Like I Like My Women… (Irish)

While I was ordering a King Mocha from the local coffee shop a few minutes ago, I started thinking about tastes, and how they change.  Five years ago, I would have grimaced while nursing this brew that will kick-start a long night of coding (which starts just as soon as I finish this post).

How, then, does taste factor into gaming?  I remember envying my friend Matt in middle school when he showed me the Pocket Station, a Playstation memory card that could play games on the go, very much like the Virtual Memory Unit that came out of the Sega Dreamcast years later.  The device itself was nothing to write home about.  What excited me was the game that was all but alone in supporting the gimmicky device:  Final Fantasy VIII.

From my first taste with Breath of Fire 3, Japanese RPGs were the order of the day.  My siblings were older sisters, who lost interest in video games after Sonic 2, and most of my friends lived out of walking distance, so gaming was mainly a single-player affair, and I thought nothing of putting forty hours into a game.

Legend of Legaia, Wild Arms, Thousand Arms, Grandia, Star Ocean 2, Chrono Cross and of course Final Fantasy VII-X and Tactics, I played them all and more.  As for Western RPGs?  Nope.  I tried multiple entries in the Ultima series, Nox, Fallout Tactics (but notably not Fallout 1 or 2), and more, but was never engaged.

And now?  I find myself fighting a feeling of jadedness and disdain for RPGs from Japanese studios.  It does not help that so many cling to cutesy sprite-based graphics, but even the technically impressive big-budget entries like The Last Remnant are barely registering a blip on my radar.  I recognize my prejudice, but with a job, a social life, the search for a career, and classes, I do not feel the need to overcome it.  What is odd is that I still remember fondly my time with many of the JRPGs listed above.  I won’t rush to the store to buy any of their sequels (perhaps with the exception of a Shadow Hearts or true Final Fantasy Tactics game, none of that A2 crap), but I still feel the urge to pick up Breath of Fire 3 every once in a while, and I am always looking idly for a copy of Wild Arms: Alter Code F to replace the copy of the original that got scratched.

Now, I am all about the Western RPG’s, never afraid to acknowledge their Dungeons and Dragons roots.  I think the switch started during my upperclassmen years in high school, when I bought a refurbished Xbox to sit next to my Playstation 2.  When my brother-in-law brought over The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind over Christmas break, I ran up a few levels as an Argonian fighter, and got interested enough to pick the game up for the PC.  Fifty or so hours, two expansion packs, and countless high-quality mods later, I put that game down and said hello to Bioware’s Star Wars:  Knights of the Old Republic.

I admit that I never really recognized my (xenophobic?) bias until recently, after I did IT work for Epic Games and got a chance to see the human side of the game development process, and I confronted the realities of outsourcing as I began to look to the market for employment opportunities.  Don’t call me a bigot just yet, though.  While I have lost interest JRPGs, I acknowledge that Japanese studios are the only game in town (yes, pun, sorry) when it comes to fighters, and no one does psychological horror (read: not jump-out-go-boo like Dead Space/Resident Evil) like those Japanese craftsmen.  Writing this, it really makes me want to do an East vs West article, but for now, back on topic.

While this transition in RPG tastes was going on, I also began to lose interest in PC FPS’s, instead favoring shooter offerings on the console.  While Halo came out well before I got my Xbox, Halo 2 hit during my freshman year, while I lived in a college dorm.  As you can imagine, this was the game of choice in our hall, and it was common to have three, four, more guys in my room, waiting for their turns to pick up the sticks and start chucking plasma grenades.  While my brand new laptop failed to run FarCry and Painkiller,  my big black box could boot up XIII and MechAssault 2 no sweat.

Regarding shooters, I am comfortable blaming dorm life and the increased chance for local multiplayer (including cooperative gameplay, cue angelic chorus) for my shift in focus, but with RPGs?  In keeping with the themes of this blog, I may attribute this to narrative.  While, as I said, I still love the JRPGs I played during my grade-school years, today I am drawn to the immersion that comes from creating my own character and making (or at least pretending to make) the decisions that shape the world around me.  Give me the class systems and the stat-tracking.  Morality systems?  (Hell) Yes!  Let me pick my love interest(s)!  Given that, the scrawny, brooding teenaged protagonists and other JRPG archetypes just seem tired.

In a larger context, is this something marketers need to pay attention to?  I know my story isn’t the rule.  My friend Josh would pick up an Xbox controller long enough to kick our asses at Halo 2, but was perfectly content to go back to his Persona series and Counterstrike when he was done.  My theory is that he was actually good enough that the latter didn’t put him off anonymous multiplayer forever.

In an industry where genres rise and fall (see Adventure games), and oversaturation is a constant threat, is it worth it to try and map the gaming masses and predict trends?  This medium is still young enough that today’s demographics will not necessarily match those of a decade from now, and the age of the average gamer has gone up significantly.

One benefit of a multidisciplinary education is the crippling recognition of just how many damn factors play into things like popular culture.  The hypothesis that personal taste led to the rise of console shooters is just as valid as the belief that rising quality in graphics led to the demise of Day of the Tentacle style adventure games. (R.I.P.)  Unless some marketing company want to give me a few heavy bags with dollar signs on them to do research, that is all I can say on that.

Now that my King Mocha is empty and this blog is 1,123 words heavier, I ask, “What do you think?”  Let me know in the comments while I get to work on this damn graphic design project.

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