Where did it go wrong with Square?

I recently finally started on Final Fantasy XIII. It became one of those games I was originally hyped over, but that fell from my personal grace. Only to be picked up once it hit the budget bin. Let down by the negative reviews and word of mouth I had started to question if I wanted to even get this game. I usually do follow my own path when I pick games and ignore most review grades, but they did get me thinking. Why was I originally so hyped for FF XIII?

I used to love the series. Having basically bought my first Playstation just because I loved Final Fantasy VII so much at university. Once I saw it at a fellow student I just had to have it. And for a long time Final Fantasy and Squaresoft became marks of quality. But that time has long since past. I did not even finish Final Fantasy X. I just stopped caring just before the final battle. Final Fantasy XII I barely touched. And suddenly every game released became branded as some sort of Final Fantasy by Square.

I can't exactly recall if this was around the time they merged with Enix to become Square Enix. But something of the magic had disappeared. The stories where getting dumbed down and formula's reused. But how come? I can of course only guess.

It seemed to me that Square started to worry to much about being the leading JRPG developer. With Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy they held (and still hold) two household names in gaming. And it seems they kinda collapsed under the weight of it. Trying desperately to break into bigger and bigger audiences. With bigger development budgets, that need to be covered by releasing 'cheap money makers' along the way. Hurting their good name with bad quality games along the way.

But also desperately trying to reach an audience that isn't there and alienating their original audience. With the easy one click battle systems and ever more focus on graphics the RP of JRPG seems to have disappeared more and more. The stories are still okayish. But its nothing truly exceptional after decades of telling similar ones. The combat is dumded down to solve the 'problem' of people not liking turn based combat (but I do!) and the free roaming is limited because it's to expensive to generate that with such graphic's..... at least it is when you started development on the PS2 and needed to rewrite most of your work.

Ironically the one annoying feature of JRPG's they should have gotten rid of they didn't: Save points. A useless system that is more a hindrance then anything else. It does not add to the difficulty of a game. It just forces upon you a lack of control over when you can stop playing the game. I will rejoice the day Save Points are abolished and developers stop thinking that difficulty correlates to when your able to save your game. I have a job, a wife and a kid. I don't always have time to first move to the next save point before I can stop playing.

Having said all this, I will say Final Fantasy XIII is still fun. It's so far been more of an interactive movie you can play with one hand on the controller. But the story seems interesting. Enough at least to keep me interested to see what will happen next. A level of storytelling that most other games lack. Still I can not wait for the day when a game with the Square name on it will again be something to instantly trust as quality. Rather then doubt it like I do now. It's not because the JRPG genre is in a bad state. I like JRPG's. I don't need much change. It's because Square Enix is so scared it's in a bad state they are trying to fix something that isn't broken. Mainstream Western Audiences never really loved JRPG's, FF VII was a fluke that it did. Stop trying to cater to an audience that just doesn't care and go back to catering to the fans. FF VII was a master-piece that can not be achieved again. Deal with it Square. Except by a remake... hint hint ;) Just cut development budgets and make fun JRPG's again. Don't try and go to big. Until then I keep my hope on studio's like Mistwalker.


Parenthood and gaming

I recently came across a topic on the GiantBomb forums concerning the fact that most game journalists do not seem to have kids. Like most good topic's on the Internet it quickly went off topic. The main question seemed to become if one should have children at all. One side of the argument raising the point that children are nothing but a nuance and destroy your life. The other side calling them childish and irresponsible. In short, your usual internet flame war where nobody listens to one and other. Still as somebody who became a father a little over 2 months ago it drew my attention.

Especially the idea that being a parent would just be for people who a) are wealthy enough not to have to spend their entire day on taking care of them or b) had little better to do and need kids to make them happy. These points can be summarized in the fact that somehow becoming a parent would mean ones 'normal life is over'. Just as one probably thinks of ones own parents as just 'parents' and not so much as individuals. But that is just me guessing.

I will be the last the argue that having children does not impact your life. The impact is pretty much like dropping a nuclear bomb on your life. No matter how much you prepare for it, it will impact your life more then anything else in life generally speaking. Especially as a man being an outsider to a 9 month pregnancy the impact of suddenly having a small life that you need to take care of in your arms is huge.

Of course I myself have experienced that our daughter needs a 'wee bit' of attention. But I found that, in terms of how much I game, it changed very little. A much bigger impact in my life was when I changed from being a student to working full time and serious relationships (living together, getting married). In short, growing up and having (other) responsibilities. Being 35 now most of these life changers are way behind me now. Gaming long since pays a backseat burner role due to these. Children are another responsibility. And perhaps they are scary because you can not simply walk away from them. A job you can quit, a house you can sell, a wife you can divorce (not that I am planning to, I love my wife! :P). A child you can not abandon. Well, at least not when you have any moral sense. And perhaps that is what the fear for children comes from more then these other things?

What I have found in terms of gaming is that now I have an interest in how other parents look upon gaming or combining their gaming hobby with children. For example; while I do not believe the anti-violence politicians, how do I handle playing ultra violent games with a small child in the house? But this question is no different from a parent wondering when they can watch more mature movies or tv-shows.

I belong to one of the first generations who grew up playing videogames (and never stopped). Ask yourself, did your parents stop watching tv, stop listening to music or stop reading books because you where born? Playing videogames belongs to this type of entertainment in my eyes. This view is not commonplace yet because videogames are still too often seen as something for children. This while the majority of games is made for adults and are played by adults. But if you view games for what they are, it's not that strange that when you become a parent playing games as home entertainment does not stop. It's no different for me than the thing gaming replaced years ago... watching tv.


Why we need more games like Duke Nukem Forever

Duke Nukem Forever has received quite a beating in the press. Some of it just and some of it I personally believe is just both press and gamers stumbling over one and other to see who can kick it to the ground the hardest. I myself finished the game yesterday and I won't defend it's weak spots. The loading times are horrible on the 360, the level design is weak at points, the boss design sometimes downright retarded, etc. I don't think I need to list the things wrong here any further. The 14 years in development show... we know.

But it's not all bad. In fact I think one often mentioned 'bad point' is actually a good point. A lot of reviews raise the issue that the game design is not relevant anymore. Outdated game play that games like Halo and Call of Duty moved beyond. And while I really enjoy games like Halo and CoD I have to object to this line of thinking. The style of FPS that Duke Nukem Forever represents is old yes. The slower moving FPS, more focused on just blasting away and navigating the environment. Often with a big dose of humor thrown in. A FPS that simply does not take itself serious.

This used to be a huge part of the FPS genre. Not just Duke, but also games like Red Neck Rampage and Shadow Warrior are prime examples. While the path is linear you have slightly more freedom. Your not being pushed forward from big set-piece to big set-piece. A lot of modern FPS are either 'highly intellectual'. The art-house variants of shooters. Like Bioshock. Or they are the huge big summer block busters. Like Halo or Call of Duty. But the simple fun to shoot some pixels in the face shooters seem to have disappeared. With only Serious Sam holding the fort. A bit more the b titles, the grind house movies if you want to continue to draw the comparison to movies.

While Duke's latest adventure was poor perhaps in technical execution, the type of gameplay it represents is something somebody like me has been missing. I don't always want to consume all big explosions or feel all art noir. Sometimes I just want to have a wee bit of fun. Just messing about. And this type of FPS or even video game is hardly being made anymore. Publishers are a freight it won't sell, to niche market for the big development budgets is my guess. DNF could be like this now and still sell because of the name alone. But I fear it actually also ends this type of game play for good now. Which is a shame, because DNF wasn't replacing anybodys diet, it was adding a little variation to it. Like forgotten vegetables. One could argue that it was probably forgotten for a reason. But not everything newer is always better. And like with forgotten vegetables there is still a market for it as people's tastes differ.

Given the huge number of greytoned 'modern warfares', I would love for a higher quality Duke game. And then I don't mean becoming a modern game in the terms of emulating CoD. A highly scripted roller coaster. No, just simply better graphic's, normal loading times, tighter level design (but still old school style) and fun old school shootouts. Because without the Duke those of us who like those types of games need to rely again on Serious Sam. And Serious Sam often suffers from a lot of the problems that DNF also does. And is less funny to boot. It represents the Doom style shooter more then the Duke Nukem 3D type shooter. Spice up our shooter experience a bit going retro, but doing it well. Not seeing it as retro. But just another way to give us the shooter experience. Because all the ghost-recons of the world are just going to fail anyway I fear.

[This is my first blog item here. Be gentle. Also I am not a native English speaker, so forgive any mistakes please]