Keeping Unapprised to Developments

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on May 20, 2010 at 9:02 pm

Lost Planet 2 was recently released to intense criticism that Capcom failed to address any flaws inherited in its iterant features; this is made worse from the flaws inherent in the game’s modicum of new features.  How, it is asked, is this possible?  Lost Planet itself was practically a launch title for the 360 and its sequel sees release in what is likely the autumn of this generation’s lifecycle.  The answers, I fear, are endemic of the culture which produced it, and there are nuances to this that do not facilitate easy understanding.  That Lost Planet 2 is a shooter drastically emphasizes the differences between attitudes in development and growth between the east and the west.

Principally, western-developed games stand upon the shoulders of their predecessors and are developed to stand toe-to-toe, feature-to-feature, with their contemporaries.  The general expectation is that each game should be as good as the game that came before; that means learning from others’ missteps, including popularized features and modifying the scope of a game to match what is currently in demand.  Of the more popular and populated genres, this evolution is swift and merciless to those that ignore it, and in no genre is this more evident than shooters.  With heavy emphasis on gameplay and reliance upon multiplayer to add replay value, these games are played until they are no longer relevant; Quake 3, released in December of 1999, is still being played today because no game matches its frenetic, yet simplistic, deathmatch.  It’s then-contemporary, Unreal Tournament, doesn’t see as much use as it’s seen several sequels that have generally upgraded the whole process.

Shooter savants can tell when a game was produced based upon not just its graphics, but which features are present.  Max Payne popularized “bullet-time,” so you will not see this feature on any title prior to 2001 (even then, most games have the decency to not include it unless it is somehow justified in-plot).  Gibs — the reduction of a model to red chunks and bits — reached its zenith in 1999 with Unreal Tournament, until being replaced with pirouetting ragdoll physics in 2003 with the appropriately titled Unreal Tournament 2003; only very recently have games begun to combine the two into truly spectacular splatterfests.  Halo gave us recharging “health” along with vehicle-based combat, with the former seeing so wide a distribution that only its exceptions are notable, while the latter was immediately integrated into Unreal Tournament 2004.  It also likely served as an inspiration for the Battlefield franchise’s emphasis on vehicles as well.  Half-Life gave us squad-based opponents that worked in concert to challenge the player, and squads now figure heavily into every military-themed shooter, acting as the whole allied team or subgroups of that team.  And, there are tons of smaller implementations, like side-justified weaponry (first seen in Turok of all places), accuracy that degrades with movement and weapon fire (Counter-Strike) grenades as a set, secondary weapon (Team Fortress), third-person camera controls and dodging maneuvers, headshots, limited clip size, alt fires, iron sights, all of these were introduced and met with success in prior titles before being integrated as industry standards.

As such, it is when a game is released in ignorance or with purposeful neglect of these standards, do we begin seeing epitaphs in reviews as the game feeling “antiquated,” or more derogatively, “would have been an embarrassment five years ago.”  Daikatana is infamous for being this, both due to being released incredibly late as well as the arrogance of Ion Storm believing they could do no wrong in the genre they popularized with DoomFortress Forever, a mod upgrading Team Fortress Classic is a bumbling, antiquated mess that refused to acknowledge that games should change with the genre, and that there’s nothing so sacred that it should be exempt from meeting our rising expectations.

Eastern developers don’t function like this.  Examine role-playing games, the most popular genre in Japan: what do they share in common?  What are their benchmarks?  What features must each one include?  Which features were not present ten years ago?  All that they share in common is that there are levels, a battle system and a plot to experience.  Some have real-time battle systems, while others turn based and other still have some fusion of the two; leveling up may be static, imparting pre-set stat bonuses, or the player may direct the growth of the characters, or there may not be levels at all; and so on.  The only standard is the very base of the genre itself; it seems to be more important for games to be differentiated by their features, than it is for developers to learn and integrate well-received features into successive releases.  On this note, sequels are marked by their adherence to previously established mechanics, with deviation met with mixed or outright critical results.  Whence goes progress?  With the emphasis on simply producing a new battle system, little effort is expended on improving that system.

Other genres show this as well.  Fighting game franchises, again a primary export from Japan and not something produced stateside are valued for being similar to their predecessors and offer only additional characters and balance changes with each iteration.  Certainly, additional production values may be present — equipment collection, gaiden modes and so on — but the core game remains unchanged.  From Soul Blade to Soul Calibur IV, Street Fighter to Super Street Fighter IV, each game presents a familiar package instantly recognizable as belonging to the franchise in question through the gameplay alone.  All of this really becomes apparent when we compare advancement in the hypercompetitive shooter genre.  Dirge of Cerberus got panned because its gameplay was nowhere near the standards of the time, even if the story and graphics made it tolerable as an experience. 

And, of course, we have Lost Planet 2, which is an update in story, setting and scope but little else changed, allowing old and new flaws to somehow exist simultaneously when really, it should have been a better game.

And I’m not saying that western developers never fall into this.  Halo has changed little since its debut, and even side titles as ODST deviant minimally, even as a whole gaming generation has come and gone.  However, in this case it is more a developer resting on its laurels, rather than shirking a responsibility to accept changes in the genre — and Halo is surprisingly relevant even yet.

As developers in Japan simply aren’t keen on copying or learning from their predecessors or contemporaries, we are prone to seeing huge steps backwards if they move at all.  How else did FFXIII end up as a huge, FFX-esque corridor where FFXII was a huge, expansive world.

As long as both sides stick to their “strong” points I doubt this issue will come to a head; we’ll keep making shooters, where expectations are high and rising, and they’ll keep making RPGs, where people only expect levels and plot.

  1. I’ve often been conflicted with what defines a sequel as being as good as, if not better, than the first. Although I think a sequel should strive to do something its predecessor didn’t, what is expected is a line that should be drawn somewhere.

    I think Left 4 Dead 2 is a strong example of this. By all rights, the game does improve upon the first in most every way, with new levels, melee weapons (which practically redesign the game entirely based on their application) and a more open approach to level design, yet all I heard when the game came out were comparisons about how it was too similar to the original which I wouldn’t consider a bad thing since the original was largely rather fun and well built. I can think of scores of games where I’d be content to have a sequel that brushes up on the design, simply because the original’s structure was relatively solid to begin with. While perhaps not the best example for this argument, I recall loving the first Buffy the Vampire Slayer game on the X-Box and being annoyed when the sequel’s (different) developer aped the first game’s design badly, with worse graphics, a reduced combat system and an absence of gameplay balance largely done to add more playable characters to the mix, which while a noble idea was poorly executed.

    In terms of fighters, you reference both the Soul Calibur series and the Street Fighter series. Although I’m more intimately familiar with the former, I can identify many traits of design that readily mark the evolution of the prime installments, particularly with Street Fighter III’s almost entirely new cast as well as a parry mechanic which can result in some really impressive YouTube videos from more adept players. Soul Calibur, on the other hand, seemed to aspire towards great strides in improvement early on in its infrastructure only to slow to a crawl after the second game. The third brought back many characters from past entries but sullied the balance, and the fourth installment only proffered one new character into the series canon, focusing instead on a create-a-character mode which rapidly seems poised to envelop the series. If I asked, I would say the series has rapidly deteriorated as many existing characters have had their movesets unnecessarily tweaked (in the case of Ivy, making the character pretty much unplayable) without adding enough in the way of new characters to make up for it.

    To provide a point of comparison, Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 recycled a number of sprite sheets from numerous past Capcom fighting games (largely stuff operating within the Marvel Super Heroes set of design as well as, I believe, the Street Fighter Alpha series). Yet despite so much rehash, it added enough new to its framework, primarily with the 3-on-3 gameplay (new at least to Capcom at the time) as well as a massive roster of characters that the game is still played and popular today. It’s not that they needed to make many improvements, it’s just that they made the right ones and generally kept the series playable.

    To provide another Capcom example, you yourself once said to me that after Resident Evil 4, and its sweeping changes to gameplay, Resi5 could essentially do something similar and pretty much get away with it based on the merits of the new design. I don’t know if you still hold to that way of thinking, but it would generally be reasoned that Resi5 did eventually do just that, yet in my line of work I often hear people say it sucks compared to Resi4, despite not being fundamentally all that different. My own opinion is to the contrary, though I’ll agree the single player campaign isn’t as strong due to shoddy partner AI, the overall structure of the game is still rock solid, and the two-player campaign easily encapsulates all the necessary fun inherit in the design.

    As for JRPGs, I’ll agree there is a general stunt there. I like the framework of the design, mind you, but I feel as though virtually every RPG that comes out of Japan these days with the effort to try something new tends to fail on almost every other front. In fact, with the exception of Xenogears (who has its own failings, though many of these can be attributed to Square rushing it out the door before it completed its development cycle) every RPG I’ve professed to favor is a sequel of some sort.

    Although Lunar 1 has its merits, Lunar 2 has a more involved and complex story along with refinements in its predecessors design. Shadow Hearts offered interesting concepts, world and gameplay but it took Shadow Hearts 2 to really pull it together. And then Valkyrie Profile, while playing decidedly different than almost any RPG out there, wasn’t fully realized until the sequel, which I can honestly say is better than the original in every single way.

    At the moment I’m comparing FFXIII and the recent Resonance of Fate (the former of which I’m playing through and the latter of which I’ve already beaten) and both games seems to try something new at the expense of something else. Final Fantasy hasn’t utilized dungeon design for years, and in an effort to appear more flashy and viable has largely done away combat strategy as well as aping FFX’s Sphere Grid character leveling system, but without nearly the flexibility and options that said system offered. In fact, the entire experience feels streamlined to take the player by the hand as much as possible so they can see all of Square’s pretty graphics and forget that for every one good idea they have, they have ten bad ones to go with it.

    Resonance, on the other hand, while using a bit of VP2’s concepts is virtually entirely new, at times excessively hard and decidedly unforgiving. It’s at times too unfriendly to players, sports a battle system that involves more genuine strategy but at times becomes tedious on the more standard fights the player encounters, much like Xenosaga II did with its battle system (though comparing this game to Xenosaga II otherwise is unfair; that game was simply terrible).

    Much of the trouble this seems to come about from is that JRPGs are still, well, made with the Japanese audience in mind and to be honest, I don’t think the developers tend to know what they want anymore.

    To make a point, FFXIII’s Japanese sales, while decent, were dwarfed both by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (published in Japan, entertainingly, by SquareEnix) and Square’s own Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. The former is a shooter, not exactly a genre heavily developed in Japan, the latter a sequel to a Japanese RPG which tends to feature both original story concepts and a (at times excessively) tangled web of characters and events while remaining something familiar. While one can argue the KH concept may no longer be original, there’s more grounds for player investment on the continuity alone, making fewer changes to the game’s infrastructure perhaps forgivable, as too stark of a change may in fact be too jarring.

    FFXIII, by contrast, is the latest game in the series pressured to reinvent itself while still staying the same and in some ways, more than any other past title in the series, falls flat.

    I should point out that all the sequel RPGs I’ve cited as my favorites (and generally well received critically) are not just sequels in title, but in narration. All these games pick up off their predecessors and tie into the plot, which can itself be considered an evolution in design if what was done before can be harnessed and built upon without being depended upon.

    The problem with RPGs, headlined then by Final Fantasy, may be summed up as a need to change while staying the same. An obligation to abandon what works is put into effect and what’s set to replace it just doesn’t always do the job as well.

  2. A different way of putting this is that RPGS are like a franchise restaurant. You go to Taco Bell, and you know what they’ve got on offer. Any new products simply are new combinations of ingredients they alreay possess; as such, they all taste similar. Different franchises offer different interpretations of the same foods, and your affections is granted for preference in these minor deviations.

    RPGs get away with alot because the big drawing point is the story, rather than the gameplay. Were there a new Final Fantasy release every year, fans would not complain about stagnation in gameplay since the plot would be sufficiently different. Because the focus is away from gameplay, they feel no pressure to evolve away from the standards they’ve presented. But then, they’re not really doing anything for storytelling either (Squeanix should hire Haruki Murakami to write their next scenario).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: