If something goes wrong when you, a video game producer, try to show a trio of Kotaku writers a DS game, should you blamed the pirate-themed nightclub you're standing in? Or should you blame a questionable staple of game design?
These questions popped into my head last week in Tokyo. Koichi Yamaguchi was the game producer in question: A nice Japanese producer with an apparently nice game.
His game is called Again. It's a crime, mystery-solving game on the DS. And it has a lot of non-gameplay story sequences in it, something that would foil him the night he tried to show it to me, Crecente and McWhertor during a party at the pirate-themed club in the New Otani Hotel.
I had never met Yamaguchi before we stood on the dance floor for his impromptu demo at this mixer for overseas media and the video game producers at Tecmo Koei.
On a cheat sheet handed to reporters entering Yamaguchi had listed his hobbies as "drinking beer and speaking English." One or both of those gave him the courage to approach me, Crecente and McWhertor to flip open his DS and show us his game, Again.
Yamaguchi didn't have to say much to get me interested in Again. By the time he told me that the game was developed by Cing, the makers of the solid DS adventure games Another Code and Hotel Dusk, I was adding it to my mental list of games to follow.
The amiable game producer, however, didn't want to just drop the name of the development studio and be done. He wanted to show us parts of the game. And that introduced the problem — the one making me wonder if we should blame nightclubs or game design for what happened next.
He started losing us. Each of us, in turn, got distracted. There was a crowd. People were saying hello. But there was also the issue of his game starting with lots of text. Speech balloon after speech balloon appeared. Each needed a tap of the screen to go away before another appeared.
What could normally have been story set-up was now just interference. I think it was Crecente who was getting pulled away the most by PR folks and who knows what else. Yamaguchi urged me and McWhertor to pay attention. He kept tapping, right past the dialogue. The subtext was that his game's text wasn't important. "Wait for the cool part," he said. More tapping. More flipping past intro stuff.
Yamaguchi would not have had much trouble if he was showing us action. If he had been able to jump to a chase scene or a boss battle or something else that dynamic, the quality of his game alone should have been able to determine whether we kept watching or suddenly remembered we just had to doublecheck the smell of the room next door. But his game may not even have chase scenes to show. It is a mystery game that mixes animation with short clips of real, filmed actors. It is an investigation game. It is a talking game. It is a game requiring focus.
But it's also a game that isn't really a game for its first few minutes. It's something you watch, something you tap through before the playing begins.
In a quieter setting when there's more time, the long non-interactive part of Again might not be a hindrance to catching a potential player's attention. But in a pirate-themed Nightclub? I felt bad for Yamaguchi, but I wondered if he had inadvertently exposed a flaw in his game's design. If so, then we'd have to deem so many games flawed, because so many of them start this way.
Eventually he got to the cool part. That part is the core aspect of Again: The DS, held book-style shows a place like, say, a room, in the game's present timeframe on the right screen and that same space in another timeframe, the past, on the left. The player compares the two, looks for clues, then manipulates the scene in the present. Noticing a difference might help reveal the whereabouts of a switch to a hidden door, for example.
The three of us had to leave Yamaguchi because we really did have a dinner to attend. He'd had only a few minutes to show us his game, enough to catch my interest but barely enough to show what it's like to actually play his game.
Blame the pirate-themed nightclub? Or blame the staple of game design that starts Again?
(If you'd like to see the game in action, check out this Japanese trailer.)