Dubbing vs Subbing

I was at Sakuracon for a few hours this weekend, and a few overheard conversations reminded me of a longstanding debate within the anime community about subtitled or dubbed shows. Essentially, the debate boils down to whether it’s better to watch a show in the original Japanese, with subtitles, or with English voiceovers.

I came into anime at some weird times. The first was when I was young, too young to really appreciate terribly much nuance in my entertainment, so truly horrendous voice acting was lost on me. I then stayed out of anime for nearly a decade, coming back to either obviously dated shows or newer shows with higher budgets and quality English voice acting.

As a result, the debate is somewhat lost on me. Terrible voiceovers are going to grate on me whether they’re in Japanese or English, and subtitling is going to annoy me. I feel like, in a lot of higher-budget anime, the voice acting and translation have long since gotten good enough that subtle nuances of tone and wit are able to be expressed.

I’d much rather watch a show with good voice acting in a language I can understand (because I don’t speak Japanese) than try to imagine the spoken tone matching up with the text I’m reading. In a show I’ve been watching recently, a major plot point centered around a character’s continual use of a particular phrase, one that I didn’t pick up on at all over the entire preceding 15-20 episodes of the show because the linguistic nuance in Japanese was utterly lost on me.

Yakitate Japan — it’s an anime about baking bread done in the style of a tournament fighting show. Yes, I’m serious. It’s amazing.

In the meantime, I’ve also watched some of the Persona 4 anime, with English dubbing, and I’ve found the voice actors do a fantastic job both nailing the characters and hitting clever nuance and jokes where they’d otherwise fall flat. A few characters pull off some deadpan humor that I think works really well if you speak the language but would be really hard to pick up on otherwise.

The whole subbed vs dubbed debate seems like a relic of a largely bygone era to me. Perhaps I’m wrong, and that poor dubbing is still rampant, but most of the anime I’ve seen that’s from the last five years or so has really excellent English voiceovers. Maybe it’s because I only watch high-production-value anime, I don’t know.

I feel like there’s a healthy contingent of anime fans who got into it when dubbing was really bad, because it was most low-budget imports, and that as dubbing has improved there’s been a shift from subtitles being the only way to get a coherent story and overall experience to a general belief that subtitles are the only “authentic” way to view anime.

I do know a number of people, mostly those with some background in Japanese (whether they speak it or not), who prefer the subtitles for various reasons, which I think is fine. It does bother me somewhat to see anime fans at conventions criticizing one another for their choice in viewing options, though. I’m not sure when being a nerd became so divisive. Maybe it was always this way.

Either way, there’s some good anime out there, that’s probably worth your time. It’s an incredibly diverse medium, I keep finding, with both creative plays on existing concepts and new, really bizarre ideas. The nice part about animation as a medium is that it allows you to do really high-concept stuff without breaking the bank, budget-wise, for things like special effects and scenery. There’s a lot of really neat genre fiction and explorations of topics I would never have thought would make a good show. Apparently one of the big shows lately has something to do with soccer players? It’s fascinating.

4:30 am

I’m not a morning person. I don’t like getting up early and never have.

From Weather Underground

Due to having recently moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, not to mention my kind of weird schedule currently, I’ve been sleeping (and waking up) at weird hours. Sometimes I’ll fall asleep at 3am and sleep till 11. Sometimes I’m up until 6 and wake up past noon. Other times I’m tired at 9pm and go to sleep then, only to wake up in the ridiculous hours of the morning.

I’m writing this at one of those times. It’s 4:30 am, and I’m awake. There is no alone like waking up in your bed by yourself at 4:30 am. Even River, ever hyper and prone to waking up at a moment’s notice, is completely asleep. It will still be a while yet before anything opens, so I can’t very well get up and get breakfast– even the late-night places are closed at this hour.

It’s not a time I see very often on the waking-up side. Usually, if I am awake at this time, it’s because I’m catching a flight. I associate this time with that little thrill of anticipation, of an adventure not quite hatched, but right now there’s not really any adventure waiting.

Perhaps fittingly, it’s also a time I associate with conversations. Being awake at a silly hour with someone else and talking; some of my most cherished conversations are borne of this hour. It’s when I get wordy and philosophical– I’ve been accused of brooding, which is probably accurate (I am writing this post, aren’t I?).

I’ve done a lot of driving at 4:30 am,  getting up for no good reason and driving around aimlessly until the sun comes up, dodging the morning rush. It’s more satisfying on weekdays, I’m not sure why. Things are quieter, maybe.

Now that I’m on the West Coast, 4:30 for me is 7:30 for a number of my friends, and they’re sometimes already up and chatting. It’s an immense relief for me. I sleep with my phone and a tablet next to the bed for that connection, early in the morning. There are precious few people who get to have your attention at 4:30 am, and being in touch with people for whom it isn’t 4:30 am makes that awareness easier. Unless it’s an emergency or some special occasion, most people would not be interested in talking at 4:30 am unless they’re really, really close to you.

Perhaps weirdly, I cherish the moment. The intense sense of being alone makes me appreciate the times when I’m not. It’s a balance thing. I wouldn’t mind for an instant if I didn’t have it, but since it’s here I might as well make the best of it.

I have things to do today, and it’s almost light out. I can probably rouse the puppy and then go get breakfast, turning the 4:30 am melancholy into an actual, functional day. There’s no alone like 4:30 am, but it does make me appreciate the rest of the day.

Thanks for reading.

Everything Happens For A Reason

In the heyday of the WWII shooter, I remember hearing a lot of people asking why on earth we were inundated with the same sort of games, and why the really big blockbusters are all so similar. It’s something I was never sure of myself, until I learned about something called Hotelling’s Location Model. Any economists reading this will likely chuckle to themselves, and will probably correct the next bit of what I’m going to talk about in the comments.

Ever driven out into the middle of nowhere? I’m talking miles and miles out, past the boonies into those little towns that don’t appear on most maps, just barely in range of maybe two radio stations, which are both playing the same country music. Ugh, you’d think they’d, y’know, play some different stuff and cover different audiences. Or, you’re checking out local restaurants and realize there are two nearly identical restaurants right next to one another. What are they thinking, aren’t they hurting themselves by being that close?

Here’s how it happens. Say there’s a beach, with a bunch of people spread out on it, more or less evenly, because they all want their space.

Laguna Beach, via wikimedia commons.

The City Council decides that it will issue a permit for one person to sell ice cream on the beach, on two conditions:

1.) The City sets the prices of the ice cream– this is to benefit beachgoers with a minimum of beach crowding, not line some monopolist’s pockets.

2.) The ice cream stall must set up no earlier than 10am, allowing time for the beachgoers to enter the beach and get settled. No parking at the entrance and advertising as people come in.

(What we’re doing here is controlling two variables: price and market. We want to look at WHERE the stall goes.)

So, here’s our beach:

this is a beach, i swear.

this is a beach, i swear.

Our ice cream vendor can set up on the boardwalk along the top there. Where along it does our ice cream vendor want to set up shop?

It’s easy– sell ice cream to the most number of people, which means minimizing the distance they have to walk to get ice cream. Right in the middle.



Pretty straightforward. Our ice cream vendor sells ice cream, everyone is happy, except for those people out at the edges who need to walk halfway across the beach to get ice cream. They petition the City Council to allow more vendors, and the City decides to let another vendor set up shop.

Now there are two vendors. Since each vendor is stuck with the rules above, the only way they can make more money is by selling more ice cream, which means being the closest vendor for the largest possible number of people. One of them is, inevitably, going to get to the beach first and set up shop. Where should that first ice cream vendor go?

Answer: Right in the middle. These vendors are competing, they want the most customers. You might be thinking that it’s better for the two vendors to split up, maybe divide the beach in half, something like this:


It’s a good thought, and if the two vendors are colluding, this might happen. If they’re both in it for themselves, though, and the first one takes that quarter-length spot, here’s the best place for the second one:


In that position, the second one is the closest vendor to the biggest portion of the beach, and is going to come out ahead. If the first vendor sets up right in the center, so will the second vendor, just barely off to one side, and each will have half of the beach.

As the model goes, it applies to things other than physical location, too. If a clothing store offers a certain variety of products, and another clothing shop opens, they’re going to stock very similar products, hoping to hit the broadest segment of their piece of the market. If one offers a better selection (read: has a bigger chunk of the beach), it’s going to do better, and both stores will fight to keep up with one another, ultimately winding up very similar. It’s how you get the same country music on the same two stations out in the middle of nowhere, the two coffeeshops right across the street from one another, and years of military shooters, all incrementally different from the previous generation but still in nearly perfect lock-step with one another, until everyone is tired of them and a new kind of blockbuster crops up.

two nearly identical shoe shops, right next to one another.


This returns me to the bit at the top. No one here is being an idiot, the decisions are very carefully considered. The end result doesn’t appear to make sense at first, but it absolutely does once you puzzle it out. All of those military shooters, all of those country music stations, all of those shoe shops are looking out for their own best interests– and any deviation from that is extremely risky.

There’s the saying: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” It’s a good saying, but I think there’s a followup:

“Never attribute to stupidity that which is part of a system you don’t fully understand.”

A lot of things that seem unintuitive at first suddenly make sense when you see the whole picture, and it’s really, really hard to see the whole picture. Certainly there are mistakes that people make on the individual level, but when you’re talking about really big systems with lots of moving parts (like the video game development economy), there’s a lot of stuff that it’s really hard to see.

This was something I learned about today that I thought was interesting, and thought might be worth sharing. Hopefully you found it interesting too.

Binging on Persona 4

Part of what I did during my week off was pour a huge amount of time into my second playthrough of Persona 4. It’s basically a high-fidelity visual novel with an elaborate dungeon-crawler minigame. I love it.

It handles social interactions in a really interesting way. Whereas in a lot of RPGs, there’s no real limit to the amount of talking with friends/party members you can do, in Persona talking with someone takes time, and you have a set amount of time (one year, game time) to make friends, build skills, and do… pretty much everything you want. On top of that, everyone and everything has their own schedule and may or may not be available at different times. It’s actually impossible to fully complete the game on the first playthrough, because you have to spend time building up skills like Courage, Understanding, Knowledge, Diligence, and Expression, many of which are necessary when dealing with other people.

Yes, the silent, self-insert protagonist's default name is "Yu". They are not above terrible puns.

My playthrough was a New Game+ run, which lets me start with the money, the weapon unlocks, the stats, and the persona compendium (like a pokedex, except you can summon your pokemon from it for a fee) that I’d built up in the previous run. This saves a LOT of time building up stats and farming equipment, money, and personas, letting me focus on the relationship side of things (Social Links, in-game).

The difference is pretty stark between the normal game and NG+. There are at least five social links I missed entirely on my first playthrough, and several more that I started but didn’t complete. There’s also an entire bonus dungeon that I missed the first time through and a secret boss that I’ve now missed twice, because my timing sucked. Some of the choices you make also pretty heavily influence dialogue, so I got some very different responses from characters than I did in my first run. The structure is all the same, but the second playthrough gives me a lot more freedom to explore, and say things/make choices that I couldn’t have made previously.

Two of the best characters in the game.

All of the time spent with the characters wouldn’t be worth a lot if they weren’t good characters, and P4 has some excellent ones. I think the game suffers a little bit from introducing four party members very quickly, two of which are easily unlikable (one of which I find annoying at the start and despise utterly by the end of the game) and one of which is kind of bland and trope-y. Of the [Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, Teddie] group at the start of the game, I really only like Chie. The others (not Teddie) get deeper and more interesting later in the game, but it takes a long time, and by then you have other, more interesting party members.

The above song is stuck in my head now. It’s a mild spoiler, but the game tells you up front, within the first few lines, that you’ll be around for a year and then will be leaving. This means that, right near the end (winter in the game), you’ve made a whole bunch of friends and are coming to terms with your dwindling time remaining with them. The overworld theme, that you hear as you run around, is replaced with Snowflakes in P4 Golden (the Vita version), which adds a bunch of content included an extended ending (lasting an extra month).

That extra month serves as a lengthy denouement to the game, bringing you from the final (?) boss to the end of the game, giving you ample time to wrap things up and tie up any loose ends you might have, or just enjoying the company of your friends in the game (even if you’ve maxed out their social links, they have more stuff to do and say in the denouement). It’s savagely bittersweet and one of the best endings to a game that I’ve ever played.

It’s something I’d like to see more of in RPGs. The extended denouement really wraps up the story nicely, far better than a boss battle -> 5-10 minute cinematic -> end credits cycle does.

I’d be a proponent of moving the final boss battle forward about 10-15% in a game, and turning that ending section into post-victory endgame, where you get to spend some interactive time enjoying your victory.





Pillars of Eternity and “Classic” Mechanics

I booted up Pillars of Eternity this past weekend, and I can tell it’s a game I’m going to enjoy… eventually.

I was instantly frustrated by character creation. Choose from a bunch of stats, hope that the “recommended” stats are actually the ones you want, try to make sense out of spell descriptions without any context whatsoever, drop your character in the game world. Hope you made the right choices because going back is going to mean fiddling with the character creator again and sitting through all of the intro stuff, making sure you run around and hit all of the boxes and conversations and whatnot again.

There are some really interesting races and story stuff hinted at here, though, so that's a plus.

I have no idea what those stats do at this juncture. Significant? No? How can I tell?

Yes, this is a classic trope of a lot of western RPGs. No, I don’t think it’s good or worthy in any way. Contextless choice is already annoying, and making those choices important and largely unchangeable is doubly so. Expecting you to know the game before you start playing it is– I’ll just say it– bad design.

The first section of a game is a tutorial anyway: why not put that before character creation? Let me get a feel for the controls, how various spells and abilities function in the actual game, and then make better-informed choices based on that. Most of the time, it’s entirely justifiable within the game’s story, and if you can make a more exciting intro sequence, possibly not even using the character(s) you’ll actually create, you can justify whatever.

I also read the type of dwarf as "Bored Dwarves" several times. I'd play a bored dwarf.

How significant is that +15? Am I going to see those enemy types? I HAVE NO IDEA.

As tempting as it would be to play a Dwarf Wizard just to annoy Bel, I'm not going to.

The addition of hover-text to show me what various keywords mean is nice, but it’s still just giving me numbers that I have no context for.

When mimicking a classic style but making it more modern, I think it’s important to look at all of the pieces of what that style does and how/why they work (or don’t!). Just doing it because of genre conventions is a good way to wind up with a very same-y sort of game. That isn’t to say that you won’t necessarily retain some of the genre conventions, because a lot of those are developed over years of iteration and provably work, or provide familiar, comfortable anchor points for your players to hook into, but keeping them without reevaluating how necessary they are to your construct tends to make things awkward.

Also, the speed is "average". That's nice to know... I think?

More numbers, zero context. Is 20-30 damage a lot? How much HP do I have? What is the significance of the defense? Am I giving up much to get the “Hobbled” effect?

The vast improvement here is that I can tell that this spell helps me hit with this spell more. It lets me pick other spells based on the targeted defense. The fact that this is a big step forward is a little sad.

I love the hover-text! I can find out what Hobbled does and… oh, it… it tells me some more contextless numbers. Bear in mind that at this point in character creation I STILL haven’t allocated stat points, so I don’t know what stat ranges even are, so there’s literally zero context for these values.

I will say that Pillars of Eternity looks fantastic, and the controls are delightful thus far. Having picked up the remakes of Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2, Pillars feels more modern and more advanced right out of the gate. I really want to be able to play it co-op, the way I played the old BG games. The UI is slick, movement and actions are responsive and feel pretty good, and the visuals are detailed without being cluttered.

I’ll eventually sit down and get into it, once I have the patience to sort through characters and replay the intro five or six times to settle on a class I like. Despite my initial frustrations, it’s absolutely looking like it’ll be a game that I’ll put some serious time into.

Encounter Design

this bunny is bad at getting out of the fire. not even touching the sticks.

The first thing people usually think of when I mention “encounter design” is boss fights. Big, fancy battles in custom-made arenas, usually at the end of a dungeon. For a lot of games, they’re the only encounters that matter, and we’ve been trained to think of them that way.

In fact, if you’ve ever played an MMO, you’ve probably heard people talk about “trash mobs”, all of the encounters leading up to those boss fights (read: the only encounters that matter). There’s nothing to make them interesting or rewarding, there’s often no compelling mechanics, it’s just enemies that you have to beat to get to where you really want to be. Gotta do your chores before having fun. Gotta take out the trash.

This line of thinking has led to a lot of reduced complexity in encounters. We’ve so focused on the boss as the only end goal that it’s seeped back into game design itself.

Here’s a map of Molten Core:

god, I died a lot in here.

Linear design with offshoot tendrils that contain bosses at the end, all spiraling into the center, for the Big Boss Fight at the end.

Here’s an earlier dungeon, from Everquest– Befallen:

(via http://www.allakabor.com/eqatlas/)

(via http://www.allakabor.com/eqatlas/)

WAY less linear, still offshoot corridors but there’s no obvious linear path through the place. In fact, people don’t even play it the same way they play Molten Core; it’s an entirely different dungeon experience.

Don’t believe me that the “boss fights are the only thing that matters” mentality affects the design side? Here’s (part of) Befallen in EQ2:

never died in here.

(from http://eq2.zam.com/)


Kind of a big difference.

I do a lot of encounter design in my tabletop RPGs, where I have a bit more control over things. I take a lot of my inspiration from stealth games, where there are (ideally) multiple ways through an area and you can make your own path, figuring out who you fight, who you don’t, and how to approach each area.

I very, very rarely have boss fights. I think in a nine-month campaign, I had two, and I’ve had entire campaigns go without a single boss fight. Instead, all of my encounters are cranked up. If it’s a non-life-threatening encounter, it exists to whittle away my players over time, because I’m probably not letting them rest for a while. If it isn’t doing that, it’s going to tax them.

I think this has a lot to do with why I like stealth games so much. Every encounter is relevant, and how you approach it matters. There’s no such thing as “trash” in a stealth game. Even if you silently drop someone, you still often have to figure out if anyone else saw you, or what will happen if they find your victim. There’s little room for thoughtlessness.

If an encounter is just “trash”, if it serves no purpose other than to waste your time and offer no meaningful reward in return, I think that’s bad design. FFXIV vastly improved the fun of running dungeons when they added money drops to every mob, often in not-insignificant amounts as you get higher in level. I think they’ve failed in making treasure chests worthwhile, particularly when it comes to pulling encounters that aren’t on the linear path just to access the chest, but with any luck they’ll improve that.

New Emotions

(from Clannad, visual novel)

I really wish dating games would take off in the US. We, as a country, are terrified of them.

They’re a big hit elsewhere in the world (often called visual novels), some of the most played games out there, and they’re often held up as an example of other cultures being “perverse”. As a bit of an example: it’s been suggested to me that I include more images in my posts, so I figured I’d do some google image searching. My Google.com search picked up this:


Note: Nearly every image is focused on a female character, pretty much all of whom are sexualized in some way, text is a tiny bar at the bottom, often an afterthought. Everything is about looking at the pictures, the story is just a hurdle for you to see more pictures. This is the Western view of dating games.

Here’s Google.jp’s return:


Looks pretty similar, but a few noticeable differences. First, note the variety: particularly the ones with text in Japanese are doing rather more interesting things, visually, with their art, with a wider range of characters. Also, the text. Whereas text covers maybe a quarter of the average image in the .com search, the .jp search text takes up a LOT more, and there’s no fear of obscuring the image with story.

I’m not going to try to claim that it isn’t predominantly showing sexualized content, but it appears not to be the sole purpose of the medium.

I’ve talked before, on the podcast, about how I’m thrilled that games are exploring emotions other than wrath, going for things other than wanton mass murder, but that I’ve quickly gotten tired of the shift from anger to sadness. We’ve figured out how to make heartbreaking games, and we need a new emotion.

I brought up dating sims above because they’re a longstanding genre that’s been exploring emotions other than “rage” and “sads” for decades, but sits in its little niche without much attention (negative attention, usually). What more emotional experience is there than detailed interactions with other people? Look at the popularity of Mass Effect– as an adjunct to the shooting/stabbing/killing game, there’s some incredible, emotive storytelling that fires on all cylinders, hitting every part of the emotional spectrum. Why not make that the main focus of the game?

Japanese dating sims get a bad rap because people hold them up and show the predominantly school-aged characters, casting aspersions on the kind of person who’d want to play a game about finding love in high school. It’s absolutely a problem, particularly in the questionable ‘adult’ segment, but it’s a problem borne of too little input. The porn association is extremely strong… yet we’re playing the same type of game in Mass Effect, just with this attached shooting and killing thing.

I’d be interested in seeing a modern dating sim focused on a twenty- or thirty-something protagonist done in the style of Mass Effect’s conversation trees. It’s fertile ground for provoking compelling emotional responses, and it doesn’t have to be a) schoolgirls or b) porn. There’s more to relationships than that.

I’d like to see games that explore relationships beyond “press all the right buttons enough times to sleep with this person”. Let’s apply the grey-area, “whatever choice you make keeps you moving forward, you just have to live with the consequences” choice structure of Dragon Age to interpersonal relationships. Even that game, which I love, quickly devolves into “talk to X person enough to sleep with them”, and there’s so much more that could be done there.

The Joys of Unsophisticated Play

I spoke yesterday about playing “solved” games, and how quickly it can make the fun of playing a game evaporate for all except the players at the top of the heap. Games tend to fall apart when there’s unequal skill and meta-level understanding between the players involved.

One of the places where this can become a huge problem is tabletop RPGs. I’ve heard countless stories of players who figure out an unstoppably powerful character in a game where the other players aren’t doing that, who dominates the game as the only relevant player– either the DM has to throw challenges appropriate to the super-player that would crush any of the others or the super-player just walks all over every encounter.

I’ve been running tabletop RPGs on and off for quite a number of years at this point, and I’ve had to figure out how to balance parties of players who absorb the rulebook and look for loopholes and players who throw together something fun and/or have never played a pen-and-paper RPG before, and figure out how to make it fun for everyone.

The tack I’ve taken is to enforce unsophisticated play. I tend not to give my players the resources to become unstoppably powerful, offering “interesting” rather than “good” rewards. Rather than giving powerful loot, I like to create powerful choices. The phrase that comes up in my group is “bad ideas treasure”. I use next to nothing from the standard magic items tables in D&D– no simple +1 swords of frost here. Instead, here’s a sword that casts a cone of flame out from your target when you kill it or roll an even number on the attack roll. The direction of the cone of flame is random. 25% of the time, it’s going to blow up in your face, but the other 75% of the time it’s going to deal a bunch of extra damage, possibly hit some extra targets, and hey, magic sword!

This item was hugely effective in mixing up the combat strategies of the group. The alternative being a stock, non-magical sword, the fancy-but-potentially-dangerous fire cone sword was quite good. The player wielding it started prioritizing things that would protect him from fire, and turned into more of a flanker than a frontline warrior, since staying close to his allies was a liability. There were some tense moments when something REALLY needed to get smacked with a magic sword but there were nearby wounded allies, and that fire cone might’ve been a disaster.

If that had been a regular +1 sword, it would’ve been boring, and combat would’ve been the same “walk up and hit things” that it frequently was before. The trick is to keep it simple but add a slight twist. Without being able to rely on particular powerful items, the ability for play to quickly turn into a game of “who’s figured the system out the best” goes down dramatically, particularly if players are trying to play around the weird items they’ve gotten rather than mark their stat boosts down and forget about them.

I’d be interested in seeing this kind of thing adapted to other sorts of games, where the level of play is maintained at a relatively unsophisticated level, offering more exploration into the low- and mid-tier play experiences and preventing a rise to the higher tiers of play. Minis games are often very good at this, with supported alternate gametypes and game sizes that significantly change the way the game is played and what strategies arise, and tend to keep things at that nice, everyone-is-still-learning tier of play.

Playing “Solved” Games

I don’t play card games with Kodra, a reality that I think makes him a bit sad. I’ve also tried, at the behest of a wide variety of friends, to play the Battlestar Galactica board game, which I’m told is a wonderful and amazingly fun experience but for me has been hours of misery as one or two experienced players dictate the entire game for everyone else.

I love the moment of stumbling into a new game experience entirely blind, and trying to make sense of it and turn confusion into victory. Stepping foot into a new dungeon in an MMO without knowing any of the mechanics of any of the encounters and figuring them out on the fly is amazing, thrilling, and magical. The magic evaporates instantly once even one person knows what’s up, because then you have the answer key.

High level play in a lot of games becomes a question of knowing the dominant metastrategy, and very rarely does it correlate to the intuitive choices being made by players learning the game. Once I know how to win a game, or beat an encounter, and can do so reliably, the game stops being fun. This is what’s called a “solved” game, and while there are often elements of randomness and uncertainty that prevent a game from being perfectly solved, there’s not a lot of fun left when a game is *almost* solved, enough so that there’s a clear right-way and wrong-way to play.

On the other hand, that learning process and the associated discovery that goes along with it is a true joy, and one that is all too often lost far too quickly.

One of the reason I like Infinity is that in three years of playing it rather heavily, and keeping up with all of the available information, a dominant, game-solivng metastrategy still hasn’t emerged, and the new releases continually stymie and obfuscate any attempts to create one. I wonder what that would be like in other types of games. I think I’d like PvP more if it were more common.

Diablo and other games of its type do a bit of this with randomized enemy generation and level layouts, and it keeps the game fresh for a lot longer than you might expect, lasting multiple playthroughs. I don’t think this is as big a deal, though, because when you’re not playing against other players the gap between having all the information and knowing all of the combos and not isn’t so stark. When the only point of comparison is how you perform relative to other players, one player having more information or a superior combo is a quick downward spiral.

I want games where I can continually strive to improve without ever reaching a solved state. I also want to have a metastrategy that’s either changing too rapidly for any player to get a solid, dominant foothold or that doesn’t have giant gaps between strategies. These gaps effectively shut out players who are learning from being relevant to the game as anything other than a resource to be exploited, and make for terribly unfun games. I don’t terribly enjoy games that are won or lost before the game even begins, just based on what the players already know/own.

I’m really excited by the potential of games like the new Fable, moving towards asymmetric PvP. I had a lot of hope for Netrunner, but my understanding is that the game devolves into the same “this combo wins” strategies that so many other card games do. I would like drafting in theory, except that most draft games (draft Magic, as an example) have a prevailing *draft* metastrategy that if you’re still learning and don’t have all of the cards in the set memorized, you will lose at– again, before you play the game.

I don’t know how alone I am in this feeling. I get the impression that many people prefer games, even PvP games, where they can use a dominant strategy and win continually without changing anything. Possibly I’m in the minority here, in wanting to be continually challenged and having the ground move underneath me?


JRPGs and What They’ve Become

I love watching trends in video games. Genres form and evolve, and it’s really interesting to watch how the threads move about and take shape. As you might’ve heard on the podcast, I’ve played a bunch of the Final Fantasy XV demo. To me, it’s the culmination of a decade of Final Fantasy games trying to push the genre forward.

I’ve made no secret of my feeling that JRPGs as a genre have gotten stale. The days of standing in a line selecting commands from a menu as the primary form of gameplay and watching canned animations play out is well behind the times. The formula is so well defined that you can boot up RPG Maker and whip up a functional JRPG over a weekend. Seeing “classic” JRPGs released in the states at all is fairly rare, now, doubly so on major modern consoles.

From the above, you’d think I hated JRPGs, and for a while in there I would’ve agreed with you. I think the technology has reached the point where interesting choices aren’t just doable in games, but important and expected, and the necessity of a turn-based combat system isn’t a technological limitation but a design choice. A great many JRPGs have unbending linear plots where the only choice you have is which NPCs to listen to in what order, and have a static turn-based combat system simply because that’s what the genre does. Having worked in MMOs, I’m strongly convinced that following genre conventions simply because they’re genre conventions is a fast way to a dead genre.

In the meantime, though, I’ve played the (truly excellent) Persona 3 and 4. These games are fascinating, because the core gameplay loop is not what you’d expect. Instead of wandering through areas with random encounters (ugh) or random wandering enemies that spawn a combat vignette (better), comprising the majority of your game time, Persona 3 and 4 are about time management. There are a vast number of things to do and a limited amount of time to do them in, and sometimes the things are of limited availability. The games are more about the stories of the characters against the backdrop of some calamity that you’re also dealing with than the forward press of Saving The World. You might save the world, but it almost feels incidental to the more important relationships you’re building. Both games also let you make some interesting choices– relatively shallow in scope, usually “who do I date” and “do I encourage or rebuff this person”, but the ramifications of those choices feel significant because they’re tied to a limited resource: time.

Persona games have taken the trope of JRPGs and combined them with a time management and dating sim. When you get into combat, it’s less about chipping away at an enemy’s health and more about exploiting their weaknesses– combat encounters are like a high-stakes puzzle game. The rest of the game focuses deeply on a single slice of life, where you get to know the people and the places in great detail.

At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got Final Fantasy, games about world-spanning adventure and various travels with a party who, ideally, become your friends. It’s almost like… wait for it… a road trip, really fitting for the newest upcoming installment of the series. The focus is on getting to see the sights and sounds of a great big world, and seeing a lot of variety in the process. I’ve commented before that I think that the MMORPG is the natural evolution of the JRPG– it’s a great big world that you adventure in alongside friends, and you level up and get better gear to fight bigger and badder monsters to see more of the world. The other evolution of the JRPG, the one that’s taken longer to form, are games like Mass Effect, taking the same basic construct and upping the fidelity of the story and the choices you can make in it, as well as a more modern, fast-paced combat system.

Final Fantasy has been pushing the boundaries of the genre almost since its inception. Every game is a different twist on character progression, combat mechanics, and so on. Action Combat has been something they’ve clearly wanted for a very long time– even before the prototypical spinoffs like Dirge of Cerberus, the fast-paced semi-turn-based combat of FFX-2 and Crisis Core, and the MMOs (XI and XIV) and MMO-alikes like FFXII, they’ve been incorporating the ATB (Active Time Battle) system, a way of timing your turns. They’ve previously acquiesced and allowed you to turn ATB off, and more recently have (I think) realized that that was holding back their attempts at advancing the genre.

Now we have FFXV, a game I’m surprisingly excited about. It’s Final Fantasy tone and style in a game I actually want to play, that feels like an evolution of the series (the culmination of 15-20 years of experimenting) and not a retread of existing ground. I’ve also got FFXIV’s expansion, the continuation of a slightly different evolutionary path and one that’s kept me hooked for far longer than I expected.

I’ve also got the upcoming Persona 5, which I’m unreasonably excited about for the music alone.

All of this is coming at a point in my life where I’m doing a lot of rebooting and starting over, which is itself reminiscent of things I did 10-15 years ago. It’s fitting, somehow, that I’d return to school and return to Final Fantasy in the same year.