Monday, April 13, 2015

Final Fantasy VII for Windows 95 Programmer’s Job Notice (1997)

Original Final Fantasy VII for Windows 95 programmer’s job notice 
published in the January 1997 edition of Next Generation magazine.

A master class in video game design


What can be said about Final Fantasy VII that hasn’t been said before? This is the game that set the new standard for practically every RPG published since 1997. To this day, internet fora are filled with petitions where fans ardently demand a reimagined version of the game for the new, more powerful, systems Square-Enix has yet to deliver. You’ll find it mentioned in every Top 100 list of best video games ever and in every Top 10 list of the best console RPGs. Some say it’s the best electronic entertainment product ever sold.

Having been released for Sony’s PlaysStation after the almost perfect Final Fantasy VI for the SNES (or Final Fantasy III as it was originally released in North America), the seventh itineration of the game blasted the JRPG genre from obscurity to mass media phenomenon. Final Fantasy VII coincided with the very early advent of the internet, which potentially expanded its reach due to very same nature of the game, where exploration and minutea rewarded hard-core gamers.

The game was also ported to Windows 95 and later Windows systems. Unfortunately, the Eidos badged product was not a very good version of the game. It had technical difficulties that rendered the PlayStation version a much more entertaining adventure. The details of the failure are downright absurd. Yet, the ad where SquareSoft solicited talented programmers for such endeavor can be seen above. It's an interesting document when you take into account that it saw the light of day before the actual game, sold in North America at the end of January. This was before game-trailers saturated the web months or years before the game itself, so this high res depiction of Midgar was delicious eye-candy for anyone in the know.  Can you imagine the same ad today? Square-Enix’s servers would overload in minutes. Such is the power of the Final Fantasy brand, much of which was created worldwide with the one single game I’m talking about here.

But what makes Final Fantasy VII the best RPG ever created? Are there intrinsic characteristics within its pixel-DNA that make it stand above the rest of the hundreds of games that have tried to imitate it? What makes it even better than other Final Fantasy games?

Since I can’t say anything new about the game which hasn’t been said before (other than it is indeed a very addictive RPG with a memorable storyline), I compiled a list of 10 characteristics every game creator must take into account when designing his product. This list was published in the same edition of Next Generation where the ad you see above was included. By the way, this is one of the best editions of that already superb publication. If you are interested in editorial layout or video games or indeed want to learn anything about print publishing, I strongly recommend you scour for the cool retro magazine. I’ve placed the cover in this post so you can identify it more easily.

Here’s the list created by video game and data guru John Eaton. I’ll add my comments as related to Final Fantasy VII after his thoughts. 

Ten things to do to ensure a more playable game
1. The only significant actions are those that affect the player’s ability to perform future actions. Everything else is bells and whistles.
Check. Most RPGs are filled with important player decisions from the outset. Every path the player takes and every weapon or enemy he decides to fight or not will have immediate repercussions. Final Fantasy VII handles this subject elegantly within its first hour, which also serves as a tutorial. I'm talking about the very first mission up to the point where you're left to explore Midgar. Modern FF releases like FF XIII have forgotten about this principle. It's only very late in the game when you can finally explore as you please.
2. Make a list of all the actions that the player can perform in the game, take a cold hard look at it and decide if it sounds like fun to you. If the list is boring, the game probably will be too.
Most battles in Final Fantasy VII offer some degree of strategic planning. This is particularly true in the beginning of the game. One incorrect menu selection and you're done. Combined with the exploring factor mentioned above, you have a robust experience from the very first hours of gameplay.
3. In each situation ask yourself: What are the possible actions the player can take? If there are only two, it’s weak. If there’s only one, it’s not even action. If a non-interactive sequence shows the player’s character sneak into the compound, clobber a guard and put on his uniform, the player’s action is “Watch non-interactive sequence”. Giving the player one chance to click to clobber the guard or die isn’t much better. 
Again, very related to the menu-driven battle system described above. You start the game with three basic options (fight, item and some sort of magic ability) and go on from there to hundreds of different fighting and healing possibilities. The materia magic system, while often criticized, is built upon the same principle.
4. Design a clear and simple interface. The primary task of the interface is to present the player with a choice of the available actions at each moment and to provide instant feedback when the player makes a choice.
This is clear for practically every FF game and to larger extent, for every JRPG ever created. If you can read, chances are you can play this type of game. Combine such simple play mechanics with a compelling storyline and you have a winner.
5. The player needs a goal at all times, even if it is a mistaken one. If there is nothing he wishes to accomplish, he will soon get bored, even if the game is rich with graphics and sound.
Grinding for experience points offers the player direct rewards. Again, every JRPG ever sold lets you wander around and accumulate experience if the player so decides, even if this is not what the quest has asked of the player. Every player wishes to get stronger in every RPG, so the faster you offer him that option, the better.
6. The more the player feels that the events of the game are being caused by his or her own actions, the better—even when it is an illusion.
Heavy story-driven games empower the player through the main characters of the story. It's a powerful illusion that has been used for millenia in other forms of media and oral traditions where the recipient's imagination is the most powerful tool the creator of the story must take into account.
7. Analyze the events of the story in terms of their effect on the player’s goals. Anything that moves him closer to or further away from a goal, or gives him a new goal, is part of the game.
Pretty clear in Final Fantasy VII and every released of the saga. Later games have forgotten about this point and as a result the franchise has suffered.
8. The longer the player plays without a break, the more we build up his sense of the reality of the world. Any time he dies or has to restart from a saved game, the spell is broken. Alternative paths, recoverable errors, multiple solutions to the same problem, missed opportunities that can be made up later, are all good.
Save points are a precious commodity in Final Fantasy VII. It's not a hard game per se, but the gamer must always be weary of its surroundings. Dungeons and caves augment the player's sense of fantasy because of this very principle. As every RPG player knows, inside this locations save points are peppered far and between crucial areas of the game, so all of the player's attention is focused on the task at hand. It's a risk-reward proposition left to the players volition.
9. Don’t introduce gratuitous obstacles just to create a puzzle. All plot twists should mean something for the story. If the game requires the player to drive somewhere, don’t also requiere him to fill up his tank with gas first—unless maybe the tank was deliberately drained by an opponent…
If you're using "fetch quests" they should have a meaning. Don't introduce these weak elements in the game if they don't offer a grand build-up to a higher goal. Again, latter FF games have abused the "fetch quest" logic where "C must be obtained before B and A" to the extent that large texts are introduced in the main menus in the game just to let the player know what exactly was his quest in the first place!
10. As the player moves through the game, he should always have the feeling that he is potentially passing up potentially interesting avenues of exploration. The perfect outcome is for him to win the game having done 95% of what there is to do, but left with the feeling that there must be another 50%  he missed.
Yep, that unbeatable monster you encountered by mistake, that extra powerful sword or magic spell, that tiny area of the map that you skipped is included in this point. Final Fantasy VII delivers big-time with hidden summons, chocobos, weapons, bosses, etc.



Final Fantasy VII for Windows 95 programmer’s job notice print ad copy (1997)

It’s a career day in Midgar.

Welcome to Midgar. City of crime, slums, brutality, toxic waste and job opportunities for programmers. Golden opportunities for golden programmers, to be exact. Because that’s what it takes to work on Final Fantasy VII for Windows 95. It’s the worlds hottest role-plating game. So we’re looking for top talent to keep that way. And maybe create a phenomenon or two of their own. Do you fit the description? If so, you could have a bright future in the grim city of Midgar. 
SquareSoft

Send your resume via e-mail to jobs@squaresoft.com or fax to (714) 438-1705




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