Dynasty Warriors is a misunderstood game in the West. Its Japanese headquarters regularly makes games that not only polarise, but seem to chart a perfectly antipodean scale of interest. It's something Director Atsushi Miyauchi knows all too well, but he thinks its new strategic options are enough to establish a franchise beachhead.
There are, of course, still plenty of fans in the West. I don't pretend to understand it myself - some go as far as ranking it on lists of franchises that need to die. But games are expensive, and nothing goes this long without good reason.
Seeing Dynasty Warriors 8 amongst all the other games of PAX Aus was an interesting juxtaposition. It was suddenly very easy to notice the localisation efforts that went into games developed in the same region, whereas Dynasty Warriors remains unashamedly Eastern. The names of important characters aren't changed to "Walker" or "Johnson", stubbornly remaining at "Zhang Chunhua", or "Huang Zhong". I asked Miyauchi what he thought about the game's regional interest.
"The game is very popular in Japan, Taiwan, and mainly Asia. And when it comes to the West, North America and Europe, it’s probably about half of the popularity of Japan," says Miyauchi. "Probably a reason behind that is what players are looking for, in the West, a lot of players are looking to be surprised by something new. Always wanting something different. Whereas with Japanese users, they prefer to have the same similar elements or the same core. Maybe the story might change a little bit but most of the gameplay would be the same.
"We do change the game, of course, but the very blatantly noticeable stuff... To the West it kind of seems like the same game over and over, though it's not exactly the same."
Being developed in Japan, yet loosely based on the ancient Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, it strikes me that despite its kingdom-crushing combat, the game might be a good insight into Eastern culture, for those interested. Or could it be the other way around? Could certain mythologies simply resonate with some people more than others, for cultural reasons?
"It being based on Chinese history may be a bit of a turn-off for some users, but at the same time, we've actually tried making similar warrior type games using different topics, like the Hundred Years War, and using Greek mythology in Warriors Legends, and so we've tried using sources that maybe Western audiences were more familiar with. But still, it didn't quite catch on.
"It really seems to be the core gameplay as opposed to the setting and the story that kind of separates the users."
The fun of Dynasty Warriors hinges on making the player feel very powerful, and able to take on hundreds of people at once. But if a player feels too powerful, the lack of any sense of danger might make the game feel pointless. Every person is different, and the amount that other NPCs are allowed to execute attacks that interrupt your sweeping combos could be easy for some, and hard for others. So how does the series walk that line?
"That’s very difficult for us to handle. We don’t think we’ve got the system perfect quite yet. We’re still working with that as we go. In terms of Dynasty Warriors 8, what we've kind of done to help with that is added in something called a 3-point system, where each weapon is given an affinity, Heaven, Earth, and Man, so it’s a rock/paper/scissors idea. Any main enemy officer will also have a weapon affinity, so you may be equipped with a certain affinity and you may have an officer behind you that you’re strong against, but maybe the officer in front of you is equipped with a stronger affinity. So if you switch your weapons, now you’re stronger than the character in front of you, but weaker against the one behind you.
"So that’s something we’ve added for this time around, we don’t think the system is quite perfect yet, and we’re still learning, but as mentioned, it is a challenging thing to maintain."
He's not kidding, either. Miyauchi had quickly identified the interviewers that really know the game, and made sure they sat down and got some weighty impressions, before scheduling separate feedback sessions later on. Among those lending their expertise were Bradley "D-Yoshii" Jolly of New Game Plus, and Jason "Pesmare" Hawkins of The FRAG. It was encouraging to see a developer so eager to absorb criticism.
While this new version of Dynasty Warriors 8 has some deferred lighting effects, as seen in the new Battlefield games, and will also run at a constant minimum of 50 frames per second, I wanted to know what's in store for the franchise's future. Taking on thousands of fodder enemies has always limited the NPCs to very basic AI routines and animations, no matter what the game. Perhaps the Xbox One and PS4 would allow the series to come into its own - the beginning of a new Dynasty.
"Next-gen, well, we don't know whether the next Dynasty Warriors is coming out yet..."
At this point, I'm unsure if this is a joke - both because of the translator, and because this is something interviewers get a lot from developers. But this is Dynasty Warriors we're talking about. We all chuckle a bit, and he continues.
"Some of the ideas that we have floating around, and it’s still in the idea stages, is possibly with the next gen, with the increased memory base, we’d like to maybe explore an open feel and open world environment, where maybe several battles are taking place on the battlefield. Players could just jump into any battle on there, and maybe based on what happens there, it might affect the outcome of the entire battle. Things like that.
"As well, changing the gaming style depending on the weapon they’re equipping. If they’re equipped with a sword, maybe they can do more typical one-time attacks, but maybe if characters are equipped with more of a secret, concealed weapon, maybe they could sneak up to enemies, maybe more like Assassin’s Creed or assassin style. It’s not a matter of switching characters to switch actions, just switching the weapons in order to have the same character with different things."
Open worlds, especially, sound like a very interesting possibility for the franchise. Our thanks to Atsushi Miyauchi for his time at PAX Aus.