Chopemon

Professional game designer and pixel artist.


Buying Video Games in Japan with Chopemon

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Chances are that if you like video games and are going to Japan you probably want to do a bit of game shopping. Japan is the birthplace of games as entertainment and over the years they’ve made a lot of cool as shit games.

I’m 32 and as a kid I played Mega Drive and Gameboy but wasn’t aware of the concept of different markets and games not being released in the West. I just played TMNT Fall of the Foot Clan and Streets of Rage 2 and thought they were pretty great.

It wasn’t until I got into importing for the PS2 at 18 did I begin to realise that another world of hard to obtain, amazing looking stuff existed. Flash forward to my early thirties I’m a sucker for 90s and early 2000s Japanese PS1 and PS2 games.

I got my start in design on the PS2 and at the time, it seemed like you could make any game you wanted. This was before the mass developer executions of the 360PS3 era. This period signaled a change in taste in the gaming market. Video games were mass market and the mass market liked big open worlds and feature rich shooters. Console games are not cheap to make and a lot of B and C grade developers closed their doors, meaning we lost the weirder stuff from Japan.

On my first trip to Japan in 2013 I bought a lot of Japan only 360 games. 500 yen copies of the Idolmaster 2 special edition flooded the Book Offs I went in so I indulged my vice at the time. Three years later my hunger is for PS1 and PS2 games. The PS1 and PS2 were where I fell in love with games and learned the things I hold most dear in game design. There are so many mysterious titles have cool as shit covers, amazing music and inscrutable mechanics.

This is all to say that a lot of buying games in Japan guides focus on 8 and 16 bit games. I have very little interest in owning these so this ‘guide’ focuses on PS1 and up. It should be noted that as more people have got into collecting older games, the 8 and 16 bit shelves of game shops have become sparser. People now know what their games are worth and a lot are being bought by natives to eBay or have been hoovered up by tourists.

Fewer collectors are into Sony systems at the moment so these games are plentiful and cheap. Expect that to change in the next few years.

Note: There are not many photos that I’ve taken of the inside of these stores. A lot of Japanese stores don’t allow photography in stores and I was kind of lost in the fever of treasure hunting to think to stop to take photos.

Note: You have to pay tax on the things you buy in Japan. I think it’s 8% and some stores will have it included on the price sticker and some will add it at the till. If you see a higher price on the till don’t panic, it will only be slightly higher and you’re not being scammed.

Let’s fire in.

What Are You After?

Cool, you’re going to Japan and you want to buy some games. What are you after? A souvenir SNES cart of a game you played as a kid? A specific, hard to find game? Or maybe just an exploration through some treasure troves and see what you can find?

It’s worth thinking about what you want and making sure you can play it. Older consoles don’t tend to be region free so you need to make sure you can play whatever you buy. I have a soft modded region free Wii, a PS2 test kit (developer unit that is region free) and I play PS1 games through an emulator on my PC (though you can play them on PS3 as well).

All the old systems are supported by emulators so as long as you have a PC you’ll be fine. It’s worth noting that the PCSX2 emulator for PS2 has issues with some games. Part of developing for PS2 meant doing whatever clever tricks you could do with a weird bit of hardware to squeeze any extra performance or memory out of it. This means that the emulator has strange issues from game to game and each game will require experimentation with to find the best settings. Issues range from the fog in the third level of Siren rendering as a flat white plane, making the level unplayable, to the first locked door never opening in Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex. When it works though you get amazing looking PS2 games rendering at high resolutions with improved frame rates.

Akihabara

Everyone has heard of Akihabara and knows that’s where you go to buy games right? Kind of. Akiba is plagued by tourists and the cool shops all carry higher prices. It’s not where you go to shop cheaply but it is where you go to find the coolest game shops in the world.

Top tip: weekends are really busy, go in the week.

Super Potato

Super Potato is, quite simply, a lovely place on a quiet day. Several floors of old games, TVs playing game attract modes, cool merchandise and endless treasures. On a busy day it’s full of Western wanks imploring each other to look at a Mario cartridge and “remember playing it back in the day”.

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Side note: a friend was in there a couple of weeks ago and overheard some Westerners in there looking for the Nintendo NX because “They always come out early in Japan”.

As noted above, the 8 and 16 bit shelves are sparse but there are still loads of carts to search through. The 32 bit and up shelves are better stocked and are rammed with games. It’s a cramped shop so it can be difficult to search through them in comfort but treasures are there to be had. The games are all in good condition and wrapped nicely.

Highly priced items sit in a glass cabinet. I like Human Entertainment games and am slowly trying to get all of the Syndrome series of games. They had Twilight Syndrome: The Memorize locked behind the glass for 6800 yen which was too pricey for me but shows that rarities can be found in stores and not just on eBay.

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Image from Obscure Video Games (an amazing site): http://obscurevideogames.tumblr.com/post/21780328726/twilight-syndrome-the-memorize-human 

Go to Super Potato to see it and have a browse. Play an arcade game, see things you’ve never seen before and buy something special if they have it since it will probably be in good condition.

I got this copy of Dino Crisis from Super Potato. As you can see, it’s in great condition with the spine card and wrapped nicely. It is also graded in some way but I’m not sure what the kanji means.

Friends

Friends is a two story store run by an old lady and her two sons. The first floor of the shop is for cartridge games and is overseen by the old lady. Again, the shelves are looking a bit sparse but everything is in great condition.

IMG_20161003_044645713.jpgThe second floor is all CD games and soundtracks. There are shit loads of PS1 games and healthy stocks of Dreamcast and PS2. The two sons sit behind a counter which is piled high with games. Behind the counter one son could only be briefly glimpsed behind mountains of games.

You are expected to be politely quiet in the store. The atmosphere is one of reverence for games and somewhere for people to go who have some business to do. This isn’t for sight seeing.

The store is hard to find without a handy clue. Follow the Google map directions to it and when you arrive feel free to walk around the block a few times not finding the store. What you’re looking for is a doorway surrounded by posters for a massage service. This one offers English speaking Japanese teen girls. If you can see that (you won’t miss it), head in and up the stairs. Go into the rooms with games and probably don’t go up to the Bad Boy floor.

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Again this store commands higher prices because it’s in Akiba and because their stuff is in great condition.

I got a copy of Shadow Tower from Friends and you can see why they are slightly more expensive. It’s complete with the spine card and the grading system says everything is in A grade condition.

Mandarake

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Mandarake in a black monolith just off the main street in Akihabara. It has several floors covering games, figures, Gunpla, porn for girls, porn for guys and a floor to sell your stuff to them. They are a second hand store and the game floor has a bewildering amount of stuff to search through. The shelves are rammed which means it can take a while to search through but they have good stuff to find.

Bonus: Nakano Broadway is an indoor shopping centre filled with figure, book and game shops. Mandarake have several stores there including a small game shop. I went there trying to find a very rare guide book for Flower, Sun and Rain but came away empty handed. They did have the PS1 game I really want but can’t justify the money on at the moment. Yuuyami Doori Tankentai looks cool as hell and clocks in at £160 on eBay or in the Nakano Mandarke glass cabinet.

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Image from: http://www.listal.com/viewimage/2867681

I came away from Mandarake with a copy of CLOCK TOWER The First fear. It’s in nice condition but something is graded C. I’ll find out when I open it for playing.

Mandarake is also the place to go for books and soundtracks. I was after the No More Heroes soundtrack but couldn’t find it anywhere. Instead I found these two books in great condition. 600 yen for the Catherine book and DVD and 300 yen for EX Troopers.

Mandarake is great to have a hunt around in but the Akiba branch does carry the dreaded Akiba tax.

Mystery Awesome Game Shop

I have no idea what this store is called but it’s down some steps and has SNES music blaring out near the entrance. Listen out and look for this at street level:

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Head downstairs to find a small but good selection of old games and merchandise. They had a good selection of the better PS1 games like Rival Schools, Dreamcast games and a load of cool merchandise.

Akihabara Notes

There are other places to go as well but the above are the coolest and the ones you definitely want to hit on your quest.

  • Trader offers PS3/PSP era upwards. Lots of more recent games and special editions.
  • Media-Land is a good place to buy new games. I didn’t pop in this time but back in 2013 I got DoDonPachi SaiDaiOuJou shortly after release.
  • For new games you can also hit up Sofmap and Yodabashi but these are huge stores and not cool and grungy like a good game shop should be.

Also make sure you head into the arcades dotted around Akiba. There are a lot of bullet hell games to play along with fighters and the recently popular 2v2 arena brawlers.

Akihabara Lunch

During your exploration of Akiba you’ll probably want lunch. On the main street you’ll find Wakasaya; a chain of don restaurants. The deal is that you order a bowl of rice and then pick up to four toppings at additional cost. Most of the options are fish and definitely go for the minced tuna.

Book Off

img_-5ab5drNow that the touristy sight seeing game shops are done we can get down to where it gets real.

Book Off is a chain of stores that specialises in second hand stuff. The chain also encompasses Hobby Off (a not very good hobby store in Akiba), Mode Off for clothes and Hard Off for hardware of various types.

In Tokyo, Book Offs are everywhere. We stayed in Kabukicho (setting of the Yakuza games) in Shinjuku and within 15 minutes walk there were at least 4 different stores.

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Game wise, Book Off have some Gameboy and maybe some SNES games in a bargain bucket but they mainly stock PS1 upwards. Every store has a different selection and there are always loads to search through. If your goal is to find stuff for the PS1, PS2, PS3, PSP or DS, go to every Book Off you find. The condition on everything varies from excellent to somewhat fucked but the prices are cheap.

I love finding new things and buying things based on just their cover and Book Off is perfect for that. Lots of PS1 games are 108 yen (less than a quid) and lots of PS2 games are 250 yen. If this is your idea of a good time, grab a basket and go nuts.

Be sure to check the stock trolleys and bargain bins that litter the stores. Gems can be found in these. they also carry lots of cheap game guide and art books.

The Very Cheap

There are load of games to be had for 108 or 250 yen. I’d heard of some of these before so I grabbed them when I saw them but others just looked cool on the shelf so they came home.

The Cheap

These very in price from 500 yen to 950. Even with the shit exchange rate inflicted by Brexit voting morons, they are still fairly cheap. Especially happy to finally get a copy of Boku No Natsuyasumi 2. The JoJo games were a nice surprise as well. I knew the Part 5 game existed but not the other one.

The Expensive

This Twilight Syndrome game clocked in at about 2400 yen. Cheaper than eBay but it gave me pause. The case is broken and in general it’s not in great condition. However, I came to Japan wanting to buy a Syndrome game so buy a Syndrome game I did.

The Odd One Out

For some reason a US copy of Yakuza 2 was in one of the Book Offs. I grabbed it since I don’t have it but it was the only English language game I saw in a Book Off.

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The Worth Searching For

One Book Off had a stock trolley right by the front door. I saw the Grasshopper made Evangelion PSP game for 950 yen on it and grabbed it. To make sure it was a decent price I looked in the PSP special edition section and found the special edition for the exact same cost. It’s worth checking every section of a Book Off in case you can find a better condition or better version of the game.

The Broken

I’m not entirely sure what the sales assistant was telling me about this one but this has some disk damage which I think is indicated by the yellow sticker. The Japanese take care of their stuff so I assume the disk damage is light but no matter, I’ll be emulating it anyway. For me it’s important to own disk copies of games. It’s easy to just download any PS1 game you want for free but I am a man of honour; a physical copy must be owned before it can be played.

The Books

There are a lot of game books to be found in Book Off and most are very cheap.

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A Good Night Out Buying Games

Fortunately Book Offs are open until 11 each night (a couple shut at 9) so if you want a fun evening you can head out after the sun goes down. If a nerdy night out is what you’re after, head to Shinjuku.

First up is food and drink. Torikizoku is a chain izakaya where everything is 280 yen. Drinking is expensive in Japan so savour 280 yen beer. Torikizoku specialises in yakitori (grilled chicken and other meats). Have a leisurely dinner and a few drinks. The chicken hearts are highly recommended.

After you are feeling a bit drunk, mark the nearby Book Offs on your Google map and set out. There are at least four that are easily accessible so get going. The best one is Shinjuku Station East Exit. That has the biggest selection.

Once you’re done you’ll be near a game centre. Check out the fighting game scene and the 2v2 arena fighters. These have grown in popularity recently and are highly technical networked multiplayer games. Gunslinger Stratos is particularly cool as it uses light guns that snap together to morph your gun in game.

Once you’re done there you can head to the 8 Bit Cafe in Shinjuku. It’s hard to find. get the Trip Advisor app as it has an image of the entrance and instructions from a helpful user. The bar is filled with game (and JoJo) stuff and has playable machines. The cocktails are named after games (and JoJo) and it’s a chill place. There’ll be tourists in there but if you want to be surrounded by game hardware (and JoJos) and have some drinks this is the best place to end your evening.

As a bonus for Grasshopper fans, the Golden Gai drinking district in Kabukicho is home to Bar Plastic Model, the bar from No More Heroes. be warned that almost every bar has a cover charge of 500 or 700 yen per person. This is just a thing and you have to pay it. No one wants to live forever so fuck it, it’s fine.

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And that’s a good night out of buying games and drinking, two of my favourite things in the whole world.

Good Game Buying Trip

This was a good trip for buying games. Book Off is the best thing to happen to collectors that want to buy a lot of games cheaply. I’m not sure how much I spent in total but it wasn’t much compared to what I got and what I would have paid on eBay.

If you’re going to Japan and want to buy games, I hope this blog has helped and you find some treasure.


Capturing Early Grasshopper Aesthetics

Out of all developers, Grasshopper Manufacture’s aesthetics have enthralled me more than any others. Their games are otherworldly and intoxicating. The art and the music of the genius Masafumi Takada combine to form truly unique worlds.

In the last few months I have played through two Japan only releases from the early part of Grasshopper’s history; The Silver Case and Blood+ One Night Kiss. I fell in love with them and ended up taking over 1200 screenshots as I played. Should you wish to enjoy them, follow the links below.

The Silver Case

Blood+ One Night Kiss


No More Heroes 2 Dolphin Screenshots

Here’s a screenshot dump of No More Heroes 2 running through the Dolphin emulator. Dolphin emulates Wii and Gamecube and runs the games at stupidly high resolutions. Best thing is you don’t need to get into the shady world of downloading ROMs. If you soft mod your Wii you can install a ripper which dumps your existing disk on to a USB stick. Dolphin is pretty simple but there are a few gotchas that can trip you up. I’ll hopefully do a step by step new users guide sometime.

For now, enjoy HD Travis!

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Deserted Island – PS1

Note: apologies for the iPhone photos of my TV screen.

Deserted Island is one of the many free PS1 archive games you get if you sign up for Japanese Playstation Plus. It is available to buy for about 600 yen should you not be a Plus member.

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Deserted Island is a game about exploration. You pick an explorer from the UK, America, Europe or Japan and are dumped on an island in the middle of the ocean. Your goal (from what I can tell) is to stay on the island for as long as possible, catalogue as many species of creatures as you can and bring back as much treasure as you can find.

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You take a crew to the island with you and a base camp is immediately established. As you explore the status of the explorers changes forcing you to rest and eat. At least, I selected a menu option and there was a picture of a camp fire and some time passed and the meters that had been increasing on each character dropped back down to normal levels. There is a lot of kanji (I can only read kana so far) and a lot of menu options. While poking around I found a menu that let me assign new points to the stats of each man and dog and I also managed to end the game. After only a small jaunt round the island I elected to return home and present my creature log and treasures to the government. I got a very low score as I barely discovered anything. There may be a story hidden somewhere in this game but it appears to be more of a systemic survival/collection game.

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As you explore the island in first person you’ll come across different creatures and approaching them will catalogue them. The animals all seem to be alien and patrol different parts of the island. They often give off distinctive noises and sometimes appear on your mini map. You will also collect diamonds and catalogue some specific plants.

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Being a PS1 game Deserted Island never manages to evoke the atmosphere of exploring a jungle but as an abstraction it is certainly entertaining to discover the denizens of the island. It is especially interesting to look at it through the lens of the surge of modern survival games and see how the genre has grown. It does have a convincing (for the time) day and night cycle which moves from blue skies and intense greens into a vibrant orange dusk and eventually into a grim and foreboding night.

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Night appears to be when things get dangerous. Wolves howl all around and the strangest monster I’d encountered appeared. A spinning blue sphere emerged from the trees and murdered me, causing another game over. Until this point the creatures hadn’t inflicted damage but this nocturnal terror sapped me of all my health immediately.

Despite the lo-fi nature of the visuals and the large amounts of Japanese, a non-native speaker can bumble their way through the game and discover a rather enjoyable explore-em-up. There is a difficulty to the game at first as you figure out the systems (is there a way to avoid death at night?) but the island is massive and provides lots of moments of small wonder. I love PS1 visuals more than a lot of things and Deserted Island provides an expansive world full of sprite trees, awesome audio and low poly jungle basins. If you have a Japanese PSN account or are into emulation, I highly recommend it.


Simulation Vs. Metaphor

NOTE: This was originally published some time in 2008. 

ALSO NOTE: In this post the term ‘simulation’ refers to a detailed and realistic simulation (like you might get in a flight simulator). The term is used to broadly speak about games which attempt to accurately recreate real life experience. I describe some games as metaphors and some as simulations. All games are simulations of a set of rules be it Flappy Bird or Arma 3. I use simulation here as a way of distinguishing between abstract and realistic games.

 

Often in Warhammer 40,000 (or any rules based miniature wargame) a situation will arise that seems like total bullshit and does not reflect how troops would fight on the battlefield. The rules are queried and checked and then someone will be left with their jaw open at how seemingly unfair or unrealistic the rules are.

This is down to the fact that the rules are not there to simulate every battlefield situation. Back in the 1st and 2nd edition of 40K (we are now on 5th) the rules were extremely elaborate and were designed to try and cover everything, simulating as closely as they could the battlefields of the 41st millennium. This meant that there were an incredible amount of tables, bespoke charts and rules and it took an ungodly amount of time to resolve things like combat. The Irresistible Force and Immovable Object situation would arise again and again because Codex entries would conflict with the rules, wargear items would clash and all sorts of modifiers would apply to the simplest table roll.

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When the 3rd edition rolled round the designers stripped it all down, dumped nearly all of the rules and started again. They boiled it down to the most important elements and rather than simulate a battlefield they tried to create a metaphor for a battle.

Miniature wargames have the inherent problem of using miniatures. Imagine a war zone in the far future. Infantry crouch behind cover and blind fire at a horde of aliens swarming over a ruined building. Grenades detonate around power armoured war gods and commanders scream over sabotaged comm lines to ill disciplined troops. The battlefield is chaos and cannot be conveyed by miniatures. Miniatures cannot be reposed on the fly to show that they are crouched behind cover and we cannot physically check to see whether the hoofed aliens trip on the exposed cabling of the bombed out office they are attempting to move through. This leads to a breakdown in simulation and the need for an essence capturing metaphor arises.

Using the example above, in the old rules if you wanted to fire through your own troops to an enemy beyond, each trooper would have to individually check to see if they had a line of sight and then resolve their shooting as normal. This would mean that you would need to check the LOS for potentially up to 20 figures. This would often result in conflicts and arguments between players and thus an effort to provide granularity and simulation in the rules slowed the game down with unnecessary complexity and bad attitude.

In the 5th edition rules the simulation has been scrapped as it helped no one. Checking individual line of sights would suggest to the players that the figure’s pose represented a snap shot of their actions on the battlefield which is nonsense. Soldiers do not remain in one pose or even one posture during a battle. They crouch to avoid fire, go prone in craters and charge across streets. Now all friendly units are allowed to fire through each other without any line of sight checks. Instead, the enemy receives a bonus cover save.

This has gone from providing a simulation to creating a metaphor. Instead of being pedantic about the position of a miniature, we imagine that as the Storm Troopers turn to fire at on coming Orks through an allied squad of Guardsmen, the Storm Troopers time their shots as the Guardsmen duck into a crater or dive down as squad leaders coordinate their attack. The cover save that the Orks receive represents the Storm Troopers taking difficult shots through or round a mass of bodies as artillery lands around them and their comrades are cut down.

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This attitude sits better with some people than it does others. The entirety of Warhammer is abstract silliness and it is easy to see where they have chosen to capture the essence of the situation and provide the most streamlined experience they can. Games Workshop designers also choose to outright contradict common sense in order to provide a better game.

In previous iterations if a unit wiped out an enemy squad in close combat they would be able to move into combat with another nearby enemy unit. This is pretty dramatic tactically as a specialist close combat unit could very easily destroy a huge amount of squads over the course of a couple of turns. Now they cannot do this which allows weaker armies to have a chance to shoot the rampaging combat monsters and level the playing field. This infuriates close combat players but it benefits the game greatly.

As designers, be it of table top games or videogames, we craft a set of rules that allow players to have an enjoyable experience. The above close combat rule is the 40K equivalent to the rubber band AI in Mario Kart. Is a game more interesting if one player very quickly gains a huge advantage that cannot be overcome by the other player or is it more interesting if it comes to a nail biting finale where two players have dealt blows to each other and kept on equal footing until the exciting end game?

In an engaging game the player’s advantage should not come from the rules but rather the tactical application of those rules. But how does this relate to videogames?

Well, modern videogames have a problem with players perceive them as simulating reality. Players often wish the rules of a videogame were different to allow them to perform actions that they imagine their character could do in the real world.

This problem is unique to modern games that have realisitic graphics and that take place in real world locations. This is because the rule system is less obvious as players assume these games are simulations. Someone once described Rainbow Six Vegas as a simulator to me. They argued that because the game has realistic art, realistic weapon handling and took place in a real geographical location that the game was attempting to simulate real life.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. R6V has a very definite set of rules that are no different to the set of rules in Mario. No one questions Mario’s rules though. How can you question whether it is a simulation when you control a plumber that jumps on the heads of some mushrooms, collects other mushrooms and is friends with other mushrooms and where a family of dinosaurs command an army of ghosts, turtles and grinning bullets?

Rainbow Six Vegas is essentially the same game as Mario when viewed in a reductive way. The game provides a setting for the player to move in and combat enemies with a number of tools. The player must learn the rules of the game and use their understanding of these rules along with a selection of tools to get from the beginning to the end.

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The difference is that players can relate to the Rainbow Six characters and setting more easily and can impose their own desires and perceptions of reality upon the supposedly realistic aspects of the game. The fact is that R6V is entirely unrealistic. You can disembody your vision and view yourself in the third person, heal fatal bullet damage, the weapons are not at all realistic and instead of neutralising a terrorist cell you kill an entire army.

The game has a very defined set of rules and does not create what we traditionally call a simulation of combat. Instead it creates a metaphor of a special ops team clearing buildings of terrorists. This is because a game where you rappel through a window, throw a flashbang, shoot two dudes and then order your team to blow open a door and clear the next room is far more fun than trying to rappel through a window to find that there is a knot in your rope and then being shot in the legs and waiting for an hour for the rescue team to clear the building and extract you and then spending days of gameplay in a military hospital. The former is a metaphor for how we wish combat was and the latter is a simulation of the actualities of combat.

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What people actually want is a believable context. They want to perform the actions they feel they should be able to in possibility spaces that feel contextually realistic. When a player resorts to saying “That’s not realistic” at a point in a game it means that the metaphor has been broken and that they now view it as a simulation. This is a fine line to tread when we have games that look like Crysis and are the nearest to photo realistic as we have gotten.

Designers must strive to create games that are like the 5th edition of 40K. Games where the players buy into the fantasy and do not resort to wanting a simulation but instead are happy with the metaphor for whatever scenario we are trying to create.