Sunday, May 17, 2009

As I mature, Final Fantasy will not

Final Fantasy is one of my favorite gaming franchises of all time. I first started playing the series with the original release on the NES, back in 1990, and I have picked up every major release since. Nostalgia is definitely a strong component of my love for the series. The other major reason for my continued interest is SquareEnix's drive to innovate a long running series while concurrently amping up their production values, world density, and storytelling prowess with each release. The short reason for why I love this series is that Final Fantasy and "high quality role playing game" are almost interchangeable terms to me. I'm eagerly looking forward to the next major console release of the series, but I am concerned by recent comments made from the series director.

In a recent piece on Edge Online, Final Fantasy 13 Director Yoshinori Kitase says "'I actually think that it’s a very natural thing for players to grow out of the Final Fantasy series...In terms of the age group we target with each new game, it remains the teens to 20-somethings." He goes on to mention that while members of the team grow older, they feel that it is important to create games for their core demographic. One of their nods to the aging creators and the long running fans is the increasing prevalence with which older characters find their way into new entries in the series.

While adding older characters is a nice gesture, I feel that the series will lose its appeal with both older and younger generations if it does not grow up with its fans. In years past, technology moved so fast that players young and old put up with narratives that didn't resonate because they were excited about the ever increasing fidelity of worlds they were able to explore. As computing and graphics technology in games begins to plateau, players will be looking for a richer palette of characters and stories to define the role playing games they play. Fortunately, with the growing number of formerly PC-centric companies such as Bethesda and Bioware building mature console games now, players will have more options. Nevertheless, I don't want to leave the unique style of SquareEnix behind. I hope that the storytellers in our industry can look to the storytelling techniques of places like Pixar to bridge the gap between young and old. Each Pixar movie amazes me with its rich worlds, interesting characters, and almost universal appeal across gender and age groups. Please, Mr. Kitase, don't leave me behind.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Non competitive multiplayer gaming

Over the last couple of days, I had some interesting experiences while playing with others over Xbox Live. Normally when I play against others online, the competition is tough, the only cooperation occurs between team members, and I usually walk away with several additional losses on my record. My gaming experience recently proved to be almost the exact opposite of that scenario.

While playing Outrun Arcade Online the other night, I decided to engage in a one on one race with a stranger. Outrun has a few different modes of online play, but they are all basically a race to the finish. I played a lot of Outrun single player while trying to earn my achievements the previous week but I was out of practice. My opponent, on the other hand, was experienced and careened through the course with minimal effort. To my surprise, he had stopped just short of the finish line and I ended up winning 1st place. He left after that race and I found myself staring at the screen, pondering what just happened. There are only 3 reasons I can think of that this player may have done this. Outrun doesn't have any ranked leaderboards, so wins don't matter with the exception of 2 achievements - one where you have to win 5 races in a row and one where you have to be in the lead at each race checkpoint. My first theory goes something like this - perhaps this player knew they outskilled me and didn't want me to feel bad after the race. My second theory goes something like this - perhaps I was the player that helped them unlock the lead each checkpoint achievement and they were trying to help me get the win 5 races in a row achievement. My third theory is simply that the player was looking for a tough competitor. Since I didn't prove to be an even match for them, they just didn't care, and perhaps they thought it would be funny to be waiting at the line. In any of those scenarios, the lack on an online leaderboard led to a situation that might not have occurred otherwise, and it kept me playing because I felt that my opponent was being friendly.

Another game I played online recently is Beautiful Katamari. I don't think this game has multiplayer leaderboards either, and it only has 3 online achievements - play 10 games online, play 50 games online, and earn 1,000 cookies. Cookies are always awarded for each match, scaled to your final position, with bonus cookies given out for special awards. When I recently played a match online, the host sent a message to each player telling them not to pick up items so we could all tie in 1st, which meant that the maximum number of cookies was given to each player. In this way, we all earned a substantial number of cookies and someone had a chance to get extras if they could perform more "boost" special moves than the others. While this seemed like an interesting non-competitive way to march toward the achievements, charging into a wall got a bit boring, and I started hosting my own games. Having earned the other awards, I eventually only needed the 50 games played achievement, and I reflected on my situation. It seemed that when I won several games in a row, opponents would drop out and I had to wait a while before another one was available. Eventually, one player noticed I already had 1,000 cookies and asked me to help them get their achievement. I had nothing to gain by winning the matches, so I rolled up goodies for a while then sat back for several matches. We played several games and I received my 50 games played achievement. It was getting late so I intended to go to bed, but I wanted to help this player get their achievement as well, so I stayed online for several more games until they had reached their 1,000 cookie goal.

While some people could construe this behavior as cheating, without a win-loss record and rankings, the consequences for winning and losing are meaningless. I also found it fascinating to engage in what I considered emergent multiplayer rule modification. By simply changing the achievements offered and culling out rankings, a game can change the focus of an online community from competition to socialization and cooperation. As someone who played games professionally for several years, I certainly value the competitive nature of gaming. On the other hand, I also think that one of the failures of online multiplayer in most games is that it can encourage antisocial behavior and scare away players that don't have time to practice for hours a day. I look forward to trying out more games that create a competitive environment without overvaluing the concept of winning.