Is 'Burnout Paradise' The New 'Animal Crossing? Would That Be Bad? (Vs Mode Round Two)

Animal CrossingThis is "Burnout Paradise" Vs. Mode Round Two and we're about to go off the rails.

In Round One, I admitted to Newsweek's N'Gai Croal that I was a tad mistaken about "Burnout Paradise," which I had loved, kind of loved, kind of loathed and then changed my mind about again.

He pointed out he had been on board all along and sang the virtues of a proper sequel-making.

None of that was too crazy. But now comes Round Two, in which I basically say that "Burnout Paradise" is a better "Animal Crossing" than "Animal Crossing."

And N'Gai backs me up!

Read on to see how we got to that point. And really, can you disagree?

(These exchanges are mirrored on N’Gai’s “Level Up” bog.)

Burnout ParadiseTo: N'Gai Croal

Fr: Stephen Totilo

Date: January 29, 2008

Re: "Burnout" Meets "Animal Crossing"

N'Gai,

First I was the Anti-"Burnout-Paradise" guy. Now you've pegged me as the Anti-Sequel guy. Did you not sense my anguish I felt while writing my "Does Portal Need A Sequel" blog post? I am conflicted about some games' need to be sequel-ized. "Burnout 3: Takedown" was such a good game that I probably would have said the series didn't need a sequel. I did not like the subsequent "Revenge" and "Dominator" games as much. I was ready for Criterion Games to stop wasting their time and move on. Too much talent spent nudging a series forward. Time for a bold new something.

Then they finally did "deliberately introduce significant changes" for "Burnout Paradise" and, like the guy who told me the DS wouldn't be a hit, I had to eat crow. I guess they needed to nudge the series a few time before jolting it forward.

I'm only realizing now, though, that they've nudged it into a really interesting spot: the spot I long ago hopes would be taken up by "Animal Crossing."

Ah, "Animal Crossing." How has Nintendo been able to get away with that series? The promise of the premise is wonderful. It's a game you don't really play. You just hang out in it and has enough programmed into the world to keep you interested for at least a full year. It's designed to be enjoyed in group play, but unlike a massively multiplayer online game like "World of Warcraft," you don't really have to play with other people. You can, but you don't have to. In fact, it's designed to be fun for its asynchronous multi-player. You know, I go into the virtual town and do stuff. Then you go in later and see what I did. But have you ever tried playing an "Animal Crossing" game? Millions of people buy them, but don't they know? The controls are clunky; the interface, even in the DS one, is not intuitive. Everything I ever learned about from Miyamoto games regarding smooth controls that you don't even have to think about appear to be absent from the "Animal Crossing" series. How is that? Why is that? I don't know.

Maybe I don't need to worry about that anymore, though, because I think "Burnout: Paradise" could be my own "Animal Crossing." Paradise City is huge. There are lots of things to do, mostly involving smashing thing -- cars, gates, signs, etc. There's also just interesting terrain, good lines to race through -- across bridges, through railroad tunnels, up and down big staircases, down the beach, in the hidden circuit race track (I found it!) in the southwest part of the city. And like "Animal Crossing," I can welcome other people into my city or hop into there's and play together, mostly an improvised fashion. Better for my tastes, though, I can play against them without them, knocking off their high scores while they're asleep. As I said in my Round One, I don't even care that much about the races in the game anymore. I just like driving around, wandering digitally. I guess it's the difference between going to a specific website or just surfing the web to alleviate boredom. We all know which of those activities is actually more fun.

"Burnout: Paradise" is, therefore, a fun quasi-private, quasi-public place I like hanging out in. I like loitering in it, passing the time. I think I like it for the same reason I'm also really enjoying the Wii's scuba simulator "Endless Ocean." In that "game," I enjoy just going for a dive, checking out a school of fish or swimming through ancient ruins. Grabbing the tail of a whale shark and slowly getting pulled through the sea is thrill enough. I don't need a high score in that game. I don't need a goal. Apologies, to Mr. Ward, but I don't feel like I need to ever beat it.

Have I discovered the dream of virtual reality made true? Have I abandoned the virtues of goal-oriented games for a world of virtual wandering? I do like goal-oriented games, but as I get a taste of some of the games that just give me a fun digital place to be in, I'm finding myself quite satisfied. I remember feeling some of this back when I played "Pilotwings 64" and just enjoyed jumping across the game's miniature United States in some spring-filled boots. I think this might be why lots of people like "Grand Theft Auto," except I think what people who don't follow the story actually do in that game is make a goal for themselves -- cat and mouse with the cops -- and that's not the same as just wandering around.

Over the last week, none of the "Paradise" times and rankings scored by people on my PS3 friends list have appeared in my copy of the game. I'm not sure why that is, but it means that even the one goal I had for the game -- to beat people's numbers while they were sleeping -- has at least temporarily been excluded from the way I play the game. I haven't minded. I turn on my PS3, drive around, smash into a few things, race really fast, jump into an online game to crash into a few people, then log off. In 15 minutes I've been to another place and been quite satisfied.

N'Gai, have I discovered the next big thing? Is virtual reality here? Were we all snookered into thinking our games need goals and are we finally going to ignore those false carrots and just enjoy the trot? I need to know.

-Stephen

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ac1.jpgTo: Stephen Totilo

Fr: N'Gai Croal

Date: January 30, 2008

Re: Join The Club

Stephen,

You wrote of your newfound love of aimless driving over event completion, "I guess it's the difference between going to a specific website or just surfing the web to alleviate boredom. We all know which of those activities is actually more fun." To that, sir, I say TMI. Let's nip this talk of boredom alleviation through Web surfing in the bud before it gets out of, uh, hand.

Seriously, though, I think you are onto something here. Your description of Paradise City as a place where it's cool to loiter and hang out is spot on. There's also a subtle insight in your assessment of the game world as "quasi-private, quasi-public" place, as if it were a social network of some kind. But none of this would be possible, or at least as fully realized, if "Burnout Paradise" wasn't a connected open world. (Perhaps now the pitchfork-wielding peasants who had been massing at Criterion's gate can start to see why Alex Ward and his team built the game the way they did, prioritizing openness and seamlessness and doing away with the load times brought on by the discrete race-by-race structure that typifies most driving games.)

You mentioned the asynchronous multiplayer gameplay in "Animal Crossing;" the power of "Paradise " is that it can be synchronous and asynchronous, just like a social network, if I'm connected to Xbox Live or Playstation Network. I can set and break records even if none of my friends are online, but when they do log on, we can also compete head-to-head in "Burnout"'s unified environment without sitting in a lobby or waiting for a race to load. I've been talking about the Facebook-ing of video games for a few months now, and the idea of a unified gaming environment where you and your friends' records mark the world like a wall-to-wall conversation thanks to the power of connected consoles--this is yet another step in that direction.

This new-ish development may need its own acronym, like SOS (Shared Open Spaces), MMSS (Minimally Multiplayer Sandbox Simulators) or SSAOWG (Simultaneously Synchronous and Asynchronous Open World Games). Regardless of what it's called, developers must start explicitly thinking about this when they're designing their games. It's particularly important for teams working on open worlds. When you're building a large, unified play space, you're going to want to get the most gameplay per square inch that you possibly can out of it. That's part of the thinking behind collecting packages and going on taxi missions and vigilante missions in "Grand Theft Auto."

And this is where I would disagree with you that these games are freeing us from goal-oriented gameplay, because what we're actually witnessing here is a proliferation of goals. In "Burnout Paradise" I can "collect" broken billboards, shattered barriers and hidden jumps. I can score newer, better cars. I can beat my friends' records. I can beat them head-to-head. I can accumulate Achievements. True, I can also opt out of every single goal and simply drive around the city. But the breadth of goals means that players can now have explicitly different experiences with the same game and tailor those experiences to the kind of entertainment they're looking for. They can grind out every last goal to beat the game, reject the notion of accomplishment entirely, or find the path that best suits them.

In our "Phantom Hourglass" edition of Vs. Mode, I suggested that density of gameplay could replace scope of gameplay as a developer's primary objective. Look at what Bungie did with "Halo 3": campaign, co-op, multiplayer, Forge, skulls, photo mode and Saved Films. "Little Big Planet" is doing the same thing, with everything from level editing to puppeteering. I've been spending a lot of time over the past week playing Bizarre Creations and Sega's "The Club" --an unholy marriage of the thrill of a third-person shooter with the urgency of a racing game--first via the recently released Xbox Live Marketplace/Playstation Network demo and then with the actual review code. The meat of the game could be said to be its Tournament mode--it's the equivalent of the story mode in a fighting game--where you compete in six to seven events per location to become the titular Club's best killer. But based on my initial experience with the highly limited demo, which only lets players try a couple of event modes rather than an actual tournament, I now know that I'll be spending the bulk of my time going over individual maps, memorizing the patterns of the enemies and the placement of pickups in order to keep improving my scores. The tournament, for me, is just a means to an end: unlocking events and locations so that I can play them at my leisure. Because where The Club really shines is not in the overall progression through it's barely-there story and beating the game, but rather the painstaking mastery of its fast-paced levels.

I wonder though, if die hard, old school, goal-oriented players will wag their fingers at gaming delinquents like ourselves who reject the idea that winning isn't everything, but the only thing, for whom beating the game--or other people--is their entire raison de jeu. As I become increasingly hardcasual in my gaming tastes, I need games to stop boxing me into one way to have fun, one way to progress, one way to entertain myself. I don't want the proclivities of 12-24-year-old males, who have unlimited amounts of time to grind through a developer's set path, to prevent me from having a good time. As Brad Pitt said of Project Mayhem in "Fight Club," "You decide your level of involvement." (Would this be Vs. Mode without a "Fight Club" or "Metal Gear Solid" reference? I think not.) The more developers that follow in Criterion's footsteps, the more teams that choose to achieve their hours of gameplay by expanding their games along the twin axes of density and variety to accommodate a wider range of gaming desires rather than along the narrow path that satisfies the same old hardcore joypad-twiddler, the more fun I'll be having.

In fact, doesn't this tie into one of your other pet theories: that the secret to games that have truly succeeded with mainstream audiences--"Tetris," "Grand Theft Auto III," "Halo," "Guitar Hero"--is that they can be played casually? I've disagreed with you pretty vehemently on this in the past, because it's always felt like something's missing from your axiom, as though hardcore video game mechanics are somehow a barrier to success. Perhaps the correct Grand Unified Theory is that the breakthrough games of the future will no longer reward only a narrow range of play styles. Instead, they'll explicitly support a variety of play patterns, each of which could be measured by an individual player's skill; the intensity, frequency and duration of their play sessions; and the nature of the experience that the player is looking for, be it challenge, stimulation, competition, relaxation, exploration, entertainment. Forget the One Console Future--I'm talking about the One Game Future, the Everlasting Gobstopper of interactive entertainment.

Cheers,

N.

***

This Vs. Mode will conclude later this week.