Monday, March 31, 2014

Square-Enix returning to JRPG roots, but what roots?

Looks like Square is thinking of going back to their JRPG roots:

For some perspective, Bravely Default has sold something like 173,000 copies in the first 3 weeks in the US, while Lightning Returns only managed 166,000 in its first 3 weeks. FF13 and FF13-2 sold 500,000 and 375,000 respectively in the same regions in their first 3 weeks.

Interest in their flagship series has been plummeting for some time and while I doubt any plans for FF15 are going to be shelved, it's vindicating for them to realize that people in both Japan and the West like JRPGs for their core values rather than attempts to distance the games from their past. I don't really know anything about Bravely Default, but I can say Final Fantasy has definitely gotten away from some of the core components of exploration, character ensembles and even story.

Going back as far as FFX, dungeons would be long linear paths that amounted to grindfests through pretty scenery. You don't want circuitous mazes like Phantasy Star 2, but a good dungeon will give you opportunities to tread a ways off the beaten path and get rewarded with some loot, a cut-scene or a cool set-piece. Lightning Returns goes so far as to introduce a time limit to the game that dissuades you from the exploration and puttering about that has always been the backbone of JRPGs.*

Instead of a strong cast of likeable characters that each get a chance in the spotlight, the newer games also focus too much on a single Mary Sue and their platoon of one-note hanger-ons. ** Solid archetypal character designs are also gone and replaced by tech demos of people that look like they stumbled blindly through a couture fashion warehouse.

And seriously, there's no true story there anymore. Sure there's plot points and big set-piece events and pretty cut-scenes and voices taking place, but the important stuff like real character arcs and subtext are either gone or lost in the busy mess of mystical pseudo-science babble and crazy terms. The ludo-narrative dissonance is also off the charts for the crazy new gameplay elements in each new chapter. Going back even to FF9, why did learning skills from equipment make any sense? How was a sphere grid or checkerboard appropriate for those stories beyond just being cool things surreptitiously tacked on? Materia in FF7 and even the widely-maligned draw system in FF8 were explained as a part of that game's world, they made sense, they weren't just goofy ideas tacked on because maybe people will dig it and nevermind sense.

All that said, I'd be interested to know exactly what lessons they have learned. Games like Tactics Advance, The World Ends with You and Dragon Quest 9 have nailed most of these points and I'd hate for productions like that to get lumped in with what FF has become. Games from other companies like Gust and Atlus have also been successfully forging into new gameplay territory while remaining true JRPGs. As much as the 2d FF13 recap movie filled me with glee, JRPGs have moved beyond that and plenty of newer games are moving on with the same spirit.

* Recent Atelier and Persona games as well as others have also introduced schedule mechanics that may seem to encourage the same problems as Lightning Returns. In these cases, I'd argue that the games gain the same sense of urgency, but continue to support exploration since the schedule consists of abstract chunks of time in your choice of location that still allow meandering. There's certainly nothing that punishes your playing the game at your own pace as long as you reserve time for core goals.

** To FF13's credit, I do think it was wise to make the Mary Sue the main character rather than in most games since FF8 where you're presented with an ostensible main character that ends up serving as an attache to the character that truly is the focus and drive behind the plot. Still, they took all of Homer's Poochie suggestions literally...-_-

Sunday, March 9, 2014

BitSummit Nico Reactions 3/9

The last day of BitSummit 2014 saw a large and active audience, so it was a little harder to get a read on reactions than previous days, but here's what I saw on the Nico Live stream.

Microsoft - People slowly trickled into this day and there wasn't much activity except a murmur of interest in Unity support...until a nerve was suddenly struck and the audience remembered to be pissed about Xbox One. The tone of the presentation seemed almost apologetic, but it was really upsetting people.

Kakexun - Managing to settle down, most people seemed to understand the background of this project and  the late Kenji Eno. Unfortunately, the presenter opened with a fairly long-winded self-introduction and anecdote which viewers increasingly found to be self-aggrandizing, though many still appreciated the eventual point where the story crossed with Mr. Eno. The talk actually raised quite some debate. Many commentors felt that it was tasteless to use the deceased as the focus of fund-raising while others supported the project. After being presented with the game concept itself, there was very much confusion. Some wondered if it were feasible to support such an unusual idea despite its tragic circumstance, if it could succeed Eno and even some darker comments about whether Eno was a solid enough creator to afford such legacy. I hate to say it, but I think this presentation actually left many people more uncomfortable with the idea than they initially felt.

Walk of the Show Floor - After a couple of game PVs they decided to treat us to footage of the game floor itself as the cameraman perused some booths. This was really exciting and banished the dark moods. Seeing the fuller picture of what the event was, the audience rallied support for BitSummit, vowing to attend next year and a few even declared that Kyoto would become the center of the indie gaming world.

EF-12 - Now we got to see a little of the EF-12 engine in action with a character developed specially for BitSummit. The atmosphere was light-hearted and enjoyable and there was a lot of action in the chat as viewers tried to ken the subtleties of the system.

Unity - This was essentially a repeat of Saturday's presentation and many viewers were disappointed.  But those who stuck through it were rewarded with a live gameplay demo of Ball-point Universe! As I mentioned before, this game was definitely a huge star of the show.

Next Level/Brian Davis - Davis gave a speech on his history with Japanese games, the universal appeal of games between East and West and how we can move forward together as developers and players. The audience was very moved and inspired by his speech.

 Brave Wave Productions - Saori Kobayashi played some enjoyable songs and then the Japanese and English audience were both delighted when Yumiko Takahashi appeared and they performed some songs together. Brave Wave announced a new Kobayashi album to the heated interest of the audience.

Takayuki Nakamura - When the performance began it was...well, it was a bit shit and the audience was bewildered and pissed. They soon began to perform Lumines songs in earnest though and inspired a chaotic mess of unintelligible thought and mood.

Awards - The awards ceremony moved at a very good pace for such segments. Overall, the audience seemed pleased with the results. Some viewers were disappointed in some instances where a Western developer won an award instead of a Japanese developer, but they also expressed understanding in the results and a desire for Japanese devs to push themselves.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

BitSummit Nico Reactions 3/8

Here's a summary of the audience reaction I saw during the Nico Live stream of BitSummit Day 2. Speaking of personal reaction, I feel that Day 1 saw larger entities in the industry struggling to descend to the indie level, but Day 2 felt much more like an event for indies and expressed itself well.

Professor (Kentaro) Sakamoto - The show opened up with an incredible performance by Professor Sakamoto. He really got the crowd excited for the show with classic NES/Famicom medleys and ended with two impressive original songs. I...I really want a CD now...

Unreal Engine - People were very impressed with what it could do, but thought its capabilities were far out of the reach of indie developers...that is until the presenter started to speak of its ease of use. That got people's attention until it came to the question of price: (^.^;) comment?

Epic Games/Sony - Sony skipped the Executives talking business-speak today and had a few people come out to play Octodad. The Japanese audience was really amused by this game and happily discussed the logistics of a family with a octopus father. A few people were confused by the horrible controls but most got the point.

Unity - It seemed like Unity's presentation was a bit more effective today. Perhaps there was a bit too much focus on high-end functionality yesterday, but today was more accessible? At any rate, people were really impressed with Ball-point Universe. Every time this game appeared on screen, several audience members were asking where to buy it.

Digital Reality - Theo Riker spoke realistically about how sales of Sine Mora did not live up to the game's $900,000 development budget and the audience appreciated a look into the dangers of indie development. The presentation sparked heated debate amongst both Japanese and English viewers as some felt STGs were too niche for the overseas market and others felt that indie games should simply budget within their niche.

KimuraxZUNxNaramura - After an initial wave of alcohol jokes, the audience became very silent for most of the presentation as they listened intently. The translator had a tough time keeping up, both Japanese and English-speaking viewers supported and encouraged them. There was concern over how well Touhou will be received worldwide amongst some neutral speculation about existing downloads and patches, but generally people want the series to perform well. I'll be buying the games! ^_^

Tsugi/Optpix/Matchlock - These were very good presentations of development tools: Tsugi's audio software, Optpix's Sprite Studio and Matchlock's Bishamon for VFX. the audience was very impressed with the functionality, felt they could utilize it well and each offered reasonable pricing or even special versions or licenses for indie developers. I believe each software has an English version as well, Optpix making a point to highlight this during their presentation. I'm going to check them out!

Masaya Matsuura - Matsuura closed the show with a great performance that was appreciated by all. It was very sentimental to see Parappa again. It was a great way to relax for all the people who had stuck through the entire presentation.

Friday, March 7, 2014

BitSummit Nico Reactions 3/7

I got a chance to see the BitSummit presentation on Nico, but I showed up a little late, just in time to see John Baez from Behemoth speaking and onward. Here's a taste of some of the reactions from Nico commentators.

Behemoth - With very positive reactions, the audience was already aware of the games and liked what Baez had to say. Towards the end, in answer to a question about Kickstarter, he spoke realistically about the platform and this seemed to really resonate with the audience. I feel he left one of the best impressions throughout the night.

Game PV Stream - This was the meat of the show for much of the audience. Though many of these games have been around for a while, interest still ran high as many people discovered games or learned of new developments for older games. Every game sparked quite a bit of discussion and there was a positive response to learning about games getting English language releases.

I'm wondering if Edelweiss put together this reel as they have for conventions in the past?

Comcept/Keiji Inafune/Inti Creates - People were interested in Mighty no. 9 and happy to see some alpha footage, but there was a bit of confusion as the presentation rolled into the reveal of Azure Striker Gunvolt from Inti Creates for 3DS. Nevertheless, Gunvolt left a good impression.

Kickstarter - After a quick-cut English only promo video of prominent Western developers left the Japanese audience absolutely bewildered, Crane rightly focused his presentation on sharing hard numbers about the performance of video game projects on Kickstarter. The audience seemed very interested in it from a logical standpoint. Inafune returned to speak passionately about Kickstarter, but his 'dream's come true' impressions were met with some cynicism.

Unity / Sony Computer Entertainment / Q-Games - This presentation was pushed back a few times to the disgruntlement of the audience. Though reactions to Unity's portion of the presentation was positive many were upset by how much Unity factored into Sony's indie plans. Still, many were impressed when shown some of the actual games developed with Unity, I think many thought it was only for phone games.

Black Tower - The Black Tower presentation was bizarre and the Nico translator had trouble keeping up with what was being said. A lame joke was made about Black Tower sounding like Bacon Tower and that's about the only thing that got through to anyone. One Japanese commenter's joke about 'Bacoins' later and I was assured that the differences between human beings can never outweigh the similarities.

Microsoft - The audience got downright mean during the Microsoft presentation. Some commenters saw it as preying on Japanese talents without wanting to recognize Japanese gamers.