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OK, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Rage of Bahamut. Rage of Bahamut has been getting a lot of attention lately because it’s currently the top grossing app on both iOS and Android, but in all the excitement nobody’s actually talking about how it plays. So here’s the rundown.
Initially, the game’s a little confusing, because it’s essentially a browser game of the old “click a link and wait for the page to refresh” variety; you scroll up and down a series of (extremely cluttered) webpages, clicking on hyperlinks. Also, there is no audio anywhere in the game. No music, no sound effects, not even a “click” sound effect for clicking on the hyperlinks.
The first layer of the game is “Quest Mode”, which looks superficially like the first-person battle interface from Dragon Quest or any other 80s-era console RPG. Except there’s only one button. And your only stats are “Stamina” (energy mechanic), “XP”, and “Progress”. Each “battle” in quest mode presents you with a grainy flash clip of a random static enemy sprite and an “ENTER” button. You click the “ENTER” button and the enemy dies, and you get some money, XP, and Progress, and lose some stamina. The enemies don’t have stats; they don’t need them. Whatever the enemy sprite is — werewolf, slime, praying mantis, succubus — it dies when you click the “ENTER” button. You can change your “leader” for questing, but all this does is change the 4-frame attack animation to something thematically appropriate to the leader; the enemies still die when the click “ENTER” regardless of whether your leader is a mighty dragon or a lowly goblin.
Every three enemies you get a random reward, which is either money, a card, or a treasure. Treasures are only useful for completing sets, and each completed set gets you another card. Cards can be “evolved” by consuming other cards with the same name; add two Goblins together to get a Goblin+, add another Goblin to get a Goblin++, and add a final Goblin to get an “[Imp] Goblin+++” (which can’t be evolved any further). This is the one mechanic here that I think has promise and could have interesting applications in something else that’s actually a game; as cards evolve, their artwork changes slightly — male characters get progressively cooler-looking armor, and female characters get progressively less clothing (which is actually kind of icky since most of the female characters in this game look like 8-year-olds) — and it’s intriguing to evolve cards just to see what minor adjustments will be made to the next level of artwork. You can also “enhance” cards by consuming other cards in exchange for a slight stat boost, but this doesn’t change the artwork.
The final layer of the game is “Battle”, where you make a set of up to five attack cards, and match their combined attack values against the combined defense values of another player’s set. If your set’s attack is higher, you win, and see a grainy flash animation of the words “YOU WON!” and get some money. Otherwise you lose, and see an almost identical flash animation of the words “YOU LOST”. And that’s pretty much it.
The CEO of ngmoco, the game’s US publisher, calls Rage of Bahamut “like getting secret knowledge from the future“, because it comes from Japan where they had cellphone games for roughly 4 years before the US had cellphone games, and from that fact he concludes that they’re still 4 years ahead of us on cellphone games. If this is a vision of the future, it’s a pretty bleak one, but there’s no denying the game’s success. Studying its minimalism, and what I perceive as a lack of depth, I’ve come to the conclusion that Rage of Bahamut is only as much of a game as it needs to be, which it turns out really isn’t very much at all (a point which Ian Bogost inadvertently made with Cow Clicker). Players don’t need anything approaching an actual RPG experience to continue playing the Quest Mode, they don’t need the tactical depth of Magic: The Gathering to enjoy the Battle Mode, and they don’t need anything more than a messy webpage tying it all together. And even those elements are superfluous; Dark Summoner, a very similar game that’s also storming the “top grossing” charts, skips the whole fake-RPG-battle and just tells you what reward you’ve found at each step of Quest Mode, and provides a handy button to just skip straight to the results of PVP battles without having to sit through the half-second-long battle animation.
As a game designer, particularly one who’s in love with developing innovative game mechanics, it’s depressing to see something that can barely be called a game at all enjoy so much success. But on the other hand, it’s kind of morbidly fascinating and extremely educational to see a game not only survive but thrive with virtually every aspect of “game-ness” stripped away. Ideally, this is a “secret message from the future” only as far as it provides precise, clinical insight into how minimal you can go with gameplay and still compel people to play, which could force designers to reconsider their sacred cows, and build even better games from a foundation that’s even more rudimentary than they’d previously considered.
I was going to mention somewhere in here how Rage of Bahamut‘s “faux-RPG” Quest Mode is very evocative of the “faux-gameplay” of pachi-slot machines, and then ruminate on the implications of that, but I couldn’t find a good place to shoehorn it in, so I’m just slapping it on here at the end. But without the rumination. Because it’s time for bed. Insert your own rumination in the comments!