Editorial: Video Game Visionary for Hire

Following Bup’s post up with the game I wish existed, I decided that it would be a better use of my column space to expound on this, say, than to gripe about the lameness of the new Tier 10 warrior armor sets coming in the next WoW patch. Seriously, Blizzard, I am tired of “horns” being the defining motif of the warrior class. I want jagged, razor-sharp blades. Stat.

Fear me, Lich King!  For I have horns! Moo!

Fear me, Lich King! For I have horns! Moo!

The game I have been longing for is an update to the basic theme of a single game from my childhood: Seiken Densetsu II, better known to all us gaikokojin as Secret of Mana.

I recall endless hours with my close familial relations spent huddled around our SNES Multitap, banging our pixellated, 16-bit heads against the nefarious evils of the World of Mana in an attempt to restore a tree-goddess and save her from the evil Empire.

The story possessed little depth compared to modern games, as was to be expected for nearly two-decade old technology. The graphics were cartoony, the music haunting and beautiful, and the experience of cooperative play exhilarating.

This is the gold standard by which I judge all video games.

This is the gold standard by which I judge all video games.

In many ways, some modern PVE-based MMOs satisfy this basic need. The thrill of attacking a dungeon and boss together, for example, makes up the entirety of the PVE endgame of World of Warcraft. The downside to this is that it often requires difficulty in balancing schedules, time conflicts, class balance, and any other of a number of potential complications of social, emergent gaming. It is something that cannot be replicated by “couch co-op” or the single-player, party-based experience.

What I would like to see then is a real-time, action-based combat game for consoles that relies on a small, three or four-person party system and provides for same or split-screen cooperative play. It would need a deep and engaging story-line, the option for single-person play or even online cooperative play of the same saved game, in case people could not meet to play that day.

Another thing that I really want in a game that I find missing in many single-player games is for equipment changes to be immediate and visible on my character. For instance, in Final Fantasy XII, the characters all wore the same basic costume despite changes in armor. If I put on full plate, I want to see full plate armor, dammit! The ability to win through a dungeon to equip a new piece of armor and have it proudly displayed on your character, in addition to the improved statistics, is very important to that reptilian sector of my brain that governs the feeling of accomplishment.

What it would not need is more telling, I think, about my philosophy toward game design. I detest artificial extensions of the time it takes to play games: “side” quests that are really required to beat the game (hello, Final Fantasy VII‘s chocobo racing minigames!), necessary level grinds in order to gear up and progress to the next area of the game (every other Japanese RPG created), the reliance of a random-number generator for the best gear (modern MMOs, Diablo), or pointless “crafting” systems meant to give depth to an otherwise engaging game (Rogue Odyssey, why? WHY? A FROG THAT TRANSMUTES WEAPONS?).

We have the technology to cross the universe in seconds.  But we require amphibians to create new weapons.  Its a complicated galaxy.

We have the technology to cross the universe in seconds. But we require amphibians to create new weapons. It's a complicated galaxy.

In short, I want an interactive novel that unfolds on screen, peppered with things that will challenge me physically and strategically. I want progression to be defined by my fellow players’ ability to work together as a team and play skillfully, not because we spent thirty hours a week killing boars. I want to laugh and cry as the story unfolds on screen. I want to cheer the heroes and boo the villains, and I want to feel like I have accomplished something when the ending cutscene comes to a close. And I want to experience it with my friends sitting around me.

Several games over the past year have made me hope this might be possible… Fable II and Too Human both promised something like it, but fell short. I have Dragon Age on pre-order, and Bioware has typically been good about delivering reasonable facsimiles of my dream.

Any places out there hiring a lawyer-cum-visionary game designer?

12 Comments

  1. Lusipurr
    Posted 2009.10.09 at 12:22 | Permalink

    Don’t believe the tasty lies of Peter Molyneux! He lives upon the tears of his devoted followers!

  2. Lane
    Posted 2009.10.09 at 14:39 | Permalink

    I distrust Molyneaux. His surname is suspicious.

  3. Lusipurr
    Posted 2009.10.09 at 15:18 | Permalink

    Molyneux sounds pretty French to me, and that’s a bad sign to start with.

    Lest it be thought that I am prejudiced against the Frogs, allow me to direct your attention to the series of lies, broken promises, untruthes, and misinformation that Molyneux has repeatedly made about–well, everything, really.

    Anyway!

    What you want from a group RPG is what I want–and what no one has ever really developed yet. Before FFXI was released, I had high hopes for that–but of course, things don’t always turn out the way we hope (see Molyneux, above).

    In general, what I want is the classic RPG experience in a format that can be enjoyed with friends–without degenerating into WoW, where the game is lost under a mountain of logistics.

    That, incidentally, is my number one problem with WoW (and games like it): it isn’t a roleplaying game. It’s a giant logistics machine in which people try to obtain numerically maximal/ideal stats. It has nothing to do with roleplaying whatsoever.

    My fear is that once an RPG is opened up to a massive online gameplay, it inevitably is buried by elitists and logistics masters who have no vested interest in storyline or roleplaying, but wish to purely run the numbers game to the hilt. These players naturally end up with the largest quantities of loot and are most successful, so they dominate the game. Anyone who wants to do anything has to work with them and–here we are back at WoW again.

    This can even be seen in the language used by those who play this way. Roleplayers may talk of HP and MP, but they generally are not primarily concerned with the minute details of their DPS–nor would they ever call a character a “DPS”–or a TOON, for that matter (one of the most offensive and idiotic terms I’ve ever heard.) For them, the story–not the stats–are the driving force. Roleplaying is the goal. It’s not just the window dressing on a numerical system which should underlie the game as a whole.

    I am becoming increasingly anti-MMO as time goes on. I’ve folded up my FFXI and WoW accounts, and my online gaming is now specifically limited to things where numerical logistics play no part (i.e. TF2). I have no love for the hardcore MMOgamers, who spend countless hours calculating stats for their gear and rearranging their talents so as to get the perfect balance of DPS and crits–and then quickly rush through any story that comes their way with the irritated and disinterested sighs typical of non-roleplayers. THOSE people should be pilloried for destroying what could have been, and by right ought to be, the roleplaying experience that roleplayers had been waiting for.

    I suppose we’ll have to keep waiting.

  4. Ethos
    Posted 2009.10.09 at 15:32 | Permalink

    …You found Rogue Galaxy engaging?

  5. Lusipurr
    Posted 2009.10.09 at 16:08 | Permalink

    @Ethos: You found Flower engaging?

  6. breaka666
    Posted 2009.10.09 at 17:13 | Permalink

    @lane – couldn’t agree with you more on seeing equipped items. If Basch is holding a diamond sword and shield and wearing diamond armor with matching helmet when I leave the status menu I expect my eyes to greeted by a blinged-the-fuck-out dalmascan knight.

    @lusi – dude, you should do an editorial every once in a while, your rants are interesting as hell.

  7. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2009.10.09 at 22:39 | Permalink

    Curmudgeons Corner!

    -BTW I’d just like to add that MMO’s suck.

  8. Ethos
    Posted 2009.10.09 at 22:43 | Permalink

    @Lusipurr – Still do!

  9. Lane
    Posted 2009.10.10 at 04:14 | Permalink

    @Lusipurr:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that computer games devolve into statistical manipulation (be they MMOs or not). They are exercises in the rote mechanics of machine logic. They are a system with rules, and any system with rules contains ways of exploiting it that may not technically be “out of bounds.” Remember my introductory post on game philosophy and Suits: rules are put in games to make accomplishing a given task more difficult. Skillful manipulation of those rules within a set of wider, meta-rules is what makes a game fun.

    Consider American-rules football, since I’m gearing up for a Horns game tomorrow. The ostensibly easy goal of moving a ball ten yards is complicated by the fact that other players are allowed to attempt to impede its passage. It must be advanced only in certain ways. Certain players may act only in certain ways.

    But careful manipulation of just how these things are allowed (say, a passing play) can have great results. Similarly, the “WoW effect” of modern MMOs stems from the desire to take the game mechanics (the basic rules) and use them in the most effective way possible while staying within the secondary rules, or “what Blizzard considers cheating.”

    In short, most MMOs aren’t RPGs. The term MMORPG is misleading. They’re online, cooperative action games. If you could play Halo or Doom with swords and online, you’d have WoW.

    To recreate the traditional in-person RPG experience would be impossible without some sort of way for players to generate the content. However, that just becomes a privately-hosted online version of Dungeons and Dragons. It’s not true social, emergent gaming. It’s a tabletop RPG played over a new medium.

    In this respect, I think I have different expectations than you when it comes to an MMO like WoW, although I’ve recently tried Aion,DDO, and Runes of Magic with varying degrees of like and dislike. The stat-crunching doesn’t necessarily bother me beyond finding out which pieces of gear are upgrades for me; however, the desire to upgrade my gear is concurrent only with my desire to continue to be an effective “team player.” The true fun for me is teaming up with a group of 4, 9 or 24 other people to accomplish a shared goal. New shiny weapons and armor take a back seat to improved stats. In fact, if I could create a “costume” of my favorite armor set and weapon and simply swap out stats, that would be fine with me.

    Do I think elitism and the “I’m better than you because I did x much sooner so therefore I’m better please validate me!” approach is problematic? Hugely. It is disappointing, but it’s a sign of the insecurity and immaturity among our peers and not endemic to the game system itself. I think some balance is going to be struck within the next generation between this sort of competitive, progression-driven gameplay and the sandbox style of gameplay that allows emergent gaming like roleplaying and storyline interaction to take off. In my “improving MMOs” post I mentioned several ways you could balance telling a traditional narrative (like in a console RPG) with the player-created storylines of millions of individual characters.

    Unfortunately, the thought that has been occurring to me of late is that the best way to do this is to encourage player class homogenization. I think FFXIV’s “Armoury” system will do this; in a way, it’s even like your post on materia. Equipping different materia gives PCs different characteristics. It’s not impossible for, say, Cloud, who is a high-armor, high-damage character, to be able to toss off giant, life-saving heals.

    In the EQ/WoW model, this isn’t going to happen. Healers don’t do damage, tanks don’t heal, and damage dealers don’t hold up well to beatings. Gameplay suffers because of class and player imbalances. Have a good tank and awesome DPS but a lousy healer? Forget that instance. So much “play time” is caught up in frustrating desire to get everyone in sync… which is exactly why regular, scheduled raiding is more pleasant because you learn to work together as a team.

    But that’s not a sustainable model for games; I really think that as boring and bland as homogenization can be, MMOs will have to move toward a more balanced approach where a single character can switch between roles fluidly: here a tank, there a healer, there a DPS, with a concomitant investment in time to “train” these skills, of course.

    A few ways you could fix it without homogenization would be to remove the terrible “bound to a character” system of items. Gearing up alternate characters is a nightmare. I’ve recently started gearing up my death knight in WoW, and I find myself thinking: if only I could re-use all the old plate I have banked from my warrior! I could obviate the need to spend twice the team rehashing old content for the same stuff! Changing all dungeon-drop items to “bind to account” would be one way of addressing this problem without such story-destroying features as the burly barbarian suddenly picking up a staff and becoming Merlin’s apprentice.

    The other solution would be job changing or hybridization, which ends up being just another time sink, but that’s the point of games, as long the time sink is made fun and engaging.

    By no means are we at the state of the art when it comes to social gaming! Bring on the new frontiers, I say.

  10. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2009.10.10 at 04:48 | Permalink

    Wow Lane’s response is longer than his article! XD

  11. Lusipurr
    Posted 2009.10.10 at 12:08 | Permalink

    @breaka: SN wisely recalls Curmudgeon’s Corner–something that may be seeing a revival here in future.

    @SN: There’s much worth saying (and reading), though!

    @Lane:
    In short, most MMOs aren’t RPGs. The term MMORPG is misleading. They’re online, cooperative action games. If you could play Halo or Doom with swords and online, you’d have WoW.

    Absolutely. I’ve often said that WoW and such are FPS games with a veneer of fantasy elements–more HEX than Final Fantasy. Of course this is more interface and gameplay than the actual core of the game, which is built around repeatedly running through raids to get numerically maximal loot. In that respect, WoW is essentially a game of bingo, which is played over and over again until everyone has won enough games to satisfy them.

    The best MMO I’ve ever played was FFXI, where the storyline was the driving force of the game–but again, this was only until one got to L.75 at which point DYNAMIS, LIMBUS, and SKY all became the primary objectives: dungeons that are run through over and over in the hope of obtaining rare drops for the participants–who are ultimately concerned, as usual, with the numerical system underpinning the game. At which point the ‘RPG element’ went out the window and the fun stopped.

    What kills me about this situation is that MMOs could be fun games if people were less rigid about the numerical systems that underpin them–which, in turn, leads to less zeal for re-running the same tired instances on a schedule. (Incidentally, that’s a job, not a game, and one would do well not to confuse the two.)

    I appreciate your desire to have a good team and to work well together, etc.: but this isn’t a game, nor is ‘teamwork’ necessarily a part of any enjoyable activity. In and of itself it is a neutral act. Miners have teamwork. Railroad builders share camaraderie. Countless tasks require excellent timing and a close working relationship with one’s fellows: few are enjoyable as a hobby. Playing WoW for the teamwork aspect is a bit like eating lima beans for their fibre content: one may find the object of desire elsewhere, without having to swallow all the nastiness that goes with it: hence TF2, where teamwork is key, but the numerical maximation and entrenched elitism are practically nonexistant.

    WoW could be a fun game, but the people who play it ruin it. Of course, the people who play it ruin it because the game is designed to propel them in that direction. Raids are hard enough that numerically maximal stats are necessary to ameliorate the difficulty; people who stray outside of the ‘typical play styles’ are difficult to work into a group for those raids; team work is important, so anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into the plan is going to be a hindrance, not a help; there are small rewards (ay, and scarce) for helping those significantly beneath one’s own level; &c. &c. &c.

    There’s no way to fix WoW and FFXI and their ilk at present. The design of the game creates and perpetuates the things that ruin the ‘fun’ of playing them. What I want is FFXII that I can play with my friends. The stats are important, but not so important that I refused to have Penelo in my party because she has two less STR than Vaan.

    I think FFXIV is the best hope for an experience like this–but even then, it is a small hope.

  12. breaka666
    Posted 2009.10.10 at 13:47 | Permalink

    I see the discussions had in Lanes posts and the ones in Bups and Ginias and I see a dichotomy. misogynistic humor and gay jokes are nice but this is awesome.

    When is Lane going to be on a podcast, I want to hear these discussions, not just read them.

    @Lusi & SN – Curmudgeons Corner. hell yes.