Blizzard: A Case Study in Avoiding Sequel-itis

With the entire Internet still posting and speculating on Blizzard's recent official unveiling of Diablo III, I think it would be a good time to mention a characteristic of Blizzard that few other developers can claim. Blizzard is one of only a handful of companies that doesn't pump out sequels year after year. There is usually a significant gap between their major releases. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that Blizzard is juggling several popular, well-respected franchises. But I'd also like to think this extended wait between sequels is due to the quality and care Blizzard takes in crafting their games. Let's briefly look at a few of their franchises.

Warcraft: Orcs and Humans - Jan. 15, 1994
Warcraft II - Nov. 30, 1995
Warcraft III - July 3, 2002

Diablo - Nov. 30, 1996
Diablo II - June 29, 2000
Diablo III - Just announced (2009 at the earliest)

Starcraft - April 1, 1998
Starcraft II - TBA (probably early 2009)

With the exception of Warcraft II, Blizzard tends to have lengthy waits between their major sequels. They range from as little as 4 to as much as (potentially) 10 or 11 years. As much as I love many of Blizzard's games, despite not having played them too extensively, I think it's healthy for the game industry to not be glutted by repetitive sequels. Not only do Blizzard's releases tend to be quite spread out, but they also necessarily make many significant improvements and changes to the games to provide a largely new experience.

Of course, the biggest example of types of games that flood the market are the yearly releases of major sports franchises. I get that they're meant to coincide with the start of a new *actual* sports season. But most of those sequels aren't substantively different from previous versions. And even if they are, did you waste your time perfecting your skills in one Madden game, only have to relearn some things a year later?

Also, I know that Blizzard is not the only company to spend more time on their games and have lengthy waits between sequels. Obviously Rockstar (GTA), Kojima Productions (MGS4), and even Square-Enix (Final Fantasy and Draqon Quest series) have similar release patterns.

A healthy wait is good for us. And it can only help when a developer spends some extra time polishing off a game. What other developers avoid the "release a sequel every year or two" syndrome? As much as it pains me to wait for a highly anticipated game, isn't the wait usually worth it?

Note: The Blizzard release dates were taken from a combination of Gamefaqs.com and Wikipedia.


Could a Native American Enjoy Playing Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization?

In a previous post, I wrote about the integration of culture into Civ III. A post by Ben Fritz on the Variety Cut Scene video game blog has got me thinking about the Civ series again. In short, Ben is quite upset that the recently announced Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization is a morally disturbing premise for a game.

In part, I'm inclined to agree. While I've been enjoying the Civ games, it's hard for me not to picture the many terrible things that happened either during or as a result of the actual colonization period. I don't think making a historically based game in itself is a bad thing. In fact, it's great. And hopefully causes people to be more attuned to the importance of history. Really, I think the greatest detriment of this new Colonization game is that it you can only play as one of four colonizing nations.

I think it would be more interesting, and provide for a different game play experience, if you could (only?) play as the Native Americans. While the core Civ games allow you to play as many different cultures, even some that no longer exist, you ultimately play the game in a similar manner. If you choose the Aztecs as your civilization, they can still come to conquer the world just like anyone else. Not to knock Civ too much, because I love it's core game play and attempt at incorporating as many historical 'milestones' as possible. But after reading Ben's article, it seems to me like the Civ games are really more about playing a "What if?" scenario than about accurately recreating history.

True, Colonization covers a much more specific period of history. But imagine if you could only play as the Aztecs, Iroquois, Shawnee, and Mayans, and were doomed from the start. It would be a much more powerful experience than performing the same old conquest again and again. This reminds of my last post, about how MGS4 is much more somber, and even sad, than previous versions.

I agree with Ben that there are deep, serious issues about power and colonization buried within all of the Civ games. However, unlike the RE5 race controversy, I think these issues are more difficult for the average gamer to recognize. Plus, it's easy to shrug and say, "What are you talking about? Colonization is ancient history. That doesn't happen anymore." Right or wrong, I'm glad Ben Fritz reminded me of the underlying themes of the Civ games. They are definitely worth exploring.


Sadness in MGS4

A few days ago, as a guest blogger at Kotaku, Stephen Totilo of the MTV Multiplayer Blog described some of the thoughts about MGS4 he tried to get across in the New York Times article on the same game. He said, "Metal Gear Solid 4 is so unusual in that it's the rare game that asks them to be interested in something else: a march toward defeat, an interactive tragedy."

Granted I haven't played the game yet. Nor do I even have a PS3. But I've mentioned at least once on this blog that I feel like I too often play games that lead to inevitable success. There are so few games where something evil occurs at the end, or the narrative is focused on sadness rather than triumph, or the hero is ultimately unsuccessful. Small spoilers upcoming for Crisis Core: FFVII. I really loved the narrative in Crisis Core, and how the ending is bittersweet. Even though I already knew the general story arc, the actual presentation of it was more powerful than I expected. Despite the uncommon ending, it felt quite refreshing to experience something so different.

For the same reasons, I really want to play MGS4, and see just how much it really touches on sadder themes of loss. Totilo made a really great point. Games really need to move away from the "advance through the world, destroy final boss, everyone rejoices" pattern. I can only hope that more games follow suit.


Pata- Pata- Pata- Pon!

I'm a mere 2 missions away from ending my divine link with the Patapon tribe. Short of a brain-stopping revelation in the final chunk of the game, I have a few final thoughts. I love my divine association with the Patapons. The game could easily have had no narrative link between me and them, with the drums being just a random rhythm-based game mechanic. But from the second I loaded up the game, I knew that the drums were divine instruments, the Patapons worshipped me, and I was a god with the power of life and death in my hands. To some degree, I really wanted to feel responsible for my Patapons, and my heartstrings were tugged in multiple directions as I struggled to find my way through the opening stages. But as I found my groove and helped my Patapons triumph over those dastardly Zigatons, I couldn't help but feel proud to have led my tribe away from the brink of extinction.

I have even had a vision that the Patapons actually reside inside the PSP. Despite being a mortal human for as long as I can remember, to the minuscule Patapons, I am someone to worship. And that unabashedly makes me stand a bit taller. If the 4 drums in the game are literally the face buttons on the PSP, then is it such a stretch to imagine that by inserting the game disc I activated their latent power? ; )

Much like the best portable games, Patapon has that addicting pick-up-and-play, just one more mission feeling that makes you completely lose track of time. Each battle is short, just a few minutes, and loading times are minuscule. In the beginning, I found it very helpful that the loading screens were covered with truly helpful game hints. These were often either things I didn't know at all, or things I had forgotten from the manual.

I'm rarely impressed by the attempted photo-realism of many current console games, so Patapon's art style feels perfect for me. But even beyond that, the minimalist style also warranted some unique graphical flourishes. The background has subtle wisps of wind that indicate whether your arrows will fly far and true or come up short. Even though I lack direct control of my troops, enemies are easily marked as "in range" by a change to the squinting, focused glare of my soldiers.

Sure, I wish some of the battles against the Zigaton army were replayable, instead of just the boss battles. And it's initially confusing to know which level of upgrade is the best for a given unit. But these small criticisms are greatly outclassed by the joy that is to be had in guiding my Patapon army across a desert, through swamps, and through the carcasses of numerous and diverse foes. If you have a PSP and haven't played Patapon, and are bemoaning the lack of announced PSP games for the future, you're doing a great disservice to both yourself and the game industry. Go get it. Now.


Back in Action

My folks have not only left town, but have left the entire country and returned to good old Kentucky. It was great having them here, but it left little time for either playing games or blogging about them. So it's good to finally be back. (Also, the 'B' key on my keyboard is acting up. So if you see any words missing a B, it's because B is for some reason furious at me and refuses to go on the screen every time I tell it to.)

Meeting my parents in Tokyo for their first few days in Japan did allow me to bring my new PSP into public for the first time. Thus far, my PSP time had been spent in the (non) comfort of my apartment's floor chair. Since the original Game Boy, I've never been the type of person to take my portable gaming devices into public, I think for a combination of 2 reasons. The first was an embarrassment (which is largely absent now) of gaming in public, and the second being that I never had an opportunity to play games while on the go.

Living in Japan without a car, and relying on public transportation, has really showed me the benefits and joys of commuter gaming. It's a great way to pass the time on a train or bus, and take your mind off the minutes or hours until your destination. It's also made me realize that not all games are great (or even playable) in moving vehicles. DS touch screen games (such as Puzzle Quest) are virtually impossible on a train. Similarly, games where sound is an integral and necessary part of the game play are difficult to play on trains because, obviously trains are very loud.

And that brings me to Patapon, the $20 game that is the only thing I had time to play last week. I'm really enjoying not only the rhythm mechanics of Patapon, but the art style and character designs are incredibly unique and cute. If you can consider a militaristic army cute. has captivated me so much that I can't help but enjoy even those aspects of the game which I really want to dislike. For example, as was widely reported when the game was released earlier this year, it is a common occurrence in Patapon to have to stop every few missions to do some grinding in order to create stronger and better-equipped units. The game play is so interesting and fun, that I even am enjoying grinding for gear. Unlike many RPGs, I'm not bored at all by this.

I'm near the end of the main game now, and am currently doing some grinding to get the best army I can before doing the final missions. Hopefully, I'll finish the game later this week, and post some more thoughts then. In the meantime, I've got a small boat load of games (and other stuff) to ship home before I move back to the U.S. next month.


Random Game Playing

I know I haven't been posting that often recently. I've actually been finding it hard to balance playing games with writing about games. Often, I've felt more like playing something than thinking of something to say about a game. Nonetheless, here are some random thoughts on what I've been doing recently.

After an extremely long hiatus, I finished Grim Fandango. It was a sometimes frustrating, but ultimately rewarding experience. Despite the dated graphics, the production-qualities are top-notch. The decision by LucasArts to basically remove death from their adventure games of the 1990s was extremely wise. It works especially well for this genre too. And most importantly, it encourages experimentation. When I regularly found myself unsure of how to proceed in the game, I would try to use promising items on every object and character in the game, sometimes to their annoyance. But other than being stuck as a player, I was never discouraged from trying unorthodox methods.

On some blog, I'm not sure which, maybe the 1Up Yours podcast, they were talking about Lego Indiana Jones. Much like Lego Star Wars, your characters have a 4 heart health bar. And they were wondering why even bother with a health bar when you respawn at the exact location you died in. For all practical purposes, there is no death in those games. In Grim Fandango, the no-death concept works because you're not really fighting anything. You're trying to solve environmental puzzles. Nobody is shooting at you or attacking you in real time. It seems like the only solution with the Lego games would be either invincibility with little fighting, or 1 hit kills, both of which sound like painful, inferior solutions.

Finally, I got the Widescreen Mod to work for Baldur's Gate, which I have returned to after a period of many years. It wouldn't work before because the Bioware website told me I didn't need to download a patch with my version of the game. Somehow they were wrong, I did need the patch, and now the mod works fine. And beautifully too, I might add. I'm just barely into the game, since I haven't had much time to play recently, but I'm excited to delve further into it. I've also enjoyed listening to and reading about the release of D&D 4th edition, despite having never played a pen and paper RPG in my life. It's still fascinating.

And that's it. I'll be on another break from the blog, as my parents are arriving in Japan tomorrow to visit me. But, I still have a 3 hour train ride to and from Tokyo, to get in some serious time with my still-fledgling Patapon army. Until next time.


Itagaki Leaving and Suing Tecmo

JC Barnett at Japanmanship posted a take on Team Ninja's Itagaki quitting Tecmo and suing for unpaid bonuses. As someone else who lives and works in Japan, albeit in a school rather than a game development company, I couldn't agree more with JC's take on the situation. This quote from JC sums it up nicely.
"It certainly sounds like he was promised a bonus, but the excuse is that previous management had dropped the ball here. Again, I’ve seen this sort of stuff happen before, where management changes, or not, even, bring about contractual changes which are pretty much dumped on the employees who have no say in the matter. Or rather, they do, but they won’t. Unless they sue."
In a general sense, it's common practice for employees to be expected to not take advantage of any perks or benefits of their jobs. The official end of the working day for most teachers is, I think, 5:30. However, through a combination of truly being busy and being expected to stay as long as everyone else, very few teachers actually leave when the official work day is over. It is common for teachers to stay as late as 8, 9, 10 o'clock at night, every day. To be fair, it's a shame that many teachers are over-worked, especially those who are in charge of clubs and sports teams. However, with the exception of mothers with young children, I've found that very few teachers leave at a reasonable time.

So I can totally understand and appreciate JC's perspective. Personally, if Itagaki really did have a bonus that he wasn't paid for, I'm glad he's trying to get it. But also like JC, I don't particularly care for him as either a game designer or a persona. Regardless of the outcome of his lawsuit, it's likely that business in Japan will carry on as usual.


Crisis Core Complete...For Now

I just finished Crisis Core. Literally, like 5 minutes ago. From my previous posts, I stand by my assertion that Crisis Core is an average enough game on its own, but as a prequel to FFVII, it's really incredible. The story is much more involving, and, to use a common English phrase used by Japanese people, it's very moving.

I'd like to briefly attempt the impossible, and touch on why I liked the ending without giving anything away to those handful of you have never played any game in the FFVII universe. Those of us familiar with FFVII know the outcome of Zack and Cloud before Crisis Core even starts. Their fates are preordained. Despite this, and the fact that Square knows that most of the people playing this game already know how the story ends, it still manages to do some interesting things. Essentially, Crisis Core explores the concepts of honor, loyalty, and even death to a great degree than many other games. The ending really manages to put you in Zack's shoes, and even attempts to explain some of the game play systems and how they are connected with Zack. The ending is sad, moving, and hopeful all in one, and surprisingly mature, especially in the super-emo world of Final Fantasy.

So, I think that's all that needs to be said about the ending. I'm sure it was vague and mysterious to those of you who haven't played the game, and hopefully interesting to those of you who have. I would recommend Crisis Core to about any PSP owner. The story is mostly intelligible, even to newcomers to the series. The exception is the lengthy ending, which I know would probably be a little baffling to a newcomer.

I went ahead and finished the main storyline of the game. But sometime in the future, I plan on loading up my save before the final boss and playing through the rest of the optional missions, just for completions' sake.

But for now, I have some other games on my plate. After reading about the Widescreen Mod for the original Baldur's Gate on PC, which lets you play the game in higher resolutions, I found I had acquired a very strong itch to play it. I played a couple hours of it once, but that was long ago. But I don't have enough space on my computer, so I have to beat Grim Fandango first to make room. And of course, I can't wait to delve further into Patapon now that Crisis Core is finished. So, I have plenty to do. And I'm sure you do too.


Crisis Core: The (Potential) Journey to 100%

Well, I've reached a point in Crisis Core where I must make a decision. That decision is whether to go ahead and finish the main storyline of the game, so I can move on to something else (aka Patapon), or whether I should try to finish as many of the 300 side missions as I can (I've currently done about 50%). This afternoon while I was playing, I had decided to just go ahead and finish the main game. I was tired of the tedious side missions, which offered little reward, and were slowly beginning to hand it to me. But then I finally got a very powerful materia (spell) that should allow me to breeze through a number of the missions.

However, to get to the point of this post, in order to find and create that materia, I needed the help of a FAQ on the Internet. My question to you, the readers, is how much or how often do you seek help with games? Do you only seek a walkthrough when you get utterly stuck and frustrated beyond hope? Do you buy a strategy guide with every new game and play through the entirety of the game with the guide in your lap? Or are you, like me, somewhere in between?

I consider myself a moderate game completionist. Within reason, I like to see and do all there is within a given game. I want to collect as many items and do as many side missions as possible. But sometimes, it just doesn't seem worth it. And I nearly reached that point with Crisis Core. I tend to only seek assistance in the course of trying to not miss things. What I often find is that I can't help reading about a section of a game right after I complete it. And then I inevitably sneak a peak at the next section to see what's coming up. The thought of irrevocably missing out on some aspect of a game gives me chills. Not really. But I do try my best not to miss any missables.

This stands in stark contrast to film, which movies so often aspire to emulate. While I have no qualms about reading details of areas in games before I've played them (when necessary), I would never, under any circumstances, read too much about a movie I've never seen. It often ruins the experience. The same can not be said of many sections of games, particularly the tedious, repetitious bits.

So where do you stand? How much help are you willing to seek for games? And how do you think that affects your experience of them?

EDIT: After reading Diego/Kimari's comment, I realized that I forgot to mention another, important reason that I often check the Internet regularly while playing a game. The reason is that my gaming time is very valuable. Not only do I have a plethora of games yet to be completed, but I also have numerous other commitments and activities to do in my spare time. So my gaming time is limited, and simultaneously important. I don't want to waste it by running around blindly in a game, or repeatedly losing a fight. In short, I prefer to make constant progress.