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March 14, 2014

Welcome to another edition of the mailbag! As I'm sure you expect I'm knee deep in tackling Dark Souls II right now, but that hasn't stopped me from playing a bit of Tales of Symphonia Chronicles as well. My enjoyment of that increased dramatically once I started using the Tales of the Abyss costumes. Anyway, I intended to make this a Tales and Final Fantasy focused mailbag with the Mailbag Challenge going and all, but you all have other things on your mind.

Let's jump right into it!

- Michael "Wheels" Apps

This Edition's Contents:

Backlog Woes

@AskWheels I guess there's a mailbag question. Are there too many releases now days, should we look to the Disney/Hollywood system? i.e. Longer periods between sequels / spread out AA release schedules / "studio" development. Stick of Truth proves 14 hour RPGs can work. More shorter (pref with lower price tags to reflect length) games please #Indies!


Wheels' Comment

That's a very tough question. The two industries, despite similarities, don't align perfectly. Before we get into that comparison though, let's discuss whether or not there are too many releases. There are many different kinds of gamers, and I know many who will only play one or two games at a time, or even just a few over a given year (these are more than "casual" gamers). So for them the bloated number of releases probably means there's many games they'll miss out on. Of course, there's the other end of the spectrum, people like us who probably buy every single game we're curious about but can't possibly find the time to play them all at release. Most likely fall between these two extremes, but for any sort of game there seem to be a lot of disadvantages to so many releases. With many closures in recent years, it seems likely the number of big AAA releases is just going to have to be scaled back or else. Of course good luck trying to get Activision to not do a yearly Call of Duty game.

Now we'll look at the two solutions you kind of mentioned (shorter games and the Hollywood model). Shorter games and specifically shorters RPG can work just fine. That said, I think it's best to leave the length of a game dependent on the style of game, how it fits the mechanics, how long it takes to resolve the story, etc. Plenty of long RPGs and other types of games justify their lengthy completion times! Of course I'm not sure you even intended this as an idea for a solution.

As for mimicking Hollywood, there's probably a few ideas there which game publishers could take to heart. Looking at this two week period with Dark Souls II, Titanfall, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, and Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD all coming out, there's no doubt AAA releases are often too bunched up. I'm sure once we get to summer there will be very little for months! As for some of the other things, I'm not so sure. More time between sequels might not work for every game series, especially multiplayer focused ones that need the refreshment a new entry provides. Movies and games are such different beasts that it's hard to do such a comparison. One thing is for sure, with many studio closures and even the end of a publisher in THQ, I think AAA games will see some sort of adjustment in release schedules and budgets in the not too distant future.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's only March and I already have a massive pile of 2014 games to get to...

Dark > Demon's

Dear Wheels, recent editions of the mailbag have almost directly courted comparisons between Demon's and Dark Souls and specifically which is better. As someone with a grossly inflated sense of self-importance I can't let the question stand without putting in my two cents.

Demon's Souls is from most every angle a weaker experience than Dark Souls, but what I think is its biggest problem is that aspects of its design are at cross purposes with each other. Both Demon's and Dark strive toward being essentially User-Neutral worlds as opposed to User-Positive experiences that most games offer. The player is just another piece of the puzzle and that's why the struggle feels so great, they aren't being awarded any real special treatment. By the same token they are both designed in such a way that a player willing to keep playing regardless of setbacks is going to eventually win, almost Dragon Quest-esque in that sense minus the sense of positivity pervading the game, if you are willing to buckle down anyone can finish a Souls game.

So with that long winded explanation of why I think both games have fundamentally the same design philosophy and goal out of the way, it's time to get to what I think are errors of execution. Demon's Souls undermines the player at several turns, making it tedious to recover from failure and essentially wasting the players time on some level. Dying in Demon's Souls diminishes the players max life by 50% instantaneously, in contrast to Dark Souls II ways to fix this are stupendously rare outside of killing a boss, putting the player in the odd position that their first attempt at an area, the one where they are least likely to succeed, is also the only one they are guaranteed to be at full strength for. It's an obnoxious and discouraging system that due to its nature of subtracting so much at once doesn't actually make future death mean anything it just makes you feel like you could do better if the game wasn't arbitrarily handicapping you. Dark Souls 1 removed this concept entirely, while 2 turned it into a proper stick and carrot while making it more possible to consistently bat away the stick.

The other area I want to focus on, and perhaps the single most brilliant innovation of Dark Souls is the concept of health restoration and how much the estus flask gives the player in terms of mental well being and saved time. Getting healing items in Demon's Souls isn't terribly difficult, merchants sell them and they aren't terribly expensive, however, getting them is tedious and obnoxious and running out is a discouraging thing particularly for new players. Needing to get healing items also encourages grinding which is not really a solution that a souls game ought to be cultivating. The Estus Flask elegantly fixes this, but it also is an important factor mentally. It encourages the player to keep going because no matter how badly they failed, there's always that baseline of resources the game can't take away from them and that baseline is enough to win. This allows more people to force themselves to keep playing until they understand the game without dumbing down the challenge or wasting anyone's time. The estus flask so perfectly cultivates the right mindset to allow someone to keep going without breaking the hostility of the world that it might be one of the most brilliant additions to a game I've ever seen.

I could go on of course about world design being more interesting than a hub and other things, but nothing encapsulates the reason that Dark is better designed than Demon's better than the way they govern the player's ability to repeatedly attempt something. For games that, let's face it, intend memorization to be a part of the experience even if it gets less important as they go on it's important that the player not be inundated with other negative consequences when an ambush they didn't have the presence of mind to suspect cuts them down in the middle of exploring a new area.


Wheels' Comment

I agree with absolutely every word you've said.

Top Tweets

Wheels' Comment

Damn it Frank, why you gotta do this to me? I feel like I'm doomed to somehow be conned into actually trying Mugen Souls Z. I fear for my sanity if that happens. I guess enough people liked the first one that this was a lock to come over here? I don't begrudge anyone liking that game, but man did it do a number on me.

For those unaware, this is a long standing joke between @kylelitke and I because I bashed Final Fantasy IV during a spirited defense of Final Fantasy XIII. Though I can no longer stomach the "easy" original SNES version, I am quite fond of the DS and PSP versions. Not my favorite Final Fantasy game but I certainly don't hate it at all, honest! Heck, I even bought the PSP version a second time to get it digitally. What more must I do to prove my non-hate?

Eric, I eagerly await the day Tales of Hearts is translated. By far my favorite portable entry in the series (if we don't count Tales of the Abyss on 3DS), I absolutely adore its battle system and classic sprites. Though the game is on the linear side and thus not the worst game to play with a translation guide, playing it completely in English would be fantastic. I honestly wish I could donate to the translators to speed them along. Just let us never speak of the abomination of a remake that appeared on the Vita.

Hot Topics

Here are some hot topics I've seen around the net:

  • Is the level of negativity in the gaming community something new, or just something more focused on now?
  • No seriously, where are your Dragon Quest VII thoughts and opinions?
  • What should BioWare do in the next Mass Effect?

See you next week!

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