Whose idea was this, anyway?

First off, I've just gotta say that I made a big honking mistake choosing to take two days off. You see, I took time off to deal with my exams. One day was for writing the first batch, and recovering from those. The second day was for studying for the last exam. The third day, today, consisted of me writing my last exam, then frolicking about like a leprechaun in a cocaine processing factory, and downing all the cheap liquor I could get my greedy little hands on. If I'd taken this third day off, too, I'd have been able to spent time with the cross-dressing go-go dancer who claimed to be Ed Begley Jr.'s cousin.

Here ends the unsettling peek into my odd little life.

Anyhow, a big thanks to AV for filling in for me. He certainly dealt with some... controversial material, and most of the letters today reflect that. Let the rant-fearful among you beware, because it's long letter time here at Double Agent. But first, a word from a special someone...

Love letters

Alan, you are the sexiest person on this planet! Your gamingskills drive me wild, and my heart pounds every time I look at your long,sensual column. My bosom heaves in anticipation every day as I wait withbated breath for your column to appear on my screen. It gives me a warm,tingly feeling all over. Will you father my child?

- CandyXXX

Candy, I'd like to do more than father your child. I'd like to do things with you that can't be described in mixed company. I will find uses for egg whites, lip baum, goggles and V8 clamato juice that normal people only dream about. I- er, um, eh...

Just move along. Pass on through. Nothing to see here.

Building wars

I don't think that AV gave Desmond Gaban's arguments nearly enoughconsideration, it seemed that he categorized things as "whining" withouttrying to explore the dichotomy Desmond observing between a personhating battles and loving RPGs. His use of statistics was basically aeuphemism for "most" or "more", and to single that out for a subjectline and response is to totally and completely ignore the discussedpoint.

AV's other central point revolved around battles becoming an arbitrarynuisance in a game, but he doesn't allow for one basic fundamental: whatif the battles are fun? My best friend and I have spent many an hourplaying FF1 on two TVs, each killing numerous Zombulls on that tinypeninsula NE of Provoka, far before we should be allowed to fight them.Dammit if those battles weren't good ol' FUN. It seems the philosophyof immersion no longer is allowed to include the questing and fightingaspect of RPGs, just the story.

Desmond was trying to say that today's RPG "fans" are more shallow intheir tastes, and I find little to prove otherwise. Remember the pollthat Square conducted about what facet of a game is most important?Remember the shocking victories of graphics, nearly across the board?The pool of RPG playing gamers has expanded, so those who cared aboutold school gameplay are inherently a smaller portion thereof.

AV stated that he was "a busy person". Well, no one is forcing him toplay games, especially time consuming RPGs. It took me weeks to finishXenogears because of classes and a speech writing job, but I didn'tblame the game for taking so long, even if it was 90% story (oh no, astat...). Xenogears may have had the greatest story I've ever seen in agame, but I could go over it and slice into any number of clichÚs if Ichose. However, categorizing things so broadly would be to skew thefundamental idea. Well executed clichÚs can be as fulfilling as anyoriginal idea, assuming any truly original ideas still exist.

Desmond was essentially arguing for balance, challenges that would meritlevel building and challenges to be had by not doing so. Battles are anintegral part of most RPGs, and if they become tedious, it isn't becausethere are too many so much as they aren't varied or fun enough tosupport their numbers. It isn't the concept, but the executionthereof. If I were to find reading a certain novel tedious, then Ishouldn't swear off novels completely.

Instead of making challenge enjoyable and secrets plentiful, i.e. FFTor Tactics Ogre, games are increasingly eliminating challengecompletely. That is the change that I (and I believe Desmond as well)find so alarming.

- Ed McGlothlin

There's a lot to say on the level-building issue, so I'll toss in a few more cents. I am not a fan of excessive level-building any longer. I used to really enjoy it, but at this stage in the development game, it strikes me as a throwback and a route for lazy programming and game design. It does not add challenge to a game. A challenging scenario is one in which you are capable of accomplishing the task at hand if you have the proper tools for it. Most adventure games follow this scenario. In RPGs, level-building either stacks the deck in your favour, giving you an advantage over the static-level opponents in exchange for playing time spent not advancing in the game's goals, or else it's required level-building, needed to give your characters a basic chance of coping with the power levels you're about to hit head-on with. It's stacking the deck or it's forcing you to earn an even playing field. This isn't challenge. It's an optional way of making things easy, or barely possible.

I think there are better, and more inventive ways to make RPGs challenging than level-building. Look at Tactics Ogre. The enemy levels automatically move to equal that of your highest-level character. You can build skills, or class change for a combat advantage on a particular map, but you can't overwhelm by sheer accumulated power alone. Ys IV for PC Engine featured a system where enemy XP values halved for each level over the "optimal" one you were for that area. This forced you to keep pressing on in the game, and have tough fights against the bosses. All the fights were tough, but all were possible and all were fair. These are two examples of challenge in RPGs that actively discourage level-building. There's no reason all games can't and shouldn't live up to these standards. Challenge, not tedium or deck-stacking. Challenge.

I really think this discussion should start winding to a close now, so I'll tale one final letter, maybe a Deep Thought, and that'll be the end, unless I see something really compelling in tomorrow's letter batch, okay?

Still more level-building

Here's something that's rather strange, but true just the same. I *liked*leveling up back in Dragon Warrior I. I mean, I really loved it. I could goand sit there the whole day (not like I did, I beat the game on level 19) andfight Armored Scorpians and Wyverns and not get bored in the slightest. Eventoday, when I go back and play DW1, I still like leveling up.

That's not the strange part. The thing is, I simply can't stand leveling up inmost RPGs. Of recent RPGs, the only game where I didn't mind fighting forexperience was Breath of Fire III. In just about every other game (includingthe not-so-recent DW2 and DW3), I liked to rush through dungeons, gettingthrough the game quickly. Why is that? Is it just that DW1 and BoF3 are greatRPGs and nothing else is? No, since I absolutely adore Chrono Trigger (exceptfor the episodes in the future). Then again, CT doesn't have random battles. You needn't really level-up in the new FF games, but I couldn't care less forFFVII and FFVIII and FFIX and whatever comes next (they'll never match FFV,which I also avoided leveling up in). [Why the hell am I writing this?] Itjust seems that there are some games leveling-up in works well in, and otherswhere it doesn't. You can't simply say "Leveling-up is a technique developersuse to cover up flaws in the game." When I level up, it's not to beat thesystem, it's because the game is fun.


Some others wrote in to comment that they really enjoyed level-building, not because of how it impacted on gameplay at large, but because they just enjoyed it.

I suppose that satisfaction at working progressively towards a goal through long hours of work, or simply enjoying the combats themselves is something admirable. Not my cuppa, as my response to Ed made blazingly clear, but I'm glad that some people enjoy it. Good for you.

See, I'm not a total heartless, intractable bastard. Whatever I say, I always print the opposition's response, if at all possible.


What the hell was up with Andrew Vestal? Did he figure he could get away with subliminially calling Japan's hottest video game a piece of crap/insulting the intelligence of 12 million Japanese gamers? Games don't sell in that quantity because they're bad. Sure Crus'n USA was a platinum seller, but it only sold a mere 1 million copies (and there were market situations that are responsible for that) but Pokemon's sold a friggin 12 million copies worldwide. Pokemon's the hottest thing in Japan period. It's extremely popular in China, Malaysia, Korea, and other Asian countries, and they only have the Japanese version there! Before you accuse me of using sales data as the only indication of a game's quality, need I only point out that the majority of video game journalists have given Pokemon critical acclaim.

Stating his own opinion of the game is one thing, but to mock the game's quality as if his judgement of the game is the only judgement there can be, is pure arrogance.

I'm back for two minutes, and I'm already knee-deep in flamewars that someone else started. Yee-haw.

Okay, accepted, Pokemon has sold 12+ million copies worldwide, is a huge smash hit for Nintendo, and has received wide critical acclaim from just about everywhere.

On the other hand, I think you're overreacting just a tad. I mean, it was a cheap shot. Big whoop. Take a Valium - in an opinion forum like this, opinions are cheap as dirt, and not all of them come in essay format. We mock, we sneer, we bash, we snipe, we play all the reindeer games. Nature of the beast, my friend. Nature of the beast we call letter columns.

Mixed nuts

Okay, I asked these entirely senseful Questions of Andrew durring his short stay of double agent in your place, but he seemed to not want to answer them. I am the Sultan of Strange, and I will not be denied answers. Unless, that is, if you decide not to answer them. but Okay here they are:

1) We all know that many games in japan do not come over here because they either did poorly over there, they didn't think we would get their concept (cultural thing), orthey didnt think we would want them. But what about the ones we nearly beg for, like RPG maker (yes I know about verge), or the great games like Front mission, Front mission II, Front mission alternative,FF2,3, and 5. Instead they give us kings knight (nes) and final fantasy: mystic quest. (Okay, so these are all square games, not that theres any thing wrong wiht that, of course.) but you get the point. Why is this? and dont tell me its because of cost, and it just wouldnt be smart to bring them over, because if it were then we wouldnt have games like those afore mentioned or saga frontier, or breath of fire 3, and so on.

2) do you have Nobuo Uematsu's E-mail? yes or no would suffice, but I would still like to know what it is.

3) why is it that all bad jokes start off with " so three guys walk in to a bar"?

4)why is it that america cant dish out one good RPG? I mean other than the work that was done here on parasite eve, and the work that is being done on the movie (FF), and FFIX, but in whole I mean an american company?

5) Is it true that the FF movie is being origionally made in english, and so their lips move to the english language, seeing as how its going to be such a detailed movie. And that it will have to be, (of course, he yaha ha ha haaah ha ha)dare I say it, subtitled and\or dubbed just so most japanese people can understand it? If so, and so, HA HAHAHAHAH HAA AHH HA, SWEET REVENGE!!!!!!!?

John, S.o.S.

1. Games that a certain, albeit vocal portion of the consumer base are really hot for aren't neccessarily what sell. Companies port games that will sell and make them money, very simply. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I've played Tobal 2, I think it's a fine game, but the first game got trashed, saleswise, in the US, so I can't blame Square for not porting it. It's just good business sense. Good games don't always sell well, and bad games often do. There's a reason that Acclaim has lasted so long, despite producing some of the worst licensed games ever seen - name brand crap sells. So really, much as you or I would like to see game X ported over, in lieu of game Y, odds are that game Y will sell better, and that's the bottom line.

2. No.

3. Because "six midgets and a giant octopus walk into the holy light of Krishna" takes too long to say.

4. America has dished out many quality RPGs - the Ultima series springs to mind. Legacy of Kain for PSX was cool. Fallout 1 and 2 for the PC. In a different vein, Everquest and Ultima Online can be excellent, depending on where you stand. In console land, things are a little thinner. I guess we'll see if Shadow Madness can buck the trend, but really, how many US-made RPGs have there been on console systems anyway? It's not a big field, really.

5. Yes.

Still going...

Allan- Welcome back! Glad to see you again. (I'm assuming that you actuallywill be back, with no unforseen delays. If not, hi Andrew!)

Well, sadly, I'm one of those people who really hates being misquoted, like Iwas in Desmond Gaban's defense of level-building in yesterday's column. SinceI don't have his e-mail address, I'll have to try to set the record straighthere. The esteemed Mr. Gaban claims-

"What Toma Levine was implying, however, was that he didn't care about battlesat all, and that he just wants an RPG story."

That's a pretty loose definition of "implying." I trashed games that are onlybeatable with level-building. I never said anything about battles in general,and the word "story" never appeared in my letter. I have nothing againstbattles. They're the heart of the game, for Blarg's sake (to use a Thor-ism).But only if the player is actually going somewhere, not walking around incircles for the sole purpose of getting stronger. (I wholeheartedly agreewith AV's response to Desmond's letter, BTW. Couldn't have said it better.)I have no problem with people disagreeing with me, just as long as theydisagree with what I actually said.

Okay, enough about that. I've got something else I want to address. That's"hardcore" or "old-skewl" players, who think classic RPGs are much better thanthose of today. That's not the problem. The problem is that a small butvocal group of these gamers, rather than just stating what they have to say,feel the need to constantly try to uphold their superiority over fans of newerRPGs, who are (supposedly) all clueless new players who aren't interested inactually playing a game. I know that I, for one, would respect theseparticular "old-skewl" people's opinions much more if they'd remember thatthere are some perfectly intelligent people who have been playing for awhile,and enjoy the newer games. Not all of us enjoy being lumped into a broadstereotype.

-Toma Levine, KefkaB@aol.com [email address included by author's request]

Toma speaks for himself. I'm sure he's going to see some... passionate responses to this letter, but I figured it was important to let him speak his mind, and set the record straight.

Looking into things

Wow! I didn't know AK was so cool! I was wandering around when I found "Andy Kauffman", right up there with Santa Clause and Elvis, as a wanted propriater of The Warehouse (currently at unclebear.com). Andy Worhal and Jimmy Hoffa are also on the list. I must say that my respect for AK has never been this high.

- Mikmok

PS: Jimmy Hoffa! Wow!

Our AK is quite a little number, ain't he? He once told me that he has Stalin's ashes hidden in his sock, and I believe him, man, I believe him.

Closing comments

What a weird column. Weird weird weird. That's all I've got to say. See you tomorrow.

- The Double Agent

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