Now we can concentrate on piracy. I won’t comment on the morality issue; in the early 2000s I enjoyed debating philosophy online, but in three years I don’t recall changing anyone’s mind or anyone changing mine. It was great fun, but “multiplayer” philosophy doesn’t accomplish anything “single-player” can’t, so no ethics discussion. This talk is about numbers.
In Nintendo’s seminal SNES classic The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, throwing enough Rupees into a certain pond draws out Venus, a fairy who offers Link a choice of holding 5 more bombs (at least until the final upgrade) or 5 more arrows.
Ever since OUYA I’ve become something of a Kickstarter addict, backing 21 other projects. I believe that, no matter how much I give to others, it will all ultimately come back to benefit me too. Call it karma or call it reaping what you sow, but I’m interested in building a world where dreams come true. Who wouldn’t want to live in such a world?
This question is why I’m interested in Kickstarter-critical articles. Usually negative articles are written by people who think that Kickstarter is meant for investors or customers rather than people who support an idea, but a recent Rock Paper Shotgun post comments on the “peril” of Kickstarter nostalgia, saying that many Kickstarter mega-projects like Double Fine Adventure, Project Eternity, and especially Old-School Role-Playing Game are making crowdfunded fortunes with sales pitches about not innovating. I can think of several responses, but I’ll pick three.
1: Originality is understood by playing, seeing, or knowing about the game, not by explanations in the written or spoken word.
I’ve been taking notes of game sales pitches on sites like Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight. Below are just a few cases of game creators’ first one or two sentences of description; I could easily post twice as many.
I like all three of these games, but not because of their promotional writeups.
8-Bit Night, a retro platform game with a unique twist.
Abandon Quest is an unconventional open world tactical role-playing game set in the magical pop-up book of Corderia.
Akaneiro: Demon Hunters is a unique free to play Action-RPG adventure presented within a vivid and expressive hand-painted world.
Aril is a unique action packed multiplayer strategy game for pc & mac.
Bean’s Quest is a gorgeous 2D platformer with a twist!
GravBlocks is a “twist” on a classic puzzle game formula.
A fast paced 2D sidescrolling runner with a unique hat based health system, [H]atland[A]dventures delivers a unique, fast and beautiful glance into the world of the truly extreme hat collector.
Perplex Beats is a rhythmic puzzle game with a twist.
Project Giana is a challenging fast-paced platformer with a twist. (Note: this was the tentative title for what’s now Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams.)
[Rhythm Destruction is a] unique action packed experience inspired by classic shooters and infused with addictive rhythm gameplay.
Wow. Who knew there was such staggering originality in the indie game and crowdfunded game scenes? …but that’s not truly what’s going on. These are the results of a powerful temptation to invoke the idea of innovation and all the warm fuzzies that come with it. It’s so strong that the Hatland Adventures creators called their game unique twice in the same sentence—but I’m in no place to knock anyone. I’ve fallen into the trap myself, mentioning innovation as a positive in and of itself even in a post that was explicitly about how innovation is immaterial compared to having your own vision. The problem: no one can credibly promote their own originality by calling attention to it. And no one needs to! Take that Rhythm Destruction line and remove one word:
Rhythm Destruction is an action packed experience inspired by classic shooters and infused with addictive rhythm gameplay.
Space shooters meet rhythm games, huh? That’s pretty interesting. I daresay it sounds unique!—and there’s the rub. When you’re innovative, you don’t need to say so.
2: Real innovation is almost legendary.
Super Mario Galaxy is hailed as one of the most innovative games ever made; Super Mario Galaxy owes a lot to Raphael the Raven from Yoshi’s Island. Nintendo already had the idea of running and jumping around small spheres in space twelve years earlier; SMG simply fleshed it out to its ultimate conclusion in a full game. Mega Man 5 had gravity-flipping in 1992, long before indie darling (and one of my personal favorites) VVVVVV; Metal Storm had it a year earlier than even MM5. For that matter, M.C. Kids, a licensed NES game using McDonalds characters, had sections of walking on the ceiling. 2002’s Blinx had time manipulation before Braid, but so did 1990’s Catrap. Braid evolved the idea with elements like objects that are immune to rewinding time, but that’s just it—it was an evolution, not a revolution. The core idea had existed for almost twenty years.
It’s easy enough to give you something you’ve never seen before; it’s near impossible to give the game industry something it’s never seen before. If a developer claims to have a fully new idea, it’s likely that the developer simply doesn’t know about the games that have already done it, but nothing is wrong with that. On the contrary, that’s the way it should be; a game developer benefits from playing and learning from hundreds of games, but building an encyclopedic knowledge of gaming is best left to journalists and fans. I can’t begin to imagine the mental energy needed to study every known gameplay mechanic and invent something that’s never once been used. The amount of mental energy needed to sweat the similar stuff is so high that I’d be concerned the developer didn’t have any brain juice left for making a good game.
Game quality is denominated in fun and developers need to think and plan accordingly—not to ask themselves if a feature would be groundbreaking, if it’s never been done before, or even if it’s at least been rarely done before, but only if it would interest the player.
None of this is yet a counterpoint to the RPS article, though. People have no need to promote their own originality or strive for it, but that’s not the same as saying that they should make appeals based on their lack of originality—so let’s get cracking on why it’s perfectly great to do just that.
3: Innovation isn’t the spice of life.
If you have a Pixiv account, I recommend clicking on this for full size.
I’ll list some dead horses that gamers beat with the “same old stuff” stick: Call of Duty, Madden, JRPGs, first-person shooters, anything with zombies, and bald space marines. In any decently-sized gaming community you can hear comments like “enough with the zombies” or “JRPGs are all the same thing” or “oh, look, another Call of Gun Warfare: Modern Duty clone.” They trumpet that the real creativity comes from indie developers—but what creativity are they talking about? Did Geometry Wars break new ground? Did Super Meat Boy?
Many people say “creativity” when they mean “variety.” It’s a counter-culture dissatisfied with the mainstream. The appeal of giving a JRPG’s main hero an axe isn’t that it’s innovative, but that it’s not a sword. The allure of a brutally-difficult game isn’t that it’s innovative, but that it’s not easy. The excitement of a new point-and-click adventure game isn’t that it’s innovative, but that it’s the one game of its genre in a thousand.
The industry has tilted toward open worlds and sandboxes where a player can do anything and everything in a virtual space, but players want developers on our real planet to do anything and everything as well, making games that cater to every taste. What good is an open world if people don’t sprawl in every direction?
At the time I type this, there’s a possibility that the Voyager 1 spacecraft has exited our solar system. This would be momentous, phenomenal, and everything good. At this point in human history, it’s literally one-of-a-kind.
A video game has no need to be Voyager 1. It’s enough to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, although that’s been done before. It’s enough to dive 20,000 feet in a submarine; it’s enough to dive 10,000 feet in a submarine. Doing something rare is worth celebrating in and of itself.
In a blog that I’d like to be a fortress of positivity, this is a hard post to write. Steam Greenlight launched yesterday, a service that allows the Steam community to vote up or down on whether any submitted game or game concept should be released for digital distribution. Since Greenlight is in its infancy, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that most early kinks will be worked out—like the fact that no one knows whether a thumbs down is a “neutral” vote or subtracts someone else’s thumbs up, the lack of a neutral vote if the thumbs down isn’t one, the inability to sort games by title, the joke game submissions, the potential for abuse from game developers being able to delete any comment, the already-in-effect abuse from troll commenters, and the randomized order of presenting games to vote on. (Regarding the randomization, you could move through three pages of games and see the same one pop up three times because they’re unsorted.) After all of that gets necessary improvements and revisions, we’re left with the core idea: check out hundreds of games and decide whether they’re worth your time.
Click for full size, but you get the gist.
I’ve rated 190 games so far. Just 403 to go. Just… 403… to go…
In college, I had a brief stint as an editor on the university’s literary magazine, where we all sifted through submitted fiction and non-fiction stories to accept or reject them for publication. Paid positions for the role aren’t terribly common in the world, but it’s the perfect place for a sadist to try to land a job since it revolves around crushing the dream of a good 95% of people who get in touch. The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” asks the reader not to judge a written story by a promotional picture and that’s fine; the saying “don’t judge a book by its first page,” if it existed, would be laughed at by almost any editor. Out of a misplaced sense of obligation, I read each story that I received in full and I can say that 2 out of every 175 stories that started off poorly-written got better further in. It’s all too often possible to judge a work of fiction by its first paragraph or even its first sentence. Just ask this guy.
Steam Greenlight is a perfect analogy to that process of digging through rough to find diamond. It’s a fine heap of garbage much like the ones cobbled together by Sho Minamimoto in The World Ends With You, but without the hilarious over-the-top mathematical ranting. If the idea behind the OUYA can be considered a demonstration of the highest potential of “the indies”—the opportunity to bring not only games into the market, but full systems—then Steam Greenlight is a reality check about how so many can’t put together anything that rubs up against “passable.” With Greenlight still in its new car smell phase, I rated almost 200 games out of sheer tenacity and to say that 15% of them came across as worthwhile for fans of their genre would be an overstatement.
The kid in The Sixth Sense saw dead people. I see dead games. They’re the mediocrity littering Greenlight, created by people who lack either the pride or the courage to make better experiences. They’re the programmers who can’t draw but don’t bother to find artists, the designers who can barely code but don’t bother to find programmers, and the artists who can’t structure a game’s progression but don’t bother to find designers. They’re the developers who defend their games on the basis of hard work instead of high quality. They’re the developers who try to do everything themselves when they don’t have the all-around talent of guys like Pixel (Cave Story) or ZUN (Touhou), yet also won’t reach out to others who can provide the talent, time, or money to take their game to the next level.
Of all the Let’s Players out there, raocow stands out as one who gives fun, wacky commentary, but also has an eye for design and brings up insights on level structure, aesthetics, and the creative use of technology. He certainly isn’t out to trash or make fun of the games he plays, either, which are my least favorite kinds of LPs, and he mostly plays rom hacks and indie games that tend to put into perspective how indie developers (including individual game designers) can utilize ideas that bigger developers wouldn’t, ranging from games that are too hard to sell to a mass audience to games like Psycho Waluigi, a platformer in which Waluigi gains psychic powers and sets out to conquer the world.
The video he posted today was one of those hard levels—was it ever. Above all, I watch raocow because he’s a jovial, positive dude, so when he titles one of his episodes “Unraocow video” then I know we’re in for something brutal. I’ll say first that I’ve loved watching the rest of New! Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island by YoshisFan. I’m not writing this as an attack (and I doubt he’d see it anyway). I’d say YoshisFan has done great work on a wonderful Yoshi’s Island fan game. I enjoyed Artoon’s Yoshi’s Island DS, but I’d take his game over it any day.
This one level, though, goes over the line—and, as always in my blog, the question is why and how. Most people who dislike the level would give the simple answer “it’s too difficult,” but I want to break down what that really means. Writing about “legitimate” and overbearing difficulty has been on my backburner and today just brought it to the forefront. Here are seven types of difficulty found in video games:
Challenging enemies (enemy overload, powerful individual enemies, large sprays of bullets)
Changes to game mechanics (altered gravity, slippery floors, wind)
Gauntlet length (boss rushes, Dr. Wily’s fortress in any Mega Man, individually long levels)
Harsh punishment (one-hit deaths, redoing half an hour of gameplay)
Necessary memorization (complex tracks in racing games, speed sequences in action games)
Precision movement (tight platforming, stealth sequences)
Time limits (literal time limits, a Tetris screen filling up)
Of all the decisions that game developers and publishers make, none baffles me more than changing names for change’s own sake during localization. Altering a creator’s work requires justification: the name “Tina” in Final Fantasy VI was intended to sound foreign and mysterious to Japanese audiences but wouldn’t have that effect in North America, so it was changed to “Terra.” People can debate the legitimacy of the reasoning behind that change and explain why they don’t believe it was necessary, especially with the benefit of hindsight; they might say that names like Mario, Luigi, Link, and Cloud are universal, that the name “Cid” is a constant in the Final Fantasy series, or that Tales games regularly use names like Natalia, Chester, Lloyd, and Rita for both English and Japanese with few fan complaints. What no one can argue is the fact that reasoning for the name Terra existed. Thought went into it and so I don’t dispute her name change.
On the far opposite end is the inconsistency of Pokémon naming. For the most part, the series localizes names so that whether English-speaking players are six or sixty, they know that a Bulbasaur is a dinosaur with a bulb. However, the name Pikachu carried over along with other names and portmanteaus like Jirachi, Rayquaza, Lucario, and Pachirisu. The question is why they didn’t change and the answer is—a mystery.
Just as much of a mystery is why Japanese names that would already make sense to English speakers sometimes get changed. Above are a chinchilla Pokémon and its evolution, known as Chillarmy and Chillaccino in the Japanese games, but as Minccino and Cinccino in the English games. The question isn’t whether the changed names are good or bad, but why the changed names are. If anything, “Chillarmy” is likely more easy to pronounce for nine-year-old native English speakers than “Minccino”.
The Final Fantasy VI opera scene: my proof positive that nostalgia has little hold over me. I only needed one look at the GBA version to throw the above lyrics out of my heart.
“Because we can” is a poor argument to change lines—after all, you “can” also not change them—but I’m not a purist. I have my preferences only independently of faithfulness to the original. I don’t know or care which version of Dragon Quest IV is closer to the original, but I do know that I prefer the NES localization over the DS re-localization. I also know that, with only a couple of exceptions, I prefer the SNES localization of Final Fantasy VI over the GBA re-localization that Square-Enix certainly stated was more faithful.
Above all, I believe one thing about localizations: that they should see their ideas through. I may not like the all-over-the-map accents of Dragon Quest IV, but I admire that the team had a vision and ran with it to the greatest extent. Even though I didn’t like it once, that same willingness to change things worked wonders for me with Dragon Quest IX‘s alliteration-rich translation. If Cherry Tree High Comedy Club went all the way to whitewash every Japan-related reference out of the dialogue, I wouldn’t have liked that decision but I could at least say that it wasn’t a house divided. If only legendary Pokémon kept Japanese names and the names of ordinary Pokémon always changed, there would be a certain clarity to the series’ naming conventions.