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Attending the Pokémon Winter Regionals

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This past month, the internet has been abuzz with news, discussion, speculation, and – most copiously – adulation about one of Nintendo’s most beloved series: Pokémon. 2016 marks the mega-successful franchise’s 20-year anniversary, and, while it may not have yet achieved the longevity of Mario or Zelda, the outpouring of support from longtime fans has been truly remarkable.

Coinciding with The Pokémon Company International kicking off the virtual celebration, the Play Pokémon Video Game and Trading Card Game Winter Regional Championship series events across the country this past week drew thousands of fans together in the spirit of shared passion and friendly (but fierce) competition.

I was fortunate enough to attend and participate in the St. Louis area Winter Regionals this year, and I was astounded at the turnout. According to Yeti Gaming, who hosted the officially sanctioned event, a whopping 674 players competed in the Trading Card Game portion, and a further 244 video game players brought the total of Pokémon-Masters-In-Training to 918!

Pretty good for a 20-year-old game.

For those who have never been to an official Pokémon League competition, imagine a small local convention with a massive tournament around it, drawing in fans of all different ages and backgrounds from all over the country. I met people who had traveled from as far away as Texas and Florida to join the fun. One player I competed against was an elderly woman who drove down from Chicago, about a five-hour trip. (And she schooled me!)

What really caught my attention were the parents who were there with their kids. In contrast to my day (am I old enough to say that?), when “gamers” were socially awkward kids who got yelled at to go outside and play, these parents were every bit as involved with and supportive of their kids playing competitive Pokémon as typical parents are for baseball tournaments or soccer leagues.

The landscape of video gaming has changed radically since Pokémon Red and Blue captured the hearts of Game Boy owners worldwide. Shifting social trends and rapid development of global communications have put a once-marginalized hobby at the forefront of a new frontier in competitive entertainment. The steady (and even growing) popularity of events like the recent Winter Regional Championships is evidence that Pokémon is a series which has adapted particularly well to modern technology.

As someone who saw Pokémon through its humble beginnings, its breakthrough into massive popularity, the bumps in the road of its transition to the Internet era, and its return to its roots, I would have to err on the side of optimism and say that we just may look forward to another twenty years.

Eileen Murphy is a writer, editor, hopefully-soon-to-be-novelist, and conservation activist who also happens to be a closet Nintendo nerd. Her lifelong passion was inherited from her mother, who took up video games as a hobby when the original Game Boy hit the market in 1989. After a brief affair with the Sega Genesis, Eileen received a Game Boy Color and a copy of Pokemon Blue. Nearly 20 years later, Pokemon remains one of her favorite series, but The Legend of Zelda takes first place in her heart (container!).

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‘Sayonara Wild Hearts’ is the Rhythm Game of a Lifetime

Few Rhythm games can boast the sheer strength and variety of gameplay and stellar soundtrack that Sayonara Wild Hearts offers the player.

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Sayonara Wild Hearts

Rhythm games can sometimes be a dicy prospect. As well populated as the genre is, the possible variety in musical style, required skill set and game length can make it hard to parse whether a rhythm game will be a good fit for an individual player. With that in mind, few rhythm games nail all of these attributes as perfectly as Sayonara Wild Hearts does.

A neon-drenched fever dream of a game, Sayonara Wild Hearts tasks the player with driving, flying and sailing through an increasingly elaborate world of giant robots, sword battles and laser fights. In this ethereal plain you battle other wild hearts as you seek solace from a broken heart and navigate around the obstacles of each course.

Though this may already sound very gnarly, or even radical, if you will, what really makes Sayonara Wild Hearts work so well is the diversity of of its levels. Some stages will see you weaving in and out of traffic while dodging oncoming street cars and the like, while others will see you navigating a ship across storm drenched waters or working your way through a retro inspired shooter. There’s even a first person level that calls to mind old school PC classics like Descent

Sayonara Wild Hearts

It’s really something to see so much variety packed into a game that it nearly defies classification as a result. Few games can offer the depth and breadth of gameplay that Sayonara Wild Hearts does, and that’s part of its enduring charm.

Of course, a rhythm game is only as good as its soundtrack. Luckily Sayonara Wild Hearts soars in this regard as well. The soundtrack contains pulse-pounding beats by Daniel Olsén and Jonathan Eng, with dreamy pop vocals by Linnea Olsson. Inspired by the likes of Sia and Chvrches, the killer soundscape of the game will keep you powering through time and again in hopes of attaining the ever elusive perfect run. A rank system and collectibles keep things interesting as well.

The unique look of the game is another feather in its cap. Pulsing neon lights pump to the beat while pinks, purples and blues color the world around you in a unique 1980’s dance club aesthetic. All of the elements coalesce together to make a game that looks and feels like nothing else you’ve ever played.

Sayonara Wild Hearts

As mentioned at the top, sometimes rhythm games live or die based on their difficulty and accessibility. Fortunately Sayonara Wild Hearts manages to nail this aspect of gaming too. All you need to do to pass a level is get a Bronze ranking, which is attainable even for those of low skill sets. My 5 and 6 year old daughters were able to beat several of the levels, even some of the harder ones. Better still, less skilled players can skip the more challenging areas of the later levels with a prompt that comes up automatically when a player fails three times in a row.

With a stellar attention to all of the aspects that make for a successful rhythm game, Sayonara Wild Hearts is the rhythm game of a lifetime. Destined to be listed among the best games of 2019, and in the company of the best rhythm games of all time, Sayonara Wild Hearts is revolutionary entry into the genre and one of the best indies to come along in years.

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The Lasting Impact of Indie Acquisitions by AAA Publishers

AAA publishers are acquiring indie game studios at record rates. 76 studios have lost their freedom since 2016, and history tells us that is not good news.

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Indie AAA Publishers

AAA publishers face fiercer competition today from indie developers than ever before. With indie games selling in the millions, an abundance of tools that make development easier, and fan gatherings around the world, the indie scene is now a huge part of gaming. Perhaps that’s why publishers have been on a spending spree as of late, acquiring 76 indie studios from around the world since 2016.

After years of neglect, AAA publishers seem to finally be aware of the impact indies have had on gaming. As their awareness grows their desire for control does as well. By making these moves, publishers get that control while indie developers get financial security they previously only dreamed of. But is this a strategy that’ll pay off in the long run?

The large-scale acquisition of smaller studios by the AAA industry does have some benefits. But in the long run, this mass shedding of independence could have catastrophic effects on gaming. You only need to look at the past to see why.

AAA Acquisitions and You

The rate at which large publishers are buying smaller, independent studios is nothing to bat an eye at. Since 2016, AAA publishers have purchased at least 76 independent game studios all over the world. What’s more, the rate at which publishers are buying studios has increased. Seven acquisitions were made in 2016, a number which skyrocketed to 31 in 2018 and 29 the following year. 2020 is only three weeks old, yet there have already been two major takeovers. We could be here all day listing all these acquisitions, so instead, here’s a Google Doc highlighting all that we could find.

Psychonauts 2, Indie Studio
Psychonauts 2 will be Double Fine’s last multi-platform game.

Microsoft and THQ Nordic are two of the biggest spenders making all the noise. Microsoft really threw their money around in 2018 after combating a reputation of not having enough games or variety for their console. They purchased Obsidian, inXile, Ninja Theory, Compulsion Games, Undead Labs, and Playground Games that year, and then Double Fine in 2019. THQ Nordic, seeking to rebuild after going bankrupt in 2013, has acquired 14 studios since 2016. Other recent acquisitions of note include Facebook purchasing Beat Saber creator Beat Games, Sony tying the knot with longtime collaborator Insomniac Games, and Google wrangling Journey to the Savage Planet maker Typhoon Studios.

But these are just the tip of the iceberg, with more deals expected in the coming months and years. In early 2019, THQ Nordic announced they raised $225 million to buy more studios. Rumors continue swirling that Sony is looking to counter Microsoft’s spending spree with further purchases of their own. With Google’s Stadia struggling at launch and Facebook looking to improve the Oculus’ line-up, they’re likely just getting started, too.

Why Do AAA Publishers buy Indies?

Buying pre-existing studios is cheaper than building a new one from scratch. You don’t have to hire 100 people and then find a place for them to work. Plus, you get a roster full of experienced developers right out of the gate along with whatever intellectual property they own. When EA bought Respawn Entertainment in 2017, they got Titanfall along with it. Paradox nabbing Harebrained Schemes gained them cult-classics BattleTech and Shadowrun.

AAA publishers are getting smart and buying indie studios they think could produce big hits before they become big. If Minecraft hit Early Access today, Microsoft probably wouldn’t need $2.5 billion to purchase creator Mojang. So, THQ Nordic buys Experiment 101 before they release Biomutant and Sega acquires Two Point Studios just after they release Two Point Hospital.

That’s also why so many of these companies are creating indie searchlight programs. PlayStation is launching an indie initiative with former Double Fine producer Greg Rice. There’s the Square Enix Collective, Take-Two’s Private Division, and EA Originals. These programs get publishers in on the ground floor of young indie creators before they become famous (i.e. too expensive).

AAA Published Titanfall

Streaming the Future, Today

The role that game streaming plays in all this cannot be overstated. Microsoft are pushing the idea of a gaming ecosystem spread across multiple devices while Sony is potentially bringing their games to the PC. Both have their own streaming services. Look at any movie or TV streaming platform and you’ll see they all share the same mantra: quantity over quality.

With streaming, the customer has unlimited access to every game in that service’s library. They can play a game for an hour, get bored, and play something else all for $9.99 a month. Publishers know that, and they’re priming themselves to be able to put as much content out there as possible.

The Cost of Doing Business

On the surface, these acquisitions make sense for everyone. Publishers get a studio without the hassle of creating a new one from scratch, and developers get the financial security they previously could only dream of. However, while the little guys and gals get a steady paycheck, they lose something vital in the transaction: independence.

Without the creative freedom to produce whatever art they want however they wish to do so, AAA publishers zap developers of what made them special. Publishers are notoriously risk-averse, and it’s easy to imagine a scenario where Microsoft asks Obsidian to make an online survival game or THQ Nordic demands a remake of an old Spongebob game from Purple Lamp Studios. Projects like these are likely in production because the publishers view them as low risk, high reward.

Spongebob Battle for Bikini Bottom Rehydrated, AAA Publishers
The future of video games apparently lies in its past.

The biggest restriction to any of these studios is that they’ll become console or streaming service exclusive. Microsoft is only allowing games like The Outer Worlds, Psychonauts 2, and Wasteland 3 on the PlayStation 4 due to prior commitments made by those studios before their sale. Once those games are done, nobody without an Xbox console or gaming PC will be able to play one of their games again. The same goes for Typhoon Studios and Beat Games, both now proud anchors of the doomed Stadia and Oculus, respectively.

“They Have Completely Ruined That Company”

The word “Rare” is enough to send any gamer of a certain age into a frenzy. Once a second-party developer for Nintendo (who owned 25% and later 49% of the company), Rare was once a legendary studio. They created Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark, GoldenEye 007, and so many more classic games. Nintendo granted them rare creative freedom, a blessing for any studio, and one that they took full advantage of.

That all changed in 2002. As the cost of development increased, Rare found Nintendo unwilling to increase its funding and uninterested in purchasing the remaining 51% of the company. With nowhere else to turn, Rare executives sold out to Microsoft for $375 million. It seemed like Microsoft saved Rare at the time, but little did anyone know they were worse off than ever.

After the purchase, Rare made a string of disappointing games such as Grabbed by the Ghoulies, Kameo: Elements of Power, and Perfect Dark Zero. After these failures, they reached a new low with Kinect Sports and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts.

Rare Replay Blast Corps Review

“The Culture Changed”

Former Rare Engineer Phil Tossell attributed the decline to a culture clash between the two companies. “However, as time passed,” he said in an interview with Destructoid, “and there were staff changes at Microsoft Game Studios, together with [Rare Founders] Tim and Chris [Stamper] leaving, the culture changed and it began to feel more Microsoft and less Rare.”

“I think Rare have completely fucked themselves. And it isn’t their fault; it’s Microsoft’s fault,” former Rare composer Grant Kirkhope said in an archived interview with ScrewAttack. “They have completely ruined that company, and it makes me cry every day of my life.”

The hard feelings went both ways, as former Xbox executive Peter Moore told The Guardian in 2008: “Perfect Dark Zero was a launch title and didn’t do as well as Perfect Dark… but we were trying all kinds of classic Rare stuff and unfortunately I think the industry had past Rare by […] But their skill sets were from a different time and a different place and were not applicable in today’s market.”

Whomever you blame, there’s no denying the sale changed Rare forever–and for the worse. Today, their most recent games are Rare Replay, a complication of their old games, and Sea of Thieves, an online multiplayer “live service” game light on content but heavy on the microtransactions.

AAA Crunch Berry

Arguably the worst thing these indie studios inherit is the AAA publishers’ track record with workers’ rights. The games industry has a long, ugly history of treating its developers poorly. Long workdays and weeks, excessive crunch, workplace harassment, lack of health benefits, high turnover, and low job security are all prevalent issues.

RiotGames

There are plenty of terrible examples to point to. Disney shutting down LucasArts after buying the Star Wars license because they wanted nothing to do with video games. Ken Levine gutting his staff at Irrational for the sake of “a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers,” whatever that means. Riot Games employees walking out in 2018 to protest rampant sexual harassment. Rockstar allegedly forcing employees to work 100 hour weeks with no pay. EA laying off 350 people in 2019 despite earning $5.4 billion in revenue that year. Any example works, take your pick.

Executives can (and do) whatever they like, seemingly on a whim. Some of these issues are present on every level of development, of course, but nowhere are they more prevalent than at the top of the food chain.

How Things Change

Keeping people employed and keeping beloved studios alive are great things. However, consider at the long-term effects of such employment conditions; are the aforementioned pitfalls really worth it?

The games these once independent studios make in the future will be different from what they’ve made in the past, and will carry with them different expectations. Lauded as a masterpiece and winning several awards, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was a small-scale game that outperformed expectations. Now as a AAA project under Microsoft, Hellblade II has a bigger budget and cutting-edge graphics and animation. The sequel can’t be a reasonably well-selling, mid-range game anymore–it has to be a big-budget spectacle. More importantly, it has to sell Xboxes.

Mental Illness Hellblade

Then there’s the case of Firewatch creator Campo Santo. A year after Valve acquired them in 2018, the developer announced that their next game, In the Valley of the Gods, was put on hold. They’re currently working on Half Life: Alyx and Dota Underlords instead. Just like that, a great-looking game from a narrative-driven company was killed–and for the sake of what? A VR game resuscitating a long-dead franchise to sell $500 Valve headsets and a free-to-play online auto-battler that will soon feature, you guessed it, microtransactions.

The Loss of the Indie Spirit

History shows that when an independent studio sells out to a AAA publisher, it’s rare that something good happens. With indie studios having more power, success, and reach than ever, it makes little sense for many of them to sign on the dotted line. Those millions of dollars from hotshot companies can be tempting for anyone, but when you look at how these things typically go, how can you not be anything but disheartened?

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Art Books for Video Games: Persona Franchise

Art books for video games can create a greater appreciation for the game itself. Some of the best examples come from the Persona franchise.

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Art Books for Video Games: Persona

While video games are increasingly appreciated as an artistic genre, art books for video games still fly under the radar. Video game art books show a game’s design process from start to finish. At their best, they can help fans better appreciate their favorite titles. Some of the best examples of recent video game art books come from the massive Persona franchise.

From main-line entries to spin-offs, most recent Persona games have art books. Whether its made for a main JRPG entry or spin-off, the books feature promotional art, early character sketches, concept and final images for settings, and commentary from each game’s artists.

This article will look at three recent main-line games, Persona 3, 4 and 5, (original releases) as well as two spin-offs: Persona 4 Arena and Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. This will be a good starting point for understanding Persona art books and video game art books in general.

Art Books for Main-line Persona Games

The Persona franchise has, over recent years, nailed down the art book to a science. Each book has publicity illustrations, character design pages, and a “world of Persona” type section. Every book works within this framework to showcase its art style and design process.

Persona 3: Official Design Works

The Persona 3 Official Design Works book spans 144+ pages. After being treated to several polished promotional images, including the game’s box art, the book dives into its character designs.

For its character art, the Persona 3 art book focuses on line-art sketches. The key point here is to see how characters did (or did not) change design from conception to final product. For instance, while the sketches for Mitsuru Kirijo are similar to the final design, Yukari Takeba’s pages show noticeable changes, particularly with hairstyles and facial features.

The book splits its in-game art between dungeon-crawling sprites and the more “anime” style dialogue portraits. This shows a range of equipable character weapons more thoroughly than other games.

In the “World” section, the pages have enigmatic, early-concept art, some expanded upon and used, and some put to the side. There’s also art for key settings, including Gekkoukan High School and Pawlonia Mall.

The book is compact, and makes the most of its character pages, without feeling cluttered. This collection is packed with content, and provides a stunning behind-the-scenes look at the original Persona 3.

Persona 4: Visual Data

The original “visual data” book for Persona 4 (2008) is substantially shorter than other games (barely 100+ pages). However, the art book makes the most of its pages.

The book comes with a killer introduction that connects to the game’s story. On the first page, mascot character Teddie gives a poetic spoiler alert, warning players, “…we recommend holding off on savoring this art book until after you’re done. Truths are meant to be hard-earned, not viewed safely from afar!” This message ties in with the game’s emphasis on working gradually towards uncovering the truth.

After Teddie’s warning, the book dives into promotional images, and then its character art. For the main cast, the pages show in-game portraits as well as early sketches and creator commentary. Some characters look completely different than their earlier art. For instance, Rise initially looked closer to P4’s Ai Ebihara. Also, Chie’s creator commentary explains that she initially looked closer to past Persona characters, specifically Persona 2‘s Lisa Silverman and Persona 3’s Chihiro Fushimi (page 17).

Persona-4-Rise-Concept.png
Unused concept art for Persona 4‘s Rise Kujikawa
https://tcrf.net/Persona_4

The art and commentary continues with supporting characters. While these come with fewer designs, the sketches are still fascinating. (Nanako originally looked quite similar to a certain late-game Persona 5 character–no spoilers!)

The rest of the book has sketches for personas and shadows, and ends with key images. These pages show concepts for settings, in-game moments and character uniforms. There are also unused illustrations, showing what could have been a different Persona 4 altogether.

The Art of Persona 5

The Art of Persona 5 art book is massive in scope–compared to the last two video games, this feels more like a textbook. However, the book remains sleek and stylish throughout its 440+ pages, just like the game itself.

Each character section emphasizes the sharp divide between daily student life and the phantom thieves’ dungeon crawling adventures at night.

While the Persona 3 and Persona 4 art books focused on line sketches for the characters, the Persona 5 art book also includes pen-and-ink brush images, and more full-color images.

The book goes the extra mile with its creator commentaries. Breaking this down fully would make its own article, but a great place to start is the commentary for the main character (aka “Joker”).

art-book-persona-5-official-setting-material-art-book_HYPETOKYO_7

https://www.hype.tokyo/products/art-book-persona-5-official-setting-material-art-book

The creator commentaries for Joker show how his design changed as the team worked through larger questions for Persona 5‘s story. The commentary mentions the question of how “the protagonist and party members should look like as thieves” (creator commentary, page 44). The commentary also describes game director Katsura Hashino asking the questions, “aren’t these designs too realistic?” and “wouldn’t a Phantom Thief show off when they fired a gun?” (creator commentary, page 44). This commentary shines a light on the design process for creating this 60+ hour JRPG.

Other highlights include Morgana’s and Futaba’s pages, shown below.

Post image
https://www.reddit.com/r/Persona5/comments/9nex1b/early_morgana_sketchesdrawings_persona_5_art_book/
user uploaded image
https://aminoapps.com/c/smtp5/page/blog/futaba-sakura-official-n-concept-art/ZZLb_G6TBuevgqQLexqqMXZpbR2EYBzbkV

The book also shows art for side characters (particularly Sae, an integral character to the game). There’s also art for in-game NPC menu screens, antagonists with detailed boss-battle designs, and profile pages for the rest of the supporting cast.

Finally, there’s the “world of” section. Once again, many of these images hint at would could have been a very different game. The exciting part here is that unused images may be used for future games. Given the time lapse between the original Persona 4 and Persona 5 (about 8 years), this content may serve as the only means of speculation as fans wait (and hope for) a possible Persona 6 down the line.

Until then, fans can look forward to a growing list of Persona spin-offs and a new crop of art books.

Here’s a look at two Persona spin-offs with phenomenal art books.

Two Very Different Persona Spin-Off Art Books

The Persona franchise has many spin-off games. This includes rhythm games, arcade-style fighting games, and more. (Soon, Persona 5 Scramble will join the list, a hack-and-slash game for the Nintendo Switch, scheduled for release in Japan on February 20, 2020).

Two recent Persona spin-offs with great art books are Persona 4 Arena and Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. These are both crossover games, combining cast members of Persona 3 and Persona 4 for a brand-new experience.

Persona 4 Arena

Persona 4 Arena, released in North America on August 7th, 2012, is an arcade-style fighting game bringing together the cast of Persona 4, and several Persona 3 characters, with a small batch of original characters.

The book starts off with key illustrations, which look like splashy spotlights of characters in the heat of battle.

https://www.polygon.com/2013/4/26/4270104/persona-4-arena-official-design-works-artbook-english-localization

The biggest difference, however, comes with the character pages. The pages display the line art used for showing movement and action, in a way the main-line art books don’t. This is because of the game’s combat system, and its re-use of many original character designs. These pages show how much work goes into creating a fighting game.

Image 1
Character page for Persona 3‘s Elizabeth
https://focusattack.com/udon-persona-4-arena-official-design-works-softcover/

While this art book highlights the game’s combat and high-drama narrative, the final art book shows a more upbeat, cooperative crossover game.

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth was released for the Nintendo 3DS in North America on November 25th, 2014. This is a first-person dungeon-crawler, featuring the full Persona 3 and Persona 4 casts, along with two brand new characters.

The most obvious difference with this spin-off is its art style. All characters are in chibi form, highly stylized, minimized, and “cute.” This keeps with the up-beat, sugar-sweet positivity of the game, where both casts become friends and work together to resolve the game’s conflict.

Character page for Persona 3‘s Aigis
https://www.animebooks.com/peqshoflaofv.html

The game’s main selling point comes from the characters meeting each other and working together. Unsurprisingly, the illustration pages show how the game’s designers experimented in bringing different characters together.

https://www.animebooks.com/peqshoflaofv.html

As always, the book has individual character pages. This time, the art focuses on how original characters are translated into chibi form. The only exceptions to this are the two new characters Zen and Rei.

The book also has art for the game’s opening animation and cut-scenes. These show how the art team created scenes showing the dramatic reveal of the casts meeting each other. They also include the slice-of-life events the casts experience together.

The Beauty of Art Books for Video Games

Art books made for video games can show fans the hard work that goes into designing their favorite titles. Some of the best art books in recent years come from the Persona video game franchise. These books compliment their title, showing the hard work and creativity that goes into developing each video game.

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