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Games Are Not Shoes

Game Shoes Earlier this week, Nicholas Lovell argued that the consequence of Steam allowing developers to set their own pricing will be the price of PC games heading for zero, as free-to-play economics effectively vanquish the opposition through market competition. His argument draws against classical economics, which he illustrates via an example with shoes. But missing from Nicholas' argument is the elephant in the room: games are not shoes.

As ever, I can't fault Nicholas' understanding of how free-to-play works or the implications of internet distribution as a disruptive technology. His latest book is built on analysis of these phenomena, and his arguments should be taken seriously. However, my latest book, Chaos Ethics, gives me a very different perspective, since my interest recently has been imagination and its implications for games, art, science, and ethics. In this particular case, looking at moral philosophy makes me very wary of thought experiments with seemingly innocent stipulations. As Allen Wood points out in the context of ethics, stipulations within thought experiments skew the conclusions in ways that are never as innocent as they first seem, leading us to conclusions that depend upon the stipulations as much as they do the thought experiment.

In this case, Nicholas' thought experiment is the 'marginal cost argument', which he constructs upon the example of pricing in the case of competing shoe factories. Once this competition begins (the thought experiment states) the price of shoes stabilise at the marginal cost, which is the cost to make each extra pair of shoes after the first. Nicholas then claims that since the marginal cost in digital distribution tends to zero (because digital copying is without significant cost), the price of digitally distributed games must also tend to zero. He notes that this "excludes the impact of marketing; it assumes that one pair of shoes is as good as another" - and this is the stipulation that actually undermines the thought experiment. Because as simple footwear, one shoe is indeed as good as another. But as entertainment, one game is never as good as another.

Before drawing this point out further I want to examine the framework that Nicholas' argument depends upon, namely that free-to-play is a new business model that is disruptive because digital distribution is a disruptive technology. The later point is spot on, but the former point is misleading. To see this, we can look at free-to-play not as a new business model but as the latest form of a very old game pricing strategy, variable pricing. The current clash between microtransaction-style variable pricing for games and retail-style fixed pricing for games is almost as old as the industry itself!

In the 1980s, the videogame market also had competition between fixed pricing - boxed games for consoles and home computers - and variable pricing - at that time, arcade coin drops. Arcade games were the original microtransaction games, making money one quarter at a time. Initially, pricing was variable simply because players didn't know how often they'd play an arcade game, but in 1985 Atari introduced the first disruptive pricing strategy for videogames with Gauntlet. Previously, one play cost you a quarter (or ten pence here in the UK) but Gauntlet let players decide how much to pay - by letting them have more health the more they paid. There were enough health pick ups in the game for one of its four players to play for free, but the others had to keep putting coins in the slot to keep up. One (nearly) free player was subsidized by up to three others pumping in coins. Today, it's more like 90% of players being subsidized by 10% ‘whales’, but the situations are still broadly analogous.

Now notice here how little marginal cost had to do with the economics of arcade games. That's because the purchase of the product (the arcade game) and the revenue generated (the coin drops) were actually disconnected by the nature of the business model. By the 1990s, the arcade boom lost ground because home consoles were able to offer better value in fixed pricing when compared to coin ops. Additionally - and crucially - the games designed to be played at home could offer entirely new game design concepts because unlike arcade games they didn't need to worry about how long the game would last, over-the-shoulder appeal, and other factors that were crucial in the design of arcade games.

The aesthetics of play that were possible on the home consoles turned out to have huge appeal, allowing for bigger, more explorable game worlds, deeper and longer narrative elements, and no requirement to queue for popular cabinets. The arcades survived by recognising what it was that they could do that home console games couldn't easily do - offer specialist hardware. Nowadays (outside of Japan, at least), arcade games are dominated by plastic guns, steering wheels, and dance pads, because arcade owners are better placed to buy these expensive pieces of kit than home players, who generally object to unnecessary extra hardware costs (such as, dare I say, Kinnect).

Despite how it might seem, similar factors still apply today because the desirability of a game is not simply a factor of price-of-entry. What a AAA fixed price game can deliver to players is (potentially, at least) a substantially deeper game experience than is possible in free-to-play, where getting a minimum viable product to market is a near-requirement, preventing the inclusion of more advanced features of the game world. If something like Grand Theft Auto IV or Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag had been financed on a free-to-play model, they would have been impossible – only the economics of fixed price premium console games justifies the astronomical development budgets. This isn’t even an exceptional case: look at cinema. Digital distribution has reduced the marginal cost in the film industry in just the same way as it has in games, but people still go to the movies and pay a fixed price to do so. This is because blockbuster movies – just like blockbuster games – are made on a high budget in order to ensure that cachet attaches to the resulting brand.

I said before that games are not shoes, in that if you just want to put something on your feet any shoe would do (the stipulation Nicholas' thought experiment crucially depends upon). But in fact, in a very real sense, games are like shoes. Despite the availability of very cheap footwear, Nike enjoys a 40% market share in the United States. Branded, well-made, well-marketed shoes do not trend towards marginal cost. In the same way, branded, well-designed, well-marketed games will not trend towards marginal cost, even on PC. It's just that such games will now face strong competition from microtransaction-funded games, in what might be called the Revenge of the Arcade.

Now in the race to not leave money on the table, the companies with a stake in console gaming could screw themselves over by making all their games offer aesthetics of play along similar lines to free-to-play games. That is a risk. But as long as publishers can maintain premium brands on console - such as Assassin's Creed, Grand Theft Auto, The Legend of Zelda,and Call of Duty - the pricing on PC will not trend towards zero, just as cinema ticket prices have not trended to zero. Rather, there will be a split between the market for variable priced games and the market for (largely) fixed priced games, with most players playing games in both styles. In this respect, what's new is only the possibility of making the lowest price of entry zero - which does follow from digital distribution, along the essential lines traced by the marginal cost argument.

One final point should be made: games are also not shoes because there is no such thing as an indie shoe. Almost all shoes are industrially produced, but some games are made by dedicated hobbyists who can risk commercial failure in the pursuit of their own aesthetic values for play. Since free-to-play - like the arcade before it – significantly affects the design of play there is substantial room in the market for games in indie niches at fixed price. Such games are not subject to classical economics because, like other artworks, their value depends in part upon their individual uniqueness. But unlike other artworks digital distribution means that when the wind is right, a small number of indie game titles can hit very big indeed. Just look at Minecraft. This kind of situation is never the case in a market that the marginal cost argument will hold for. Money affects design - it always did, as the arcades demonstrate. But not everyone is in it for the money, and those that aren’t can still hit it big when they get lucky. And that factor of luck, of the right idea at the right time, is something that classical economics has never been able to model.

Cross-posted from Gamesbrief.


Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms Announced

hk_s_repre_05 So why put up the Kult: Heretic Kingdoms post-mortem now, nine years after the game? Well it gives me great pleasure to announce that after an epic quest in the world of games publishing, a sequel is finally arriving! The new game, Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, will be released later this year as confirmed today by a press release by the publisher bitComposer.

The new game is developed by Games Farm (the new face of the original game’s development team) with game design, narrative design, and dialogue scripts by International Hobo. The Shadows website for the game is already up, and includes a teaser trailer for the game – check it out!


Games, Guns, and Gender

An open letter to Sheri Graner-Ray at FEM IRL as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Other replies welcome!

Alpha Protocol Dear Sheri,

For about a decade there, we were running into each other once or twice a year, in California for GDC (where we both hosted events for the IGDA), and sometimes in your neck of the woods for the equivalent event in Austin. Life inevitably moves on, and in my transition to father I am not quite the International Hobo I once was, even though I still consult under the brand of the company I founded. There are so many great people I miss from the US conference circuit that it would be dangerous to start listing them lest this entire letter was just a who’s-who of wondrous games industry folk, but I really miss not getting to see you and my “Jazz man” Joe Saulter at GDC, and I learned so much about the social problems of representation in games from your respective round tables – fixtures of my GDC schedules every year I went.

Women and the Games Industry

I'm writing in part to ask: has the situation improved for women in the games industry, or games as a hobby? I have not really seen much sign of progress in employment terms... My first boss, Angela Sutherland at Perfect Entertainment, is still the only female executive I've worked with, although Nicole Lazzaro introduced me to a few at Casual Connect in Seattle a few years back. If there are more women going into games as a career, it is still a long, long way from parity, and there seems to be a definite problem transitioning from ‘the production line’ to the boardroom.

But then, on the other side of the coin, I feel like the ‘Casual revolution’ spearheaded by companies like PopCap, and the ‘social games’ gold rush that followed, have at least put pay to the lie that “women don't play games”. Yet this gain seems to come at an odd cost, since the design-by-metrics approach that undergirds the business model of the so-called social games is entirely gender-blind, seeing women as simply another source of revenue. Better, perhaps, than naively believing women will not spend money on games, but hardly likely to encourage the creative exploration of the new visions that female developers might bring to the table. Do you have any thoughts on this?

The Truly Social Games

Of course, social games do not really foster community, they are viral rather than communal in nature, but our industry does have a genuinely social genre in the form of the MUD and its descendant, the MMO. I loved my time in the two MUDs I played at university, the Star Trek-themed TrekMUSE and Manchester University's own UglyMUG. In the former, which was very supportive of role-players, I was a Romulan ambassador who, after a romantic liaison embroiled her in scandal, retired to a shrine where I officiated over weddings. UglyMUG, which still runs today, was less of a role-player's world but was always extremely social, and changed the course of my life. I treasure my memories of both games.

You, I know, have maintained a relationship with the truly social games and still to this day play City of Heroes avidly. I saw it demoed at E3 many years hence and knew I wouldn't be able to play it – the ‘RPG’ in ‘MMORPG’ ironically excludes me, and not because I don't like RPGs – on the contrary, I like them a little too much! They bring out my obsessive tendencies, and my wife has sensibly limited me to playing just one computer RPG a year. An MMORPG with its indefinite play length would be very dangerous for me to play.

I'm curious, then, about your experiences of community on City of Heroes. I think you were a MUD player back in the day (way to make us both sound old, right?) – do the new games manage to sustain the tight community and opportunities for role-play that the MUDs and MUSEs excelled at, or did they all fall down the hole of the LP MUD and DikuMUD, overjustifying their play with compelling reward structures? Can you say of your fellow heroes that they are friends, or merely that you play together?

Guns, Guns, Guns

For myself, I seem to have been cursed with having to play gun games. I say ‘have to’, but what I mean is that my regular weekly game with friends (which sometimes plays boardgames, and sometimes plays online) has devolved into multiplayer co-op gun games like Counter-Strike and Payday out of a certain necessary convenience they provide. There are limited opportunities for obsessive reward structure pursuit, and the short play time of each round makes for easy stopping at the end of the night. I note that my brother-in-law, who shares my obsessive response to cRPGs and thus avoids them, has ended up playing similar games with his regular gaming group.

What slightly troubles me about this is how inured to gunplay it has made me. When my wife and I went to the US embassy in London to get my residency papers sorted out (for the time I was living in Knoxville and working with a number of US clients), I was disturbed to see the security staff armed with firearms. When we came back a few years later to get my son’s dual citizenry and US passport, I calmly noted “they're packing MP5s”. This was a direct response to years of playing Counter-Strike which, like it or not, has changed my relationship with guns.

I would still rather play a fantasy game or even a superhero game like your preferred MMO, but no-one is making these in the readily-playable forms that can slot into the odd night here or there. Instead, players like me are becoming accustomed to firearms in the same way we are all now so used to living with cars that we can't even acknowledge the deaths they cause without invoking some kind of dismissive excuse. It's a topic I dig into a little in my next book, Chaos Ethics, and it does trouble me: we can’t seem to look our technology squarely in the robotic eyes.

As a game designer, I can scarcely turn my back on technology at this point, but I worry about the representation of violence in videogames (and the tacit valorisation of gun violence) as much as I worry about the representation of women (or lack thereof). Although my Tennessee born and bred father-in-law has given me a much greater appreciation for the love affair with guns that your nation pursues, I cannot shake the worrying sense that the romance of guns on TV, in the cinema, and in videogames, is not something entirely neutral in its cultural effects.

Blood and Guts
You have said that women players in your experience don’t mind the violence in videogames – my experience is slightly different. There are women gamers who don’t mind the violence, certainly, but those people I've seen who are troubled by game violence and gore tend, in my experience at least, to be women. I think of the UK trade rep who came with me to see the unveiling of Fallout 3 at  the Games Convention in Leipzig: her eyes almost literally popped out of her head when she saw that the game literally had eyes popping out of heads. Not to mention the option to make the game even more gory, should you wish to.

The thing about this issue that troubles me is that I think you’re correct to see this as not specifically a gender issue, yet I think female voices are the most likely way to get traction on alternative representations of violence in games. Men who don’t get on with these kind of things tend to simply avoid them. As a case in point, I have a penis but still don’t enjoy needlessly bloody games: one look at Team Fortress 2’s combination of cutesy graphics and gore was enough to turn me off forever. Similarly, Rob Brydon, who did voice work with me at Perfect, wouldn’t record our arena tank game’s sports commentator because he didn’t like to hear his own voice inciting (imaginary) violence.

Freedom of expression protects the portrayal of violence in games, and its not something I want to push back against politically. Yet I would like more alternatives... I’d like more experimentation in the fiction of games and less dependence on guns and cars. If helping women developers find their own creative voice isn’t a way to foster this, then I fear I will just have to accept the current status quo – and that does not please me.

Anyway, I hope this letter finds you well, and not too irritated by the endless stream of legal letters that mega-corporation Cengage (which publishes books by both you and I) has been deluding us with in relation to its 'restructuring' boondoggle. I’ve committed this year to writing more letters to other bloggers, since I have let my community evaporate and – shamefully – have blamed it all on other people and the rise of the social networks. Facebook and Google+ have been a factor, but I also stopped talking to other bloggers, and that was my fault. With that in mind, I had to write to you as one of my first ‘letters’ since back in 2006 I implored you to blog, which you now do.

One last thing: was it you or Brenda Brathwaite (now Brenda Romero) that I was talking to in Austin about the boardgame Pandemic? Okay, I said I wasn’t going to devolve into name-dropping but I can't for the life of me get that memory straight in my head!

Wishing you all the very best,

Chris.

Sheri has confirmed that she will be replying sometime soon.

No-one else has replied yet.


Gone Home and the Constraint of Genre

This critique might contain game-ruining spoilers for Gone Home. Do not read unless you have played it already, or doubt you ever will.

Gone HomeShould Gone Home be thought of as a genre work or a literary game? What happens when we take the division asserted for novels and apply it to games?

I recently played The Fullbright Company's Gone Home, an interesting but rather expensive addition to the growing ranks of artgames. Frankly, I did not enjoy finishing it at all, and begged for it to be over as soon as possible. Once it was completed, however, I relaxed and played it again several more times, which I found rather more pleasant, although seeing how the game had been put together left me feeling it was less than it could have been. I began to query my experiences in order to disentangle the strange contradiction of a company making the kind of game that I dearly want to be made, but that I could not enjoy in its intended form. I wanted to know what made my first experience of it so unpleasant, and why it never quite worked for me as a narrative. This investigation turned out to shed light on some wider issues of interest.

Upon reflection, this problem appears to be tied to the question of genre fiction, which is not at all the question of game genre. In literature, it has long been customary to draw a line between what is termed literary fiction – which concerns what is sometimes called ‘the human condition’ – and genre fiction, which concerns specific narrative traditions. The bucket of genre fiction is vast and contains (among so many other things) crime thrillers, bodice rippers, historical fiction, murder mysteries, sword and sorcery, science fiction, romance, military fiction, horror, gay fiction, and urban supernatural. Each of the genres that constitute genre fiction as a whole is defined by clear rules establishing the content of the fictional worlds being written, rules that publishers use to promote the genres to the audiences that buy them, but also rules that the readers tacitly expect to be upheld. If the hero of your bodice ripper suddenly grows fangs and starts draining the blood of the other characters, there has been a genre fiction transgression – a vampire has invaded where it is not welcome.

My problem with Gone Home is related to the literary versus genre divide, except in games we must deal with both functional genres (FPS, adventure, RPG) as well as fictional genre. This is an artgame that wants to be taken seriously as a literary fictional world, but it is weighed down by the baggage of its functional genre – the puzzles of adventure games, and the narrative vehicles of the ‘corpse looter’, for which System Shock is the progenitor. In the case of this latter element of Gone Home's design, I have great respect – it does a brilliant job of using the narrative model pioneered by Looking Glass’ game to let the player investigate the story (or stories) in their own ways. (Since Gone Home is set in 1995, I half expected to find a copy of 1994's System Shock somewhere inside!). It’s not the search-the-written-materials that troubles me about Gone Home, it’s just the puzzles that create issues.

In genre fiction (and indeed, genre movies) the rules dictating the constraints of genre aren’t just the recipe for enjoyment for those who like the genre in particular, they are also barriers to their enjoyment by those that do not. If you do not like gore, certain kinds of horror film or book are off the menu. If you don't enjoy theatrical songs, musicals are out of the question. In this way the constraint of genre has a double meaning: it defines a fence within which a certain kind of entertainment can be found, but the same fence also constrains who is willing or able to cross the fence and garner that enjoyment. In fact, in this specific sense, even literary fiction can be understood as a genre. For games, there are two such fences – the fiction fence, and the function fence, each reducing the number of possible players by excluding those unwilling or unable to play in the requisite fashion.

In reviews of Gone Home, I noticed a trend to say that there were ‘few’ puzzles. Indeed, the spine of the game entails just three puzzles, the first of which is trivial and the last of which can be ‘solved’ just be blundering around aimlessly. Solely the middle puzzle – the central puzzle, in effect – creates the impasse, but herein lies the nub of this matter; the reason why Gone Home's genre constraints – inherited from adventure games, with their contrived object puzzles – clash with its literary intentions. This is a game of genre because it has puzzles, puzzles that are as arguably out of place in a literary game as a musical number is in military fiction. Because I no longer enjoy puzzle-solving (which I loved when I was younger), the constraints of genre prevented me as an individual from enjoying my first play of Gone Home. Only when these irritations were behind me could I relax and enjoy the beautiful house the game is set in. Indeed, my most pleasant experience of this game was a speed run (something I've never shown interest in before!) in which I left all the lights in the house off and simply enjoyed navigating the corridors in the dark, just as I do in my own home. This was impossible in the role of the ideal player of this game – I had to be transgressive, as Espen Aarseth says, to find my place in this world.

This issue of genre aside, Gone Home is still a flawed experience from a literary perspective. I don't know how old the developers are, but I'm guessing early twenties. It's not exactly a sophomoric narrative, but it's far from mature and I did not believe in the central elements of the conclusion with any conviction. I enjoyed the ending like I would enjoy any crappy rom-com (a genre I adore in spite of – perhaps because of – it’s flaws), but it fell short of the benchmarks of literary fiction by quite a wide margin. Gone Home is also weighed down by a very conventional liberal rhetoric that is far too clichéd for my tastes, and not very convincing either. If you haven’t already absorbed the ideals of expressive individualism, this isn’t going to convert you. Indeed, it is by waving the flag for this ideal that the game tries to convince you it has something challenging to say about its moral precepts, which alas it doesn’t since it never seriously engages with its ‘opposition’. The game (knowingly?) relies upon you sharing its values for its narrative appeal – which would be what you’d expect in most genre fiction. It’s a long way from what is expected in literary fiction, though.

Frankly, I feel like a heel having to take such a scolding line on something that is trying to be the kind of game I’d love to find more often. After all, I didn't give Dear Esther such a hard time. But the big difference between Gone Home and The Chinese Room's game is that the latter knows it’s genre fiction – it’s a ghost story through and through. Gone Home's trouble isn’t that it happens to be genre fiction, it’s that it seems to believe that it’s literary fiction, and it rings slightly hollow because of it. That said, I would not waste my time on a critique of something I did not want to draw attention to for positive reasons, and there is much to love about what the team have done with this house and its stories. I would hate for what I wrote here to stop people trying this experience for themselves, because the issues I have with puzzles will have no bearing on many other people’s enjoyment of this game. Gone Home is a flawed gem but it is still a gem, and it establishes the Fullbright Company as developers to watch. This game doesn’t quite hit the high notes, but I can imagine critiquing a future work by this team and saying “it's incredible how far they’ve come since Gone Home.” And that, in all honesty, is a future I dearly want to inhabit.

This is a critique of Gone Home, not a review. My review is: 'if you don't mind puzzles and like artgames, you should buy and play this game’.


Luxuria Superbia

Luxuria Superbia Tale of Tales latest offering could be the most sensual experience ever to offer itself up as something to be played. Prepare for an extraordinary ride that answers the question: what if Georgia O'Keeffe and Claude Monet had a videogame love-child?

There are very few game developers that have the power to get me excited about a new release, but Tale of Tales are consistently inventive, always provocative, and just mad enough to aspire to greatness. We've become accustomed to their explorations of thin play with artgames such as The Endless Forest, The Graveyard, and Bientôt l'été, so the first surprise with Luxuria Superbia is that the play is much thicker, more overtly ‘game-like’, while the narrative is elided and implicated rather than painted in the bold strokes of Auriea Harvey's evocative character designs. Here, Auriea and husband Michaël Samyn have made something intimate yet not quite personal. If most videogames are 'murder simulators', this is a simulation (or perhaps, a stimulation) of a different kind of death - what the French call "la petite mort".

Luxuria Superbia is effectively an on-rails shooter (expect to hear comparisons to Rez, although it is a very different animal!) but without guns or violence, and presented as a strangely erotic experience. In fact, it is the most overtly sensual-sexual game I've seen, yet it is in no way pornographic. Playing an earlier build i was kindly invited to play, I laughed myself silly when the flower I was (ahem) stimulating chided me for rushing everything on my second outing! The entire experience reminds me of Slavoj Zizek's comments about flowers:

I think that flowers are something inherently disgusting. I mean, are people aware what a horrible thing these flowers are? I mean, basically it's an open invitation to all insects and bees, "Come and screw me," you know? I think that flowers should be forbidden to children.

Like Zizek’s flowers, the blooms on display here are most definitely not for children. Indeed, this is the most adult game I've seen – and I do not mean 'adult' in the sense it is usually meant in the games industry i.e. puerile schoolboy humour. Prepare to climb inside an O'Keeffe painting and enter a new garden of earthly delights with a game that deserves both to be part of the sex education curriculum and to be proudly displayed in the ever-growing ranks of digital media that show there can be far more to fantasy than just mere power.

You can play Luxuria Superbia on iPad, Android, Ouya, Mac, and Windows from today, and there’s a video of the game on the game site – enjoy!


Six of the Best (and Worst) of Ni No Kuni

By mutual agreement with my wife, I get to play on computer RPG a year – although because of the birth of my son it’s actually been two years since I have. This Summer, I enjoyed Level 5’s new franchise Ni No Kuni

Ni-No-Kuni-logo Once upon a time, the Japanese RPG was the queen of the world with titles such as Final Fantasy VII setting new high water mark sales figures for videogames, and Sega betting on expensive games like Skies of Arcadia to save the Dreamcast from financial ruin. But the Golden Age of the JRPG has passed, and the genre is rapidly sliding towards niche status. With console development costs rising, JRPG sales figures are declining and massively occluded by their Western alternatives such as Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series. Of the Japanese RPG franchises, only Nintendo’s Pokémon bucks the trend – and even then, its success is specifically limited to handheld devices.

With this background, it’s hardly surprising that fans of the JRPG have been keen to dub Level 5’s Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch the ‘saviour of the JRPG’, since it combines the animation skills of the world-leading Studio Ghibli and the development skills of the company who created the successful Professor Layton franchise for DS and kept the ailing Dragon Quest franchise afloat with its eighth and ninth instalments. It even rolls in Pokémon-style creature management into its heady blend of classic (but not too classic) grinding fun – indeed, one way to neatly summarize the game is to say “it’s Pokémon meets Namco’s Tales series”, all set in a charming fairy tale world. But can Ni No Kuni bring the magic back to the JRPG, or has the sun already set on the sub-genre?

Let’s start off with those places where Level 5’s game manages to go spectacularly astray…

 

The Worst


Dinoceros1. Bad Japanese AI.
Oddly, despite Japanese programmers being just as competent as those from elsewhere in the world, Japanese AI is notoriously awful. I suspect this is partly from a planned decision to invest more time in the game’s other subsystems and less into AI (not necessarily a mistake) and partly down to a massive cultural difference in sensibilities about the minimum bar for ally AI. Nonetheless, players of Ni No Kuni are shocked by just how bad at making tactical choices their allies really are. When enemies are so weak you can tap them with a stick to knock them down, your computer-controlled party members will fire up a super-spell that does nothing but waste their Magic Points. When a rare golden power up appears, expect your allies to pick it up with someone who can use it to do absolutely nothing useful. If you don’t invest in a little grinding, you’ll frequently find everyone that you don’t control in your party  is lying around unconscious.

2. Ghibli – but Not Miyazaki. I’ve seen a lot of players complaining that the Ghibli contribution to Ni No Kuni isn’t on par with (say) Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. This is a silly complaint because although this game does sport animations by the company co-founded by the director of those films, Hayao Miyazaki, no-one ever claimed Miyazaki-san would have anything to do with the game! Ghibli’s contributions are on a par with say, The Cat Returns, which is about what should be expected. Nonetheless, there is a definite sense that there’s not enough Ghibli in this Ghibli collaboration. The game suffers from slightly weak plotting (although its no worse than every other CRPG in this respect), and emotionally it falls far short of the work of Ghibli’s other co-founder, Isao Takahata, who lacks Miyazaki-san’s visual flair but more than makes up for it in emotional depth. The reason? Level 5 are completely responsible for the story, while Studio Ghibli provided solely the animations – which are excellent throughout (although when it switches from in-game sequences to traditional animated cut scene the quality actually gets noticeably worse…).

3. Whiter-than-White. Japanese developers seem to have real difficulty shouldering ethnic diversity. One of the secondary characters in the story, Rashaad, has a middle-Eastern appearance, but his daughter, Esther – who becomes the inevitably plucky female in your party – is so white she could take up golf. Presumably the developers didn’t want the major female character to be anything but white for the purpose of appealing to a Japanese audience (who have certain expectations…) – but it really stands out that Esther and Rashaad are supposedly blood kin. I began to wonder if she was supposed to be adopted! I would have loved a little more ethnicity in the party, and the missed opportunity ends up also smelling of mild racism.

4. Japanese Puzzle Sensibility. Oh those Japanese planners (i.e. ‘game designers’)… they have a funny way of thinking about certain mechanics. Case in point are the Green chests, which one of your characters unlocks by targeting in a reticule. Trouble is, to trigger the targeting sequence you have to stand at a very specific spot – and there’s absolutely no logic behind where that spot is supposed to be. A Western game designer would have made the targeting function solicited, thus avoiding the problem, but Level 5 had other (rather crazy) ideas. There are also some rather irritating look-up puzzles – but fortunately the answers to these are readily available on the internet. Still, I can’t claim the game’s puzzle design sensibility is anything but a liability.

5. Fixed Capture Chances. Capturing monsters (known as familiars) is a big part of the game – but for inexplicable reasons, Level 5 left out an important part of the Pokémon-inspired system they are borrowing. In Nintendo’s franchise, different pokéballs affect the capture chances, and the player is also allowed a special item that’ll capture anything (although they only get one…). Yet in Ni No Kuni capture chances are at a permanently fixed rate – and nothing the player does will increase or decrease the chances of capture. (There’s an unlockable that raises all the chances by a small fraction, but it’s rather inconsequential). Now random factors are an important part of game design – hell, Minecraft would be nothing without them – but when the player needs to do something and absolutely nothing they do can increase the chance of success it inevitably leads to frustration. The only possible justification for this odd choice would be that the planners wanted to artificially inflate the game length – but even then, there were better design options than fixed rate capture chances. It rankles, and many players justifiably complain about having spent, say, two hours capturing a creature other players picked up in seconds.

6. Pokémon Crossed with Traditional RPG Combat. And speaking of GameFreak’s all-conquering twist on the JRPG format, the final worst point of Ni No Kuni is that the combat is familiarly Pokémon-esque but with a twist that creates all manner of problems. Whereas the pocket monsters form a party of individuals who work just like any CRPG party would, in this game your hit points, magic points, and status effects are all shared with your familiars (which are supposedly projected from you by way of explanation). What this means is that when your best monster is put to sleep or stunned, you can’t switch to your second best monster because she’s asleep too. Worse than this, for most of the game there are very few reasons to use anything other than your best monster – because if you swap in an underpowered beastie, your HP total is vulnerable to their low defence score, and you’ll be rendered unconscious faster than you can say ‘I wish I was playing Pokémon instead’. I found the consequent inability to experiment with new monsters very disappointing, and much of my combat experience was mechanically deploying the same creature over and over and over again…

 

These complaints make Ni No Kuni sound terribly unplayable – but actually, I came to absolutely love the game and most of these problems are far more cosmetic than they first seem. To understand why, you need to see what Level 5 managed to get magnificently right in this bold attempt to revitalise the JRPG formula…

 

The Best

Puss_in_boats 1. Pokémon Crossed with Traditional RPG Combat. Wait a minute – didn’t I just say that was one of the worst things about Ni No Kuni? Well as is so often the case, the problem is as much about the prior knowledge the player brings to the table as it is about the game’s actual design. Part of the problem is that the combat and familiar-training systems initially feel extremely familiar, allowing you to pick them up very rapidly. But coming at them this way misses what is unique about the familiar system. Once you stop thinking of them as individual party members who are irritatingly denied to you when related party members are out of action, you begin to appreciate what makes the combat system work on its own terms. Need to cross the battlefield quickly? Switch out to your fastest familiar – then switch to the best combat option when you arrive in position. Enemies launching a devastating attack? Switch in your ‘tank’ and Defend – or if you’re timing skills are good enough, switch in an agile familiar and Evade. The setup has all the emotional engagement of any creature trainer but with a highly kinetic punctuated real time battle engine to fully enjoy them in.

2. Perfect Overworld. As someone who loves exploration games, the overworld is an important part of my enjoyment of any JRPG. Taking full advantage of the PS3’s excellent draw distance, Ni No Kuni offers a beautiful world to explore – and releases four methods of travel throughout the game at a pace slightly faster than would normally be expected in a Japanese design. It really helps that the world is littered with foraging spots that produce alchemical ingredients every 10-60 minutes, giving you strong reasons to dash about the map farming items as soon as you are sufficiently mobile.

3. Enemies Run Away. Speaking of the overworld, Ni No Kuni adds something simple to the Japanese formula that really adds to the fun of levelling up: enemy monsters run away from you when you are stronger than they are. It’s possible another JRPG beat them to the punch, but this is certainly the first one I’ve seen to do this – and it really works! Not only do you not have to worry about fighting the chaff when you’re high level, but there’s a real sense of accomplishment and power when you see the big guys doing a runner as you appear on the scene. Level 5 even use it to add challenge, since sometimes you want to capture a monster that is scared of you, requiring a tactical approach (and for players who find it frustrating, a later spell makes it easy). It all adds to the joys of Ni No Kuni’s excellent overworld.

4. Side Quests Matter. Although the side quest design is frequently weak (in some cases requiring you to walk ten yards to talk to a neighbouring NPC then walk back), all the side quests are joined together into an entirely separate reward schedule, Merit Stamp Cards, that unlock unique bonuses. Most of these are quite small things, but several are highly rewarding to acquire. Whereas most CRPGs suffer from meaningless side quests, Ni No Kuni invites players to spend as much time on these as the main story – and benefits from it.

5. Reference Guide Included. I’m a long time advocate of including as much reference content as possible in games. It used to be that we’d get chunky manuals for this purpose, but these days you’re supposed to pay half the price again for a Prima Guide instead. Ni No Kuni, however, includes a reference guide in its menu options – the Wizard’s Companion – including fairly complete descriptions of all the familiars, spells, equipment, and alchemic items. Not to mention maps of the overworld that show you where secrets are hidden. It unlocks as you progress in the game, and I found myself really enjoying access to useful information somewhere other than GameFAQs for once.

6. Polish. Finally, the thing that Ni No Kuni has that most contemporary JRPGs lack is production values. This is a seriously classy game throughout, with almost every aspect of the interface and structure put together thoughtfully. It’s the little touches that make a difference – like not only being able to skip cut scenes from the pause menu, but also being able to skip talking heads click-through-dialogue sections as well. This is far from standard in JRPGs, but I hope it becomes so! Add to this a beautiful score performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic, the wonderful Ghibli art design, and an excellent localisation job by stalwart translators Babel and you’re left with a JRPG Level 5 and Sony can be justifiably proud of.

 

Alas, Ni No Kuni will not reverse the ailing fortunes of the JRPG because the rising cost of development means the US market is now the core of the commercial fortunes of console games, and the illusion of freedom and agency offered in the Western CRPG has far greater appeal there. The JRPG, by comparison, requires patience, and at times asks the player for some intelligence. These are not qualities the mass market seeks. For the fan of lavish JRPGs of the kind that typified the late 1990s and the early 2000s, however, Ni No Kuni is a real treat and not to be missed. It isn’t old school (it’s highly forgiving, and will only punish you if you ask for it), but it builds upon everything that is great in the JRPG formula and finds an interesting new way to remount the Pokémon formula. This will certainly not convert those who hate the games it descends from, but for those players who already appreciate its pedigree, and enjoy (or can tolerate) a fairy tale world rather than a gritty fantasy setting, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a welcome rejection of the Americanisation of computer RPGs. Expect to see this on lists of favourite games for a long time to come.


Now Playing: Ni No Kuni

Finally committed to my AAA game for the Summer, and it is Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. As I write, I’m just deciding whether to play in English or Japanese.

First impressions? The box is pleasantly austere, as is becoming traditional for computer RPGs these days. But why is “Ni No Kuni” not translated into English? “Second Country” would be a literal translation, but “Second Realm”, “Second World”, or even “The Other World” would work too. Presumably "Another World" was excluded owing to the 1991 game. Odd to leave the title in Japanese, though, unless they’re expecting to sell only to anime fans…


Microsoft Counts Backwards

Xbox One It’s like a question from one of those IQ tests that assess how white and middle class you are: Complete the following sequence: “Xbox, Xbox 360…” The answer, we now know, is the Xbox One, Microsoft’s newly unveiled ugly brick of a console. I’m fascinated by the number base that Microsoft’s marketing department are using that has ‘one’ in the third slot, and ‘360’ in the second.

The explanation for the new silly name is that it’s “The all-in-one entertainment system” – which makes it sound a lot like the PS4. Or for that matter the PS3. Especially considering that what makes the Xbox One into an all-in-one system is the final acceptance of the Blu-Ray Disc format, which Sony has been using for seven years. Everything else the Xbox One can do sounds awfully like everything the Xbox 360.5 (i.e. 360+Kinect) can do – except, hopefully, turn itself from something that looks like an ugly brick into something that is literally an ugly brick thanks to shoddy early version engineering problems.

Microsoft gained ground on Sony in the previous generation to the extent that they are currently ahead by a nose – the installed base figures are at 77.3 million versus 77.2 million. Of course, this figure doesn’t take into account the fact that Microsoft have made more money on the 360 thanks to their very clever online strategy based around Xbox Live, something Sony were very slow to recognise was going to be a requirement in order to remain competitive. But given that Microsoft went from number three to joint second last time around, you would think that they would use declaring their cards after all their competitors as an opportunity to announce something show-stopping that it would be too late for their rivals to imitate. Apparently, turned to their R&D department and found nothing that was ready.

What’s seriously missing right now is the answer to the question: “You must own an Xbox One because….”, and frankly at the moment the answer seems to be “you’re an Xbox Live subscriber and Microsoft need you to upgrade.” My Twitter feed this morning was full of 0people making jokes about the fact that the new Kinect is always on, and speculating about who it will Skype as you are doing something embarrassing… Apart from the fact that it is an upgrade over its predecessor, there’s little of interest about the Xbox One as it currently stands, and certainly no reason for anyone not already locked into Xbox Live to choose it over its rival, the PS4 (unless, of course, you are in love with Kinect – which almost no gamer hobbyists are).

Of course, it’s always been the “killer app” that makes a console – the original Xbox was saved almost single handedly by Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved, for instance, but the way things are going with AAA development it’s become much harder to make exclusives worthwhile. The problem is twofold: on the one hand, development costs continue to rise – Epic’s Tim Sweeney stated: “We are hoping costs at the start of the next generation to only be double the cost of the start of the previous generation”. Yikes! On the other hand, the truly big franchises can’t afford to be tied to a single platform any more. The moment Rockstar North decided ‘never again’ to platform exclusives, the “killer app” became a very different proposition since all the major franchises have now gone multi-platform and the odds of a new franchise getting major traction from launch is rather low.

Although I am no fan of Microsoft, the 360 did pull a grudging respect out of me because it successfully initiated a service model that made the economics of console manufacture less horrific. But the economics of blockbuster game development is becoming ever more horrific, and to describe the release schedules for retail games over the past few years as ‘stale’ is only unfair because there are still plenty of players lining up to play sequels of the same old franchises. I’m at a loss to explain why Microsoft think the Xbox One can succeed just on the basis of it being “The all-in-one entertainment system”, especially since Sony has for several years been touting the PS3 with the tagline “It only does everything”. Your unique selling point is supposed to distinguish you from your competitors – not make your new product sound like your competitor’s previous product.

The currently-ending generation marked a change in focus towards online – the coming generation is apparently marked by a general absence of any compelling ideas, coupled with the ever-present threat of a total collapse in the high street retail of videogames. Except for the original PlayStation, I’ve owned every console hardware released from the Sega Megadrive onwards. Perhaps I’m just getting old, but I’ve yet to see any reason to buy any of the new consoles and Microsoft and Sony better hope that it’s just us 8-bit gamesters who are nonplussed by the future being offered. With Nintendo’s Wii U sales failing to meet even the most conservative of expectations, Sony and Microsoft are locked into a deadly battle, tumbling into a high-tech Khazad-dûm of their own creation – and it’s not yet clear who is Gandalf and who is the balrog…


A Game for the Summer

Summer Sun Beach Thinking about playing a AAA console game this Summer – but what?

To celebrate completing the manuscript for Chaos Ethics, and possibly getting my PhD by Publication if the wheels crank fast enough, I should like to indulge in playing a AAA game this July. I haven’t been playing many of these lately, in part because so few interest me as play experiences of my own (although I remain interested in other people’s experiences of them). Trouble is, I just don’t know what I’d play.

Of the releases still to come The Last of Us is a possibility, but I don’t particularly like Naughty Dog’s games – I still hold them responsible for murdering the 3D platformer genre by helping to make guns mandatory. Also, I’m so unbelievably bored of the post-apocalypse as it is usually presented. Two centuries after Mary Shelley's "The Last Man" the high point is either "The Day of the Triffids" (1951) or “The Road” (2006), and both are notable because they have stories that aren’t dependent upon gunplay. I long for fictional apocalypses that don't devolve into a gun survivalist's wet dream. There’s not exactly a shortage of gun stories – or gun games – so it’d be nice to explore outside this narrow space.

Of the releases that have already come out, I’m not sure there’s anything I want to play. I enjoyed Assassin’s Creed, but don’t see much point in my playing any of the sequels. The further they get from the Crusades, the less appealing they become, and I certainly have no interest in the crummy science fiction wrapper story. There’s Heavy Rain, but it looks a little tiresome. I could try the last GTA for context, but Liberty City bores me. Playing any of the first person shooters would be redundant – I’ve had more than my fill of guns from Counter-Strike, and I don’t need any more. If I wanted to shoot guns, I could visit my father-in-law and pop off some rounds on the back porch.

In the matter of Bioshock Infinite, I’m afraid I am thoroughly repulsed by the way it appears to represent its villains as the Liberal’s caricature of Conservatives. Contrary to what is apparently expected, making these people racists and theocrats isn’t a justification for a one-man campaign of brutal genocide against them. This kind of shoddy moral reasoning effectively endorses the ongoing extermination of Muslims – irrespective of their guilt or innocence – that is currently dishonouring the brave men and women of the United States military. I certainly don’t want to play a game that embodies this kind of bigotry. Maybe I am misjudging it – but the game footage I’ve seen thus far has been fairly disgusting. (Note that Miguel Sicart’s arguments about the ethics of computer game have no bearing on the morality of representation in game narrative.)

Since I don’t want to set up my Xbox 360 which is still gathering dust, I need a PS3 game (not necessarily an exclusive) that I might enjoy – perhaps a cRPG, since I am allowed one a year and haven’t had one yet. I’d love something as engaging as Front Mission 2, but that particular franchise peaked with its second outing and has never recovered the magic. I’ve never played a Final Fantasy and I’m unlikely to start now. Skyrim looks like a colossal waste of my time, although I enjoyed running around Oblivion for an hour or two. Mass Effect is a long way from what I’d like to be playing. What’s left? Disgaia 3? Life’s too short for an orgy of levelling to be my only game this Summer.

Bearing in mind that my favourite games of last year were Proteus, Bientôt L'été and Journey, can anyone suggest anything in the AAA console space worth playing that I might enjoy?