For animated series it has been a very good month, for me it means that two of my favorites are finished or going to be. While both are as different as night and day, they both feature one element that really elevates each series to something incredible, true character growth which I’ve yet to see any video game really accomplish this.The series are Death Note and Avatar, calling either one a cartoon would be a huge disservice, as both are more mature then most of the programming on other channels. I’m going to try to show these examples without spoiling any of the main plot lines but there will be minor spoilers.
Death Note has been my favorite anime for some time now, it’s a tale of a very deadly game of cat and mouse between two amazing characters with one of the best villains I’ve seen anywhere. For this example however I’m going to talk about a minor character, Matsuda. Since the introduction to this character he has always been a fairly insignificant character. The rest of the cast ignores him and leaves him to do the menial work during the investigation. The first time he tries to stand out and prove himself to his fellow detectives, he not only almost blows the investigation but almost gets himself killed in the process. Which puts him back into the backdrop for the rest of series until the very end. In a very shocking moment not only does he prove himself, but he finally steps out of the shadow and has a major impact on the story. I can’t say what he did to finally have his moment, but it made my jaw drop for the entire scene.
Moving on to Avatar, while the series is just about over it does feature one of the most impressive character arcs I’ve seen. I’m going to be talking about Zuko, who has had one hell of a transformation throughout the series . He was introduced as the antagonist and hunter of the hero, and came off as the stereotypical jerk . As time goes on we see the events that have shaped the life of this character, both the positive and negative forces at work that made him who he is. The series does an excellent job of expanding on his back story and just how conflicted he is about what he wants in life and what he’s doing. The best part is that while he’s growing as a character, he never changes like a flick of a switch but grows slowly with each encounter. With the final few episodes we get to see another side of Zuko which is not only funny to watch, but really shows who he is and it’s a shame that we’re only going to see a few episodes of this side of his personality.
With that out of the way it’s time to get to the point of this entry, adding in a true sense of character growth. Time and time again in games we have one dimensional characters who may be interesting, but stay the same way throughout the story. Any changes to these characters are either so obvious that it doesn’t come as a shock, or so quick that there is no meaning in this event. Once again I blame Bioware, as supposed experts on RPGs I’ve yet to see them actually develop a character who could be considered real(don’t even get me started on Kotor,and I haven’t played Mass Effect yet). Square Enix has also not made a realistic character in any of the Final Fantasy games either. Yes characters may become good or evil but we’re never really shown the events leading up to this and the fallout of this action from both the person and the people around them.
I want to see characters grow personality wise across a game, no more instant transformations but a gradual growth from the events . I want to see characters really have a heroic call moment or a real fall from grace into villainy. One problem I think is the length of games. Having something like this in a 8 hour game would be too fast and really cheapen the moment, which means we’ll have to save this for either 50 hour rpgs or stories split among titles in a series. I believe this element is missing from game writing whether by a design choice, or that no one has really attempted to make a game with this type of growth.
I hoped that the JRPG genre would be able to do this, as their games are more often interactive books but there hasn’t been any moments like what I have in mind that I’ve seen.
A few months ago I was reading a book on how the toy industry works, and while it is a creative industry similar to the games industry, there is one major difference. In the toy industry branding is king, better to have a toy or board game involving Dora the Explorer or whatever Saturday morning cartoon is popular now rather then something unique and unheard of. Contrast that with the games industry where games that are based on popular movies, comics, or TV shows are horrible and mostly avoided by gamers.
I think before I go on I should define brands for the sake of this entry. I’m talking about IPs that came from outside of the games industry: comic books, movies, TV, toys, etc. I’m not saying that games like GTA or Mario are not brands but they were created inside the games industry.
When working on a licensed game, certain rules have to be followed such as keeping true to the IP and keeping the game from going too far away from the IP. Those rules don’t apply to unique titles where anything can go, just look at Killer 7 or Katamari Dammacy for that. I think those rules are one of the main elements as to why most licensed games fail.
The first sign of trouble is that when dealing with licenses most often the cost of just getting them (along with the voice actors) takes away most of the development funds. Which most often leaves us with a buggy or derivative game, look at the first Matrix game for this. Another is that license game = dumbing down so that everyone can play it. That sounds really harsh but when you look at the difference between the games based on Spider Man 2 and Spider Man 3 you can see why I’m upset. Yet there are three shining examples that come to mind when the license worked.
First is the Chronicles of Riddick, which as a first was the first game based on a movie (or to be released along side) to do better then the movie . The developers took an interesting character (the above mentioned Riddick), and expanded on his back story and basically gave us an interactive portion of his story that could have been its own movie. Having the full cooperation of Vin Diesel helped a lot, the game had some of the best voice overs I’ve heard in a title. The game also pulled no punches in the game play, instead of giving us mind numbing derivative crap we’ve seen before. The game was a well designed balance of stealth, gun play and hand to hand fighting which I believe was the first FPS game to deliver that. The game was so good that I think we’re getting an updated version for the 360 soon.
Next was The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction (not the game based on the first movie). Instead of shoehorning the experience into a movie or comic book story, the game basically gave us the Hulk, a city (and desert), and things to smash while still keeping true to the comics. The Hulk wasn’t a weakling or had to do stealth missions, he smashed and bashed everything and everyone in the game. Boss fights brought characters from the comics for fan service and the game was one of the most fun sand box experiences I’ve had. The newest Hulk title I’ve heard doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Finally is the game that not only was the perfect use of a license, but I think the best licensed game to ever be released so far, Viva Pinata yeah you read that correctly. Viva Pinata quite frankly is an anomaly, the game had every sign that it was going to be bad. The game was based on a children’s cartoon, was developed by Rare which no offense to the people working there ,were not exactly on a hot streak of great games. Lastly the game had next to nothing in terms of advertising. Yet the game worked, it took a unique IP and developed game play for it that was something not done before. Basically a light city builder, the game was designed that both children (the fans of the show) and older gamers could play the game well. The game features numerous rewards and hidden mechanics that the casual younger gamer would never find or think about, but there is an addictive one more reward feel for us. There is something serene about building your garden up, and keeping your pinata alive, and besides their so cute (enjoy that, as that will be the last time I say that on this blog.)
I think the trick to making a good license game is to not rely on the license for bringing in the sales, but the actual gameplay. The license should be the icing on the cake not the cake itself, a lesson the creators of the Dragon Ball Z and Naruto games are slowly learning. While watching the final episodes of the series Avatar this week, I would love to have an excellent action game set in this world, not the same button mashing game made for little children.
For the future, I’m looking forward to the GhostBusters game even though my license game senses are tingling I really hope that this turns out alright.
note: Before anyone says it, I didn’t include Spiderman 2 among the best licensed games as it would be #4 on my list, and the ones mentioned are the top 3 in my opinion.
Told you I was going to make an entry on that line. One of the biggest leaps from just thinking about game design to designing games is to get away from your own sense of ego as it were. To say that I come up with game ideas constantly is an understatement, I think in my life time I’ve either hit or come close to 100 game ideas I would like to make. With that said I can say with utmost certaintiy that I’ve put the majority of them in the scrap pile.
I can’t say for certain if they were absolute crap, or the greatest game ideas that never were. The tipping point was the fact that I really couldn’t see anyone enjoying them except for me. The gameplay could have been so obtused that only the person who designed it (IE me) would understand and like it, or the story so disturbing or esoteric that it would turn everyone away from the game .
Here’s an example of the latter, one idea I had, was player controlling someone who would go through several stages of insanity, which would lead to violent actions by the character including canniblism . Each stage would alter the person’s abilites and tactics available, and it would require the player to make hard choices to go from one stage to another. I don’t need to go further as I doubt no one would be listening at that point and would be ready to form an angry mob against me.
One of the core elements of a game designer is the ability to look outside their own little world with their ideas. A game has to be able to be enjoyed by other people for it to be a game, if not then you have a product that just wasted miliions of dollars. There has to be some element to the game that will attract fans or newcomers to it.The other aspect to this is that the games industry is in fact a business. Yes it can be fun and creative, but it is still a business. For any business to succeed you need to have products that the consumers will want to buy. You can’t just make a game that you and 3 friends will enjoy. There is a difference however in making some something generic that it hits the bargain bins fast, and making something unique and never before seen that sells well.
You can still be creative with your ideas, but you need to make them so that someone other then yourself would be able to enjoy them. Whether that means toning down some of the complexity or creating a UI that a novice can understand. Sometimes it could just mean telling an engaging story and damm the interesting and unique gameplay. I don’t know the magic recipe for amazing games, and I doubt anyone does. Just remember when your creating that game, that your not the only one who’s going to play it.
One game mechanic I love is when designers reward the player for breaking the rules and the best genre that emphasizes this are strategy role playing games (SRPGS). My favorite company for SRPGS is NipponIchi (or NIS America in the US). If there is a system seller that is going to force me to buy a PS3 , it’s not going to be Metal Gear Solid 4 but Disgaea 3.
Disgaea is a very important game for SRPG fans, it’s the first game that put NipponIchi on the map in the US. Which also gave them the reason to open the US branch and bring more games over to the US. Second, it was the first game to have a guide created by DoubleJumpBooks, which make my favorite guides and put them on the map as well.
Before Disgaea, Final Fantasy Tactics was considered the best SRPG on the market, but it wasn’t until I played Disgaea that I fell in love with the genre, and with Nis’s game play style. What makes Disgaea work for a lot of fans is just how far you can delve into the game play systems. Yes Disgaea is a SRPG meaning alot of your time is spent in turn based battles between another group of enemies. Yet there are a lot of other systems in place which not only add complexity to the game, but really breaks it open for those willing to go the extra mile.
First we have the dark assembly, which are a group of demons which run the netherworld of the game. Any character in your army can go in front of them to pass a bill, from making the game easier or harder to unlocking bonus levels. Depending on the type of bill and the rank of the character, will determine the difficulty of getting it passed. Items can be used to bribe members who are against it or you can just try to beat up all the naysayers. Speaking about characters, you can transmigrate your character into either a higher version of their class or into a new class. They will keep the skills from the original class when they move and will get bonus stat points to be added in. Transmigrating them to a higher version may start them back at level 1, but the stat points and higher class really makes them as strong as someone a few levels above them. At one point I had characters at level 50 who were as strong as level 100 characters.
But what really starts your jump from casually playing to advanced is the item world. Every item in the game from recovery items to that bad ass sword has a randomized dungeon inside of it. The better the item, the tougher the enemies are going to be inside, and once you start your descent you can only leave either via an item or at the end of every tenth floor. The rewards for going into items are great, this is an excellent place to level your characters up and find rare items as rewards. Characters called specialist can be rescued and transferred to other items and give that item a benefit. For every floor completed the base stats of the item in question will be increased, turning that bad ass sword into an uber bad ass sword. Not only saving you money on buying new equipment but can greatly extend the life of that item.
The brilliance of this, is that the preceding systems are just optional for starting out to regular players, and the game can be beaten without using them (the item world is used for a few map requirements but that’s it.)For fans of Disgaea you know that I’m skipping the geo panel system, the reason is that while important to the game it is not really the subject of this entry. For players who want to get more out of Disagea and attempt some of the post game craziness (where enemies with levels in the thousands are) you’ll need to rely on the item world, and dark assembly to stand a chance.
Back to the subject of this entry, cheating in most games is when the player goes against the wishes of the designer and renders alot of the game experiences moot. In games like Disgaea however, the designers encouraged you to break the game by created over powered characters using the systems above and using that as the distinction between playing the game to see the end, and mastering the game. The earlier you use these systems the easier the game will be, further proof of the designers rewarding you for learning the game. For those who have read Double Jump Books guides for the various Nis SRPGs they each feature a section on how to create a character or item so powerful that it destroys any sense of difficulty once you’ve attained them. Doing so requires a huge amount of dedication and mastery of all the game systems, and a perfect challenge/graduation for the expert players.
Games like Disgaea are my favorite as they can be played at different levels of skill, yet still be engaging and fun regardless of your skill level. As an extra bonus Disgaea features undead penguins that explode when you throw them, that’s just awesome dood.