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Radical Subjects
September 29, 2003

I was very glad to get a rather large supply (4!) of editorials since last time, although only three made the cut. Still, these are some high-quality editorials about subjects that haven’t even been touched upon in this section. I sincerely hope all you readers out there will take a look at the editorials here and write your own, either taking up the subjects or creating new ones… because I’m all out of editorials.



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This Week's Question: Where do you see the MMO genre going from here?
 
 
Industry Shuffle

Japan, the country of life-long employment and promotion based on seniority. While those former two pillars of the Japanese labor market have long lost their almost mystical importance in the age of a staggering economy and increased competition, in the Japanese gaming industry high-level staffers still have rarely left the company which hired them after their graduation from university. The recent resignations of former Capcom executive director Yoshiki Okamoto, HAL Laboratories' mastermind Masahiro Sakurai and Sony Computer Entertainment's CTO Shinichi Okamoto might point to a different future.

Until recently only a few developers left their companies, while the fluctuation among lower-ranking employees is fairly high. For instance, programmers or planners are often hired for just one project. The only possible exception to this rule might have been Square. While the company's core staff of directors and producers (Hironobu Sakaguchi, Kouichi Ishii, Hiromichi Tanaka, Akitoshi Kawazu, Takashi Tokita, Yoshinori Kitase, Tetsuya Nomura) is still around and additional talent has joined the company since the mid-1990s (Yasumi Matsuno, Akihiko Yoshida and others from Quest, Shinji Hashimoto from Bandai and Toshirou Tsuchida and his team from G-Craft), over the years a large number of highly regarded staffers left the company. Shinichi Kameoka and other members of the original Seiken Densetsu development team left Square to form the Nintendo affiliate Brownie Brown, Super Mario RPG director Chihiro Fujioka left for Alpha Dream, another group left in the late 1990s to become Sacnoth (and as of 2003, Nautilus, a wholly owned subsidiary of Aruze) followed by a part of the Xenogears development team headed by director Tetsuya Takahashi (who went on to found Namco subsidary Monolith Soft, developers of the Xenosaga series and Baten Kaitos) and only last year Chrono series mastermind Masato Katou (note: considering that composers like Yasunori Mitsuda or Hitoshi Sakimoto have worked on Square projects, even after quitting the company and becoming freelance, the author refrained from adding them to the list).

However, none of the above mentioned has been identified so closely to the company as Okamoto has been to Capcom or Sakurai to HAL. The reasons for their departures were not so different. Okamoto left Capcom after a disagreement with other executives over future company policy, whereas Sakurai was tired of being forced to come up with better performing titles while being forced to continue working for a fixed salary. Sakurai has yet to comment on his future plans, but Capcom's Okamoto has already founded a small developing studio and is actively recruiting new staffers. If the examples cited above have any relevance for our main question then it is this: just like Kameoka or Takahashi before him, Okamoto, after working for a big player in the business for almost two decades, opted to become his own boss by founding a new company. And Sakurai might as well follow his and others' example.

The reasons are obvious: less pressure and more freedom in creative and management issues. Shinichi Okamoto on the other hand is a slight different matter. Just like his former boss, Ken Kutaragi, Shinichi Okamoto, who was hired by Sony in 1989, has little in common with directors or producers on the third party side of the industry's spectrum. Also, SCE's former CTO has yet to comment on his future plans.

So will the future see a huge wave of disgruntled directors and producers saying good-bye to their longtime employers? Possible, but not likely. The big players in the business are getting support on this issue from an unlikely source: consolidation. Rising development costs and a declining Japanese market make it more and more difficult for small, independent studios to survive. Even if the next generation of hardware is only half as complicated as most analysts and developers anticipate, the new technology and the subsequent rising development costs might force many smaller companies into the arms of any of the three 1st party companies or a large 3rd party publisher. Thereby, many disgruntled ex-employees might for better or worse be forcefully re-united with their former employers.

The recent departures of four core members behind Blizzard as well as Tomb Raider mastermind and Core Design founder Jeremy Heath-Smith from Eidos suggest that this issue is by no means exclusive to the Japanese side of the industry. Whether or not the hiatus of high-profile staffers will continue remains to be seen, as even for highly capable and respected directors and producers the departure from a large company to gain more independence and freedom is not always an easy move.

- Chris Winkler

Damian:

We can always count on Chris for the best in industry analysis. I don’t think the fact that people are going from one studio to another, consolidation, etc. is in and of itself surprising. The U.S. entertainment software market has had that as a standard since its inception, with big names such as Sierra, Electronic Arts, and most recently Verant sucking up companies left and right, while big names such as John Romero and Warren Specter break off and form their own companies which go on to do quite well. The surprise is that this trend is happening in Japan, a place where corporate stagnation and employee ennui reign supreme.

I hope this signals a decline in a corporate culture stuck in the quagmire of bureaucracy and tradition, but most likely the innovation will be, as Chris implied, in new ways to keep that corporate culture going: mergers, acquisitions, and budget cuts.

 
Fandom at its Foulest

There is one thing that has a very special place in my heart, just beside my love for RPGs, and that is fanfiction. They’re a way for young writers to try out their skills on pre-made characters that can support the artists’ tentative steps in the world of the net, where stories can be published far more easily than in the harsh, cold environment of the off-screen lands. Fanfiction can open paths, strengthen the delicate wings of the authors of the future and bring them the courage to take the flight and create their own worlds, things that can become books and even sell. Having a fanfic published on a site is a great pride for an amateur, and if there is feedback things can only get better.

However, fanfiction can also mean molesting the characters we love. Most fan sites accepting submissions have no plans of breaking the PG-13 rating, but there are those that will. I have seen promises of “Cloud/Sephiroth hot action”, “Zidane finally gets his way with Eiko”, and the ultimate horror: “lemon: Lucca and Robo” – a summary which had me blinking, mechanically closing the window and running from the computer screaming for acid to pour over my brain. (A lemon is, in case somebody doesn’t know, a detailed sex scene.)

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with homosexuals, but I’ve played FF7 several times and I never saw any suggestions that either Sephy or Cloud (save the whole dress thing… but you can’t claim he seemed happy about it) were leaning in that direction. Neither that they held dear wishes to boink each other. And foremost, why would the rest of us want to “see” them do it? Damian wrote well about the sickness of some Japanese artists and programmers, but Japanese people are definitely not the only ones with perverted fantasies.

Apart from the roughest treatment as described above, there’s of course the complete decharacterization. It’s not hard to find “romance” stories where Seifer strolls back into Garden a week after the final FMV and nobody seems to have a problem about that. One smile and greeting phrase later Rinoa is kissing him in the training center – apparently with no memories of Squall, and neither of the fact that last time she saw Seifer he was trying to breastfeed her to an eight-foot tall, horribly male-ish sorceress. Then when Squall finds out, poor Rinoa runs to him in tears and swears her love to him, and of course he forgives her in a scene dripping with dialogue that could make a cat puke.

There are stories where Magus goes to pluck pearls from seashells to cheer up a depressed Marle “because her tears made him sad”. How about Jet blocking a blow aimed at Virginia (Wild ARMs III) and fading away in a monologue about how his life wasn’t wasted since she can live on, while the gal falls to her knees and prays to the guardians to preserve her friend. Should I go on? There are millions of fanfics that makes you wonder about whether or not the author even played the game. Mucking with the characters can be good if it’s a humor story – and executed well. It’s not funny when Ashley and Sidney from Vagrant Story go off in a drunk “haw, haw, haw” about below-the-belt jokes. I won’t claim to be innocent; a couple of my first fanfics were two horrible humor things that I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole now. I hope I’m able to regard my later accomplishments as better than that.

As a writer, you write for your own enjoyment. But as a fanfiction writer, you are using characters and places that somebody else has spent hours of thought and hard work on, and apart from having fun you need to show a little tact. What gives you the right to turn the characters inside out, break up set relationships, live out your own lust with the heroes of either sex? Good fanfiction is based on knowledge of the world you’re reaching into, and most important of all is respect, for the work of another, of somebody else’s “children”. A good author, or artist, knows the joy of creation, and how you hope that others will cherish your pride as you do. On that tangent, I pray for her sake that JK Rowling never comes to fanfiction.net and sees what people have done to Harry and the others. You don’t want examples on that one. Trust me.

- Weiila

Damian:

Ah, if Slime could hear you now, I’m sure he’d agree with you… then go ranting on about how messed up some fanfiction writers are. It’s understandable, though, since the majority of fanfiction writers are novices at best, working with established characters for all the reasons you listed. However, if fanfiction is, at it’s core, a way for budding authors to learn, I see them taking characters out of character as a step towards originality rather than a bastardization of an established idiom.

That being said, there are some people out there who just are immature dipshits with a penchant for buggery, bestiality, mechanaphilia, or whatever other non-mainstream sexual practices suit their fancy. These people are surely entitled to their freedom of speech, however, and there’s not much to be done about the issue except hope that they realize the mockery they are making of other peoples’ beloved characters. Of course that might be a rationale in and of itself ;P

 
Composition vs. Technology

Let me ask you: can you sing the main theme to the Final Fantasy series? Can you recognize the "Prelude" music? Or the bass line intro to the battle theme? I bet you could. Surely you know the Mario theme and the Zelda theme inside and out. The Chocobo theme is also in your repertoire. The Rad Racer theme, now known better as Homestarrunner.com's "Stinko Man" theme, is another one that you can't get out or your head.

What do all of these songs have in common? They were all written in the late 1980s, except for the Chocobo theme, which was originally composed sometime in the early 1990s (I would guess 1991, I'm not sure) First appeared in Final Fantasy II in 1990 – Ed..

Could you then sing for me some BGM from Xenosaga? Maybe something from Legaia: Duel Saga? No? Well, what about some classic Halo tunes...or Metroid Prime? Can you sing Suikoden III's intro? That one is memorable, right?

All of the previous games share a common release as well... all of these games were released post-2000.

"Ramza, what is it you're getting at? Are you another one of those old school nostalgia-lovin' fanboys that hates any game released after the 16-bit era?" He is! String him up! ;P – Ed.

No... but I am attempting to note one important fact: the danger of technology compromising the real quality of a game carries through to a game's music. In the same way that emphasis on graphics will routinely make the storyline suffer, focus on music technology (live performance, high-quality synth), is liable to take away quality compositions.

Classic games aren't just classics due to nostalgia. They were innovative. If the games for the Famicom/NES were NOT innovative, the industry may have died then and there. Today, companies don't have to worry so much about a whole industry dying. The videogame industry is booming, and (based on the number of monthly releases at CD Japan) the VGM industry is doing more than just surviving. A good question to ask yourself is: should it be this way?

Many OSTs these days are filled with techno/trance-style songs. These are not necessarily bad; if done right, they can be almost complex, especially when blended with a classical genre (c.f. - .hack). However, one certainly cannot identify a melody in such a genre. These songs aren't memorable, they are functional. They serve the purpose of creating an atmosphere for the game to work in. The danger is when the composer cares only for functionality and completely skips the opportunity to work out a composition that has its own merits free from the game.

In all of my listening to VGM, I have come to find that some of the greatest compositions ever to be put into a console game are found on the original GameBoy. The SaGa series (a.k.a. "Final Fantasy Legend") had great pieces, especially the second in that series. Those boss themes, as well as "sadness" and "world map" themes are still stuck in my head, years after playing them. The first Seiken Densetsu ("Final Fantasy Adventure") also sported some of the best compositions written in the last thirty years. Why did this happen? Because it had to. Uematsu, Ito, and others had nothing but 3 dinky synth tracks to work with. They could either put out some bleep-blip trash, or they could create a masterpiece. They all chose the latter.

To reap the benefits of such an OST, arranged albums exist to take those compositions to their best level of performance. How come we've seen fewer symphony/orchestra arranged albums than in the past? Did we all get bored with orchestras? Or is it just that today's VGM doesn't work well with orchestras, because they don't have a strong enough composition to translate. Final Fantasy Symphonic Suite and the orchestrated tracks in Seiken Densetsu Sound Collection (originally on "Let Thoughts Ride on the Wind of Knowledge") have not been equaled yet, as far as I can tell. While the 20020220 Final Fantasy concert was compelling, it still couldn't hold a candle to the things we'd seen in the early 1990s.

If I were to pose the question, "what was the last STRONG melodic main theme from an RPG," what would your answer be? That's a very good question to consider. I, myself, would likely answer with Wild ARMs. Ironic that the game is being re-released as I write this. Remakes are popular because the games being remade are holistically GOOD games. Final Fantasy Origins, while lacking depth and plotline, still manages to package two stellar games. Sword of Mana looks promising. Funny that these games have what I consider to be some of the best RPG compositions to date.

This isn't to say that all soundtracks today are poor. I have always stood firmly behind Masashi Hamauzu, who has held up the musical tradition/style known as "impressionism" very well. He fuses strong melodies (c.f. SaGa Frontier II, Unlimited SaGa) with light, unique, perhaps idiosyncratic background music to create a whole new sound. People like Hamauzu are the future.

I used to be impressed by Sakimoto and Sakuraba. Sakuraba uses the same formula, though. It's like a synth-hungry 80s power band over and over, with shining exceptions here and there ("We Form in Crystals", SO2's ridiculously catchy credits music). Sakimoto will never stop using that same harp effect... ever. His compositions seem strong at first glance, but tell me...can you sing a song from one of those games? Maybe the FFT main theme... maybe. That's about it.

Mitsuda's gone overboard on the celtic/world style. This, too, is not a bad thing. It's incredibly refreshing for VGM fans. I love Xenogears: CREID, and I was fairly impressed with Tsugunai and other recent endeavors. But the memorable melodies of Chrono Trigger and Radical Dreamers (which fused their way into Chrono Cross) are but a lingering scent, and I doubt we'll find any of that strength in Mitsuda ever again. Understand, I'd like to be proven wrong on that point. It won't happen though.

If I ruled the world, I would force all VGM composers to write all their compositions first on GameBoy Synth, or maybe Famicom Synth if it's something complex they want to do. From there, they could expand their ideas onto the powers of PS2, PC, and X-Box. They couldn't move from step 1 to step 2 without my personal approval. Suddenly, the VGM scene would be on fire with awesome music again.

Until then...enjoy the next ambiguous string composition for the tension scene and the dance party music for the battle victory. I'm out.

- Patrick Gann

Damian:

Wow, that’s a point I haven’t heard made before, and I must say I’m starting to agree with you. Some of the greatest compositions were released early in the lifetime of video games, back in the 8, and 16-bit era. But at the same time, nostalgia DOES figure in prominently in any debate about how things were better “back then”. I must say that you are right on with Sakimoto; his albums all revolve around a very short (albeit memorable) theme (Radient Silvergun and FFT are prime examples), often relying on a bell synth. But Kondo makes a living off of remixing the same old Zelda and Mario tracks, not because of the new technology, but because he has to provide familiarity to the legion of fans of the series.

While I could write an editorial on the subject as well (and just might), I’ll say that there are still some very solid compositions out there, Mitsuda’s from Xenosaga being a prime example, as well as Uematsu’s work on FFX, Yamaoka’s atmospheric work in the Silent Hill series, and Kanno’s work in just about every genre ever created. And don’t forget that those 8 bit tracks were extremely repetitive, meaning that we memorize them in part because we hear them over and over again, while more contemporary compositions are longer and more dynamic, often employing key and harmony changes based on subtle alterations in the gameplay, fade-ins and fade-outs between scenes, etc.

This is a topic ripe for debate and it’s nowhere near being exhausted yet. Let’s hear from some other people on the subject.



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