Crowd combat – the exploration of an ‘epic’ genre

Nobunaga Oda as portrayed in the Samurai Warriors series (Omega Force, Tecmo KOEI)

I can see the fun in almost any game.  Sure, I am not the biggest fan of many sports games, real time strategy games or anything requiring me to get online and duke it out with faceless men*, but I usually at least give any game or its respective genre the look it deserves before coming to the conclusion that its not for me.  But one genre that has almost flown straight past me since its inception in the early years of the Playstation 2 is the ‘crowd-combat’ genre.

Crowd-combat, or musou, generally describes games where the odds are stacked against the player with regards to the sheer number of opponents faced at any one time.  More specifically, it refers to Dynasty Warriors.  I write that in somewhat of a facetious tone because while Dynasty Warriors is perhaps the most prominent example they are not the only games in the genre.  I also convey an apparent disrespectful tone because KOEI’s hit series, despite having an army of obviously loyal fans, is the butt of an industry-wide joke.  Needless to say the games industry is just waiting for an entry in the series to be called Dynasty Warriors: Again.

Simply put, developer Omega Force is not known for making sweeping changes between series iterations.  But in recent time I have found that my sweeping generalisation on KOEI’s franchise, which if I’m honest are not really based on any real experience, were perhaps unjustified.

I am a pretty open kind of guy when it comes to accepting and enjoying a wide range of genres.  Which is why its surprising that I never gave the Dynasty Warriors games the time they deserved back when they were big news on the Playstation 2.  Before we go any further lets straighten out what are the Dynasty Warriors games, exactly?  On the surface they are incredibly simple hack and slash games where your primary objective is to crudely kill a whole lot of opposing soldiers.  I just didn’t get the appeal despite having friends who were enamoured by the large scale combat and historical content of the games.  When I asked a good friend of mine why he played the games he said:

‘Its the epic feel of the combat…’

From his perspective the appeal was simple, and as it happens my relative inexperience with the Dynasty Warriors series means nothing when it comes to being able to critically assess why these games are popular in the context of that ‘epic feel’.  The overarching formula of repetition and a supreme feeling of strength over masses of opponents is one I absolutely understand outside of the context of crowd fighting based video games.  My adoration for Cave developed ‘bullet hell’ shooters (and Ikaruga of course), and games like Sin and Punishment 2 gives away the fact that I really like games that put me up against the odds.

So while not a terribly prescriptive reason, the ‘epic feel’ may be a contributing factor to the series’ initial success.  Back in 2001 when the Playstation 2 release there was nothing quite like Dynasty Warriors 2 – a sequel to a PS1 one-on-one fighting game that was the very definition of taking advantage of the hardware.  Unlike the perception of the series today, at the time Dynasty Warriors 2 was a technical marvel, frequently displaying seemingly hundreds of on screen enemies at once. While this doesn’t seem like much now, at the time the number of on-screen characters was somewhat of a selling point ten years ago- with other developers following suit with ‘crowd-combat’ games such as State of Emergency and later on in the console’s life-cycle the Capcom developed Devil Kings (known as Sengoku Basara in Japan).  Combine that with large battlefields and a degree of strategic freedom and you’ve got something that was a reason to own a PS2 in 2002.  In fact the crowd factor was even a selling point for publishers at the launch of the Xbox 360, with both Capcom and Microsoft Game studios publishing Dead Rising and Ninety-Nine Nights respectively, which pushed the number of on screen enemies to ridiculous levels with arguably varying success.  Although I personally think both games had merit – Dead Rising so much so that it would probably be one of my ten favourite games of all time if I ever gave it consideration.

This screenshot from Warriors Orochi is a good indication of what you can expect from any of Omega Force’s games.

That ‘epic’ feel of the battles however has not been enough to sustain mass market interest in the Dynasty Warriors series, so while the success of the franchise was initially high, it has slowly but surely decreased in all regions – including Japan. Using the United States (or the Americas to be accurate) as an indicative example, the below figures show the difference across regions in sales between the newest entry in the series, and the 3rd game in the series released for the PS2 which is the point from which the data is available for both regions.  These figures are a total of sales across all platforms (sourced from vgchartz.com):

  • Dynasty Warriors 3 (the Americas)- 0.49 million
  • Dynasty Warriors 3 (Japan) – 1.17 million
  • Dynasty Warriors 7 (the Americas) – 0.12 million
  • Dynasty Warriors 7 (Japan) – 0.45 million

Although on average (with the available data) it is evident that there is a downward trend in the sale of numbered Dynasty Warrior games since the third game in all regions, there is still a high degree of disparity in the popularity of the series between Japan and the rest of the world.

The question is why has the series fallen so far in popularity in western markets?  Personally the genre has never really appealed to me despite my extremely open approach to games of all persuasions, so I can’t comment from personal experience.   What I can do however is attempt to discern what about these games makes them ‘rock hard’ in Japan but fizzle and die here in Australia and similar countries.  While it is acknowledged that western gamers have a distinctly different taste from their eastern counterparts, the severe difference between the two regions here highlights a difference in tastes and preferences in the United States and Japan.  This is no surprise, but it does raise as an interesting question is, why do these differences exist and are they simply a difference in culture or lifestyle?

To answer this question I will first take an atypical long running ‘western’ style franchise and try and discern what makes it so popular.  Call of Duty is fast becoming the most successful video game franchise of all time, a success that is primarily built on its success in western markets. While it posts modest sales in Japan, its success in western markets is literally unprecedented (all platforms sales to date in Japan are currently 0.37 million as compared to the Americas sales of 14.6 million).  But what makes it so successful?  Is it the ultra violence?  Is it the set pieces? Is it the admittedly great graphics and well established?  Having only played the series until Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare at which point I decided I had experienced all the series had to offer, I am not informed enough to make a judgement call.  But in reading the coverage of the subsequent games, and if the trajectory the Medal of Honor series took throughout its life span is anything to go by, the innovation between games has been few and far between.  In an attempt to clarify this I took a look at the crude aggregation tool of Metacritic to try and get a better understanding of the critical reaction to the latest game, which to date is the most successful video game of all time in the United States and the United Kingdom. While most were certainly enamored by the game, below are two excerpts I found to resonate with my feelings on the Call of Duty series more broadly (sourced from metacritic):

Edge – It feels more like a yearly update than a sequel, a new campaign with old multiplayer. The game isn’t distinct from its predecessors in any important way, and fatigue sets in quicker than before. [Jan 2011, p.94]

Giant Bomb – Do you want to play more Call of Duty? I’m guessing the answer is yes, and by all means, Black Ops is worth playing.

While I think it would be difficult to argue that there is an appeal of the Call of Duty games, and at its heart a lot of the appeal is the multiplayer which certainly isn’t the focus of the Dynasty Warriors series, it seems that that the same thing that stopped me from playing the games past Modern Warfare are starting to be recognised more broadly in the gaming press.  Of course the sales numbers are not reflecting this and the repetition and lack of innovation or change between iterations is almost celebrated rather than lauded as is the case with the reception to Dynasty Warriors.  Let’s face it, and this certainly isn’t meant as a criticism, but Call of Duty is just shooting a whole lot of people in a different environment from the last game.

Not dissimilar to Dynasty Warriors really, which prides itself on reliving the epic battles of the three kingdoms era of Chinese History to kill a lot of people.  And the difference between games, aside from the greater emphasis on RPG elements as the games have evolved, is the scenarios in which you are killing said enemies. Repetition seems to be the order of the day for the Dynasty Warriors series and its various spin-offs, not only in terms of only minor iterations between sequels but also in terms of the overall game mechanic. This seems to be its most polarising feature.  Where some people love the simplicity of the combat, others are put off by it.  It really is just an issue of taste.

The point of bringing Call of Duty into the discussion was this – despite the critics leaning on the repetition and lack of change between games when it reacts negatively to a new Dynasty Warriors or related spin-off, it really is more of an issue of cultural differences and the variance in taste between the average person within the western and japanese gaming populous.  The mass appeal of Call of Duty despite its formula seemingly being set in stone is testament to this.  But whether it a disinterest in asian history in the West, or a more acquired taste for highly stylised games in the Japan there is obviously a core difference between a consumer in Japan and one in the United States or Australia.  One thing that does remain the same however is that killing enormous amounts of virtual people in rapid succession is incredibly popular in both markets – and that’s one thing that western and japanese developers alike are incredibly adept at creating experiences around.

I bet you never expected anyone to compare Dynasty Warriors and Call of Duty.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Crowd combat – the exploration of an ‘epic’ genre

  1. Pingback: Good Old-Fashioned Demon-Slaying Entertainment | A Most Agreeable Pastime

  2. Pingback: 30 Years of Video Games – Kessen (2000) | A Most Agreeable Pastime

  3. Pingback: A Most Agreeable Pastime is five years old today | A Most Agreeable Pastime

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