Posted by: seanmalstrom | January 14, 2009

Email: The Zelda Patent

I haven’t been doing a good job at keeping up with my email. In fact, I haven’t been able to get to it for the last couple of months. It is always fun to open up your email and find a billion spam messages.

Starting from most recent to later, I’ll be answering emails here since there are many things people want to comment on (especially since I closed comments section).

Consider these emails to be ‘user-generated blog posts’. Bahaha!

EskimoeJoe writes:

So, I’m sure you’ve heard by now all the buzz about Miyamoto’s new patent for, presumably, Zelda that allows for some kind of interesting new hint system. Amidst the cries of people whining about how this cheat system is making Zelda casual (wouldn’t this allow them to make the game harder, though? Since the cheat system would be pointless if they didn’t expect people to get stuck), it made me think back to your post about Nintendo controlling the way we play now, something they didn’t used to do.

Would you say this new hint system falls in line with the way that Nintendo used to function. They are now allowing people to easily skip ahead, and watch scenes played out, rather than forcing them to figure it. They’re allowing the customer to experience it different ways. Could this new hint system by the new Warp Zone?

Kotaku has asked some developers to talk about the patent here.

This patent is much ado about nothing. Video Game business is notorious for patenting everything from camera code to gameplay designs (when making Mario 64, Miyamoto and team had to completely re-design the camera halfway through because it violated a patent by Sega). Just because this patent exists doesn’t mean it will be used, either. It could be something that seems like a good idea and the patent is to make sure Nintendo can use their own good idea. Patent law sucks.

When I saw this, I, too, thought of the Warp Zone from the original Super Mario Brothers.

Warp Zone was shocking back when Super Mario Brothers came out. It felt like the game had tons of secrets, and the Warp Zone was the greatest secret. The obsession of trying to get to and beat “Minus World” is evident of players’ amazement and obsession at discovering all the secrets of the game.

Today, Super Mario Brothers would be considered a ‘casual’ game. There are eight worlds, four stages each. There are no cinematics (horrors!), there is no dialogue except for the line that the princess is in another castle. Mario does not go ‘woo hoo!’ or ‘wooopeeee’. He just goes ‘boing!’. Why would Super Mario Brothers need a ‘Warp Zone’? And why did the ‘Warp Zone’ not break the game?

The patent appears to be about Zelda. In Legend of Zelda, there is no Warp Zone, obviously. But there was no need as Link can go almost anywhere he wants in the Overworld and can go to almost any dungeon in any order. A Zelda Warp Zone wouldn’t matter since the Zelda player already had full control. If the Zelda player wanted to beat the second dungeon first, the game allowed it. This was carried on, somewhat, in Zelda II and Link to the Past. With Ocarina, the Zelda games became very linear.

If the Warp Zone worked wonders for Super Mario Brothers and passwords helped many old school games, should such a system as described in the Zelda patent help Zelda the same?

I suspect the Zelda patent was thought up when Nintendo, and especially Miyamoto, monitored people playing Twilight Princess. Apparently, their research showed that if they ‘show’ the player how to do things, the player then knows it. And if the player can skip frustrating parts, the player keeps playing. It is important to note that many Nintendo changes occur when observing people’s faces and reactions when they play. This is obviously the fruit of Nintendo’s research when they investigated reasons why Twilight Princess didn’t sell in places like Japan.

The fear of ‘Expanded Audience’ declining Nintendo’s Core games is silly. Nintendo’s Core games were easily in decline before they even began to target an Expanded Audience. One of the reasons why Gamecube didn’t do so well was because of the decline in Nintendo’s core titles. Windwaker and Super Mario Sunshine did not cause any mass phenomenon. One can argue that even the N64 games were a decline. Mario 64 and Ocarina didn’t strike the same note as the 16 bit versions. The phenomon of the N64 titles rested mostly on the 3d sensations at the time. Ocarina did sell very well. However, it sold very well to younger people. Nintendo’s N64 games are beloved by those who played them young. Many older folks did not find the titles as appealing due to the switch to 3d. The fanbase ended up fractioning.

Super Mario Galaxy failed to create any substantive phenomenon. Ditto for Twilight Princess. Nintendo’s Core games have been unable to strike lightning the way they used to, and this failure has nothing to do with the Expanded Audience. Keep in mind that all Japanese game companies are having trouble making core games that strike lightning. The big hit core games you hear are coming more from the West (mostly from PC game companies, alas).

On Kotaku’s page, they had one developer describe the patent as a type of ‘band-aid’ for bad gameplay. I think this is correct, but it isn’t for bad gameplay as it is because Nintendo is unsure of how to get their Core games to strike lightning again. So we will see Nintendo likely throw in everything including the ‘kitchen sink’ and have the ‘patent’ be a way for the player to choose his or her own pleasure path. It also means that the next Zelda is linear and that annoys me greatly.

The big question I want to ask is why did Warp Zone work in Super Mario Brothers, as well as passwords and cheat codes for the old school games? Why didn’t such ‘hints’ and ‘cheats’ ruin the game?

I’ve been thinking about this frequently, and the answer I come up with is ‘mastery’. The old school gamer says, “I have finally got to level five!” The new school gamer says, “I am twenty hours into this game so far!” The old school gamer’s statement implies mastery. The player had mastered the game to such a level in order to reach level five. He does not need a gold sticker of ‘achievement’ because he knows getting to level five is an achievement already. The new school gamer’s statement implies intoxication, not mastery. The new school gamer is ‘absorbing’ twenty hours of production values and story. It is no surprise the new school gamer measures his progress by time spent while the old school gamer measures his progress by mastery (what scores and stages represented).

Warp Zones and passwords worked for the old school games because it did not remove the mastery. If you declared you beat Super Mario Brothers, someone would fire back, “But did you do it without using a Warp Zone?” Using the Konami code for Contra or Gradius was a helpful hand toward enjoying the game. But it did not remove the mastery of the game. Ditto for passwords. Old School games’ progress was based on player skill (just as games like Wii Sports and Wii Fit are today, hmm…). Warp Zone and passwords gave control to players to peek at the content of the entire game without mastering it. It didn’t ruin the game because it didn’t ruin the mastering aspect of it. You couldn’t get the high score when you used Warp Zone.

The new school games, that rely on ‘intoxication’ of the player by plot and production values, are another story. One difference between old school games and new school games is that the old school games weren’t designed for the player to see the entire game. Only a few would make it to the end. Some games, like Contra 3, the last levels became the weakest in terms of polish because of that. In the new school games, it is as if the entire game is designed with the expressed purpose for everyone to see the ending. The reason why people do not finish the old school game is because they haven’t mastered it. The reason why people do not finish the new school game is because they just got bored.

The Mario and Zelda games, as games of the 8-bit and 16-bit period, were glorious towers built on the solid rock of arcade gameplay. Yes, there was greater ‘adventure’ and ‘production values’ in the later games, but they all held the arcade gameplay core. The later Mario and Zelda games seemed to have the rock be ‘iconic franchise character and places’ with different types of gameplay built on it. Including Link snowboarding and Mario mantra racing doesn’t strike Nintendo as ‘odd’ because the ‘iconic franchise character and places’ are still intact. Bored core gamers have pleaded to Nintendo to use new intellectual properties. However, that would not solve Nintendo’s core dilemma.

Because the gameplay is so inconsistent in the new Mario and Zelda games, the ‘Warp Zone’ would entail people skip to the end, beat the game, and set it aside as I did Super Mario Galaxy (as many others did as well). There is no sense of ‘mastery’. Nintendo and other game companies have realized this and placed purple or gold coins to ‘collect’ (scavenger hunt), ‘achievements’ (gold stickers of the game patting your head), and ‘unlockables’ (the Pavlovian reward).

When you watch people play Wii Sports or Wii Fit, they play it and try to master it. They try to beat other people’s scores. This is exactly what happened in the old school games.

I think a better solution is for Nintendo to go back to their roots for Mario and Zelda. With Zelda, start Link out in a non-linear world armed with a sword (and say you can use the sword with motion +). Focus entirely on getting the gameplay to be arcade-like. Then, just build a world around Link. This was how the first Zeldas worked. The Zelda patent seems like yet another ‘patch’ to place onto a broken new school gameplay.

Why do I get the feeling that Miyamoto and others want to make new school Zelda and new school Mario to be as popular and mainstream as the old school titles instead of just going back to the roots of what made those games great? Miyamoto admited that Super Mario Galaxy was designed to ‘correct’ the flaws of Mario 64. Yet, New Super Mario Brothers is the better selling Mario game by far.

Miyamoto’s perspective is to remove all and any constraints in the Core titles. I do think this is the wrong way to go about it. He should just return to the Mario and Zelda roots. The market has made it known that they LOVE games like New Super Mario Brothers. Yet, where is such a game for Wii? Miyamoto revealed that the younger people at Nintendo, who grew up with the original games, want to make games like them again whereas the older people at Nintendo, like Miyamoto, have been there and done that and want to try out new things. Funny how this doesn’t apply to Mario Kart, whose sales shot up when Mario Kart DS was designed to return to its SNES roots.

What doesn’t make sense to me is why Nintendo has lately been against people ‘cheating’ or ‘skipping ahead’ in a game by downloading a save game from the Internet. The save data of Mario Kart Wii and Super Smash Brothers Brawl cannot leave the Wii. This means Nintendo is ‘forcing’ people to unlock it if they want it unlocked. Nintendo defends this by saying it is protecting the value of the unlockables. I say it reveals how the unlockables have no real value anyway if you have to remove the option of cheating in order to make people unlock it (playing is supposed to be fun, is it not?). Passwords and Warp Zones did not destroy the old school games; it made them more popular. You KNOW Contra would be nowhere near as fun without the Konami code. Even Blizzard games have cheat codes so people can make it through the campaign.

It is odd to throw in an in-game ‘cheat’ but not allow players to ‘cheat’ on their own (within single player, of course).

We can’t really say much about this patent since we have to experience how it is implemented in the game. To me, this patent is no better than any other rumor. All we can do is just chatter paragraphs away endlessly like I did above!



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