The News Game: Using Neverwinter Nights To Teach Journalism

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Back in 2001, Nora Paul of the University of Minnesota started to think about tossing together journalists with game designers and theorists to discuss ways in which the medium’s give-and-take trial-and-error self-motivated approach to learning could be academically applied to the process of news-gathering. The timing was unfortunate, however, coming just after the dot-com implosion.

A few years later she pulled together a more academic discussion group on the matter, yet quickly became frustrated with the substitution of chin-stroking for practical application of any of their ideas. Whenever she suggested developing an actual teaching tool, everyone backed away, afraid how it would reflect on his tenure to be actively involved with anything using the word “game”.

( Continue reading at GamaSutra )

A Slime for All Seasons: Videogames and Classism

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part twelve of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation, under the title “OPINION: Yuji Horii was Right to Opt for DS”.

You’ve probably heard this Dragon Quest business; in a move surprising to professional analysts everywhere, producer Yuji Horii has decided to go with the most popular piece of dedicated gaming hardware in generations for the next installment of the most important videogame franchise in Japan. If people are bewildered, it’s not due to the apparent rejection of Sony (whose hardware was home to the previous two chapters). After the mediocre performance of the PSP and the bad press regarding the PS3 launch, Sony has become a bit of a punching bag for the industry’s frustrations. Fair or not, losing one more series – however important – hardly seems like news anymore.

So no, what’s confounding isn’t that Horii has changed faction; it’s that he appears to have changed class, abandoning home consoles – in particular, the sure and sanctified ground of the no-longer-next generation systems – for a handheld, commonly seen as the lowest caste of dedicated game hardware. Continue reading “A Slime for All Seasons: Videogames and Classism”

Matsuno Ball

Final Fantasy XII tries so hard not to be dumb — indeed, to actively address almost everything wrong with Japanese RPGs. The result of this effort (and of the general inspiration behind the package) is one of the most engrossing, sincere “big” games I’ve played in a while. I mean, I really, really enjoy this thing. Seriously! It’s a damned ballsy game, that I’d recommend to anyone. On the surface the only significant problems are thus:

  • The license board
  • That the gambit system isn’t more advanced
  • That the game still has these weird “turns” grafted in

The license board isn’t a bad idea in principle; it’s just in execution that it comes off as one more bizarre affectation. The idea is that any character can, in theory, learn to do anything so long as he or she has the training or experience to do so. Learning how to do one thing (say, to cast some simple white magic) makes it possible to learn similar skills, with just a little more investment. Learning to properly use a mace, on the other hand, won’t do much for your ability to cast Fire.

The way it’s implemented, though — urgh. Why can’t I wear a hat that I just picked off the ground, without first “purchasing” the ability to do so? If I know how to use one kind of sword, why am I wholly unable to use another unless I purchase the ability? And in typical RPG style, why am I all at once magically able to do these things, once I buy the ability? The way this should have been done is as follows:

  1. Call the damned things “proficiencies” instead of “licenses”. That makes it clearer what we’re getting into.
  2. For practical abilities (weapons, armor, use of items and accessories), allow anyone to equip and use those items to some percentage of skill. Those with no training in a bladed weapon would barely be able to do anything useful with a bastard sword, though they’d be able to swing it around and maybe, by chance, hit something for some amount of damage. Those with some training in swords would have a higher chance of using the thing well. Those with specific training in that type of sword would be able to use it perfectly. Likewise, there are some items (like a freakin’ hat) that anyone could wear to full, or almost full, ability — though maybe mastering the use would provide a subtle nuance. If there were any special bonus or benefit, maybe you’d only get that if you had the proficiency. For more intangible abilities — spells, techniques — allow anyone to at least attempt those to which your party has access, though there’s an extremely low chance of success unless they’ve mastered those categories. Anyone who has put in the effort to learn the abilities can do them flawlessly, every time.
  3. Choose the direction in which you’re going to study, rather than the licenses on which to spend your accrued points. If you want to learn how to cast “Cure”, peg it as your current goal; all points would go toward learning “cure”. Once you’ve learned the ability, an unobtrusive message pops up (much like a “level up” message) informing you of your success and reminding you to pick a new goal. (You can turn off the reminders in the option menu.)

There’s no real problem with gambits; this system is the main stroke of genius here. I just wish they were more nuanced. For instance, I’d like to be able to say “if [any enemy] is [within striking range], then [equip] [X melee weapon].” Then attack. Otherwise if they’re not in striking range, equip your range weapon and attack. Also, I don’t know why it’s not giving me the option to target enemies equal to or lower than X health; only greater than. You always want to beat the weakest enemies first, so you clear them away! Again, not a big problem; it’s just that I’m frustrated that I can’t always program my companions to act as I would act — which in theory is the point to the gambit system; to keep me from having to choose the same options over and over from a menu.

Finally, it’s a little strange that the game basically takes place in real time, yet everyone waits his turn to act. There’s no reason for this; it should instead be based on a sort of an initiative system (and retaining the ability to “pause” and issue new orders). Characters and monsters would act the moment they have the opening, and those actions would take a certain amount of time to execute. (Likewise, placement would matter a lot more; you can only hit someone if you’re rudimentarily within range.) The effect would be real-time battles to match the real-time maneuvering.

And on that note, I’d like direct control over my party leader. I want to be able to assign actions to my face buttons, and only have to call up a menu for my less common actions (or to send a command to my companions). This again can be an option — much as there is an option now to leave time running (instead of pausing) when you’ve the menu open. It would not significantly change the way the game played (at least, with the above initiative system), it would make me feel far more involved, and it would simply make more sense.

While we’re here, I wish the overworld would seamlessly stream instead of being broken into hunks of map. I realize this is due to the PS2’s famous memory limitations. Still, hey. Crystal Dynamics figured it out. Also: if it’s going to be forty-five minutes between save points, I’d like a quicksave option. That sounds reasonable to me.

I’d say that all of these alterations would be natural for any sequel to FFXII (especially now that Square is hot on sequels to individual FF games) — except Squenix (and millions of Square fans, and Penny-Arcade) seem to consider this game a failure best forgotten. Ah well. Grace wouldn’t be grace if it were self-evident.

It’s fun that the game pretty much sidelines the Nomura-chic protagonist (who I call Corey) and his “girl chum”, in favor of the more interesting supporting cast and their political drama. This might just be the first game I’ve ever admired for its spoken dialog.

The Crying Game

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part six of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation under the title “Can Videogames Make You Cry?”.

A few weeks ago, Bowen Research published the results of a survey, on the role of emotion in videogames. Hugh Bowen polled 535 gamers on their own views and history, with the end goal to rough some kind of an objective analysis out of their subjective experiences, and thereby maybe to shed some light on what emotional effect videogames have had in the past. The paper is well, and humbly, written; its conclusions, though, are less than revelatory: the only genre that tends to elicit reasonably complex emotion is RPGs (presumably Japanese ones), while other genres all inspire at least some basic kind of motivational urge in the player – be it rage or fear or what have you. Meanwhile, the paper is full of comments about Aeris, and the profound affect of her death on people who had never played Phantasy Star II.

The problem, I suppose, is in the question being asked: “Can videogames make you cry?”. It’s a binary question about a complex issue, much like asking whether Americans are happy and then concluding “sometimes!” And indeed, Bowen’s answer seems to be “well, yes… probably. In theory.” A second issue is the way Bowen approached the issue as a matter of statistics – and then based his analysis on the subjective responses of a skewed sample. “Gamers”, as with any obsessives, have by nature a peculiar perspective of their medium – a medium which, furthermore, is not yet refined as an expressive platform.

The question should not be whether videogames are capable of eliciting complex emotion – as, given the complex analog weave of our brains, anything can result in an emotional response of any depth and sophistication. Rather, what Bowen might have asked is how innately bound any emotion is to the current fabric of videogames (that is, whether it has anything to do with what the medium is trying to accomplish), how much emotional potential videogames might ideally hold, and – assuming some degree of innate potential – how best to insinuate emotion into the framework or theory of a videogame. Or rather perhaps, how best to cull emotion from that same framework. Continue reading “The Crying Game”

And Then There Were None

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part three of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation, under the title “Culture: Five that Fell”.

For all its immaturity, you can tell the videogame industry is getting on in years. With increasing, even alarming, frequency, the faces of our youth have begun to disappear – forced from the market, absorbed into conglomerates, restructured into oblivion, or simply retired from the grind.

The first big wave hit back in the mid ’90s, when increased development costs, the demise of the American arcade, and the shift from 2D development left dozens of small and mid-sized developers – from Toaplan to Technos – out in the cold. Those that didn’t die completely – Sunsoft, Vic Tokai – often pulled out of the US market, or even out of the videogame business. Western outfits braced for the storm by merging with larger and ever larger publishing conglomerates, rationalizing that it was the only way to survive in an uncertain market.

The second wave came only a few years ago, after the burst of the tech bubble. In effort to streamline costs, parent companies began to dump their holdings left and right, regardless of the legacy or talent involved. Those that didn’t often went bankrupt, pulling all of their precious acquisitions down with them. Sometimes the talent moved on and regrouped under a new game; still, when an era’s over, it’s over. Continue reading “And Then There Were None”