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GAMES

Get your sick days ready for ‘Dragon Quest X’

by Brian Ashcraft

For many gamers, “Dragon Quest” is shorthand for Japanese role-playing games. The series is iconic. It’s loved by players young and old.

No wonder then that the latest entry, “Dragon Quest X,” is easily this year’s most anticipated title in Japan. Released this week, “Dragon Quest X” strikes a familiar chord with fans, although it might just change the way Japanese gamers play games.

“Dragon Quest X” forces players to play online — a first for the series and for many of its players. But that doesn’t mean “DQX” will force gamers to sacrifice their real world lives for their virtual ones.

“Dragon Quest X” begins offline, but after a few hours of Internet-free play, gamers must enter the game’s networked universe. This is a radical change from previous “DQ” games, which did not require an Internet connection. With “DQX,” “Dragon Quest” has become a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game).

MMORPGs are virtual worlds inhabited by a huge number of players. Gamers can interact with each other (like in a chatroom), but also play together and take down enemies with their online comrades. Unlike traditional video games, these games don’t just end in a few hours, but are ongoing thanks to new quests and storylines.

Games such as these often require paid subscriptions so the developers can support the game with new content and an increasing number of Internet servers — which MMORPGs need because they are, in effect, online “ecosystems” that continue to exist as long as there is a large number of paying players and game companies willing to support them.

Previous “Dragon Quest” games have been anything but MMORPGs. Since their inception, the titles have been role-playing games, but single-player experiences that were played offline.

The series debuted in 1986 on the Nintendo Entertainment System (or Famicom in Japan) — years before the Internet became a mainstay in gaming and people’s lives. With each new installment, Japanese players got used to the offline role-playing experience that “DQ” offered.

As game-makers have shown, releasing Internet-enabled role-playing games can be highly profitable, thanks to the regular subscription fees. For “Dragon Quest X,” players must not only fork out ¥6,980 ($89) for the game disc, they must also pay subscription fees — ¥1,000 ($13) for 30 days, ¥1,950 ($25) for 60 days and ¥2,900 ($37) for 90 days. It’s these fees that make MMORPGs such big money-makers for game companies.

Square Enix, the game’s publisher, has considered the implications of this, however, as “Dragon Quest X” won’t only be played by adults with jobs and paychecks, but by kids, too. With this in mind, the company is setting aside two hours per day, at preset, kid-friendly times — allowing children (or adults) to play online, free of charge.

The regular subscription fees of MMORPGs also mean that these games have ongoing customers who don’t simply complete the game and move on. Instead, if the MMORPG is any good, players are encouraged to spend more time in the online realm. For some hardcore gamers, that has meant shirking schoolwork, work, family and friends so that they can “level-up” their virtual character with experience points, virtual gold and in-game loot. Because of this, some MMORPGs have been dubbed “addictive” by the mass media and gamers alike.

In years past, when a new “Dragon Quest” game hit, players across the country suddenly became too “ill” for school and work, but of course not too ill to play the game. So, how is that going to work when “DQX” is a MMORPG than can be played for weeks or months?

Square Enix is being extremely smart about “DQX.”

The Tokyo-based game company is attempting to nip any problems in the bud by making this a MMORPG that you don’t need to play to level-up. For example, in traditional MMORPGs, gamers must spend hours and hours in-game so they can get experience points (XP) in order for their character to reach a higher level of power. But in “DQX,” other players can use your character when you are not gaming to help them take down enemies; thus, gamers will still get the XPs earned during those battles and your character can level-up while you carry on as your offline self. Players can also “charge” their characters while not playing in order to power-up.

These are just some of the ways Square Enix is making “Dragon Quest X” a MMORPG that gamers don’t feel compelled to spend every waking minute playing and thinking about. However, if past “Dragon Quest” sagas are anything to go by, no doubt gamers still will.

Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com.