Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Questions and Answers about "Counting Combos"

These are some of the questions I have received concerning my book
about the Japanese DDR Community. Some of these questions have been
asked multiple times, and with a number of common themes among them I thought this was a
good opportunity to address everyone.

Q : How many versions of the cover are there?
A : Just one now.  The original cover used for the Proof Copy propagated to the very first release of the book, which I fixed almost immediately afterwards, though some orders were made with the original cover. The current cover can be seen on the right here. (The image below that is of the original work from the previous year and the proof copy of this book) However, there was a version of the original work called "Combo's Continuing" I put on, though it had a notable number of grammar and other errors. That cover was mostly in red though it shared the same cover image

Q : Why was your original version called "Combo's Continuing"? That doesn't make any sense!
A : Within the context of the game series, one of the in-game announcer quotes from the earlier mixes of DDR was in fact "Combo's Continuing" as in "(Your) Combo is Continuing (to increase)" It makes no sense outside the context of the game, though.

Q : Where is that place/What city is that in your photo on the cover?
A : Yokohama. The tall building on the left is Landmark Tower.

Q: Why didn't you talk more about ○○○ feature of ××× game in the series?
A: In general I tried to avoid going off on tangents that didn'treveal anything about the community or player mindsets/attitudes.There are far too many little incidents that may have been funny oramusing at the time, but didn't really matter so much in the grandscheme of things.

Q: I hear the Japanese have their own local slang for the common terms and song names in DDR. Why didn't you include that?
A: This is not limited to DDR or even music games. It is common for a longer term or series of terms to be contracted down to 4 syllables. The amusing part of this was that there were players that made a habit of seeking out products and store names that also matched the contractions of these various Bemani/DDR terms. One that stuck in particular was how the song "Pluto Relinquish" became "Purin" (Pudding), with the difficulty levels of the song indicated by flavor. The color of the flavor matched the color of the difficulty title; e.g. "Difficult" mode was in red, and strawberries were red, so "Strawberry Pudding" (ichigo purin) represented Pluto Relinquish on Difficult mode. Other than the fact one of the players at the 2011 Konami Arcade Championships made that reference by stating he likes (to eat) "Green Tea Pudding" (Pluto Relinquish on Expert mode), which Konami staff didn't get, this is more obscure trivia and a local in-joke than anything that seriously affected the community. It was a kind of common humor and bond between some of the regular players, though.

Q: What's this I hear about the "No Photos" rule in arcades in Japan?
A: Although a number of the more regular players do take pictures oftheir scores, taking photos of the arcade or of other players isforbidden at most Japanese arcades due to privacy laws as well ascopyright. There is no "fair use" law in Japan, so if you catch imagesfrom the games in your photos, you have violated copyright. There are plenty of photos and videos on the internet, though do note that mostof them were sneaked out.

Some arcades are more strict than others, however. On sight, some will
ask to put away the camera or to leave the arcade. Only in extreme
cases have security or the police been involved.

Q: I have seen some videos where it looks like the camera was mountedon the ceiling and there was a second video source of the screenoutput overlaid in a corner of that video? How was that done?
A: The arcade(s) in question are "Freedom" in Yokohama near the SotetsuExit of Yokohama station and "Seven Islands" right near that. These two arcades sometimes share games back and forth (long story). The staff have a camera rig set up so you can have your performance recorded on DVD (for a price). I'll ignorethe legal implications, but so far nobody has said anything.

Q: Wait, what is this "long story" between the "Freedom" and "Seven Island" arcades?
A: Around 2005, the river by the Sotetsu exit of Yokohama flooded over into the market area around the station, also flooding some businesses up to waist height (the topographical layout around there is akin to a bowl). Many of the arcade games on the 1st floor of Freedom were ruined, and the same went with Seven Islands, even moreso since some of the games were on the basement floor. However, since different games were ruined at both arcades and the managers at both were on good terms, they worked out a few occasional game exchanges that even carry over to the present day.

Q: What about random casual people that pass by the arcade? What do they think of the "hardcore" players you talk about?
A: I can't get into their minds, but I have seen a fair mix of bedazzlement at high level play and some slight mockery in the form of "mimicking" the player behind the player's back. Almost never do they actually go and bother the player though, either visually or acoustically. Some of them do snicker, however.

Q: Do these "hardcore" players get special treatment by the staff at the arcades they frequent?
A: In general the "bonus" they get is little more than local arcade celebrity status, though knowing the staff well has allowed some of the more ambitious hardcore players to organize tournaments and events, get the staff to adjust the volume of the game (and/or surrounding games in some cases) and in some rare cases limited time free play or reduced prices, usually during slower periods at the arcade.

Q: When do most of the more hardcore players gather? Do they go together or are they more of the "lone wolf" type?
A: Arcades in general open from 10AM and close around midnight. Since many players have work or school to attend, evenings and weekends are (not surprisingly) the most popular times. On weekends, the more hardcore players tend to sleep later so arcades don't usually start filling up until late afternoon, however. On weekends and Friday evenings especially, players do like to meet up with their friends, though their goals at the game are individual-based, and not so much for showing off. Players that go during the weekdays tend to just practice.

Q: Aw, couldn't you mention some of those "little incidents" you mentioned earlier on here?
A: Here are a few

1. There were many subtle things that annoyed specific players.  One
in particular I remember that bothered Yasu was on the song "If You
Were Here".  On the Expert/Heavy chart, the song ended on a pattern of
3 8th notes, an 8th rest, 3 more 8th notes and that was the end of the
chart, though the music had an echoing beat after that.  Whenever
anyone would stomp out the echoed notes even though there were no
steps left, it really set him off

2. I had mentioned in the book that there were players that were so intimidated by high level play that they would rather leave the arcade and come back later when the so-called "expert" players had left There were two cases that messed up this plan, though.  One was when the "expert" player would just hand around the arcade all day (more common a decade ago than now, however) and sometimes they were with groups of friends that wanted to stay and see this high level play. Some of these intimidated players became extremely visually distressed, especially if they had been showing off to their friends and someone else comes along and blows them away.  This phenomenon wasn't limited to DDR though, and I didn't think it was unique enough to include.

3. Since for a while the Zama Muthos arcade was home to a number of the more skilled DDR players in the Kanto region, it became a kind of tourist destination for visitors (including those from abroad). Usually we knew about these visitors beforehand and had ample time to arrange meetups. As one of the souvenirs, we used to ask fans to bring a PS1 memory card for use with the DDR Extreme (or prior mix) machine and load it up with a few AAA scores to show off back home. This wasn't really noteworthy in itself, and the better point was that some visitors and tourists were taking time our of their trip schedules (or putting it on their agenda) to visit some of the popular Japanese arcades and/or meet some of the players.

4. One amusing tournament in 2004 was the Zama Muthos "Judgment Day" Tournament. It was unique in that the 2 finalists were also the oldest out of everyone in attendance (28 and 29). The next oldest was 24. This was amusing in that it helped break the stereotype that only the youngest players could do well in tournaments. Furthermore, these weren't scrubs at this tournament; they were some of the bigger named players around Tokyo at the time. It might have been worthy of note in the book but it would also have been risky since I won that tournament and when I tried writing it up it came off like a borderline egotistical trip.

5. Before flying out with Yasu (and Koichiro) to London for the MCM Expo in October of 2005, Yasu and I met up in an arcade in Machida to practice. (Not the Cat's Eye arcade; I forget which one now and it may be gone) While we were playing away and getting some AAAs on our own most-played/favorite songs on Extreme at the time, a group of three guys took notice of us playing and were dumbstruck that people could get AAAs on Expert/Heavy level songs, and shouting to that same effect "That was on Heavy! That was on *Heavy*!" After the shock wore off, we all went to dinner together. It turned out they were like quite a few fans that read about the rumors of some of the players heading to London to play but thought it was all a huge joke. They turned out to be decent enough, but they admit that the ramble on the 2-chan BBS at the time gave very distorted views of the more expert players and it sounded like a significant number of 2-chan users just blindly believed what was said. To this day I don't know all of what was said, but I do remember there were many cheap shots taken at the expert players, and myself in particular in some cases.

(There are more stories that I'm sure will come to mind and as such I can always append more later)

Q: But are all these Japanese players always so courteous and friendly all of the time? It almost seems like you are just cherry picking the best examples to make them sound better than they are.
A: By and large the Japanese arcade gamers have been courteous and friendly, though of course since they are only human there will always be incidents where some of the crowds are not the most polite out there, and downright rude in some. However, these cases are not so numerous, not any serious case, anyways.

Q: Oh, but can you list examples of the Japanese gamers not acting so cool and calm?
A: I can list a couple.

1.  One of the players at the Muthos arcade whom shall remain nameless was very picky when it came to the machine volume of the DDR machine and the volume of the other games around it (and other distractions). He frequently asked for the perfect mix of volumes and got very agitated and upset with the staff when they did not cooperate. Once, he got so furious when he got a "great" on a song he was trying to "AAA", he picked up the small circulating air fan near the machine and threw it across the arcade. Why he wasn't asked to leave is beyond me but he left out of frustration and anger soon after anyways.

2.  Once in a while, whenever I played at a random arcade around Tokyo, there would occasionally be some lone player that was just waiting in line, showed no interest in anything in the world other than getting his turn to play, and grunt sharply at anyone that tried to get his attention for anything. I remember seeing one of these types of guys play and he was very good (AAAing Expert Level songs of non-trivial difficulty) and I remember he played the same song repeatedly (On The Bounce Expert) until he got it and when a couple of us in line tried to congratulate him after the fact he shot back at us to the effect "Of course it was good! That's what I do!" Nobody bothered talking to him after that.

Q: What ever happened to that "Muthos" arcade?
A: When everyone used to gather in the early 2000s, most players were high school students and had a lot more free time to bum around the arcade. As the players got older they tended to head off to College and work and weren't able to fill the arcade as much (or frequented arcades closes to College/work). There was some in-fighting at the end between some of the players as there were some friendship fallouts.  The arcade was in a fairly isolated area so it never did draw that many casual gamers but the hardcore crowd was extremely loyal and spent stupefying amounts of time and money over the years.

There were a number of pachinko and pachislot machines that drew some of the local older crowds there which was the 2nd biggest pull.  When the hardcore music game crowds started to disappear, the focus changed more to the pachinko/pachislot players. The in-fighting at the end was the final nail on the coffin for the music game scene at this arcade.  Muthos closed down temporarily to renovate itself into more of a pachinko hall but opened soon after. The arcade is still there but it is nothing like the arcade it used to be.

Q: Online, you have mentioned a banning on "Smooooch jumping" in regards to freestyle performance. What is that and why isn't it in your book?
A: At one particular arcade in Akihabara there was a brief phase where custom freestyle performance routines to the song "Smooooch・∀・" was common. The gimmick was that there already was an animated background video to go with the song, so immitation was also common. In the background video, there were 3 animated characters running and jumping, including some superhuman movement typical of comics and animation. There were a few injuries involving performers trying their best to imitate the movement, only to inadvertently hit/kick randomspectators.

This was a pretty notable event, but since it was isolated to a single arcade and a couple of isolated incidents, I figured it was okay to leave out, especially since the details of the incidents are sketchy since everyone seems to have a different report on what exactly happened.

Q : Do you hate In The Groove?
A : No, despite my less-than-stellar opinions of some of the gamers in that community, I can actually appreciate how it all got started, what with everyone thinking DDR Extreme was the last mix and others scrambling to take over where DDR left off. If DDR SuperNova was never relased, we may very well have had more of a fanbase in Japan, with machines to boot!

Q : Wait, so where are the ITG machines in Japan?
A : Sorry to disappoint, but there are none, at least none that any music or arcade game fan knows about

Q: Do the Japanese play any other music games *not* made by Konami? Anything from overseas?
A: Although Konami seems to have a kind of mini-monopoly on the arcade music business, there are a number of locals that really like Taiko no Tatsujin (Namco) and Project DIVA Arcade (Sega). There aren't too many foreign arcade games in an average arcade, usually none, but there was a localized release of DJMax Technika (Korean Title) and the portable game system versions of that same series can also be found in places like Akihabara where it has met with marginal success, at least in terms of import games. Titles like Rock Band and Guitar Hero were never really popular in Japan, however. Home console games in general have been giving way to the more popular portable and cell phone/iOS titles, however.

The PS2 game Rez was also quite popular back in the day as was the Sony title Parappa The Rapper. Recently a number of iOS games have been gaining some popularity as well, including Cytus, ReRave and Tone Sphere.

Q : But there is that one arcade...
A : You mean "World Game Circus" near Oyama station on the Tobu Tojo line north of Ikebukuro (Tokyo), right? That place closed down years ago now and it is a yakitori restaurant. The owner of that arcade sold off his machines and closed down.

Q: Do you still play?
A: Yes, I play. I do not have the time to play for entire weekends and evenings at a time anymore due to expanding family circumstances as well as work, but I do make time whenever I can.

Q: Yes, but are you any good at it anymore?

A: During the popularity peak of DDR Extreme and also the old-school Japanese community of the day, I was at the level where I could AAA everything in the game barring the harder "10"s on single and double.

Seven to eight years later, I could AAA them (in the traditional
sense) as well as some of the newer, harder content found on the recent mixes. If anything I would say I have improved. However by the same token I am so used to the more modern mixes and the improvements that came with them that I tend not to remember all the finer points of scoring well on some of the older mixes, especially with system limitations like quantization errors, nor do I wish to relearn them when I can play the same song on a modern mix where that isn't an issue any more. There are exclusive songs to older mixes but due to lack of availability and the issues I just mentioned, those songs aren't very high on my priority list in general.

Q: Did you have any particular hardships when researching information for the book?
A: Much of the content was easy to write, though some of the biggest stumbling blocks I had were:

1. Getting media from the late 90s since I had very little myself still intact.
2. Being brave and going to the end of 2011 despite it not being halfway through 2012 at the time. A few events and incidents were still too recent of which to write a decent "historical" piece though there were enough major events and changes that there was still enough content to justify a new Chapter.  In retrospect maybe it would have been better to wait a year before commenting on that year, however.
3. I wrote the book in Word 2010. It worked fine and I rather liked it once I got used to the interface (having only used ancient versions up until then), but I found it really difficult to get the images, surrounding grey border and inline text to align perfectly. Even when zooming in to stupefying levels the end result still had images a pixel off here, a border a pixel off there...
4. As DDR and the music game genre continues on in Japanese arcades, I sometimes get the feeling I can never truly finish the book. I suppose it is good to get the earlier years done as soon as possible since gathering the same information in a decade from now might prove to be far more difficult than doing so in the present day, but at the same time I don't want to make those that purchased the book feel ripped off by making regular "revisions". Future editions might be a possibility

Q: Do you have any regrets after the final release of the book?
A: I don't like to think of the book as "final" in the sense it could never be updated. I could always release an updated edition if I gather enough information or corrections.  That said, there are a few small points I thought I should have noted, such as:

1. I mentioned the fact people came from abroad to watch some of the Japanese players (and myself in limited cases) play DDR. I wanted to mention more of them by name or at least identify/acknowledge them but for whatever reason it never found its way into the book. The two fellows from Sweden that were largely responsible for the sudden boom in higher-quality videos of us playing were a direct result of that.
2. There are just too many people to thank and I remember almost everyone with whom I have spoken or interacted, though I am a terrible at remembering names
3. Urban vs. Rural trends wasn't really a huge issue since they both seemed to agree, but the rural regions had different problems I wonder whether or not I should have mentioned. The lack of arcades being a big one.
4. I would have liked to write more on the rise and fall of the Dancemania line of albums (and a kind of "last spat" release of Dancemania Sparkle) as it pertained to Konami music games though that is starting to get off track with the rest of the book and I did mention the relationship between the Dancemania albums and DDR.
5. Related to the above, I thought about mentioning the rise of the artist audition contest winners BeForU as it pertained to the music game genre more than I already mentioned but it is actually a bit depressing in that they faded out for a while, members changed, they changed record labels and then tried to disassociate themselves with the Bemani music that made them known in the first place. They didn't last much past the SuperNOVA 1 and 2 eras and just faded into obscurity.
6. I did inadvertently name drop a few American player names such as Pickles, Megaman and JBoy since their names and photos/videos did come up from time to time and brought about discussion and interest in the foreign community, so now I still get contacted asking why I didn't include so-and-so. There were other players (and to their credit there are more in the present day) but as they pertained to how Japanese players viewed the game and community they really didn't have much of an overall impact individually. For whatever reason a select few got noticed and even little things like "thanks" or acknowledging a message was received went a long way

Q: Is it true there are foreign languages of the book planned?
A: Yes, the Spanish version is underway and I might also consider a Japanese edition. I welcome any brave persons or groups that wish to try to translate the entire book to other languages, however.