Fix The Defaults: Eric   3 comments

Welcome back to Gratuitous JRPG, and the start of the “Fix The Defaults” event.  Each week, I will take one of the RMVXA sample characters, take them apart mechanically, and then rebuild them to be better, faster, stronger, more fit for an actual game.  This time, we’ll be starting on the “face” of the RMVXA defaults, the unofficial main and first-slot character for VX Ace, Eric. Given that the “Mains” in RPG Maker sample sets are often more remembered than the rest of the cast, it’s little surprise that Eric is a special case insofar that we have more fresh comparisons to the older “mains” than the rest.  By comparison, Eric resembles Alex and Aluxes more than Ralph–the lattermost is a fighter/mage hybrid with both healing and offensive magic.  Like Aluxes, Eric has his share of physical techs, but interestingly enough he more resembles Alex in practice.  Why? Despite his handful of techniques, he is still ultimately reliant on his basic physical.  Why is this?  Due to how TP works in VXA’s default system, he starts a random fight with up to 30 TP, and then can only gain 5 per basic physical.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  For an overview of him, check out the images below.

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Consider this to be the ‘before’ image.  We’ve got some work to do.

To start, Eric, while being described as a “berserker” in his bio (and having it implied by his weapon choice, axes), has a statline more in line with an average fighter, with above-average HP, high ATK, and above-average DEF, but low marks on magic stats and speed.  His ability to use heavy armor and heavy shields further reinforces this point.  His abilities are fairly one-dimensional as well, revolving around the ability to deal damage and helping to deal more damage, as follows:

  • Strong Attack (10 TP): Hits an enemy for 25% more base power than a basic physical.  Ignores defense mods, counter rate, and evasion.  This skill is placed pretty well for what it is, truth be told.
  • Cleave (10 TP): Hits all enemies at half base power of a basic physical.  In practice, enemies will take roughly a third of the damage, making it useless.
  • Berserker’s Roar (25 TP): Boosts the party’s ATK by 25% for 5 turns.  This one is also decently placed, given how ATK buffs are comparably effective in default VX Ace.
  • Berserker’s Dance (50 TP): Hits three random enemies at 25% higher base power than a basic physical.  This can hit the same enemy multiple times.  This ends up being Eric’s primary boss-slayer ability.
  • Giant’s Rampage (100 TP): Hits all enemies for three times the damage of a basic physical.  In practice, it’s only more efficient than two Berserker’s Dances against three or more enemies.

So for the most part, Eric’s moveset can be described as largely one-dimensional.  With the exception of Berserker’s Roar, he has nothing but direct damage of increasing degrees.  Here, with this skillset, however, is where the problems begin. To start, Eric doesn’t gain any skills until Level 5–and this is a mortal sin of JRPG design.  It is always desirable to have a character start with some form of ability outside of a basic attack.  In a setup where projected endgame is between levels 30 and 35, he has an extremely large number of dead levels (Dead levels being “levels where you gain no skills”).  While dead levels are an unfortunate necessity in any setup where characters gain abilities through levels, the truth is that Eric’s effective skillset is too small, and can be expanded upon with little issue–and while fixing the general statistical tendencies, basic equation forms, and equipment would all be good ideas (and especially in case of things like heavy shields–9 more defense is never worth -20% Crit Evade when light shields not only lack the critical evade debuff, but give an evade boost in its place), this is focusing entirely on fixing the character.

As such, I feel that Eric’s skillset and identity issues can be solved simply through the refinement and expansion of his skillset–giving him more options available at any one time as well as giving him a use for his MP score, because I feel that he needs skill options that don’t consume TP.  As such, we’ll start with the most egregious problem: Cleave.  Cleave has zero function at all.  Even though it can hit multiple targets, it’s next to useless because Eric gets three times greater effect just from a basic physical at no cost.  To balance it out and make it more effective, if seemingly unreliable, let’s raise the power to base attack, and instead cut the accuracy to 55%.  Lastly, let’s cut the TP cost and add a MP cost–say, 15, and give it a TP gain of 2 to keep it from being too profitable on TP gains.

Next skill to fix here would be Strong Attack.  This isn’t nearly as bad, but one is paying more for the ITE than the bonus damage, which really does not justify the use when that TP could be saved up for better things.  To compensate, let’s up the cost to 15 and boost the power bonus from 1.25x to 1.5x, making it a more attractive option for both shorter fights and “I need this extra damage now” situations.  The last of the old skills to fix here is Giant’s Rampage: a simpler fix of making it 4x damage should improve it compared to Berserker’s Dance against all but the most solitary and non-evasive targets, and set it to 85 TP.

This does unfortunately leave the matter of skillset depth open. Filling this in gives us an opportunity to define Eric better both flavorwise and mechanically.  And as such, let’s start him off with a pair of skills: Strong Attack, and a new one.  Let’s name this one Wild Swing, and make it a single-target physical attack with 60% accuracy but 1.5x power, and give it a MP cost of 8 and TP gain of 6.  This gives two options early for him  to use that are not basic physicals.  Now, onto other abilities.

  • Tremor Swing: ATK-based ability, 1.25x power, single-target, Earth-elemental.  This inclusion of elements should help to cut down on “Checklist Syndrome,” where PCs aren’t allowed to overlap in elements ever in ability sets.  I intend to go more in-depth on this in future entries.  Gives 5 TP.
  • Follow-Through: ATK-based ability, 1x power attacks two random enemies.  Gives 3 TP per hit.
  • Berserk: Self-affecting buff.  Boosts ATK to 1.5x, seals all non-damaging abilities and locks the user on AI control.  All of this lasts 5 turns or until dispelled.
  • Seismic Slam: Two-stage ability.  Single-target 1x damage physical attack followed by a 0.75x damage multi-target Earth-element physical attack.  First strike gives 5 TP, second gives 1.
  • Rampage: Attacks four random targets at 0.65x damage.  70 base accuracy, high MP cost, 1 TP per hit.
  • Deathless: User cannot be killed, put to sleep, stunned, or paralyzed.  Costs 100 TP, lasts 3 turns.  Userr loses 20% HP and MP per turn.

This feels like a decent selection of abilities for Eric, with what feels like a capstone ability, but a few issues remain.  The first matter is simply that I don’t like single weapon class characters, but without altering the stats of the weapons there isn’t much of an option there.  Same goes for armor; nobody wants light armor, for example.  But one problem that can be fixed is the skill learning pattern.  At default, Eric’s learning pattern is this:

  • Strong Attack: Level 5
  • Cleave: Level 10
  • Berserker’s Roar: Level 15
  • Berserker’s Dance: Level 20
  • Giant’s Rampage: Level 25

Now what is wrong with this?  Not only does Eric have a poor learning rate, but he also starts with nothing.  A character with no skills is not fun, as anyone who has played Dragon Quest can attest.  Revising the skillset and learning pattern, this is a more effective set:

  • Wild Swing: Level 1
  • Strong Attack: Level 1
  • Follow-Through: Level 3
  • Tremor Swing: Level 5
  • Cleave: Level 8
  • Berserker’s Dance: Level 10
  • Berserk: Level 12
  • Berserker’s Roar: Level 15
  • Rampage: Level 19
  • Giant’s Rampage: Level 23
  • Seismic Slam: Level 26
  • Deathless: Level 30

And like that, Eric has lost more of  his dead levels and gained a skillset.  Is it the best?  I’ll say no.  Is it a lot more serviceable?  Yes.  And with a skill change, he’s gotten more of an identity, having little precision or finesse as he gives every enemy an axe to the face.  There is a lot more I could do,but this is the end of what I will be doing for Eric.  Next week, I’ll be covering the second of the defaults, Natalie.  Until then, this is Epic Alphonse, signing off.

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You’re next, Punchy.  I’ve already  got ideas for what to do with your skillset.

Posted January 4, 2014 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

Tactical Retreats   Leave a comment

After a long delay, welcome back to Gratuitous JRPG.  This is Epic Alphonse, and this post happens to have an unfortunate announcement, relevant to a situation many amateur game designers have or will experience at some point in their careers.

I feel I am at a point where I am going to have to drop the game project.  As much as I have enjoyed working on it, it turns out that a combination of problems has brought my personal momentum on the project to a standstill.  Real life interferences aside, this lack of momentum was damning, as was my increasing doubt about my ability to write for this game.  One could say that I am backing out, but the truth is that I have not worked on the project for a span of time that could be measured in months, and any attempt to resurrect it has been stonewalled by me wondering where I was.  Combine this with running out of skill concepts to fill out the admittedly massive pool of skills I had set up, and I could easily say that I had set myself up for failure.  In short, I made the game too big and ambitious for my first attempt.

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Yeah, yeah, I get it, you told me so, get over your damn selves already.

This, however, does not mean the end of Gratuitous JRPG or the end of me as an amateur game designer.  The real question to ask yourself at the point you find you cannot complete a game is not “am I done with this?” so much as “what have I learned?”  And in this case, it’s that while I might be largely (with some exceptions like the skillpool issues above) able to handle bigger games on the mechanical front, I shouldn’t forget that I can’t write nearly as well as I can design.  Consequently, I should aim my design scope more around my ability to write than my ability to design.  It’s a lesson harshly delivered on the back of a dead project, but an important one nevertheless.

So, what do you do when you’ve just quit a project?  The first thing to come to mind is to either start a new project right away, or do nothing for a while.  If the project was found to be unworkable after sheer effort that was frustrating and ultimately fruitless, the latter would be desirable.  My case, however, has me in a quandary: I don’t want to jump straight into another project after I have declared my previous one dead in the water, but at the same time I don’t want to go back to doing nothing.  As such, I’m going to resort to doing a thought exercise that’s been in the back of my head since one of my earlier posts: “Fix The Defaults.”  And I will be bringing it onto the blog as well!

Defaults01

Ten weeks.  Ten default characters.  ARE YOU READY?!

The premise of this project is simple.  Each week, I will look at one of the default RMVX Ace characters in order: Eric, Natalie, Terence, Ernest, Ryoma, Brenda, Rick, Alice, Isabelle, and Noah, go over what does and doesn’t work for them, and then expand and redefine each into a character I feel would be worthy of being in a game of my design.  One week for each character, and if I don’t finish, then I’ll have to simply post what I have for the given character for that week.  The challenge is as simple as that, really.

Which is why I feel it would be interesting to add in a couple of complications to this.  The first: Minimal scripting.  The only gameplay script I will use in this case is Yanfly’s Instant Cast and Follow-Up Skills scripts and fomar0153′s formula tricks.  This will force me to work within RMVXA’s parameters more.  The second is that I have to work within the given equipment types (for how they apply) and elements.  This means that, yes, I will have to work with the full default eight-element set: Fire/Ice/Lightning/Earth/Wind/Water/Holy/Dark.

Everything else there?  Fair game.  This includes the engrishy titles and backstories.

Ultimately, this is a thought exercise to get me back into the mindset of game design.  That way I won’t simply leap out at any concept through desperation, and it’ll give any ideas I do have time to formulate so I can approach them more in full.  This isn’t something I would recommend for everyone, mind you–find out what works for yourself, and go with that.  So next time, we’ll be covering the RPG Maker series’ latest Alex/Aluxes/Ralph, Eric, and how to improve his quality, mechanically speaking.  Until then, this is Epic Alphonse, signing out.

Posted December 21, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

The Interplay of Momentum and Pace   Leave a comment

Welcome back to Gratuitous JRPG.  Updates this week are going to be a little slow due to sleep readjustment and more attempts on my part to find gainful employment.  Last time, we covered the difficulty of writing, the necessity for outside opinions, and the matter of dealing with criticism.  As a lot of my exploits over the last month have been writing-related, it’s time to bring the subject back to game design with a couple of points.  The first has to do with momentum; not the game’s own momentum, or the plot’s, but your own momentum as a game developer, and the complications resulting from losing said momentum.  The second is something I feel would be incapable of even being approached before the outlines for the game’s plot could be laid down: pacing.

With game development, especially as a sole undertaking, momentum will be a very real thing.  It also applies with teams, but is much more apparent on single-person undertakings.   All projects require time devoted to both writing and gameplay, and as noted previously, teams will at their base split their development along the two.  A single-person project is difficult because both must be focused on, and it is naturally easier to devote one’s time and resources to one at a time.  The problem comes when it’s time to jump from one to another; momentum is lost, and the developer loses time and possibly progress as they have to sit back and take stock of what they were doing before they can determine what to do next,  It can be frustrating and

Largely thanks to the fact that I have spent around a month on writing duties alone, I too have found myself subject to momentum loss on the mechanical end, returning to it and wondering what I was working on again.  This feeling of disorientation is something that will come naturally, and is hard to completely prevent outside of working in a team.  Teams can prevent this easily through placing people in one constant role where they won’t have to jump around, but for those who aren’t or don’t want to be on one, there are two means by which to mitigate this loss of momentum.

The first of these measures is simple: if spending too much time on any one aspect makes you lose your place, then jump around more.  That way, the aspects remain fresh in your mind as you keep going back and to them.  However, this may be difficult when any particularly intensive work, such as storyboarding, comes about, which may require you to actively break into phases and in turn make it hard to build momentum to begin with.  If you can keep more momentum this way, the better.  For those who can’t, the second option is one taught early to anyone who intends to become a programmer: documentation.  Take and keep good notes on everything you make, especially if you have to take a break from it in an incomplete state.  The better notes you can put down, the faster you can get back up to speed on the project

With the issue of momentum out of the way, the next relevant subject to cover would be pacing.  When I speak of pacing, I am referring to the gameplay aspect of it.  To elaborate, in a gameplay context, I am referring to pacing as the timing, rate, and spacing of the introduction of elements of the game: character levels, skill acquisition, dungeon placement, town placement, character acquisition, and skill acquisition, alongside optional content placement.  This cannot effectively be done before the rough storyboarding–if you don’t know where the story goes, you cannot effectively place all of the gameplay elements.

After all of this is said, however, part of the problem with pacing is that it is another aspect of game design that is not a science, but an art.  There are two general extremes that are to be avoided with plot to gameplay segment pacing, but other than that, it’s largely to one’s preference.  The first of these extremes is easily identifiable by the exemplar game of its problem: Xenosaga. (Note: WordPress is being finicky and won’t let me upload the image)

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Yeah, I’m going there.

Xenosaga, for those who were not paying attention to early-PS2 era JRPGs, was an attempt on Monolith Software’s part to create a spiritual retelling of Xenogears, a cult classic PSX-era JRPG that sadly had its budget fed to Final Fantasy 8.  They were, to say the least, less than successful in this endeavor for varying reasons, with Xenosaga 1 being thoroughly mocked for one thing in particular above others: an excess of cutscenes that could arguably threaten to outnumber the gameplay in sheer proportion of in-game time it took.  Furthermore, these cutscenes did not add nearly as much as they could.  In short, it is important to remember that what you are creating is not a movie or a novel, but a RPG in this case.  If you have the game dominated by cutscene after cutscene, you will either need to cut down on the cutscenes, or figure out how to work in the gameplay some more than you have; especially if the gameplay elements feel far too short.

The opposite extreme, however, is similarly undesirable.  While I generally agree with adding more gameplay to a game, there are points where it becomes less the addition of gameplay, and more a case of padding out the gameplay–filler dungeons, filler sequences, and the like.  Padding is exactly what you would imagine in this case: throwing extra meaningless content into the game to fill out the playtime more than anything.  This extends from extra dungeons, to extra bosses where there isn’t a need, to required pointless minigames that appear once in the entire game’s running time and do nothing at all but frustrate the player.  I could name examples, but I won’t; it’s essentially the video game equivalent of the Big Lipped Alligator Moment.

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To be fair, I suppose anyone who can make a big-lipped singing alligator with their own trippy musical sequence actually work in the context of a game deserves some form of credit.

For equipment and skill acquisition, I will note that there is much more in the way of solid methodology for both, and note for the sake of reference that equipment that exists for the sole purpose of granting skills (in the way Sigil Crests do in this game, or Materia in Final Fantasy 7) still counts as equipment for the purposes of determining how the developer places it within the game.  In regards to skill placement, skills that are not learned through specific plot-related events that require the advancement of the game are ideally placed in a fashion that allows a new skill or upgrade to a skill on a regular basis (roughly every 1-2 dungeons.) as to continually introduce abilities and prevent characters from becoming stagnant mechanically in a JRPG–or if using a point-based learning system, enough points to facilitate learning at a similar or greater rate.  Deviation from this can occasionally happen (Labyrinth of Touhou is a notable example), but those games must be designed around that nonstandard format.  At the same time, obsolescence is a notable risk, and should be planned around if it’s in existence.

Equipment availability is something there are generally more options for, with several options for progression.  The first, and most obvious option is to have a direct upgrade to every usable weapon available every town.  This is predictable, but has a few notable drawbacks.  The first is that it’s easily predictable; you go to a town, you get new equipment every time.  The pattern can get predictable and annoying to those, wearing out the pleasant surprise that new equipment availability can give.  The second is that unless towns are less common than dungeons, there is less room for sidegrade equipment to be discovered in the latter.  This issue can be somewhat mitigated by having dungeons drop upgrades from the next area, but this is more of a stopgap fix than a solution.  The last, and most notable issue, is that this may provide issues for balance in moderate- or long games where there may be a large number of towns.  Once you get so many upgrades, it is possible to have problems if the character advancement is too slow by comparison.  If characters advance too slow and equipment advances too fast, then one of two issues is bound to occur: Either there are pointless equipment upgrades that can be skipped, or equipment begins to outstrip and overshadow characters.  Both of these outcomes are to be avoided in general.

If advancing every new town does not work, then what other methodologies are available?  The next is a staggered approach, where new equipment upgrades do not come every new town, but instead every few towns, usually with multiple dungeons in between.  This has a notable advantage over the previous method insofar that it retains the newness of equipment upgrades, and allows for sidegrade or special gear to be found within dungeons without worrying so much about perceived clutter or lack of room for these pieces of gear, and will generally can be considered the “standard” progression in many games.

Games with crafting systems are trickier to work with.  In most cases, advancement will be similar to the previous systems, excepting that instead of based on reaching the next town, it is typically based on getting access to components one hasn’t been able to before.  Due to the ability to get stronger equipment than normal if this is not the case, most crafting systems will typically either restrict materials by the area of the game or restrict equipment by level to make sure players cannot get equipment that’s comparably too strong.  An exception to both is Star Ocean 3, where crafting only was based on money and you could easily gain game-breaking equipment for the relative point in time you were at in the game for up through…two thirds to three fourths through the game.  Comparably, crafting in SO4 was restricted to materials that could be found–which is notable when the second material-gathering character could not be gained for the first third or so of the game, leaving equipment crafting largely unavailable until then.

Lastly, there are nonstandard upgrade patterns, with a few notable examples in this case.  The first example of this is the Suikoden series, where one has the potential to argue that weapons as equipment don’t exist so much as weapons as a character statistic or aspect–rather than obtain a new weapon, characters can have a blacksmith improve it one step for a price, repeated times.  More skilled blacksmiths would be needed to upgrade weapons past a certain point, notably.  Wild ARMs games past 2 also employ this concept, with character ARMs in 3, 4, and 5 being upgradable along several parameters.  Which ones were best depended on the character and the weapon in question, but this was similar in that sense (5 added a weapon slot by having ARM cartridges be an equippable type, mixing standard and nonstandard advancements).  Lastly is the third and fourth Epic Battle Fantasy series entries, where equipment in general was not a form of advancement.  All equipment was on a similar tier, but with different parameter boosts.  Each weapon and armor could be upgraded, but all pieces of equipment at the same level of upgrade were on the same tier.

To tie this in with the project as it stands, I’ve laid out the plot as it stands and am looking at around eight required towns or townlike areas (with more optional ones available for those willing to go to them) and roughly 15 required dungeons.  18-20 if you break the multipart dungeons into their components.  This means on average, counting revisits and the like, there will be roughly two towns to a dungeon.  I’m feeling that, between dungeons and overworld, PCs should level up roughly twice per combined overworld/dungeon segment, with maybe +1 level for those who go through the optional places–you can see how statistical progression would occur a few posts back.

As far as equipment goes, I want to stagger weapon availability for a large amount of early-game.  So for baseline weapons, I’ve decided there’ll be seven tiers.  This may sound like it’s roughly on par with one per town, but between revisiting at different points in the game and other events, it’ll be drawn out further than that.  Tier 1 (crappy starting) gear aside, there’ll be roughly two tiers for every third or so of the game.  The general available order for weapons by tier can be described as follows, actually.

[note: changed Caecilia's name to Karina because I kept thinking Wild ARMs when thinking of her original name, and it was distracting me to no end.]

  • Tier 1 (very start of game): Heavy swords(Leo only, initial), Daggers(Renaud only, initial, fixed), Staves(Alexis only, initial)
  • Tier 2 (first storeboughts): Heavy swords, Daggers, Staves, Bows(Azalea only, initial, fixed)
  • Tier 3 (Available through end of first third): Heavy swords, Daggers, Staves, Bows, Spears (Valeska initial) Axes (Kiri initial, late purchase), Light Swords (Karina only, initial)
  • Tier 4-7 All weapons available for purchase–though tier 4 weapon availabilities are staggered.

Staggered availability is there for two main reasons.  The first is to introduce new weapons with new characters in part–bows open up roughly after Renaud permajoins and on Azalea’s temp form, spears open up around when Valeska joins, Axes around when Kiri joins, and you don’t see store-available light swords until after Karina joins.  This also forces players to get accustomed to most of the new weapon types, since in the first third or so, there’s always going to be at least one character who has only one available weapon option.  It’s worth noting that while armor may fall under similar tiers, other equipment types will largely -not-.  Sigil Crests are all on the same tier, and accessories and a majority of offhand items will not fall under tier progression either.  This also does not include the varied sidegrade weaponry the player will encounter in dungeons, though it’s unlikely that they’ll be sequence-breaking weapon availability either way.

All in all, pacing for a game involves a lot of moving parts.  At this point, however, I feel there’s only so much that can actually be done while the game is still in the planning phase.  For this very reason, next post I’ll be breaking the game from pre-production to a production phase, and at this point the blog will start to be more about the actual production of a RMVXA game than high-level game design.  Until then, this is Epic Alphonse, signing off.

Posted September 30, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

Ragequitting: What Causes it and why not to do it   Leave a comment

Welcome back to Gratuitous JRPG.  This is Epic Alphonse, back from a writing hiatus with new content to give!  Just in time, too, since Nonfiltered’s college schedule has become soul-crushingly brutal.  Over the time I was gone, I wrote out my game’s entire storyboard.  Storyboard writing may sound simple enough, but when it’s being done for a full-length JRPG it is anything but.  Over this time I also sent it over to two people I knew to look over and critique it.  However, this will be covered later in the post.  Right now the main focus is on the storyboard.

I will have to ask forgiveness for not revealing the entire storyboard.  It takes up nine pages on a document, single-spaced, and would inflate this post’s length to measures that may well break WordPress.  The task of writing one is grueling, in-depth, and required a lot of time simply planning out the game’s pace.  And to put it bluntly for anyone trying it themselves: this is the first hell for game designers, and one of the parts where you realize everything you take for granted in a game you may play–you are going to have to plan out the entirety of the general plot.  Up to and including the transitions and   I cannot offer any advice in attempting this task on your own aside from the fact that you will have to push through it.  It may be easier for the more writing-inclined, but for the less so like myself, this will be one of the harder parts.

By the time you are done, chances are you will detest the entire thing, and want to scrap it and start over from scratch.  This is a natural product of exhaustion, and more of an indicator that you need to take a notable break.  At this point, it would be ideal to get an outside opinion and critique on your storyboard at this point.  Someone knowledgeable in writing would be ideal, though not required.  The point is to get somebody outside the development process to look at what is present and give some form of critique.  For the best results, send it in to two to three people and have them critique it separately.  More opinions help, but only to the point that they don’t start to run together.

What comes next is the hardest part of showing your work to anyone else: taking the critiques you asked for.  If you’ve felt invested in your work at all, this will be painful.  This brings me to one of my biggest points in the whole blog, so read this closely, and recite it daily.  Bookmark this post and read it again if you forget it.  You will need thick skin to survive in anything related to game development.  Or for that matter, any creative pursuit where your works are shown to a portion of the public.  If you intend to release your game, you and your work won’t simply be subject to the opinions of your peers and those you personally send work to for looking over.  In today’s world, courtesy of the internet giving everybody a voice to be heard over a long distance, many people will voice them.  A good portion of these voices will not necessarily have positive things to say.

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Imagine these on you at all times.  And the more well-known you are, the more accurate they’ll get and the more of them there will be.  This is why you will need to get thick skin.

The type of statements varies depending on the person.  There is detailed feedback, that is based on the work itself–the best of which will typically have time given to it and written out in full, or at least directed as precisely as possible.  This you should look at, since there’s often something to derive from those.  Next comes the general feedback–the casual one/few-statement matters.  Take these with a grain of salt, especially if they’re not clarifying what they’re specifically talking about.  Going down the line, there’s the uninformed feedback.  Uninformed feedback does exist, and is typically a result of basing one’s opinion of the full game on the first impression–such as the first hour of the game.  Hi there, IGN and Gamespot, you may sit back down now.  If they are generally in line with each other and some of the more detailed feedback, however, there may be some substance

Then comes the feedback that is at the most, barely relevant to the game.  The first is peripheral feedback, which is when somebody outside of your standard audience has feedback on the game.  This may, for example, be a WRPG fan giving commentary on a JRPG, or a consumer of horror giving commentary on fantasy.  This can be notable if it’s insightful or from a non-core group you are attempting to reach out to, but sometimes it falls straight into the uninformed feedback bin.  Then there’s the genre-based feedback.  This is typically not worth listening to, since this sort of feedback is what occurs when you give someone who hates JRPGs a JRPG and then expect feedback from them.  It will typically result in something along the lines of “I hate this game because it’s a JRPG and it should be less of a JRPG, because as is it, and all videogames are all the worse for the sole reason of this game being a JRPG.”  Often with more colorful language.  This may, and frequently does, cross with peripheral feedback.  Ignore it.

The last category of feedback is one that has caused no small amount of problem among all sorts of people worldwide: abusive feedback.  This differs from all the other types of feedback because it is not meant to provide information.  It is somebody using feedback as a means through which to verbally attack.  This sort of feedback comes in two varieties.  The first is what is considered standard trolling–simply trying to get a reaction.  My advice for the genre-based feedback goes double for these sorts–ignore them, and whatever you do, do not respond to them in any way.  Doing so will only worsen the attacks.

To be more serious for a moment, the second type of abusive feedback is something much more vile, insidious, and sadly, prevalent in today’s world.  These are the attacks not for the sake of trying to provoke a reaction, but directly at the person, for who they are or what they’re doing.  These are the people who will throw in personal, racist, sexist, and hateful attacks.  Even worse, they will make implicit or explicit threats against one’s own person, friends, or family, and sometimes for the most petty possible reasons.  The most notable case of abuse I can think of is that of Jennifer Hepler, a writer who worked for Bioware on Dragon Age 2–who had threats leveled against herself and her children, by irate and vocal fans of the series who blamed her for the game’s problems.  This, sadly, is not an isolated incident, nor is it limited to writing.  David Vonderhaar received threats of violence for announcing a patch with minor statistical alterations to Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.  And these are just the high-profile cases.

Many other people in creative works, be it game development, writing, art, film-making, and so on, are attacked viciously, for varied reasons.  This is, sadly, a very real problem in the world today.  Whatever the reason, if you are getting attacks over message boards, e-mail, or any other form of online communication that are sexist, racist, or otherwise hateful, or contain implicit or explicit threats, there is something seriously wrong.  I sadly do not have much advice to give, nor any I feel qualified to give, on this issue should you encounter it other than this: find help.  Nobody deserves these attacks for any reason.  For those of you who wish to read more on the incidents mentioned earlier, feel free to read the following links below as a start:

Back to the matter of having your work critiqued, I suppose, for all I’m not sure how to really segue back into this.  This will apply down the line at testing as well, but it is vital to ignore your first emotional reaction to the responses you will get from those who you ask to look over your work.  And your second, at that.  What is most optimal is to step back from your work and look at both your work and the comments from an objective viewpoint.  Once you get through that, you can start to edit your work, keeping in mind the perceived problems and high points.

With the feedback I got from my storyboard, to fill out an example, I started to work through and break my problems into five specific groups.  Severe problems were those that would require extensive changes across multiple scenes throughout the game to fix–which is a reason to catch them early–the later a problem comes up in development, the harder it is to fix.  Thankfully, I only had one such.  Major problems are those that require a significant change to or removal of one scene overall–I have a couple, but thankfully not too many.  Moderate problems are those that only require a part of a scene to be added, edited, or dropped–and probably the second most common sort of problem I had in my storyboard.  Minor problems, my most common, are those that can largely be addressed through working with the actual writing of the game itself, and are meant to be resolved then.  And lastly are preferential issues, which are more the perceived result of the reviewer’s preferences than anything else–something that I personally doubt is an actual problem that needs fixing, but is good to note nevertheless.  This last one is a reason why it is good to know your reviewers and testers, rather than to throw it to people who don’t know you.

With the end of that, I must make two personal admissions as to mistakes of my own during the process.  The first is that I rushed the finish of my storyboard, which left things particularly bare during the second half or so.  This was an inexcusable foul-up of mine, and a result of wanting to finish writing it already.  In other situations, this may be the result of strict deadlines, but mine had less of a reason.  The second mistake I will be committing is that I will not resubmit my storyboard for critique after applying fixes.  Ideally, I would resubmit at least once, if not twice or more so that issues would be cleared up and new ones not introduced before being planted into the game.  However, as a function of this blog is to show the process of how a game would be made, and I made a deliberate decision to sacrifice additional writing revision to have more time during which to show the full game creation process.  This is something I would advise not doing, as I am certain the quality of my game’s writing will suffer as a result.  All in all, I am not perfect, and I will be showing my mistakes as well as my successes as I go along here.  And this is two of my first.

Writing for a game is hard.  Writing for a JRPG is even harder.  And even harder yet is taking criticism on a project that you have invested at least a small portion into, never mind a personally significant project.  You need to be able to take feedback well, and not lash out emotionally at it.  But keep in mind that no matter the quality of your game, it is not a reason to receive abuse that you, as a person, do not deserve.  Keep at what you’re doing, you’ll get something out of it.  This is Epic Alphonse, signing out.

Posted September 16, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

Guest Article: Building Over the Frame (Pt. 1)   Leave a comment

Welcome back to Gratuitous JRPG. I am Nonfiltered, and I will be filling in for Epic Alphonse while he works on storyboards for the next part of the curriculum, so to speak. Since the idea of an update schedule going off the rails bothered me something fierce, I’ve offered to step in and write a bit on the end of the game-making process that Alphonse is less familiar with, the aspect of writing. While I’m not discrediting anything he wrote in earlier essays, and I will, in fact, assume you have read all of the relevant entries about plot and character building, I will be approaching things from some other angles that he hasn’t discussed. This is strictly more on the theorycrafting end of things, and the technical, more practical aspects will be addressed later by your regular writer.

The important words for today are theme and narrative. For the purposes of our discussion, the plot outlines discussed in previous entries are your who, where, and when. Narrative is the what of the tale, as it is where we tie the events of the plot to the character’s motivations and personalities. Likewise, theme is the why, as it takes the narrative, and gives it a larger meaning both to the characters and the player. Both of these are important, and with proper understanding of them, make even the most cookie cutter story stand out. Think about it like this: without the themes of the triumph of good in humanity and our ability to correct the mistakes of the past, and without the shared narrative of a variety of would-be heroes adventuring through the aeons and overcoming their weaknesses, Chrono Trigger is a game about a bunch of teenagers doing various historical figures’ chores, murdering an alien life form, and generally freaking out their ancestors and descendants.

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I’m not saying you should ever go that far, but it is pretty damn important.

Theme is the more immediate of the two, and nailing down the theme of the game, if any at all, is going to be direly important to later development. Now, it is worth noting that not having a theme at first isn’t the biggest concern. You’re almost always going to start a project like this with the idea of a character, or mechanics, or some world-building. I guarantee Yasumi Matsuno didn’t sit down to write Final Fantasy Tactics and start by proclaiming to the rest of the office, “I want to tell a story about the inaccuracy of history and class warfare!” Well, okay, maybe he did. The guy is eccentric. But my point is that at no point should you feel like you have to have a theme first, and trying to write to a theme immediately may constrain creativity.

Instead, what you might want to do is write out your basic framework of a plot, as was gone over in the earlier entries, and then examine these for an emerging theme. Does the cast have any particular major divides? The theme may be about the difference between them and the ability to come together in the face of a greater threat. Is the story about a hero who sets out to do heroic things? You might want to make it a meditation what makes someone truly a heroic or good person, or how heroism comes in all forms and shapes. Do you feel like the threat could be a metaphor for something? Work with that angle.

Example: My immediate idea for a game is to do a short game, perhaps maybe a dozen or so hours long, that is essentially a fantasy heist movie in an SRPG style. As I consider a few character concepts, a few thematic elements jump out at me: a have versus have-not society is a given and I make note to have the cast come from a variety of walks of life, and the matter of trust and honor among criminals also sounds interesting. Lastly because it’s a heist story, I keep in mind that things can and do go wrong, and adaptability is sometimes more important than experience. I note these down and continue.

If this doesn’t seem to be working, then consider turning inward and thinking about your own experiences and tastes. Have you ever felt you would approach something differently (not necessarily better) than how another game handled it? This could be your chance. Do you have personal experiences that you feel could have gaming analogues without cheapening them? A game as a platform for expanding social awareness can be done well, though it is difficult. Even matters of the abstract, such as a preference for good triumphing over evil, or a need to tell a story about questionable or outright bad people who ultimately did the right thing for the wrong reasons (ala Drakengard or NieR) can be enough of a theme to fuel a game.

Example, continued: Going from what I’ve extrapolated from my concepts, I decide to refine some of the themes. I toy with the idea of making this a social statement, and making a lot of the narrative question who is precisely to blame for people turning to lives of crime. Ultimately, though, I feel largely uncomfortable writing about this in what should be a short, contained story, but I may try to touch on it. I do consider the relative longevity out of mechanical necessity that most RPG characters have, and how that won’t work at all in this case: the idea that life is cheap speaks to me. I decide to go with it.

Once your themes are isolated, you need to go back and examine how things work. Please note that this does not mean eliminate contradiction, but, rather, address it. And when you do address it, address it sincerely, and to a truly satisfactory degree. The only thing more frustrating than ignoring a problem is paying token lip-service to it. This may lead to something of a cascade of problems, where one question leads to another and another. Good. It’s far better to address this now as opposed to a few dozen hours into the work, when you realize that suddenly someone’s actions make no sense with the themes presented.

On the other hand, if you can’t solve a problem of theme not meshing with characters or story, you need to consider if the theme in question is actually the most accurate to your work, or if it’s entirely pertinent after all.  Ultimately, one of these has to win out, though, and it’s best to make changes now before things get any further along.  This is the biggest benefit of working in a team: you have people to bounce things off of.

And if you take away nothing else from this entry, remember this: just because you have a role on the team, does not mean you are infallible, or that your teammates opinions are not valuable. You are not a novelist, this is not your single, soul-scouring grand masterpiece. Games are inherently social, and multiple perspectives are direly important to the creative process behind them. Remember, Silent Hill 2, considered one of the high water marks of storytelling in games even thirteen years after its release, had it’s story pitched by a texture artist from the first game. Everyone has good ideas and bad, listen to them, and decide what works best for your project.

Example, continued: I’m happy with my themes: socioeconomic disparity, the importance of trust and honor in high-tension situations, the idea that life is cheap, and that plans never survive contact with the enemy. These inform a lot about potential characters and how the story is going to go. However, I’m a touch concerned with this: how do the characters have the money and contacts to go after some huge target in a world this messed up? I think for a bit, and note that at least one of the cast members will be a former soldier or cop, someone with some insider contacts and information, and that this may be the biggest heist the group has pulled, the one last, big job that will set them for life.

But if it’s the biggest heist the group has pulled, how can I have a perspective character, and how can they be expected to survive if everyone else is potentially on the chopping block? The first is simple enough: this may be the main character’s first big job, and he’s being brought on site because of his specialized skillset. I’m thinking they may be a safecracker, and this safe is too big to take with the group and too complicated to let the normal field agent handle. As to how he survives, I’ve got nothing immediately, other than making them a bit of a coward. This actually works with the theme of trust and honor, so for the time being, it’s noted down. If something better jumps out, or Alphonse has a better idea when I show this to him, we’ll see about replacing it. For now, though, I feel like my themes are well-suited to this.

And that brings us to the end of examining and selecting thematic elements for our game. There’s more to them, but until we have more than a concept to go on, we’re done. Join me next time when we’ll consider characters, and then combine them to come up with our narrative.

Posted August 26, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

Dealing with Real Life and Recommended Reading   Leave a comment

Welcome back to another post of Gratuitous JRPG.  As you may have noted, it’s been a while since my last post.  The reasoning for this is simple: progress on the storyboard has been delayed heavily due to a number of factors.  Sadly, it is still not done, and won’t be in the foreseeable next week.  For this reason, I feel the appropriate topic to bring up would be that of how to balance dealing with real life while you are attempting to make your game.

If it’s not your actual job, chances are real life will interfere with game design in one way or another.  Even if it is, it just might.  It’s a rather insidious entity in that way, and the forms of interference it may take are far too variable to accurately list all the possibilities.  Employment, school, family obligations, a relationship, schedule conflicts, and health are the typical culprits in this scenario, but other scenarios may present themselves outside of this.

I can’t give advice on how to live life in such a way to optimize your game design.  If you suddenly have a greatly reduced amount of time due to life getting in the way, you will have to simply go with it, and account for that when you are making your game.  After all, it’s just a game.  It’s not worth failing, getting fired, getting a break-up (though if your significant other breaks up with you simply based on the fact that you are engaging in the pursuit of designing a game, you should re-evaluate your preferences), or getting sick over designing your dream game.  One has more of a lasting effect than the other, after all.

In most circumstances, you can at least keep the process of creation in mind, and think about what needs to be done even while you have to deal with the problems in real life.  And this is an encouraged way to continue.  There is, however, one major exception to this that I would note: If you’re sick, don’t bother.  If an idea comes to you, great, write it down, but you should not be concerned at all with it.  When in poor health, the first and only priority on your mind should be getting back to good health.  Further exertion will only make your problems worse.

One last mention on real life’s interference with game development–while it is a thing, do not use it as an excuse to stop.  It becomes amazingly easy to use any real life problem as an excuse to duck out of development when matters get tough.  While you may need to slow production or take a short break, keep in mind that under most circumstances, quitting is not a result of real-life pressures.  It’s a result of you giving up as a game developer.  Don’t hide it behind your other problems, accept it for what it is, and then push through if you really want to see it completed.

And on that note, I will not be updating this blog for a bit–not until I finish the storyboard and can get that checked, anyway.  Consider it a short hiatus, but most definitely not the end of this blog or the game.  I’ve put too much into it now to stop, but when you have to deal with your father working nights and all of the complications that brings about, it compounds when it turns out storyboarding takes at least three times as long as anticipated.  To tide you over in the meantime, however, I will give my personal recommendations for games to look at for the sake of study.  This isn’t a comprehensive list, nor would I consider it an official one by any means of the word, but for the sake of studying JRPGs in particular, I have a few to recommend nevertheless.

Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior (NES): Yes, it’s grindy by modern standards.  Yes, it’s long and more of busywork for the most part than a game.  Yes, its plot is absent beyond “find the princess and stop the bad guy”.  And yes, it has only one character.  So why am I recommending it?  Simple.  This is the game that started the traditional JRPG.  Ultima and Wizardry may have come first, but this was the start of JRPGs.  And it wasn’t afraid to make you look for your way through.  The GBC remake rebalances things to be more user-friendly, but it deserves a playthrough nevertheless.  Take a look at things like obsolescence and its use of gating–it uses two different types.

Final Fantasy (NES): Another game that came before characterization, this was essentially D&D in console form with the serial numbers filed off.  This is the first JRPG to a generation of people, and establishes (in the west–technically Dragon Quest 2 and 3 came first in Japan, but Final Fantasy was the big name) a large number of gameplay conventions.  It’s grindy and obtuse, and possesses a large number of quirks that there was a manual to explain back in the day, but still widely-loved.  Look at it for how it handles party construction, pathing, and gating.

Phantasy Star 4 (Sega Genesis): This game’s a bit of an odd-case.  A noteworthy game in a series that has largely been received as “okay” to “bad” (depending on the person and installment–Phantasy Star 3 is widely reviled for good reason.  PS2 and PS1 have not aged well by comparison), Phantasy Star 4 has a lot that can be learned from it.  Look at it for how it handles cutscenes compared to other games, its abundance of character interaction, handling of buffs, general integration of flavor into gameplay (try using healing magic on androids), and its use of patterned esoteric naming conventions.

Final Fantasy 6 (Super Nintendo): I’ve given this game a notable amount of grief previously in this blog.  With that in mind, why do I suggest it still?  The first is to demonstrate what I’ve mentioned–while it is the first notable attempt at a partial template system, the template skills do outshine the non-template.  FF6 is also an experiment in using an ensemble cast, and demonstrates what happens to the gameflow when you switch from a linear format to an open-world format with too little direction.

Chrono Trigger (Super Nintendo): Another big game for the Super Nintendo, this game is about a plot subject that few games tackle for good reason: time travel is a giant pain to write well.  Chrono Trigger runs a full innate skillset, and demonstrates the first notable example of onscreen encounters (as opposed to the genre staple of random encounters–though it is notable that not all encounters are avoidable).  Look at it for that, the fact that its writing doesn’t take itself too seriously, and most notably, the gameflow.  There is very little pause in the flow of the game, despite most definitely not having a sequential or fragmented pathing methodology, and it pulls off, in my opinion, what Final Fantasy 6 attempted to do in its endgame but failed.  The major complaint?  Too easy.  Worth a check to see your difficulty preferences anyway.

Final Fantasy Tactics (Sony Playstation): The last FF entry I place in this list, this game is infamous for its abhorrent translation, and well-known for its story and legion of options available to any player who ventures into its depths.  When looking at tempate systems, this is one of the games that absolutely must be given a look at.  Just mind the learning cliff.

Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1&2 (Sony Playstation 2): Say what you will about this game, it oozes style and is particularly unique in its storytelling.  It possesses two takes on a Full Template system, and deserves a look for how it handles its writing–and as a check on difficulty preferences on the high end.  This series is notable for being harder than the genre average, -especially- on DDS2′s Hard Mode.

Wild ARMs 4 (Sony Playstation 2): Many people will out and out deride the game for its writing, and to be fair it’s not one of the best in the world on that front.  That is because the majority of the game’s merit, presentation aside (It presents Filgaia as a post-war world fairly well, with blasted-out cities at multiple points among other things) is in its gameplay.  Play it for, among others, the study in character synergy, and the fact that this game is possibly in possession of some of the best JRPG bossfights in existence–an exemplar among a series that became known for them.

Wild ARMs 5 (Sony Playstation 2): This game, on the other hand, is an example on how so many things can go wrong.  This entry in the series is regarded with lukewarm opinions at best, and vitriol at worst.  It half-asses its own template system, ripped from a previous entry and made worse.  The characters can generally not be cared about aside from perhaps four or five–and a majority of those are on the villain side.  And it is fairly well-known that while the producers hired a novelist to write this plot, they then took what she wrote and made it into…what it is now.  Add to that that this is both the big follow-up to Wild ARMs 4 -and- the series’ anniversary title, and they focused more on series fanservice than making a good game, and you’ll see why I consider this one a study in What Not To Do.

Persona 3 and 4 (multiplatform): The Persona series has existed since the Playstation era.  It started to change with Persona 3, however, which attempted to make itself a genre-blender of a game, mixing parts dating sim and JRPG.  Persona 4 continues this tradition,adding more notable bosses on top of that.  Look at either for a study in how to mix other genres of game into JRPGs, among other things–and the dangers of having overpowered mains to game balance.

Epic Battle Fantasy 3 and 4 (online Flash games): The Epic Battle Fantasy series is notable for being one of the best independently-created Flash RPGs out there.  Skip 1 and 2, and go straight to 3.  While not quite up to the production values of a company-produced game, both games show the amount of love and care the creator put into it.  Play it, if nothing else, to know that you don’t need a company to actually make a good game.

Cave Story (multiplatform): Let’s be fair.  Chances are if you’re reading this, you’ve at least heard of Cave Story.  If not, it’s the creation of one Daisuke Amaya, AKA Pixel, another person who proved that you don’t need a company to produce a quality game.  Just play it–it’s available for free online.

Posted August 19, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

Knowing Your Audience and Game Development Approaches   Leave a comment

Welcome to another post of Gratuitous JRPG.  Last time, we focused on the subject of working in teams, alongside the benefits and difficulties they may bring.  This week, however, will focus on another aspect of game creation: demographics.  More precisely, demographics, and a few philosophies to game design.  Both of these are factors that can influence a game’s development decisions, and even long-term strategy for those who intend to develop multiple games over a period of time.

Demographics are a highly important matter if one is developing games for anyone other than oneself.  A demographic, for the purposes of this post, is “a target general group of people who a game may be aimed towards”.  Demographics as a whole are generally not mutually exclusive, though some may be mutually exclusive to others.  While these may not be explicitly defined to some, there are indeed some broad categories that you may recognize otherwise, and thinking through it might result in some of your own categorizations of game-specific demographics.  My personal mental list of such is below.

Non-gamers: Perhaps one of the largest demographics still, these are the people who do not regularly play video games at all.  They may play one or two as a time-waster, such as Angry Birds, but they do not typically otherwise consume games.  Needless to say, this is the sort of demographic that is the hardest to reach for developers in most cases, though the typical lack of research and knowledge they have about games is sometimes exploited.

Trend gamers: Not to be confused with non-gamers and light gamers, this specific demographic plays games less out of a particular preference for them, but more out of the fact that it’s a thing that is popular and they want to keep in what’s “new” and “cool”.  Naturally, this is the realm of “social” games, such as Farmville and the recent mobile game trend that has been sweeping the Japanese market as of late.  Not that such trends are frequently approved of by some of the other demographics.

Light gamers: Probably the broadest category of game consumers, these sorts will generally purchase the super-big-name popular games, and look at reviews for the rest.  More niche or technical categories of games, such as Strategy RPGs or fighting games, will probably not be given a second glance by a large portion of this group.  General FAQs and strategy guides are aimed at these sorts, who can be counted on to buy the bigger name games but not necessarily game to engage themselves as much as be entertained.  As such, they will typically have a lower tolerance for frustration in their games.  They will typically cross over with series loyalists.

Heavy gamers: Games are a big portion of this demographic’s life.  Needless to say, they will invest fairly heavily into games, and typically specialize–this group crosses over greatly with competitive gamers, genre fans, and niche specialists, though there are some general heavy gamers out there.

Series loyalists: These gamers will typically follow one or more series of games, self-explanatory.  For example, the people who specifically follow the Final Fantasy series, Shin Megami Tensei metaseries, or the Call of Duty franchise would all be considered series loyalists.  These show up alongside Light and Heavy gamers, though some fall into niche specialists and genre fans pending.  A subset of this is “Company loyalists”, where they do not follow game series so much as game companies.

Difficulty seekers: These are the gamers looking for a challenge.  Typically absent from the non-heavy-gamer demographics, this group or games aimed toward this group are sometimes referred to as “masocore”–a portmanteau of “masochistic” and “hardcore.”  Many difficulty mods aim toward this, as do a variety of games such as I Wanna Be The Guy, Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and the mainline Shin Megami Tensei games.

Competitive gamers: This is a special group of gamers who play in competitions.  This is a small, but focused group who tends to be particularly critical.  Games aimed towards them will invariably be of the First-Person Shooter, Real-Time Strategy, or Fighting genres, and balance is a particularly needed focus for such games.  Naturally, this group crosses over with Heavy gamers and genre fans–and sometimes series loyalists.

Genre fans: Similar to series loyalists, genre fans will primarily gravitate to one or more specific genres of game that they prefer, such as action, RPG, or strategy.  There isn’t much else to say about this, really.  Niche specialists are a subgroup of this, who have a preference for less than common types of games, such as danmaku shooters or dating sims.  It may, however, also cover games that feature a specific type of character.  This tends to be one of the smaller categories, after all is said and done.

Connoisseurs: This is a category of people who primarily looks to games for an element of it not directly related to the gameplay.  This would include somebody who looks for quality of writing over quality of gameplay in RPGs, nonstandard artistic decisions, or possibly the fact that a game did something different more than necessarily doing something well.  This group can be notably hard to satisfy while appealing to other demographics, notably.  They sometimes cross over with niche specialists.

This is a notably large set of demographics–though your personal list may be larger or smaller depending.  The number of focused approaches to game development, however, is comparably much smaller.  Sometimes these approaches may be mixed, but a person typically follows one of the three.  These approaches are Games as Games, Games as Art, and Games as Business.  The way these interact with one another are the cause of many, many frustrations among development groups.

Games as Games is the approach to development that one would normally consider to gaming.  It focuses first and foremost with whether or not the game is enjoyable as a game.  As such, the quality of game and the end user’s enjoyment of said game on the basis of the actual game elements overall is more important than anything else in the end.  This sort of approach tempered with perfectionism, however, can lead to some problems with development–largely the game itself being slowed itself while one element or another is tweaked.  This approach will typically aim games toward light or heavy gamers, fans of their game’s genre, competitive gamers if they aim for the multiplayer scene, and if they prefer to make particularly difficult games, challenge seekers.  This is what I would personally consider the most “pure” approach to game development, though it is notable that sacrificing too much of other aspects in favor of gameplay can be just as harmful to a game in some cases.

Games as Art is a tricky mindset to place.  It is not simply wanting quality aesthetics, artwork, or story in a game, as that is simply a matter of quality.  The primary focus on a games-as-art mindset will be on the game as a form of artistic expression, focusing more on some form of innovation or uniqueness within a game’s gameplay, music, story, “message,” or visual style, possibly at a detriment to other aspects of the game.  Connoisseurs will often be interested in these games, while the quirks of games with this design mindset may or may not drive off the standard target demographics of this kind of game.  It is notable that there is a very real risk of a game developed from this mindset coming off as “pretentious” to the playerbase, and there may be very little appreciation for the art of the game if the gameplay itself suffers enough to make it essentially unplayable.

Games as Business makes sense at a glance: games can be sold to make money, so why not try to make as much money as possible with games?  This mindset with modern developers will result in one of two major approaches, as they attempt to widen demographics.  The first approach is the more famous “AAA game,” which arguably started with Squaresoft when it created Final Fantasy VII.  These games are the big showstoppers, often having budgets on par with or greater than that of many large-scale films, and may spend years in development.  In fact, they can frequently be compared to movies, having presentation similar to them at times.  There is a hope with this sort of presentation to grab enough outside the demographic to buy this and possibly coverted to the primary demographics.

The second approach that Games as Business will take is generally considered the opposite–rather than spend years and money on an AAA game, instead produce games to go along with the current trend, cashing in on as many trend gamers as possible while trying to appeal to one or more other demographics.  Needless to say, this is the cause of some rather insidious and alienating practices, as the mobile social market in particular has been home to several amazingly blatant cash-in games.  Final Fantasy:All The Braves and Rockman XOver are two such games that are, needless to say, bad.  Both only carry the names and aesthetics of their franchises, but most definitely not the gameplay and have served only to significantly annoy the franchise fans.  Capcom is also creating a mobile social game out of the next entry in the Breath of Fire series–the fact that such games have proven to be blatant cash grabs alongside the newest entry in the Breath of Fire series being announced to this format together have already driven series fans into an outrage.

As many executives possess the Games as Business mindset as opposed to one of the other two, this leads to major conflict within development companies when developers do not agree.  Examples of such have occurred within Capcom, as the developers who follow a more Games as Games approach are blocked by the executives.  This includes the fact that nobody was allowed to make a new Street Fighter game until the sales on the Street Fighter 2 Super Turbo re-release indicated that there was indeed a market for such.  And as long as game companies are headed by executives as opposed to developers, there will always be a clash between those with a Games as Business mindset and those who follow either Games as Games or Games as Art.

Away from the approaches to development, the last point I would like to bring up today is that a developer will never be able to please all demographics.  It is a literal impossibility, and any attempt to please everyone will only result in a pile of mediocrity that will please nobody.  That being said, there are a few tips from here to aid game development.  First, know which demographics you are targeting.  The sort of people you are making a game for in general and specific.  Treat this as your core demographic, and do not try to alienate them.  The second major tip is to know that there are some viable ways than others to widen the demographic appeal of a game.  While this may be counterintuitive at times, (“making the game more accessible” is often Games as Business code for “dumbing a game down so more people can play it,” and will often alienate series fans) there are ways about it.

Case in point: Fire Emblem:Awakening.  While it retains many of the features Fire Emblem in general holds, it is notable for its handling of its defining mechanic, permadeath, in relation to other entries in the series.  What is notable is not that they removed it–an action that would alienate many long-time series fans–but that they instead included the option to turn it off, for outsiders to the series.  This managed to, in fact, make the game more accessible, but in a method that would not ruin the series fans’ experience.  The point of this is that the ideal changes to widen demographic are option switches, as opposed to sweeping inherent changes throughout the system.  If you can’t make an in-depth change to attract more people without angering your current demographic, you should question how important that change is.

Another example to study for changes and demographic alienation is the ever-raging internet drama about the edition changes of Dungeons and Dragons.  It is notable that fourth edition itself brought sweeping changes to the internal system.  Many of the simulationist aspects were removed, and the setup changed to that resembling a grid-based strategy-RPG.  A number of the 3.x fans did not go along with Fourth Edition, though it did grab a number of new followers in the process with the changes made to balancing in particular.

However, with Fifth Edition (or as WotC calls it, “NEXT,” they have abandoned the 4e changes, instead attempting to revert to an edition closer to 2e while adding a greater deal of streamlining.  This is, however, not only alienating the 4e fans and leaving them to what they have of 4e, but also not getting the desired attention from fans of older editions seemingly as of yet.  While the situation with NEXT might change, the truth of the matter is that it’s better sense to not try and backtrack.  If you’ve decided to make a sweeping change that does attract new demographic members while losing some, it is not necessarily a wise idea to then chase off the new ones with your next release in an attempt to get the old followers back.  They won’t all come running, and if you try to attract the new ones back later, you will only be faced with diminishing returns on that end too.

With that all covered, it can be said that there are many tricky elements to game design even outside of the game itself.  Demographics have to be considered, your specific approach and reasoning to development may affect this too, and even then the audience can be an amazingly fickle and unforgiving entity.  If you make your decisions tactfully, however, you should be able to do fine.  Until next time, this is Epic Alphonse, signing off.

Posted August 7, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

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