Pieces of a Perfect Game: Koei’s arduous slip into mediocrity

Good strategy games can be hard to come by on consoles. The only company that reliably produces games in the genre is Koei, and, as I’ve noted before, their recent track record is not so good.

Koei is now widely known for their willingness to recycle old work in the form of Dynasty Warriors – to put it more nicely, they haven’t fixed anything that isn’t broken in a while. Their lesser-known, but longer-running, Romance of the Three Kingdoms series is now on its eleventh iteration. I haven’t gotten the latest one yet, because by now I’ve figured it out (took me long enough): Koei has a secret recipe for the ultimate officer-based strategy game, but they insist on releasing it a piece at a time.

You don’t even have to look within the series itself. Genghis Khan 2, for example, was an entertaining little test of a familial system, in which you would marry your daughters off to the most loyal (and coincidentally ugliest) generals, and raise your sons to be good rulers (or kill them off if they sucked). Despite being fun and a great addition to a strategy game (and improved upon later in the Total War games), these have not returned in any of the Three Kingdoms games to come stateside.

Note how I qualified it with “stateside”. In Japan, Koei has committed what may be called the “Blizzard Sin”. They release games that are almost good enough… and then improve upon AI, add a small (but never complete) family system, add more tactics, et cetera. But only in an expansion pack (called the “Power-up Kit” or PUK). We don’t get these because we haven’t seen the series on the PC in over a decade, so we get the half-complete versions that come out on PS2.

It’s pretty clear what the motivation could be once you find out about the PUKs. Koei probably enjoys making money, like any good company. They might ship a product that’s good, but not quite great. After their customers forget how much they paid for it (~$100 for the PC version), they release an expansion pack that makes it almost great… but just flawed enough that their customers will buy the next one hoping it will be better. It sounds almost like it was the plan from the beginning. RTK7 doesn’t have enough difficulty or complexity, RTK8 is too complex and harsh on the senses. RTK9 is too simple and hands-off, RTK10 makes you focus on unnecessary details. It wouldn’t be hard (with a little testing) to find a happy medium, and make a game that really stands above all the previous ones – one that actually has a decent AI, maybe, in the first version. But that wouldn’t be as profitable, either. I honestly doubt this is Koei’s main reason for shipping RTK games with exploitable AI or clunky interfaces… but it might be an added benefit to them.

This is not to say that you can’t make great games better with expansion packs. I call it the “Blizzard Sin”, but despite the fact that every big-name game of theirs has an expansion, said expansions (well, after Beyond the Dark Portal) really do make the game much more enjoyable. The additions are carefully tested and tweaked to fit into the game. If there was an expansion to Starcraft, Diablo II, or Warcraft III released tomorrow, I would buy it. The obvious exception here is the WoW expansions, said to devalue current players’ stuff left and right. But expansions have been abused in the past, and it will be abused again – similar to the “patch-as-you-ship” that Civ4 and its expansion went for. Dynasty Warriors 6 could be a great game, but you can bet it will have DW6: Xtreme Legends that makes the game just a little bit better – just enough to tide the fans over until Dynasty Warriors 7.

For another example of a franchise that loves to have pieces of a perfect game, look at Natsume’s Harvest Moon series. Each game focuses strongly on one aspect of the SNES original, but is missing parts that were improved in any of the other games. I could only play Save the Homeland for a little while, because the farming and economic parts of the game were even less complex than the first Harvest Moon. It didn’t help my determination any that one of my co-workers kept telling me about all the crazy crops he could grow in A Wonderful Life. He complained, though, that the game felt too focused on the farming.

What can we (as gamers) do about this? Not a whole lot. We can stay away from buying these games, for one, or complain to companies directly. It could be that they release a bunch of games just to see how each aspect is received, and are planning to create the super ultra mega Three Kingdoms simulator to Rule Them All (or perhaps Harvest Moon: Save the Friends of Mineral Town from their Wonderful Lives). I would love for that to be the case, but it probably will not happen. We can at least watch reviews before buying the next installment – and hope that this one might be more than just a piece of perfect.

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