Few consoles elicit more confused reactions, amongst gamers and developers alike, than the Nintendo Wii, to this day lambasted for its gimmicky controllers and lack of power and storage compared to its two main rivals, not to mention the supposed lack of “decent” games available for it. Yet somehow, sales figures can’t lie, it is massively successful and enjoyed by many; the market it provides for, however, doesn’t overlap the group that is most vocal: the internet hard-core gamers and journalists. Some scorn at the success of the Wii Fit but no matter how such products don’t provide for the hardcore, they do provide for the Wii’s main market, and to criticise that is not unlike criticising a dairy farm for not producing the beer you like so much better.

And despite the fact the Wii has proven itself to be the console of choice for, what some call, the “casual market”, some developers and publishers can’t help but try to pander to the hardcore. Games like Madworld and No More Heroes seem a bad fit for the Wii’s market, and their sales figures are less than stellar. This month it is no other than No More Heroes’ publisher Marvellous who bring us “Oboromuramasa”, the latest game by Vanillaware of Odin Sphere fame.

The game itself is nothing more than a brawler set in an ancient Japanese setting, through which the player moves via small stages where the occasional brawler battle takes place. There are some RPG elements involved, like levelling up and forging swords, but generally the game is a button masher and would probably fare better on other consoles where the main market is more receptive to such titles.

That said, what Muramasa has going for it is, like Odin Sphere, the drop-dead gorgeous visuals, proving once again that art direction trumps technological prowess by a mile. This game would have been immensely lacklustre had it been rendered in “glorious” 3D utilising every single byte of memory that the Xbox360 or PS3 have to offer. Instead it runs comfortably in the Wii’s low-resolution environment with its beautiful, hand-drawn 2D graphics that are rich with little touches of detail and sometimes barely perceptible animations. Seeing Musamasa in motion is gratifying in itself, regardless of the game mechanics behind it. It is simply beautiful.

People versed in ancient Japanese art and history will find plenty here to get excited about. Images borrow heavily from famous artworks, and though generally fairly “anime” styled, it has an overall feel of historical paintings. This, the Japanese version of the game, also relies heavily on kanji and a little bit of an obtuse front-end, so importers are advised to wait for the European or American versions.

Once these localised versions are released, though, I suspect it will find somewhat of a larger market abroad than it does in Japan, especially among the “Japanophiles”, as the game drips Nihonese like nothing else. But even then it will have to compete with much better marketed games like Wii Fit and big licensed fare that the casual gamer might have heard of. I fear this game might not receive the attention it deserves simply because it is a new game and people need to know about it before they actively seek it out and buy it, as opposed to stumbling across it in a game shop and picking it up on a whim; that seems to be a tactic that doesn’t work well for Wii games.

Though I am becoming less and less of a “hard-core” gamer, I am immensely gratified developers like Vanillaware continue to pursue their art and create off-beat games like Muramasa; especially as a visual artist myself I am getting a lot of enjoyment out of the presentation alone. My thumb, however, probably won’t outlast the actual gaming experience and I am probably doomed, like many others no doubt, to get the main bulk of my enjoyment from HD Youtube movies created by others.

Oboromuramasa is a gorgeous game. I recommend it to anybody who is serious about the medium to look at it as another example of games being an art in and of themselves, as opposed to something similar or equal to the more established art forms. Buy it when it is released locally and keep your fingers crossed Vanillaware makes enough money out of it to spurn them on to make more games with this visual style.

The IGDA and QoL

Few subjects are as contentious amongst developers, staff and management alike, than “unpaid overtime”; it’s sadly an issue that still divides, and about which more has been written, argued the toss about and discussed with less possible hope of an outcome than the Israeli-Palestine question. Game development being a highly creative industry staffed by motivated and, frankly, obsessive talent the idea that overtime is absolutely required if one is to develop a decent game is sadly still prevalent. Ignore scheduling issues, if the staff isn’t willing to kill themselves for the good of the project no good games, some say, can ever be made. Management obviously thinks unpaid overtime is great for business, squeezing free man months out of staff while conveniently ignoring century-old research that pretty much proves that overtime turns to negative productivity. My personal views on the matter should be obvious by this opening paragraph alone, but for every lefty liberal socialist like myself there is a raving workaholic who will come with plenty of counter-arguments. So, we look at some representative body to take up the issue, and as game developers we have, sadly, only one of those: the IGDA.

Recently somewhat of a storm has erupted when the IGDA, which claims it champions “QoL” (Quality of Life) for its members, ostensibly developers, had a roundtable discussion at the IGDA Leadership Forum 08, “Studio Heads Hotseat”, where a board member, at the time, boldly claimed:

there's a lot of talk, "oh you can make great games working 8 hours a day 5 days a week, it's management's fault if they work more than that," fuck, it's management's fault for hiring people who want to leave at 5pm every day is the way I look at it
-- Mike Capps, President, Epic Games
Video here.

This, in turn caused somewhat of an uproar on the IGDA feedback forums and a very lackluster, non-committal response from the board.

The story drags on quite a bit, and rather than recounting it here I suggest readers to watch the videos and follow all the links in the forums and the IGDA website. The long and short of it, though, is that the IGDA, the only spokesgroup our industry has really managed to create basically has very little it does for the lowly developer, seeming to be more in line with the management ideas for which us developers exactly need an organisation to protect us from.

The overall usefulness of the IGDA is also an issue many developers can’t seem to agree on, with some local chapters actually being well-run and offering a lot to the local members, yet others being pretty much useless. So far I have been a paid member, a token of support for the idea alone, as I was never in a real position to devote myself to the organisation in the form of tangible help and commitment; sadly a common situation for many developers. After this QoL debacle, though, I have decided to let my subscription run out after which it shan’t be renewed. We desperately need an organisation to protect the interests of developers, and the IGDA has sadly proven itself to be somewhat of a lame duck in this regard, peppering their site with splendid ideas and research, yet not being able to even stand up to its own board of directors when they blatantly and openly defy the very principles it is supposed to uphold.

These mundane issues, readers, are what keep developers awake at night. I’m sorry it’s not as sexy and academic as ludological narrative philosophy, but we are people after all, people stuck in a industry so mired in the 80s bedroom coding scene that it never found the time to grow up.