Thoughts on an interview with two Japanese devs

My gaming buddy, a Final Fantasy XIV player and fan, sent me this old interview of its redeemer, Yoshida Naoki, in which he and Futami Yosuke, a producer on the Sword Art Online games, discuss MMOs. The English translation is a good one, and makes the whole thing a pretty good read. Recommended.

As I read along, I found myself thinking up responses to some things both gentlemen said. This post is basically just a record of those. I seriously had no idea what to even title it.

“A game needs to be appealing even if communication is held to the bare minimum.”

Yoshida-san really slams it out of the park here, especially with the fishing analogy. People’s definitions of the ‘multiplayer’ in ‘MMO’ have changed. Once (if ever), it was about collaboration. Now it’s just about being alone in the crowd – being surrounded by active players to remind you that you’re not alone.

I’ve often said that the trick in MMO design is creating an environment that encourages players to stay. Here it is, and its efficacy is not an intrinsic thing, but the product of shifting attitudes. And we have one very successful dev encouraging others to cater to the soloists. Not right or wrong – just mere pragmatism.

Do I like it? Not really. Do I want it to change? I don’t know. Perhaps this deserves a post to itself. After all, I’m playing The Elder Scrolls Online now, and what better place to examine the ‘solo MMO’ dynamic?

“As time progresses, some NPCs in town will actually talk to you as you walk by. Those are the type of immersive features that I worked on with our development team.”

Futami-san was talking about Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment here, which is a game that simulates an MMO, so I can understand the definition of ‘immersion’ as ‘NPCs programmed to behave in a realistic manner’. But I don’t agree with it.

Because immersion is far more than that. It’s the sum of variables, key among which is the player’s own creative senses. To borrow the words of Storium founder Stephen Hood, “the computer is not able to respond to you. To the full breadth of human creative expression”. The best any game can do is to provide a richly detailed game world, and the tools for players to immerse themselves.

Immersion can only be forced so far through scripted actions. My own playthroughs of the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games hammered that home for me; once I knew what lay ahead, the third time was definitely not a charm.

“In Japan, players strongly adhere to the communities that they are a part of. Even if they aren’t a member of a particular community, they tend to strive to blend in with regards to the tone and atmosphere of the setting that they’re in. You could view it as being harmonious, but you could also view it as being passive as well. On the other hand, foreign gamers are much more likely to be highly individualistic. You gather a group of these unique individuals together to form a party and go on adventures. Instead of going with the flow, everybody seems to discuss their objectives and opinions more freely.”

Uhhh…

“Players from Japan tend to want the ability to create an original character. They want an avatar of themselves, so that they can go on adventures alongside Kirito. Foreign users are the opposite; they want to go on the adventures as Kirito.”

More generalization. Okay, I’ll bite. I’m going to reach out to my readers here, most of whom are non-Japanese. (Or so WordPress tells me.) Do you seriously fall in with this? Because I don’t.

In one of my first posts on this blog, I talked about the difference between ‘roleplaying’ and ‘playing a role’. A long time ago when I was less picky about such things, sure, I didn’t mind stepping into known characters’ skins. But the fun of that declined fast. Adventuring alongside those characters as an original protagonist may require a good bit of suspension of disbelief, since, once again, there’s no way the game can be scripted to accommodate you fully. But it’s the best we can get in this area, so why not?

“In the past, I’ve said something like:“If you use the Content Finder, you can just treat most of the people you’re matched up with as though they were NPCs.” (Laughter) That’s not meant to encourage players to act out and be jerks, but rather to reinforce the notion that it’s OK to just form a party with people whom you’ve just met and to go out and have fun.”

I’m not sure I see the joke. Many have remarked on how dungeon finders have killed what little of the social aspect remains in MMOs, and while I’ve said nothing on the subject, I’ve certainly experienced my fair share. Again, here we have a successful dev backing something disagreeable.

Forming a PUG and heading out to accomplish a goal is not quite the same as a random dungeon queue. Even the act of forming that PUG calls for the ‘bare minimum of communication’ – the willingness to deal with other players as human beings. (Benefit of the doubt here.) Dungeon finders take even that away.

So, no. It’s not exactly funny to encourage fast-food content consumption, and then encourage people to treat fellow players as NPCs just because. Let’s do better.

“We considered starting the game out with a very simple UI, and adding options and settings to increase the information load as you progressed through the game, but we decided against it. If a player were to progress through the game without realizing that such options existed, then they could end up being the same level as another player who’s had a far more enriched and in-depth experience.”

Why would that be an issue? Aren’t UIs, or HUDs, or whatever we choose to call them, merely a game’s way of filtering down to us the information it’s crunching behind the scenes? ‘Enriched’ and ‘in-depth’ are a bit subjective here.

I once read an excellent piece on the evolution of RPGs (for the life of me, can’t remember where or who wrote it) which talked about how, in the tabletop days, GMs used to roll dice behind screens to hide outcomes from players – and now that computers are doing all the dice-rolling, it’s strange that we have to see every little calculation and bit of output.

Contains Moderate Peril’s Roger Edwards had something to say on this a while ago. To quote him, “if you’re not using a specific element of the HUD, then remove it and that goes for skills as well.” Amen! Let us decide how we want to play: Call of Cthulhu-style or EVE-style. After all, we all have different thresholds for ‘information load’.

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