Welcome back to Level Grinding, RPGamer's monthly news industry editorial column. For those readers new to this column, each month we cynically dissect the video game news stories I find most interesting and try to expand on their implications and industry relevance. It's June, and I'm happy to say that we'll be discussing some good news along with the not so great stuff. I can't wait.
In terms of personal updates, I've been busy replaying Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, and Chrono Cross. Because, as we all know, the best way to play JRPGs with similar thematic concepts is to do it all at once. That was sarcasm. Really though, with a lull of new releases now is a good time to revisit old games and remind yourself why you love them.
Usually I start Level Grinding by plugging some interesting new videos I've seen as of late. This month, however, I'm going to do some shameless self-promoting and share a new YouTube channel that I have some involvement with:
Date Night Gaming is a Let's Play Channel I share with my girlfriend, Kelsey. Every other week we play a different game and hopefully entertain. We don't use advertisements and will never ask you to support a Patreon or Subbable account; all we want is to have fun together and hopefully get to know you guys better. Check it out if you're so inclined.
I have played and enjoyed every entry in the Gears of War franchise. I even read a few of the books, just to get a better idea of the game's context. I suppose, I would have to call myself a fan of the franchise. And that is an interesting statement considering my reaction to the E3 Gears 4 announcement: I was not at all impressed. In fact, the only word that came to mind while watching the short play-through was "fatigue." Oh, and "darkness" (I think Microsoft needs to turn the gamma up on their E3 projectors).
I'm tired of Gears. Back in 2006, the giant men and grey visual filtering of Gears of War seemed pretty fresh. At the time, cover-based shooting wasn't so common place and few games in the market were providing such a cinematic approach to shooters as Epic. In fact, I would still suggest that the first three games in the series are absolutely still worth playing — they each have their own character, offer a fair amount of enjoyment, and the challenge is definitely there if you're up for it. A shame though that the series has gone the route of Halo; rehashing the same tired concepts with all the gusto of a forty-year-old stripper who doesn't have to pay rent for another few weeks.
In short, Gears of War 4 appears to be uninspired. The Coalition, previously known as Black Tusk Studios, seems to have no real incentive to innovate or evolve the experience to something new or better. After all, why change the pig chum if everyone's still eating out of the troughs? The only good thing I can say about the vertical slice we saw was that it featured new characters (one of whom was female) and a seemingly new setting. That's good, but the series needs to do so much more if it is to make an impact in today's environment. For almost ten years this series has been dude-bro-tastic and unwilling to budge from its gritty roots. I know this is a franchise, but two entries shouldn't look identical when placed next to each other and I didn't notice any real difference between what we've seen of Gears 4 and Judgment, or even Gears 3. It's just so same-y. Big guys, big guns, and clumsy cover-based shooting; it's been done to death and is a tired approach to an already abused genre.
When Resident Evil hit a rut after the release of Code Veronica, Capcom didn't simply trod out similar iterations of the same product — they took a step back and after some reflection of the series' roots, released Resident Evil 4. RE4 was a tonal change as well as an evolution to the survival horror genre. Moreover, it was an prime opportunity to play with the franchise formula and deconstruct the tropes Resident Evil had been well known for in favor of crafting a more original and subversive experience. That's what Gears of War needs right now. Not the same schlock.
The Coalition has a real opportunity to reintroduce gamers everywhere to Gears. They can keep the basic elements that the franchise is known for (cover-based shooting, big guys, big guns, etc.) while simultaneously substituting other aspects for something different and fresh. The Coalition cannot, however, release a carbon copy of Gears 3 with a Gears 4 label and act as though they're innovating. Not anymore; people have caught on. It's time to be bold and take this series somewhere new and worthwhile.
I gather that Batman: Arkham Knight is an excellent experience — possibly great enough to be called "Game of the Year" by some. Unless, that is, you are playing the game on a PC. Game breaking bugs, performance issues, poor optimization, and numerous glitches plague Gotham for the PC Master Race. The situation is so bad that Warner Bros. has actually suspended PC sales of the high-profile release until a patch has been issued. This was a sad announcement in light of the game only being launched a week ago, but it actually echoes a greater problem with the way publishers are treating the PC platform.
In a statement posted on its forums, WB confirmed that the game was being removed from sale on all major online retailers. "Dear Batman: Arkham Knight PC owners, we want to apologize to those of you who are experiencing performance issues with Batman: Arkham Knight on PC. We take these issues very seriously and have therefore decided to suspend future game sales of the PC version while we work to address these issues to satisfy our quality standards." The company also stated that an updated version is currently being prepared, but that Steam users can also request a refund now. This was an interesting statement coming from a publisher that allowed the PC port to be outsourced to a studio made up of only twelve individuals who are mostly known for work on console games. You would think that if WB really had quality standards, priority would have been given to PC gamers so as to not screw over the sizable group of them who had made pre-orders. And yet, terrible PC ports seem to be the new hot video game industry trend.
I empathize with PC gamers, as they have seen many a terrible port over the past few years. One only has to look to the PC releases of Dark Souls, Resident Evil 4, Mortal Kombat X, Borderlands, Dead Space 2, Saints Row II, GTA IV, or Watch Dogs to see some really shoddy, outsourced work. Which is strange when you think about it; I mean, these games might have been designed and optimized for consoles but they were all developed on PCs. So, why exactly are they so neutered when they finally hit release on Steam or Origin? It's befuddling and incredibly disappointing for a segment of the gaming community that has only grown in size over the years.
Publishers are now playing a dangerous game of goodwill with the PC market. Dangerous, mostly because PC gamers are not ignorant of what their devices are capable of and what they deserve in official releases. Batman: Arkham Knight on the PC sadly does not hold a candle to that of the PS4 release — in spite of how much easier it is to hit an ideal resolution and framerate on a PC. There are sporadic freezes, frame-rate stutters, and audio glitches a plenty. Moreover, the game's graphics look muddy when compared to the crispness of the console versions. PC gamers deserve better.
One wonders how many poor ports need to be released before publishers realize the brand damage being incurred to these franchises, or to the publishers themselves. As they say, you can only poke a bear so many times before it strikes back. Capping the frames per second is bad, but releasing an unplayable game to an audience that is smart enough to expect more is so much worse.
Kickstarter has done a lot of positive things for the video game world. Were it not for this crowdfunding platform we wouldn't have the benefit of being exposed to indie titles ranging from the smallest of projects to larger productions such as Broken Age, Mighty No. 9, Yooka-Laylee, and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. We also wouldn't have the long-anticipated follow-up to Yu Suzuki's cult Dreamcast series Shenmue. Yes, Shenmue III is now in development and (at the time of this article's writing) has collected over $3.75M in pledges on Kickstarter — almost twice what Yu's team was originally asking for. It might be good news for fans of the series, but a sense of discontent has developed among some backers and media over where that money will go and what role Sony is playing in the game's release.
To take a step back, Sony announced Shenmue III alongside the reintroduction of The Last Guardian and the Final Fantasy VII Remake tease. It was a pretty big deal, but even at the time I wondered why Sony would be announcing a Kickstarter campaign at an event that usually focuses on certified releases. I also questioned why the campaign only requested $2M when previous titles in the series cost an upwards of thirty times that amount. Middleware technology today is fairly affordable and still looks decent relative to cutting edge engines, but still — something was up. Then the internet exploded.
It was revealed that there was indeed a partnership between Sony and Yu's team to bring the project to life. "Sony and PlayStation is definitely a partner in this game," said Gio Corsi, director of Sony's third-party relations. "And it's going to be run through third-party production. We're going to help YS Net get the game done; we're going to be partners on it the whole way, and [are] really excited to see this thing come out in a couple of years." Angry internet commentators cried foul, and questions were raised over the total financial sum Sony would be contributing to the project and the cut they would receive of the game's Kickstarter campaign as well as the post-release profits. And while I would prefer to live in a world where every campaign provided a thorough breakdown of where the money contributed would be going to, I just don't see what the big deal is. Really, I don't.
Yu Suzuki has already stated that Sony's role is on the production and marketing end, while all money collected through the campaign would be going to Shenmue III's development. He emphasized that Sony will "not [be] seeing a cent of your Kickstarter dollars." Similarly, Corsi has stated that Kickstarter was a test to see just how committed players are to the series. "We said 'the only way this is gonna happen is if the fans speak up.' We thought Kickstarter was the perfect place to do this. We set a goal of two million dollars, and if the fans come in and back it, then absolutely we're going to make this a reality." Still, the partnership has been called a lot of nasty names by people who believe that games should live or die on the basis of crowdfunding alone. I don't necessarily agree with that.
In case anyone forgot: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night had almost the exact same set up with a silent funding partner and got absolutely no flack for it. Iga announced his spiritual successor to his critically acclaimed Castlevania work at Konami and said straight-up that the Kickstarter was used as a means to gauge the interest of such a project — that a partner had agreed to fund elements of production and publishing providing gamers demonstrated their interest. That's how investing works in the business world; demand for a product or service is expressed and parties that can profit off that success throw their backing in. Here's the thing though: the response of upset backers and spectators is not that of an investor, so much as it is an entitled stakeholder. Harsh words, but stay with me.
Who is to say that this set up is truly a bad thing though? Do you really care that Sony is assisting the release of a game that might not be released at all otherwise? Does it matter that your dollars alone aren't enough to make a great game if the game truly is great upon its Sony-assisted release? Instead of being frustrated by financial factors beyond our control, I think it's about time we all took a step back and accepted the nature of Kickstarter for what it is — a business — and simply enjoy the fruits of our support when they are delivered. I think Shenmue III deserves that, regardless of twists and turns the game's development might go through.
If the recent release of Earthbound Beginnings is indicative of anything, it is probably that the holy grail of localization still has hopes of making it to the West. Some will criticize me of being overly optimistic or holding on to an unlikely eventuality, but I firmly believe Mother 3 will come to this side of the planet in the next few years. Even if it has a dumb title like After Earthbound.
Let's begin with a history lesson. The neglect this series has seen in the West over the decades has been criminal, but it hasn't been without cause. When the original Mother released in Japan it sold 400,000 units, and it wasn't as though Nintendo didn't have their eyes on Western markets. In fact, the game was slated to be released on the Nintendo Entertainment System as "Earth Bound" (two words) in 1991. Mother had been fully translated by Nintendo's American localization team by 1990. Not only was the game finished, but it was ready to go to market with an official 80-page strategy guide and two posters. The team even included new graphics, new menu options, a new ending, and a run button. Yup, the game was that close to launch. Sadly, it was just too late in the NES' lifecycle and Nintendo decided to remove the game from their product mix.
Mother 2, a much more popular game than its forbearer on a relatively new console, had a better chance of making an impact on the Western market. Reusing the original Western name, Mother 2 became "Earthbound" in the West and was released in the summer of 1995.The marketing behind this game was massive. Nintendo used magazine write-ups, smell-able advertisements, and in-store videos, but the game barely sold 140,000 copies in the US & Canada. It was a commercial failure. Some blamed the "gross smells" marketing campaign, the "It's like living in your gym shoes" marketing tagline, and the cost of the Canadian French translation. Personally, I blame the poor performance on the expensive big box that Earthbound came in ($70 plus tax for the game, a guide, and some promo materials). Not to mention that this was a time when JRPGs were not known for their success in NA.
And then there is Mother 3, at one point known as Mother 64. Not only was the game set to come out for the Nintendo 64 with fully polygonal graphics, but it was planned for the Japan-only N64 disk drive. The game became too challenging for APE and Hal Laboratories to develop and eventually was shelved. But then a commercial for Mother 1 + 2 was released in Japan advertising the game and a new sequel, Mother 3, for GameBoy Advance. Mother 3 both continued Earthbound's story and broke away from it. It was beautiful, critically well received, and sold well. Nintendo, however, declined to bring the game to the West. That was it. It was over.
Reggie Fils-Aime has joked for years about fans "bombarding" Nintendo with Mother 3 requests, but I would say that we finally saw some progress in 2013 with the release of Earthbound on Wii U virtual console. For years it had been speculated that the game would never see a VC release due to copyright issues surrounding the soundtrack. Apparently those rumors were exaggerated. The game's digital release announcement was one of the hottest news stories of 2013, and Earthbound went immediately to the top of Nintendo's digital sales chart. This was a pivotal moment and signaled a second chance for an overlooked franchise.
Kotaku's Stephen Totilo recently had an interview with Mr. Fils-Aime regarding the motivation to put Earthbound Beginnings on the VC. In it he asks, "Is it safe to assume that you guys are pretty happy with how Earthbound was received last year and that helped motivate and get Mother 1 out?" To which Fils-Aime replied, "That's exactly right." Reggie also hinted at the possibility of Mother 3 in the West, saying "I think this is an example that demonstrates we're constantly listening. We're hearing what the fans say. And we thought it was great to bring back the very first Mother, Earthbound Beginnings here in the market. It's been out for sale and doing quite well in the eShop. Again — we'll never say never — but there's nothing to announce right now."
Remember how I alluded to the franchise neglect not being without cause? That was because there were very good business reasons for Mother and Mother 3 not releasing in the West — reasons that Reggie also commented on in that same interview. "The Mother/Earthbound series is quite niche. And so for us it's constantly thinking about the investment and then return for a game like that. There is quite a bit of localization to be done and we just need to make sure that volumetrically there's enough volume to offset that investment." This is very good news for fans of the series. What it means is that Nintendo is attentive to the commercial performance of Earthbound and Earthbound Beginnings.
If we can collectively demonstrate the demand for more Mother by making both Western installments financial successes for Nintendo, they would have little reason to not localize and release Mother 3. Hell, the company could even revisit the franchise in the future — though Shigesato Itoi, the father of the franchise, would be unlikely to return. Still, there is reason for hope once again. If I could urge readers of this article to do any one thing, it would be to give two of the quirkiest JRPGs ever released a chance and purchase them on the Nintendo eShop. You may thank me, and I may thank you for the eventual release of Mother 3.
At this point, I'd like to thank my Editor-in-Chief, Michael Cunningham, for his continual support, our beloved readers for taking the time to indulge my abrasive opinions, and of course all of the commenters in RPGamer's forums for engaging in the conversation. I'll now ask that you do the same.
If I could ask you readers some questions this week, they would be:
Are you at all excited for Gears 4?
What are the worst PC ports of popular games?
Did you back Shenmue III? Does the involvement of third-parties matter?
What are the chances of Mother 3 being released in the West?
I'll see you next month. In the meantime, stay tuned to RPGamer for all of the latest RPG news, reviews, previews, and interviews.