2008 Japanmanship Awards Listpost

It's that time of year when all websites and blogs do a list-post regarding the most fantastic, disappointing, rubbish, sexy, stupid, numerical, pusillanimous, retarded, hyperbolic games of the year and as I've been behind my posting for a while, due to being rather busy doing other things, I thought I'd bash out a quickie listing my personal gaming highlights of 2008, combined with a little mention of what I am looking forward to most in the coming year of the cow. The awards I'm dishing out today are the "Japanmanship Nugatories", recipients of which get exactly nothing other than a mention on a middling-to-irrelevant blog.

Retail Game of the Year - Little Big Planet
I have had some fun times playing many of the astoundingly great games we've been fortunate enough to buy this and the previous year, and I have been pleasantly surprised by a lot of them. There definitely seems to have been a jump in quality, which in my estimation occurred somewhere midway 2007, after which a lot of triple-A games have been, well, fantastic. No game in recent memory, however, has given me more delight and enjoyment as Media Molecule's Little Big Planet, causing me to lay awake at night dreaming up all the contraptions I wanted to make in its excellent editor. And though it had a few teething problems at first, now the servers all seem to be running smooth and players have begun to understand and use the true power of the creation tools we are beginning to see user-generated levels that can easily match the developers' own in creativity. With a continued dripfeed of new costumes and now new content I suspect I'll be playing this game well into 2009 and possibly beyond. I urge everyone to play until the contentious level-sorting clicks in your brain after which it's smooth sailing for many many hilarious and creative months. And Stephen Fry, of course, bonus points.
Visit the official website here.

Downloadable Game of the Year - World of Goo
It has been an excellent year for download and independent games, a trend I hope and fully expect to be continued into the next year. From the excellent PixelJunk Eden, the retrogaming fanservice of MegaMan and the Bionic Commando remake to astounding development achievements like Castle Crashers my digital wallet has been under attack egregiously, which, seeing as I have a hole in my hand already when it comes to money, let alone digital magic money, has meant some months of living close to the button. One title that stands out for me, though, is 2D Boy's excellent World of Goo. It has an excellent aesthetic, a smooth yet unforgiving learning curve and offers probably the best physics-based puzzle gameplay since forever. Little touches like OCD targets and your own tower to compare to other players' are the icing on the cake. On top of that there is a lot of personal sycophancy involved too. Once employees at a large corporate game studio the 2D Boy boys went for it for themselves and, in my view, succeeded. They had a dream and went for it, and that is inspiring. The fact they created an excellent title like World of Goo in the process is both hatefully jealousy-inducing and laudable. Everybody go buy it and support their next title.
Visit the 2D Boy website here.

Timesink of the Year - Pic Pic
Counting pure hours lost on a single game 505 Games' Pic Pic for the Nintendo DS beats the rest by several man-months worth. Whenever I had some time to fill, be it loafing around listening to podcasts, battling my fiber intake issues on the toilet, waiting for the wife to get ready to go out or experimenting with not shaving to see how long it would take before the fluff gets too itchy and annoying (2 days) Pic Pic was always there. At its base a simple package it offers three different types of drawing-related puzzle games; one a simple maze game, which hasn't gotten much playtime from me yet, one a difficult to explain yet easy to understand game where you connect numbers on a grid, by far my favourite, and a third more complicated one where you draw or clear blocks in a 3 by 3 grid surrounding a number. Each puzzle type comes with an astounding 400 puzzles, ranging from the small and easy to the huge and intricate, offering the perfect five to fifteen minute play to fill the gaps in much the same way ice cream does after a particularly heavy meal. Any DS owner who claims to like puzzle games has no excuse not to own this one.
Read Eurogamer's fawning review of it here.

Free Indie Game of the Year - Dyson
Imagine an engaging, beautiful and deep strategy game for free! Well, you don't have to because there is Dyson, a procedurally generated RTS of sorts in which you, the player, tries to colonise an asteroid belt. The controls and rules are as simple as can be yet offer surprising depths of strategy and engagement. Though still in development, the title is already robust and enjoyable and I urge any broke or tight-fisted strategy gamer to check it out.
Download Dyson here.

Console of the Year - Playstation 3
Being a slightly regretful owner of all three of the current-gen systems, I base this vote entirely on which console I've spent the most time playing. With the XBox360 having died on me several times this year I have lost all confidence in it and though I occasionally buy some XBLA games, I have stopped buying retail games because I can never be sure I can play them at any given time. The Wii, though exciting, new and shiny, with perfect usability and several fun games, I found is hardly ever used anymore. I only switch it on to stop that annoying blue light flashing in my peripheral vision when watching television. My problems with it are twofold. Mostly it is the lack of games that personally interest me, with the big Nintendo titles cleared and lacking replay value. Secondly, it lacks an achievement/trophy system which I have found myself totally addicted to on the other consoles, actually playing and replaying games often just for the points. Which leaves the embattled Playstation 3. It's undeniably a decent bit of kit, especially my early release one, with its multitude of USB ports and PS2 compatibility and of course a Blu-Ray drive. It has several, though obviously not enough, excellent games on it, including my personal game of the year above. Its on-line store is slowly filling out. Which is why I am so annoyed by Sony for basically fucking up the marketing (and pricing) so badly. Every time a Sony executive opens his mouth and lets forth a stream of obvious nonsense a kitten dies somewhere, for I think the PS3 is worthy of more success than Sony has been able to muster.

Most Over-hyped Game of the Year - Metal Gear Solid 4
It's hard to think of any hyperbole not heaped upon Metal Gear Solid 4, and though it is obviously an accomplished game made by a huge team of remarkably talented people, it did turn out to be the most ridiculous, badly paced and tedious experiences of the year until Sony released Playstation Home. From the terrible writing, the badly cut cut-scenes and gameplay that tried to be a Jack of all trades but ended up nothing in particular, the weird technical choices, including lengthy installs and loading screens that required a button-press to move away from, the game just fell flat for me on every aspect. It causes me no end of annoyance when people praise the story and writing in this game as it is so obviously of the level of your average 14 year old fanboy with too much time on his hands. The secret of writing is to cut away as much as you can and still have the story make sense, yet during the development of Metal Gear Solid 4 it seems they kept every tiny scrap of paper anyone ever made a scribble on and threw it on the pile. You may think it was a great game, but, frankly, you're wrong.

Blog of the Year - Brainy Gamer
This might be a little contentious, as Michael Abbott's, the author of the Brainy Gamer blog, views and my own differ remarkably on most, if not all levels. He engages in over-analysis of games, throws around names of filmmakers and artist as if their work is comparable to video games and promotes many other bloggers with the same stances. Which is exactly why he deserves a mention. His blog posts are almost always of a high quality and well thought out, he is turning into a spokesperson, of sorts, of the gaming blogging community and spends a lot of obvious effort and time in producing sporadic podcasts. The fact I disagree with him so much makes it more interesting to read for me, as it usually engages my brain and makes me consider, sometimes, though not often, reconsider my own views. In a medium filled with bile and hatred as well as fanboyish flamboyance, The Brainy Gamer sits comfortably in an important and overlooked niche of thoughtful, well-written and optimistic navel-gazing. Usually when I strongly disagree with certain bloggers, I simply stop reading them, yet Mr. Abbott keeps me coming back. One day I might be able to break his spirit, but it's more likely he will end up breaking mine.
Brainy up your game here.

Most Anticipated of 2009 - Cletus Clay
I am a sucker for interesting visual styles. I am also a sucker for old-fashioned arcade platforming and shooting games. So when I first heard about Cletus Clay, a claymation old-fashioned arcade shooting game, well, my brain imploded. Coming from the nimble fingers of Anthony Flack of Platypus fame and a small band of co-developers I have nothing but high hopes that my personal gaming proclivities will be satisfied when the title finally makes it out. Whether that will be 2009 is still in question, but I will certainly spend the next year keeping a close eye on the game. This is exactly the kind of weird shit that publishers shy away from yet can flourish in the bustling and growing world of independent development.
Read about Cletus Clay development here.

Personal Gaming Moment of the Year
Reaching the end of level platform in Little Big Planet while playing with three of my mates and trying to obscure the winner from view by standing in front of him and generally being a dick, followed by running around his pod like a child on a sugar-rush and pulling people around and jumping, all the while tears of childish joy streaming from my face as I laughed like an idiot for five solid minutes. I have not had such simple child-like enjoyment of a game for decades and reminded me exactly what games are supposed to be: just plain fun.

After 2007 it was hard to imagine a repeat of the many great games we had, yet 2008 did a remarkable job at it. Global recession be damned, I hope 2009 will continue this upward trend of excellence in gaming in both the commercial and independent fields. I finally have the sense that gaming has "grown up", meaning it has solidified into a real, immensely diverse quality medium rather than a bedroom tits and guns distraction for single geeky teens with acne.

Not going Home

Sony, in their continued efforts to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory, has just recently released their version of an on-line community for the PS3, Playstation Home, to the wider public as, possibly, the least anticipated piece of software in the history of time wasting. I was unlucky enough to have been invited to participate in the closed Beta a while back and have already had my fill of Home, to the extent that failure to connect to the servers on the day the Beta became open to everybody I deleted the application and freed up another 4 Gigabytes of "reserved space" on my harddisk.

Though I'm weary of jumping on the Home hate bandwagon now roaring out of control over many a gaming website and forum, though believe me, I hate it, I am more annoyed at Sony for making me distrust my instincts. Am I, possibly, too out of touch with the wider gaming audience? I remember Will Wright pulled this trick on me before with The Sims. Early teaser trailers had be guffawing and shaking my head in disbelief. No way, I thought, could this be anything other than a disaster. Who in their right minds would play this horseshit? And as sales figures and my own subsequent addiction to the Sims has proven, my instincts can be drastically wrong sometimes and, having learned my lesson, I vowed never to jump to conclusions on new, wacky, unproven ideas.

Home, though, isn't unproven as an idea. The massive success of other on-line virtual communities has been a floating dollar sign for many a marketing executive with especially titles as Second Life raking in piles of cash and becoming cultural phenomena. The fact Home had to happen seems almost a given. And on paper Home seems awesome. A free piece of software that will add a Mii/Avatar function to your Sony ID, a home room to decorate as you see fit, special game-related items and rooms to become available over time, it seems a fantastic little gift from Sony to its users.

"Seems" obviously being the operative word there. In reality it is a cumbersome and slow piece of software that is a barely disguised excuse to hoist micropaid contents on a strangely suspecting userbase. With plenty of quick downloads of videos and trailers already, Home's slow streaming non-full-screen movie theater seems to add several layers of uselessness to an already smooth process. Very limited avatar creation options makes Home's zombie-like characters take a distant third place after my Nintendo Mii and Microsoft's Avatars. It's strange that the most simplistic looking of the three, the Mii, turns out to be the most powerful, with my Mii being a dead ringer for my own handsome self, my Avatar looking like a Barbie version of me and my Home avatar looking like an emaciated skater-version of Marky Mark, like pretty much seventy percent of my fellow Home users.

Technical issues too make Home an embarassment rather than a showcase for PS3 power, of which I know it has a lot. From the wonky avatar to the massive tedium of load-times, which really seem inexcusable, to the static and fuzzy scenery outside my bachelor pad. Queues for games in the game center too seem ridiculous, and having to boot up the beta for Namco Museum to play two levels of Dig Dug, only to be awarded a small Dig Dug doll to decorate my home with doesn't seem worth the 10 minute wait. Original arcade games available are nothing more than sub-standard on-line Flash type games. The choice of furniture and apartments extremely limited with more available for extortionate micropayments - trust Sony to turn micropayments into extortion. And as I am not in the slightest bit interested in seeing my Marky Mark me watch a poster for an upcoming game, there simply is no reason for me to endure Home.

But am I, are all of us bitching about Home online, wrong? To me Second Life sounds like torture, yet it is immensely popular. Does Joe Public care about these technical issues, or are they simply happy to inhabit a virtual word where they can pick up fat, middle-aged guys pretending to be 14 year old girls?

A case could be made that due to the PS3's high price the bulk of its users are possibly informed hardcore gamers, whom are all too enlightened to swallow this bullshit. But one could also assume that software like Home could be effectively used to market at the more casual gamer, just an extra little carrot for the "soft-core" crowd, bringing in new users and helping shift units. I'm sure the latter is already happening as, as I mentioned above, the idea of Home sounds pretty good on paper and in marketing blurbs; it's only when you get your hands on it that you realise it's not all it's cracked up to be.

However much I personally think Home is a waste of effort, time, money and opportunity, I think I'll shy away from proclaiming its failure until we have some hard figures to peruse. I have a nagging feeling that possibly Sony could surprise us. Well, maybe not Sony but PS3 users. In a sense I kind of hope they do because I am tired of all the PS3-bashing, even though Sony has, in its disastrous attempts to keep hold of its PS2 lead into the next generation, deserved every bit of scorn it has been subjected to. The Playstation 3 is an awesome piece of hardware, and more and more excellent games are being released. I want it to do better than it is, and the only things stopping that right now are Sony, its executives and their marketing. And possibly Home. One step forward, two steps back?

Not my cup of tea

I'm no great fan of games journalism but I'll admit it has been getting a little better over time. For example, the days a reviewer who openly hates a certain genre of game writing a review of a game in that genre and panning it are, generally, over. What I have noticed, though, is that it's becoming quite common for games trying something different and being criticised for it for not doing it "right", meaning the way the reviewer was expecting it. The same reviewers, mind you, who usually harp on about innovation. The reviewers who think they are part of quality control and game design and think their input is a necessary requirement to make a game good.

Three titles that have received this treatment recently in various dark corners of the internet and pod-sphere, which, I'll admit, are three titles I personally am a great fan of, are Mirror's Edge, Little Big Planet and Biohazard 5. And some of the reactions have me stumped.

In Mirror's Edge, for example, the player, through her parcour adventures, may pick up a gun or two. It was obviously a design decision to handle this a certain way, namely that it interferes with the running and jumping, which is what the game is about after all. So you can pick up a gun, yes, you can use it, yes, but really you should be thinking on your feet, literally. Grab, fire, drop and run. Aside from the fact this is a refreshing approach in the usually gun-porn heavy FPS genre, I like it for forcing the player to stick to the game's main control scheme. Yet, if some reviewers are to be believed, if you show a gun in a game, the game has to function as a full-blown FPS in the Call of Duty sense of the word. They moan that the intentional gimping of the controls is a tease, a broken design. Every game with guns, they imply, has to work as a perfect FPS shooting game, or else!

Biohazard too suffers from this reviewers' myopia. The game makes it impossible to run and shoot at the same time, which, as it did in Biohazard 4, causes some tense, intense moments where you sweat it out, cornered by a horde of zombies all coming at you with pickaxes and chainsaws. Every bullet you fire requires you to stand still and aim carefully, much like you would in real life incidentally. Yet people seem to complain you can't run and shoot at the same time, that when aiming the camera moves slower and that you can't strafe. In short, they complain it isn't Call of Duty or any other fast-action run-and-gun FPS.

Little Big Planet too has seen some controversy over their Z-jumping where, in an essentially 2D game the player is automatically put into one of three levels of depth. Now to be honest I too was a little disoriented by this. But a few levels in it just clicks and it doesn't become a problem anymore (except in a few badly designed levels floating out there). There are certain rules for the level-sorting and they make perfect sense, and once you wrap your head around it and don't fight it it works beautifully. But as it is essentially a 2D game experience people complain it isn't 2D enough and that this weird 3rd dimension to the levels with its automatic jumping around is a total game-breaker.

Of course there are plenty of people who, like me, love the games above and click nicely with the control schemes. But a small, often vocal minority seems to think doing something different it a bad thing. What is the harm in thinking something just is not your cup of tea? Personally I hated the early entries in the Biohazard series, mostly because of the controls. I didn't criticise them for doing it wrong, I didn't expect them to do it differently, I just didn't like it and hence didn't play the games. Only when Biohazard 4 came around did I give the series another go and I was hooked. (For non-Japanese Xbox360 users, by the way, the demo for Biohazard 5 is utterly awesome; it's Biohazard 4, basically, with a little plus alpha.)

The way Mirror's Edge designed its weapons use, Biohazard its limited moving and firing capabilities and Little Big Planet its 2.5 level sorting are uncommon, yes, and they might need some time to get used to. Some people might just plain not like it. But so what? It works for some. Don't demand a game to be more like what it isn't, open your mind or simply don't play it; just play the shooters and 2D platformers that conform to your expectations and leave the rest of us to enjoy something different.

J-Dev Confidential 7

In this series of posts I examine, from the unique perspective of having experience and knowledge of both Western and Japanese development practices, where, in my humble opinion, Japanese game development is going wrong. Beware that these are merely generalised opinions and do not necessarily apply to all or any specific Japanese companies, some of which are, admittedly, slowly changing their approaches and attitudes.

Part 7 - You and I

We, too, have our issues with Japanese game development, don't let's forget!

In my case, well, it turned out I am simply a bad fit for Japanese corporate culture. I do not, as they say, have what it takes. I blame my low bullshit threshold and my desire to have professional, rational work practices, the perfect passive-aggressive arrogant stance. When I see problems, of course I am not as course as to openly point them out to whomever is listening, but I will expect them to be fixed. If I am not given direction, I expect autonomy, and I simply cannot deal with having neither. Personally, I still care deeply about my work and the final product, which is why I let things get to me so easily. It's not that I always know best, which I obviously don't, but I can recognise disaster. I spend hours and hours of my spare time immersed in our output, playing, researching games, reading news, being up-to-date, knowing what's out there, learning about the business and money sides of our industry, and I stupidly expect the same dedication from all my colleagues. People should know my attitudes always come from a good place with the right intentions, and not due to some desire for power or fame; no, I want to make great games that many can enjoy.

Now the structures of Japanese businesses aren't half as inscrutable as people like to think. With a bit of effort you can move up the ranks and try to be part of the solution, as it were. In my time I did indeed see promotion and pay rises, though paltry ones, and the occasional plus alpha bonus which delivered fractionally more than the withheld salary I was expecting. However, with the way hierarchy works the director is always above you and will always dictate his decisions, so until you get to that point you are pretty much beholden to the whims of a single person, whether they are destructive or productive. And to reach such dizzying heights requires more sweat than I was prepared to give. It requires playing the politics game, but mostly, it requires longevity. Promotion to the upper echelons in Japan goes hand in hand with the number of decades of loyal service you have provided, and frankly, I was too impatient to wait.

I have no doubt though that I could have been more pro-active in trying to effect change. Yet, my Western "think of number one, at least occasionally" attitude became too much of a burden. I gave up. To be an effective developer in Japan requires a certain strength of character and refusal to give up. Either that or a whole lot of luck. It can be done. There are foreigners in Japan doing this right now. But me, no, I am going a different way, plunging into the deep end and trying to be my own boss. It's a personal decision born more from my own ambitions than my failure to be effective within the industry, and it's an attitude you find elsewhere too. Maybe veteran developers end up going indie, starting up for themselves, because they want to prove something (usually to themselves). This is me too. However frustrated I grew at work, my decision to step out relied far more on this desire to prove myself than it did with the perceived problems of Japanese game development.

As for you, my sweets, well, your problem comes down to critical failure. Japan has been getting away with too much for too long. Because Japanese games enjoy a certain adoration people have been too ready to forgive the many little issues that have been growing over the recent generations, and now things have come to a head, with even big name Japanese products being technical disasters, you people have a hard time suddenly having to come to terms with the idea that, well, Japan isn't the mecca of video games...not anymore.

I was not too surprised to get certain reactions, in comments and on other forums when people were kind enough to link to this series of posts. People think I complain too much and not focus on what is good. I thought I'd circumvent that with my long introductory post, but apparently people still get riled when something they hold dear gets some negative attention. And I can understand that, of course. But it often comes to a point when one isn't allowed to criticise at all. "How dare he," they say, "criticise the industry that brought us Final Fantasy, Biohazard, Zelda?" To those people I say, keep an open mind. Investigate what else is on offer in Japan, play the games that don't get localised, and you'll see an awful lot of shovelware too. Certainly not every game ever made in Japan is golden, as Western games too have their share of rubbish. To ignore all the fairly obvious issues the industry has simply because you are fan of a certain series of games is highly irresponsible.

And yes, people like to accuse me of racism, or my own sense of cultural myopia. "Oh, like it's so great in the West?" they ask. I'd like to think I made it lear that I acknowledge there are issues all over the world, no matter what country you work in, but that this series was focusing mostly on those problems that appear uniquely Japanese or are specifically an issue in Japan.

I get it. You don't like the negativity. You love Japanese games. You may dream of working in the Japanese industry. Good luck to you! Things are changing and getting better and you can certainly get a lot out of it if you try. No, Japan isn't uniquely fucked up, and yes, certain problems are widespread. And also, it's perfectly acceptable to strongly disagree with me, I can handle it. But what I do ask of my readers is to see some perspective, some context. However much you love Japan, Japanese things and culture and Japanese games, it doesn't mean it is beyond criticism and it behooves us all to occasionally slaughter our sacred cows in the name of potential progress.

I hope this series of critical looks at what I personally perceived to be the main issues plaguing the Japanese industry has at least given you some food for thought. Latecomers I'd advise to start from post 1, take in the disclaimer and work your way through to the end. Things are changing, things are getting better. Japanese developers see a lot of their own problems and there is a will to change, no matter how slow the process. More foreigners are breaking into the industry here and they too can help the process. And if you have the dream to work in Japan, then by all means, don't let me dissuade you! It is entirely possible and you could have a good time here, if you come at it with an open mind. All I ask is: no more sacred cows, please.