Let the consumer make the decision

I’ve often criticised modern video game developers, saying that they lack the tact of their predecessors both in and out of industry. One thing that has been an age old golden rule; don’t attack your customers. However, this latter part of the 2010’s has seen the media itself come after its consumers, like Gamasutra with their Gamers don’t need to be you audience article, which was echoed in numerous other outlets at the same time. For example, now beaten to death event where one of the staff members of Battlefield V outright told the consumers and outlets that if they didn’t like the direction where they were taking the series and the title, they always had the option not to buy it. A corporation shouldn’t really remind its consumers that wallet voting is the best way to make their voice the most heard, especially when some sort of controversy or contest is going on, as this effectively ended up in the game being delayed and the game overall taken to a slightly different direction.

To give a short run about what the whole thing was about, Battlefield has always sold on its more realistic take of warfare (within video games). The trailer shows a female character with a rather high-tech artificial limb going on a battlefield of World War II, and while such thing may have occurred, the statistical reality of that is absolutely minuscule. Well, completely impossible if it was a bionic enhancement, but I’ve read some disagreeing info. Outside this being an highly implausible scenario, the game’s demo more or less confirmed something that other series have done time and time again and rarely succeeded; we want the other game’s audience. Fortnite has been mentioned many times to be the target this new Battlefield target, changing elements of the series to fit this new mould to some extent. For any business, it is at least twice has hard to gain new customers than to keep the old ones, and trying to go half-cocked way in trying to do both is not the answer. Or you could be Patrick Söderlund and make this completely unrelated but politically much more rosy issue and tell your consumers not to buy the game. Unsurprisingly, after this debacle Battlefield V‘s release date was pushed back and the game is seeing further additional work to get it back into the Battlefield formula to a larger degree, but seeing how the game play itself suffers, not to mention the whole approach how the game has been designed, I’m not trusting that the game will come out at the top and satisfy any real consumer base as such. For context, give this video a look for the review for the demo.

Damage control is important, but it should really come from somewhere else than telling your consumers off. Well, I’m guessing we all know the reason why Söderlund is no longer with EA, nothing hurts a corporation more than losing massive sales due to single person fucking PR up.

Söderlund has not been the only person to tell his customers off. Total War: Rome II has been patched for some year now with increasingly more and more questionable changes in regards of historical authenticity. Scratch that, supposedly Creative Assembly’s stance is that Rome II is authentic, but not accurate. This is standard bullshit weasel worlds and the situation should have never achieved this point. What the patches have done is that the number of female generals with darker skin tone have seen a raised percentage, which would seem to contradict historical records. However, the thing is that the patch that changes the percentages are over half a year old. The current controversy is about Creative Assembly telling their consumers to stop playing the game, or mod the patches out. Again, it’s easier to give this a spin the narrative to something that’s politically more palatable than having a PR catastrophe at their hands. One Angry Gamer has a rather decent article on the debacle, but do keep in mind that it is somewhat one-sided.

I want to reiterate that no corporation should tell their consumers to piss off. The end result is that they will and they will go to the competitor, or simply go without your product. Especially with video games, which are a non-essential luxury product nobody truly needs, and there are always alternatives. Even in an industry that is at the top of the entertainment ladder, losing one big sale can damage a property to a point where it is simply cut off. Look at what happened to the sales of the most recent Mass Effect and where the series is now. A franchise once dead in the water is rather hard to resurrect, as it requires winning back the old audience first and foremost, and to make a splash in general. Despite the slow change of mass demographic throughout the years, the fact is that any product that is aiming to sell widely should stay universal. When brands get into politics, it automatically cuts a section of your consumers off intentionally. Your competition will only gain consumers through these actions. Your conscience might have it good, but not if your company starts going under. Imagine if something like Cif, the window cleaner, was announced as the choice of -insert politician and party you dislike here- and the company producing Cif now openly supports whatever political agenda or message they have. I’m making a wild guess a lot of people would trade brands if they would, for example, become pro-Trump in their next ad campaign. While this sounds like the issue is only on the business side, both Battlefield V and Total War: Rome II were affected by decisions unfavoured by large portion of their consumers who enjoy historical authenticity and accuracy. The results of going against the consumer has visibly affected the games’ contents negatively and their reception has seen a downfall. This can be seen especially in the reviews of Rome II on Steam, where it has seen a drop from Positive to Mixed. This is about a game that came out five years ago no less, so before the consumes were really enjoying the game as it was. Creative Assembly’s stance and message has also caused a consumer backlash, resulting their other games being rated downward on Steam, though there is no real reason for this outside consumers just getting back at the company. This is, however, nothing out usual, sadly. Rather than trying to force a round peg through a square hole, perhaps it’d be best to cater to different audiences with different products.

Perhaps it is the current economic situation, devs and companies can make choices like this. There are less threats overall, and pretty much everything is selling. Perhaps certain levels of recession where products are required to be worth the money invested is needed, and consumers have to select their purchase choices with higher rigor than normally.

 

Dead or Alive 6 might end up a rush job

I didn’t really mean to write about DoA‘s T&A again so soon, I’ve intentionally been skipping the subject with each new news item. Same with China slowly having an economy bubble bursting there, which I’ll hope to touch on Sunday. As it always turns out, DoA6‘s director Yohei Shimbori can’t seen to handle his spaghetti. The title’s already a PR nightmare when it comes to the fans, as they’re effectively being treated like dogs in the heat who need their nads cut off. On the other hand, it’s DoA, you can”t escape two decades worth of high fidelity graphics and extraordinary physics simulations for human body. Hell, the series was build on honking tits and beauty, don’t make me laugh.

This is where Shimbori’s sensibilities seem to be in, as he takes the credit/blame for the game’s visual design; it had too much fanservice. His aim is to show that DoA6 is a real fighting game, which is like saying you’re trying to showcase that a plate is a plate by changing the picture printed on it. Renewing the engine to another that lacks most physics elements DoA‘s previous titles had and made the games have a unique look. Now, with that latest Dynasty Warrior engine, everything’s so damn rigid. Argument that realism would drive home that DoA6‘s a real fighting game is also extremely stupid, as pretty much every fighting game out there looks unrealistic. Street Fighter has exaggerated hands and feet so the player can recognize them better, KoF has that picture-perfect Chinese beauty look to it (Christ how I need to write about this design aesthetic of theirs), Tekken has explody bits in the air and demon fighting all around with dude with pizzas on top of their heads and Guilty Gear has always has fantasy rock aesthetic to it. Realism? Fighting games don’t do realism. Well, maybe Virtua Fighter. Nobody ever questioned whether or not DoA was a fighting game series, but if Shimbori really was intending to raise the series to new heights, he would have stopped doing these platitudes and concentrated squarely on the gameplay. Screw damage modelling or using a new engine, fix the game gameplay to be less a copy of Virtua Fighter and something of its own instead.

Let’s not forget what Simbori originally said why they changed the looks of the game; he wanted it to look cool, after EVO players told they felt embarrassed playing the game. Looking behind the PR speech, it’s clear that the goal is to lessen the sex appeal of the franchise due to the flack it’s been getting, especially with Dead or Alive Xtreme 3. It’s either Shimbori wanting to cater both the EVO players and busybody jackasses who don’t have anything better than complain about digital tits, or his boss does. The way Shimbori’s replies and statements comes through with these interviews is like he can’t keep his story straight. He certainly wants to believe it all, but it’s far more likely there’s some corporate bullshit going on behind the scenes. Tecmo doesn’t want DoA to be a PR shitstorm again, despite it never really was. Again; only certain people bitch about it, and only certain grain-sized part of the audience feel embarrassed about the game. The rest don’t give a damn and just want to see the game to be true to the franchise and enjoy the visual flavour. Soul Calibur VI isn’t being petty with their body models, they’re going straight in where the sun don’t shine and make it look damn good.

Shimbori and the dev team have been in damage control mode since the initial launch trailer, there’s little doubt about that. The constant mantra Don’t worry, we haven’t show you all yet works exactly once, and then you need to showcase what you mean. Thus far, DoA6 hasn’t shown anything outside the norm. Hell, showcasing the norm has been an improvement in itself. While there was no doubts that most characters would return in their most iconic outfits, it says how weak their approach and attitude when instead of just saying the costumes are in and then showcasing them, Shimbori goes on about how the new designs will be more worldly because they’re inspired by American comics. Because y’know, Europe and the rest of the world don’t have their own comics going, especially China. There would be something in there if Shimboru would have used the comic book movies as an example, but he specifically meant the comics themselves from.

Do the game’s supposed to be launched in February 15th 2019. That’s not a whole lot time to develop it, considering the game was around 20% finished in August. Something will be missing from the title, and if modern fighting games are anything to go by, it wouldn’t be surprising if DoA6 ends up being just another platform to drive season on. The last few months will be all about trying to get the game produced to the point that it can be pressed, shipped and stocked. It’s more likely that the end of the year is their real deadline, the rest is trying to fix anything that doesn’t work.

I’ve been grinding the same gears with DoA6 for how many times now? This’ll be the last entry on the subject for now. Reality is that the campaigning against DoAX3 worked and Tecmo has changed their view on the franchise. The voice made heard was loud enough to cause backpedaling. Whatever the fans say or do at this point won’t change how DoA6 will be finished. All the stuff thus far added and changed have been nothing short of expected damage control. The only way for the consumer to say that this shit doesn’t fly is to make a clear-cut statement and voting with their wallets. None of the fans and core audience will do it though. Some will think that this is just one-time fling or that the series will return to its roots once the whole boobie-panic blows itself off. The history of the franchise or the long-time core audience doesn’t matter with this game. Only its PR fame and hoped higher revenues do.

Sega’s Mania effect

So after couple of decades of failed starts, concepts thrown around and DMCA’d fan titles, Streets of Rage 4 is a thing that’s coming out. Finally, might I add. Sega and Streets of Rage fans, rejoice.

 

I have to say, these redesigns are pretty damn nice

There are three companies involved with the game, outside Sega as the licensee; Lizardcube, who were in charge of the recent Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap; Guard Crush Games who have a history with beat-em-ups (or belt-scrolling action games if you’re Japanese) like Streets of Fury; Dotemu, who function as a publisher. Lizardcube is in charge of graphics, while Guard Crush Games handles the programming, though Dotemu has the handle on game design. This is pretty nice package, as Lizardcube has a pretty nice, French comics style that fits so many of these older titles’ revival, and Guard Crush Games seems to have a handle on programming just fine. Y’know, the hardest part of making a game.

I’m probably going to make a comparative post regarding the character designs, because both Axel and Blaze got a real nice new lick of paint.

There is exactly two things this game needs to do in order to be accepted by long time fans and be at least a relative hit with the general audience; faithfully replicate the Streets of Rage formula, and expand on it. This is effectively what Sonic Mania did, and it has been hailed as the best Sonic the Hedhehog game to date, which isn’t too hard to accept.

Which raises the question; did Sonic Mania‘s success kick this title off the ground? Both it and the new Wonder Boy were well received and raised new interest in certain section of older titles. Both of them function as data to further the idea putting the money and effort to realise a Streets of Rage title in its proper 2D mould rather than take the Final Fight route with Streetwise. After all, game genres don’t just die because new technology makes new genres possible with extra dimensions or additional gimmicks like VR. Despite how 90’s marketing wants you to believe, 2D hasn’t gone anywhere at any point. Sure, you the newfangled thing always gets pushed, but you can’t deny the customers the things they want. Just look at how well 2D Mario sells over 3D titles. That’s another dead horse I need to stop kicking.

All this data of revival games doing at least decently well is most probable reason Streets of Rage 4 got greenlit. Add Mega Man 11‘s upcoming release to the mix and we’re entering an interesting era, where old franchises are getting new releases in more budget range, but with none of the lacking elements. Hopefully more companies realise this; you don’t need AAA budget to make great damn games. Pretty much all of these classic franchises could be revived and developed at a fraction of the cost with modern tools. Easier to make profits. The only real problem is to deliver a wanted product, which didn’t really happen with the New SMB series after the first few entries. Once a franchise is revived, it needs to move forwards. Mega Man 10 failed in this term by simply being same thing again. We now have three Mega Man 2 games and that’s two too much.

Sega of course wouldn’t develop this themselves. They don’t care about the IP. Sega hasn’t given two shits about Streets of Rage since the mid-90’s, when they essentially gave the middle finger to the Western consumers. Eternal Champions used to be a big thing, but then Sega just neutered it. You can’t treat Japanese, American and European markets the same. Hell, you have to treat Europe as multiple market zones if you want to do it right. This was clear how Sega’s tactics with the Genesis in the US region only kicked off after the US branch pushed through their tactics of including a game with the console and marketing Sonic the Hedgehog their own way. If most of the data is to be believed, Sonic‘s been the most popular in the US. Sadly, Sega of Japan’s management killed all the motion their American and European sections had going on, effectively beginning their own downfall from grace. Westerners do classic Sega better than Sega themselves.

Streets of Rage 4 probably won’t be as large a success as Sonic Mania. If the game gets a physical release afterwards its initial digital showcase, we can deem it successful enough. If it gets a physical release from the very beginning, even if it was a Limited Run title, then the developers and publisher have boatloads of trust towards their targeted consumers. There are enough Sega fans that would purchase this title in an instant.

While Sonic Mania was clearly an international title, a game that didn’t have any specific region in mind, the same can’t be said about Streets of Rage 4. Both Guard Crush Games and Lizardcube are European companies, and that flavours oozes through in a very positive manner. Hell, even Dotemu is based on France. I hope they shower more than the average French. However, that probably will rub some people off, as Streets of Rage originally had a very American atmosphere to it, especially considering it was inspired partially by Streets of Fire. Hell, Blaze’s design is essentially Ellen Aim with more streetwise to her. The bits about Sega not giving a damn about the IP still stands, and their actions towards Western markets have been changing only during the last years. The Yakuza franchise is a good line to follow modern Sega in this. English dubbing usually drives sales, but there are titles where this isn’t case. Yakuza dropped this in favour of cheaper releases and simply because the fans didn’t like it. Despite Sega censoring and removing elements from some of the games, the audience kept growing. Despite this, none of the spin-offs outside the zombie romp got localised. Now that the Western audience has grown far greater, Sega’s taken the series’ position in the market into notion with better releases, and now is even considering publishing further remasters and spin-offs in the Overseas regions. Sega of Japan is slowly but surely taking a notion of Western markets.

If we’re going to go down this path, it’s relatively easy to see Sega considering the wants and needs of the Western markets to some extent. The IPs they’ve been giving up and ignoring still have a strong consumer base with nothing to fill that niche. A high quality title here and there goes long way in making profits and keeping your fans happy. I would say Altered Beast and Golden Axe could be next on the list of revivals, but seeing how terrible their last titles were, there’d be a lot of work to fix those damages in the eyes of Sega themselves.

Subscription service as the future of video games?

Screw the blog personality for this post. We’re doing this in-person. Shigsy had an interview with Bloomberg, where he warns other video game developers about greed. This is rich, coming from a dev who can do whatever the hell he wants rather than doing titles that the market has yearned for some time. It’s no secret 2D Mario titles sell more than 3D ones, but they’re too much work and bothersome to design. He’d rather have games developed like a school project.

Shigsy doesn’t really say anything especially worthwhile. His criticism on F2P and lootboxes echoes so many others, and you can read between the lines how there is irritation about mobile games with gacha are making tons of money. Fate Grand Order or whatever it was is making millions per day, supposedly. Shigsy saying the fixed-cost model hasn’t been a success is bullshit though. Something that has worked for pretty much everything thus far doesn’t suddenly become unsuccessful just it seems to be under fire now. Sure, Shigsy talks mostly in context of mobile gaming. Nintendo tackling mobile games has been criticised for good reasons, as the market is widely different from console game market. It’s like entering a market selling pizzas with hamburgers. There is a reason why Nintendo’s IPs on computers has always been handled by other companies, like Hudson with Super Mario Bros. Special.

Shigsy clearly likes the idea of subscription based gaming, like how Netflix is for movies and TV shows. To him, how games have been sold thus far seems to have failed despite gaming has become larger than Hollywood through it. F2P games with in-game purchases is greedy way to make profit to him, but this is business. You make money the best way you can. Subbing services on the other hand would still have the consumer pay a front fee to access titles to begin with, but just as with Netflix and other of its competitors, the question about what games would be available. Nintendo’s upcoming service for the Switch is abysmal in this, as the game variety they’re offering is extremely limited. A subbing service requires to have extremely wide variety of titles, and having something else than the same NES titles over and over.

It’s trite for Shigsy to argue for Nintendo wanting to bring their games to widest possible audience via mobile games. If Nintendo truly wanted to do this, they’re start doing third party games for Microsoft and Sony. That’s not going to happen, so what they’re really about with mobile games is cross-platform advertising. Show people who play games on mobile phones how great titles Nintendo has with selected IPs, and maybe some of them will be interested enough to jump the bandwagon with Switch.

This has been Nintendo’s strategy with across media platforms and consumables before as well. All the cartoons, toys, cereals, comics and so on were only to promote Nintendo’s games and consoles. Mobile phone games are the exact same thing, as their primary value is to advertise the brands and IPs instead of raking money on themselves.

I’m almost baffled how Shigsy thinks there isn’t already a culture of paying for valued software. Your normal everyday person doesn’t have thousands or millions to blow money on games. Hell, most people don’t even put hundreds into games. Outside some stupidly obsessed people, consumers have a very strong tendency on purchasing products they deem worthy. Nobody simply blows their cash on whatever kind of products if they can help.

Considering Nintendo of Japan seems to has jack shit understanding about global market, I wouldn’t be surprised if this wasn’t one of Shigsy’s and Nintendo’s brain farts how consumers act. The main reason why Fire Emblem and Famicom Wars never hit the West before GBA was because Nintendo’s staff thought Americans didn’t like strategy games, despite PCs being filled with them. Then again, this probably is partially true due to how most successful strategy games have been on PC, and we’ve seen, Nintendo didn’t deal in the PC market. Nevertheless, Advance Wars became more popular in the West than in Japan. Then you had Nintendo’s official, can’t remember who, proudly mentioning how Japanese children loved to craft and play with cardboard. Honestly, Nintendo’s corporate culture in this sense has their heads deep in their asses. This line really should be read that Shigsy wants a culture where games he values would be purchased. I bet he is still salty about Donkey Kong Country being the breakthrough title for the Super Nintendo.

Consumers already have a habit of paying money for applications and software  they deem worth the money. Trying to act like this is not the case goes against reality. If this is some sort of jab at piracy and how Nintendo has been fighting against ROMs and the like as of late, it further shows how out of loop he and the rest of the company is. Virtual Console was a massive success to the point of titles outselling new games Nintendo was putting out. There is a market for these older titles, hence why people are willing to pirate and play ROMs. This the same reason why the Classic Mini systems are selling like hotcakes. By not offering a way for consumers to purchase and access them is effectively shooting yourself to the leg and not offering software people are willing to pay for. This isn’t any goddamn rocket science. The habit Shigsy wants consumers to have is already there, but they’re not willing to provide the software. On the contrary, they’ve killed all avenues to obtain these titles. Furthermore, piracy has promoted products far more than any other field; it is not an outright negative impact in itself. A pirated title is not a lost sale, as the case often is that there was no intention to purchase that title in the first place. Comparison with music streaming is false equivalency but its the best Shigsy can muster. You can’t play games Youtube either, so into the trash with it.

Does changing things into Netflix-like subbing service change anything in this? Of course not. If the library of games is lacklustre compared to other similar services, or even outright stores, you won’t see customers subbing. The price has to be low enough to warrant subbing to it as well, and lose all rights to the games. Never underestimate customers’ will to have ownership over what they’ve paid.

Losing battle against ROMs

Rather than discussing how disappointed I’m in the Mega Man X Legacy Collections input lag, removed songs and censorship, the more interesting topic is Nintendo going after ROM sites again.

The whole thing with ROMs isn’t about an issue of legality when, that’s a clear cut thing. What isn’t concerns the relation of re-releases and ROMs. Emulators and ROMs are still popular, perhaps more than previously due to more accurate emulators being more available rather than junk like ZSNES. The increasing amount of fantranslations making games like Rudra no Hihou/ Treasure of Rudra available to the English-speaking audiences is reason enough to download whatever emulator seems to do the job and launch the game without any other considerations done. Then you have games that have changed graphics, completely overhauled game mechanics and pretty much everything under the sun you can think of. All you need to do is to patch the original ROM file and launch it in an emulator. Hell, even patching is optional, as most ROM sources simply list all known variants, patched or not, for any given title. Of course, some people just want to play Super Mario Bros.

Nintendo out of all companies probably has the most reason to dislike ROMs. Well, next to Sega. This is due to the fact how many classic titles exist on NES and SNES. As I’ve said before, any company who is releasing a title on a platform that allows the consumer to buy Super Mario Bros. 3 has high standards to live up against.

One of Wii’s most important lifelines was the Virtual Console. Titles on it outsell some of Nintendo’s big name titles, which didn’t put the Big N into right mindset. If you can’t obsolete a thirty years old game, then clearly something’s not right in the design and execution department. You may not be able to fight consumers’ nostalgia, but you can make see what makes that nostalgia ticking and tackle that. New Super Mario Bros. may have been rather mediocre after the fact, but after twenty year long drought of no 2D Mario it was a breeze of fresh air. Never went anywhere, and the New SMB titles ultimately lacked in quality.

The general consumer will drop five bucks for an old game in digital form, even more if the title’s a household name or holds some special place in his heart. The Virtual Console was a great thing, offering games across the platforms like no other. In the absence of Virtual Console, where does the consumer turn to? Without the older systems plugged in, and not too many have Wii or Wii U plugged in anymore, hardware emulation seems like the next best thing.

Nintendo of course has all the rights to protect their IPs and copyrights. Them shutting down Another Metroid 2 Remake a while back was them covering their asses and to remove competition from their own Metroid 2 remake. We can debate which one was better, but we can say for certain that AM2R was more faithful to the original and didn’t screw up the mechanics. Nintendo Switch Online is supposedly successor to the Virtual Console, but the concept and execution are a far cry from the store that Virtual Console is/was. NSO is essentially a subscription service to let you play online, with the whole thing about being able to play limited number of classic titles being a secondary element to it.

NSO is not a good replacement for the VC. VC wasn’t just about Nintendo’s own titles, but that may have been something that did rub them the wrong way. Nintendo wishes they had been as creative and innovative with their games as Sega was in their golden days, who constantly pushed the envelope with their groundbreaking arcade titles. The PC-Engine titles were a massive pull with the Japanese, with titles like The Kung Fu (known as China Warrior on the TruboGrafx-16) hitting the retro consensus there. There’s a market here that goes largely unused.

Nintendo could slap their in-house emulator for the Switch and sell every single NES game they own rights to for some three bucks. They’d probably make stupidly large amount of money off of them, probably more than what NSO could. Have all other companies that saw the success of Virtual Console hop aboard and have them re-release these title as well. Even better if you had opened this system to those who already had VC titles on the 3DS and could carry their games along just fine. This would have been beneficial and logical step for Nintendo on the long run, as it would have brought incredible amount of content to Switch from the get go.

An age-old argument against emulation from the industry has been that it damages the sales of future re-releases. VC was a massive success, PSN and XBLA’s retro titles slightly less so. Consumers will pay for what they like if its available at a decent price. Considering Nintendo is essentially ceasing its sales of older titles in order to move to Netflix styled subscription for them, the argument has less base than they want to believe.

All these companies know that they can’t stop emulation and piracy. It’s a losing battle, but all the companies have to do it. If they don’t, it’s very easy to see them fall into realm of abandonment and free for all to use. This extents to emulators being taken down as well. Only when patents expire does a company lose most control, like with the NES. When NES’ patent expired, the market saw a slight flood of clone consoles. The consoles themselves were legal, but some of them had build-in ROMs. This is often circumvented by just adding SD-card slot to the machine.

The retro game market is going to more expensive direction as the time go by, and it would be natural for the industry to take an advantage of this through re-releases and competent compilations. However, often we see budget packs with attention put to the presentation or alternative modes rather than on optimisation. Guess we’ll just have to wait and keep emulating before companies make older titles viable options again.

Breakout, Arkanoid and Cyber Block Metal Orange: Evolution in simplicity

Few years back when I was looking at old game footage with some of my friends, one of them could not get his head around how games like Breakout and River Raid could be called games, they didn’t even look the part. I never understood what he meant, but I’m guessing it has everything to do with him growing up with PC games of mid-90’s. Granted, I didn’t specifically live grew up with Atari 2600 either, if anything it was the Atari computers and C64.

It’s been few years since that, but it never left my mind for whatever reason. It doesn’t even look like a game, was his exact words. To him, it looked too simple to be enjoyed. Is the current cultural mentality expecting games to look complex and reflect reality whenever possible?

Breakout is a 1976 game headed by Nolan Bushnell. One of Atari’s biggest hits, Bushnell conceptualised Breakout as a single player Pong, and prototyped by none other than Steve Wozniak. Single player Pong in itself sounds dull, but what Bushnell and Steve Bristow made a significant change; the tiles.

If Pong is an example of pure core game design without any extra elements hampering the competition between two players, Breakout is similarly an example of pure single player game design. There is nothing unnecessary in Breakout, there is nothing in-between the player and the game. There is, quite simply to put it, only the game and the player.

Breakout is a game I played a lot during the mid-90’s and early 00’s on computers in my local library and whenever I had the chance at schools. It was, at a time, very popular game to code for aspiring game designers and coders, as Breakout‘s apparent simplicity hides relatively complex nature. For example, the paddle that bounces the ball is often split into five sections, each sending the ball to a different angle trajectory. In the Atari 2600 version, each 12th bounce would increase the speed of the ball. Things like that you wouldn’t consider consciously, unless you found yourself obsessed with the game and wanting to rip it apart. Breakout, as Atari designed it, has no random elements to it either, and there is nothing to keep the player from having a perfect, calculated game.

Breakout, compared to modern games, tends to look rather bare bones. That is, of course, due to technological limitations of the era, but on the other hand anything else thrown in there would be unnecessary to an extent. The classic Atari sound effects also have a function rather than just filling in silence. I’ve read reports from years back how some players were able to complete a game just by the sound alone. That’s a key to one of the most mesmerising elements of Breakout; it hooks you.

Breakout‘s apparent simplicity is easy to understand. Send the ball flying off, hit a tile, calculate where the ball will land and bounce it back up. Rinse and repeat. However, the actual game is challenging and involves more skill and eye-hand coordination than it appears. It’s a game that’s easy to get into, but ultimately hard to master. Once you get into the game, it doesn’t let you go easily. Watching the ball rhythmically hit the walls and tiles with each blip from the speakers announcing a contact is something only other similar games can ultimately replicate. Some people talk about getting into the zone with games, and Breakout is a game where you can find yourself in very easily. This has happened to be with Breakout’s few descendants, Arkanoid and Cyber Block Metal Orange. To some extent, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach volleyball can induce similar effect once you get into how the ball goes over the net, how it’s returned and in what way. DoAX really is just Pong with prettier graphics and more physics thrown in.

There is nothing in your way to blame the game for in Breakout either. Modern games have animation management, random element management and God only knows how many more elements thrown in there just to drop a monkey wrench in your gears. Technology has allowed games to represent motion and reality to a larger extent than what they could in 1976, and with that certain design elements in game development have been lost. Certain instantaneous elements in gameplay has become a rarer element as natural animation has taken its place. Link swings his sword more realistically in 3D, but there is a lack of satisfaction that you got from a well placed near instant stab from the original game.

Breakout’s design has been copied few times over. By few times I mean more than anyone can count. However, across all the Breakout-clones out there, the core gameplay is very much the same. Whether or not it has been realised well is a whole another thing. A lot of times I’ve heard people first experiencing Breakout on computer, either as a some sort of unofficial clone or browser version. Most browser versions out there are shit, without a doubt, and to find a well coded version that would improve from the original are essentially non-existent. I had the chance the play the Atari 2600 version once with the a paddle. There is nothing quite like finding yourself having an absolute control over the paddle’s movements on the screen, something that no controller has managed to replicate. Even with mouse controls it feels just inaccurate enough, even when it’s competently done. Google launched a version of Breakout you can still play today, but it’s slower than the original and mouse controlled. Ultimately, Breakout’s clones have a very hard time to beat the original paddle nub, because it simply works the best. Mouse control is the closest you can get to it, but it still can’t top the original intended controller. There are Breakout clones that do work with other control methods, but this is because the functions and speeds have been altered to accommodate these controls, which is just a good thing.

Much like Tetris, Breakout is a perfect game in its simplicity. While many mistakenly label it and Tetris as puzzle games, neither are that. Both of them are more or less unique entities of their own, something that could only be realised through a video game. The only way to continue from either from these games would be break that perfect, balanced simplicity by either changing the core rules, or with additional things. Super Breakout was the first sequel released few years after the original, but perhaps the most famous Breakout clone is Arkanoid.

I recommend everyone to read a book called Pilgrim in the Microworld by David Sudnow. The book is his autobiography, detailing his obsession with Breakout and how he manically spent his time to understand the game. He went to the extent of visiting Silicon Valley and interview the programmers to gain insights about the game. He understood how a game could become addictive, an obsession without being a gamer. Sudnow was a pianist. He came from outside the gamer culture of the era, someone who didn’t really saw their appeal until he stopped to learn about them, first by sight, then by trying his hands on them. It’s not only a fascinating glimpse into one’s mind how they saw a game, but also how Breakout’s design, simple as it is compared to the modern games’ overblown layers of complexity, can capture a person’s fascination.


Complexity fascinates people. Things and people themselves are not complex, but we make them to be. There is beauty in simplicity, but by our nature we want to mess with that simplicity. Breakout was a perfectly simple single-player game and effectively created a sub-genre to Pong games through its innovation. You can’t really add more depth to Breakout without changing its gameplay and design, which changes how it ultimately plays out. Super Breakout was the first official sequel to Breakout, adding new game modes and such. Still, it didn’t touch on the design itself.

Ten years later, in 1986, Arkanoid was released. Either it or Breakout are used as an example for the genre, and as such Breakout or Arkanoid clone is not too uncommon to see around. Nevertheless, Taito’s Arkanoid stands apart from Breakout due to its expansion to the formula. Arkanoid did not add any depth to Breakout, and by its extension, to Pong, but it expanded how the game is played and approached.

Arkanoid wasn’t the first Breakout clone, but it sure was the one that stroke true. Its expansions are basically power-ups that adds on top of the existing gameplay rather than changes it. There are some Space Invaders influences in there with a power-up capsule that adds a shot option, and thus another way to break the tiles. Other power ups affect the length of the paddle, adds a multi-ball mode and add a ball capturing ability.

These of course change how you approach the game. Do you pick up certain power-ups over the other, or will you stick the current ones you have? What will serve you best in what situation, and are you able to utilise them all equally well? As the game has become arguably safer to play with these additions, Taito added falling planet debris that spawns at the top of the screen. If the player’s paddle hits one of these debris, it affects how the paddle controls. Another addition is unbreakable tiles and tiles that require multiple hits, adding a way to prevent player from hitting certain spots with ease.

Breakout’s stage design follows the same simple idea as the rest of the game, whereas Arkanoid’s one of the best things are the stage layouts. Arkanoid abandons the idea of breaking out and increased difficulty and adopts progressive stage-by-stage transition. Progressing through the game is done by entering a door that opens up with a certain capsule or automatic progression when the screen is cleared.

Arkanoid got a slew of sequels pretty soon and was ported to pretty much all popular systems at the time. Out of them, Arkanoid DS is the most divisive entry due to how it changed dynamics of the core gameplay. It narrowed and lengthened the play field, making it far higher than in previous entries, and changed the tiles into squares. This changes the dynamics of the game, especially now that there is a loss of information. Breakout is a 100% information game; everything you see is what you get. Arkanoid’s slight variation in the planets debris’ motion adds a random element to the mix, but with Arkanoid DS you have a dead zone where there is no visual information for the player to latch unto. With DS, if the developer wants to use both screens in gameplay, they can either simulate the space between the two screens or ignore the space. Taito decided to include this screenless space, which does add unknown factor to the gameplay. The paddle doesn’t seem to have any changes to it and feels larger due to the narrower field.

Arkanoid DS seems to play in a lacklustre way without an additional paddle controller. Complains I’ve seen regarding the game range from lacklustre ball physics to amateurish visual designs to irritating elevator music used in the game. I have to agree with most of these points. Because there are far better Arkanoid clones out there, games that play reasonably well even without a paddle controller, I never bothered tracking one down to my library. Its presentation isn’t all too appealing,

Taito’s success with Arkanoid stems from well planned expansions on pre-existing game design. This made Arkanoid stand out from other Breakout clones. The additions were important and no other Breakout or Arkanoid clone has managed to beat them in how these two defined the genre. There are numerous good Arkanoid clones out there, and we’ll be taking a look at one next time.

Within the game industry there really isn’t a comparative example to Breakout-Arkanoid relationship. The closest ones that hit the mark are Doom clones that run on the same engine, but there are not straight up analogies. Perhaps one of the best examples is Star Wars: Dark Forces, as the rumours say that the Jedi engine was made from reversed engineered and largely modified Doom engine. The difference in comparison is difficult to make between Breakout-Arkanoid and Doom-Doom clones is because the technology has become advanced enough that such changes have become more or less meaningless. Well, another one would be Street Fighter II compared to earlier fighting games, of course, but SFII did far more than just expanding from the base gameplay.

Most modern games are essentially derivatives from GTA-3D Zelda style games as simplicity and certain level of abstract worlds have been all but abandoned. What use is technological advancement if we can’t obsolete old games and still recycle the same exact methods of gameplay and progress we’ve had over two decades now? It’s no wonder that the general audience liked the Wii and the DS, it had games that deviated from the standard formula a bit, like Brain Age.

Perhaps rather than designing the expansive and complex game systems each and any game seems to go for, there should be a slight paradigm shift to concentrate on the core gameplay over everything else. Such approach is impossible for the modern Triple A game development mentality, I’m afraid.


After Arkanoid, Breakout styled games become hottest shit again. While people mostly remember that time as the boom of NES era and arcades were in a weird moment in time, when home consoles started usurp them. Not to say that the arcades didn’t have their share of awesome games, but less people remember any arcade games from 1986 than console games. PC had its own fair share of games from the time, and Arkanoid was ported to basically every major PC of the era.

Where do you go from Arkanoid? From Breakout it was a simple task just to expand with options, or vary the gameplay rules by changing the tiles or the ball. Arkanoid DS was less successful in changing everything from the physics to the shape and dimensions of the playfield. Nevertheless, Arkanoid stayed true to the idea of keeping it simple, but not all Arkanoid clones followed this path, at least not in visual design. Of course, it was just a matter of time until a porn version of Arkanoid would surface.

The Japanese PC scene was very different from the western one, until it was basically taken over by the IBM standard, a thing that seems to bother some people a lot. I understand these people very well, there are a lot of things that fascinate me in these old PCs, be it how the visuals or simply the how they work out. Even on emulation there’s some nicks here and there that need to be figured out, but luckily most modern emulators are straight forward. Once the IBM standard began to take foothold in Japan, some games had both PC98 and DOS support.

Japanese computers were not technological marvels when it came to screen scrolling, which is why Super Mario Bros. Special opted for screen-to-screen transitions instead. This is also one of the main reasons Visual Novels became a thing; it was easier to showcase one picture with bunch of text than code gameplay in. By 1990 people had got around how to make scrolling work, the year when Cyber Block Metal Orange was released on NEC’s PC-8801 series of computers.

Metal Orange is not really an expansion on Arkanoid‘s gameplay, but a modification. It takes the same basic gameplay as Breakout and takes the idea from Arkanoid, but mixes things with its own method of power-ups and progression. The gameplay is really tight and stands well throughout comparison, especially its Sharp X68000 port.

First thing that you may notice that the overall design of the screen is more expanded than what it usually is with Breakout titles. One third of the screen is dedicated to a HUD with score display, the operator of your spaceship and power-up indicator. It all looks really lovely, with that Japanese 80’s sci-fi flavour to it.

Nevertheless, there are three major flaws in the design of the visuals. The first one is that the power-up capsules increase a bar that indicates which power-up you have an access to. The capsules don’t straight up grant you a boost this time around, but you need to collect them certain amount get certain level power-up. From one capsule to seven and grant the usual Arkanoid like power-ups. The interesting one Silhouette, that gives you after images. The most expensive one creates a Barrier that bounces balls up. Unless you can keep up how many capsules you’ve collected and in what order the power-ups are on the bar, you’ll be eyeing that bar from the playfield to check what the current status is. While you can play Breakout just with the corner of your eye, most people want to focus on the action. Placing this bar underneath the playfield would’ve made it easier to keep an eye on, as players would still check where the spaceship paddle was located.

The second is the spaceship itself, and this is largely a personal issue I’m sure. The spot that bounces the ball up and down is the top of the craft, and doesn’t go deeper than the front of the ship. Sometimes I try to bounce the ball with the side of the ship, underneath the hitbox, with no avail. It’s a visual cue with no attributes. This is more an issue with the X68k version with more detailed graphics.

Third is a minor, but with the stuff that’s going on the screen, tiles breaking, balls bouncing, enemies falling and whatever power-up you have, the animated background can actually make you mistake one of the stars as the ball. I’ve heard this to happen some people who’ve played this game, so it’s a minor issue, but an issue nevertheless.

Depending on your worldview, you may dislike the porn aspect of the game, but that also gives it its rhythm. Each Stage is divided into smaller sections, first having two stages and then increasing each opened image until the player has to beat four stages in one go. Not that it matters really, there are infinite Continues and a Game Over doesn’t send you back to the first stage of a smaller section. The CGs themselves are decent and look very much in-line with other Custom games, like TEEN.

One last thing that Metal Orange does that Arkanoid didn’t was the music, as in there’s quite a lot of it for a Breakout game. Each Stage has its own theme, each character has its own theme, there’s the opening and ending themes and they’re all pretty damn good.

Nevertheless, Metal Orange’s greatest changes really do lie in the visuals and in the sound department, and these two are really what Breakout games can do without completely revamping the game system. The simplicity that started with Pong has not aged one bit in our modern-day games, but we’re seeing it less. Whenever Nintendo got back to basics with Wii and the DS, they faced great success, similarly how the NES and GameBoy become phenomenal.

After all, hitting the Blue Ocean market with attractive products always seems to yield hits.

This post was originally posted in three sequential parts, now collected for easier reading.

Virtual-On Retrospective: MARZ

Previous: FORCE

In the early 2000’s, Sega’s plan was to deliver cheaper and more effective arcade hardware for the Japanese market, which of few would see worldwide releases. NAOMI 2 was given the emphasize over the Hikaru, which was phased out in 2002. NAOMI 2 would last to 2008, with Atomiswave, a Sammy developed NAOMI derivative, running by its side. Around the same time in 2001 Sega developed the Triforce with Nintendo and Namco, based on Nintendo’s GameCube. Two years later, Sega would release Chihiro to the arcades, based on Microsoft’s Xbox. All these arcade machines ran different games that Sega was directly involved and developed, like NAOMI 2’s Virtua Fighter 4 series, Triforce running AM2 developed F-Zero AX, Atomiswave running many fishing and fighting games Sega was part developer and publisher, and Chihiro most known for OutRun 2 and House of the Dead III due to their Xbox ports. Later in the 2000’s, Sega’s arcade hardware would be more or less completely home media derivative, based on normal PC architecture, making some of the modern games running on a modified Windows. However, there was no Virtual-On, on any of these systems.

With Virtual-On FORCE generally receiving lukewarm acceptance from the overall audience, regarding Oratorio Tangram the superior game, Hitmaker would develop a console-only sequel for the PlayStation 2; Virtual-On MARZ.

Continue reading “Virtual-On Retrospective: MARZ”