The Calm before E³ 2014 – Crazy Prediction Time

April 8, 2014

An unprecedented calm even? This year´s E3 will either be one devoid of many news or one full of surprises, seeing how we hardly hear about any rumors for the upcoming gaming-mega event in Los Angeles. Especially as a big time Nintendo-fan, the wait for news is excruciating. A Smash Bros.-related Nintendo Direct later this day promises to soothe things a bit, but even the inevitable reveal of a playable Ridley, Shulk and Krystal cannot mask the dire situation of the Wii U. What´s going to happen? Let´s try to predict some – and fail badly at it!

Fanboy´s Favorite: Nintendo

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My past predictions of Nintendo´s E3-offerings used to be high in numbers and overly positive. Ever since the company´s treatment of its own new home console, the Wii U, it is clear that such optimism is unfit the situation. I´d love to go into this segment of ths article full-steam and write “Metroid 5 will be shown, as well as a 1080p60fps F-Zero”, but I cannot. This is a year where I have to take into account the circumstances and reflect Nintendo´s best and most realistic chances at delivering a high impact-E3-showing. Thus, I will focus on a few selected titles instead of listing dozens of wish games. Here I go:

The Legend of Zelda U will be revealed as promised by Eiji Aonuma. There will be some major changes to the typical formula, lon-needed changes as Aonuma himself admitted. Firstly, the focus of the game is on exploration to a never before realized degree. Aonuma already hinted at more non-linearity and this entry in the series will finally be the one that takes the original Zelda 1 for NES and makes it into a stunning 3D-game. The player is thrown into the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a beautiful, open, living game-world. You´re free to go anywhere. This where the next major change is revealed: Environmental interactivity is taken to the next level. Link can climb any surface that´s not entirely flat. No “gamey” specially marked surfaces where you can climb, but truly everywhere. Think of Shadow of the Colossus´ climbing mechanic, but with less restrictions. The movement of Link will be central to the experience, with additional items expanding your options of locomotion. Within a world that wants to b explored, climbing, jumping and more are integral to the gameplay. Of course, the jump-button will return to 3D-Zelda for the first time ever. A big change in its visual design is the renunciation of the blocky, almost grid-based layout of the world that existed to allow for an easier implementation of puzzles. Instead, the world will look believable, no more blocky, perfectly flat walls of mud. The environment wants to be experimented with, thanks to the non-scripted movement options. One change might cause a huge uproar to some conservative fans: Link will be able to be customized. At the very least will we be able to buy and change his clothing, and not just limited to 2-3 status-effecting armors, but real custom clothing. Get rid of the ridiculous hat, thank you! As for the visual artstyle, I´m expecting something close to the E3-demo, but not exactly the same. They can´t stray away from that too much, or we´ll have Spaceworld vs. TWW 2.0. Nobody wants that. Whatever it is, this is a Zelda-game that needs to prove that Nintendo is still capable of producing ambitious games, and not just minimum effort-cash ins like Super Mario 3D World or Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Something.

Monolith Soft´s X will be shown. For the first time, we will see a lengthy, story-centric trailer that gives an elaborate glimpse into the world, its characters and its circumstances. Personally, I expect a lot of people to be shocked by the true scale of the game, that might even exceed what we´ve seen so far. Xenoblade was all about exploring a gigantic world – with a flying mecha, you have to up the ante a lot to keep this sort of exploration, so even a huge continent might be too small to keep it up. Think bigger. Think … stars! Anyway, the game will be set for an early 2015 release in the west and a holidy 2014 release in Japan. Worst wait ever. Oh, and a short bonus-teaser will reveal that it is indeed Shulk who we saw at the end of the first teaser in 2012.

Super Smash Bros. 4 will have a big show-casing at this year´s E3. I expect more character reveals and and in-depth presentation of the games modes, especially the online-ones. Even in worst times, Smash Bros. managed to keep Nintendo relevant, as proven by Super Smash Bros. Melee, the only million-seller on GameCube in Japan. The game builds on its great foundations, no big surprises incoming (other than any newcomer being a surprise in itself, or course).

Two major new announcements will be made: One of them is Pokkén, the long rumored Pokémon-fighting game. The fantastic graphics and the exciting choices of playable Pokémon will make this appealing to the entire fanbase. Developed by Bandai Namco and the Tekken-team, it´ll have more than solid gameplay as well as a flawless online-component. The other new title will be from RetroStudios, and it´ll be in the tone that most of us whished for a long time: Some “mature”, non-cartoony looking, open-world 3D-game. Three possibilities: 1.) StarTropics, 2.) A Metroid-game where you play a Federal Space Trooper, not Samus Aran, or 3.) a new franchise. Whatever it is, it´ll look great, moody and be released sometime 2015 or even later.

The rest of the Wii U´s E3 will consist of known titles like Hyrule Warriors, Bayonetta 2 and Yoshi Yarn.

The Nintendo 3DS is hard to predict. Last year has been fantastic, this year is a lot quieter in terms of software. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate might be shown. Lots of smaller titles. Hopefully, Fire Emblem: Awakening sees a sequel; afterall, the game hints that the story is not over yet AND it´d make sense saleswise, since this turned out to be one of the best-selling games in franchise-history.

The big wild card for Nintendo´s 2014 E3 will definitely be the QoL-device. It´s either going to be the laughing stock of the industry or something truly awesome, a must-have gadget. Not much in-between, really. Since I refuse to believe that Nintendo´s putting so much effort into a generic me too-fitness device, I think that their QoL-device will be something really cool. My personal speculation revolves around improved AR-capabilities and/or some highly evolved, endearing A.I./algorithm-“companion” that manage your daily virtual ventures and becomes more individual the more you keep using the device, thus bein able to automatically set or deactive the alarm, notify you of someone´s birthday or, as that´s part of the concept, tell you about your health. The AR-part could be seen as a reasonable counter to the current VR-hype. VR is all about a solitary experience at home, whereas AR is all about experience virtual content in the real world, so it´s automatically a more social experience, thus befitting Nintendo´s philosophy. We haven´t really seen what´s possible with AR at this point, both the 3DS´ and PSVita´s AR-capabilities are a glitchy, jittery mess. Think along the lines of that supercool Google-April fools-video, where you could see Pokémon interacting with the real world by looking through your smartphone. That sort of AR. As for the virtual companion idea, that´d be super-popular in Japan (think of all the anime that had A.I. partners for the hero) and is already touched upon by both Apple and Microsoft. Apple had Siri, and MS just recently published their Cortana-update for Windows Phones. Both are a nice start, but so much more would be possible, if you made it the focal point of a device. Maybe the QoL?

Microsoft´s effort-machine:

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Sony´s PS4 is currently beating the Xbox One´s ass, so Microsoft needs to show more than all those third-party multiplatform titles. While I have no interest in buying another system next to my Wii U and gaming PC, Microsoft managed to create some truly interesting first-party titles in the past. I´m looking forward to what they have in story.

The Third Place: Sony

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I´m (not) sorry, but i just don´t care.

Conclusion:

Games development gets more and more expensive as the industry turns more and more risk-averse. It is this year´s E3´s challenge to prove that creativity is not dead. All three big publishers and home console-manufacturers have to prove that you do not need a VR-headset for a fresh, fantastic experience. If they fail to do so, Facebook´s Oculus Rift might have them in for a bad awakening. It´s entirely up to each of Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony to prevent that from happening, though. An exciting E3, even without a plethora of new announcements.


The future most important element of gaming

July 10, 2010

There´s an obvious trend visible in current JRPGs, or Japanese adventure-games in general. That trend is something that´s been part of western gaming-design for probably all of its existence´s time. It is the option of letting the player customize his in-game characters – creating true avatars.

Where it´s at - Customization at its current best

All the typical, big Japanese adventure-games, most of them RPGs, used to feature a preset cast of characters, each of them with his or her set-in-stone background story and individual behavior. Just think of games like Final Fantasy 7, Skies of Arcadia or Dragon Quest 8, to name some of the most popular ones. Each of these games puts you in the shoes of an already-developed character. You simply navigate that character through the course of his adventure, his story. As fun as many of these RPGs were, in terms of immersion, they all more or less failed. Immersion being the part where you, the player, are accounted for as a vital part of the game´s progression. If truly mean-minded, you could say, this kind of games is hardly better than watching a movie – only shaken up by filler-ish combat-systems.

That is where some Japan-developed games grew to stray away from. One of these games would be Monster Hunter. Of course, Monster Hunter has been around for many years now, but that just makes it a pioneer of what I´m writing about. In MH, you don´t navigate some preset character through a given story. Instead, you create your characters appearance, you choose your weapon, each of which heavily changes the gameplay, and finally, you choose what to do next. And how you do this “next“. MH brings truly individual adventures to the player by giving so many options that are up to the player to decide. Of course, MH is, at least in its best form, a multiplayer-focused experience. It dismisses any story and has you fighting monsters. That is all. While it is fun for hundreds of hours, it is kind of an easy-route to go. The hard-route would be to implement this kind of customization into singleplayer-games.

Japan catching up

The game that made me write this article was Dragon Quest 9 for Nintendo DS, which has been released in the US just now and will be out in Europe by July 23rd. What´s so special about this ninth entry of the most popular, traditional RPG-series in Japan is its cast. Unlike its predecessor, Dragon Quest 8, every member of your party, including the “hero”, is created from scratch by the player. Gender, appearance, everything. Eye shape, eye color, hair style and color, and so on. Later on, you can put on clothes part by part, being separated into various categories, to give each and every character a truly unique look. Of course, I haven´t played the game yet, but from what I heard, the way you obtain new items is very similar to typical loot-games like Diablo 2 for PC. So that´s definitely a big step for such a traditional series, from Japan nonetheless.  And here is where I´d like to take customization one step further.

Customizing every part of your character - if only he´d be involved in the story now

The biggest flaw of Dragon Quest 9 is, at least that is what appears to be, the lack of personality within your customized party. None of these self-created characters will have a dramatic, heart-wrenching story. They won´t talk with each other, each one showing a different attitude. None of that. Your party is faceless. They´re a tool for combat, giving you what it takes to beat all the enemies to get through the game, but that´s it. And this is where I wondered: Why not put that up for customization, too? “That” being: Character traits and story-bits (the Jurassic Park-theme is playing as I write this, you should do so, too). Of course, I realize that this would take a lot more effort to put into reality, but it´d be worth it. And it could be as basic or complex as the respective developer wanted it to be. Varying attitudes shouldn´t be much of a problem. If you look at one of the most popular western RPGs of the year, Mass Effect 2, you´ll find out that depending on which character you have in your party, you´ll be able to listen to different conversations. Character A tells Character B something different than he would tell Character C. That is nothing to costly, it´s doable right now. And ME2 features expensive HD-3D-visuals and voice acting. A game like Dragon Quest 9 would be a lot cheaper to create in that way. That´s that for character traits. Simply let me choose from traits such as “innocent”, “loud mouth”, “secretive” or “nice guy” and we´re set. If you have four party-members and, say, ten different traits, you can calculate how many different combinations that would make. But it´s doable. As for customizing parts of the story, that´d be more complicated. Surely, the more elaborate a developer wanted his game´s story-telling to be, the more complicated, the more of an issue that would become. But again, it´s something that could be as basic or complex as the respective developer wanted it to be. For a minimum, there could be four stories to choose from, making it, if we stay with a four member-party, one story for each of your party-members. So none of these fours stories would go to waste. The only thing that´d have to be watched out for is that the attitude of a character, choosen by the player, is presented in a fitting way. But depending on the scenario, that´d be minor changes. That´s the minimum. Yet, it´d be already really awesome. Now make it five, six or more stories to choose from, or even different pieces of story that you could freely combine to create a truly unique background story for each of your party members, and it´d be even more fun. And a truly customized adventure.

In the end, this would be the next step of customization in video games, and the next step towards the hypothetical procedural story-telling – automatically individually generated stories that don´t suck. However, it´s a long, long way until something like that is technically possible. Until then we have to take the costly, time-consuming path and create all possible choices beforehand. But even so, it´s effort and work that´d be an enormous plus for the world of video games. Gamers want to experience individual adventures, they want to immerse themselves within believable worlds. And that´s why this is so important: Customization brings individual adventures to life.