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9Dragons Previews: Howard Marks, Acclaim

By Dana Massey on May 08, 2006

Adaptation over translation: Acclaim's approach to 9 Dragons

Preview based on interview by Dana Massey

Howard Marks may be bringing a Korean game to the West, but do not expect a literal translation.

“[There has been] no localization in Korean games,” he pointed out. A certain stigma has often been associated with imports and translations and Marks wants to avoid that.

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He has hired on Steven-Elliot Altman, a novelist who wrote “Zen in the Art of Slaying Vampires”. Altman’s mission on 9 Dragons is to marry the Asian-themes and values of the game to something Western players can relate with.

He gave the example of Star Wars. It is a western style story, similar to the Greek epics. There is good vs. evil, a central hero on a mission, etc. Yet, it also folds in the more Asian idea of the Force.

With 9 Dragons, Marks wants to marry the familiar things people want in an MMORPG and its story with the unique twist of being a Ming Dynasty era martial arts game.

Thus, Altman – an American who has lived in Hong Kong and speaks Cantonese – acts as a conduit. Marks believes he will provide Western gamers with a new and unique experience, but ultimately one they can relate to and understand.

This does not mean he plans to overhaul what is ultimately a solid product in its original incarnation. The core values of story-based adventure and martial arts remain. Currently, they have over 450 quests, which according to Marks “are not grind quests.”

They have also taken an interesting hybrid strategy when it comes to advancement. Characters gain experience through missions and fighting monsters. This experience unlocks things like new moves. That doesn’t make the character a master. In order to excel in the moves, characters need to practice them. For this, there are training areas, which in their beta have become community hubs. There, the players practice and improve the skills they carry before using them in battle.

A concern is that players will be forced to practice, which at its core does not sound like much fun. Marks emphasized that this component is not overly time consuming and true to the setting and spirit of the game. However, players will not improve their skills by using them in everyday adventure. It remains to see how this will play out.

Another tweak born out of their setting is how magic is approached. There is no magic in a western sense. In traditional MMORPGs, magic is an innate gift certain people can use. In Asian culture, it is special knowledge one must understand. Thus, for example, in the film “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, the villain was able to learn skills and superhuman abilities by stealing a book. However, she did not fully understand them and thus was flawed.

In 9 Dragons, it is much the same. Magical abilities are toned down, superhuman skills players can learn and must practice. It remains to be seen exactly how these can be incarnated, but do not expect players to be tossing fireballs all over the place.

Again, it is true to the setting. The game is historical, with real clans, dress and character ethnicity true to Ming Dynasty China. Marks does not believe, nor does he think players would want their characters to look European or American. The game is set in China and just as people find it odd when an obviously American actor is running around in a Chinese period piece, so too would it be odd in 9 Dragons.

The core feature is martial arts. What would that be without the ability to beat up your friends? Marks mentioned a PvP option that allows players to wage battle against each other in an arena-type setting. As a twist, they can gamble on the outcome. As such, players are able to earn items through PvP-combat in a fair, one-on-one environment. He was not clear whether or not fans of player vs. player combat will have more in store.

Poor translations, unfamiliar settings and incompatible game-play goals are often pointed to as the failure of translation. Whether or not Marks can pull it off with his debut title remains to be seen, but the fact that he recognizes and has taken steps to address these impediments is most definitely a step in the right directions.


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