Phantom Fingers: The Series — Part Five: Myths and Legends

It is 1981. Somewhere between testing and mass release, interest in Nintendo’s Space Invaders clone Radar Scope had cooled. It’s not that the game was poor. It’s just that six months earlier Pac-Man had changed the arcade landscape, and in the narrowing landscape for Invaders clones there was only room for excellence. Do we order Radar Scope, or do we order Galaga? Easy choice.

Enter the slacker art school kid who was only ever hired as a favor to his family. Shigeru Miyamoto was told to recoup losses by designing another game for the returned Radar Scope hardware, preferably aimed at US audiences. Inspired by Pac-Man, Miyamoto took pretty much all of Iwatani’s new ideas of scenario, character, empathy, and play narrative, and pretty much built a whole game on them without the traditional clutter.

( Continue reading at Game Set Watch )

The New Generation – Part One: Design

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

An idea is healthy only so long as people question it. All too often, what an idea seems to communicate – especially years and iterations down the line – was not its original intention. Context shifts; nuance is lost. To hear adherents espouse an idea, measureless years and Spackle later, is to understand less about the idea itself than about the people who profess it, and the cultural context in which they do so.

In 1985, an obscure Japanese illustrator slotted together a bunch of ideas that made sense to him that morning, and inadvertently steered the whole videogame industry out of the darkest pit in its history. Since that man’s ideas also seemed to solve everyone else’s problems, they became lasting, universal truths that it was eventually ridiculous – even heresy – to question.

So for twenty years, skilled artisans kept building on this foundation, not really curious what it meant; that it worked was enough. They were simply exercising their proven craft, in a successful industry. Result: even as technology allowed those designers to express more and more complex ideas, those ideas became no more eloquent. The resulting videogames became more and more entrenched in their gestures, and eventually spoke to few aside from the faithful – and not even them so well. Nobody new was playing, and the existing audience was finding better uses for its time. A term was coined: “gamer drift”. Continue reading “The New Generation – Part One: Design”

Touch Generations

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation, under the title “FEATURE: A Short History of Touch”.

A few years ago, Nintendo launched the DS with a vaguely unsettling catch phrase: “Touching is Good”. Their PR team sent disembodied plastic hands to everyone on their mailing list, in the process creeping out Penny Arcade. As creepy and forward as the campaign was, it had a point. Touching historically has been good, for the game industry.

On a whole, videogames are an awfully lonely set of affairs. They paint an alluring well, then give the player rocks to throw, to see what ripples. From Spacewar! to Pong, you’re always shooting or batting or throwing some kind of projectile, to prod the environment. Even in some of the most exploration-heavy games, like Metroid, the only way to progress is to shoot every surface in sight, with multiple weapons. Little wonder art games like Rez are based on the shooter template: it’s about as basic a videogame as you can get. See things, shoot things, you win. If things touch you, you lose. Except for food or possessions, generally you can only touch by proxy; toss coins into the well; ping things, to see how they respond. To see if they break. Continue reading “Touch Generations”

NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published in some form by Next Generation. I was asked not to include 1999 or 2000, because the Dreamcast was perceived as a low mark in the industry rather than a high one. I was also asked to include the previous year, to suggest that we were in the middle of an upswing. So… that explains some of the selections.

In videogames, as in life, we tend to get things right about a third of the time. There’s one decent Sonic game for every two disasters; one out of every three consoles can be considered an unqualified success; the Game Boy remake of Mother 1 + 2 was released in one out of three major territories. With the same level of scientific accuracy, one can easily say that, out of the thirty years that videogames have acted as a consumer product, there are maybe ten really excellent milestones, spaced out by your 1984s and your 1994s – years maybe we were all better off doing something out-of-doors.

It kind of makes sense, intuitively: you’ve got the new-hardware years and the innovative-software years, spaced out by years of futzing around with the new hardware introduced a few months back, or copying that amazing new game that was released last summer. We grow enthusiastic, we get bored. Just as we’re about to write off videogames forever, we get slapped in the face with a Wii, or a Sega Genesis – and then the magic starts up all over again, allowing us to coast until the next checkpoint. Continue reading “NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History”

Frickin’ Fantasy XII

It’s one of those laws. If you say anything negative about Final Fantasy, you’re just asking for trouble. To be fair, the complaints I have gotten have generally been civil. I just haven’t had much patience to reply in any helpful manner.

>I see gameplay in an RPG to be a bonus if it is really great gameplay.

If a game is designed well, it is designed well. This genre is developmentally stunted, as a whole. The reason you say this is that you have not seen what greater expressive potential would be possible, were the design philosophy intrinsic to this genre as mature in its development as it could be, at this point in the overall history of game design and in the evolution of game hardware. Pretty much anything is possible now — yet developers have not yet caught up with this potential; increased their ambitions to fit it, and find a new set of limits of expression within the medium; preferring to stay with the same limited design decisions that they have, more or less, been using since the 1980s — decisions which were instituted at the time merely because of the inherent limitations in technology and in design theory at the time.

This is a problem in all genres. It’s just that RPGs are the most prominent example. In a broad sense, they have not grown to fit their bigger shoes. Developers are more or less doing the same dumb things they always have, out of habit — or out of a lack of understanding for what these design concepts originally stood for, or why they were instituted. Or because the audience itself has not matured enough to ask for something more substantial.

You must understand that videogames are not what they could be, artistically. There are few developers at present who are actively trying to explore the expressive power of the medium; the rest are content with absentmindedly churning out reiterations of games which have already been made dozens of times in the past — games which worked, once, in a specific context. They might have even been clever for their time, for the solutions to contemporary hardware and design problems that they happened to find. What so many people fail to understand, however, is that those solutions are relevant within a specific context — timeframe, developer, hardware — alone.  The solutions that Shigeru Miyamoto found and applied within Super Mario Bros. were ingenious for that moment, for that game, for that history. They were an evolution of ideas that Miyamoto nurtured through several previous games: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, Mario Bros. Although some of the principles that he developed in that game — such as his general concept of level design, whereby the game implicitly teaches you how to play it without ever telling you what to do, as such — will probably always be applicable in one sense or another. Others are inherent to that game, to that one man. They are his ideas. Anyone else who uses them as-such — who just takes them and sticks them into his own project, without understanding why the ideas existed to begin with — is making a big mistake. Those parts of that project will be false, because they do not come from the subject at hand. They do not grow out of what this second person is attempting to accomplish. They are an easy and proven solution, yes — yet within their context. This new person, with this new project, has created a new context. And that new context, especially with knowledge of what has come before, demands a new series of questions and demands a new series of solutions which evolve from the demands at hand.

Here. Take a look at what Toru Iwatani has to say. It’s interesting.

http://www.insertcredit.com/features/gdc2004/iwatani.html

The techniques that Yuji Horii created for Dragon Quest are great for Horii and for Dragon Quest. They are his own ideas, which suit what he is personally trying to accomplish. The gameplay choices he makes are perfect for his games. Outside Horii, the situation is different. The question has to rise: what are we trying to accomplish here, and what is the best way to realize that, given current technology and what we understand so far about the potential of game design? If, in the case of, say, a Final Fantasy game, our goal is to tell a story, then how rich a story can we tell? What kind of a story? What manner of game design would lend itself most well to what we wish to accomplish within that story? Ideally, the game design would be invisible. You would not distinguish between it and the ultimate goal of the project — because the design itself would come from that goal. It would be designed in order to facilitate that goal. The game design itself, the game play itself, would be part of that story, and the story would come from the gameplay.

It’s not like this is hard, today. Take a game like, oh, Metroid Prime. The goal in that game, really, is exploration: communication with the environment. To facilitate this, the game is set in a first-person perspective. That way, you’re left looking at the game world rather than Samus’s ass. The game has a rather profound story to tell, yet to do this it draws from the main goal of the game, and from the established gameplay decisions. It is in the process of playing the game, and of inspecting the environment, learning about the game world, that the story unfolds.

Although story is secondary or tertiary in this particular framework, and it evolves organically out of the more primary elements of design, without interfering with them, you see the structure. There is no reason why it cannot be turned on its head, such that the gameplay, the overall design, evolves from the story. If that is the primary goal. Of course, that means that the game design would depend on just what the story is; what its own focus is; what the writers hope to get across.

If a gameplay decision does not lend itself to the ultimate goal of the project, directly or indirectly, then it probably doesn’t belong there. It’s the whole deal about too many strokes spoiling the painting. Even more so when the strokes are misjudged to begin with. Or when they are put in place just because that’s the way it’s always been done, or that’s what people expect, rather than because that’s what the painting calls for.

As long as developers continue to cram their ideas into existing, prefabricated molds — which describes most of the persistent mechanical facets that people have a tendency to associate with the RPG genre, in favor of the more integral goal of the genre (mainly, showing the personal growth of one or more people through a set of difficult trials, and what effect their actions along the way might or might not have on the world around them — thereby, with luck, expressing something meaningful about the nature of life) — they will be stuck in a creative rut. They will not grow as artists. The genre will not grow. The medium as a whole will fail to mature.

What I was trying to say, in that preview, is that Final Fantasy XII seems like it might be one big step toward pulling the genre as a whole out of its current rut. Toward making people /think/ about what constitutes an RPG — or just a videogame, in general — and what what they’re really trying to accomplish.

The rest was just a bit of passing commentary, to help explain why I said that.