Archive forDecember, 2012

Game design: East vs West and narratives

One of the most interesting parts of the game industry is the unique approaches that Eastern developers have when compared to Western developers, and the effect that has on the narrative style of a game.

When designing a game, a western developer is going to get an idea, go find his middleware, and build his idea in middleware and ship it.  When developing that game, progress will appear nonexistent until it reaches one of its seemingly random bursts until suddenly it resembles a finished product.  The game will almost always ship before finished and that won’t matter because its primary selling points will usually be its technical specs anyway.

In the same situation, an Eastern developer is going to get an idea, and then just start coding.  They will likely use little to no middleware, and they will make slow, steady, demonstrable progress, allowing you to watch the product assemble almost like a lego project.   The game will meet deadline with an overtime crunch that makes an early 19th century industrial factory look humane and its primary selling point will be the game itself.

From an end user perspective, however, the distinction will tend to be somewhat different.  Lacking any way to know about the development side of things beyond what shows in the game itself, they will merely look at what can be seen.  From an end user perspective, traditionally most Eastern games tend to be narrative driven, where most western games tend to be specs and feature driven.

As basically a niche gamer that prefers cRPGs and turn based strategy in general, my experience with games is different from what a puzzle gamer or an action gamer’s experience will be.   The most “mainstream” game I play is World of Warcraft, which is a bit of an aberration merely by being an online game with bad specs and socially driven narrative that changes based on how many “friends” you have/abuse.   I look at the average first person shooter and to a fault the overwhelming majority are engine specs and engine features with no narrative.

I should qualify something here.  When I say “narrative”, I don’t necessarily mean story or plot, but more the concept of the plot’s pretense and how well the game obeys that concept.  A good narrative will echo through the fans that play it, and should be something that someone who doesn’t play the game learns from exposure to fans.

Consider, what was Unreal Tournament‘s narrative?   To my perception, Unreal Tournament is a tech demo to showcase the Unreal Engine middleware.  Sure, it’s a game, but could you describe the game’s concept to me, without using the term deathmatch?

Narrative can also be communicated through distinct visuals.  Especially distinct visual narratives survive even parody.  Virtually anyone would recognize a Super Mario Brothers parody because the original game has such a distinct visual narrative.  Would you recognize a parody of the Unreal tournament characters if you saw them?

Halo stands out in a sea of generic FPS games by having a rather distinct setting inspired by a mix of 1980s anime and classical science fiction.  As a result, you recognize parodies of master chief. Would you recognize a parody of say, the Crysis super soldier?  Would you mistake a parody of the Crysis super soldiers for a parody of master chief?  If you saw a parody of the main character of Gears of War, would you recognize it as a parody of gears of war, or would you think you were looking at a parody of Cabal from X-men?

Essentially, narrative is important, but it’s nebulous and it doesn’t matter quite what it is as long as it’s distinctive.

On this point, I think the Japanese have traditionally had an edge over Western devs, but this advantage is quickly fading as the Japanese see Western triple A titles plow through the entire world.  The Japanese have become distracted by the sales figures western AAA games push, and are feeling pressured to compete.  We’re seeing a rise in design by metrics games coming out of Japan and traditionally strong franchises are crumbling left and right as the eastern publishers and developers  both worry about the sales power of AAA titles in general.

Interestingly, at the same time as the East began to lose it’s narrative to the pursuit of Triple A gaming, the Indie game began to move into the mainstream perception in the west.   Many popular Indie games have exceedingly strong narratives that aren’t just successful, they’re evocative to the point non-gamers can understand them.  Plants Vs Zombies was so successful it moved Popcap out of the indie spectrum altogether.  Angry Birds‘ narrative is so distinct that you can buy plushies of the birds.  Minecraft creepers are so iconic that I actually saw a creeper themed hoodie for sale and you will occasionally see Creeper-ko CGs go by on Pixiv’s recent list.

Disappointingly, the Japanese mainstream seems to be losing their sense of narrative more and more in pursuit of the bottom line.  You would think that such a strong indie/doujin scene- capable of birthing a Touhou/rule ⑨ themed reskin of almost every game ever- would be more influential on the mainstream’s sense of priorities in the same way the west’s indie scene has shaped our own mainstream gaming.

A good narrative also doesn’t have to be something positive, either.  Consider Grand Theft Auto, easily one of the most disagreeable titles in gaming history.  The series began life as a pac-man clone, replacing pellets with cars, and evolved into something iconic when it made it’s narrative into a controversy.

The traditional narrative strength of Japanese games came from the anime and manga industry inspired art style they used as a vessel.  At a time in the 80s when games were defined by either literal stick figures, blocky cars, or generic D&D inspired fantasy art, the Japanese offered us named chibi protagonists with distinctive appearances.   (Looking back on this early gaming era, trying to think of distinct protagonists in western games, I came to the realization that the west made heavy use of “create a character” and “Faceless protagonist” systems during this period, and still does to this day.)

Even as gaming continued into the 90’s, western game narratives suffered.  Several games with relatively strong narratives and Visual narratives, such as Commander Keen, Duke Nukem, Hugo, Turrican, the Lemmings, and the entire Point and Click adventure genre died out and became a forgotten relic of pre-online deathmatch gameplay of the then new 3D era.

During 3D gaming’s early days, on both sides, the art was reasonably distinctive because photo-realism was impossible.  Star Fox achieved a rather distinct look adapted from primitive 3D games that came before it (Battlezone, Arctic Fox, Starglider 2, Carrier Command) that it built on as a style.  The more realistic the games became, the core style remained the same.   Myst attempted to be as realistic as possible and fell into the uncanny valley due to the deficiencies of the era.  Final Fantasy 7 took the old point and click adventure graphics style, slapped on FF controls, upgraded the backdrops to pre-rendered graphics and the look was so distinct for its era that most people you ask would say the game originated the style.

Now that technology has improved and almost anything can be photo-realistic, you get unusual games where photo-realism robs the game of an identity.  Contrast the last five WW2 games developed by different western studios against the distinctive look of Valkyria Chronicles and you might think you were looking at 5 screenshots of the same Madden WW2 game compared to an ink and watercolor painting of WW2.

At the same time, there are western devs really starting to get the importance of a good narrative.  A number of the Indie games I mentioned earlier tend to have a very distinct visual narrative in addition to an excellent gameplay model based on the narrative.  Even Blizzard uses a SAI painter art style for their non-cutscene 3D textures.  The gap in distinctiveness between east and west is narrower than ever before.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years with the gaming market as we approach an era where for the first time since the early 90’s we will have 5 game consoles in the market at once, 3 western, and 2 eastern: Steam-box, Ouya, X-Box 720, Wii U, PS4.

It’s shaping up to be an interesting next 5 years.  I’m looking forward to making my own games and playing what everyone else makes.

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A prelude to madness

Thanks to Kit Tsukasa and Daft’s help earlier tonight, I have another blog after a year or two of not running one.  Not sure this is the best place since I won’t blog about Anime that much, but I would rather blog in a community than throw a blog on my own domain that absolutely nobody will read ever.

I ended my last blog as it was basically little more than a repository for horrible guild drama in that one MMO, and resolved that I would eventually open a new blog at some point, once I had cleared my head enough to write interesting things again instead of just venting at random problems/people.  I’m not sure I can say my head is clear, but I can at least say I’ve picked up quite a few interesting things to blog about in recent months.

I’ve commented as much here and there, but I’m about to try to make the switch from being a computer repair person to a flash game developer.  I’m not sure I actually have the skills to pull this off, but after years and years of dreaming and being convinced that it was beyond me, I decided to give it a shot, sink or swim.

The decision didn’t come a moment too soon, as I’ve been caught between a rock and a hard place for really about five or six years now:  I hated my job as a self-employed computer tech, and was wanting to work towards my dream of making games on the side, using the resources of my business to open doors and acquire tools.  However, no matter how I tried to get started, I would hit a wall I couldn’t get past and relax into computer repair.

It took me years to learn that having a refuge, even one I hate, merely gives a convenient excuse for quitting when you face a challenge.  Getting out of my job so I don’t have that refuge to fall back on, I hope, will be what makes it possible for me to move forward in life.

And so, I sit, pondering the things I want to move forward on next year that I’ve either “never had time for” or “have to do if I want to make any money at all”.  It goes something like this:

1) Making games.

I’ve been writing stories and designing games since I was in 3rd grade.  Most of them are not as viable today as they were when I originally came up with them, but I have a few game ideas that I’ve come up with over the years that I think are viable enough that I’ll be able to make a living at them.

Among some of the things I want to try, I want to try making a flash portal based S/RPG engine and world, but I also want to try my hand at a little bit of everything, having ideas for a good roguelike or two, some shooter/platformer type games, and at least one Danmaku shooter. (ZUN is my hero.)

Here and there I might show off some screens of my work.  I’m starting with a goofy “The chaos engine” like shooter that stars Tesla.

2) Do it yourself (DIY) hobby projects.

I discovered DIY projects at a young age. .One of my neighbors introduced me at a very early age to Radioshack hobby electronics, and I’ve been reading about one DIY project or another ever since.  However, I rarely if ever get to follow through and build any of them.

I want to change that, with some of my 2013 goals being to master the small CNC Milling machine I purchased this year, to build a CNC Lathe, and of all strange DIY projects- build my own graphene supercapacitors and PCBs.  (Never in my wildest dreams would I EVER have imagined I would be seriously considering DIY nanotechnology, but this tech looks pretty interesting!)

I also think it would be fun to build my own smarthouse technology, and I will probably write up some musings on the concept, although I might not get to try this beyond proof of concept…  I’m one of those poor souls who makes so little he has to live at home, such endeavors are limited by what the parents will let me install.

3) RC/IC contraptions.

Kind of an odd one, but one of my mentors got me curious about RC Aircraft when I was younger, and with all the DIY stuff, it’s sort of a natural lead-in to building my own RC aircraft.  I also want to play around with robotics a little bit, eventually build some RC blimps/airships as I love airships.  (Such a romantic way to fly, and so many things you can do with them.)

4) Art and Writing endeavours

This probably should be 1st rather than 4th, but I want to finally get my art skills to where I can actually draw a doujinshi and have it not look like garbage, and I have a few novel ideas I’ve always wanted to write just for the sake of writing.  Not much to say on this today, although soon I might post a few drawings.

And of course, here and there I might ramble about an anime series or two. :^)