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The Complexity of SeeD

The trend in gaming has been to simplify, simplify, simplify. If games are easier, more people will want to play them. If games are less complex, fewer people will quit them midway through, and the more people who beat games, the more people will play more games, more sequels.

Simpler games mean more money, put simply.

Complexity in games is certainly different from difficulty, the subject of this month’s omnitopic, though the two are often related. The earliest games were extremely difficult, but most featured two buttons and few had even the most rudimentary concepts of player progression and development. In Super Mario Brothers the only way to get better was through trial and error, and the tutorial was the first goomba, walking at you. In Final Fantasy, you improved by leveling up, but the concept of leveling up was not much more complex that killing enough monsters to get more hit points. It was Mario’s trial and error codified into a straight, simple progression, mostly because you couldn’t get much better at hitting the attack button. Contrast this to modern games, where tutorials are all consuming but the games themselves are easier than ever. In fact, they are designed so anyone can complete them.

During the Super Nintendo days, when all games came out of Japan, none of the truly complicated ones ever made it over to America. People look at me funny when I say the SNES had some brilliantly complicated games, and they remember Mario World, Super Metroid, and Final Fantasy VI*. My first reaction to this is always to claim Final Fantasy VI is secretly a very complicated game, with arcane, unexplained mechanics that allow you to completely break your party, but then they retort by saying they never understood any of them and still beat the game. Fine, I respond, and list off a string of titles: Final Fantasy V, Bahamut Lagoon, Romancing SaGa, Shin Megami Tensei. All very complicated games.

All very Japan only, too.
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A Link to the Past: Chrono Trigger

Chrono Trigger, released today on Virtual Console, is perhaps the most perfect game in existence. In light of the fact that some people may be playing it for the first time, this piece contains no spoilers. At all. That’s how perfect it is: I don’t want to ruin it for those unfortunates of you who’ve never played it.

It was developed by the second Dream Team, and they might have had more density of talent than the original 1992 American Basketball edition. I mean, Christ, look at the people who worked on this game: Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy; Yuji Horii, creator of Dragon Quest; Akira Toriyama, artist behind Dragon Ball. And that’s just the stars. These three guys are Jordan, Magic, and Charles Barkley. The story made Masato Kato, who would go on to write Xenogears. Yasunori Mitsuda’s career began by scoring the game, and when he got sick Nobou Uematsu replaced him; together, they assembled perhaps the most memorable score in gaming. The game was directed by FFVI, VII, and VIII director Yoshinori Kitase, FFIV lead designer Takashi Tokita, and Akihiko Matsui, who designed the battles in that game. The end of the proverbial bench was Tetsuya Takahashi, who’d done graphics on pretty much every Squaresoft SNES game, as well as Yusuke Naora, who went on to do art direction in pretty much every Squaresoft PSOne game, and Baten Kaitos director Yasuyuki Honne. The last guy on the bench, Chrono Trigger’s Brian Scalabrine? Why, that would be Kingdom Hearts creator and modern FF character designer Tetsuya Nomura.

Read that paragraph again. I can’t even imagine a similar crew from Western game developers of any era. It’s too ludicrous to imagine. Hell, just Sakaguchi and Horii together would be like Valve and Epic making a game together. It’s absolutely bonkers.

And the game they made? Perfect. Still ahead of its time. When I play Chrono Trigger today, for the dozenth time, it does things that modern RPGs don’t do. If Final Fantasy VII is the triumphant king of the Japanese RPG, then Chrono Trigger is its benevolent queen.
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News in Brief: Communist Day Edition

Welcome, welcome. If you’re here, you’re probably lamenting the fact that I am working on May Day. Either that or you’re probably thinking of that song by that guy. Whatever. It’s time for all the news that wasn’t quite fit to print.

Big news, of course, is that the Playstation Network might go up again soon. I’m kind of surprised it sparked less debate about digital content and online rights management, because with it down lots of people couldn’t play or download games they already owned. Well, I’m not really surprised: the whole thing’s been enough of a clusterfuck that I can’t really be surprised by anything about it.

In any case, the PSN will be back up. Will you use it? After two credit card scares in the space of a couple months? Do you think they’re good enough to stop a third? …Yeah, they probably aren’t.

More information about RPGs of all persuasions, the 3DS, and more after yon cut!
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The Mid Level Game

Cliffy B (the immortal Cliffy B) of Epic Games made headlines yesterday by declaring the “middle class” game dead. His point was that, as the industry went forward, there would only be room for the huge budget blockbusters, of which there are more and more every year, and the niche indie titles, which appeal to gamers specifically and not to the world at large.

Mid level games, and mid level companies, though, are doomed in Cliffy B’s vision of the future. Effectively, if your game doesn’t move a million copies in a month, there’s no more space in the market. They can’t compete with the big budget games, and they cost too much to be viable alternatives to the indie titles.

Jim Sterling, in the above linked article, has written a lot about this topic. His theory, that these games would succeed if they took a lesser price point and released during the typically “dead” months of the spring and summer, is sound; inFamous and Killzone, for instance, have succeeded in large part to releasing in the spring. Mass Effect 2 became much bigger than it otherwise would have been by releasing in a month, last January, where there wasn’t much competition—Bayonetta and Darksiders, released during the same month, succeeded for exactly the same reasons. Other games, like Enslaved and Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, failed because they took the big boys on head first.

This is not my point though; that is Jim’s point. My point is that these games need to stop approaching the big boys not just in chronology and price point, but also through marketing and how the games are actually designed. What we need, I contend, are “gamer’s games”, games that are similar to films that make money, but don’t make hundreds of millions.
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Final Fantasy XIV Trailer from TGS 2010: Orgy of Wow

Setting aside personal opinions regarding the last handful of titles in the Final Fantasy series as well as the direction the series has taken since the Square-Enix merger, I boldly endorse Final Fantasy XIV.  The second incarnation of an FFMMO is upon us. And god damn, if the opening cinematic doesn’t make the Final Fantasy girl inside you scream with delight, there may be something clinically wrong with you.

The typical fruity colours and lame-looking character models of FFXIII, XII, and X are gone, featuring instead a much more medieval style art direction. Gone as well are the gimmicky features of recent characters. In other words, Final Fantasy has finally grown up.

Here’s to hoping this kind of art direction to take precedence in the next single player title in the franchise.

The game will be out at the end of this month exclusively for PS3 and PC.

Final Fantasy XIV Open Beta starting August 31st

It’s hard to muster up a lot of enthusiasm for Final Fantasy XIV, Square Enix’s newest foray into the world of the massively multiplayer. On one hand, it sure is pretty. And everything I’ve read about it has been pretty interesting; it’s got some pretty cool leveling mechanics, supposedly. On the other hand, how am I supposed to invest in this game when Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World are on the horizon? You know, a game that reinvents the MMO wheel, and a game that takes place in a Lovecraftian world where all conspiracy theories are true? Oh, and with Everquest 2 and Lord of the Rings Online, very similar games in terms of theme and quality, rapidly approaching free to play status? Pretty is good, but pretty doesn’t quite cut it anymore.

But Square Enix is still trying, and you can try their game before it hits shelves by playing in the open beta. The open beta which starts in a couple days, August 31st at 19:00 PST (that’s 7 PM, for those of you averse to military time). I plan to give it a go, in any event. It might not have the innovative chops of its western peers, but should be a good time.

Or a horrible, life-consuming time. Fuck if I know. And if the above trailer tells us anything, it’s that it’ll probably have some really awkward music.


Make Sure To Catch ‘Video Games Live’ on PBS This Weekend

Video Games Live is “an immersive concert event” featuring  “top musicians from around the world perform along with exclusive video footage and music arrangements, synchronized lighting, solo performers, guitarists, percussionists, live action and unique interactive segments to create an explosive one-of-a-kind entertainment experience.”

The concerts are a “musical journey through classic gaming” which feature “never before televised live musical performances from the Mario, Zelda, Sonic, Halo, Warcraft, Final Fantasy, Castlevania, God of War, Civilization, Chrono Cross, StarCraft and Guitar Hero franchises.” All of this? Just talk. Watch the trailer below to get a sense of the  unique experience:

If you’d like to know when this is airing in your town, make sure to check out the PBS TV schedule, found here.

And let me just add that if you don’t think this is a must-watch after catching a glimpse of the Civilization piece…then you, sir, are a barbarian of the lowest kind.

Yoishi Wada Thinks Japan’s Weak Spot Is Core Gameplay

Wada, Square Enixs’ president, divides game design into three distinct pillars: “the core gameplay element, community features, and the hardware platform it’s for.” While he thinks Japanese developers have the latter two down pat, he thinks improvements could be made for the former. Core gameplay is “the area the Japanese creators are struggling with right now, trying to explore in new ways,” says Wada in an excerpt from a recent interview with Gamasutra. “‘I don’t think we can say Japan’s strong” in core gameplay,” he says. Moreover, he contributes more to the East Vs West debate when he says “Western developers have become much stronger, during the past five years, in this aspect — the game element.”

You can read the interview in full here.

I find this interesting when looking at, say, Final Fantasy 13. If I were to complain about something about the game, it would be exactly that: the core gameplay. Everything else in FF13 is par for the course when it comes to JRPGs. Then you start to consider the gameplay, and the fact that it’s such a fresh–but flawed!–approach for this genre begins to make sense. They’re trying to find an answer to what they consider to be their biggest problem: gameplay. While their efforts should be commended on intentions, the fact still remains that every encounter became a battle of a thousand cuts. This made most battles an a boring exercise in repetition for me, almost a chore. But, here’s hoping that they don’t rest on their laurels and that they continue to try to innovate the genre…..though hopefully they also realize that the biggest problems JRPGs face are not just gameplay elements…but Tom can tell you more about that!

The Square Enix You Once Knew is Changing

You see, SE knows it’s getting old and antiquated. They know they need to do something in the face of all these new fangled changes that are happening to the tech/media/entertainment industry at large. Square Enix Chief Executive Yoichi Wada tells Forbes all about Square’s new direction, where he admits that “Two things are clear: The distribution channels will change and the revenue model will change.”

So, what does Square Enix propose to do in the wake of these changes? Wada posed an example where, a game like Final Fantasy would be sold through digital distribution in $5 installments. Furthermore Wada reveals that his desire is to see the huge profit margins that companies like NCSoft, who make money selling virtual items in free-to-play games, enjoy. If Farmville can do it, why not Square Enix? Of course, this approach seems completely antithetical to what Final Fantasies are all about (or have become): huge production values and level of detail that you often only see in Hollywood blockbusters. To counter this, Wada says that the level of polish is in the eye of the beholder.

It gets worse. Wada says that “some element of multiplayer or social gaming will be incorporated into each title Square Enix produces, even titles that have traditionally been single-player.” It seems that the folks at Square Enix have been doing more of their “research” which concluded that games do not need storylines, this time concluding that games need to be multiplayer to be succesful. So, could we be seeing a multiplayer Final Fantasy sometime in the future? Who knows. Don’t be surprised when it hits, though. And if Final Fantasy 13 is any indicator, we’ll see that in spite of adhering to current “trends,” Square Enix will completely miss the point of what multiplayer is supposed to be all about. Hell, it doesn’t sound like they even have the judgement to realize that multiplayer should not be incorporated into every game.

“Frankly, the people who excelled at creating game software about 10 years ago are really not good at making multiplayer games,” Wada says. “We are striving to change the old culture, and as a part of such effort we are trying to bring in fresh blood.”

Eh. Some would argue that the Square Enix they once knew died a long, long time ago.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

Brought to you by some of the guys behind Viewtiful and Okami is El Shaddai, a title loosely based on the Book of Enoch. You play as the Enoch, actually, in a quest to save humanity from fallen angels. As some of you educated folks might know, in the bible there’s a bit where Angels are so enamoured with mankind that they chose to commit the sin of descending into our world. Some even bear children with humanity, which results in the creation of giant beings. Of course, God gets angry and calls in a flood because that’s the sort of thing God does. Except, in the game, Enoch petitions God to hold off on flooding our asses because he will take it upon himself to get rid of the fallen angels. So God gives you a few Angels of your own, one of which is apparently Lucifer. The premise alone seems interesting, to say the least.

Then, then you see the trailer and you realize that this title must be in your life.

I remember when SF4 came out, and my friends and I were adamant about starting the game up. We just wanted to play. But then as we turned the game on, the promotional cinematics for the game started rolling and we were absolutely stunned with the beauty of the Sumi-E inked Ryu and Ken. We probably watched that thing like 5 times in a row that day, and we all agreed that even if we couldn’t tell what the heck was going on in the screen, we’d totally play a SF4 rendered completely in this style.

And it’s interesting because, I would think that with the technological power that is currently available to developers, they’d be more into realizing creations with actually look like their original concept art. I mean, isn’t that the entire point of the concept art? To conceptualize what something will end up looking like? Imagine if Final Fantasy looked anything like its concept art. That would be insane!

Then you look at something like El Shaddai and it blows you away. The visuals are probably a lot like what the concept art looks like, and since that is so stylized, the game ends up looking gorgeous. I can definitely see myself picking this game up and just staring out into its world, appreciating its subtle details and nuances. This, in stark contrast to the admittedly beautiful empty world of Red Dead Redemption. For some reason when I play that game and look out into the horizon, I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’m holding a controller and pressing buttons to make my horse go faster. Perhaps it’s just the complete dichotomy between the natural landscape and the technological reality which I live in. Or it might just be my subconcious thinking that if I actually wanted to appreciate the beauty of nature I’d be…outside, not looking at some pixellated representation. That being said, having a stylized representation of the world makes it easier for me to slip into. There’s no comparisons to be made and the world has its own visual language and cues.

Anyway, stay tuned as we bring you more information on El Shaddai: Insert Pretentious Subtitle here!