Elements of game design have changed over the years. From set and sound design to backend coding to narrative development, the new generations of games are nothing like their progenitors. With these changes emerge nuances in the histories, trajectories, and development of certain styles of games. This isn't Pong anymore--by now you have a player base that’s attuned to and understands the various options they have regarding gameplay style. We have decision-based games that highlight player interaction and integrate customization into the narrative, like Detroit: Become Human. We have high-octane action games like Devil May Cry V that rely entirely on fast player input to gratify their rule-of-cool aesthetic. There are farming simulators, strategy-based games, point-and-click adventures, management sims, and gacha games like Genshin Impact that couple lottery-based collection systems with RPG-style gameplay and monetize it.
Functionally, all of these exist to provide the same thing: active engagement with our entertainment. Not all games offer the same depth of engagement, as playing Dark Souls looks very different from playing Arcade Paradise, but there is a level of user input that games strive for in order to keep players' attention. Not all attention will be the same, and in a market where time matters it is why the immersion of players is so integral to creators working on long-form, high-budget entries. What makes one want to sit for hours in a chair and play the same thing? Novelty? Story? Gimmick?
All of it.
The pervasive presence of mobile phones in pockets and bags as well as the mobile videogames' amenability to being played for as little as a few minutes at a time (in stark contrast to most PC and console videogames, which take more than a few minutes even to commence) mean that casual mobile videogames are often played by a 'body-in-waiting' in environments where the player is still paying some attention to the actual world around them even as they also pay attention to (and construct) the virtual world presented on the small, palm-size screen: sitting on a bus, waiting for a friend at a cafe, waiting for a commerical break to finish. -"A Play of Bodies", Brendan Keogh, 2018
To sit down and play is not what it means to game anymore. Gaming is a diverse and plentiful pastime, with more people engaging in the hobby than ever before. The popularity of a game like Elden Ring is still niche, while the number of people actively playing a MOBA title like League of Legends is ever-growing. These games are fundamentally different, but they are examples of how popular games are changing the landscape we've come to know.
The times are changing
As the development cycles of games have lengthened, and while the tools used to develop them have become more widely available, there is often an understanding that big studios marketing AAA or even mid-budget games have an obligation to fans, one that didn't exist prior to the modern cultural gaming movement. It is now, more than ever, a must to marry tradition to new and improved game design in a way that intuits audience desires.
This isn't easy for franchises that have established fan bases dependent on the parameters of certain aspects of game design. That is, the personality or individuality of a certain game series distinguishes it from others, and fans of that style are often playing the subsequent games because of it. Being that these are preferences of taste, it's tough to argue why one style is better than any other. But as our relationship to gaming changes and the complications of immersion, time, accessibility, and cost weigh in on the market, whether a particular franchise is going in the right direction is increasingly dependent entirely on who you ask.
The popularity of the Pokemon franchise can't be understated, and its safe style of gameplay is often cited as why. It occupies a comfortable niche, featuring a simple, turn-based battle system with a monster-catching premise aimed at all audiences. Every entry in the series has featured the same template, except for the Wild Area in the Sword and Shield entries that experimented with a new open-world concept style of play, one that foregoes the tradition of random encounters. This is explored in more depth with Pokemon Legends: Arceus, the most recent entry in the series that allows players to roam an open world and capture Pokemon on the fly.
The success of the franchise is largely dependent on its old formula, but the worldwide phenomenon of Pokemon Go! continues to influence the series's future. The current marketability of vast, open-world games is likely why the upcoming Pokemon Scarlet and Violet promise a more "choose your own adventure" style of play in addition to the casual, mainstream appeal of its old "feel." Fans of the franchise have been notoriously eager to see a departure from the status quo, but the direction is often contested, questioned, and dissected by them as well.
While certainly nowhere near as recognizable, the Final Fantasy series has had its fair share of growing pains as well. The upcoming FFXVI has promised to be a departure from the series norm, but unlike Pokemon--which is often cited as playing it too safe--Final Fantasy has the opposite problem: people are questioning the integrity of this decision because it's been stated, very plainly, that a shift in mainstream game design is to blame.
“For several console generations now, all character expressions can be done in real-time. Actions such as ‘press the trigger and your character will shoot a gun’ and ‘press the button and your character will swing their sword’ can now be easily expressed without going through a command system. “It’s now common for gamers younger than me to love such games. As a result, it seems that it does not make sense to go through a command prompt, such as ‘Battle’, to make a decision during a battle." --Naoki Yoshida, Video Game Chronicles
And it is true that the ranks of the series' fans are always growing (Final Fantasy XV has sold more than ten million copies, more than most of the other games in the series, and continues its slow crawl to cult classic status) even as it also retains old fans. There are Final Fantasy fans that have played every entry in the series, fans who have never played the original VII but have played Remake, and some that were born after FFX was released. Anecdotally, my first completed entry was XII, and it remains one of my favorites alongside XIV and the often maligned XV.
But there are two different factors at play here when it comes to expectations for future games, and I think they're equally important to discuss: fan and market expectations.
As an outsider to the Assassin's Creed series, for example, my first impressions of Black Flag were that it was perfectly serviceable but didn't hold my interest, and I found myself drawn far more to the style and characters of Syndicate. In playing Syndicate I was armed with my own little checklist of "what it means to be a game", but I didn't have one specifically labeled "what it means to be a good Assassin's Creed game." This, I would say, drastically lowered my expectations of and my connection to the series' history. But playing a single entry in a long-running series isn't all that peculiar--outside the insular chat rooms of fans, most people playing games tend to pick up what looks interesting.
“This is not an argument of what is good or bad, but there is a difference based on the player’s preferences and age." - Naoki Yoshida, Video Game Chronicle
Often, it comes down to just that: a matter of taste. And yet the conversations around such things tend to focus on specific franchise staples as being indicative of it being a good entry or not. Unlike standalone games, contributions to a larger flagship series must maintain a particular branding. But what does it mean to keep tradition? In the case of a series as popular as Pokemon, does risk create loss? Could it mitigate loss under the right conditions? It seems that the team behind FFXVI is hedging their bets on risk entirely, as this upcoming entry is likely to be the first Mature-rated mainline game in series history.
This is already a concern that the fatigue of such a grimdark fantasy may not yet have manifested in Japan the way it has in America. The proliferation of mature fantasy might be less noticeable, and therefore less affecting story decisions. But Final Fantasy is still a global franchise, and I feel confident that research was done to establish a baseline for expectations and trends.
The truth is that Final Fantasy is going back to its oft-lauded roots as a purely historical fantasy, with the traditional setting being vaguely medieval. The problem is that there is already a wide variety of these types of games to choose from, and concerned fans are rightly aware of the fulfillment of a traditional game setting juxtaposing a very different combat style. But for fans of the modern Final Fantasy games, it's not so different at all--it's all they've known. And while liking XV and XIII might make you want to play other entries, not all fans want to be historians of a series, sometimes they just want to be entertained.
Game design and games themselves are changing, as are our relationships with and our interpretations of them. They are, in the end, a product--one often forged with love, but also with every intention of creating sales. This is no different from other creative projects that must balance the particulars of market demand, franchise integrity, cost, and manpower. There's plenty more to say about this, especially regarding the comments made by Yoshida following the showing of the FFXVI trailer at the Tokyo Game Show. He spoke on how creating more accessible gaming experiences was pivotal for them in designing FXVI, but it seems an already blatant piece of evidence--this game is designed as an umbrella entry, mature rating be damned.
And besides all that--what constitutes the feel of a series? Is it the gameplay, or the art? Is it in replicating and perfecting past designs, or taking risks and changing the standard? There isn't really a right answer, and FFXVI's direction is merely a snapshot of the decades-long franchise; a monumental but momentary glimpse of its possibility. But it is a glimpse of the current cultural landscape of game design as well, one that will forever be shifting, but that, for the moment, seems to be captured by a particular vision.
Whether FFXVI can take that formula and successfully experiment with it is yet to be seen--but as with any new attempt to shake up the old, there will be misses and hits. While FFXVI's success is yet to be determined, it can't be denied that the way we play the games we love is ever-evolving--and, like all changes in life, we must accept and learn from them.
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