Japan, PC Gaming in the Arcade

I’m back from just over a week in Japan and in between all the cultural sightseeing, I managed to find some time to check out what’s happening in Japanese arcades. As it turns out, the world has turned upside down or come full circle, depending on how you’d like to look at it. I had to try it; Border Break from Sega is an online multiplayer 3rd person shooter featuring giant robots instead of beefy space marines. The matches seem to play a little like the onslaught game type from Unreal Tournament 2004, though with classes and an unlock progression system. The crazy thing is it follows those kinds of shooters so closely the machine has a MOUSE! A MOUSE! Attached to AN ARCADE GAME! The only thing missing is a miniature WASD layout. Instead, movement is handled with a thumb-stick ala any controller since the N64. The thumb stick is mounted on a kind of joystick with no movement of its own, but with a couple of buttons on the front and an awkwardly placed action button by the thumb – though how you’re supposed to press it during any kind of action is beyond me. The analogue nature of the stick overcomes the limitations of WASD quite nicely, while the little mouse allows smooth aiming control that feels very natural to anyone who’s played a few shooters on PC. Because of the simple action based nature of the game, resembling Unreal Tournament, and the familiarity of the controls, I found myself buying a save card for the game and playing a few more matches than I expected I would, even topping the scoreboard.

I’m surprised to see a game with what looks to be a deep unlock path and engrossing team-based multiplayer in an arcade. PC multiplayer games must be even more unpopular in Japan than I thought. Sure I’ve seen a few Japanese players on Battlefiled 2, but for Border Break to survive, there has to be a significant audience out there with no other means to play such a game. Either that or I’m missing the draw of the noisy arcades. It makes me wonder if an arcade developer could revisit some older online first person shooters and modify them a little for the arcade. Though I suppose they would not appeal as much to the Japanese sensibility. Border Break does at least meet that requirement in spades, not only with the giant robots but also the anime looking pilots. I assume this is also to keep the game kid friendly, though all the people queuing up to play it were adults.

I must say I enjoyed my time with Border Break and it makes me think that Japanese gaming isn’t so dissimilar from western after all, but I do wonder if the format would last if the money-based time limit were removed and the game became a retail PC release. There’s certainly a lot more potential for more money to be made with this pay-to-play model, especially with the amount of progression there appears to be. Still, running out of 100 yen coins and suddenly dropping out of a game is more annoying than having to answer the door or the phone, since you can more successfully ignore those.


Fall of Matchmaking?

There was a time when I felt that the process of matchmaking would completely supersede server browsers, but recently – and especially since the release of Modern Warfare 2 – I feel that there is still a place for them.

The process of searching for a dedicated server with a good number of players on it might seem antiquated, but with adequate search features it becomes far more robust at finding the kind of game you want. All that’s required is a filter for X number of slots available, giving the ability to ensure space for any friends joining in. Xbox live did have this great feature known as parties, but it seems party chat is a tool of the devil, so even those are far less useful now.

So often I find myself comparing my Modern Warfare 2 experience with that of Battlefield 2. It makes me yearn for a time when I could find a well administered server with a population of players who were not just out for themselves. Even Battlefield 2 had a “Quick Play” button, which was enough to get you into a populated server and start playing. That satisfied the “I don’t care, just let me play now” contingent, but having the fully featured server browser there with a bevy of search options meant I could find the exact map I wanted to play on and see beforehand whether I would be jumping into a game full of hardcore clan members looking to lay waste to my plans of enjoyment.

Matchmaking in Modern Warfare 2 has been honed to a point where it can get you into a game very fast and with little effort on the part of the player, but I often find that if I pick anything other than Mercenary Team Deathmatch, I rarely have a good game. This is because that is the only mode that will ensure you’re not put on a team opposite a bunch of clan members working together, while your team team is made up of players hoping to just hop in and have some fun. It makes me feel like the choices in multiplayer on Modern Warfare 2 are extremely limited, else I am not given a greater guarantee of a game I will have fun with. At the very least with server browsers I could leave and find a different game if the people there were being unsporting/annoying/jerks, but any time you try that in Modern Warfare 2, you’re right back in the same game.

I suppose with the additional limitations imposed on the Xbox 360 version of Modern Warfare 2, I start to feel like there’s too much dictation of what the experience will be on the part of Infinity Ward. Rather than making a game for people to play and have fun in, it has become self-serious as though the hardcore minority – though vocal they are – have been able to influence what that mode should be. Those are definitely not the people you should be listening to if you want to make your game fun for the most people possible.

I don’t think I would feel so bad about matchmaking and multiplayer in Modern Warfare 2 if it were just a lot more flexible. Seeing a kind of regression back to few game types and few rule-sets in multiplayer games is quite saddening.  Have your easy playlist style games, but also allow people to make games with custom rules that can be searched using a kind of advanced matchmaking. No one would end up in them who didn’t want to, and you’d be able to have a Mercenaries Domination on the smallest map available; now how much fun would that be?

Bare in mind that besides Battlefield 2, a lot of my multiplayer online gaming time was spent with games like Unreal Tournament 2004, so take that as you will.