Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Vanillaware and Immediate Satisfaction

It's no secret that I love Vanillaware-developed games. And over time, I have only come to love and appreciate them more and more; not just for story and graphics, but gameplay design as well. However, I have come to wonder why I love these games so much; after all, they aren't the best games in terms of gameplay, and their content can be really small in comparison to other titles, but, hey, for games made by only around a dozen people, I think they can be forgiven for that. But, after reflecting upon my time with their games, I figured out why I enjoy Vanillaware's games so much: immediate satisfaction.

In many games I've played, even those I have come to enjoy the most, there is often the problem of "long-term satisfaction", where the player must go through a lot of, let's call it "work", to get to what they really want. This "work" is stuff like traversing across a large overworld in an RPG having to deal with many random battles in order to get to a dungeon (the actual goal), or having to fight many weak enemies in order to get to a boss fight or story section. Many mission-style games have this type of "long-term" satisfaction where a player has to compelte many monotonous and boring missions before getting to take on a more interesting and challenging mission. These "work" sections of a game are often padding or "fluff" for games that would have a very short length without them. The end result is "long-term" satisfaction where the player has to perform chore-like sections of gameplay in order to get to the sections of gameplay/story that they really want. 

Now, this style of gameplay isn't always bad; for example, traversing an overworld can be fun if it is beautiful or filled with many interesting things to do, such as the overworlds of A Link to the Past or Okami. Or a game can allow for exploration that will lead to benefits for the player, such as in Metroid games. However, if possible, I prefer my game experiences to be very focused affairs, where nothing is kept from me or left dangling in front of me as a tease; rather what I want is given to me right away and the game just keeps on delivering throughout the entire experience. Of course, a game isn't going to give you the best weapons/upgrades at the beginning, nor is the story going to be at its best right away, but I don't expect a game to begin boring and then get interesting later; rather a game should begin interesting and only improve upon those humble beginnings. 

Case in point: Vanillaware games. Vanillaware games are a superb example of "immediate" satisfaction games, for they provide everything for the player immediately throughout the entire game experience. While Grand Knights History can be seen as an exception to this rule, it's multiplayer-focused game design slightly exempts it from criticism as a "long-term" satisfaction game, which, again, isn't a bad thing, but in GKH's case, the "long-term" works alongside the "immediate", but that's another discussion entirely. So here, I will focus on Vanillaware's other games which show great examples of "immediate" satisfaction game design. This is due to there being nothing superfluous or unnecessary in the game design of Vanillaware's games. Everything is presented for the player in an easy-to-learn fashion, and yet Vanillaware's games still have a lot of depth. The end result is game design that is very satisfying but doesn't require a ton of grunt work to fully obtain. 

The best way to go about this is by using examples. In Odin Sphere, for example, there is a unique leveling up system that splits the players health and attack power into two separate meters, and the way to level up these two categories is to either eat food to level up a character's health or absorb psyphers to level up one's attack power; and it all revolves around the use of pysphers, which are dropped by fallen enemies. Obtaining food and leveling up one's weapon is done by rationing how one uses the psyphers dropped by enemies, and while this may seem complicated on paper, once set up in the game, it couldn't be simpler, as it simply revolves around utilizing the assets set directly in front of the player. The player never has to worry about saving psyphers for later because there will be more enemies to defeat, nor does the player have to worry about saving items for a later time because there will be many more later. The game design of Odin Sphere was built around using what was given to the player immediately, rather than the player worrying if a particular item would be needed an hour later, or if it was the right time to level up one's weapon. Granted, there is some strategy in choosing which meter to upgrade and saving food for the Pooka Kitchen to make more complicated dishes, but it was never done with the mind-set of having to save an item for something far later in the game. This game design of "living in the moment" is what Vanillaware games truly do best.

Grimgrimoire showed "immediate" satisfaction in how it wasted no time in getting the player into the story and never really hand-holding the player; even the tutorials are directly integrated into the story itself. Grimgrimoire also held nothing back in terms of how deep the gameplay got, but the player was never forced into using complex strategies for winning; rather, everything was given to the player, but only a certain amount was asked for. This makes for a game design that doesn't require any grinding or superfluous amounts of practice; rather it was simply a game design that said: if you play well you will reap the rewards by a high ranking and beating the opponent faster, if you play poorly, you can still succeed but it will be a bumpy ride for you. What I'm getting at is that Grimgrimoire's game design provides everything for the player but doesn't ask too much of the player in return, thus resulting in a fairly unfrustrating game. 

Muramasa was a game with long treks across a world map, but it never felt dull or repetitive; this is because, like Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire, it's game design gave the player everything right away. In Muramasa, all manner of attacks and combos were possible right in the beginning; of course they grew overtime as the player got more swords and special attacks, but the player was still given a lot right at the beginning. As a result, the long treks across the world map, and the battles that took place there, never felt repetitive or like "work", because they could all be played out differently thanks to the player being given all their assets in the beginning. In many other action-RPGs I've played, the game design was always a grind, because the player was only given a few attacks to work with in the beginning of the game, and while that increased overtime, it was done in such a slow pace that all the new attacks the player was given overtime would become repetitive themselves. Muramasa doesn't suffer from such "grinds" and instead is a smooth and satisfying stroll. 

What this "immediate" satisfaction provides is a very satisfying game design thanks to a lack of superfluous game design ideas, such as unnecessary stat parameters, annoying side-quests, or long grinds in gameplay just to be good enough to reach a satisfying part in the gameplay. Games should never feel like a chore, and Vanillaware games never do, they are always direct and simple in design, yet often hold much depth beneath the surface, and it's that game design quality that keeps me always coming back to their games and enjoying them every time.

As a disclaimer, not all games that execute "immediate" satisfaction well are great games, just as not all games that have "long-term" satisfaction are bad games. For example, Spiderman: Shattered Dimensions and Transformers: War for Cybertron execute "immediate" satisfaction very well, but aren't truly amazing games due to weak gameplay, and games like Dragon Quest VIII and Chrono Cross may have "long-term" satisfaction execution, but they're still two of the best games ever.

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