Saturday, August 27, 2016

Can We Have A Digimon World Championships?

Original image uploaded by Andrew Karklins.
Last weekend the 2016 Pokémon World Championships in San Fransisco came to a close, and it was an intensely emotional moment for Video Game Championship fans all around. After years of nonstop practice and competition, Wolfe Glick finally took home the gold, and for the first time in several years the USA seized first place in every VGC division. It wasn't the best year for the VGC as a whole--tournament diversity was at an all-time low thanks to the legendary rules, infinite weather battles dominated, and there was nowhere near the amount of mainstream hype as surrounded 2014's Se Jun Park and his (in)famous Pachirisu--but the final games were tense, unpredictable, and overall a spectacular moment in VGC history. I watched all three days and was numb to the Big Six teams showing up early in the tournament, but the top cut kept throwing out surprises. (Raichu!?)

And so my thoughts have turned to the question, can there be a Digimon World Championships series?

This is really asking the question; do we have a game worth playing at a high level, and if so, how can we organize competitions for it? Tournament play is nothing new to Digimon, but it's certainly been dormant for many years. The last official Digimon tournament was during the Xros Wars era in 2010, but that was a Jump Festa event and a blip on the map compared to Digimon's former lineage of competitions. Continuity with past tournaments was actually broken in 2007, when the Digimon Twin virtual pet became the last such pet to have official organized play for it in toy stores across Japan. The D-1 tradition dissolved during Digimon's 10th anniversary.

The closest thing we have in modern times are the DIGIMADO conventions, which meet four times a year in Japan and are only attended by ~40 persons per event. DIGIMADO is primarily for Digimon's Hyper Colosseum trading card game and miscellaneous video games like Digimon Racing, with Cyber Sleuth being the most visible. In past years, DIGIMADO has also featured Digimon World Re:Digitize and Decode tournaments, which were among their most highly-attended competitions.

Those games, which required less time devoted to raising a competitive Digimon and were overall fairly intuitive, particularly lent themselves to such events. These days DIGIMADO is lucky to see six people in the Sleuth tournaments, whereas the Decode tournament had sixteen entrants, enough to have a real eight-man top cut. We're facing the Super Smash Bros. dilemma, having to single out one game among an entire franchise that's representative of the best it can be as a multiplayer experience.

Bandai did have a game in the past that was nominally a "championship" game with a multiplayer focus, but it was so badly composed that it's been enshrined in the Japanese fandom as kusoge. Not only did Digimon Championship force tamers to play through the entire story mode just to unlock the ability to give direct orders to their Digimon, but the core gameplay brought the tedium of Digimon World's worst qualities to the DS without its sense of adventure. (It was technically ahead of its time; if it were rereleased as a smartphone game it would probably be the next Flappy Bird.) Moreover, there was never any real support for tournament competition on either side of the water, making Championship a competition game in-name-only. (Take note of this Titanic-esque press release from just before the game was launched, in which a Bandai representative circa 2008 sings the praises of the "ultimate Digimon experience" right as the brand is about to crash and fall into two years of dead silence.)

It's tempting to assume that Cyber Sleuth would be the go-to for a World Championship, but Sleuth was primarily designed as a single player RPG with the multiplayer as an optional component, whereas Pokémon games are designed with both single and multiplayer as part of a seamless whole. When you get down to it, Sleuth just isn't a very well-balanced game. The fact that it made the gen I mistake of consolidating Special Attack and Special Defense into a single stat isn't even the biggest issue--the game features direct turn manipulation, speed manipulation, evasion boosting that forces tamers to run no-miss moves, and numerous HP and SP recovery skills that cause most matches to run straight into the time limit. DIGIMADO attempted to rebalance Sleuth with rules restricting the use of healing skills (and to prevent rule exploits) but these regulations are difficult to enforce on a grand scale and don't deal with the problem of most Digimon just not being very playable.

There are also practical concerns at work. The PlayStation 4 version of Sleuth doesn't support local multiplayer, so the only people that could participate in a World Championship series would be those with PlayStation Vitas or PSTVs. PS4 users can import their save data onto the Vita, so they wouldn't have to start from scratch, but that's an additional $40~$100 invested just to play. While in Japan the Vita has enough of a consumer base in a relatively close area that makes this practical, the PS4 version is without question the more popular one overseas.

A common sentiment among competitive Sleuth players is that some Digimon should be banned--namely key members of the Royal Knights and Seven Great Demon Lords--but banlists are tricky to balance without recentralizing a game around whatever the next best thing is. Assuming you did put a blanket ban on "legendary" Digimon, Sleuth's multiplayer would immediately revolve around speed manipulation with teams like triple Metal Garurumon running around, or evasion boosting via Mirage Gaogamon's Support Skill. If you ban duplicate Digimon, that actually cripples a number of monsters that were seemingly designed around using duplicates, like Diablomon. Without duplicates, those Digimon become functionally useless in multiplayer. Where do we draw the line? Ideally we would reach the point where the game allows a multitude of viable skill-based strategies without overcentralizing the game, but reaching that point would be a long road indeed.

The most played alternative format to VGC in Pokémon is Smogon's, which uses a combination of usage statistics, player input, and oversight committees to divide 721 Pokémon into usage-based tiers that try to give all of them a viable niche. Smogon draws a lot of fire for their infamous bans and restrictions, which remove chance elements and abilities (nominally) to promote diversity and prevent a situation where trainers "have" to run certain Pokémon in order to win. Whether you agree with them or not, there's no denying that Smogon's methods are well intentioned, and that tournaments within each tier are much more diverse than VGC.

What few people outside Smogon's own community are aware of is that the bans are run democratically, via several-weeks-long suspect tests, which require trainers to be prescreened for skill by achieving a predetermined COIL rating. Suspect tests are followed by a community vote among those trainers to determine whether a Pokémon should or shouldn't be banned from a given tier. These methods are a lot of work and requires a huge community to support. Smogon's community efforts also wouldn't be possible if the base Pokémon games weren't as good as they already are, something which Digimon is generally lacking. (There are many more bad Digimon games than good.)

We're going back to our roots. Like WAAAY back. Maybe further back than you could have ever possibly wanted.
There is one "quick fix" balancing method. It's more obvious than it may seem on the surface, and also completely contradicts every established idea about Cyber Sleuth--make the game one-on-one. This fix completely removes every single one of the unbalancing elements of the game; when healing requires you to take a turn and you don't get access to infinite SP restoration, you now have to choose between offensive and defensive plays instead of having your cake and eating it too. Team-buffing effects like Godspeed and Feral Impulse stay useful but are no longer overwhelming, as you're only talking about one extra turn instead of three to nine. Revival skills become a non-issue, and the limited number of skill slots limits the amount of status errors that can be used by each side, making it more proportional to the number that can be blocked on a single Digimon.

From the perspective of organizing tournaments, it would also greatly democratize the game by reducing the amount of time devoted to training expected of newcomers. More players would be able to participate, the impact of Support Skills would be reduced, and (theoretically) greater diversity would be observed without needing to hard ban specific Digimon. There would be no more cumulative passive speed boosting, and the Digimon that get hurt by banning duplicates in normal play would be more viable in singles as they're now competing against a lower power scale. Playing around the clock as is seen so frequently now (especially on pure Ulforce teams) also becomes less viable, as each tamer only has a single 60-second turn rather than three of the same, while the timer is still fixed at 30 minutes. This does introduce some potential complications where certain Digimon may be able to score one-hit kills from the onset with specific matchups, potentially pointing to two-on-two being the better balance, but this would require direct testing to determine.

The overall problem with this idea, as with any bans or restrictions, is that it can't be enforced in online play. All you can do is refuse to match with tamers that aren't compliant to such rules. With Cyber Sleuth's small but dedicated fanbase it may actually be possible to keep a registry of 1-v-1 compliant tamers, but the ideal is to grow the player community over time. As that community grows, you're looking at potentially hours of refusing matches until you finally get paired against a compliant tamer. The competitive ideal for any game is that real-world local tournaments will get started by small regional communities and expand to eventually encompass a national and/or world level (think Evo) and any restrictions make such play that much harder to organize. I think that it can be done, but the Digimon fandom has to seriously want it first.

What are the alternatives?
It would be easiest to use a game that doesn't need to be rules-patched, and has some semblance of balance out of the box. Digimon isn't exactly known for great game design, but there are a few diamonds in the rough. There are a couple examples, past and present, of games that might serve for a theoretical Digimon World Championships.

Digimon Universe Appli Monsters: Cyber Arena is an upcoming 3DS entry in the franchise that's built around the entire concept of multiplayer, with the early downloadable version featuring the PVP and the later physical release comprising the full story. This game actually centers on one-on-one combat, with tamers battling using a single Appmon at a time and supporting it by equipping other Appmon from their deck to borrow their abilities.

Gatchmon and Cameramon face off.
The game interacts with the collectible Appmon Chip toys, allowing tamers to effectively import the actual Appmon they've collected for the toyline and smartphone game into the 3DS title. In addition to not having many details about the game just yet, Cyber Arena has no international localization announced as of yet, and the 3DS is region locked. (As part of a critical new wave in the franchise, it is the most likely entry to come overseas.)

Moreover, the Appmon series as a whole is a hard sell to the core Digimon fanbase, which is infamous for being unreceptive to change; this is the same fandom that successively decried Tamers, Frontier, Savers, and Xros Wars. It took years for fans to grow into Tamers, and only since 2014 has Frontier begun to see serious appreciation. (Meanwhile, fans still have to be careful about where and how loudly they praise Savers or Xros.) The new game also hasn't shown any signs of containing "traditional" Digimon, focusing on the Appmon subspecies that arise from smartphone applications. If a large audience refuses to embrace it, then even if Cyber Arena were the best Digimon game ever, it wouldn't be viable for a World Championships series. Competition requires positive reception.

As mentioned above, Re:Digitize and Decode are both viable multiplayer games, moreso now that we have Rommstar's fan translation of the former and tools for playing online in an emulator. (An international release for Decode would greatly simplify things, as the 3DS game has built-in online play in addition to the local wireless features of Re:Digitize.) Digimon World is also a surprisingly well-designed game with its 99-second timer and real-time combat, but it has even less diversity with a definitive "tier 1" set of Digimon. (Heracle Kabuterimon, Coelamon, and most things with Ice Statue.) Online play is possible via Kaillera used in conjunction with ePSXe. The game is not available on PSOne Classics, which means the only way to host physical tournaments is via physical disks running on one of the first three PlayStation consoles. There are methods to import ePSXe save data to PS3 via USB drives, which makes it easy to transition playing at a desktop or laptop to a tournament scene. And unlike every other game listed here, World has a strong cult following and quite a bit of mainstream exposure.

Digimon World 2 has a multiplayer mode, but competitive team building practically requires cheating--the stat growths dictate that Digimon get diminishing returns on stat gains as they increase in level, past level 42 gaining only a single point per Jogress in most stats. (The primary method of stat progression in World 2 is via Shin Megami Tensei-style fusion, using Jogress to reach higher stages and improve even fully evolved Digimon.)

Since stats gained from Jogress can decrease if not paired with a Digimon of comparable stats to the base Digimon, and with a cap of 999 on every stat, creating a fully competitive team with perfect stats is incredibly time consuming and probably not something that can be done in a human lifetime.

World 3 and 4 have no multiplayer components. Digimon Story (known overseas as Digimon World DS) has local multiplayer only, and while the DigiFarm and Farm Tools features make managing stat increases easier, this brings us to a shared issue with World 2. Since every Digimon can have perfect stats and acquire an overall similar set of generic skills, usage comes down to what their unique non-transferrable skills are. There are only a few Digimon with unique skills good enough to justify use, once again curtailing diversity. A particularly glaring example is Mugendramon, whose Mugen Cannon has the highest base power of any skill in the game and can hit any square up to five times. (So you can choose to hit the same square five times, or two squares two times and one once, or five squares once each.) The perfect team in Digimon Story is probably two Mugendramon with a Marine Angemon, or just three Mugendramon. You can try to limit tamers to using only one of each Digimon, but with no Memory system like Sleuth and a small pool of viable Digimon to work from, every team is going to look very similar. Sunburst and Moonlight (AKA Dawn and Dusk) has similar issues, just with a wider pool of Digimon to work from and wireless multiplayer. (The official servers shut down years ago, but there is a workaround available via setting up fan-run proxy servers.)

There is one particular tempting alternative. Digimon Linkz in general is a watered-down port of Cyber Sleuth for smartphones--it features a handful of graphical enhancements, but the battle system has been greatly simplified to accommodate the platform and interface. Traditional handheld gaming like the kind seen in VGC isn't "dying" per se (2017 is allegedly set for $250,000 prize pools at every major event) but represents a larger investment to players compared to smartphones, which are virtually essential to the workplace. Most potential players already have the platform Linkz is on, which is what makes it attractive. As with Re:Digitize and Cyber Arena, the game isn't yet available in English, and no localization has been announced.

The most viable candidates we're left with are;
  • Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth
  • Digimon Universe Appli Monsters: Cyber Arena
  • Digimon World Re:Digitize
  • Digimon World
The last two of these are still questionable choices because of the difficulties of the platforms being discussed. If Re:Digitize or Decode were localized, or World were available as a PSOne Classic, it would be another story. But Cyber Arena is the game with the greatest potential install base and arguably the most important game for Bandai to localize at this point in the brand's life--pending that, Cyber Sleuth is still the most accessible game on the list.

Four boys and Digimon mascot character "Commander Yu" after a weekly Digimon tournament at a toy shop c. 2007.
So how does one go about organizing such an event series? The Pokémon World Championships work because they're sponsored by a massive multinational company with the resources available to invest in multiple large prize payouts. Pokémon is deeply integrated into world culture and is the second-bestselling game franchise of all time after Mario. Obviously, Digimon has a lot fewer resources to work with--the franchise has been on hard times more or less continuously since 2002, it has low recognition outside of a narrow section of Millennial viewers, and it doesn't have the constant growth that Pokémon's been experiencing post-gen V.

However, having both observed and assisted just such a scene emerge for the (then no-name) Cardfight!! Vanguard TCG, I can attest to the fact that a championship series is possible. It took Vanguard approximately four years to make the transition from grassroots play to paid professional competition. The bulk of that growth took place in 2015, under Altered Reality Games' supervision--a third party unaffiliated with Vanguard's parent company, which worked in coalition with the player community to organize a proper national championship series with cash payout.

Commander Yu leads the Liberation/Revolution Battle, the final D-1 GP tournament, c. December 2007.
ARG didn't lose money on the events, but they also didn't turn a profit on them. I had the opportunity to speak with their CEO, Jim McMahan, several times prior to retiring from writing for Cardfight Pro. As McMahan explained it to me, anybody could have done what they were doing. As long as you run the numbers right on entry fees (which were usually never more than $20 per player) and manage an effective social media campaign over Facebook and Twitter, you can rent out some incredible spaces for hosting events while still breaking even. When run correctly, the events pay for themselves, and the key struggle is getting players to participate.

These types of competitions promote a special part of fan culture, and the experience of being able to play with a large collection of like-minded individuals is what keeps drawing the players to attend even when it's not always convenient. As a business, it makes sense for ARG to support such events because it eventually goes back to them getting more traffic to sell trading cards and merchandise like card sleeves and playmats. Such a sponsor would be hard to find for a video game series with no associated merchandise, but the success of finding sponsorship for Smash Bros. and other games suggests it's possible.

Restoring Digimon to its former glory is a long road filled with challenges. In this photo taken December 23rd, 2001, Volcano Oota and his co-hosts lead day 2 of the D-Array Grand Prix finals & Battle Spirit Caravan at Jump Festa 2002.
Something like ARG doesn't happen overnight. Vanguard started out with grassroots play partially supported by its parent company, Bushiroad. (This early "support" consisted solely of mass listings of where the shop tournaments were being held and at what times.) It succeeded because of first adopters like Hammergirl Anime out in New York and other shops importing the Japanese TCG, then continuing to support the English game when that arrived. Fans started up local scenes and tried to attract players from other games, primarily siphoning off members of the Yu-Gi-Oh! fanbase. Bushiroad itself began sponsoring and organizing tournaments, something made possible by their network of contracts with larger sponsors like Dentsu and the enormous profit margin on trading card games. Bandai USA is unlikely to be able to do the same, although previously they have done some tournament organization for their fighting games, so it's not entirely without precedent. (For comparison, the highest prize pool Bandai has offered is $20,000 for Tekken 7, one-twelfth that of TPCi's highest.)

The key at this moment would be to do community organizing and grow a large number of scenes within local gaming communities to the point where they could no longer be ignored. Fan-organized events like the Pound series and early Apex tournaments were instrumental to the growth of Smash. Video streaming was an integral part of these events' exposure to the general public and the "mainstreaming" of competitive events into spectator sports. If a grassroots effort can help cultivate a large receptive audience that is too profitable not to pursue, then Bandai will be put in a position to directly cater to that audience, and sponsors will have an incentive to support the events to expand their products' visibility. For Digimon to reach the same eSports potential as Pokémon, it needs a strong centralized community put in constant communication with one another, numerous regularly-held locals that can contribute to the cultivation of a skilled playerbase, and large events exposed to the general population. At the onset, every player would be a kind of ambassador for Digimon, responsible for quickly bringing in new membership.

We can have a Digimon World Championship series, but it's a long road to walk. While Digimon hasn't been in direct competition with Pokémon since 2002, the overnight success of Pokémon Go undoubtedly dealt a decisive blow to the brand. Pokémon was popular before, but its sheer visibility now guarantees that newcomers will always view Digimon as a rip-off. Overcoming that image on top of everything above is a daunting task. A name means everything, and on that front the title Digimon isn't doing us any favors. The Appli Monsters rebranding may actually be one of Bandai's smarter moves. It's the same idea--the nebulous differences between a program and an application ensure that "Digital Monsters" versus "Application Monsters" are functionally similar terminology--but the new name is an invaluable weapon against Digimon's public image. The new series isn't actually called Appmon, and for good reason. To move forward at all, Digimon has to overcome the initial impression that its title brings. It makes Cyber Arena all the more appealing as a potential basis for a large-scale competition. I wouldn't sit around waiting for it to arrive though; if we're to have a DWC at all, it would make more sense to lay the groundwork for it now with Cyber Sleuth or another game so that Arena could hit the ground running.

15 comments:

  1. one revision, Cyber Sleuth doesn't have PS3 version, the popular one westward is the PS4 version

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    1. I keep forgetting there's such a thing as PS4.

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    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    3. I take it (Touya) that you want the next Digimon World game, to be the original Digimon Word, but with better graphics and almost all the Digimon that currently exist. Am I right or am I right?

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    4. I assume that it seems he wants it the vice versa, and that's not to have further world series coz DW1 is already enough (or at least release it on PSN)

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    5. Henry's idea is actually pretty close to what I'm thinking. I would like a new Digimon World game--not a remake, but a game with a new setting that does DW better than DW1 did. I would like the main story to avoid being directly tied to past games (-next 0rder- was interesting but badly done and awkward) but I wouldn't mind extra-canonical crossover/cameo appearances where characters like Hiro, Taiga, Sayo etc. appear as mentors or friends to the player character. Side characters, not the main focus.

      My ideal Digimon game is a new Digimon World title that features diverse finisher inputs (both DW1's and Re:Digitize's versions) with the Digimemories from Re:Digi and a modified cheer system from what -next 0rder- uses. Competitive multiplayer and character customization are things I really want to see in such a game. As for the Digimon roster, I don't expect every Digimon to make it--I'm actually fine with cutting recolors and offshoots in favor of only retaining the original version of a species. (This includes things like only including Virus Metal Greymon and not Vaccine, as Virus predates it.) The recolors are already represented by their base forms.

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  2. give applimons a chance i guess... we will see how it work out... so far im interested that applidrive...

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  3. Pokemon have a medium for them to practice and attract non-Pokemon player to try it competitive without buying the games. It's called Pokemon Showdown. A fan made Pokemon battle simulator. There are also free fan made trading card game online for Pokemon and Yugioh.

    In my opinion, the first step to creating a tournament like that is to create a free online battle simulator base on Digimon trading card game, Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth/Linkz, Digimon World Next Order/Re:Digitize Decode

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  4. Interesting information. As always. Thanks for sharing ;)

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  5. A few things:

    - It's Romsstar not Rommstar
    - Heard a rumor about Next Order Localization for PS4, you might want to look into that Touya.

    - Concerning Decode:

    https://abload.de/img/imagesjuugy.png
    https://abload.de/img/asmworkdonekmsg6.gif
    https://abload.de/img/ezgif-33721668094kpgb.gif
    http://abload.de/img/top_0013n3snu.png

    In the works, main story already translated, coming soon.
    It will be playable on a 3DS for most people :)

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  6. The psp app on the Android can connect online. I haven't been able to test it with the English patched version of real:Digitize, though. We could always start with online tournaments?

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  7. I'm seriously down to invest whatever I can into organizing some competitive/organized digimon battles.

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  8. We having DIgi-Destined Malaysia Grand Prix 2016 at Berjaya Times Square, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia today, 24/9/2016

    http://imgur.com/a/WPPT4
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/DigimonDigiDestinedMalaysia/

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    ReplyDelete