“The Feel of American Games” – Sakurai’s Famitsu Column Vol 84.85

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Originally published in Famitsu, Vol. 84.85, 24 December 2004


“If you can make the player believe they’re in an awesome place —“ – A staff member at Bungie, the developer of Halo 2.

In the middle of November, both Halo 2 and Half-Life 2 launched! For fans of FPS games, this is like getting to drink fine wine on New Year’s or during Golden Week. Needless to say, it’s a big deal.

I’m not one to follow these types of games particularly close but even I’ve been looking forward to Half-Life 2’s launch. This is the kind of game you upgrade your computer and graphics card for so you can really take in the visuals and environments. It’s that good.

I was especially impressed when I started playing Half-Life 2. My jaw hit the floor. I couldn’t look away from my monitor, it looked so good, and it’s great how they implemented the physics system. ‘Was this the next generation of gaming?’ I thought to myself. I couldn’t believe we were going to be getting this high a level of games in the future.

If you play both Halo 2 and Half-Life 2, you might think the concepts are pretty similar but these aren’t just run-of-the-mill FPS games.

If I had to describe these games in a sentence, I’d say a lot of effort was put into taking the player and putting them into an alternate/simulated reality. It actually reminded me a lot of Star Tours. I know they’re two completely different things but the way they draw you in and the intentions of the creators are similar.

In Half-Life 2, the game doesn’t actually enter into cutscenes. The story progression take place as you’re playing so players are free to walk around and do as they please when events are occurring or characters are talking. On the other hand, Halo 2 does have movie-like sequences so it’s a little more loose than Half-Life 2 in that sense but a lot of the drama does unfold in real-time while the player is still in control of the character. After a battle, can I count on my allies above to provide some cover and supplies? There’s drama, a virtual world, and progression. It’s like the holy trinity of games coming together.

In these two games, the player can turn their back on a scene that’s unfolding and miss what’s going on. The player is the one deciding what it is they’re going to be looking at. This inconvenience and degree of freedom go a long way in adding a sense of reality to the world.

These games also have AI partners that attack, defend, and even converse. It adds a sense of realism that’s almost unbelievable when they take cover and group up to respond to what is happening on the battlefield.

…What have I been going on about up to this point? From here on out I’m going to talk about the prevailing viewpoint… Or maybe it will just be my opinion. I know that not all foreign gamers are going to necessarily fit this description but please allow me to provide a quick little synopsis of American games.

Halo 2 and Half-Life 2 were developed in foreign countries. Perhaps foreign gamers simply like to play in realistic environments but I feel like there is something else to it. I think that American gamers have a stronger feeling that they themselves are the character in the game that Japanese gamers don’t feel as strongly.

Both of these games are FPS titles which have become very popular lately. I don’t think they necessarily rose to popularity because people simply like the genre or because the United States is a gun society, but rather because FPS is a genre that lends itself to really feeling like the character in the game.

An example that comes to mind is hearing a female gamer from overseas say that she thought it was awesome that she was able to become Dante when playing Devil May Cry. Overseas developers also spend a lot of time talking about how their games are immersive and feel realistic. Even for games that are in the same genre, if one uses cel-shading and the other doesn’t, the one that feels more realistic will probably be better received. This might also be a factor for why Final Fantasy games have taken on a more movie-like feel.

I think the feeling of actually being in the game world has become very important. It might be fitting to describe it as a Hollywood movie you can play. When looking at games in the west, that seems like a fitting description.

There’s been buzz of people saying Japan is sick of 3D games or aren’t concerned about more realism and increased hardware capabilities but it’s been being embraced more as the technology to create more detailed 3D worlds has progressed. Just like how Hollywood movie production levels increase, overseas game developers don’t grow tired of the challenge to push the technology forward. Whether it’s for making games or just for fun, I think the difference is incredibly interesting.

Even though we are all human, do our differing cultures and races create a gap in what we consider fun? I don’t think so. Games like Tetris, Street Fighter II, and possibly even Super Smash Bros. are well received and enjoyed all over the world. As far as I can tell, there isn’t really a difference between the United States and Japan when it comes to enjoying things like speedrunning and mastering advanced techniques either. It might be a slightly different story if these games were more story driven though.

A long time ago, the simple characters of the Famicom days were presented differently to western and Japanese audiences so there are some interesting differences between the packaging for the same games. That isn’t really the case so much anymore.

Pokemon has also become a series that is enjoyed around the world. I think it’s a good example of how, as children, we don’t really hold different values and all enjoy the same things but as we get older, we’re shaped by our cultures and our tastes may change.

In other words, as we get older our values and tastes become more defined and specialized so when thinking about products as a whole it’s important to consider target audiences.


Looking Back

Sakurai: I think games that feel like Hollywood movies are already becoming the most popular game genre. It’s definitely the direction things have been heading lately with adding realism and making the player feel like they’re the character in the game.

Interviewer: In Half-Life 2 you can walk around while characters are talking but that feels a little bit unfriendly to me.

Sakurai: Yeah, it’s generally good manners to stop and listen when someone is talking to you but there are people who like the freedom to do what they want when they want and I think not limiting that freedom is awesome.

Interviewer: That degree of freedom seems to be especially important in American games, don’t you think?

Sakurai: I think 3D games give American gamers a more immersive feeling. Japanese games are more of a fusion of 2D and 3D, or rather the visuals are 3D but paired with 2D game elements. I feel like there are a lot of those types of games. I don’t think that’s necessarily good or bad though. There is a gap between the, ‘I’m truly in the game world so this is natural,’ and the, ‘a game is a collection of systems,’ ways of thinking. This gap is changing the way we think about what makes a game feel like a game.

Interviewer: So you’re saying western games have a particular feel. You were looking forward to Half-Life 2 before it launched, right?

Sakurai: I was. I don’t think it has the Hollywood movie feeling though. I feel like it has more of a Nintendo vibe.

Interviewer: Nintendo vibe?

Sakurai: Well… I think it’s hard to understand unless you know the feeling. Here’s an example. In a game like The Legend of Zelda, there may be a part where you can’t continue without shooting the bow. If you don’t clear that part then you can’t continue so there is a feeling of completeness. In Half-Life 2 you could shoot to progress and have an easier time but if you’re persistent enough, you have the freedom to progress without shooting as well. It can be hard to notice but mechanics are mechanics.

Interviewer: So it’s like it was designed in a way that doesn’t stop the player from progress in the manner they want to.

Sakurai: I think my approach is closer to the latter example. In the Kirby series, Kirby has the copy ability and the player can choose which ability they use to overcome obstacles. It kind of makes the game look like it wasn’t carefully put together though doesn’t it?

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