For the past few days, Sega representatives have been claiming they’re on the brink  of revealing a huge secret – see one of many articles here. The actual quote is a title that will “surprise absolutely everyone.” The last time Sega made this promise everyone expected Shenmue III, and we got the Matrix Online. As a lifelong Sega fan, I keep a few pinches of salt on me at all times. However, they did say they were placing much more emphasis on DS development, which leads me onto today’s article.

DS: The Key to Sega’s Dream

So far quite a few DS games have included some form of online play, but often it’s wasted: I want a Harvest Moon with an online marketplace, not a way to compare farm scores with my friends. I want online leagues and extra content. Animal Crossing: Wild World is the only game to get close to 100%, but others are disappointing.

On Wednesday I wrote about Shining Soul II, an action RPG for the GameBoy Advance that’s given me many hours of good fun, and left a fairly crude teaser to tempt you into reading today’s update. The one thing that could propel Shining Soul, Sega and the DS into unbelievable levels of greatness is simple.

Meaningful Online Play.

A lot like the original Animal Crossing, Shining Soul II feels like an online game with the online bits stripped out. Bubbles let you tell your teammates when your batteries are dying, or if you’re going back to town, but surely you could just tell them yourself. If your communication skills stretch to “let’s play Shining Soul II together” I’m sure you can manage “oh dear, a red light”.

The vast amount of items and weapons is one of the game’s strengths, but you’d need a pretty large and committed pool of friends to make the trading worthwhile for everyone. It’s a shame that some aspects of the game are limited by the number of friends you have.

Pokémon games have been like this for a long time of course, and they seem to work fine. I think that’s partly down to the parent-annoying dual cartridge situation – rather than have loads of stupidly rare Pokémon on one cartridge, they’re split across two, increasing your chances of finding them (as long as you have a kind friend, of course). The simple online functions of the new Pokémon Diamond and Pearl – especially the potentially life-saving Trading Board, which lets you specify trades and wait for others to get back to you – lend an extra dimension to gameplay that never really felt restricted anyway.

Make My Online Roleplaying Game

I was originally going to petition for Shining Soul 3 to be a massively multiplayer roleplaying game, but that’s at odds with the whole point of the DS: handhelds’ greatest strengths are their friendliness and that “dip-in” quality. It’s not really possible to dip into a two-hour dungeon siege, and besides, I think WiFi Connection is set up differently, meaning the whole “persistent world” idea is out of the window.

What I propose is a handheld action RPG featuring three identifiable online elements:

1. Competitive play

So far my experience with online RPGs on DS stretches to a single match on Lost Magic: my opponent was chosen randomly and, by the looks of his cohort and magic-drawing skills, was much better than me. I think I lasted about thirty seconds.

Not all games involving character development are suited to player versus player action, but there’s a lot of potential. A tiered structure that matches players against similarly-skilled opponents would cater nicely for the quick play crowd, and you could even introduce bets or prizes and rewards for winning streaks.

2. Co-operative play

Handling this on a handheld would be very tricky. Up until now most WFC games have picked your opponents for you, unless you have added a friend’s code, but this kind of behind-the-scenes grouping defeats the whole spirit of co-operative play.

I think players would log into a centralised lobby – without communication of course – which would display which characters were present, their stats and perhaps a notice about what kind of play they were interested in. Tapping their name would send them an invitation, and after they responded you could group together and choose a level. As long as the process is as streamlined as other WFC games, I think it would actually be very helpful, and could certainly be done without any exchange of personal information, which Nintendo would dictate, of course.

In terms of gameplay it would be much more problematic to organise a party without being able to talk to each other. A QWERTY onscreen keyboard is too intrusive to work, but perhaps a combination of short-text communication as in Sega’s Phantasy Star Online and drawn signals would work. You could even use gestures to indicate your plans – a square for “going back to the castle”, a zig-zag for “I have to leave now” or something similar.

The actual gameplay itself would obviously be very similar to Shining Soul II, but the online levels would take the form of short quests, probably twenty to thirty minutes in length and graded in terms of difficulty. Unfortunately I guess it wouldn’t be possible to add new quests for download, but then most of my PSO play was on the same four levels on four different difficulty levels, so perhaps it’s not so bad.

3. Community play

This is the real crux of online play, and why I wrote my earlier post “How Nintendo got online wrong“. The whole idea of playing a game with other people is to interact with them – give them items, watch their back, share a joke and so on. Without any communication, online gaming is simply offline gaming with better intelligence.

The DS setup would naturally be much more conducive to online play with friends or clan members – set up a website or email list where you can share friend codes and when you’ll be online and it’s as easy as that. Sega could even add voice chat with friends whilst in the lobby, or more in-depth communication options when questing with friends.

The Game Waiting

Of course, the worst part of all this speculation is that it doesn’t have anything to do with the production of Shining Soul III, be it an online DS game or not!  However, I wanted to write about a game I’d love that would be a genuine surprise, and also not get too worked up about how NiGHTS 2 might work on Wii or how amazing Shenmue III would look on Xbox 360.

There’s no word yet on when Sega will announce this surprising game, but apparently it’ll be released this year. It must already be pretty far into development in that case.

Until it’s announced, I think I’ll work my archer up to level 100. Let’s not forget PSO too… in fact, wouldn’t a PSO: DS be great too? No, that’s enough for one day!

 I’m listening to Never Die, from Patmore Demo by Christian Bell-Young.