When Namco project manager Kouichirou Taninami stepped up to the microphone, the majority of his potential audience was still piling out of Satoru Iwata's keynote address, fresh new copies of Brain Training in hand and Revolution on the brain. Though his lecture hall was enormous, the bodies littering it were the curious few. As it turned out, the lecture's focus was different somewhat from the features listed on the box; in place of the obvious assumption, a lecture about the changes made to Counter-Strike, Taninami's speech was as a whole to detail the way Counter-Strike aided Taninami in his mission to construct a working network gaming system for the famously persnickety Japanese market.
Taninami, a thirteen-year veteran of Namco's arcade division, was assigned five years ago to find a solution to the Japanese "network game problem". Whereas the US has enjoyed about thirty-five years of network connectivity, online games have never really caught on in Japan; for some time, received wisdom placed the blame on a nonexistent or comparably obscure architecture. And yet, now that broadband is prevalent, the market still barely exists.
So why is that, Taninami asked. Flipping the question around, he then asked what makes network games fun. He concluded that pleasure comes in part from the game itself – provided it's a good game – and in part from the company the player keeps. He called this situation a "relationship of multiplication": if the opponent fails to play fairly, then the game fails to be enjoyable. As far as Taninami was concerned, that social angle was the biggest problem.
As Taninami had a limited budget, he figured there was no point in wasting resources on development, when there are already so many well-made games available; instead, he poured all of his attention into the network aspect, conducting reams on ridiculous reams of research on how to ensure a fun level of competition. For the game, he selected Counter-Strike, due to its popularity elsewhere in the world. He asked Valve for a license to promote the game in Japan; they said okay and everything was in order. Almost.
Another crucial feature – the one this lecture seemed like it might have been about – was the way Counter-Strike looked. Its whole presentation screams "Western PC game", which in turn causes the average Japanese gamer to scream "Eek". The characters are gritty, burly, and not particularly appealing – so Namco got an artist to anime them up a little, replacing sweaty gringos with guys in primary-colored spandex and PVC shoulderpads, and hairy guys in fatigues and ski masks with antigravity-busted women in three square inches of purple nylon.
Similarly, Taninami decided that Japanese gamers would freak at the game's anti-terrorism angle – especially if the terrorists win a match – so he changed the scenario to a struggle between two opposing factions: the CSF and the NEO (leading to the game's new appellation, "Counter-Strike NEO"). And of course, because PC games have virtually no presence in Japan outside of porn and obscure doujin soft (amateur freeware), the keyboard-and-mouse controls had to be finessed a little. CS NEO uses a custom-built keyboard, with all the controls and hotkeys specially labeled.
There's also the issue that basically all people do in Counter-Strike is shoot each other – which should get boring after a while – so Taninami added a suite of single-person missions and mini-games; completing these modes gives a player special prizes. There are also a number of in-game events timed to various holidays and seasons, such as cherry blossoms that cascade in the spring. As for the game content itself, "we didn't want to change it; we didn't want to ruin it."
Bang and Blame
So. Again Taninami asks, how can you make competition fun? Here, Taninami paused, as if waiting for an answer. Who do we like to play network games with: friends, brothers, neighbors? He asks where we go to play: do we go home? Somewhere we can see the other people? To study PC game culture, Taninami spent some time attending LAN parties. At length he concluded that these parties are the environment "that lets games sell one million copies".
Although clearly there is no analog to LAN parties in Japan, Taninami made a comparison to Internet cafes – not the coffee bars with WiFi access you might see in downtown San Francisco; the distinctly Asian phenomenon of an immense, climate-controlled complex of cubicles: pay by the hour, do whatever you want. Free drinks. Even sleep in the overstuffed chairs, if you want; it's cheaper than a hotel. People live in these places. And in places like Taipei, Hong Kong, and Korea, they are the hotspots of PC game culture.
The benefits of a cafe are multifold: if you get bored with the game, you have friends nearby to chum with. And for get-togethers online multiplayer is better than, say, a Game Boy link cable in that if your friend gets bored and drops connection, you can still hook up and play. Besides, Taninami says, linking together a couple of Game Boys looks kind of awkward when you're an adult.
What might be the closest Japanese parallel, though, is the fabled beast known as the video arcade – and the phenomenon of "versus cabs", most frequently used for one-on-one fighting games. Taninami explained how, when Street Fighter II was released, rival players stood or sat side-by-side on the same cabinet. This arrangement was all right if the competitors were friends; otherwise, sometimes it was a a bit too close. With the versus cab, two interfaces are placed back-to-back, putting the length of one double-deep machine between the players – a comfortable distance, for the outgroup-adverse. And yet players are still close enough to discourage cheating – as if you try to pull anything, your opponent can just step right over and kick your ass.
Arcade-based card and mahjong games work the same way, and they pull in 100 billion yen a year – exactly the same figure as the Korean network game market. Kind of makes you think. Sort of.
Go Away From Me, Just Go Away
Taninami jumped to the side a bit, to discuss the phenomenon of Japanese Go parlors; how there is a tutorial service for beginners, and a certain mode of etiquette against opponents. Players are given ranks (out of thirty-five) according to their skill levels, tracked on index cards, and maintained by the parlor. When players arrive, they wait in a room to be matched with another player of their level. Highly-trained hosts sort through the available opponents and use the data at hand and their own judgment to match two players. This is known as a matching service. The hosts call out the players, and hand them their cards. The players who are matched are moved to what is called a "massive server".
This setup and terminology should be familiar to anyone who has played online fighting games in Japan, such as Vampire Chronicle for Matching Service for the Sega Dreamcast. It should also sound familiar to anyone wondering about this "Nintendo Go" thing and what it has to do with the Revolution. To Taninami, it was just the cultural template he was looking for. Of course; this is how a network game must work. And thus he built his own Go parlor. Sort of.
|Vampire Chronicle for Matching Service|
Technically, LEDZONE – "LED" as in "Light-Emitting Diode; the monitors are all tracked with LEDs that change color depending on the user's status, to allow hosting staff to quickly come to aid – is a specialty arcade. There are also similarities to Internet cafes. Really, though, it is a Go parlor; just a modernized one, custom-built for the playing and maintenance of Counter-Strike NEO.
As in a Go parlor, though to a much more dramatic extreme, the LEDZONE servers collect all manner of random data from each game session, from how long a player has been squatting to what guns each person most likes to use. The servers also track the matching staff: what advice they give, how quick they are to respond, and so forth. When certain staff are particularly good at talking to newcomers, resulting in many repeat customers, LEDZONE uses that information in teaching other staff.
Studies have determined that for first-time players, a direct correlation exists between how many times a player is killed and how much that player spends. "If you're killed ten times for every two kills, you normally don't return", Taninami said. By the same route, if players are matched poorly, they will fail to spend as much as they might – and if players are matched exceedingly well, they will pay up to ten times what they would otherwise. "This means they're having fun", Taninami explained. For a Japanese audience, yes, that is probably a good analysis.
To note, LEDZONE also includes development team overlooking the entire proceedings, constantly tweaking the system and working on new maps and events. When users complain of "shitty maps", Taninami said, often as not the map designers can hear the response themselves: "What a shitty map!" Response is usually immediate.
The Challenge of Challenge
So what makes a solid, challenging opponent? First, as Counter-Strike rewards teams more than individual players, Taninami's team quickly learned to disallow players from switching teams, as otherwise everyone would simply gravitate toward the winning teams and attempt to wheedle their way in. Taninami found the network must draw a tight balance between cooperation and selfishness.
Next, on the individual level, Taninami figures an ideal opponent is one with whom a player gets along well – in the sense that they are congenial, rather than overly friendly. A player and opponent should be at the same skill level. And the opponent should either be a fair player or – more ideally – a good coach for others.
"Does the loyal customer mean the person who pays a lot of money?" Taninami posited. "I don't think so." Rather, a loyal customer is one who makes the environment "more pleasant"; who guides other players. Loyal players are the ones who increase traffic on a server every time they're around, and who bring over friends to play. On the other hand, if everyone leaves when a certain player joins a server, then he's no good – even if he plays well.
At LEDZONE, Taninami's staff divides customers into "good people, bad people, positive people, negative people, cooperative, uncooperative," and so on, and cordons off players with a negative influence on the community – even if they spend a lot and are some of the most skilled players in town. Sort of along the same lines is the "Good Job" button that Taninami had added to each player's keyboard. When you hit it, you donate some of your game money to someone. The server, of course, records this action and assigns karma as applicable.
On the other end of the karma stream are cheap hits. Hiding and sniping are no-nos; Taninami wants to encourage players to always fight fair, and shoot each other from the front. The system can detect when a player shoots someone from behind, and will send a warning. If a player is camping, again with the warning; if the player persists, he will show up on the radar. Taninami is fascinated that even with this disadvantage, still some players persist at misbehaving.
To help with community matters, customers are able and encouraged to list their favorite and least-favorite players. By announcing the research right up front, Taninami's team thinks it can keep negative behavior to a minimum.
Curiously, although Taninami tries to build a healthy community around LEDZONE, he insists a healthy community is a "soft" one – meaning, again, cordial; not too close. According to studies, the more friendly people become – the better they get to know each other – the more likely they are to fight. And once community members fight, they are less likely to return to the game center, lest they see each other again. To avoid that, LEDZONE staff try not to match people together too often – and players are unable to request specific team-ups or opponents.
Instead, players are lumped into several sub-communities – A, B, C – among which they are shuffled each visit to the center, to prevent them from becoming too chummy, thereby maintaining a steady, if slow-burning community. For LEDZONE, profitability and health is all about longevity.
in sum, the key to Japanese network gaming seems to be in fostering a
loose-knit yet loyal community – one based in age-old cultural
archetypes – meant to filter out the bad eggs and provide a stable,
entertaining experience for everyone. And being Japanese, players are
only too glad to show their appreciation with their wallets, in return
for a favorable experience. Though this system might not exactly
translate into a Western framework, some of the social filtering issues
might have a more technical future application. Even now, some of this
philosophy seems in place in Nintendo's burgeoning Wi-Fi network.
Anything that brings a little grace to online gaming surely can't be