Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Alexis Mavropoulos

Alexis Mavropoulos
Audio Designer
Codemasters

Notable games Alexis has been involved with: LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens, LEGO Dimensions, DiRT 4

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Believe it or not, this is actually the first time I’ve done a “Leave Luck to Being Rescued” with a fellow Codies employee. Alexis is one of our newest members of the audio team and he’s fairly new to the industry, after dabbling in other audio roles and a brief stint in QA over at Tt Games. We chat a bit about the audio department, QA, his Master’s degree and working at Codemasters.

Brad: After completing your BSc what made you decide to study for your master’s degree? After all, you’re one of only 2 audio designers in the department to have studied for this qualification.

Alexis: It was a combination of different reasons really. After completing my BSc in Music Technology, I decided to postpone my academic studies for the time being to see what I could do in the ‘real world’, solely with my degree. I thought this would also be a good opportunity for me to test the water and evaluate if I wanted to further pursue an academic path.

During this period, I decided to move to London and full heartedly go for it, in pursuit of what would be the start of my audio career. Upon arrival, I was fortunate enough to secure an assistant sound engineer position at ‘The Limehouse’, a high-end music recording studio.  Combined with other jobs outside of audio such as bar-tending, I worked as an assistant for a number of months to follow. This period was a great learning opportunity for me not only in terms of audio, but also life in general and it will always be cherished. For various reasons, however, I gradually began to feel less passionate about the whole situation I was in and slowly lost interest and motivation. The main reason is that I felt that I wasn’t really reaching my full potential and that I had a lot more to offer, especially creatively. This is when a master’s increasingly started to make more and more sense. Furthermore, I generally felt a bit lost in a sea of other graduates who had general music tech degrees like me. I didn’t really feel qualified enough in order to competently work in a world filled with rapidly evolving technologies, where sound can be created and applied in so many new and exciting ways. This made me seriously consider a master’s degree even more, so long story short; I decided to take the plunge.

 

Brad: When did you decide to get into the games industry? Were you open to other audio professions or did you always plan on getting into sound for games?

Alexis: I’ve always enjoyed playing video games and really liked how a good piece of music or memorable sound effects were often present in games. Growing up, I had no idea about how the whole implementation side of things worked, or that it is someone’s actual job to create sound effects and music in order to make them work in-game. It was just one of those cases where I remember thinking to myself “How do they put the sounds in the game? How do they make them change like that depending on what you do?”, but never really investigated it further. I certainly didn’t picture myself working in the industry back in those times.

Years later, when I was already in London making my first professional steps in audio, I found out a bit more about video game sound design. I got really intrigued by it and as I learned more and more about it, I started to seriously consider it as a potential career path. Up until now, game audio was still a bit of a mystery to me compared to other areas such as post production, where everything is linear based. I knew that I was capable of producing audio content that would potentially suit a game, but I was lacking a lot of the technical knowledge in implementation and other areas that you need to posses, in order to pursue a career in it.

In one of my MSc modules, I started learning about Fmod and Wwise and different game engines like Unity and how you could implement audio and I became hooked! I was even designing my own levels, trying to make little mini games that I would add audio to. There was something about game audio that I just found fascinating. The fact that sound was dynamically evolving in real-time blew my mind and it opened up a whole new world for me. From that point on, I started learning as much as I could about game audio through my course and my own personal endeavours and put all my efforts into one day getting into the games industry as a sound designer.

Naturally, I was also open to other audio related opportunities in order to build up my portfolio and CV and did quite a bit of freelance work on different media related projects before I landed my first official game audio job.

Brad: How did you find the transition from QA into an audio role?

Alexis: The transition was pretty smooth to be honest. Obviously, going from working on small projects that needed sound to being an audio designer for a major title like Dirt 4, there was a steep learning curve in the beginning-especially in terms of implementation. However, I was already familiar with a lot of key concepts surrounding game audio, so it didn’t take me very long to adjust to the project.

Brad: Did the experience you gained while in QA help prepare you for your current role or do you find there is little overlap?

Alexis: My prior QA experience definitely helped a lot in this also. Working in QA was very useful as I was introduced to many aspects of game development such as bug fixing, JIRA workflows, dev menus and platform specific testing, which is still a big part of my job today. Also, working with audio bugs and testing games early on in development gave me a great insight of what goes on ‘behind the scenes’.

Brad: How difficult did you find it to land your first game audio job? Did you apply for many jobs beforehand?

Alexis: It’s a known fact that breaking into game audio, especially in a junior position, can be quite difficult. I most definitely didn’t find it easy but, in retrospect, it wasn’t as bad as I had expected either. I’d say perseverance combined with constantly developing yourself is a key factor more than anything in landing your first job. And, yes, I did apply to quite a few places.

Brad: Did you tailor your portfolio and CV to suit the jobs you were applying for?

Alexis: I didn’t really feel the need to tailor my CV each time apart from certain minor adjustments here and there that would potentially suit a role better. As for my portfolio, I basically tried to have what I thought was my best work combined into a single, game audio specific show reel. I’m not saying this is the best way to do things-this is simply how I did it.

Brad: Before working at Codies did you already have an interest in racing games? If yes what are some memorable racing games that you grew up playing? Do you think it is important to be interested in the genre of games you are developing or is this something you get into once in that role?

Alexis: I had an interest in racing games, although I definitely wouldn’t call myself a ‘petrol head’ or anything like that. I generally enjoyed a well made, fun racing game. Some memorable racing titles (of varying style) for me growing up were Mario Kart 64, Diddy Kong Racing, F-Zero X, Collin McCrae Rally, Star Wars Episode 1: Racer and a few of the Need for Speed games.

I wouldn’t say it’s essential to be fully interested in the genre of games you are developing, but it definitely helps. In my case, I found myself getting a lot more interested in racing games after I actually started working on one as a developer. I guess you get so involved with what you are creating that you naturally grow fond of it. Also, when new titles of the same genre come out from other companies you want to compare them to your game, so you’ll spend some time playing the competitor’s games as well.

Brad: I agree with this, I found that myself when working on various games. I also think it helps to be able to really get into what you’re working on. Before working on F1 I never watched F1 races but now I find myself watching a lot of content and following various stats and reading a bunch of F1 articles on a regular basis.

What’s a typical day like for a junior audio designer at Codemasters? Is it what you were expecting?

Alexis: A typical day would normally involve getting to work in the morning, grabbing some coffee and then having an audio department daily meeting or ‘scrum’. During these meetings we all gather round and mainly discuss our work progress, any issues we may have and our thoughts and ideas concerning the development of the game. After our meeting is over, I’ll go work on whatever sound design or implementation task I have assigned to me for the rest of the day. Depending on how far into the development cycle we are, work will shift more and more towards problem solving and bug fixing and less towards the creation and implementation of new features.

Working at Codies, I was fortunate enough to be quickly trusted to work on major areas of the game like front end, ambiences, reflections, reverbs and various environmental assets. I also helped other members of the team with bits and bobs of work whenever I could. To be honest, as a junior, I was expecting to probably do more tedious, dogsbody work, but that hasn’t been the case and I am really thankful for that.

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Brad: Ok, well it’s time for you to go on a recording trip.

Unfortunately while off on location the Evo X you were in breaks down with you inside, with no idea where you are you head for a derelict tower block. Obviously this was used as a games warehouse, so heading on over to a box you remove the layer of dust off of the games on show. They just so happen to be your 5 favourite games and 1 soundtrack, what are they?

Alexis: What a series of coincidences! Most of my favourite games are old so I guess the derelict tower block scenario works just fine…

Top 5 (in no particular order) would have to be:

1) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS2)

I’m a big fan of the MGS series but ‘Sons of Liberty’ stands out a bit more than the rest for me. That moment in the tanker incident intro where Solid Snake jumps off the bridge in the rain accompanied by that amazing Harry Gregson-Williams piece…epic! Electronic music nerd fact: This piece of music was also sampled by Burial in his track ‘Archangel’.

2) Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 (PS2)

If you were, or still are, a skater and you’re currently in your 20s-30s, chances are you most probably played a THPS game growing up. I chose 3 as it has the best selection of music, levels and pro skaters.

3) HλLF-LIFE2 (PC)

Great gameplay, smart level design and memorable sound effects.  The gravity gun was definitely one of my favourite features.

4) Portal (PC)

Need I say more? Such a brilliant game concept!

5) The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (N64)

Although a few people I’ve spoken to aren’t a fan of this game compared to other Zelda games, it is by far my favourite. I’m a big fan of the dark, eerie theme that the game has throughout both visually and sonically.

Soundtrack – Deus Ex

Very synthy! The ‘UNATCO Headquarters’ theme is an amazing piece of music!

About the choices

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty 

Developer – Konami Computer Entertainment Japan
Platform – PlayStation 2
Release – 8th March 2002

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3

Developer – Neversoft
Platform – PlayStation 2
Release – 30th November 2001

HλLF-LIFE2

Developer – Valve Corporation
Platform – PC
Release – 16th November 2004

Portal

Developer – Valve Corporation
Platform – PC
Release – 18th October 2007

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Developer – Nintendo EAD
Platform – N64
Release – 26th October 2000

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Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Malin Arvidsson

Malin Arvidsson
Senior Sound Designer
Bigpoint

Notable games Malin has been involved with: LittleBigPlanet, Mirror’s Edge, Buzz! TV Quizz, Wonderbook: Book of Spells, Wonderbook: Book of Potions

www.thesoundofmalin.com

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For the first time I interview a freelance sound designer, however part way through our interview Malin applied for and accepted a job offer from Bigpoint. So let’s see both the benefits and downsides to working freelance and why she decided to take on a permanent contract.

Brad: First of all how did you start off in the industry, you weren’t always freelance were you?

Malin: Well, I kind of started in the games industry by accident in a sense. I was studying sound engineering in Sweden, but more for music, and during that time I decided I wanted to work in film, preferably animation. So when we did a 6 week work experience as part of our course, I asked one of my teachers where I can find film companies in London, and he suggested Pinewood studios. So I searched for Pinewood studios on the internet and came across Richard Joseph’s company, Audio Interactive, which was a company based in Pinewood that did sound for games, and I thought, wow, that sounds awesome! I called Richard up to ask if I could join him for 6 weeks and he welcomed me. We got along really well so when I was made redundant from my TV job in Sweden a year and a half later, he asked me to come over to work for him. We both ended up joining Elixir Studios a year later and worked together for 5 years in total until Elixir closed down in 2005. And that’s when I started freelancing 🙂

Brad: How long have you been freelance and what are the main advantages and disadvantages compared to having a permanent contract?

Malin: I’ve been freelancing for almost 9 years now! I’d say the good things are that you get to meet a lot of people, you get to work on a lot of different types of games, learn a lot of different tools and different ways of doing things and you can decide how much holiday you want 😉 I know a lot of people worry when they don’t know what will come up next, and I do admit that I do that too, but at the same time it’s also exciting not knowing what will come next.

The main downside in my opinion is that you’re rarely involved in the initial planning of the game. You’re not there from the start so can’t be as involved in the design and how the sound should work in the game. And you don’t have as much influence on what equipment you’ll have. And unfortunately, a lot of the time you have to sit on headphones instead of speakers. And I guess it’s not great having to worry about having work or not.

Brad: Obviously working on racing games at Codies has been the highlight of your career, but what other games have you really enjoyed working on?

Malin: He he, yes of course! 🙂

Hmmm, I’ve enjoyed most of the games I’ve worked on in one way or another, either because of the game, because of the people or for other reasons. And of course there have always been frustrations with each game too. I think it’s never 100% either way. I loved working on Mirror’s Edge because it’s a great game and a very talented bunch of people working in the audio team at DICE. I’ve also really enjoyed doing all the games I’ve done at Sony because of the friendship and atmosphere they have there. And even though it was a really long time ago now, I still look back at my time at Elixir as really enjoyable, especially working on Evil Genius as it was a really fun game to work on with lots of humour.

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Brad: Are there any jobs you wouldn’t take on either because you don’t want to work on a certain type of game or because you don’t want to specialise in a particular task?

Malin: I’m prepared to do most jobs, although there are certain jobs I prefer to do 😉 I prefer doing sound design and implementation to dialogue. I prefer doing any games where I can use my creativity a lot, like fantasy and magic games, especially things like creatures that don’t exist in real life. And I can’t say I’m a gun or engine person, I’d rather leave that to people who’re better at it than me 😉

Brad: And how about relocating? You were born in Sweden so what brought you to the UK and are there any places you would really like to live and work?

Malin: Originally I only had a 2 months contract when I came to London so I just came with a backpack even though my aim was to stay for 2 years. My contract kept extending and then I was employed by Elixir and I started dating a guy and my stay here just became longer and longer and now I’ve been here for 14 years!

As I love travelling and love trying to live in new places I would consider a lot of places to live and work. Initially I wanted to stay in London for 2 years, Paris for 2 years, Spain for 2 years and then move back to Sweden, but I guess you can never predict what will happen next. That’s what makes life more exciting 😉 I’m still open to moving to new places, but now I’m more prepared to move for a good job than going to a place just because I want to live there. For example, I wouldn’t be too keen to live in the US, but I would love to work for Naughty dog so I would be prepared to live there because of that. Of course there are places I wouldn’t move to. Funnily enough I’m more prepared to move to another country than moving within the UK as I think if I’m going to move I might as well try a new country. I guess being single makes it a lot easier to relocate though.

Brad: What advice would you give to a graduate who is thinking about working freelance in the games industry?

Malin: I think as a graduate, if you can get a job in-house that’s probably a better start so you can get some experience first. But otherwise, the key thing is networking. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to get a job through an agency, all the jobs I’ve had has been through contacts or through the vgm list. Go to network events like the audio track in Brighton and GDC in San Francisco if you can afford it, and go to any meet up you hear of. Join email lists, linked in groups etc. And don’t give up! It’s a tough industry; there are more people than jobs. It’s the people who don’t give up who make it. And don’t be arrogant. If you think you know everything that’s when you stop learning. This is a fast moving industry so there are constantly new things to learn.

(Malin accepts a job at Bigpoint)

Brad: What made you decide to take on a permanent contract instead of freelance work?

Malin: I loved freelancing for the 9 years I did it! I learnt so much from working with different people, different tools, on different styles of games and even moving to different places. But I guess I got to a point in my career where I felt like I’d learnt what I needed to learn from freelancing. The downside with freelance work is that you don’t often get to work on a project from beginning to end, you’re rarely involved from the beginning so many of the decisions have usually been made by the time you start in terms of style, tools etc. Another downside when working in house as a freelancer is that they’re rarely prepared to invest in your equipment as you’re only there temporarily, so often you get to work on headphones in a noisy room and don’t necessarily have the best tools, plug ins etc. And you don’t always get to choose the jobs you do as you need to keep the work coming in. If you turn a job down, they’re not likely to ask you again even if it’s for something more interesting.

So when this job came up, and it seemed like a good company, a good location and an interesting project, I thought maybe now it’s time to move forward and develop other skills. Be more of a decision maker rather than follow other people’s ideas. And I guess it does also feel nice to not to have to worry about finding your next project constantly 🙂

Brad: Right Malin, I’m going to ship you off to a desert island.

Let’s say on your way back to London by boat (why not?) a storm hits and you end up washing ashore on a strange land. Your only refuge is an abandoned Ikea building so you build yourself a bed from flat pack materials. You find some meatballs to eat and start routing around the warehouse where you find shelves stacked full of games, clearly somebody had used this place for shelter in the past.

The roof in this section starts to crack so you only have time to grab 5 games and 1 soundtrack, one of the games can be a special edition if you like. What were your choices?

Malin: Brrrr, I’d prefer to get stuck on a desert island somewhere warm 😉 and right, now I might offend some people by saying, I’m not originally a gamer. So only started playing games after working in the games industry for 7 years (so I guess I started playing games about 7 years ago) so I don’t really know many of the old games.

Sorry, I still haven’t played a huge amount of games tbh so I guess the selection I have to choose from is fairly small 😉

Hmmm, well I think I’d have to go for:

1)  Tomb Raider (Xbox 360)

Tomb Raider as then I won’t feel alone with being stuck in the middle of nowhere. And because I love the game too.

I’d grab two Naughty dog games:

2)  Uncharted 3 (PlayStation 3)

Uncharted 3 was the first game that really hooked me and was the first game I played from start to finish.

3)  The Last of Us (PlayStation 3)

After Uncharted 3 I just wanted to play anything from Naughty Dog!

4)  LittleBigPlanet (PlayStation 3)

Little Big Planet I think I love most for the sackboy expressions. And it makes me laugh and scream when I play it, hehe.

5) Pain (PlayStation 3)

Pain as it makes me laugh 🙂

Soundtrack – Diggs NightCrawler

Hmmm, one soundtrack is hard to choose. Different ones are good for different reasons. One I was very impressed by was when Dead space 1 first came out, but I’m not sure I’d want to be on my own with that game as I would shit myself (sorry) Maybe for a music soundtrack I would choose Diggs Nightcrawler. Even if I worked on the sound for it, I just love Jim’s music on it and it would keep me happy 🙂

Brad: I know you love the cold but if you now have to burn all your games for heat which one would you save until last?

Malin: Hehe, hmmm, I think it would have to be tombraider. I think as a game I probably think Uncharted is better, but I guess I just associate better with Lara Croft being a woman 😉 so I feel more attached to that.

About the choices

Tomb Raider

Developer – Crystal Dynamics
Publisher – Square Enix
Platform – Xbox 360
Release – 5th March 2013

Uncharted 3

Developer – Naughty Dog
Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform – PlayStation 3
Release (EU) – 2nd November 2011

The Last of Us

Developer – Naughty Dog
Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform – PlayStation 3
Release – 14th June 2013 

LittleBigPlanet

Developer – Media Molecule
Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform – PlayStation 3
Release (EU) – 5th November 2008 

Pain

Developer – Idol Minds
Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform – PlayStation 3
Release (EU) – 20th March 2008

The Problem With… Final Fantasy

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Final Fantasy – A Brief Overview

Final Fantasy is a franchise of role playing games and associated spin-off games. Generally most games in the franchise are totally unrelated to each other but share common themes and mythologies. Reoccurring themes include characters with names such as “Biggs”, “Wedge” and “Cid”, mythological creatures such as the “Chocobo” and “Moogle” and god-like summons such as “Shiva” and “Ifrit”. Each game generally centres around a group of playable characters who are assembled through the course of the game in order to rid the world of an evil antagonist. The name Final Fantasy was originally used as the title of the first game as it was a final attempt by series’ creator Hironobu Sakaguchi to create a successful game. The name does not imply that each game is supposedly the last!

Introduction

I’ll start with a quick game, I shall describe a Final Fantasy game and you say which one you think it is.

I run down a corridor; I am interrupted with the occasional cut scene, I then continue to run down a corridor. Finally I enter a battle, I press a button and the game selects the most appropriate spell to cast against the enemy. The battle finishes and I continue on my epic quest down a long corridor, occasionally I wonder if I will come to a cross roads I can explore or reach a village where I can wonder around for an hour; talking to locals and upgrading my gear – no such luck.

Final Fantasy fans reading this will have no problem pointing out that I have been describing Final Fantasy XIII. Really, this article can end here and conclude with the statement “The problem with…Final Fantasy is FFXIII”. My love affair with JRPGs officially came to abrupt end with XIII but in all fairness this was just the tipping point. The truth is Final Fantasy had been going downhill for years, beginning with Final Fantasy X on the PlayStation 2. For the record my favourite game in the series is Final Fantasy IX, which in my opinion got just about everything right. A good story, set in a beautiful world, filled with interesting characters and literally stacks of nods to previous games in the series. So what went wrong when transitioning between the PS1 and PS2?

Game Play Over Graphics

The PS1 was released in the very early days of 3D gaming, along with the N64. Looking back most games from that generation haven’t aged well, specifically 3D games. Just take a look at some classic sprite based games on the SNES such as Super Mario World, Super Metroid and Secret of Mana; although they look old they still have a certain charm. Now look back at N64 games like Super Mario 64 and Goldeneye 007 or PS1 classics such as Metal Gear Solid, Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider. None of the N64 or PS1 games look particularly charming or cute these days; that’s because we were transitioning into 3D. The technology was in its infancy whereas 2D platformers and other SNES games had been using technology that had already been in development for several years.

Screen Shot 2013-03-29 at 17.42.00

Games like the masterpiece that is Final Fantasy VII didn’t get caught up in trying to look mind blowing. Just consider for a minute the above images; on the left you can see Cloud as he appears when rendered in game. On the right you can see Cloud pre-rendered in an FMV, they look vastly different. VII still looked good at the time but that isn’t what it has been remembered for. The game play and narrative alone was enough to keep the player hooked, any technical achievements were a bonus but not the main selling point. XIII on the other hand has put its focus on polished graphics and as a result both the story and gameplay have suffered greatly. I am not alone with this opinion; it’s quite common knowledge among the gaming community that VII is one the most highly requested Square Enix remakes. Yoichi Wada, the Square Enix president, has stated “To get FFVII to something like FFXII, it would take ten times as long”. [1] A statement that in my opinion effectively confirms that XIII doesn’t even come close to the scope and exploration found in older FF games.

The 3 eras of Final Fantasy

The Final Fantasy franchise can be split into 3 eras, the first being the golden age of Final Fantasy to FFVI. These games progressively evolved over several years but remained largely recognisable in terms of looks and gameplay. The first big change then came during FFVII to FFIX era, here the franchise switched to a fully fledged 3D game, came on CD-ROM instead of cartridges and featured FMVs. During this era the Final Fantasy brand reached a whole new level and introduced many new fans to the RPG genre.  The next evolution can be seen in FFX to FFXIII (excluding FFXI as this is an MMORPG); here the games dropped the world map mechanic (more on this in a moment) and really tried to push the graphical capabilities of each system the games were released on. During this era the games somewhat “sold out”, trying to pull in a very mainstream audience and dumbing down the traditional micro-management and number crunching game play and mechanics.

Both the first era (I-VII) and the second era (VII-IX) seemed to build on the success of the franchise and both have flagship games with a large fan base (VI and VII). In my opinion, although the third era (X-XIII) has seen strong sales there isn’t a core fan base behind these games.

Final Fantasy X – The Franchise Reinvents Itself

So why do I believe the third era, starting with X brought about the demise of the franchise? Notably there was a shift in key members of the team; Nobuo Uematsu had scored all previous games in the series but he was now joined by other composers. His work on VII-IX in particular is remarkable, yet from X onwards we see a rise in generic electric guitar and J-Pop music, even featuring lyrics! Hironobu Sakaguchi, who had previously produced all of the previous games in the series, became an executive producer. From what I can gather the role of “executive producer” on a video game can be a very fuzzy area but generally this appears to be a step back from some of the more creative aspects of the game itself.

Voice acting was utilised for the first time which, although a step forward (especially in story heavy games) can also negatively impact the game. Cloud (the main protagonist in VII); for example was always considered a bit of an “emo” filled with teenage angst but the player was able to create their own version of Cloud by imagining his accent and how he talks. Arguably the X protagonist, Tidus, was a very similar character only this time players were able to hear his shrill voice and he perhaps came across as more of a young whiny teen than he would of if this game were text only.

The biggest shock I received when playing X for the first time wasn’t the voice acting, cast or new battle system. After several hours into the game I realised there was no world map! Now it’s fair to say that previous games in the series have also had a degree of linearity; the basic story has to be completed in a set order. The player is funnelled towards new areas with paths that the developers do not want you to explore blocked until a later time. This concept used to be masked quite well with the use of a world map. The player could clearly understand that they couldn’t transverse a mountain or swim an ocean until a later point in the game when they had unlocked an airship or boat. The world map in these older games never really had a massive amount of locations to explore but the few it did have that strayed from the main quest helped give the impression of a non-linear experience.

Final Fantasy XII

Aside from the fact that I couldn’t follow the story in XII and didn’t have a clue what was going on half the time; the gameplay itself was pretty good. As with X, there was an absence of the classic world map. Instead a compromise was made in which the player was able to explore the world via interconnected regions, this felt much closer to the old world map system. XII still had its fair share of problems, in particular the forgettable characters and the Gambit system, a catalyst of sorts to the “autobattle” system featured in XIII.

The gambit system did present a few interesting ideas; the basic concept of which was to set up a list of rules which your AI party members would follow when in battle. For example, a character on your team could be set up to always attack using magic. If however, anybody in the party has less than 5% health left, the character will use a health potion on their next turn instead of a magic spell. Although a deep system, the problem here was that your party was now essentially fighting for themselves while you took control of the main character. This, in part, has lead to Final Fantasy games becoming the linear, corridor crawler, dumbed down game we see in XIII.

Final Fantasy XIII – The Franchise Sells Out

Right from the moment you pick up a copy of XIII you can clearly see Square Enix have tried to reach out to a wider audience. The European box art features the game’s main protagonist, Lighting in all its Americanised glory. This might not sound like a big deal but previous Final Fantasy games in both Europe and Japan featured a simple logo while the movie poster Esq. Box art was typically reserved for North America. See the images below of the Final Fantasy VII box art for the Japanese, European and North American covers. Why did the Europeans now have to suffer with the American box art? Probably because the simplistic box art of previous Final Fantasy games doesn’t appeal to your typical FPS gamer.

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As I mentioned in the introduction, XIII was a very linear experience. The game has strayed far from its classic JRPG roots and has turned into a beautiful but dull experience. XIII seems like a tech demo that somehow managed to get green lit into a fully fledged game because it looks pretty and will draw in the mass market. There is a compromise a development team must make with games, more polished and beautiful games will be more linear. Create a more open, flexible game and you have to compromise somewhat on graphics and polished, scripted experiences. Games such as Battlefield 3, Uncharted 3 and Portal 2 look so polished because the experience is very structured and you are clearly being led along a path the development team have carefully crafted. Compare this to something like Fallout 3, which doesn’t look very pretty but you are placed in a massively open world environment that you can explore as you wish. Final Fantasy has clearly opted to be based in the Uncharted camp rather than remaining in the less attractive, massively open RPG camp and here lies a massive problem. Final Fantasy is an RPG choosing to attempt to have its cake and eat it and it has failed massively.

Undoubtedly XIII was the game that killed the franchise for me. Obviously, being the most recent game this could be a one off mistake. After all Square had developed a new engine, which they were getting to grips with on a new console generation (but wasn’t this also the case with VII? And that was brilliant). I doubt this is the case though, as going back to analyse the changes made during this “third era” it is quite clear that some bad decisions had been fermenting since the development of X, mainly the development team trying to push the tech rather than looking at what made the older games in the series so good.

Other than linearity, XIII also implemented a new battle system, which has a similar feel to the Gambit system used in XII. The worst thing about the new battle system is the “autobattle” feature, which essentially presents the player with a “one button to rule them all option” as it selects the appropriate command to use. Now many people who have experienced a Final Fantasy game in the past know that many attacks, summons, potions and defence commands can be gained and utilised in battles throughout the game. JRPGs normal consist of many of these commands and part of the fun of the genre is the micromanagement and decision-making involved. Having a command to bypass this is killing the whole fun of the battles. Of course this feature doesn’t have to be used but it is very tempting in some situations, not to mention new comers to the genre will probably rely on this button constantly than complain that the game has no depth and you can win by just pressing one button.

XIII has also followed a recent trend of releasing sequels. Sadly, this is something that began with VII. VII started the trend for releasing sequels, spin-offs and other media in the form of Crisis Core, Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus to name a few. The VII collection however was justified as the game had such a strong following and releases came years apart (Crisis Core for example was released over 10 years after VII). However, it wasn’t really until X that the flood gates truly opened for these types of Final Fantasy collections. Here is a list of the X, XII and XIII collections to date:

Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy X-2

Final Fantasy XII
Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings

Final Fantasy XIII
Final Fantasy XIII-2
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
Versus XIII (TBC)

Conclusion

It seems very fitting that my first real JRPG experience was VII while XIII put me off JRPGs. Saying that both Dark Souls and Demon Souls are absolutely fantastic RPGs from an eastern developer and they shine a ray of hope that JRPGs haven’t all turned into a mess. I believe that a much more interesting RPG experience can be had with western RPGs. Games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim are absolutely huge while quests and game play style can be approached in a variety of ways. Other games, that aren’t strictly RPGs but include RPG elements such as Bioshock have also provided a refreshing way to revitalise both the RPG and FPS genres. Compare this to The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy. Although I am a massive fan of both Zelda and Final Fantasy I can’t help but think about how disappointing they have been in recent years. Zelda has gone stagnant and struggled to move with the times, offering a very hollow experience while Final Fantasy has tried to evolve and failed miserably.

[1] http://kotaku.com/5551606/how-long-would-a-final-fantasy-vii-remake-take