Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Summary

Okay, you can now officially ignore the last four essays. I was using very muddy terminology. Here's the new explanation:

Every game (and every other kind of art) is designed based on some fundamental bits. These are not the things the player gets to see or interact with, at least, not directly. These are the foundation for those things. These are the things which anchor play, anchor plot, anchor the art.

A lot of people play a game and like it or dislike it. Then they attempt to justify this like or dislike: "It has a great story!" "The gameplay is innovative and interesting!"

The thing is, a huge number of games have a great story, or great gameplay, or great art. But those games are never really mentioned. If a great story, or great gameplay, or great art were the real requirements, those games would be very popular.

You can argue that a game needs all three things combined to be very good. That's not entirely true, of course: some really fantastic games are missing one or even two of those things.

Justifications never work out very well. The real reason most people like or dislike a game (aside from hype and/or critical software issues) is dependent on the game having deep, cohesive, and fully utilized fundamentals.

Most genres come with some fundamentals. RPGs come with a few story fundamentals: save the world, gather a group of random people, explore the world. They also come with some play fundamentals and even some art fundamentals. Most RPGs simply use these fundamentals and produce an average product.

Some RPGs toss in some new fundamentals, creating a crazy-quilt of ideas that mesh poorly. Some people will like these RPGs for their innovation, but most people will find them unappealing.

The best RPGs put in new fundamentals that cut across the way the player experiences the entire game. These fundamentals allow the content of the game - rules, art, story - to unify and resonate. They allow the game to shine, because they create pearls and then shine lights on them.

These fundamentals don't have to be complex. For example, FFVI's two cross-cutting fundamentals were "emotion" and "lots of characters". Not exactly complex. At least, not on the surface. But these two fundamentals allow the rest of the game to be built beautifully.

12 comments:

Patrick said...

This sounds like the paradigmn of analysis that Ian Bogost proposes in Unit Operations. I don't know if I'd recommend it to you since you "get it" already and you'd become irritated at the highly academic language, but there you go, you're as smart as a Ph.D.

Craig Perko said...

Now, now, I've barely started.

Mory said...

Okay, now I understand. :)

Corey said...

As I read your original posts, I thought I disagreed with you, but wasn't quite sure, as I didn't entirely get what exactly you were saying. With this clarification, I'm positive I disagree with you.

Personally, I think FFVI to be the best RPG of all time, so I'm glad you're using it as an example. Additionally, I'll agree that its emotion and wide cast of characters are major aspects of why it is so good, but I can hardly see the connection to these fundementals you speak of; indeed, as I see it, they are nothing more than aspects of story. The reason it is so good is that plot takes second seat to its oft-overlooked brother, character development (of which emotion is a large part, and leads naturally to a large cast).

While it is solid in its gameplay and has been emulated (or, more aptly, imitated) in that regard by many RPGs since, it really has little to do with either of the factors you identified. Yes, you have a pool of 14 characters from which to build your party, but compare with FFV, which accomplished essentially the same thing with only 4 characters via the "job" system. Or any tactical RPG which lets you hire nameless grunts of n-hundred different classes to fight for you. Case in point, every time I play, I always use Locke in my party. Why? Though it pains me to admit it, he's generally considered inferior to the higher damaging characters like Sabin or Cyan. He contributes virtually no unique gameplay, but I still use him because he's got a well-developed backstory and I identify with his personality.

And don't let it get out, but I think the art is atrocious. I'll take the relatively generic and low-detail sprites over the OA and in-game portraits, thank you.

No, good RPGs are made by good storytelling. In the face of a good enough story, all other faults can be overlooked.

Mory said...

If I've understood Craig correctly, I think he'd classify the attempt to give strong characterization as a "fundamental" of the game.

By the way, Craig, justifications always work well if you identify the element which is most important to the type of game you're dealing with. But I look forward to seeing how you reach similarly effective methods of game appreciation with your new terminology and way of thinking.

Craig Perko said...

Corey: it's a good point, but as Mory commented, I think that a focus on character development is a fundamental of that game. Actually, I view it as "emotional development" rather than "character development", but it's the same basic idea.

The gameplay harmonizes with the character development and character choices: a given plot may require certain characters, specific characters have specific advantages, certain characters work very well together...

This is because the "fundamental" of having lots of detailed characters cuts across everything. It establishes a foundation to build from for not only story, but play and art. (You might consider the art horrible, but it holds together very well.)

"Story makes the RPG" is a classic idea, but it simply isn't true. There are dozens of RPGs with great stories and even great character development but never make anyone's cut of the "top ten" or even just the "games we remember" list.

For example, Threads of Fate, Persona 1-5, Final Fantasy II, Golden Sun, Albert Odyssey, and hundreds of others.

If story is the critical factor, why aren't these games more famous?

Corey said...

Okay, for the emotional involement factor, that's story right there. And I don't think it's anywhere near simple enough to be termed a fundemental.

In regards to the art style, whether or not I like it is irrelevant. The point I was trying to make is that aesthetics is not an essential part of what makes the game good. Besides, how exactly does the size of the cast influencing character design work? 'Cuz I'm not seeing any connection there. At all.

Yes, the large number of playable characters affects gameplay, this I freely admit. But how is this different from, say, Disgaea 2, which lets you hire an infinite cast of completely arbitrary characters? Or all recent RPGs, both good and bad, that with few exceptions give you at least double the number of characters you can have in your party at a time?

There's an important distinction to make between fame and quality; just because everybody knows about a game doesn't mean it's good, and just because it's obscure doesn't mean it sucks. I've never heard anyone rag on Golden Sun. I haven't played it enough to get into it myself, but everyone I've talked to that has has loved it. Why didn't it make it big? Life happens. But that doesn't mean it was bad.

Similarly, Final Fantasy II was by no means a bad game. (I assume you mean the American FFII, with Cecil and Rosa and such? As opposed to the Japanese FFII, with Firion and Guy.) But everything it does, FFVI does better. It was big in its time, but times change, and only the cream of the crop survives in the newer generations.

As for the others, well, there's lots of RPGs out there. Why should I shell out 50 bucks for some game I've never heard of before from some no-name company? That's quite a gamble when I know I can get the next big Final Fantasy or Pokemon or Tales game, which I know I'll like. So sayeth the mind of the average consumer. It's not fair, but that's how it works.

Craig Perko said...

We're definitely talking at tangents.

The obvious difference between having spades of pseudo-generic characters and having spades of interesting and deep characters is that one uses character development (or emotional development) as a fundamental, and the other doesn't. (At least, not to the same degree.)

As I've said, it isn't ONE fundamental that makes or breaks a game. It's how they combine.

Mory said...

"There are dozens of RPGs with great stories and even great character development but never make anyone's cut of the "top ten" or even just the "games we remember" list."

I don't buy that.

Of the games you mention, the only one I've played is Golden Sun. My own opinion is that its story isn't so incredible, and moreover the gameplay is so bad that it prevents you from enjoying that story. Even a minimal part of a game's design can make the whole thing trash if it interferes with your appreciation of what really matters.

But speaking more generally, I can't think of an RPG with a good story told well which I didn't remember fondly afterwards. And I can't think of a standard RPG with a bad story or a story told poorly that I did particularly like.

And don't ignore the important distinction Corey made between fame and quality. Fame can come from marketing and flashiness moreso than inherent quality. I can think of many games with no quality aside from graphics which have been raved about and called some of the best games ever.

Craig Perko said...

I definitely agree that marketing is a powerful tool. But, as I mentioned, it doesn't actually improve the quality of the game, and that's all I'm aiming for.

How many RPGs do you play? If you only play RPGs you know about and have heard good things about, you won't have played very many unpopular RPGs. For example, have you played Jade Empire? Popular when it came out, all but forgotten now. Fairly good game, don't you think? But not one which people still talk about, and not one people frequently consider replaying. How about Grandia (any)? Phantasy Star (any)?

These games have fans, but are simply not as popular as they should be given that their stories and writing were pretty interesting.

You could argue it was simply that they weren't advertised enough, but I chose those games specifically because they were some of the most advertised and/or hyped games out there, second only to the Final Fantasy series.

I say it's because they didn't have a set of fundamentals that resonated well with each other. They provide a fun experience, but not one with the fun harmonic jaggies you get from more durable games. This means people don't remember these games for as long and don't talk about them as eagerly.

Mory said...

Haven't played any of those games, and I can't say I've played all that many RPGs in general. Of those I've played, few have stories compelling enough, and told with little enough gameplay filler, to inspire me to replay them. How about Beyond Good & Evil? Not quite an RPG, but pretty darn close, so the same principles apply. Certainly not a popular game, but a game with a very good story exceptionally told (by which I mean that there is just the minimal amount of gameplay required to tell the story well, that gameplay all serves the story, and when the story is over the game stops). It is one of the games I'd be most willing to replay again and again.

But you're not talking about me; you're talking about the general public. And does either of us have a good enough grasp of marketing to understand why the general public likes or dislikes what they do?!

And you're going on about "durable harmonic jaggies" as if that explains the randomness of public taste. If I may ask, what in the name of Ancel is a jaggie?! And more importantly, why do you insist on looking at popular opinion as if it has any significance to theory?

Craig Perko said...

I'll respond in another post. :)