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It’s no secret that the video game industry is competitive and sometimes unforgiving. Producing games, like films, is a bit like gambling, with some great games yielding mediocre sales while some terrible games rake in the cash. Several of the larger game publishers balance more conservative bets, such as sequels and expansions, against risky games with new IP or radical innovations.

The video game industry is a business, and it is not immune to the harsh realities of the corporate world. Layoffs are commonplace; studios collapse every season. It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the studios I worked for was recently shut down.

I worked for this particular studio for a few months as an intern, and it was one of the first times that I truly felt at home in the industry. I was surrounded by many of smart, talented people who were passionate about their work. The studio also treated their employees well by offering competitive wages and plenty of work-sponsored activities. I remember when I came into the lobby one day and found front table covered in cups of Baskin-Robbins ice cream, free for the taking. There was also the time when we got to see a highly anticipated movie in a nearby theater, sponsored by the studio.

It was hard to hear about that studio closing, mainly because of all the friends that I had made during my time there. I felt for them, as the job market is tough right now, and it’s particularly difficult to get a job during the holiday season. Yet it seems that many former employees are attempting to look on the bright side and move onto bigger and better opportunities.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about hearing of the studio closure was how it hit so close to home. I had an opportunity to work at that studio but I passed it up. I now work for a studio that is still hiring, and I feel very grateful that I ended up working there. I still feel a bit shaken, however, as the closure reminded me of the impermanence of my own job. While I enjoy what I do and truly invest myself in my work, I must remember that, in an industry like video games, the only constant is change. After all, technology and consumer demands keep changing, and we must keep up in order to survive.  
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Well-Earned Rewards

There are very few games that I finish, and even fewer become my favorites. Final Fantasy IX earned its place on my list of all-time favorites this past weekend, which is a remarkable feat considering that it was released nine years ago.

FFIX was not one of my favorites when it was released. While I enjoyed the game at the time, I wanted it to be more like Final Fantay VIII, my favorite at the time. As a middle-schooler, I didn't mind the angsty protagonist in FFVIII and found the spunky lead in FFIX to be less appealing. I wanted FFIX to be more serious. I was also relatively green as a player; FFVIII was my first RPG. I didn't understand why FFIX's mechanics were far superior.

FFIX was designed to be forgiving and very rewarding for those who invest a little time. While playing through the third and fourth discs, I found a lot of fun sidequests. Some of my favorite sidequests were those that used chocobos. Special chocobo-specific areas, such as Chocobo's Forest and Chocobo's Lagoon, include a mini-game where you can dig for treasure. While many items are health or status ailment potions, the best items by far are the chocographs. Chocographs are essentially clues to find hidden treasures. Some treasure chests give your chocobo the ability to traverse mountains, oceans, and even the skies. Others contain very valuable items, armor, weapons, and cards. Treasure is hidden throughout the world map, and the hunt feels like a real adventure.

I also really enjoyed the optional moogle sidequests. The moogles are adorable creatures who play a big role in FFIX. They allow you to save in the game, but they also provide valuable comic relief, especially in dark areas. Moogles are constantly writing letters to each other and they ask you to deliver them. The letters may not tell you anything essential to the story, but they are great for flavor. Moogles are always so happy to hear from each other and they have a positive outlook even when cities are crumbling around them. The idea of delivering letters for moogles may seem ridiculous, but you are actually providing a valuable service since the moogle mail service, Mognet, has been out of commission. There is an optional sidequest at the end of the game to get Mognet running again. It is very rewarding to fix this service, as it frees you from mailman duties and helps all the moogles you met throughout your journey.

There are several other clever design choices that help players get the most out of the game. Fairies are special encounters scattered throughout the world that can help you learn abilities much faster. There are also special enemies called Grand Dragons that provide a massive amount of experience, helping characters level up. Quina's ability, Level 5 Death, can kill them in one hit. These are great enemies for leveling, as Freya's Dragon's Crest ability does damage equal to the square of the number of dragons killed. Thus, 100 dragons killed gives her a guaranteed 9999 (max damage) attack for minimal MP. While this type of strategy may seem like exploitation, such clever design choices are likely very carefully made to help players level up for the end of the game.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I used a strategy guide and additional online guides to get the most out of FFIX. Some of the features are so well-hidden that you practically have to buy the guide if you want to be a completionist and not waste half of the game running into walls, looking for items. The strategy guide is also very helpful when it comes to bosses, as you can equip to guard against status effects such as heat that could otherwise create a very frustrating battle. I understand that some feel that strategy guides are cheating, but I find that I enjoy elaborate RPGs such as FFIX much more when I don't have to worry about missing something. Unfortunately, the official guide for FFIX was designed to promote the use of the website PlayOnline, which is now a FFXI site. This means that certain details are left out of the guide, which is part of the reason why I constantly looked up answers in FAQs and Walkthroughs. I happened to miss a particular item that was only available for a brief period of time because it wasn't listed in the guide, and I was very disappointed. Initially, I thought the game wouldn't limit the availability of an item, but it appears that there are a few optional items that are the exception.

By the time I reached Memoria (the final area), I was at the top of my game. I didn't want the story to end, but I had played through all the side content and enjoyed every minute of it. I'll admit that there were some frustrating moments during my many attempts to beat Ozma or the stubborn Yan, but the victories were very sweet. I became addicted to auto-regen and rarely had to heal my party. I had three characters that could consistently do maximum damage attacks and my inventory was overflowing with potions and other valuable resources.

After playing consistently every night, I was sad to see FFIX end. The game had a very satisfying ending. I became attached to my characters - the story fleshed them out and made them feel real. It's going to be difficult to find an RPG to follow FFIX now that I've seen how good they can be.  

Awesome Comes in All Sizes

I enjoy checking out demos for new games, even if I'm pretty sure that I won't buy the game. I find that you can always learn something from playing a new game, and you can often learn the most from terrible games. However, I can count on one hand the number of demos that actually made me want to buy a game. Fortunately, I had that exciting experience this weekend. I raced to the computer and bought Mini Ninjas shortly after finishing the demo.

I had heard about Mini Ninjas several months ago and I was charmed by the cute teaser trailer. Yet I remained skeptical, as the cutest games often are often rushed out the door with the assumption that kids won't know the difference between a good game and one that needed more time. Mini Ninjas is being marketed as a family game, but seems strong enough to please more discerning gamers.

Mini Ninjas reminds me of a cross between two of my favorite games, Spyro the Dragon and Okami. It has the same strength and charm as Spyro, from the well-designed 3D levels to the
enemies who require more skill than strength to defeat. It is also like Okami, as it appears to have roots in Zelda-style adventures and it is very centered in nature. In addition, the aesthetic is clearly Japanese, which once again appeals greatly to my love of Japanese art and culture.

Combat feels light and fun. There are many tactics you can use to defeat the enemies, which allows for customization in what would otherwise be a fairly simple game. It's a nice change to see a game with solid combat that doesn't shed a drop of blood. Enemies simply turn into animals (as the animals were enchanted), leaving a frolicking bunch of critters at the end of each fight. If you find an animal that you particularly like, the main ninja, Hiro, can temporarily possess the animal. I couldn't get over the novelty of being able to see an adorable animal (such as a kitty), running up to them, and then POOF! I was suddenly controlling a kitty. While many of the most adorable critters are relatively ineffective in combat, some of the larger animals can be used offensively. Fortunately, the developers accounted for those moments when your prancing kitty gets unexpectedly attacked - the ninja will return to fight seamlessly.

Mini Ninjas is filled with other delightfully charming details that make it irresistible for me. You can free animals trapped in cages along the path, which gives you experience points. This reminded me of feeding animals along the path in Okami, which also gave you experience points. Also, when you enter water, you can ride in a large hat (like a boat). You can steer through rapids or, as I saw in a video, ride down snowy passes. You can even fish from the boat, which gives you health-restoring sushi. Even the animations and movements are adorable without hindering the mechanics. The ninja can deftly jump up a narrow space between two rocks, a feature that feels far more natural than any wall jumps I attempted in Mirror's Edge.

I have been looking for a game like Mini Ninjas for a long time. The most recent 3D platformer/adventure game that truly satisfied me was Okami, and I played that years ago. Despite the short length of the demo, I bought the game, optimistic that it will just keep getting better. I hope that Mini Ninjas will prove to be the adventure game experience that I have been craving. In the meantime, it's great to be excited about a new game again.  

Light-Hearted Fantasy

Final Fantasy VIII (FFVIII) was the first RPG that I finished, so it will always hold a special place in my heart. After finishing FFVIII, I played several other RPGs, such as The Legend of Dragoon, Chrono Cross, and Final Fantasy IX (FFIX). When I first played FFIX, I was disappointed that it wasn't more like FFVIII. I wanted the characters to look more realistic and the world to be less quirky. I still enjoyed the game; I just wanted it to be more of a sequel.

One of my best friends absolutely loves FFIX. After hearing him praise it over and over again, I decided to give it another try. It was possible that I had been blinded by my love for FFVIII and didn't judge FFIX fairly.

FFIX is full of charm. There is plenty of humor, from the silly lines to the unique characters. There is a sense of playfulness in the art style. The main character has an as-yet-unexplained monkey tail, and the characters have tastefully exaggerated proportions. The art portrays a lovely fantasy world with towering castles, quaint towns, and a variety of painstakingly-detailed natural areas. The environments are full of rounded edges and each area feels very distinctive. As characters run through the 2D levels, there is a sense of scale, and the people seem to fit right in among the colorful backgrounds. The world may be a strange place filled with hippo people, humans, and a variety of other creatures, but the art really sells it. Even the game design supports the style, filling the world with children running through town squares and little vignettes that flesh out my companions.

The game design is very forgiving and fun. The gameplay constantly supports the story, allowing the player fun opportunities from the beginning, such as finding a lost cat, sneaking over rooftops to watch a play, and digging for treasure. I get a real sense of adventure from exploring the areas, and I am constantly rewarded with hidden items and opportunities. The opening sequence was very exciting and organic, combining still-impressive FMVs with in-game cutscenes and gameplay. The combat is a traditional turn-based system common to Final Fantasy games of the time. Characters have special abilities to use during combat, such as magic, summons and powerful attacks. All these special attacks, as well as passive skills, are called "Abilities" and can be learned from armor and equipable items. This is by far one of the game's greatest strengths, as it is a very simple system that is easy to customize. Players can choose which abilities to equip and learn based on their priorities and play style. For example, players can learn "Level Up" and "Ability Up", which help characters level up faster and learn abilities faster. While these abilities are relatively expensive to equip, they can greatly reduce the time spent grinding. Players can also choose to counterattack, guard against almost any status effect, or automatically cast a potion when damaged. These abilities make the game much more fun, as they allow the player to work around issues that could otherwise become frustrating.

Aside from the ability system, the game is very forgiving. If a player misses a hidden item in a certain area, it is never lost forever. Players can often purchase that item in the next town or village; finding it in a level simply allows a player to have it earlier. Also, there are many features scattered throughout the world to help players, including chocobos (for faster travel without random battles) and fairies (who can help players learn abilities much faster).

FFIX feels like a very authentic Final Fantasy experience. The developers clearly focused on the story and authenticity of the world. There was a sense of strong leadership as well; the game has a unified vision despite its length and many unique areas. The Final Fantasy series seemed to go downhill after FFIX, with FFX being little more than a display of 3D tech with bland characters and limited originality. Although I didn't play FFXI, I found that FFXII was very unforgiving and I quit partway through. FFIX represents a peak in Japanese RPGs for the PlayStation, and its character, charm, and friendly mechanics are very rewarding for those who are willing to invest a little time. I hope that modern developers will be able to apply similar mechanics to new games. After all, graphics and fancy new features don't make a great game; it's the imagination that counts.  

Polished Pirates

I seem to have missed the boat for Sid Meier's Pirates! My peers at USC would sigh longingly when it was mentioned in class. Many of my friends were obsessed with the game when it was released. Although I'm usually not a fan of strategy games, I decided that Pirates deserved a fair shot. After all, it was somewhat of an RPG, adventure game, and a strategy game all at once.

Perhaps the most striking feature about Pirates is the level of polish. Few games can afford to take the time or simply are not planned diligently enough to implement such well-constructed systems. These systems create a variety of options, including ship gameplay, a sword fighting mini-game, a dancing mini-game, a sneaking into town mini-game, a land combat RTS game, an interface for talking to people at taverns, and more. The sheer number of gameplay options is a wonderful way to give players a lot of freedom in the world. Allies and enemies can be made through every action, and players can seek out gameplay modes best suited to their skills.

Despite some adventure and RPG mechanics (such as achieving ranks and searching for treasure), Pirates is a strategy game at its heart. The alliance system is a central part of the strategy, as it allows players to ally with the Spanish, the French, the British, or the Dutch. There are many advantages and disadvantages to such alliances, and they can often fluctuate. There are also other forces at work, such as native tribes, pirates and missionaries. Talking to these groups can help you sway a town in a desired direction, whether toward prosperity or poverty. There is also a lot of strategy involved in the fighting mechanics based on the weapons you use, and whether or not you fight in your ship or with a sword.

I'm not sure if I skipped the tutorial inadvertently, but, regardless, Pirates seems to have a steep learning curve. Granted, the first hour or so I had a Pirates fanatic looking over my shoulder, giving me hints and explaining the intricacies of his favorite strategies. It seems that the game encourages the player to learn more through experience than through discreet instructions, which can be an advantage (if you know what you're doing). I was easily overwhelmed in the beginning by the many different types of gameplay, as I had stumbled into seven or eight (such as sea combat, dancing, and treasure hunting) before I even understood what, exactly, was the goal of the game.

I was greatly impressed by the time the developers took to create a very polished experience with so many intricate systems and such varied modes of gameplay. However, the appeal of Pirates seems to come from a passion for such systems and an interest in the politics of the imaginary world. I never had much of an interest in war, conquering towns, or politics. I respect the game and I understand why so many players have enjoyed it. However, I don't think I'll return to Pirates anytime soon. It just doesn't pull me in like traditional RPGs or adventure games.  

Caught in My Own Trap

I was initially optimistic about the advantages of playing as a hunter in Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO), but I soon began to realize that the very aspects that had been so tempting as a solo player were beginning to hurt my gameplay experience. I was too proud and impatient to consider joining others, and I soon ran out of quest content for my level. I kept dying more and more often, and it seemed that joining up with others was becoming inevitable.

While MMOs are often meant to be social experiences, my favorite MMOs are those that provide plenty of solo content for when your favorite buddies aren't around. The developers of LotRO took this into account, and each level seems to have a fair number of solo quests. However, the solo content is more limited at the higher levels (around level 35 and higher). When I played with friends, this balance felt great. Most quests could easily be completed with two players, and we could afford to wait on or skip the quests that required a larger party. As a hunter, I ran into problems, as I was constantly completing quests above my level in an attempt to avoid the fellowship quests. This system worked well for awhile, until I entered higher-level areas like the Misty Mountains and Angmar. I soon found myself running out of solo quests, leaving me frustrated. My attempts to complete lower-level fellowship quests often failed, due to the swarms of enemies in many of those quests. Hunters are ill-equipped to handle large crowds, as they are best at ranged attacks, they wear light or medium armor, and they have few AOE attacks.

Perhaps it was my own stubborn desire to avoid grouping that led to my downfall as a solo hunter. I was so determined not to be tied down to a group that I tried to find other ways to become a better hunter. A good friend helped me reorder my abilities to develop a battle strategy. A large part of my strategy included taking the time to set traps before I attacked, which may seem simple to some, but it was not for me. I was too spoiled by the hunter's powerful ranged attacks; I became impatient. I was convinced that I could do more damage by running into fights and dying half of the time. My friend was patient enough to show me how traps could actually save me time, and I began the slow process of unlearning my impulsive attack habit.

Sadly, an improved strategy could not help me. At the suggestion of that same friend (who had a hunter as an alt), I began to attack more enemies as I traveled so I would level up more efficiently. This helped, but my search for quests caused me to fast travel from location to location, missing out on enemies between the areas. I became restless, feeling like the enemies weren't providing enough experience for the time I spent killing them. I wanted more quests, but I had burned through the content earlier.

Solo questing in LotRO was no longer fun. I lost interest in my hunter, and realized that I would learn more and find a more satisfying experience playing in a group as my main, a lore-master. After all, I didn't want to become like the hunter in our fellowship, who had very little understanding of his role in a group. After so many hours of solo questing, he failed to understand his role in the group. While our tank worked tirelessly to pull aggro in one particular boss fight, this hunter carelessly used a powerful skill that immediately pulled aggro and got him killed in a matter of seconds. That was clearly the type of hunter that I was becoming, and his mistake made me realize that I didn't want to devote my time to solo play.

I haven't played as my hunter for some time, instead indulging in some fantastic single-player games. It's nice to explore other types of games again. My obsession with LotRO is far from over, but I think my experiences will be contained to group questing. I had been lured by the temptations of a hunter to take shortcuts - ensared in the hunter's trap. I am glad that I have friends to help me see how I lost my interest in solo questing as a hunter – not because of the faults of the game, but because of my own impatience.  

Digging for Treasure

When I was growing up, my family had a Mac. Games for the Mac were hard to find, so I played very few computer games as a child. The few I did play, such as Super Munchers and The Dig, are a treasured part of my past. I was excited to hear about the recent re-release of The Dig on Steam. For just five dollars, I could revisit a classic from my childhood and see how much my perspective has changed.

Fourteen years after its release, I was surprised how much I still enjoyed The Dig, and not just for the nostalgia. I sat down at my computer was so engrossed in the game that I didn't get up until I'd finished five hours later. The game took me on an adventure to an unknown world and encouraged me to explore every aspect of this new land. However, I required some aid to fully enjoy the game.

The most distinct memory I had from the first time I played The Dig was when I got stuck. At that time, I couldn't just look for help online. I actually had to go to the bookstore, locate a strategy guide, and page through it to find my answer. After two trips to the bookstore, I finally bought the guide, which started a new habit for me (which served me well once I graduated to 80-hour RPGs). I was wondering if, after many years of gaming, I would be a better puzzle-solver than I was back then. Unfortunately, I soon found that the puzzles were rather tedious and seemed to encourage just clicking on everything, constantly retracing your steps, and generally wasting a lot of time being confused. I looked up a walkthrough online and breezed through the game, much happier now that I could concentrate on the story instead of some near-impossible puzzles.

The puzzles in The Dig were often clever and interesting, with just a few that seemed designed to sell a strategy guide. Unfortunately, due to the linear nature of the game, some of the most frustrating puzzles would gate my progress in the game. For example, once the opening sequence was over, I wandered around the new planet, trying to access new areas. There was one particular puzzle where I needed to reattach a lens to restore power to the facility, and my only tools were a couple of panels. One of the panels had about six or seven buttons on it, which would light up a screen as they were pressed. I quickly filled the screen with lights, which involved pressing the buttons about 50 times. Nothing happened. I soon grew frustrated and looked up the answer. It turned out that the button was a control panel for a robot, and only about five or six buttons needed to be pressed in a sequence to get this robot to reattach the lens. I have no idea how anyone would figure this out on their own, as I saw no clues around. This puzzle was incredibly difficult compared to some others, which involved rearranging animal bones (in the shape of a fossil seen earlier), or inputting a sequence of four distinct buttons seen on an in-game item.

Despite the difficulty of the puzzles, I really enjoyed the game (once I had the aid of a strategy guide for the puzzles). The music and voice-overs were excellent, and the characters were interesting. While there was no real villain in the game, there was still a strong conflict between the crew and others that grew organically from choices the player has to make. There was no combat, and I don't think the player can actually die in the game. Also, the art style was semi-realistic and often quite beautiful. Compared to modern games, I seemed to spend a lot of time just walking through levels, but I enjoyed the journey since the levels were often lovely landscapes. The world was designed as spokes around a hub, and each spoke had a light bridge that could be easily activated. These light bridges provided a method for fast travel between spokes without going through the central hub - a clever method to save players from too much backtracking.

Looking at this game from a more modern perspective, there are definitely some aspects that I would like to see in current games. The point-and-click interface could work well in portable games, especially those for the DS. I really enjoyed the conversation menu, as it was made up of small icons corresponding to topics of conversation. This may not work well in complex RPGs, but it was great in a shorter adventure game. I loved the overarching mystery and the story in general, as it presented the player with some interesting moral issues that are often not addressed in modern adventures. I also loved how many puzzles had hints for the player to see early on and return to when needed.

I understand that my fond childhood memories of The Dig may have influenced my view of it today, but I still think there is a lot to love in the game. While some puzzles may have been far too frustrating (especially for modern players), the game is generally well-designed and seems to have been a very polished experience for the time. I hope that the Steam re-release will get more people to play the game and appreciate its strengths.  
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