Extending Dragon Quest IX

Dragon Quest IX header Extending Dragon Quest IX

The sentiment that Dragon Quest IX can be played for hundreds of hours is a popular one, so during my playthrough I paid close attention to how I used my time. As I expected there was no single activity that dominated my experience, but rather a combination of interlocking gameplay elements.

Dragon Quest IX character creation Extending Dragon Quest IX

Character customization isn't too robust, but most of the aesthetic changes come via equipable items.

Since DQ IX offers such a plethora of content, I have not seen all of its facets despite finishing the main quest. With that caveat in mind — which makes some of the below points conjecture — here are my notes on why it takes so long to play the game, and why people might actually want to spend so much time playing it:

Levels

— Although Dragon Quest IX has a bit of “grinding,” i.e., fighting monsters in order to gain experience and grow stronger, it’s not a must for forward progression. Players are initially rewarded with fast level-ups, but that slows down pretty quickly. In fact, in my playthrough it wasn’t uncommon to fight two bosses in a row (and the enemies leading up to them), without gaining a level.

An interesting side note about levels: characters gain experience relative to their level, with highest-level characters gaining the most experience. Although not a big issue, this means that it takes longer for lower-level characters to catch up with the rest of the party.

— Each character has a job, i.e., a class, and each job contains a series of linear ability-paths. Each of these paths can be upgraded with ability points, and these points are sporadically awarded when a character gains a level. Abilities are almost exclusively integrated into the combat system and represent new and unique battle options (complete with flashy effects).

However, maxing out a character’s level will not reward the player with enough ability points to purchase all of his or her potential abilities. As a result, the player can choose to “reset” a level 99 character back to level 1 while retaining all of the earned skills. This allows the player to collect more ability points, but forces each character to max out his or her level multiple times before mastering a single job.

— There are a total of 12 jobs in the game, and each character can take on any one of these professions. Characters that change jobs retain all of their abilities, but are forced to start off at level 1. This flexibility allows the player to thoroughly customize his party, but requires a tremendous amount of grinding.

Money

— Money is gained alongside experience as enemies are defeated, but it takes a long time to accumulate a significant amount of cash. By the time the player has gathered enough money to outfit his party, the characters have usually gained enough levels to easily overpower the area boss even without the new equipment.

Dragon Quest IX DQVC store Extending Dragon Quest IX

The online store is a new addition for the game's Western release.

It’s also worth noting that each character’s appearance is reflected by what he or she is wearing. This sort of aesthetic customization is important to many players, and DQ IX constantly facilitates it by displaying the entire party in both the combat and the exploration mode.

— Some stores offer precious alchemy ingredients that can be rather difficult to obtain in the wild. As a result, it’s often a good idea to purchase them despite their steep price.

Alchemy also relies on regular weapons, armour and accessories as base ingredients. Most of these can only be bought in stores, which further extends the amount of money needed in order to create new items.

— Nintendo’s virtual store is updated every week day with new items for purchase. These offerings are usually quite expensive, but many are unique to the store or simply hard to find in the game.

Since items can also be shared with other players, there’s an added incentive to indulge in pack-rat behaviour.

Sidequests

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DQIX makes sure you can see all your characters in the overworld...

— Sidequests are not a “cheap” way of extending a game as they typically require manually scripted events. DQ IX contains nearly 200 of these, many of which are of the “slay this monster” and “bring back this item” variety. These missions can be fairly time consuming, especially when they require the player to finish off a specific enemy with a specific ability. However, this approach does add a nice bit of variety to the combat and encourages the player to explore some of its deeper mechanics.

— The rewards for completing sidequests are rarely revealed ahead of time, but they often consist of items not readily available at the time the quest is offered. Some quests even unlock all new jobs, so the incentive to complete them as they are encountered is always there.

— The availability of quests is often based on such prerequisites as previously completed quests and grottos, character levels, and even the completion of the main game itself. This results in new quests often popping up in old areas, encouraging the player to revisit old locations. The limit of 10 active quests accentuates this even further as completing all quests as they are offered is not always possible.

Alchemy

Dragon Quest IX battle Extending Dragon Quest IX

...and in the battles.

— Combining various ingredients into new items is the only way to obtain certain types of items. These are also tied into combat proficiency and character aesthetic, giving the player two strong incentives to “alchemize” as often as possible.

Unique alchemy recipes are found in each new area, encouraging the player to explore every nook and cranny and return to the alchemy screen on a regular basis.

— Various ingredients can be found in the game world, providing something new to collect virtually every time the player wanders out of a town or a dungeon. The frequency at which these items respawn and their respawn quantity varies, but not on a static basis.

From what I understand, the scarcity of ingredients is game-dependent, encouraging players to visit each other’s worlds (where some ingredients might be more common than in their own) in a co-op multiplayer mode.

Dragon Quest IX alchemy Extending Dragon Quest IX

If you want some of the rarer items, you'll be returning here throughout the game.

— Alchemy ingredients can also be obtained by defeating enemies or stealing from them, but this doesn’t happen all that often. However, since stealing from enemies is the only way to get certain types of ingredients, this is a must for completing one’s alchemy list.

— Some forged items cannot be used or equipped as they simply serve as unique ingredient for other alchemy recipes. This often creates a long string of alchemizations that require a large amount of rare materials in order to obtain some of the more powerful items.

Grottos

— Grottos are randomly generated dungeons that are completely optional but a large draw of the game. Each dungeon contains a handful of floors based on one of the core tile sets and a specific boss. These bosses are not found anywhere else, and can often be much more powerful than the final boss of the actual game.

Since grottos don’t actually contain that many treasure chests, the unique bosses (often taken from previous Dragon Quest titles) are a big incentive for exploring them.

— Grottos are not readily accessible and must be manually located by the player. Equipping a grotto map replaces the minimap with a small sub-section of the area where the grotto is located. This location is not highlighted in any way, and is only hinted at when the player walks close to it. Whenever this happens, an exclamation point appears over the protagonist’s head allowing the player to “investigate” the area and reveal a secret entrance.

Dragon Quest IX grotto map Extending Dragon Quest IX

X marks the spot, but the X can be pretty difficult to find.

Since the minimaps are not that detailed and the grotto maps represent a zoomed-in view, they can be quite difficult to discover even with the aid of online resources.

— Defeating the boss of a single grotto automatically rewards the player with a map to a new one. Bosses can also be fought multiple times, and each one has a small chance of dropping a fairly good item once defeated. This is not always a huge incentive, but it encourages the player to occasionally revisit a completed grotto.

— Once the boss of a grotto is defeated, its map can be shared with other DQ IX players. This asynchronous connectivity has proven quite popular in Japan (and occasionally in the West), especially with the maps that facilitate quick grinding.

Overall a large part of DQ IX could have been shorter and more user friendly, but the game does a good job of providing the player with incentives. In the short term, new items and abilities are always just around the corner. In the long term, full customization and numerous achievements provide extended meta-goals. All these elements are also strongly interconnected, and since there are so many of them, the player is always guaranteed a steady stream of rewards.

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GameFan Journalism

gamefan header GameFan Journalism

As the games-journalism debate of consumer evaluations vs. artistic critiques continues, it’s almost refreshing to look back on the sordid history of GameFan Magazine.

DieHard GameFan Magazine was an unabashedly fanboy-ish publication that spawned in the backroom of a videogame store. It started off as a catalogue promoting Western and import titles, but quickly grew to a widely syndicated magazine that competed with the likes of EGM and GamePro. It was filled with hyperboles, factual errors and made-up rumours, but it also had lovingly arranged layouts, superior print quality and a contagious enthusiasm for the medium.

I fondly recall pouring over GameFan’s spreads of popular games like Earthworm Jim and Street Fighter Alpha, and lesser known titles — which I didn’t hear much about in other publications but was pleased to discover — such as Dark Savior and Lucienne’s Quest. Like many young videogame enthusiasts, I eagerly awaited the treasure trove of text and colour that came with each issue, but I was oblivious to the magazine’s crazy behind-the-scenes antics:

gamefan final fantasy tactics GameFan Journalism

The layouts of GameFan Magazine were fantastic, often incorporating a title's concept art and overall visual style.

It’s hard to defend GameFan after reading the above, and the magazine itself was as far from real journalism as videogame publications got, but for many it was also a labour of love. As such, it still stands heads and shoulders above all the other fanzines, and its tumultuous history is rich enough to fill a book.

If it ever does, I’d sure like to read it.

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Localizing Exclamations

Final Fantasy XIII header Localizing Exclamations

“Gnhhh!”

“Whhhhaaaah!”

“Bah….ah….gahhhhhh…”

“Hmmmf!”

“Ehiehhh…”

“Mhaemm!”

These grunts, sighs, squeals and miscellaneous other vocalizations compose roughly 1/4 of the dialogues in the early hours of Final Fantasy XIII.

One one hand, they’re to be expected. Japan is known for its plethora of exclamations and onomatopoeiae. On the other — at least when translated literally — they make for a poor localization.

These sounds are often louder and longer than their English counterparts, or they simply have no equivalents. As such, they’re difficult to remove or replace and are usually left untouched. They’ve even become something of an accepted “quirk” among the more dedicated fans of Japanese media, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be handled in a more global-friendly fashion.

FFXIII Oerba Dia Vanille 16 9 by Quick Stop Localizing Exclamations

I think the localization team for FFXIII wanted to give Vanille a unique voice — much like the Björk-esque Fran in FFXII — but the voice actress’ performance is a bit of a mess.

As things stand, vocalizations often come across as alien and awkward. They break the flow of conversation and the suspension of disbelief, and can leave a new audience feeling put off.

Sure, one can always argue for the purity and cultural authenticity of any given product, but that’s being a bit of a stick in the mud. Literal translations lack context and social nuances, and those fully familiar with them might as well experience the original versions. In order to make the products more palatable to a different audience, some things need to change. FF XIII in particular is a title Square Enix wanted to be a global blockbuster, not just a Japanese game released to a niche audience outside of its home country, so it stands to reason that they’d want to iron out these kinks.

So how can this be done?

A couple of points:

  • If possible, simply remove the exclamations altogether. The ones that could easily be cut are left in to keep things consistent, but getting rid of them shouldn’t be an insurmountable issue.
  • Use local equivalents of the vocalizations if available. For example, make a character surprised by a hand on his shoulder utter a short “Huh?” instead of the original, “Mwwwnnhaaa?”
  • Use actual words or sentences for sounds that have no local counterparts. A character crying out “Gwahhhhhhhhhhhh!” for three seconds after witnessing a car crash could easily be replaced with a quick “Oh my god!”
  • Meld the exclamations into the speech itself. I’m not an expert, but I noticed many of the vocalizations were isolated within the dialogue, whereas in English they’d part of it, e.g., “Mmmm, I don’t know about thaaaaaaaat.”
  • Finally, keep these points in mind when developing the game, and provide the team(s) with the tools necessary to port it. Automated lip-synching is already widely used, but I’m sure other functionality or just the permission to alter the in-game cutscenes would be appreciated.

Of course there are more issues to consider as well — perhaps toning down on the dramatic, clenched-fist poses with characters uttering such phrases as “I’ll do my best!” — but those are a whole other topic…

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Design Roundup #4

articlesheader Design Roundup #4

  • The Psychology of Randomness – People tend to be terrible at accepting randomness for what it is, and it’s a very important trait to accommodate for in game design.
  • Testosterone and Competitive Play – Danc’s essay on playing against friends, playing against strangers, the perception of luck and skill, and pro-social/pro-dominance tendencies.
  • Groundhog Day and Video Games – Groundhog Day is a fantastic movie with a surprisingly wide-spread appeal, and I always thought its concepts were perfect for a videogame.

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Nelson Tethers – Puzzle Agent Bits

Nelson Tether Puzzle Agent1 Nelson Tethers – Puzzle Agent Bits

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent cribs quite liberally from Professor Layton, and relies heavily on its art style, but it’s still my favourite of Telltale’s episodic games to date.

The bits:

— Obviously the most noticeable thing about Puzzle Agent is its offbeat, crayon-drawn art style. What’s interesting here is that the game relies on stop-motion like animations reminiscent of old, low-budget cartoons. The effect is actually quite good and and the choppy movements are consistently utilized even when smooth animations could have easily replaced them  (e.g., a snowmobile driving in a straight line).

The system made me wonder if other art styles not conducive to animation could successfully adopt a similar approach.

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Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent is quite a cinematic game that uses lots of different framing techniques for both its interactive and non-interactive sequences.

— Aside from the visual style itself, PA is a very atmospheric title in the vein of the old LucasArts adventure games. The characters are bizarre and expressive, the Fargo-esque setting is unique (at least for a videogame), and the great music and voice acting enrich the overall experience.

— PA was clearly designed with the iPhone/iPad in mind. The player never walks his avatar around the screen, and clicking most places sends out a helper-shockwave. As this shockwave expands, it highlights any points of interest that can be clicked on to initiate conversations, puzzles, scene transitions, etc.

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These icons briefly pop-up whenever the player clicks on any close-by, non-interactive areas.

— The actual puzzles in PA are a bit of a letdown. This is due to two main reasons: lack of instructions, and the inability to jot down notes in-game.

A lot of the puzzles are quite obtuse, sometimes to the point where a hint needs to be purchased just to figure out what the game wants the player to do. Unfortunately this seems like a concession to the game’s hint system (all puzzles must contain 3 individual hints) as some cases actually contains an additional screen that explains the controls and the goals of the minigame.

The secondary complaint deals with the nature of the puzzles themselves. Many of them are common math/logic problems that are meant to be solved in a series of steps. However, the player is often forced to visualize and work through them without any in-game aids. This artificially inflates their difficulty, especially when compared to the visual jigsaw puzzles.

These points certainly don’t ruin the game, but do I hope the various minigames are improved in future episodes.

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Unfortunately most of the other puzzles are not described in nearly as much detail.

- Many puzzles are completely optional and make exploring the world feel more like a non-linear, interactive experience.

- The actual hint system is quite clever. The game starts off with the protagonist trying to solve a crossword, and, having some problems with it, eventually reaching over for some gum to help him concentrate. As we soon learn, the town he visits is experiencing a gum shortage. This forces the player to pick up old, discarded pieces of gum to aid Agent Tethers in his puzzle solving endeavours. Yes, it’s quite gross, but perfectly fits the mood of the game and gives the designers a great excuse to sprinkle virtually all parts of the environment with a useful collectible.

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Agent Tethers comes face-to-face with Mike “The Lobster” Lobb.

Old gum also seems to be a reusable resource, reappearing in new spots as the Agent Tethers travels around town. This provides the player with an unlimited source of hints and prevents him from getting stuck on any one puzzle.

- As a nice little touch, the time of day on the title screen changes up periodically while the camera slowly scrolls around the Scoggins eraser factory.

- The UI of the game is very flashy but intuitive, with lots of animating widgets composed of labels and icons. The unskipable puzzle submission is a tad long, but the overall interface is a joy to use (especially when compared to many other adventure games).

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My favourite scene with the creepy gnomes had one of them invade my puzzle in the middle of me trying to solve it! The sequence worked very well since the puzzles (at least up to that point) were a separate, uninterruptible segment only exposed to the player.

- Agent Tethers uses a tape recorder throughout the game to narrate his experiences. This provides extra personality and context while clearly outlining what must be done going forward.

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