One of the great strengths of our western game industry, and one of the fatal weaknesses for japan, has been our industry’s ability to learn from the failures and successes of past endeavors, and thereby to continually return consecutive products which are something approaching world’s best practice with respect to human design considerations. That is to say that the games in question may not be any good, but we’ve near perfected the art of not pissing gamers off with respect to the little niggles of game design. The Japanese for their part have shown themselves to be far more apt to make human design blunders, to greater or lesser extents, for the sake of narrative. And thus do we have the back and forward which transpires between the Japanese game industry and the Western game market. Here are five easy to implement ways that Japanese game designers could stop their games from being unpalatable garbage, if only their small yellow ears were able to comprehend our fat gaijin words.
1) In Game Tutorials
Do: Feature user-friendly battle system tutorials in the game’s instruction pamphlet, or as an OPTIONAL feature within the game.
Do not: Bog down the game with a series of compulsory, comprehensive tutorials, that do not grant players access to the battle-system until they hit the end-game.
I heard what seemed to be the oddest complaint with the release of Resonance of Fate. It was a game with an extremely complex battle system to be sure, yet it came replete with a comprehensive tutorial, which took the better part of an hour to complete, briefing fledgling players on the nuances of the system. This had a number of western gamers seeing red, why you may ask, well, because Tri-Ace did not see fit to awkwardly cram this hour long tutorial into the game’s storyline in great dribs and drabs. Yes, that’s right, gamers of our age have grown so accustomed to in-game tutorials that they cannot abide games which simply place the tutorials within the coliseum adjacent to the starting location (I know, a terrible burden). But you know, this isn’t the only thing the western gaming market feels strongly about, they also feel strongly that Final Fantasy XIII’s tutorial should not have taken place within the game’s story. Final Fantasy XIII’s tutorial took the better part of ten hours to explain what should have taken five minutes, moreover the proper functioning of XIII’s battle system was withheld for all this time so as not to get ahead of itself. Personally speaking, I cannot stand it when I confront Final Fantasy X’s comparatively smaller compulsory tutorials, which clog up my playthroughs with extra screens of tedium. In my most professional of opinions the correct way of doing this sort of thing is to follow the Final Fantasy VII example; pieces of Materia are made available incrementally, and by the time that a larger selection of Materia is available to players, the beginners hall is then available to explain it to anyone too stupid to figure it out on their own. Personally speaking, I am the type of person who staunchly believes that in-game tutorials have no place being located within the main story, when they could have just as easily been located within a game menu, manuel or somewhere within the game world itself. At any rate, a number of players will require an in-game, in-story tutorial, while a number of other players will abhor such a contrivance, which is why you make it optional.
2) NPC Dialogue
Do: Decide on a uniform number of dialogue responses which all NPCs conform to.
Do Not: Be an indecisive prick.
JRPGs seem to begin with the best of intentions, they are so eager to establish this virtual world of theirs that they imbue their NPCs with two, or even three, lines of dialogue each and every time the gamer initiates a conversation. Problem is; their commitment does not match their exuberance, and that tends to result in games which feature two or three lines of dialogue for every NPC in the first or second town, followed by one line of dialogue for every NPC thereafter. My problem with this scenario is that I’m a completionist, I’m one of those rare idiots that wishes to read every line that the game designers have written, and thus do I wish to high heaven that they chose to uniformly deliver one line, two or even three. JRPGs frequently set up the expectation that every NPC has two lines of dialogue, only to confound me with it two towns over, where people have fuck-all to say. I cannot begin to describe how many lines of redundant NPC dialogue that I have had to re-read owing to my supposition that there would be a second or third line. Bottom line? Don’t be so fucking indecisive; imbuing characters with a variable number of dialogues is as untidy on the design front, as it is frustrating for the gamers who read them.
3) Interchangeable parties
Do: Force some party change-ups early on in the game so that players grow accustomed to the combat role filled by each character, and so that inter-party narrative relationships are able to be more firmly established and explored.
Do not: Continue playing musical chairs with the party configuration until the player reaches the end-game, this is an intolerable drag on gameplay and party management.
This is perhaps the most controversial point that that needs making, and I know that our good friend Ethan Pipher has expressed his support for interchangeable parties, moreover (to the best of my recollection) so has our kindly Patron Lusipurr. Some people unreservedly support the interchangeability of parties in service of the in game narrative. Personally speaking, I have always approved of interchangeable party line-ups to an extent. For instance, an interchangeable party is ideal during the opening sequence of a JRPG when the game designer is attempting to justify the formation of a party and the interrelationships therein. The opening section of FFVII would not have been the same were it not for Cloud’s separation from Avalanche, meeting of Aeris, and his subsequent attempted rescue of Tifa in the guise of Miss Cloud.
While necessary to a point, this rationale only carries me so far before narrative indulgence gives way to party management frustration, and the kudos turns to crap. I am of the firm view that no more than five to ten hours of the adventure can be justified as being spent juggling enforced party configurations, which is perhaps the reason that I do not love FFIX quite so much as Shawn and Ethan. Moreover, I am certain that even the most unflinching advocates of forced party change-ups would be hard-pressed to justify gamers being made to wear Aeris like a dead albatross ‘round their necks throughout the Temple of the Ancients. More unpalatable still was FFXIII and its forced party change-ups every half hour or so, for the first 30 hours! Simply put, interference with party management over the long term is an intolerable burden on gameplay which should not exist in the modern era. Contrast FFXIII with the party management of FFX, where the party was essentially yours to keep after the initial few hours of gameplay, granted you lose Yuna for a time later in the game, yet her skills are arguably the least relied upon command-set of any character in that game (besides perhaps Rikku). Ironically, FFXII which had a thoroughly malleable character development system, and thus sported a party most apt to interchangeability, ultimately had very little forced alteration in party configuration (but then we know that the world of Ivalice was re-purposed midway through development). Japan need to work at making RPGs which minimize party management frustrations, and produce fewer games which force the hand of gamers into utilizing a prescribed party line-up on the whim of developers.
Do: Alter the characterisations of characters that do not possess serviceable analogues in western culture, so as to have them make sense when voice acted in the English language.
Do not: Attempt to convert an exclusively Japanese characterization into an English performance, as this is not wont to succeed.
Enixsoft’s voice acting and VA direction tends belong to the better side of the Japanese voice acting spectrum, yet the performance of Birth by Sleep’s Terra definitely stands in stark contrast to this. I stand myself in good company when I insist that Terra sounds dull as a plank of wood (think Orlando Bloom minus the charisma), yet I cannot entirely blame actor Jason Dohring (who made a decent fist of his role as Logan Echolls, on the television series Veronica Mars) for his portrayal, given what he had to work with in this foreign character type. Anyone with a passing familiarity with Japanese entertainment will, I am sure, immediately recognize the role filled by Terra, he is an insecure young man, and his insecurity is manifest in the way that he talks like Oliver Motok, if Oliver Motok’s tongue were molested by a swarm of angry bees. When he is feeling particularly insecure, Terra will gaze forlornly at his feet and make Japanese noises until a flashback or internal monologue is initiated to move the scene on. In short, this character cannot be adapted to the English language, because it does not exist in the English language entertainment tradition, and nobody would identify with him if it did. The actor in question cannot pull off a credible performance, because the character itself carries no credit within decent society. Whenever the localization staff start changing the substance of a game’s scenario, the usual assortment of misfits and weeaboos trundle out to start their anti-Working-Designs bellyacheing, yet these people are idiots to a man, and hardly worth sparing a second thought on. I say get out that Sharpie and go to town boys, because if Alexander O. Smith cannot write a more contextually appropriate character than Terra, then I’ll eat my weight in Foster’s urinal cakes!
Do: Create a diverse array of mini-games to more completely flesh out the setting of your JRPG.
Do: Implement these mini-games into the core storyline if you think they are good enough.
Do not: Make mastery of said mini-games a pre-requisite for further progression of the game’s plot, regardless of how proud Nomura is of them (they are likely not half so good as he thinks).
Birth by Sleep follows a game design philosophy that is in many ways what I have been crying out for, for some time now. A game design philosophy that says “let’s throw everything and the kitchen sink at players, and then see what sticks”, and so they do. In many ways this approach makes for a great game, and in many instances it works, save for when it does not. The night before last I became stuck for over an hour in Birth by Sleep. I was not stuck on a boss, not an obstacle, puzzle, nor platforming contrivance, but on a rhythm based, musical themed mini-game. Now I will be the first to admit that I am no good at rhythm games, but I do not seek to play rhythm games, in fact I would go so far as to say that I actively avoid them, Birth by Sleep is not a rhythm game. Thus imagine my intense personal dissatisfaction at being compelled to play one again, and again, and again, until I had obtained sufficient mastery to clear this hurdle. This was not a mere instance of having to scrape myself over the line of mediocre achievement, time and again I achieved scores that the game labeled as ‘good’, but it was not until I had accrued the honorific of ‘cool’ that I was allowed to proceed. There was a good reason why FFX didn’t end if the player failed to best the Lucca Goers in the Blitzball championship, simply put; it’s no bloody fun being forced to repeatedly play half-baked mini-games.
Verdict: I would subsequently implore the JRPG INDUSTRY thus:
Do: Implement your tutorials and mini-games in discreet and unobnoxious ways.
Do: Create a uniform number of NPC dialogue responses, and allow your localization team greater latitude in re-writing your characters for a western audience (because let’s face it, in many cases they are better writers than you lot).
Do: Look to establish greater party stability throughout the latter two-thirds of the game (at the very least).
Do not: Claim that your game appeals to western audiences simply because you have included a crudely muscled barbarian/space marine and gouts of tokenistic blood (that really is the very least of our concerns).
But who am I kidding? You cannot teach those who will not learn. Just like FFX’s ‘cycle of death’, each JRPG designer has their heads lodged firmly in the arse of the next, and they just keep going around in a circle, nothing ever changes. Around and down, never up, only down, but it’s warm and familiar.