In his keynote, Square Enix’ chief strategist, Ichiro Otobe talked about why the publisher of franchise giants Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest has taken a keen interest in leveraging its game technology and design know-how beyond the world of entertainment. In answer to the question of why serious games and why now, Otobe pointed to two features of the current landscape that moved Square into the serious arena:
First, he argued that while the game industry has become incredibly strong in a short period of time, it will never become a truly mainstream medium until it encompasses more than entertainment. While games established the industry’s core, without spreading out from that core, it will remain a niche medium.
Second, being chief strategist of a major Japanese corporation, Otobe was impressed by the potential size the serious games market. He made the observation that out of the top 20 selling titles in Japan last year, five were basically serious games: Brain Training and More Brain Training sold seven million copies combined; and English Training, Training of Common Sense, and Cooking Navigation also enjoyed tremendous commercial success.
The real treat of the keynote, however, arrived when MOtobe introduced Tadashi Tsushima, a producer from Square’s recently formed GB Lab. Tsushima, who programmed the interface for Vagrant Story and moved on to PlayOnline before coming to GB Lab, demonstrated an early build of a game for the Nintendo DS that, though it may never be published, has no name, and is less than a month old, gave a clear indication of the inspired ambition the company has for serious games.
In essence, Tsushima presented a game about making games. The game is divided into four sections—training, development, publishing, and research, each accessible via a menu in the lower screen. The paradigm for the game is to teach users the basic elements of design, allow them to create their own game, enable them to share their game with others, and provide a platform for experiencing games created by their peers.
The demonstration focused on the training module. Users are given assignments that explore development skills like graphic design and eventually introduce principles like game balance. While the lower screen contains the interface and toolset, the upper screen displays the game the user is building, and changes made in the toolset are immediately reflected in the game.
The game Tsushima built at the demonstration was a Space Invaders clone, and he used the game’s graphical tools to re-color one of the enemies. He then moved on to the game balance module, where he used sliders to control parameters such as the number of enemies, their speed, distribution, and rate of fire. The point that the module illustrated so elegantly was that small changes in parameters can have huge effects on the difficulty of the game. It is a lesson that applies far beyond game design and has the power to introduce users to the delicate balance found in complex systems like habitats, markets, and our climate.