I went to the Ron Muick exhibition earlier in the middle of the city and was there for like three hours, HORDES of people wandering in and out the whole time, all types and ages. This was my first time ever using the tag mode in a game so I was kinda eyeing people who looked like they might conceivably play Dragon Quest. I even wandered creepily close to several packs of teenaged schoolkids on field trips in case they had DS’s in their bags. NOT A SINGLE GODDAMN GUEST VISITED MY INN. Get the hell out of your basements you jerks.
—Corridor, “Dragon Quest IX - Sentinels of the Starry Skies”, The Something Awful Forums
I decided I’d put the popularity of Dragon Quest IX to the test at Otakon 2010. I carried my Nintendo DS and Dragon Quest IX in tag mode during the two busiest days of the convention (Friday and Saturday) to see what I could see.
I was, to put things lightly, floored by the results. I attracted 53 guests in total. I undoubtedly could have garnered more, but once you tag three people, the game stops canvassing for guests until you meet your three latest additions and go out canvassing again. Otherwise, I might have topped 99, as it never took more than ten minutes to fill up the three parking spots.
—Nadia Oxford, ” ‘Dragon Quest IX’ Tag Mode Put to the Ultimate Test at Otakon 2010 “, About.com
When Dragon Quest IX was announced as a Nintendo DS exclusive, way way way back in 2006, it was a shock. Why any respectable developer would limit a popular major franchise to the technological confines of a portable platform—and not even the most powerful portable platform, for that matter—was an utter mystery. In fact, it’s still kind of a mystery, though it makes more sense now that we’re in a time where more people own the Nintendo DS than any other current generation platform. Still, putting the game on the DS almost necessitates a smaller game world, a more limited list of monsters, and a more abbreviated story than JRPG fans have come to accept as the standard. With these stereotypes (not all of which turn out to be valid criticisms) in tow, what in the world could possibly make a DS edition worth owning over a console edition?
The answer? Tag Mode.
The touch screen adds very little to the game, there’s obviously nothing here content-wise that a console couldn’t do, and the limited multiplayer is nothing that even the Wii’s terrible online infrastructure couldn’t handle. This leaves “Tag Mode”, a passive state in which two DSes come into WiFi contact with each other, share a little information, and maybe leave a little treasure (or, better yet, a treasure map) with each other. The idea here is something like a more social version of the recent Pokémon games’ “PokéWalkers”—bring your game with you and improve your characters by doing nothing other than living your life. Theoretically, you’ll run into someone else who is doing the same thing, your designated tag mode inn will become more populated, and your gaming experience will improve.
Now: Dragon Quest IX sold over 2.3 million copies in Japan in its first two days of release. It sold 132,000 copies in North America in its first month. This equates to approximately one in 55 people owning the game in Japan, and one in 4005 people owning the game in North America (based on Wikipedia figures).
By many accounts, tag mode was wildly successful in Japan, where Dragon Quest is an established phenomenon with a huge audience. Plenty of the one in 55 people who bought the game in the first couple days of release carried it with them in the weeks that followed, leading to plenty of chance encounters and inn guests, the news of which inspired more people to do so. Given the dense population of urban areas of Japan, the chances of such an encounter were actually not so bad; you could easily come within WiFi range of a few thousand people just by walking around in Tokyo for a day.
While the same is true for some North American regions and cities, the presence of “tag mode” is simply not a sellable feature for most Americans. Anyone who got their game more than a week or two after its release date (as I did) missed out on the Best Buy and GameStop events that Nintendo held to promote the feature, and the fact that North American sales of the game are roughly five percent of Japanese sales in a region with more than four times more people, it becomes obvious that the chances of a random tag are basically nil. The ubiquity of the iPhone hasn’t helped; it is no longer practical to bring a dedicated game machine, however small, and a cell phone on an everyday trip, when you could have both in a single incredibly popular smartphone.
I tested these theories in early September, bringing my DS to malls, the airport, and a couple of Buffalo-area game shops on multiple occasions. I have yet to register a single guest.
The general uselessness of tag mode, then, essentially turns Dragon Quest IX into an exclusively single player experience. The good news is that Dragon Quest, in general, has always been a single-player experience, so even without a single tag, the player is not going to feel like much is being missed.
Dragon Quest IX is a Dragon Quest game through and through, from the ubiquity of the series’ standby enemies (hello, slimes!) to the turn-based nature of gameplay. It’s actually a rather wonderful experience to be playing a beautifully-constructed original turn-based RPG on a format where the best of the turn-based experiences thus far have been updates of games from the 16-bit era (Final Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger, and Dragon Quest V to name a few). The story is unspectacular but adequate (despite a highly insensitive and irritating Navi-like fairy companion), and the gameplay is very well-balanced, in that skillful play actually leads to minimal stretches of JRPG grinding.
While the main adventure can give you 40-60 hours worth of gaming, however, it’s the post-quest content that truly lends Dragon Quest IX some serious longevity. There’s an online shop where you can get items beyond those of any of the towns in the game, and you can even download new quests to take on with new bosses and new dungeon maps attached. There are plenty of reports of people spending 100+ hours with their game (again, without necessarily resorting to tag mode), so if you’re into it, you will certainly get your money’s worth.
There is even, potentially, a nifty side effect to the scarcity of random tagging in North America: the necessity of socialization. There are two ways to make tag mode work really. One is advertising. Generally the less appealing option, advertising is for the gamer who wants the tags and wants them now. Craigslist, twitter, and message boards can all be used as a sort of pseudo-foursquare, letting as many potentially interested people as possible know where you’re going to be and when you’re going to be there. Obviously, this is less appealing because of the risk of crazy internet stalkers, but it’s a possibility.
The other option is to get up off your couch and participate in an event of some sort. The very presence of tag mode could well motivate people to attend a gaming convention or a gathering or even to start or join a university gaming club. Maybe it will turn the few of us who do care about these things into more social creatures. Maybe it will entice us to get out of the house a little more often, to meet some of the characters whom we know only by their Twitter avatars. Maybe Nintendo is asking us to show our faces.
Reportedly, the upcoming Nintendo 3DS makes tag mode a system function, rather than a software function. Perhaps by not restricting the mode to individual games, Nintendo can convince players to start putting their DSes in their backpacks/purses/pockets and start walking around with them all the time, always scanning, always searching. Perhaps games like Dragon Quest IX, along with other tag-mode-ready games like Nintendogs and Animal Crossing, will finally get to realize their true potential.
I’m not convinced. Still, if anyone can pull off an idea like that in the age of the smartphone, it’s Nintendo.