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Music and White Shirts
October 20, 2003

Well, the editorials really rolled in this time, even though my work schedule made it a bit difficult to post an update. I knew that such an unexploited topic (at least on this site) would get a wealth of replies, and so it has! We've got two editorials furthering the music debate, as well as a piece on how PC RPGs' recent decline in quality is linked to executives.



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The Simple Complex

Hey feather-butt,

Enjoying your cushy editorials job? Enjoying sitting on your flaming fanny and not having to do anything but rant at us mini-movers and semi-shakers? Yeah, I'll bet you are! Well fine then, be that way! But know you'll be subjected to my ongoing rants, and by God, I'll make you listen!

What I'm trying to say is, it's all about music. Music can make or break a game these days, especially those which take a more dramatic angle. Xenosaga comes to mind as one of the recent games that had a downright awful employment of its soundtrack. No boss music? No ambient tunes? What is this, the days before the talking pictures? Somehow I wonder if it was a matter of money, or if the director was out of his mind. This is Xenosaga though, so it's fairly obvious the director was a schmuck.

My hatred for Xenosaga is deep and long-lasting, and while I liked tunes such as Pain and the UMN theme, I abhorred how poorly implemented everything was. Even if Xenosaga had been well-directed, Mitsuda's lost his touch, and I don't think I'll really care if he works on anything ever again. If that makes me sound like a jerk, fine, but Xenosaga left a profoundly bad taste in my mouth. I'm not about to say Mitsuda's a bad composer, he's just become an unremarkable one. Of all the soundtracks Mitsuda's done, I can only say I honestly enjoyed Chrono Trigger's. Chrono Cross was all right, but nothing special for the most part.

How many soundtracks can you list off where you remember all the important themes? Let's see... The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past had a ton (remember that awesome Dark World theme, and the foreboding aura of the music when you entered Hyrule Palace?), Chrono Trigger is again, a great example (Robo's theme, Chrono's theme, Prehistoric times, and especially 600 AD Guardia), and of course the nostalgic favourite; Final Fantasy VII. The themes from these soundtracks were so compelling that they etched themselves in your mind. The only soundtrack of recent years that's done that to me is Sakura Taisen 2's, and most domestic gamers have never played it.

If I had to pick from a domestic soundtrack that was memorable, it would have to be Yuki Kajiura's .hack compositions. Everything from Aura to the World was memorable, but they all have a large flaw: you can't sing them. You can barely hum them, which will render .hack a contemporary favourite, rather than a memorable one. Just because the compositions are complex and dynamic doesn't make them memorable. That's really important.

How many of us with European backgrounds can sing Danny Boy? I'm betting quite a few. It's not a complex or dynamic song, it's a heartfelt folk melody. It's memorable. In Chinese, the song "Thunder in the Dry Season" is a Fukien favourite. It's a light, soothing melody that anyone can spout off. Quiet simply put, memorable tunes have to be easy to remember, and easy to sing. That's what modern composers are missing for a large part, and this is true in video games as well.

I'm not saying we should stop producing the complex, dynamic compositions of today, but I think it would do well if many composers started to balance their creations. I'm hoping Ms. Kajiura will release some gorgeous and memorable tunes sometime soon. It may be a hopeless dream, but at least I can wish, right?

- Mark P. Tjan

Damian:

I’m sorry, did you say something? Ah well, guess I missed it ;P All sillyness aside, I think Mark brings up an excellent point. Simplicity can often wedge a song firmly into your mind. However, does that make it a classic, or does that just make it one of those annoying tunes you can’t get out of your head? Complexity can inspire us and place us in a state of awe; we can appreciate the complex in a much richer way than we can the commonplace. Of course, complexity for its own sake can result in pieces that are just not enjoyable for most people (hello, Schoenberg). Where’s the balance point? I leave that up to you to decide.

 
More Music

After reading Patrick Gann’s editorial regarding the seeming stagnation that’s been plaguing RPG music as of late, I got to thinking about this while listening to a recent CD purchase. As a fan of both RPG music and various forms of heavy metal growing up, I would often be sitting around playing whatever game I happened to be absorbed in at the time and wondering how certain themes would sound if they had been composed for that medium.

Over the years as I began to get more into playing and writing music of my own. As I began to explore that avenue, a friend of mine asked me to compose some themes for him to use with RPGMaker. After composing three pieces of music for him and playing them for him, we found it to be a nice contrast to what he had already put into the game, which brings me to the point of this editorial. Why isn’t this type of music being applied more to RPGs?

I ask this question because, as I said, I’m a fan of both types of music and have been for more than a decade, and the majority of the people I know who play RPGs are into heavy metal as well. Before people start jumping to conclusions and hazing me, when I use the term “heavy metal” as applied to RPG music, I’m not talking about the typical mach 5 guitar playing, loaded down with as much distortion and volume as possible, designed to scare the pants off the general population or the sort of mindless drivel written for the sake of being angry and starting a mosh pit in the mall. I’m already aware that there really aren’t any places in your average RPG where that form of music would be appropriate. However, when properly written and applied as a theme, and combined with some of the more mainstream elements in RPG music, I feel that the genre does have some potential.

How many of the people who may be reading this (who listen to metal, of course), have come across a particular riff, guitar solo, bass line, or vocal melody and thought, “Wow! This would sound great in a game?” How many guitar players out there have found themselves idly noodling around to some piece of RPG music without consciously thinking about it? I have, on both counts, and I’m pretty sure that there are a few others out there as well.

Now, I realize that this type of thing has been attempted before, in varying forms. The most notable of these forms is probably Final Fantasy: The Black Mages, and to be honest, it does have its good points. However, its many bad points tend to override those good ones. First of all, there’s the fact that when most of those songs were written, they weren’t written with that kind of interpretation in mind, and you can tell that when you listen to them. Several of them might as well be carbon copies of their originals, with synthesized guitar parts substituted for the original MIDI parts. Honestly, in my opinion, the form wasn’t properly applied to the songs, and I don’t feel that it’s a compatibility issue. Daron Malakian (guitarist from System of a Down) recently said in an interview that in looking for inspiration for heavy music, often something that would not normally be considered heavy, when played in that fashion, can have surprising results. As a guitar player myself, I agree with that 100%, and if I mentioned even a quarter the game themes I've used for inspiration, this would never get done. And though I have cited The Black Mages as an example, incorporating a heavy metal style into an RPG doesn’t necessarily have to be restricted to battle music. There are many bands out there who incorporate a wide variety of atmospherics into their music, from acoustic tracks to woodwind instruments, to full blown 100-piece orchestras, all of which could be exploited to create themes for just about every type of music for a game, be it battles, dungeons, character themes, etc.

There are many avenues to choose from here, and if composers can use trance, gothic, Celtic, and hell, even influences that reek of bubblegum teen pop divas, why can’t hard rock and heavy metal be incorporated as well? With the stagnancy the majority of RPG music seems to possess nowadays, at best, this could very well be a breath of fresh air if done right, and at worst… well, you can always just hit the mute button.

- Chris Casey

Damian:

Mr. Casey brings up a very good point regarding the eclecticism of video game music. It’s probably my favorite “genre” because of how well it can meld and transition between different genres. Composers such as Kanno and Uematsu can jump from symphonic to jazz, metal, pop, or anything in between. Most composers tend to stick to a genre, such as Mitsuda and Yamaoka, and that doesn’t necessarily make them bad, but RPGs lend themselves so well to a variety of genres, even within the same game.

But I also have to agree with Mr. Casey’s point about the Black Mages, which I thought was a simply bland, uninspired album. It could have been done so much better, but for whatever reason, Uematsu decided to opt for synth guitar rather than real electric guitar, to the point that Dancing Mad became almost a sound-for-sound copy of its SNES counterpart.

However, I will go one better than Mr. Casey and say that the real implementation of innovation comes primarily from the game music remix community at places such as Overclocked Remix and VG Mix. There is a vibrant community out there that will go the extra mile to adapt the Spekkio theme from Chrono Trigger to a bagpipe and drum Scottish march. Everything is possible in this community, and while the majority will not appeal to everyone, everyone can conceivably find something to enjoy. I have great respect for those who wish to at least TRY, even if they produce Music of My Groin.

 
Are The “White Shirts” Destroying the PC RPG?

There was a time when PC Gaming, and more specifically PC RPGs, were the domain of the truly gifted and independent among us. Heroic entrepreneurs like Richard “Lord British” Garriot and Brian Fargo were pumping out genre-defining RPGs quicker then most of us young computer gamers could save up the money to buy them. Starting from humble beginnings, these living legends clawed their way out of obscurity by selling their games from their house, distributing them over a local BBS, or slipping them into plastic baggies and handing them out at school. By the end of the 80’s, PC RPGs had come close to being as popular as console RPGs, and besides the small “Dark Age” we fans experienced during the mid 90’s, the PC RPG has continued to flourish.

Though not for long if the companies who publish these games continue down their current path.

During the later part of the 90’s, the PC RPG had grown to be an incredibly lucrative genre. Bioware and Black Isle virtually redefined the modern CRPG with their infinity engine games, and smaller companies such as Jowood and CDV felt brave enough to jump into the market and create some of their own. Everything seemed fine, and even though the Consoles still dominated the RPG market, it felt great to be a PC gamer again. That is, until a few years ago.

It all started with Ultima Ascension, a game that was plagued by missed release dates and nasty rumors circulating about its cancellation. When the game hit the shelves, it was unplayable by most, and even those who could play it soon found that it wasn’t really much of an RPG to begin with. Lord British, famed creator of the Ultima series, revealed what had happened in an interview years later. According to Mr. Garriot, the goals his team had for the game were so ambitious that it took much longer to program then their publisher (Electronic Arts) would have liked. He then explained that because of the longer then expected development cycle, the “White Shirts” who were in charge of game publishing at EA told them to release the game in its current condition or else they would all find themselves out of a job. To make matters worse, Garriot likened Electronic Art’s treatment of his game and its team to a proverbial “red-headed step child” and spoke in detail how they seemed to sabotage its development at every stage along the way.

Ultima Ascension was just the beginning of a huge downturn in the PC RPG industry, and little did we know that it was about to get worse. The downward spiral continued with Nihilistic’s “Vampire: The Masquerade”, then onto Arcanum, and finally ended with the chaotic and explosive release (for all the wrong reasons) of Pool of Radiance 2.

What do all of the aforementioned games have in common? They were all great ideas that were destroyed by their publishers, who exerted their power over the designers programming these games in an effort to not only release them on time for the holidays, but to make sure they appealed to as young as an audience as possible. Whether it was removal of “adult” content or refusing to give the developers enough time to implement crucial features into their game, these publishers all doomed their games to the cold depths of the bargain bin and have no one to blame but themselves. Just look at Stormfront’s much-maligned Pool of Radiance 2. It was originally suppose to be based on D&D’s 2nd Edition rule set but due to the publisher’s demands the designers were forced to change the game to the new 3rd Edition rules just 8 months before the game was to be shipped. What resulted was a D&D game plagued with inconsistencies, balance issues and a general lack of “polish”.

Being one of the PC RPG fans who regularly follows his favorite genre and discusses it on several different web boards, I became all too familiar with the feelings of my fellow fans. Before the release of every major game, we always asked the question “Do you think we are going to get screwed again?” We worried that history would continue to repeat itself until we were forced to give up our dream of having a classic CRPG epic released on the PC and instead have to crawl back to the watered-down and disappointingly juvenile confines of Neverwinter Nights.

And so came Greyhawk. The game that was to be our escape. It had everything us RPG veterans wanted in a CRPG. It was going to be turn-based, stat-heavy, and follow the new 3.5 Rules for Dungeons and Dragons so well that it would be heralded as the second coming of PC RPGs. Even though the same questions (are we going to get screwed again?) were raised about this game on several RPG message boards, we fans were too desperate to believe them and pinned all of our hopes on one single game. It was only when the game was released in an almost unplayable state that we realized how foolish we were.

The Message boards erupted. For every person who wanted to tar and feather the designers of Greyhawk, there was another gamer who was so caught up in their desperation for a classic D&D game that they ignored the bugs and crashes and pretended as if they didn’t exist. Between the people who were fooling themselves and those who were just plain fooled, I began to wonder what caused this in the first place. How could a game come out in which half the spells either didn’t work or caused the program to crash, and your games could be corrupted just by wearing the “wrong” kind of helmet before you saved? The list of bugs posted on the official board was so long that it swelled to 10 pages in the first 48 hours after the game’s release.

It was only during a chat with Troika, the game’s developer, that the answer became clear to me. In a not so subtle admission, Troika’s president Tim Cain mentioned that they had a properly patched and much more stable version of their game ready for mass production, but Atari (the publisher) had grown tired of waiting and rather then stand around for Troika to play test the more complete version they took the older and far less complete build and sent it off to be sold as-is. Apparently, most of the game’s problems and system-destroying bugs were already squashed, but Atari, in their rush for meeting an established deadline, shipped a product they knew was both incomplete and potentially hazardous to people’s systems.

Gamers love to point fingers, and there has been no shortage of that as of late. Most blame Atari for their lack of costumer concern while a vocal minority blames Troika for not “working hard enough” to meet their publisher’s deadline. Still others blame the gaming community for the whining they do about the pushing back of release dates and claim that because we moan about late releases companies are more apt to ship an incomplete game to meet our demands. Though in the end, I believe the real culprit here is the money-hungry white shirt wearing CEO who runs these game publishing companies. Their thirst for cash and their lack of understanding anything other then “the bottom line” translates to buggy, untested, incomplete products that are only pushed out the door so they can make money from the game before the fiscal year is up. After all, why keep paying your developers money to fix bugs and inconsistencies when the game itself is still somewhat playable? You can’t rent PC games in order to “try before you buy” and most stores no longer accept returns due to piracy, so people will snatch it up on day one and be stuck with it. You have to admit, it is a brilliant scheme.

Greyhawk is just another example of how badly the publishers are ruining our hobby. Gone are the days when a small group of devoted, fashionably geeky, free-thinking guys ran this hobby and sold games that they themselves were playing…now we live in an age where “the bottom line” comes first and the customers come last. Unless Brian Fargo’s new Bard’s Tale game is a hit and Richard Garriott’s upcoming Tabula Rasa becomes the next Everquest, I don’t see a return to those golden days we all so fondly remember. Instead, I see myself hooking my DOS-only machine back up and playing nothing but classic D&D RPGs such as Eye of the Beholder and Treasures of the Savage Frontier.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

- The Last Kai

Damian:

While Kai has some interesting insight into the issue surrounding buggy, incomplete PC RPGs as of late, I just can’t come to put the blame 100% on the so-called “White Shirts”. As someone who has followed the PC and Console markets for a while now, I’ve come to recognize that there is rarely a faultless party.

For one, development teams get lost in their own little world, especially when they’re being led by a “dreamer” such as Warren Spector, John Romero, and Richard Garriot. They don’t quite understand that when you get picked up by a publisher, you have a responsibility to them for the money they spend on you. It’s no longer that world of self-publishing, self-developing PC titles that characterized the 80s and early 90s. It’s the price developers pay for having more resources.

That’s not to say the execs are blameless. Many times those in charge of marketing and sales DO only see the bottom line and wind up losing sight of sound marketing principles, such as providing a stable product to the consumer so that the consumer doesn’t go elsewhere next time. That’s betrayal and the “bad” type of marketing.

And then there are the GAMERS, impetuous, selfish, and pompous as all hell. These aren’t just the cretin 13-year-olds you find trolling the message boards, but the so-called “intelligencia” of the PC Gaming Community who love to nitpick every detail and decry every delay and then bash the title all to hell when it’s released as a product of committee thinking and haste. It’s an extremely vicious relationship, which makes me wonder why anyone bothers to even bring out RPGs anymore, or why the idiots decide to buy them.

But this is the price we Americans pay for the developmental “freedom” that the Japanese lack due to their corporate structure. Still, with the way things are going, we might find ourselves in the same situation, and oh what a sad day that will be.



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