautiful game.  The truth of it is that there are a million things to keep track of on screen, constantly taking you out of the moment.

It almost seems as though they made this game that takes place in the middle ages where the player is supposed to be taken in by huge crowds and stunning architecture, then built such a complex interface that they had to create a fiction where you are not actually immersed in the past, but are actually a person in the near future experiencing the memories of an ancestor through a Matrix-like computer interface.  With the artifice firmly in place they are now free to build as much of an intrusive interface on top of what was probably meant to be an immersive, open game.

Its like a second-second person experience.

Rewarding Gameplay

Another issue I have with this game is that in its false immersion, a lot of the kinds of gameplay one is used to in “traditional” games become difficult and unwieldy in the name of realism.  Yes Ezio can parkour around the rooftops of Firenze, but his movements are relatively slow and he cycles through every animation of a man clambering about on walls and windows might actually reflect.  Ubi’s producers may have deemed this necessary but a game like Uncharted 2 is able to produce incredibly fluid, relatively realistic animation much more quickly.

The result is that while you are capable of performing great feats, they come at a cost that ultimately takes the fun (and thus immersion) out of the game.

Another example of this is the looting system.  Most games provide you a very quick button press or even the ability to walk over a downed enemy to pick up any loot they might provide- money or gear etc.  In AC2, you have to hold down a button and wait as a little “looting timer” counts down.  I assume this is integrated into the steal mechanic or perhaps the game’s notoriety system but I don’t really know how.  All I know is that once I’ve beaten someone and I’m getting some money from them, it takes longer than it should and the people standing around call me a thief.

Obviously I’m missing some key gameplay here- there must be a reason why they don’t want me engaging in this behavior, but that reason has not been made apparent, and my interest continues to wane.  Games simplify a lot of “realistic” behaviors not only in the name of limiting budget and getting the game out the door, but because they know a lot of these behaviors don’t make for a fun game.

Also, Desmond (the “meta” character of the game), looks like this:

Krummy

But sounds like this:

(It's actually Nolan North of Uncharted fame)

When you miss the boat…

I’m borrowing Assassin’s Creed 2 from my brother-in-law, and with only about an hour logged, I am absolutely ready to give up on it.  I avoided the first because I knew I’d get sucked into its reported repetitive, boring gameplay despite myself.  Jumping into the AC2, I’m confronted with an array of menus, prompts and controls that are completely dissimilar to anything I’ve played in recent memory- and that includes “open world” games like Infamous that obviously took some cues from it.

The setting- Italy during the Renaissance- is interesting enough, and I’ve only been mildly embarrassed playing through it with my wife so far; but between the busy interface (completely hidden from all promotional screenshots) with its tiny prompts that go by way too fast, and a control scheme that they do nothing to prepare you for if you’ve not played AC1, there’s just not enough here to keep me going.

Case in point: early in the game you are supposed to race the main character’s brother to the top of a church, and this race is designed to show you the parkour elements of the game.  The problem is there is nothing to ease you into the moment, you simply begin the race and try to catch any instructional prompts as they fly by.  When you fail, you are literally pulled out of the game world and forced to wait through a loading screen to start the race again.  It took me 40 minutes to complete was is essentially a 60 second bit of gameplay.

This comic pretty much sums it up.

I’m not the only person who’s dealt with this, for what its worth.  I’m going to give it another try but unless it really gives me something special its on to Dragon Quest V.

Also, I just made some muffins.  Mmmmmmmmuffins.

Mmmmmuffins
Mmmmmuffins

Uncharted 2

A few random thoughts about Uncharted 2:

I still can’t invest myself in multiplayer gaming.

I love games that tell big, rollercoastery stories, but sometimes they still try too hard to be movies.  U2 definitely fails here.  Despite its excellent acting and set pieces, many levels feel absolutely out of place because they are simply so gamey:

Very few of the puzzles in temples and caves make any kind of geographical sense.  They look as though they were designed by game designers rather than, I don’t know, ancient monks.  Paths that get you through levels are frequently portrayed as improvised yet they appear to be the only path ever available to a person on the sacred quest for the Cintamani Stone.

The amount of killing Drake has to do is eventually insane, and at the very least the game recognizes that maybe there really isn’t much difference between Drake and his adversary, who treats Drake as the only real threat he faces in the game.

Of course it’s a game, but I’ve played games that relish the fact that they are games yet were able to keep me interested through narrative.  See my old standby Beyond Good and Evil for what exactly I’m talking about.

Claudia Black.

This:

Chloe's Uncannily Shiny Eyes
Shiny

Finally, I think I experienced this game quite differently because I took my time with it.  A lot of people played through it so quickly I don’t think they realized how repetitive some of the shooting battles were.  I had lost quite a bit of momentum by the time I reached the end of the game, but this was with a week or so in between sessions at times.

E3 was destroyed by bloggers.

Well, I’m exaggerating a little, but not much. This year’s E3 was a disaster for everyone- too many people, too many exhibitors, million dollar exhibits etc. Time was that trade shows were about delivering a controlled message along with some very nice booze, food and free shit to a handful of industry reps that would then get the message out. In the games industry this meant toy stores, video game sellers and the small video game press.

These days, the video game press is literally everyone with a blog, and most of them went to E3. The resulting dissemination and deconstruction of every single tidbit of information that could possibly be squeezed out of the show was something the industry was simply not prepared for and does not know how to handle. I’m wagering that E3 is changing not because of the cost, but because Sony got their asses handed to them by a competitive, noisy gaming press who was setting up E3 as a fight between winners and losers- and gave the E3 organizers an ultimatum.

So there you go, the blogosphere has destroyed E3, and possibly other trade shows, for the forseeable future. I for one welcome our new blogging overlords.
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Microsoft is hedging its bets when it comes to gaming.

Microsoft is setting the stage for the collapse of the home console industry, or at least its investment in it. Think about it. They are building in tons of gaming features into Vista. They are bridging Xbox live into vista. They are branding PC games like console games. They have xbox controllers that work perfectly with PCs. They’ve even created an SDK for building and compiling games for both the 360 and Windows.
Why? The xbox lost Microsoft 4 billion dollars. The 360 is going to be a money loser for years to come, if it ever turns a profit. Everyone talks about the innovation of Xbox live but how is Microsoft paying for it? Let alone profiting from it. The 360 is a complete failure in gaming’s most important market- Japan. Even if they do have one million paying subscribers they still have to build and maintain a huge infrastructure, the development costs alone probably haven’t even been recouped by paying subscribers. So you have the Xbox as a money loser for a decade. Couple that with the kinds of innovation they want to accomplish that will inevitably be stifled by the 360’s aging hardware.
On top of that, they are driving Sony out of the console business as well. Probably a lot of mainstream developers too. Suddenly consumers expect $1500 hardware and games with incredible graphics and gameplay, games that provide you new content FREE! Of course theMarketplace does exist and some people are buying it, but will it cover the cost of developing and maintaining games far beyond their going “gold”?
So five years from now, Nintendo will be the king of video games in the living room. By innovating, by making games fun again, and by reducing the mental barrier to entry back to a place where young kids and old folks can actually pick it up and play. Microsoft will still be in the game, but they’ll be licensing dev kits and the right to publish games for Windows and have access to Microsoft Live, which at this point will by its all encompassing gaming and communication service.

Think about it.

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Oh yeah, anyone who *really* thinks sony is crazy for releasing the ps3 for $600 bucks is forgetting how much everyone paid for 360’s: $800 or more from December through February.

Roger Ebert versus Videogames

Picked this up on Joystiq: Next-gen blogs in response to Roger Ebert’s ongoing battle with gamers over the artfulness of video games.  I’ll leave you to read Ebert’s article and Keiser’s response, but I would like to point out a few things:

Strict narrative does not good art make. Who says video games should ultimately compete with movies or books or opera or whatever as a storytelling medium? Video games succeed because they are interactive, and a successful videogame may not have or even need an intricate, intelligent storyline. Look at games like Katamari Damacy and Shadow of theColossus. They may not be movies, but they are most certainly artful- I dare say they are the first steps into medium of video gaming as art.

In my humble opinion, games like Metal Gear fail because they try to hard to be like films. They can certainly pick and choose from other media as they wish, and they often do with varying degrees of success. Max Payne is a great example of a video game that is firmly entrenched in its”gameness” but manages to pay homage to other media and integrate a decent, if not entirely original story.

Ebert’s problem here is that he is limiting the definition of art to an extreme. Of course people felt the same way about movies as they were becoming popular so I guess this is simply an issue of changing the guard, but it’s alarming to see such short sightedness from such a well known critic. I suppose in his eyes there is no place at all for non-narrative art? Surely he would laugh at the thought- why then would he place such a demand on a medium that was not designed for narrative and whose most shining examples of the form have very little to do with telling a story.

I should also mention that in the storytelling department there are a number of games that have elicited a great deal of emotion from their players, so again I say the industry is well on its way.

My point is this- video games are art; they may look and act quite differently than what we’re used to, but they are a form of human expression just like any other art. The rules of this form are not the rules of film and such rules should not be applied. Comparing them is a great way to drum up controversy but it really isn’t a useful critique. It’s time to reframe this argument- video games need not adhere to old forms for legitimacy, the culture is already well on its way to recognizing them for their own inherent artistic qualities.  

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ICKs box 360

So I played with the new xbox today at EB, the controller is HORRIBLE! They even did something I’d been wishing for- moved the black and white buttons to the shoulder. HOWEVER, they somehow managed to make it feel awful. The playstation controller has two shoulder buttons on either side of the controller, which are easily manipulated by the middle and ring fingers. The trigger design is really meant for the index finger, which means you either have to use the middle for the trigger and the index for the shoulder, or switch between the buttons with the single index. Suddenly the black and white buttons below the colored “jewels” seems pretty nice, not to mention the “<<" and start buttons have now been relocated as well, on either side of the "X" in the middle, which now launches xbox live. When you're launching a new console based on one your audience is just getting adapted to, whose backwards compatibility is being touted as a major feature, you'd think they'd try to normalize the controller configuration a bit.

I appreciate this

So I’ve been playing Half Life 2. Having never played the first one, but being well aware of its reputation, I expected a fun, slightly better than average first person shooter. I’m not a huge FPS fan, though I’ve been playing a lot of Halo on my xbox lately. Prior to this, my biggest FPS-style game was Jedi Knight II, which for the most part wasn’t really even an FPS. Anyway, Half-Life 2 is pretty amazing. I’m playing on my new Athlon64 with an ATI All-In-Wonder 9700, which is a pretty good, if somewhat old card.
Two things about this game really make it stand out to me:
Continue reading I appreciate this

Xbox 360 “Compatibility”

The other day I wrote a message to the xbox-scene folks outlining my idea of what was in store for xbox 360 “backwards compatibility”. The text of my message follows:


I just wanted to mention something that *everyone* seems to be overlooking. Everyone mentions the quote from Microsoft that says 360 users will be able to play against Xbox owners on Live, and then infers that backwards compatibility is implied.

Could it not be that while they are leaving the community to guess what it really means, maybe they are planning on releasing 360 compatible versions of current gen xbox games, that have backwards compatible versions recompiled for ppc. That is to say, buy Halo 2 for 360 and it comes with a bunch of 360 only graphics and maps and such, but you can still play Halo 2 against Live folks on xboxes by using this “backwards compatible version” that ships with the game.

Or possibly they will offer a trade-in program for the same version of the game, recompiled for the 360- with maybe enhanced graphics or something. There is nothing in Microsoft’s statements that promises backwards compatibility, thats for sure.

Though I received no response, the industry seems to have woken up to the smoke screen- xbox-scene.com linked to this article today: Xbox 360 “Backwards compatibility” explained.

This should have been obvious to anyone who’d read they were developing on G5s.