Give the Hero of Time an epic end

October 27, 2010

Just yesterday, some videos from Nintendo´s fall conference in Japan were released on Youtube. Besides Resident Evil: Revelations, which looks absolutely stunning, there´s also a video showing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, the Nintendo 3DS-remake of the famous N64-title and, according to general perception, best video game of all times. For what is worth, I´m of that opinion, too.

It is simply awesome to see this grand adventure running on a handheld, featuring vastly improved visuals and super-smooth animations. The environment´s objects are still N64-level, but that´s definitely due to Nintendo having chosen to leave it at that, not a shortcoming of the 3DS´ power. If you forget about the simple structured buildings for a moment, it looks really close to Twilight Princess and makes one wonder, if we´ll actually see a ground-up for 3DS-Zelda game. I sure hope so.

There´s even a possibility that Nintendo had more reason to do this remake rather than simply rushing out a big 3DS-game. Said possibility is that Nintendo plans to do another Zelda-game starring the Hero of Time. It´d certainly have less impact on new Zelda-fans if they didn´t even know who that Hero of Time was and why he´s so famous and important. What better way to introduce new fans to this part of the legend than by having them play the hero´s game itself?

On top of hoping that Majora´s Mask will see the same treatment, I really hope that Nintendo considers a third Hero of Time-game. For what we know, that Link simply vanished after saving Termina. But did he really vanish or did Nintendo just leave him be and proceeded to create The Wind Waker? As a matter of fact, the Hero of Time IS the center core of all 3D-Zelda games. Starring in two games, having a statue in Hyrule Castle in TWW, and being referenced in Twilight Princess, where we see what happened to Ganondorf after young Link went back in time and warned princess Zelda. The only 3D-Zelda game that might not be related to that one hero could be the upcoming Skyward Sword, but even then, weird, crazy stuff could happen. All I know is that I´d love to play one final game as the Hero of Time and see how he ends up. Besides the needed conclusion to his person, it could end up revealing further connections to other Zelda-games. I don´t want to start writing about fan-theories in this blog-entry, but …


The difficult state of Nintendo´s nextgen concept

October 17, 2010

For four consecutive months now, Microsoft´s Xbox 360 beat Nintendo´s Wii-console in monthly US-sales numbers, according to NPD group. For many weeks in a row, Sony´s PlayStation 3 beat the Wii in weekly Japan-sales numbers, according to Media-Create. A look at the upcoming software-lineup isn´t a pleasant one: There´s Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kirby: Epic Yarn and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, accompanied by third-party blockbuster Disney Epic Mickey, and that´s … it. Due to this current situation, many folks began wondering about Nintendo´s follow-up system to the Wii. Is Nintendo wondering, too?

Story of success - that will be hard to be replicated

Only months ago it seemed as if the Wii-phenomenon would go on, and on, and on. Now that is a long forgone past. With virtually no third-party support outside of a selected few that can be counted on one hand, hardly significant first-party releases remaining and a hardware that was old when it launched, but simply isn´t part of developers´ environment today, Nintendo has to react. The big questions are: In what way, and when.

One could argue that Nintendo could still have a great year 2011 in terms of first-party offerings, and they´d be right. With Sakaguchi´s The Last Story, a potential killer-app is on it´s way – to Japan. Unlike The Last Story, which could still go either way, Monolith Software´s Xenoblade was released months ago and there´s no sign of a western release. Meanwhile, those gamers that are lucky enough to understand Japanese and imported the game report almost exclusively great, positive things about this enormous RPG, and whenever someone posts links to videos of Xenoblade on message boards, lots of folks think that it almost looks as good as an HD-game due to the sheer size of the seamless ingame-world.  Add Zelda: Skyward Sword, and 2011 could see three big, hardcore-focused experiences on the Wii in one single year. Not even the Wii´s first year would have seen such high-quality in such a condensed time frame.

However, and it is a big “however”, that is all speculation, hope, hypothesis. Knowing Nintendo, it could easily turn out that only Zelda releases in 2011 in western regions and is delayed to October/November to function as the big holiday-game. Also, no matter if these three games are released or not, they could hardly be called system-sellers (well, Zelda could, but not in a drastic way). Even with the Wii´s big lead over each of its competitors, Nintendo cannot be happy about decreasing sales numbers. So, what we´re looking at here is: Unhappy gamers, unhappy Nintendo. A revolutionary combination, if one dared to say so. When both consumer and producer are unhappy about the current situation, a change in pace is the only logical consequence. Many enthusiast gamers already fantasize about what kind of hardware Nintendo could/should use for the Wii Too, and most of them expect a new home console in 2012. At its current sales-level, I´d say that is a wrong assumption. 2011 is closer to reality.

Now, there´s a lot of factors to be considered when talking about a hypothetical Wii-successor, which makes it so much fun, but also so complex to talk about. Most importantly, 2011 is the year of the Nintendo 3DS´s launch, Nintendo´s next handheld system. As far as I remember, the GameBoy Advance and GameCube also launched pretty close to each other, but nonetheless, launching two important hardware devices in one year seems a lot. From the consumer´s point of view, who has only so much money and time. From the software developers point of view, who can only create so many games. And from a business risk´s point of view, which would be high, considering all factors together.  There´s also the problem that putting out something as important as a home console in such a short amount of time is risky in terms of marketing, getting word out to the targeted people. And then there´s a much more profane problem: What will the hardware be like?

Better graphics - not a solution

If Nintendo went for a typical successor after risking it all with the experiment called Wii, everything would point towards a system that eclipses both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Faster processor, better graphics card, more ram, and so on. It would feature high definition, probably up to 1080p, maybe have hidden capabilities for future plans of 3D-support, and be the strongest video game system for the time being. Which, so most people think, would be at least a year. There´s several problems, though, with this concept of expecting Nintendo to follow their competitors´ road. One of them is the assumption that third-party developers would happily jump over to this powerful Nintendo-system and support it with all their multi-platform titles. A Nintendo-system accompanied by games like Mass Effect, Deux Ex 3, Assassins Creed or Grand Theft Auto? Sounds great – just as it sounds unlikely. For better or worse reasons (worse, for the most part, sigh), third-party developers have … developed a strong believe of being unable to see success on a Nintendo-system. They always argue with either Nintendo-games being too overwhelming or the Nintendo audience only buying Nintendo-games. Taking a look at the Wii´s lineup, who can honestly blame these consumers? But it is true, there is more competition on a Nintendo-system. And no matter of truths and lies, third-party developers do not like Nintendo-home consoles ever since the N64.

Another problem against this typical way of building a nextgen-system arises when asking: For how long would this hardware be considered powerful, and what would happen once Microsoft and Sony 1-up Nintendo? If we expect a Wii Too that´s basically to 360 and PS3 what Xbox was to GCN and PS2, then the difference would be noticeable, but not all-deciding. Would current Gears of War-gamers buy a Nintendo-system, assuming its online-structure came close to the one they´re used to? Or would these gamers stay with Microsoft since they don´t give a fox about Nintendo-games? And once Nintendo´s competitors released their nextgen-systems, Nintendo would be stuck in the “outdated technique”-situation again. Yes, a system with technology of the current HD-systems would probably be a lot friendlier towards down-ports than the Wii is, but who would be left buying this console, then? The same people that currently buy a Wii, with the crucial difference that the Wii´s expanded audience does not care about HD or better visuals. They´d be happy with the Wii as is and have no need to pay a premium for an HD-system. Chances are that an HD-Wii Too would sell considerably worse than the Wii now, since its potential audience would be limited to the Nintendo-fanbase, which, being generous, consists of maybe 10 Million gamers. Which is not much when you´re in global business and coming from a market leading position.

It is kind of ironic, but by entering the blue ocean, Nintendo killed off the red ocean completely – for themselves. Re-entering the directly competing business (and with both MS and Sony offering motion controls, it is as direct as it can be) is a difficult matter at this point in time. That´s why I think that there won´t be a typical successor-system to the Wii. No “more powerful hardware, that´s it” kind of direction. Nintendo´s one and only way to ensure market dominance and business safety is to find a new blue ocean. Nintendo has to innovate – or die (I´m sorry for the dramatic choice of words here. Of course, Nintendo won´t go bankrupt over one failed system). It´s that innovation that is just so hard to predict. Sony took Nintendo´s wiimote and improved its motion control-capabilities. A standard Wii-remote plus, that is currently on its way, wouldn´t be a solution to ensuring  enough difference in terms of feature offerings. “The Nintendo difference” is needed here, quite literally. What can Nintendo do to offer a different core-experience with their nextgen-system compared to MS´s and Sony´s?

The answer obviously is not 3D. Not only did Nintendo-boss Satoru Iwata already tell the public that the company would wait for high market-penetration of 3DTVs before considering support, but also is Sony promoting 3D as a feature of their system. If Nintendos answer is even better motion controls, what would those be like? Data gloves? Hardly something mass-compatible and probably not that much of a difference to Sony´s Move or an upgraded camera for either Xbox 720 and PS4. Even though I personally love to think of a 3D-visor that would put the player inside a virtual world like never before and freeing gamers from the need of a TV, that is not happening either. Too expensive, to incompatible to the masses. Another concept I enjoyed talking about in the past is the home console-handheld-hybrid system. But considering that the 3DS has already been announced, with neither a TV-out nor the power to allow HD-gaming, this can be ruled out, too, since Nintendo wouldn´t want to have its new handheld and home console compete THAT directly with each other.

Will NOT happen - no matter how much I want it to

 

The best way of differentiating themselves from both competitors would be to look into building the whole system around certain (until now software-based) features that Nintendo hasn´t made significant use of, yet, as well as MS and Sony only having used them as a small part of they strategy. It certainly wouldn´t be a strategy that MS and Sony couldn´t copy, but it´d be such a weird, unusual concept for a home console that it might scare away MS and Sony from following – see the Wii for past evidence. What type of feature Nintendo could focus a whole home console on, that I cannot say. There´s lots of possibilities, one crazier than the other. Nintendo could build a MMO-based system with built-in 3G, that combines all games offered for the system in some kind of always socially connected way. There´s also my old concept of an A.I.-system that would feature an enormous HDD and allow gamers to combine different games´ data to create completely new experiences. Along these lines, Nintendo could also build a system that is all about creating and sharing content, like a system based on a 3D-Scribblenauts – gamers would create all their hardcore-games themselves and share their creations with each other, while Nintendo and other developers would sell finely crafted experiences with newly added content that in process could be used by gamers to build even more stuff by themselves. There are many more crazy ideas that could be mentioned here, but it only gets less realistic and won´t bring us any closer to the truth. What can be said is that Nintendo is in a difficult situation, no matter how successful the Wii was for many years. A simple HD-upgrade won´t be a solution, that I am sure about. What this solution will be? Ask me again in late 2011/early 2012.


Part of Immersion: A concept for nextgen-npcs

October 11, 2010

In an effort to come up with a concept that allows for even greater immersion than current video games, I thought of a process of combining different mechanics into a single one. The most important parts to achieve a great level of immersion are environment, perspective, and character-character-interaction. Today, I´ll be writing about the latter.

NPCs, the non-playable characters, in video games often are the weakest part of a game.  Even if we take a game with supposedly fantastic npcs, such as the Mass Effect-series, it is limited to only a few characters, while the majority of on-screen npcs cannot be interacted with. They might say something as you approach them, but you aren´t given the option to actively talk to them. That is the currently best the industry has to offer. Typically, you cannot interact with npcs at all. Popular examples for such games would be Grand Theft Auto 4 or Assassins Creed 2. There are thousands of people (aka npcs) in these games, and all you can do is ignore or hurt/kill them. Now, some might say that it isn´t financially feasible to design each and every npc as a fully interactable being, but not only am I going to write about a concept that could work around heavy costs, there´s also an example of game that did make the majority of npcs capable to interact with.

 

Tons of people to NOT interact with

 

First of all, said game is Vampire Masquerade: Bloodlines, one of the best RPGs for PC. Even though it´s quite old by now and combat is clunky, this title lets you initiate talk with seemingly every npc you can see. No, not literally everyone, but the ratio between interaction and non-interaction is so high that you get the feeling of being able to talk with everyone.

 

A quite nice level of dialog-options, but hardly anyone to use them on

Now, as for the concept I came up with. Imagine you have like 20 or such different character traits. Funny, friendly, cold, success-driven, old-fashioned, romantic, asshole, evil, sexist, playful, happy, sad, motivated, disenchanted, arrogant, shy, and so on. Let´s then imagine that each and every npc randomly features one to up to three of these traits that build its personality. However, that doesn´t mean that a npc is static in behavior/personality. Every npc would have access to ALL 20 traits. It´s just that 1-3 of these form the current expression of a npc´s personality. Due to this structure, you could talk to each and every npc in a game like GTA4 or AC2 and engage in a  conversation with them a la Mass Effect. All it takes are these 20 fleshed out traits and, of course, a lot of lines for npcs to choose from. However, unlike having to work on 100,000 characters individually, it only takes a tiny fraction of the effort/money to create. Thanks to the access to all different traits, you could talk to and transform npcs´ personality. Get a friendly person to insult you, talk an arrogant bitch into sleeping with you, or persuade a killer to give up and turn himself in. To make it even more interesting, there could be hard-wired traits amongst others that cannot be changed. So a “cold, sexist, asshole“-npc with the “sexist“-trait hard-wired could be turned into a “friendly, sexist, playful“-npc. It would make the concept all the more realistic, since everyone of us is made of traits that follow us through the whole course of our lives.

That´s it, my concept for a whole new level of immersion regarding npc-interaction that keeps costs reasonable. I´m not all that confident to see games using the above any time soon, since killing npcs seems to be still the most fun thing for the majority of gamers. But there´s always hope that at least one developer/publisher will attempt something different. Until then, the mindless npc-genocide continues.  At least I am killing giant, reptilian monsters in MH3!


Iwata: Bringing people online on Wii/NDS was a bitter learning experience

October 9, 2010

In a news-article on Siliconera, head of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, talked about the stronger focus on online-features regarding the upcoming Nintendo 3DS-handheld. He called it a bitter learning experience to get people online with Wii and Nintendo DS. It is still in the dark if 3DS will feature any (strongly) improved online-capabilities, since Iwata focuses talk on 3DS´s wlan-features, called SpotPass and Tag-Mode, that exist to use set up hotspots to connect to the internet. Something that might work for Japan, hardly for the USA, and definitely not for Europe.

However, people are criticizing Nintendo´s online approach as whole for a long time now. It has to be said that Nintendo most likely doesn´t have “crappy online” just for fun. Biggest evidence of that is the warning-screen that pops up every time you start your Wii or NDS. Not using any different technology in terms of “being dangerous”, it is only Nintendo that “has to” use these warnings. That, in combination with the emphasis on friends code, should make clear that Nintendo actually fully addresses to any kind of danger that could come from using their systems. It might be a hassle for adult gamers to be have no choice of being protected by these decisions, but it can´t be argued that it works. Anyone who has ever used Xbox Live and voice-chat knows what a more open system brings alongside.

The other reason is that Nintendo is Nintendo. Instead of giving gamers the obvious, they´re looking for something unique. There was an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto many years ago where he was asked about online-gaming (I think it was before the GameCube´s launch), and his answer was basically: If we cannot create new kinds of games by using the internet, we have no interest in that. We don´t want to simply put our existing games online without any innovations.” So, while online-multiplayer is vital to a lot of enthusiast gamers, it surely isn´t anything special or unique. I´ve wondered myself what new game-genres could be made, besides online-multiplayer and mmorpgs. Seems that Nintendo hasn´t come up with an answer, either, yet.


Are you sexist? Probably.

October 2, 2010

So for several days now a discussion about sexism in video gaming has been going on. Specifically talking, people accuse Fumito Ueda, creator of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, of being sexist. For all that´s worth, the discussion is beyond being absurd and I´ll totally defend that game designer. And god knows, I am no fan of Ueda, I really dislike Shadow of the Colossus, and I´m not that hyped about the upcoming The Last Guardian, either. But there´s a limit to how stupidly accusing people can be, and that limit was reached.

Evil mastermind: Fumito Ueda

The quote that ignited the “controversy” stems from two interviews. One is new and about The Last Guardian, the other one is from 2004 where Ueda talks about SotC. This is what 1up published on their website: “Early in development, the main character in The Last Guardian was female, but the team ended up going with a boy. The reason: they thought it would be more realistic that he would have enough grip strength to be able to climb around, and because they wouldn’t have to worry about camera angles with a girl who wears a skirt.” And some years ago, Ueda told this to Gamasutra: “ICO’s composer was (female composer) Michiru Ohshima, and I didn’t want to create the same image for this game. Aside from that, ICO was a game that both male and female players could enjoy equally. But I think this is a game that male players will enjoy more. So I chose a male composer.

Going by the first quote, the first part of it shouldn´t be offending at all. Boys are stronger than girls. It´s absurd to call that sexist, since it´s a generally accepted view within society. And simply going by my personal past, it is true. It´s possible that the differences in strength at the age of 10 and around that are less pronounced than at an adult age, but differences exist nonetheless. Of course, maybe those people that get worked up over that part only knew big, ugly bully-girls. That´s hardly more than anecdotal evidence, though. Then there´s the second part of that quote, the one about skirts. It implies that in Fumito Ueda´s opinion, girls and skirts are inevitably connected with each other. Now, there are several points that could be made, but one simple one would be that if you make your ingame-character a girl, you have to show that in some way. If you don´t show off the gender in any way it is redundant for one, and sexist, too, for assuming that the appearance of a little boy is the “neutral image” of a person. With a kid of age 10 the options for making clear that it is a girl a limited. I doubt the people already complaining would go totally nuts if Ueda gave visually pronounced tits to a 10-year old girl. Such young girls also wouldn´t wear make-up or feature long eye slashes. Long hair also wouldn´t cut it. So the easiest way to show that your character was a girl would be to give her a skirt, a piece of clothing that is generally taken as female-exclusive clothing. And that´s a no-go according to Ueda. However, what´s also a reason against a female kid is that it would absolutely point some focus towards that single fact. Like it or not, but for video games that have no intention to involve some kind of gender importance, having a boy being the main character is more neutral than having girl. If it was a girl in The Last Guardian, people´s feeling would be all like “oh, that´s so sweet” and “come on, big bird rat, protect that cute little girl“. The way it is, however, people couldn´t care less about the character´s gender and instead simply care about the adventure in front of them. Full stop.

The second quote from 2004 actually is not sexist at all, and I´m having a hard time trying to imagine how one could be offended by that sentence. Actually, it just shows how much Ueda takes into consideration various things when creating a game. Some people might argue that there´s no difference between male and female artists, but it´s just as legit to argue the opposite. And if Ueda thinks that a game is more likely to be enjoyed by boys and he needs are more masculine soundtrack for that purpose, it´s his and only his right to choose a male composer for the job. You can disagree, sure, but calling it sexist only makes you look very stupid.

In the end, being sexist doesn´t necessarily make you a bad person, since there exist, at least, two different kinds of sexism. One would be the misogynistic kind, the kind men that dislike or hate women for one reason or another. They believe they´re better persons simply due to their “superior” gender. But then there´s the other kind of sexism, which is: romantic people. You know, the kind of men that open doors for girls, tell them “ladies first” or do silly, dangerous stuff because they like a girl. These men are kind of conservative in their world view, but they don´t harm women with that perspective. For what is worth, I think Ueda falls into that second group of sexists. To be honest, I´m like that myself. I prefer being romantic, not neutralizing all aspects of life. I´m also one of those guys that put the girl they like on a pedestal, which many “smart” guys believe is the wrong way to get a girl friend. But calling someone a bad person because he connects girls and skirts is silly. Just as silly as calling Metroid: Other M a sexist game. It´s funny how artificially outraged people become about sexism in video games at the moment.  Other M portrayed Samus Aran not as a woman, but a human being. It never connoted any weaknesses with her gender. The one moment where Samus Aran shows fear should be clear for any knowledgeable Metroid-fan. But I mean…I even read some people calling The Legend of Zelda-series sexist, so maybe we should just stop talking about it, because apparently everything is sexist today. Fumito Ueda, Metroid, Zelda, me, and most likely you, too.