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The 3kg Bag of Conchiglie

ConchiglieDynasty Warriors is like a 3kg bag of conchiglie. The logic behind this simile is simple.

Yesterday, my wife and I finished a 3 kg bag of pasta shells. That's nearly 7 pounds of dried pasta. We've had it for four years. It is, I'm quite sure, the largest bag of comestibles we've ever worked our way through. Now it must be said, we've eaten other pastas in the past four years - we've had lasagne, and tagliatelle, and penne and macaroni and even spirelli - but the 3 kg bag of conchiglie has always been there.

Yesterday, my wife and I started another chapter in our long love affair with the Dynasty Warriors franchise. We started playing the add on pack for Dynasty Warriors 3 (painfully dubbed Xtreme Legends). We've not wholly completed Dynasty Warriors 3 yet, but we've been playing it for about 70 hours, over two or three years, and had about 20 hours left. The add on provides an additional 20 hours play, roughly, but re-energises the play (slightly) with some new items to find.

A 3kg bag of pasta works because you don't eat pasta for every meal. It's okay to have a bag of dried food last 4 years when you are in control of when and how you choose to eat it.

The 100 hours of play in the Dynasty Warriors games works because you don't play Dynasty Warriors every day. A full game mode takes 3-4 hours. You can insert this between any other game you are playing, and achieve a satisfying closure at the end of it. (You need to like the core play of the game, of course - and to really enjoy the game, you need to be familiar with the history of the Three Kingdoms so that, a priori, each of the dozens of characters mean something to you).

For my wife and I, and doubtless many other working adults, a 100 hour cRPG is like being made to eat pasta every meal of every day for a month. You can't dip into it when you want to, like a Musou mode in Dynasty Warriors (which is never going to be more than a 4 hour commitment) - it requires you to constantly and consistently plug at it day in, day out. This is great, if you have plenty of time on your hands. Not so great for working into your every day life.

Guan_yu_2The structure of Dynasty Warriors (4th edition not withstanding), or Shin Sangoku Musou - "Dream of the Three Kingdoms" - is brilliantly realised. Not only does the player get plenty of choice as to the identity and abilities  of their avatar (several dozen are included in each version), they get complete games in a space of 4 hours or less, but with an overall play window stretching out over years for the dedicated player. I believe this has contributed significantly to the success of the franchise - although as already noted, it exports poorly to the West. In China, Japan and the surrounding region, the exploits of heroes such as Guan Yu, Lu Bu and Kongming are as or more famous than the tales of Arthur and his knights are here. (A statue of Guan Yu can be found outside of every police station in Hong Kong, for instance - these are, in the truest sense, legendary figures from history).

The genius of the Dynasty Warriors structure is in efficient reuse of resources. Nothing is wasted; everything is reused repeatedly. And if, like my wife and I, you enjoy the core gameplay, the result is a game that stays in circulation for a very long time indeed,  despite having a fraction of the budget of other games with long play windows. (GTA San Andreas probably has 5 times Koei's budget, for instance - possibly more).

It has been suggested that the monolithic potboiler structure of cRPGs is part of their appeal to key elements of their audience (the audience wants to sink themselves into something huge), and I'm prepared to believe this is so. But is there not a place in the market for a cRPG which you can complete in 4 hours  - but return to a dozen times to get a slightly different story? Would this not have been a good structure to use with the Lord of the Rings licenses? It's a shame we'll never get to make Gods & Monsters, our Greek mythology "buddy movie" battle game - although who in the Western gaming audience really knows who Atalanta, Telamon or Peleus are?

Too many games have the structure of a three inch thick novel, not enough have the structure of a 3kg bag of conchiglie.

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I don't think I'd classify this as an RPG, but more of a simple Gauntlet style action/masher (although what is an RPG, really? This game obviously features playing a role in a game, but I digress...)

I might also note that not even 4 hours is really neccessary - a single battle is only about 20-45 minutes at the most. It certainly has a good pick up/play capability, and a bevy of characters to max out and unlockable equipment for the hardcore.

I think that DW is simultaneously playing to both a very large and very narrow audience - it's narrow in that not many people have the great patience for the simple repetition of this style of game, since it sadly doesn't offer much room for strategy or playskill. However, it is wide in that for those with the taste for this style of game, it caters equally well to hardcore and casual players. In fact it often surprises me how many people have played this game, which I always thought was a very small cult title - I played the game and read the Moss Roberts translation of the book, so I was inclined to think that not many other people would have played it at all, since the subject matter is rather foreign. However, I am continually surprised by how many of my classmates in the game design department have played one or more entries in this franchise. I suppose regardless of how exotic the charcters are, the simple dungeon-crawler style mechancics transcend borders ;)

"The genius of the Dynasty Warriors structure is in efficient reuse of resources. Nothing is wasted; everything is reused repeatedly."

While that may be fine from a business standpoint, it must be said that each entry in the series is progressively less interesting than the previous. Sure, this is like printing money (especially in Japan where it somehow scores 9 and 10s in Famitsu), but at a cost of no innovation, and on top of that, almost non-existant refinement. Perhaps that might be tolerable if the game required more from the player or was otherwise more engaging, this would be acceptable; however, with the mechanics as simple and rote as they are, it becomes much harder to justify to myself buying the next iteration. Then again, perhaps I should be thinking of the view from the casual player, where this may be an asset and not a liability as it is for me.

I love my monolithic cRPGs but as I get older, I can certainly appreciate the idea of the something replayable in small chunks. I'm not sure how easily marketable it would be - as a cRPG fan I want a monolithic cRPG even when I don't, if you know what I mean.

There are some RPG-related games that hover around the edges of this idea... Restricted Area has four intertwined 10-hour campaigns. You play the same campaign from the perspective of 4 different characters whose stories intersect. Dungeon Delvers from CrossCut is a card/boardgame/RPG inspired by Talisman that is designed for short play (not really a cRPG, though).

Mount&Blade isn't really what you are describing but the battles last 10-15 mins so you can fire it up and play a couple of battles in hour an hour - I loved that aspect (brilliant indie project if you haven't played it).

I think there's great potential for this but it needs enough replayability (obviously) and enough of a hook to get players used to "epic" campaigns to take a look.

James:

You'll notice that at no point do I say that Dynasty Warriors should be considered an RPG... :) I could have made this clearer. I was comparing structure independent of genre. No confident genre term has emerged for the DW games, although Koei's "Battlefield Action" might suffice.

"...since it sadly doesn't offer much room for strategy or playskill."

I hate to say it, but perhaps you're not doing it right! :) This is the first real-time console game I played which actually *does* offer some strategy. If you lose a battle, you can assess in the replay why you lost, and you can make a strategic decision to ensure that it doesn't happen again. (Once you know the warriors well enough, you can even do this a priori). The battles are impressively sensitive to player action; the only trouble is that you only get to analyse each battle once - a successful strategy is always successful. Although, it must be said, since different characters begin at different places, this can have a significant effect on the outcomes. What the games don't offer, however, is anything at all in the way of tactics. :)

As for playskill, there is at least as much playskill as a common or garden fighting game. In fact, this is the only fighting system I've ever been inclined to master. I like the fact that the controls are systematic, and not arcane. I do admit that some characters lack subtlety in how they should be played - but this variety is part of the appeal.

"...but at a cost of no innovation, and on top of that, almost non-existant refinement. "

Of course, this is a franchise we're talking about. The first game (Dynasty Warriors 2) was incredibly innovative. There should be no burden on the franchise to innovate beyond this, in my opinion. Koei do not have the deep pockets to afford to take the risk. Almost non-existant refinement? Well 3 refines 2 perfectly. 4 sounds like a mis-step - I'll see what I think about 5 when we get there. :)

One thing reviewers overlook is that this is a historically based game. They have limits to what they can do - they can't create battles that didn't exist. It's a serious brake on innovation. Not a point you raised, but I thought I'd mention it. :)

I think the trouble is that this game doesn't push the right buttons for you - you consistently want strategic and tactical play. This is a game of agon-mimicry with a peppering of strategy (but, in terms of what I want from strategy, a welcome element!).

The review scores in the West are dropping - your views represent the views of game reviewers - but it remains popular where the mimicry appeal is strongest - you have to actively *want* to play Guan Yu et al to really enjoy this game.

Dhruin:

I think you've hit the nail on the head: there will have to be sufficient replayability to make it work. But this is soluble. We've experimented with narrative engines for producing dynamic stories. We have some solutions - but they're all too expensive to implement. :) (We could do it for a AAA project, but I've lost interest in the upper market).

I'll check out Mount & Blade - games with very short play times are of particular interest to me. Thanks for mentioning it!

I would have included links but I'm not sure how to do elegant ones on these blog sites (I guess I fail at the internet ;) ).

http://www.taleworlds.com/

I really should clarify that the game is sort of like Pirates! in a semi-historical medieval setting - so it's not focussed around short gameplay but it just so happens that the main battles are fairly short, so you can save and come back later.

Best horse-mounted action combat I've ever seen, once you get into it.

Sorry to wander semi off-topic.

Since I steadfastly refuse to stay on topic most of the time, I don't see why my 'guests' shouldn't feel free to do the same. :)

I'm afraid of this download now - what's the total play time of the game? I was more enthusiastic when I thought I was getting a game I could complete in 15 minutes. :)

Ah, then I have completely mislead you. :) I've probably played a good 20 hours - it's open-ended like Pirates! I guess I was just expressing appreciation (clumsily) for games that can feel satisfying in short play sessions.

I do wish I could play games like this in this way - but sadly, they tend to get their claws into me and then I won't let go until my wife forces me to stop. :) I'll try and persuade someone I know to play the game so I can at least get it demo'ed to me. Thanks again!

Wowzer,

For just one second, I read the last paragraph and thought you'd come up with a game based around an aging gay film director with a crush on his gardener.

And I thought 'What an AMAZING idea for a game'.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120684/

And then I realised I had it very very wrong.

Well, Kim, you fund it and I'll design it! :) What ever happened to our putative 'Pride and Prejudice' game? I'm still keen!

"I hate to say it, but perhaps you're not doing it right! :) This is the first real-time console game I played which actually *does* offer some strategy. "

Well I will confess that it offers more strategy then, say, Streets of Rage. I suppose in terms of other beat-em-ups, it is comparitively rich in strategy. However, the strategies are still quite simple - run around and hunt down other generals, occasionally take part in submissions. You go from point a to point b, but are rarely asked to actually devise your own strategy.

"As for playskill, there is at least as much playskill as a common or garden fighting game."

If you're comparing it to something like Street Fighter, I'm going to have to say you are just wrong here. You have a grand total of two buttons and something like 7 attack patterns. It is clearly obvious in the game that only 2 or 3 of those attack chains are efficient and worth using. A block will stop any attack, and there is no guard crush from overblocking. There's no high/low game, there's no crossups, there's no throwing. The game can easily be bested by repeated hitting nothing but Square-square-square-triangle. It is fun, but the game is very shallow in terms of mechanics (like basically all beat-em-ups), and while it can be simple fun, it does not offer very deep or rich gameplay.

" I like the fact that the controls are systematic, and not arcane. "

Games demanding in playskill will typically require more arcane or complex interfacing. While Go has seemingly simple rules on the surface, the actual implementation of the rules and the deep emergent strategies required to win the game are anything but simple.

" Almost non-existant refinement? Well 3 refines 2 perfectly. 4 sounds like a mis-step - I'll see what I think about 5 when we get there."

What I mean is that there is barely any simple play invention seen from one year to another. Each year shares more versimilitude with the last than in the Madden games. I'm not saying the franchise neccessarily needs to go out on a limb and change drastically, but I'd like to see at least one new feature or play mode or something to keep it fresh.

Interestingly, that seems to happen most in the "Xtreme Legends" add-on discs. 3XL added campaigns for characters that previously did not have campaign modes; 4XL had a nonlinear mission mode that offered surprising challenge and resource managemnet, and there was the Empires side-game that added a very interesting, if not evenly-executed turn-based strategy game mode.

I can understand the mimicry selling point, as that has allowed many below-par WW2 games do financially well in the West. And certainly, some of Koeis R3K games have been truly interesting (read: Dynasty Tactics), but I feel Dynasty Warriors could become vastly more interesting if the game was designed to allow for greater room for mastery - as it stands, the entire game system can be grokked in thirty seconds and offers little in the ways of learning opportunities (regarding gameplay as per Koster's book) as the game progresses.

It's like we're playing completely different games, James. :)

Perhaps because you are into your pure fighting games, it registers very differently for you. Certainly it is a 'fighting game lite' in terms of its fighting mechanics, but there is plenty of subtlety to it - more than I can master in some five years of playing the games. Mind you, it took me a week or so just to learn to execute the basic combos. Then again, I never was much good at fighting games. :)

All I can really say is that the gameplay works perfectly for my wife and myself, and we both play at very different skill levels, so there must be *some* playskill involved. Perhaps you are just too ludicrously overskilled to enjoy it, having spent years in the 'big leagues' of more complicated fighting games? :)

What would be most interesting would be if we could sit down with the game together - I think it would be illuminating for both of us to see how the same game can produce such radically different play experiences.

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