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Samhain
October 31, 2001

Chomping down on candy? Good, because there is a nice assortment of articles to read.

Recently I purchased the Chrono Cross OST, and I've found the music to be quite amazing. The Celtic style in the music helped inspire the name for this update as well, Samhain being a day of celebration of the final harvest of the growing season, by ancient Celts. For those who like to read (which is all of you, since you're reading this), you may find this article devoted to All Hallow's Eve somewhat interesting.


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This Week's Question: Where do you see the MMO genre going from here?
 
 
A Retort (Response to "Has the innovation died out?")

I agree with you on most of your points about the utter lack of innovation in RPG storylines. However, the same can be said of stories anywhere, such as in movies (which suffer even worse), and in books. Good vs. evil, no matter what form it may take, seems to always be the central theme, and the difference between the games is what defines which side is which.

Good and Evil aren't as clear-cut anymore, but are relative, such as one race's prosperity coming at the expense of another's. So, in that, each story is something new. Also, and this is the most important, the games are differentiated by their characters.

I used to think that a story was what made an RPG, that it was hands down the most important element. While it is indeed very significant, I think now that the characters are more important. Xenogears...it's been established and no one will argue that its the best storyline in any RPG (or perhaps anywhere) ever seen. As such it has remained my favorite game since its release. Note, though, that Xenogears also had extensive characterization, as you understood fully the motives of every hero and villain, and had the opportunity to sympathize with them or hate them even more.

However, take a game like Grandia II, or Lunar (SS or EB), where the story itself is thin, even cliché, and ask why these games are instant classics. The answer is characters. From Alex's boyish sense of adventure to Lucia's charming naiveté, from Ryudo's stark cynicism and sharp wit to Elena's innocent and sheltered view of the world, we are presented with virtually a whole new tale, despite the backdrop of the ever-popular light vs. darkness. For me, I love Grandia II ~almost~ as much as I love Xenogears, and the only thing that gives Xeno the edge is that many themes presented reflect my own real life theories.

So, feed me the cliché storyline any day, I've become comfortable with its familiarity. It's the telling of that same story that makes all the difference in the world, and how much we the gamers are able to relate to the characters, feeling their emotions as our own.

I have no worries about the future of RPGs. Despite some of the bland titles released in recent years, the sprinkling of classics like Chrono Cross, Grandia II, Xenogears, Suikoden (2), and Vagrant Story provides good seasoning for an otherwise bland spread. I expect more of the same in the years to come...

- Third

Parn:
Agreed on the subject of storylines... Grandia II pulled off its story well. The high amount of character interaction is what made it a much more enjoyable experience for me, than many other games I've played, where the storyline was arguably better, but because the characters did not interact well, I did not enjoy it as much.

Gameplay though, is what I believe to be the most crucial element for any game, no matter how you argue it. A great story and fantastic characters can help push along a game with weak gameplay, but once you've been exposed to the story, such a game won't get a replay.
 
That which is in a name

"That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
-Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

I by no means wish to challenge the Bard to his word; I am certain his research validates his conclusion quite well. At the same time, however, if we all started calling roses by different names, a significant degree of marketability in the flower industry would be lost. For one, there would be no name to instantly inform a customer of what was to be expected of their purchase. Putting the floral theme behind us, Shakespeare was never in the marketing department of a video game development company, either.

The financial benefits of a brand name, in any industry, are usually apparent. The sheer number of McDonalds franchises in the world are indicative of its success and how this success only breeds more success. In terms of video gaming, the Tomb Raider franchise has spun a multitude of sequels, inspired a myriad of games with its gameplay mechanics and graphics engine, opened a market for related apparel, and funded the release of a major motion picture starring one of the biggest actresses in the world. Looking at the role-playing genre, there are many name brands, the most prominent by far and away the Final Fantasy series, which has spawned a feature film of its own, starring the voices of an array of Hollywood heavyweights. But with an accumulation of corporate riches and market dominance, often comes a vocal group hooked on bitterness and contempt. It is not jealousy driving the reactions, per se, but merely a vindictive response to a universal acceptance that they recognize will eventually lead to overexposure and over-familiarity. Yet, there has to be a degree of open-mindedness about the situation. The rejection of all that is popular can certainly make one feel unique and aid them in finding their own personal identity in the world by doing something to separate themselves from the hypothetical mass market--it is why teenagers are so rebellious--but the reality is that they are just assuming the role of a stereotype other than the media-guided ignorant, ironically conforming to the conventions of the just as stereotypical non-conformist. I don't wish to attack either party, there are positive and negative baggages for both the herd member and the rejectionist, so far be it from me to ultimately decide anybody's approach to life. But I do think there are many objective truths and resultant benefits in regard to video game franchises that should be recognized by everyone.

A brand name means risk reduction. For any development team, there is a need for a financier, someone to front the money needed to update the team's equipment and pay them while they use it to make a game that will hopefully sell enough copies to refinance the financier and help turn a profit. By attaching something of familiarity to the end product, it helps to ease the customer into making a purchase by letting them know to a degree what is in the box. This creates a promise of sales and reduces the risk factor for the investor, and allows them to more confidently put forward the money to fund the game. "A brand or a franchise ... represents safety to a game company executive," and safety to a company executive, means more resources given to a designer and his or her development team (Bates 124). Of course, the resources used to make a game are not always indicative of its objective merits. Financial bombs in the film industry like Waterworld and Battlefield Earth prove that substantial monetary investment does not necessarily a great movie make, and the investor/developer relationship in the games industry is essentially the same (even though other internal relationships are remarkably different). It can be concluded, then, that increased funding does not always produce a quality product. At the same time, however, it is never the cause of the quality slippage; substantial monetary investment does not a bad movie make, either, and the same goes for games. How can it? What a larger fund pool does is expand the palette the artist can use to paint his picture. True, when forced to use only three colors, he must improvise and create unique ways of using them to produce a unique painting, but again, with a larger assortment of colors, he could still limit himself to three if he wanted, except now he could also add a fourth, fifth, or six. The poor use of a game's resources is the fault of the developers, not the resources themselves, even if the presence of the resources in the first place was the temptress that seduced the development team into abusing them. If something goes wrong with a franchise's product, it is not that it is a franchise that is the problem, but simply that the game was made poorly. In actuality, had it not been a member of a franchise it would have presumably been of even poorer quality: if the game was bad with a large budget, imagine the result if the game had fewer resources.

So, poor quality games may come out tagged with franchise names. On the flip side, however, they can open the door for enhancing the quality of other games by simply fixating them with a particular name. An example would be Squaresoft's Final Fantasy Tactics, of the previously mentioned Final Fantasy series. The game is a strategy role-playing game, unlike its more traditional brethren that make up the remainder of the series. In fact, aside from a handful of trivial character-, magic-, and item-naming similarities, and the appearance of the famed Chocobo, there is nothing relating the game to the series save the name itself. The reason behind naming the game as it has been was not because the inclusion of the Chocobo was mandatory for a particular feature of gameplay (another ride-able, flying creature could just have easily been created). The reason was to simply reduce the risk associated with releasing the product on the market by establishing customer familiarity, and to, as a result, receive more executive confidence and funding to implement into the game to improve the quality of the end product. This concept, in fact, runs the naming of every member of the series. The narratives and battle systems are different enough (and could fairly easily be made more different) that the offering of unique names for each is easily justifiable. The catch is that naming Final Fantasy IX "Zidane's Quest" does not grant the development team the luxury of guaranteed sales, and therefore increased resources that can be spent on creating more artwork, lavishing graphics, and the funding of a large testing team to ensure bugs don't make it into the final product are not made available. In other words, it might as well be named as it has, as this no doubt allows for the quality of the game to go up. The franchise, as all franchises do, creates a certain guarantee of return that creates a secure enough project to be invested in more confidently. This cannot be a bad thing.

Of course, the security offered by a franchise name not only affects that franchise, but also permeates into all areas of the company. There is still money to be made in making smaller, niche market products designed for hardcore gamers that are not as accessible as franchise titles tend to be. Again, I will use Squaresoft as a case study, only because they serve as an effective example and their flagship series is so often attacked. Xenogears is not a game designed for the average gamer. Not that it isn't good, nor is it that it is perhaps too good (as some may think), but merely that it is long, slow-moving, often tedious, and text-heavy. It is not an allegory, it wears its message on its sleeve, but this means that it doesn't have its lighter layer for more casual gamers to enjoy. Yet, it is a good game, and it did make many gamers happy. It appeals to a market that is real, and out there gaming with disposable cash in their pockets. It is unlikely, however, that this would be the basket an investor would put all of his eggs into. Xenogears is not the kind of project you confidently put money behind because of its niche market appeal. There is no guaranteed return. Confidence, then, in the producer to fund the game is gathered through the success of larger projects, where available profits (the larger the better of course) can be used to explore different avenues and appeal to different markets at a lower risk. For Squaresoft, the Final Fantasy series generates a steady income that secures the life of the company, and therefore allows occasional missteps (but aims for sleeper hits) whilst taking risks. This lightens the pressure in taking those risks in the first place, and encourages more to be taken. The film industry works the same way. Independence Day is a star-toting, poorly scripted alien invasion movie that is perfect for the popcorn-eating, casual moviegoer. It produced massive revenues that would later make their way to funding projects like Fargo and Pulp Fiction. Despise Independence Day all you want, but someone else sitting through a bad movie is a small price to pay for you to sit through a multitude of good ones. There is a parallel in nearly every faucet of the entertainment industry. Commercial strongholds like Batman and Superman give DC Comics enough financial leverage to start up new ventures like its Vertigo line and Neil Gaiman's universally applauded Sandman series. This kind of interdependency feeds off of itself, where the existence of each market aids the development of both. No one is saying what movies, games, or comic books you should enjoy, but the importance of each should be recognized. The continued success of franchises is necessary, even in the production of low-key products.

For the more cynical franchise avenger, the mere idea of putting more money into already full pockets sickens them. "Spread the wealth" is a viable argument, but nevertheless, technology is expensive. To be cutting edge is even more so. So, for fans of smaller games with less funding, technological scope and innovation is difficult to come by. The simple resolution is to let the big guys do it, or in other words, the financially secure franchise holders. Video games are the result of a technological curiosity. They are more than that now, but technology is still a major factor in the industry. Ideally, every game would have limitless graphical capabilities, the most dynamic interfaces, and the fastest of processing speeds. This utopia of game design is non-existent. More to the point, big scale projects (with equally big scale budgets) are the only projects in development with the ability to even take a stab at reaching for it. The upside for smaller games is that once these technologies are advanced by the research and development teams of larger projects, they can reap the benefits afterwards, when there is considerably less financial requirements and risk. Whether it be licensing ready-made game engines or following an approach that was noted as effective in another project, the time and money saved by following the workhorse development house allows for the implementation of the same technologies without the expensive trial and error process endured by the original developers. This dependency is necessary: were it not for the guaranteed income of franchise titles, few investors would be confident enough to invest enough money into R&D departments to push the technology forward in the first place. The resultant trickle-down effect unmistakably benefits non-franchise games, ones with budgets too small to fund a large R&D team, if one at all.

There is something to be said about the corporate world: it is a blood-sucking, money-grubbing, land of vultures willing to watch others suffer so long as their profit margins keep rising. Working just below this, though, are the artists trying to speak to us through their respective mediums. Money is needed to produce a game, be it a blockbuster or not. The need for franchise names is built on this. Nintendo could not have given us a 3-dimensional environment like the one in Super Mario 64 had Mario not been a well-established game icon that would ensure they would at least get some return for what were sure to be expensive production costs; Phantasy Star Online, a franchise in itself, would most likely not have seen the light of day had Final Fantasy VII not familiarized the gaming world with the term "RPG;" and a game like Half-Life could not have gotten off the ground if it had to finance the production of its own game engine instead of making use of a licensed one from id Software and its successful Quake franchise. Guaranteed sales allow for a further exploration of what the gaming medium can do. There is a balance, too, where smaller games, and what could be seen as riskier game ideas, need the existence of surefire hits to produce enough revenue to warrant more experimental and niche market products. The hope for a final Final Fantasy is ridiculous, the death of Lara Croft would be industry suicide, and the desire for only small-scale projects is limiting to the medium as a whole.

A name equals security. What else you got, Bill?

- Michael Harnest

Parn:
Wow. Heh, talk about deviating from the norm.

Can't disagree at all, really. I may not like Tomb Raider, but can't exactly expect the series to end when it sells. Sequels to a game series are almost always a good idea I think; if anything, I have my eyes on certain future releases from Sega: Panzer Dragoon X, Jet Set Radio Future, Phantasy Star Online. All technically sequels (the last being an "enhancement"), making me feel confident that they'll probably turn out great.

On the flip side though, since I didn't like the original Tomb Raider, I've thus avoided everything with the name-sake, so a name can help keep away an audience too...
 
Gaming Tradition - Or Why Dating Sims Aren't Hentai

Another Mind, Noel la Neige, O Story, Torneko, Sakura Taisen. Out of these five names, you have probably heard of three so far. Don't worry, this isn't an Another Mind or Noel la Neige preview, I haven't forgotten that what I'm writing here is actually an editorial. Sakura Taisen is easily the most popular game (series) among the five candidates listed above. Despite its success in Japan, the series has never made it to this side of the Pacific. Overworks and Red Company's dating sim/strategy hybrid is along with Konami's Tokimeki Memorial, the most renowned dating sim series. So why doesn't Sega, a company that generally is considered to be very customer friendly when it comes to localizations (even of titles a la Seaman or Samba de Amigo), has never even thought about a US release? To put it bluntly: Dating sims have never sold in the western hemisphere and this most likely won't change any time soon. Considered by the majority of western gamers as being too less action-oriented, primitive, and to add injury to insult, based on anime, the few games featuring some of the genre's elements (like Thousand Arms), which were released in the US ended up becoming shelfkeepers. Noel la Neige, developed by Pioneer LD was one of the more popular dating sims well, even though it didn't play in the same league as Tokimeki or Sakura Taisen. Another Mind and O Story represent another odd genre, namely FMV adventures. Offering even less action than dating sims, your job in an FMV adventure is basically "just watch" and press a button here and there or play a mini-game once in a while. Sounds boring, right? Well, truly for someone who lacks (more or less) profound knowledge of Japanese (and I'm not only talking about katakana here) playing such a game is poised to become an extremely boring enterprise. Only the curiousity caused by a random based button mashing at the next prompt, will prevent the average western gamer from falling asleep in front of the TV screen. While Another Mind, Square's only venture into the FMV Adventure genre dating back to 1998, never caught the attention of western audiences, O Story succeeded in doing so fairly well. After IGN posted video footage of the game showing two girls kissing each other, the game became pretty famous in mid 2000.

That leaves Torneko: The Last Hope. Torneko is actually a spin-off or "gaiden" as the Japanese call it, of Enix's million-selling Dragon Quest series. It managed to sell almost 700,000 copies in Japan and even received a Platinum Award (38/40 score) from almighty Famitsu Weekly. Reviewers in the west were less pleased by Torneko and trashed the game handing it ratings between 50% and 60%. As a kind of compensation, Famitsu on the other hand trashed Neversoft's highly acclaimed Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 (28/40). This review caused quite an uproar on many western videogame sites, that normally wouldn't dare to attack the world's number one videogame magazine. This last, little story and the examples of the four other games mentioned in the beginning, just illustrate one thing fairly well: there is a fundamental difference in the reception of games in Japan and the two western markets, North America and Europe. The Younger Japanese audience has been growing up with anime for many years now, while the number of massively popular anime series in the west is minimal and limited to Pokemon, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball, and maybe Neon Genesis Evangelion. Hence for the Japanese, it isn't anything but typical to see anime characters in videogames, while western gamers tend to prefer character designs from Yoshitaka Amano or Tetsuya Nomura for instance. Saturn, PlayStation, Dreamcast, and PlayStation 2 all have seen the release of dozens of dating sims, so nobody in Japan would consider the genre to be odd, at least way less odd than a skateboarding simulation developed by an American developing studio named Neversoft. Japanese gamers have have always preferred less action-oriented gaming, in sharp contrast to their western counterparts. During the localizations of Silent Hill and Sword of the Beserk, both Konami Computer Entertainment America and Eidos Interactive added more violence and gore to the games in order to make them more appealing to western audiences.

Don't get me wrong, I'm in no way trying to place any kind of hypocritical, moral judgements upon fans of Beserk, Silent Hill, or the large number of FPS fans on both sides of the Atlantic. However, if we want the Japanese to be fair and open-minded towards typically western games like Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2, shouldn't we be more open-minded towards Japanese games as well? In particular, if these games were made for the Japanese market, and only the Japanese market? It's always easy to mock dating sims for being shallow and pushing them into the hentai corner. After playing any Sakura Taisen game though, one will have to admit, that this isn't just a piece of pervert software developed to please some Japanese otakus and a few insane import players, who supposedly suffer from a lack of taste. Sakura Taisen's dialogue is full of puns featuring wonderful wit instead of explicit language. A pity indeed, that such aspects are hardly touched on in reviews.

In the same way, we shouldn't judge upon others based on their skin color or religion, we should also refrain from hitting out at games, made for a different market and written in a language, which to most people in the west obviously is a book with seven seals. Sure, everyone should be allowed to voice his or her opinion, yet in an appropriate manner. I for instance, haven't seen a single Dragon Quest game, that would appeal to me. The reason behind this being the traditional battle system, which would sooner or later, cause me to throw my controller into the next corner. Still, I have no reason to mock the 4.06 million Japanese gamers who helped DQVII become the PlayStation's best selling game ever or call Enix a bad developer.

Call me a hypocrite, if you like, I don't mind. I'm just a fan of distinctively Japanese videogames, like Sakura Taisen, which are not developed to please you, nor your uncle Bob nor any western gamer, but a Japanese audience instead. If you don't like them, fine, everybody should have his/her own opinion and taste. Still, it's simply a question of fairness to recognize and accept other people having a different taste. Yet, sometimes it seems to me that in these days of console bashing and cover-over-content arguments, this has become increasingly difficult.

- Professor Gast

Parn:
I've never gotten the chance to play a dating simulation game. I had attempted to purchase Sakura Taisen for my Sega Saturn back during my days of active importing, though BuyRite Videogames stiffed me out on $60 and I have yet to play it. My knowledge of Japanese is limited to simple spoken phrases and keywords, and I couldn't read a lick of Japanese to save my life, but I was curious, nevertheless.

I once was part of the group that lashed out at people with different tastes in gaming (read: my old editorials back in RPGFan's old, old days... I'm very ashamed of myself), but have since... well, matured. I for one would like to play Sakura Taisen, or pretty much any dating simulation game in English, just to see what they're like. Maybe we'll see it happen one day. Stranger things have happened.


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