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Creativity and Linearity
May 28, 2003

It’s been more than two weeks since the last update, but I wanted to let the hubbub of E-3 die down so that neither of these editorials would have their fire stolen by convention and post-convention reports. Now that things are back to normal, or as close as it gets at RPGFan, we’ve got two opines from editorials golden boy, Chris Winkler, and reader SensaiRonixis. The first regards the state of Creativity in RPGs today, the problems and advantages to companies and developers of both innovation and rehashing the same old thing. The second editorial deals with that oft-noted distinction between pen and paper RPGs and their electronic counterparts: Linearity.

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Another View on Creativity

Lack of innovation. Sequel-mania. Those are just two popular themes which have been used to describe the game industry's current state. As the argument goes, this evil is rooted in the introduction of the PlayStation eight years ago and the industry's opening to the mass market. The mass market has brought with it countless casual players, now making up the vast majority of customers. Unlike their predecessors (brave men and women who were not in need of CG visuals and who had fought their way through games such as Final Fantasy I to demonstrate their sheer endless amount of skill with the game controller), the newcomers obviously couldn't tell good games from bad, resulting in waves of mediocre sequels becoming best-sellers, while gems showing creativity in game design kept collecting dust on the shelves. Hence, company executives put one and one together and abandoned their virtuous roots to cater to the tastes of the broad mass of ignorant newcomers, thereby leaving their die-hard supporters standing in the rain. Sound like a good fairy tale to you? It should, but as with all children's fairy tales, the number of believers in the one told above is not negligible.

Innovation or the lack thereof has always been a hotly disputed topic. Ask an audience the not so simple question, "How exactly does one define a creative title?" and you are sure to get a lot of different answers and opinions. Such questions legitimate as they may be, sadly tend to ignore one basic fact: this industry is made up of corporations founded for the one, simple purpose of generating profit. Let's face a simple truth, many innovative titles share the fate of Tetsuya Mizuguchi's REZ or Yasumi Matsuno's Vagrant Story. While receiving praise from the media (Vagrant Story managed to become the one and only PlayStation title ever to earn a perfect score from Weekly Famitsu) for their creativity and innovation, neither game could impress on the sales front. Vagrant Story's sales in Japan were a mere shadow of the impressive performance by Yasumi Matsuno's first title for Square, the 1997 hit Final Fantasy Tactics. Well aware of this fact, Matsuno likened the latter to a Hollywood block buster and the former to an independent movie. Some independent movies turn out to become blockbuster, but the vast majority, no matter how acclaimed, end up being mostly ignored.

For the industry to sustain (and even improve) its already impressive momentum, and for the management to give producers the go-ahead to develop such innovative titles, big-budget blockbuster titles are a necessary evil. Despite thousands of previews and reviews available on the internet as well as in the print media, the media's advice remains usually unheeded by most customers. Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo's PlayStation 2 RPG Suikoden III received rave reviews from all major publications and web sites, but nonetheless sales turned out to be disappointing, prompting Konami Computer Entertainment America to halt the game's production and Konami Computer Entertainment Europe to cancel the European version altogether. What does matter, however, is the power of a title's (or series') brand name and marketing. Even extremely powerful brands such as Final Fantasy do need a lot of the latter, as the example of Final Fantasy IX impressively proved in the year 2000. Trying to cut down on costs, Square decided not to publish a (printed) strategy guide and keep marketing for the game at a minimum. Those moves resulted in disappointing sales of 2.82 million units (compared to sales of 3.6 million units achieved by Final Fantasy VIII) and the eventual resignation of Square's CEO Tomoyuki Takechi.

Despite being an extremely successful title, Final Fantasy VIII was not immune to harsh criticism either. The development team had decided to go in a different direction by implementing a lot of new elements into the installment: FFVIII was the first game in the series which was labeled a love story. Romance has always had its place in RPGs generally and the Final Fantasy series specifically, but usually it has been one of many elements, NOT the main focus of the story. Whether or not this and other aspects such as the infamous junction system could or should be called innovative is a question of almost philosophical dimensions capable of unleashing heated arguments filling tens of message board pages. Therefore, it should be left open at this point.

Assuming for a moment that VIII should be called an innovative title, Square clearly managed to combine innovation and commercial success. Less controversial, yet successful titles such as Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, Metal Gear Solid, and Gran Turismo indicate that it might as well be possible for developers to create innovative titles performing very well on the commercial front also, but it is a small ridge. On the one hand, fans want to find the elements they cherish in their favorite series' next installment, forcing developers to stick to existing concepts. On the other hand, the media and a large array of critics are quick to demand innovative elements. The desire for innovation is understandable, yet it is doubtful whether a company dedicating itself entirely to the creation of truly innovative titles (and staying away from franchise building) could stay alive for long in this business, particularly in times of increased competition, consolidation, and a sluggish Japanese market.

In reality, such a company is non-existent, but Sega probably used to come closest to it. Like no other company, Sega's internal development teams have produced a steady stream of highly-acclaimed titles bustling with innovation: NiGHTS into Dreams, Samba de Amigo, Space Channel 5, REZ, etc. The reasons for Sega's forced exit from the console hardware business following two highly unsuccessful platforms (Saturn and Dreamcast), as well as its financial woes cannot entirely be blamed on the development of innovative, yet commercially unsuccessful titles; poor marketing, powerful competition, and lack of 3rd party support all were key factors playing into this as well. From a management perspective, sequels and the strong brand names of their respective series have two major advantages. First, consumers are more likely to pick up the nth installment of a well-known and established series than an original title they have never heard of before. Second, a sequel allows the company to re-use some of the prequel's content, such as the setting or the basic game play concept. In the best case this includes the prequel's graphics engine, as seen in Final Fantasy X-2. By reusing content the company saves on cost, making the creation of such a title a far more profitable enterprise than the development of an all new game.

All being said and done, does this now imply innovation and creativity should be sacrificed for the sake of profit? Hardly. As even major franchises tend to lose their appeal (as witnessed in Japan with Zelda, Mario, SaGa, Biohazard, etc.), companies have no other choice but to come up with new concepts and build new series, such as Kingdom Hearts, Onimusha and Devil May Cry, to replace or complement existing ones. With these titles Square and Capcom did not re-invent the wheel. However, the games still earned more than solid reviews for doing what they did right (apart from selling extremely well around the globe). The sequels to popular titles like Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter, Pikmin, and Halo might as well turn these titles into new franchises as well. Some of those sequels might be labeled innovative, others as simply worse than the original. Eventually it will be their commercial success which determines their future. Considering all these factors, one might do well by not envying game designers and directors for their high wages, as the fact remains that under such pressure finding a healthy balance between commercial success and innovation in itself requires a remarkable amount of creativity.

- Chris Winkler

Damian:

Seems as if creativity is on everyone’s mind when it comes to the subject of RPGs. I have to admit that I often enjoy the more derivative series, such as Dragon Quest and SimCity. There’s something comforting about picking up a game and immediately being able to play it with some degree of aplomb. On the other hand, even the most die-hard fanboy has to admit that this can easily get out of hand. Still, before anyone goes around blaming the company for bringing out cookie-cutter titles, just remember: if there wasn’t a demand, there wouldn’t be a product.

 
RPGs Trapped in a Story

Somebody once said that games along the lines of Final Fantasy X were breaking away from their RPG roots because you did not get to determine the hero’s fate; that despite the fact that it was a role-playing game, there was no role-playing. Tidus spoke, but you didn’t get to determine what he said. He also used this factor against Phantasy Star IV, which contained real-time anime cutscenes and some talking. Yet at the same time, he defended Phantasy Star I, which has about as much dialogue as a cell phone error message. According to him, you were supposed to imagine your quest and role-play as Alis in PS1, that the clarifying text of the PSIV cutscenes left too little to the imagination. This person’s claim was that lines not unlike that of, “If you want to make a deal, you should head for the port town,” made an RPG, while statements along the lines of, “You say you wish to make a deal? Then I suggest you cross the red desert of Meribus to reach the port village of Son Weisley. But beware, there’s lots of child molesters in Son Weisley,” did not make an RPG. The person who claimed this is usually held in high regard, and I have found myself agreeing with him on several occasions. This statement, however, is one so radical that I find I cannot agree with it at all.

When one tends to think about RPGs, one’s minds normally leans towards one of two different things: 1) Rocket-propelled grenades, or 2) a free-roaming video game, where one can talk to locals in a village, buy things, and fight stuff, usually in a turn-based or limited-control environment. Rarely, if ever, does anybody think of a virtual world where you become a Mary Sue-style extension of self or imagination; when we want that, we write novels. What the person above was implying was that he wants the ability to shape the world of an RPG to suit his likings. My response to that: What the heck are you talking about, dude? Seriously.

Role-playing originally had two uses; it was a technique deployed in the field of psychology, also called psychodrama, and it was used in games. Now, most of you know that the games I’m talking about are not of the ilk of Koudelka or Chrono Trigger, but are the retro-style monsters like Dungeons & Dragons. In those games, you did role-play; the game was whatever you wanted it to be, and it could be whatever you wanted it to be because there were no boundaries of limited programming or the ESRB to restrain you. You could be good or evil in those games, be named whatever you wanted to be named, create monsters for your character to fight and weapons for your character to fight them with. The game was whatever you wanted to make of it because, with the exceptions of some ideas to get you started, the game was all yours, for you and your geeky treehouse club to rule over. That was what a role-playing game was, and most video gamers of today (including myself) never even played them, although we still unknowingly call our games “RPGs.” And the games we play today are decidedly not Rocket-Propelled Grenades, although a couple of them certainly have bombed.

So what about the games we play? When I played Phantasy Star I certainly never received an option which would allow me to join Lassic’s empire or channel Dark Force through me. I was never given the option to start a hot ‘n’ sweaty HLA-style relationship with Nekise. Believe me, I would have loved to have Cloud join sides with Sephiroth, or get the chance to play from Vincent Valentine’s point of view. And it would definitely be awesome if I could find some iron ore in The Legend of Zelda and somehow weld the stuff into an AK-47. Or maybe I could kill Navi; we all hated her anyway. What I’m trying to say is that none of our so-called “RPGs” are RPGs, with the exception of maybe Morrowind which, to prove a point, was deeply influenced by the RPGs of yesteryear. And even Morrowind has its limits; in the game you can’t even align yourself with Dagoth Ur.

Now, Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, or MMORPGs, were, in my opinion, what were going to take the games back to their roots. I was expecting to see actual role-playing. But you know what? They didn’t. All it did was create a digital extension of the real world with the same video game stuff added in, and created a new type of player called the “haXX0r” with his indecipherable “l33t 5p33k.” Despite the fact that the world went further, Online RPGs were just video games, not true RPGs. (It was actually this genre of video games that my father got addicted to when my mom left him. He’s still a shell of his former self today and I could care less.)

When I was a high school sophomore, a guy named John wanted me to try out an RPG he’d invented. The RPG didn’t have a name and consisted of pages of notebook paper, but I actually had fun with my chaotic-evil High Elf who had the build of Bill Goldberg. In one amusing part of the game, I had one HP left and was being chased in a forest by a swarm of bees. I didn’t want to die and have to start over, and I’d dropped my sword, so I suggested to John, the GM, that my high elf urinate on the swarm to kill them. He didn’t want to go through with it, but I rolled a six, so I took out those monstrobees pretty quickly. All I had to do afterwards was hurl an animal carcass at the remaining bees, and bam! Home free. The point I’m trying to make is, that was a true RPG, and it was actually fun. It wasn’t as archaic or horrid as I had heard, and I enjoyed the customization opportunities. If more programmers had programmed a game like Johnny’s Nameless RPG, it would sell like hotcakes, and I know how stupid I sound saying that. You know why that is? Because today’s gamers want to be in complete control so they can prove that they’re better than other gamers. That’s why on Pokemon message boards you see people bragging about having “shiny” pokemon.

Am I against video game RPGs? Absolutely not; I love them. They’re the best video game genre there is, in my opinion. But to make a case against control-freak style RPG like Final Fantasy X and Grandia because they limit your imagination or prevent true role-playing is as ridiculous as calling Avril Lavigne a true punk rocker: it’s a miscarriage of reality. In evolving off of the coffee table onto the television screen, it has lost something that it no longer needs, not unlike getting your appendix removed. Cavemen had an appendix to help digest raw meat; true RPGs had role-playing to help visualize a world that was made out of numbers and gambling instruments. Consoles have brought RPGs to a level the fanboys of the eighties could only have dreamt about. They have epic stories, FMVs that look awesome, and loads of other cool stuff, but what I’m trying to say is that for everything gained there is something lost, and the loss this time is the role-playing aspect. Consider that next time you boot up your PS2.

- SensaiRonixis

Damian:

Ah, I can almost hear echoes of a former self in this argument. I used to shun non-linearity as an unnecessary complication. Having no clue what to do or where to go next always used to irk me. Now that I’ve played more pen & paper RPGs, however, I realize the error of my ways. Linearity is a good thing, so long as it’s not taken to unmanageable extremes. I do believe MMORPGs are the closest we’ve come, and I believe that sooner or later we’ll see a total-immersion game which is imperceptible from the real world. But isn’t life itself the most non-linear title out there?



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