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The Future is Coming
August 10, 2004

The dog days of summer are really here, and to keep you all satisfied until the huge outpouring of games in September, we've got an editorials update par excellence! People have written in on such diverse subjects as MMORPGs, females in games, and we even have a new Progress Police article, courtesy of Angelo.

As usual, feel free to write in regarding any topic, but if you need something specific, here's this month's question: We've seen a huge evolution in how our games are physically delivered, from the days of 5 1/4 floppys to cartridges and CDs, and now hard drives and real time delivery systems. What do you think is the best medium for video games to appear on, and why? For all you budding futurists, why not give examples of possible "next step" media.



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The Progress Police Part III: On Dependencies and Independent Game Design

It appears to be the dream of every warm-blooded game designer to get his game published and distributed on a major console, and it's not hard to see why. After all, the mainstream gaming public is in love with consoles. They're relatively cheap, require little effort to set up, are virtually no maintenance, and you don't have to troubleshoot system-level problems with every game you buy for them (as well you shouldn't). Thanks to the huge buy-in to consoles by gamers, those getting games distributed on them stand to make a big chunk of dough. The drawback to this kind of convenience is that the owners of these technologies can be - and often are Ė anything but benevolent rulers. If a company's console is in millions of gamers' homes, then that company owns a part of gaming itself. And creativity and innovation in the market is directly affected by how much control these companies gain (and exercise) over the gaming population and development community.

For a little bit of background, the state of the gaming industry is not unlike what the information technology industry has experienced. Apple Computer Corp. once had a large share of sales to educational institutions, thanks to their stable and user-friendly packaged systems. But Apple had little room to advance their technology, largely because their systems were expensive and schools could not afford the upgrades. It was also difficult to develop for the platform, due to the specialized hardware and operating system. In fact, the main reason that Microsoft's Windows OS became an attractive alternative was because it had exactly what Apple lacked: an operating system that utilized common hardware that developers were familiar with. On top of that, the hardware was cheap, if occasionally problematic. Microsoft easily beat out Apple in the OS market, despite the Apple software being arguably superior in usability.

Fast forward a few years, to where Microsoft has gained a strangle hold on the whole IT market. Aside from their market share, Microsoft had a couple major strengths with Windows: a relative hardware-independence (relying on a specific instruction set architecture instead of a specific vendor's box), and a developer-friendly application programming interface (API). Users accepted the stability and usability issues of Windows because their favorite applications were there, and this is, at least marginally, still the case. However, Microsoft in all its big-headedness began to increasingly ignore compatibility (one of the chief strengths of the platform) in favor of "new" and "better" "features." This was the case of a company agenda outweighing the practical needs of the consumer base.

Enter Open Source. The Internet made the massive exchange of ideas on a global scale possible, and thousands of software enthusiasts were suddenly able to bounce their ideas off of a huge audience. The concept of sharing ideas was not uncommon in science, but commercial entities, of course, wanted nothing to do with it. Until Linux. It was the first major piece of evidence that free and open development can produce stable, reliable, and maintainable software. Not only could anybody use it for free, but anybody could modify it and present their modifications for inclusion into the project. At first, nobody took the appeal of Open Source seriously, until the Apache HTTP server became the most widely used web server on the planet, utterly smoking Microsoft's Internet Information Service (IIS). Now, most of the major players in the industry are not only incorporating open-source software into their projects, but are also contributing to the community. IBM contributed to Linux and distributes it with their servers. Apple's latest operating system uses an open-source kernel - based on the Berkely Software Distribution (BSD). And Novell bounced back from almost being destroyed in the market by Microsoft to being the second largest distributor of Linux.

The lesson to be learned from the IT world is this: Whenever any corporation gets too big for its britches and starts focusing on control of the market instead of advancing the state of the art, the public will demand and utilize - even create - alternatives. What does this have to do with the game industry? Everything.

The game console is like your older Apple PCs or your Microsoft APIs - a closed and controlled platform. And not very cost effective, were it not for good marketing to both consumers and development houses. Console makers take a big financial risk in developing a new platform - one which they typically have to make up for with licensing fees instead of hardware sales. Developers also have to take a big monetary risk, forking out thousands of dollars for development kits and permission to develop on that console. Not to mention the consequent obsolescence of most or all of their previously developed software, and the exhaustive and costly approval process to get your game onto that console. All these costs of course get pushed onto the consumers, who as of yet don't seem to mind.

The developers ought to mind, however. There could very well come a point where the risks of developing for a console aren't worth the payoff. It's entirely possible to spend thousands or millions in capital to port all your libraries to a new platform, write and design a new game, and have the console maker reject it because they didn't like your tie that day. If not kick your whole company off the console.

A company at the mercy of its customers is a normal thing, but these development houses are at the mercy of their vendor. It's much like going to Subway and paying for a sub, only to be told that you're not allowed to eat it because your hairdo is out of date.

It should come as no surprise, then, that only the companies with millions in the bank can truly afford the risks of console development. And lately, even they have to cut costs to make it. Throwaway code and poor practices abound, largely because these companies know that most of what they do will become obsolete by the time the next magic box rolls around. It's no coincidence that the market has been flooded in recent years with remakes of old titles and new installments of the big-selling series. With few exceptions, independent developers have no choice but to pitch their projects to the large development houses or simply develop for a cheap platform like the WIntel PC. The stifling of innovation and creativity in the industry is occurring as a direct result of the poor stewardship of these consoles on the part of their technology owners.

The console makers are afraid to give even a tiny morsel of freedom to their licensees, despite compelling evidence in other markets that an extensible platform that involves the development community not only fosters new and exciting technology, but encourages participation from all parties (not just the richest). Sun Microsystems' stewardship of Java technology is a great example of a technology that isn't needlessly limited by its owner. Their Java Community Process is a forum where industry members and independent Java gurus can have a say in the future of the platform. Java could serve as a great example for what the gaming community could become, being that it's an operating system-independent platform with a wealth of free and open source packages available - but more importantly, it's constantly evolving. There's no rule that says game developers have to put up with the premature aging of consoles, outrageous license fees, and the disgusting degree of censorship and elitism toward their products. They should want more.

Some new products are appearing that make the situation more hopeful. Microsoft showed with its X-box that the days of being able to build consoles from widely available (and cheap) hardware aren't too far off. Shuttle makes an attractive and compact machine with industry standard hardware, and Alienware goes even further to incorporate a DVR into their sleek-looking Digital Home System (DHS) machines. These units are attractive because they're small and quiet as well as powerful, much like the consoles. It's not a far cry to expect that these units will begin appearing in more homes, and console developers will have a platform with a large installed base - that encourages repeatable development practices, and has a wealth of free source code and an open community - of big and small development houses alike. After all, who wouldn't think it cool to play video games on their DVR?

Some references:
How Microsoft Lost the API War - Joel Spolsky, 13 June 2004
{ http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/APIWar.html}
The Cathedral and the Bazaar - Eric S. Raymond, 21 May 1997
{http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/}
Infoworld: Inside the New Novell - Neil McAllister, 09 July 2004
{ http://www.infoworld.com/article/04/07/09/28FEnovell_1.html}
XGD: Extreme Programming for Game Developers - chromatic, 13 August 2003
{http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/wlg/3668}
Alienware DHS systems
{http://www.alienware.com/Product_Pages/media_center_all.aspx}

- Angelo

Damian:

Way to go, Angelo! Another well-researched Progress Police article. With all the hardships that console game-makers encounter, one has to wonder why they still put up with all the nonsense. The answer is likely that the console pie is big enough, and the rewards vast enough to make it worthwhile. Still, weíve seen many companies falter and fall thanks to that assumption. My suggestion to all potential game designers: get some blackmail photos.

 
Japan and US Gamers

ĒWhat could Japanese companies do in order to please and attract more American gamers?"

This question seems kind of ambiguous to me. The video game industry in the U.S. is a more than 5 billion dollar-a-year industry. The industry already has a very strong customer base and it looks like weíll be playing video games for years and years to come. Children have grown up with video games over the past twenty years. With each new generation the number of people playing video games only grows. Why would Japan need to try harder to attract players in the U.S.? They already have us. The problem they face it maintaining that hold on the U.S. market.

Before I address how to do that, let me make a few things clear. Video games are viewed very different in Japan there then they are here. The reasoning being Japanese culture views entertainment very differently then we do in the U.S. Cartoons, comics and video games are seen there as art. They are valid forms of expression that anyone of any age can enjoy. Look at some of the stories they tell with these media. Look at interviews with the directors, writers and designers. They absolutely donít view their work as childish. To say so would not only be an insult to them it would but to all those who enjoy their works.

These views on works regarded as childish needs to change here in the U.S. We need to shed the taboo that things you enjoyed as children need to be left in childhood. Japan has helped us do that with the infusion of their movies, comics and games. People of my generation are more open to these types of media. Look at all the movies that are being made based on comics or how many animated movies are popular. Cultural views are changing. We just need to make sure we keep up.

Even though our culture has assimilated parts of the Japanese culture, we are fundamentally different. We donít enjoy some of the things they enjoy. Look at the disaster that was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It was a very Japanese movie and I enjoyed it quite a bit, but many Americans didnít because it wasnít their usual brand of story telling. This is the issue Japan needs to address to keep the viewing public happy. They need to learn to adapt their storytelling to something we would enjoy.

I digress. Back on topic, there isnít much Japan needs to do to maintain their dominance on the video game market. Their video game market is also organic. The market knows when to change. All Japan simply needs to do is continue to produce quality products that everyone enjoys. Until our video companies can produce quality games in the quantity they do they have us by our sensitive parts.

I also think we need to help them with this. Our mass media is still clinging to the idea that video games are for kids. I believe as the Ďold guardí of the media begins to age and to be replaced by younger people, weíll see a shift in the way games are viewed. Years from now videogames will enjoy a success that we could hardly dream of. Japan is helping this charge by giving us quality games. I know they give us some stinkers sometimes, but the good definitely outweighs the bad.

The last point Iíd like to make is to not think too big. Itís nice to expand the market of video games but donít try to push it too far. Sometimes, too much growth can be a bad thing. Consoles are slowly becoming the center of all multi-media entertainment in the household. Now, while Iím not against this, I am saying that Japan needs to use caution when exploring this new area. People are resistant to change. If it isnít done right or at the right pace, they could cheese off both gamer and non-gamers alike.

Finally, Iíd like to address the one of the topics Phillip covered -pandering.

Pandering is a bad thing, Iíll admit, but it serves its purpose. Our culture moves at lightning speed. For marketing to be effective in the U.S. it needs to be flashy, loud and in your face or you never hear it. It gets swallowed up and things that are truly good and entertaining fall into obscurity. I understand the need for flashy marketing and scantily clad women. It catches the eye. It draws us in. After that we look past the shininess and see whatís underneath. If itís good weíll buy it if not we move on. Thatís just the way things go. So pandering is double edged sword; with it, you demean and cheapen your work; without it, your work may never be seen and fall by the wayside.

- Zameda

Damian:

As weíve been seeing with the increasing presence of gaming columns in newspapers, as well as channels dedicated to games (G4, for instance) it makes me believe that the shift Zameda espouses is already starting to take place. As for pandering, well, Iím a bit leery of that, but if it works, a little pandering could be a good thing.

 
MMORPG Future

ďWith MMORPGs such as Final Fantasy XI a rousing success, what can we expect (or at least, what do you hope) to see as the next level in Multiplayer gaming?Ē

Well, being the MMO player that I am, I feel Iím in a good spot to answer this. First things first, letís break down the question.

ďWith MMORPGs such as Final Fantasy XI a rousing success...Ē

While FFXI is a good game, Iím not sure it would be considered a success. Now, I know they have a large subscription base so that Ďmakesí them a success. The problem is that the only reason I think they have a large player base is because the box says Final Fantasy. Iíve had several friends play the game, like it for a while, but as they dug into it found problems. Now, I wonít go into detail here about them. Iíll just say that FFXI didnít do a lot to fix the major problems Iíve seen plague other MMOs, such as character gimping, useless class/race combinations, and a meaningful economy. If you can get past those things then FFXI is wonderful game.

ď..what can we expect (or at least, what do you hope) to see as the next level in Multiplayer gaming?Ē

Well here we get to the meat and potatoes of it. Where do I see the MMO world heading? Well, I believe we are starting to already see it. We are on the verge of seeming three major MMOs being release within the next year.

Everquest 2
World of Warcraft
Matrix Online

They seek to redefine the industry by taking the old MMOs standards and turning them on their heads.

They all try to fix the three major issues of current MMOs. Each game seeks to make charactersí allocation of skills, stats and equipment essential, while making sure itís not as damaging if it isnít done right. This should hopefully all but eliminate character gimping. A wipe selection of skills and ways of character development help make all race/combos viable. Gone will be the days of picking one class and being stuck in that role for the life of that character. Fixing a game's economy is being done by moving away from item dependency. The new idea of the MMO economy should be that items help your game experience not define it.

The direction I hope to see future MMOs take is away from the fantasy style of Everquest, World of Warcraft and many others. Iíd like to see them explore new concepts and ideas. There are games out there that are trying to do this. The game Iím in love with right now is City of Heroes; it forgoes the swords and sorcery for tights and bright colors. The Matrix and Vampire seek to move away from the concept of knights in shiny armor for darker, broodier themes.

A concept I would like to see implemented is the players having an effect on the world. Now, some games let the players affect the world by having player homes and towns, besieging castles, and tournaments of skill. Iím talking about more substantial stuff. I would like to see players affecting the story of the world. Inclusion of events that change the world, once completed. Enemies and Heroes rise to victory or get defeated, never to emerge again. Factions would rise and fade in the blink of eye. Players sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the world and become idolized for it. I know itís a far-out dream, but one can only hope.

- Zameda

Damian:

Zameda is on a roll this month. Funny he should mention that last part. When I was at E3, I happened to sit in on an interview my colleagues were conducting with a dev team member of an upcoming MMO entitled Wish. Wish is (apparently) aiming to do just what you suggest: allow the player to have a permanent, lasting effect on the world. This is planned to take the form of unique quests (nobody else can do them once completed), heralding the player via the erection of statues and the development of bard songs dedicated to the player, and other such ideas. To me, this sounds like a ton of work for the dev team; they say theyíre hiring a full-time staff just to write the content (and judging from the graphics, it looks like theyíve neglected other areas). However, time will tell if this game lives up to expectations.

 
R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Iíd like to present my thoughts on what Japanese companies can do to attract more American gamers. The more obvious ways of doing this have to do with American media coverage and exposure of Japanese (and pretty much any other) games. Most of the time video games are shown to the public as kidís stuff, so itís no surprise people love to lampoon them or call gamers dorks, geeks, nerds, etc. The best way to advance gaming in America is to advance the image of the games themselves.

A good way to get video games more appeal is to advertise in different ways. Frankly, children have little say in society outside of random fads, so make sure that adults see things that might make them think games arenít something kids will play and adults will ignore. If they are attracted to games that seem like more than childís play, they might decide to become more informed about them. A perfect example for this would be a Super Bowl advertisement for Final fantasy XII (which will almost certainly not happen). Having a nice commercial making the game look like a deep adventure in the same vein as a summer blockbuster (and definitely not one to take the kids to) will help people think better of the games as a whole, and may entice some to actually look up more information on their own rather than take what is handed to them through television.

Another good area in which to advertise would be prime time television, where I canít remember seeing any commercials for games. Itís true that the major networks are losing viewers, and therefore revenue, because more and more people play games during prime time, but thatís no excuse not to have ever seen a single ad for a game. Video game companies need to step up to the plate and swing the bat at some fastballs in Prime Time or sporting events, not just take the slow, overhand pitches that channels like Cartoon Network offer them.

Also, more good press and reviews need to be released to better sources. If you had read a Yahoo News article about the E3 show a while back, you know what I mean. The author of the report essentially came out telling readers all the wrong things. The show, to them, was a noisy, testosterone driven, and immature waste of time. Yahoo News is a place where a lot of adults go for reputable stories, and if they read that particular article, they now are surer that they will never play a stupid video game instead of whatever else they do to entertain themselves. Even the most panderrific games at the show were thrown into the pot with fantastic and adult oriented games of all kinds. The media needs to be shown a different side of gaming and those of us who love it, or people will continue to have an uninformed opinion of games.

Despite the fact the Japan has the cornerstone on respect for gaming and Americans can learn a lot from how they treat them, it is still the job of the West to reach the West. We need to make sure that we donít deal with the lowest common denominator, that we appeal to and influence more than just people who play games because of the double-Ds within, and especially that we donít fall behind in making sure the public (especially a parent) is as informed as possible about games. Information, responsibility, and proper media exposure will earn more respect than the Booth Babes at E3, reviews in Blender, Maxim, and Stuff magazines or an ad during Miguzi, no offense to either. We need to stop preaching to the choir and start converting.

- Michael V.

Damian:

Michael makes interesting points, but I have to wonder if the lowest common denominator isnít the exact same group watching the Super Bowl and prime-time television.

As for his main point, yes, advertising can help the respectability of a product, though I seriously wonder if, much like in the art world, video games can only achieve true respectability if theyíre admired by pretentious critics?

 
The Role of WOmen in Videogames: Growing or Shrinking?

It is fairly obvious to most people that the role that women are given in video games, including RPGs, is expanding. After all, the market doesn't have the inundation of titles with the "captured princess" (remember that both the original FF and DQ had this...) that it used to see. Then there's the wonderful Final Fantasy X-2, with its three female protagonists. So, women's roles in Video Games are expanding.

Or are they?

While it is true that there is more screen time given to women in videogames today, and less of a "Captured Princess" role, I would like to state that I think that womenís roles in video games today are not too much better than they used to be.

Why?

Simple: women in video games today are used primarily for sex appeal. The expected audience for any given game is still comprised mostly by men. Therefore, the company wants to capture the widest audience possible. The way, as they see it, to do this, is to have a leading female protagonist with plenty of sex appeal. The cover of FFX-2 alone is proof of this.

Using sex appeal to sell anything, in my opinion, is an insult. It is an insult to the developers, as they cannot sell the product based on its own actual merits, and it is an insult to the customer, who they believe will buy their product because of this. It is also an insult to women in general, as it tells the majority of people that a woman is a great looking face and body that you can stare at while you play video games. It does not allow one to enjoy the game on its own merits if they bought it only for the outfit of the main female lead.

Final Fantasy games have been getting progressively worse in this regard. Pre-FFVII, there was no way the female characters really could be made appealing to the teen boy audience. Then there wer Tifa and Yuffie. Now, I'm not blaming Squaresoft for this, I'm blaming the entertainment industry in general, as animť is a prime offender in this regard as well. FFX was even worse, with its outfits for Lulu and Yunaleska. This has culminated in the birth of FFX-2, where teenage boys go insane over a CG girl. The following customer review is proof.

HOTT BABES 5 Stars
This is a sexy game cause the game play is awsome but the story line sucked even the ending but still an awsome game to own.

YUNA'S HOT 5 Stars
Man, this game rock, one of the best FF games ever. I HAVE PLAYED FFX and love it, the story so amazing. Everything was so perfect. Square is rock. The three characters is so hot especially Yuna. I am telling you, get this game right away.

(Thanks to EBGames.com for letting me use these without knowing it.)

This, to me, is not really a recommendation.

- Xeno-Eva Fan

Damian:

Again, we come back to FFX-2 as our main view of the negative perspective of women in games. If I didnít know the internet better, Iíd be horrified at those reviews, but then again, I know the internet and the rampant idiocy that its denizens love to spew forth. As we saw in our OWN FFX-2 debate a few months ago, there is some intelligent commentary on the game, and some gamers have seen it as a positive portrayal of females in video games. I wouldnít know, seeing as my fiancťe ďborrowedĒ my copy before I got to play it and wonít finish it.



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