Points of View: The State of JRPGs

Welcome to the first installment of Points of View, a special style of editorial which brings several Lusipurr.com staff members together to address a single topic.

In this first issue, three Lusipurr.com staff members–SiliconNooB, Deimosion, and Blitzmage–were asked about the state of the JRPG industry. Read their responses and add your own comments to the discussion below. Our authors will reply to the discussion in turn.

* * *

We can only assume they live in a world similar to that of School Days.
Japanese game developers often try to create games that accurately reflect the world in which they live.

Q1: What do you think is the biggest threat to JRPG development; and why?

SiliconNooB: The biggest threat to development of JRPGs is Japan’s ebbing creativity (and dwindling sense of their own efficiancy in this regard), which has seen the JRPG genre become overpopulated with generic, anime-style, fan-service games that play very poorly in the Western market. Flagging Western interest along with rising development costs pose a grave existential crisis to the genre, which has become fettered by its own myopic insularity.

Deimosion: Budget and time constraints are by far the biggest threat to JRPG development. JRPGs, as of late, have not been as popular as they once were, and declining sales of the genre mean that smaller companies have to work on tighter budgets. While I wholeheartedly disagree that JRPGs are dead or even dying, it is hard to deny that the glory days of the JRPG have passed, and the genre as a whole seems, at least from my observations, to be a much smaller part of gaming than it used to be.

Blizmage: The biggest threat to JRPG development is the unnecessarily long development cycle. Looking at the Final Fantasy XIII Fabula Nova Crystalis series, it has been a little over eight years and gamers have still barely seen anything of Versus and Agito (now Type-0). Many gamers are fed up with the waiting game and the announcements of announcements.

Unfortunately, characters like Edge are also a common part of JRPGs, even today.
Traditional, side-on battles are a common part of JRPGs, even today.

Q2: In a genre which places high value on tradition, what special challenges confront JRPG developers who want to innovate?

SiliconNooB: The most meaningful way in which JRPG studios could innovate would be for them to re-learn how to create the kinds of games they were making fifteen to twenty years ago. JRPGs have been falling over one another over the last five years in their attempts to include Western-oriented mechanics in their game designs, all to no avail–for that was never the appeal of JRPGs in the West (there are other games to provide those sorts of experiences). A good many JRPGs used to tell universal stories imparted with pleasing presentations: an approach which held universal appeal. The answer is not to expunge any and all Japanese DNA from these projects. Instead, properties which have an exclusively Japanese/anime focus should be limited in number, because they are only going to be facing diminishing returns. The challenge for the JRPG industry going forward will be to regrow the popularity of the genre in the West before tightening game budgets become too burdensome for them to easily do so. Failure will find the JRPG industry locked into a slow death.

Deimosion: Westernization is a touchy subject among JRPG fans, and a difficult issue for JRPG developers. On the one hand, making games that appeal to Western fans is a must for JRPG developers seeking to tap into the large American gamer base. On the other hand, JRPG fans typically do not want Westernized games, particularly those made with the Japanese idea of what the West wants. JRPG makers must then deal with the unique challenge of innovating enough to keep the genre from stagnating while simultaneously keeping close enough to tradition to please their fans, many of whom cling tightly to the traditions and cliches so readily associated with the genre.

Blitzmage: The challenge JRPG developers have to confront is that they are no longer the paramount console RPG developer. With the wider and wider spread of Western RPGs, JRPG developers have to face the music when it comes to innovation and how much they want to put into their games. For a JRPG developer, it is high time to look at other genres and decide how they are going to define their JRPG.

Jake Norwood's den is truly impressive. And alarming.
Some fans might be able to keep the industry afloat without assistance.

Q3: Where do you see the JRPG genre in ten years?

SiliconNooB: If the JRPG industry fails to look to addressing the health of their market, then in ten years time I can see it well upon its way to being solely relegated to mobile phone platforms. At present, JRPGs are retreating from console development in favour of handheld platforms, but when the next generation of handhelds hit the market it would seem unlikely that the greater share of Japan’s RPG developers will be able to afford the inflated budgets which will accompany them. And so it will be time to fall back to mobile phone platforms to sell five dollar doodads and curios!

Deimosion: I see JRPGs becoming a very niche genre of game–one with which the “mainstream” Western gamer is not very familiar. JRPGs, I suspect, will still remain popular in Japan, and I do not see the genre dying off any time soon. Overseas, however, I doubt the JRPG will ever reach the level of popularity it had in the 1990’s. The niche JRPG fanbase and the otaku gamer market will still buy the games, but while anime may be breaking into mainstream culture, I highly doubt the JRPG will do the same.

Blitzmage: Sadly, I see very few JRPGs coming out ten years from now. If we look at the fiasco that Nintendo made this past summer with games like Xenoblade and Last Story, the obvious question is: how much longer will we have to wait before more first party companies decide that JRPGs will not sell well in the American territories? In the next ten years will we see the JRPG moved to just a genre that is nothing but downloadable and Facebook games?

* * *

Now is your chance to engage in the discussion. How would you answer the questions posed above; do you agree or disagree with our panelists; what are your reckons on this topic? Use the comment box below to send us your reckons and join in the panel’s discussion.

15 comments

  1. Great new segment! I agree with pretty much what everybody was saying. Although I don’t think JRPGs will be only mobile in 10 years. Although handheld budgets will be inflated, I think that will be their home base. Not a horrible one, either, to be honest.

  2. Q1: The biggest threat to JRPGs is Japan. They were on top in earlier days of this industry because huge talent was constantly pumping new ideas into what was then a relatively novel genre. It also helped that they were largely the only game in town when it came to RPGs. Today, Japan’s gaming market is shifting, with an increased focus on mobile gaming. This doesn’t exactly lend itself well to the sprawling epics of the early Final Fantasies. On top of that (as as other have stated above) the genre is flooded with people trying to make lightning strike twice–copycats who are simply iterating on more talented people’s old ideas.

    Q2: The challenge is to adhere to those norms while not straying too far from what makes a JRPG a JRPG. However, simply because an RPG is developed in Japan, that developer shouldn’t feel beholden to conforming to any certain ideals other people put on this genre. That said, because this genre does tend to adhere to those ideals, I find that these developers are presented with a rare opportunity. Any slight bend in that conformity generates a sub-genre. Examples might include: turn-based and real-time battle systems; silent and spoken protagonists (admittedly an older concept); rogue-likes; strategy RPGs, and so on. I think for how recalcitrant and down-trending the JRPG genre might be, it has more wrinkles subtleties than any other.

    Q3: I’m very tempted to agree and say it’ll be relegated to simpler experiences on handhelds, if only because this is where the Japanese gaming market is headed as a whole. Japan still puts out larger games, but more and more Japanese developers are getting into the handheld and mobile gaming sectors if not exclusively pursuing them. The genre’s waning popularity abroad, as if Japan ever truly catered to foreign users, only adds more incentive for developers to ditch that high budget new IP in favor of some sequel or spin off in the cheaper portable markets. However, it’s important to note that while the 90’s and 00’s were the golden days of Japanese RPGs, today is the golden day of Wester RPGs. And if the trend continues, one day soon the Western RPGs will become as flooded and bogged down with its own imitators and traditions. I might even say that day is already come.

  3. Q1: Focus testing, plain and simple, either in action or assumed, is ruining JRPGs. In an effort to appeal to the broadest possible userbase, JRPG developers have lost sight of what made their games appealing in the first place. The mechanics of JRPGs meant they were always necessarily geared toward a niche audience, and trying to change that focus has only watered-down the genre, meaning that they no longer appeal to the original users, whilst they do not quite appeal to the ‘average gamer’ either.

    Q2: I feel there is plenty of room for innovation in JRPGs without destroying the genre by turning it into action games or third-person button-mashers like God of War. Lost Odyssey, for example, is as traditional a JRPG as you could possibly ask for, and yet it manages to innvoate in sundry little ways to raise the entire game from the excellent to the sublime. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an even more advanced version of innovation within JRPG gameplay. Building upon the advances of FFXIII, XIII-2 manages to carve out a perfect blend of storytelling, action, decision-making, and (important in this age) comfort. Gone are the days of spread-out, draconian save systems and death penalties: so much to the good, says I.

    Q3: I dread a future where JRPGs are relegated to handhelds. If nothing else, games like Lost Odyssey and XIII-2 have proven that large-budget JRPG set pieces can work on consoles. The problem is doing it correctly. Developers need to approach the game from three directions simultaneously: there needs to be a solid, enjoyable, addictive gaming experience at the core; there needs to be compelling characters and a strong narrative arch which keeps players going to the end; and there needs to be quality of production in terms of soundtrack, voice acting, and script/translation. It is not an easy business, but if attention is paid to these details–and if things are not rushed in order to meet arbitrary deadlines set by the marketing department–a developer should be able to produce quality games which will be eagerly purchased by the public.

  4. I’m playing too!

    Q1: What do you think is the biggest threat to JRPG development; and why?
    Tri-Ace! They develop poop. There’s no other way to put it. JRPGs really need to start having somebody at the top with a vision and an overarching theme again. The just do anime stereotype shit with feathered hair girly men is sort of tired as of 2002. I get that JRPGs are made by Japanese people, but soooo many of the characters just flat-out aren’t real people. I want to see people who are like actual people that have ever existed somewhere in JRPGs. They can be Japanese and do Japanese stuff that is strange to me because I’m a stupid, uncultured American. That’s cool. Just could they not all be crazy people and/or annoying $#@&ing children? I’m sure that people who you don’t rightly go to jail for having sex with can save the world too.

    Q2: In a genre which places high value on tradition, what special challenges confront JRPG developers who want to innovate?
    They always latch onto the stupidest possible innovations. What Final Fantasy XIII needed wasn’t fucking quicktime events. Nobody likes quicktime events. Quicktime events don’t send other quicktime events Christmas cards. I get that people want to have characters do awesome things that the control scheme doesn’t allow. So just have them do it? Cutscenes are a thing with exist.

    Q3: Where do you see the JRPG genre in ten years?
    I think we’ll see one or two per console generation on home systems and more low budget dungeon crawler type stuff on handhelds. Since Final Fantasy VII JRPG devs have placed far too much emphasis on presentation values and too little on how the game plays. Is there constant “one more battle and I can unlock X”? That little constant little rewards stuff is addictive and fun. I want to see some interesting character customization again. Every character being a blank slate isn’t interesting. I’m also thinking we’ll see a move towards making JRPGs more action RPGey. Which I’m not a fan of because paraphrasing what that cynical guy from CatFancy once said, “An action RPG is just a shitty action game with RPG elements.”

  5. Firstly, the anime-istic quality that JRPG’s seem to have been rapidly increasing towards are probably more of a turn-off to general western audiences than ever before. In the 90’s, the influence was more understated, and probably taken as part of the general aesthetic appeal of video games, which were at once both graphically simpler and more heavily produced by Japan than elsewhere. Now that there is a much wider spectrum of what can be done, the Japanese aesthetic only appeals to the smaller subset of folks who already appreciate that sort of thing. It continues to be a turn-on for Japanese audiences who eat it up as staple food, like rice and fish.

    Yet, to look at what constitutes the inspiration for Western RPG’s (which I would posit constitutes a different genre at this point, rather than a different approach to the same genre), we find much from fantasy (to wit, Elder Scrolls, Kingdoms of Amalur, &c) and sci-fi (Mass Effect, Star Wars), which are pretty much the Western equivalents of anime. I’m just as bored of these conventions as of anime. For cross-medium reference, as a youth I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, and while becoming adult I’ve become more interested in real-life or historical themes.

    For either Western or Japanese RPG’s, I’d personally be interested in something going away from Tolkien-fantasy or George Lucas-scifi, towards, I don’t know, John Fowles or Gustave Flaubert as literary references? Or for Japan, more like Haruki Murakami than high school manga? Something more adult. And just because someone has sex or kills people doesn’t make it “adult” material by the way.

    So I guess the second point I’d like to make is that Japanese RPG’s seem to be arrested in a youth or adolescent orientation. They’re not growing up with me, so I’m not interested. I might have loved Xenoblade Chronicles or The Last Story when I was 16, but at 27 they’re not talking to me anymore. Another example would be Ni No Kuni, which by all possibilities should be a great game, but it’s probably really great for a 12 year old. Hopefully the games coming out this year capture a new, young audience to preserve respect for JRPG’s in the next generation of RPG players.

    You know, for a generation of video gamers who grew up with the explosion of a very new and exciting entertainment medium from at least the NES, we’ve seen so much in our time. It’s hard to hit so many peaks over the years and keep interest anymore. I think we’re seeing just as much if not more good, very good, or great JRPG’s coming out this year than in any one year of the 90’s, but it’s hard to be as impressed or interested as when they were a new thing, and intringuingly different from action or sports games or whatever.

    So thirdly (the point where essay structure tends to fall apart a little), we have too much choice now. While I’m going on impression and memory right now, every year in the 90’s we usually had a great JRPG (made by Square), a good one (also by Square, possibly Enix, sometimes Nintendo), and some bad ones (don’t care to remember who made these, sometimes Enix). There was a lot that we DIDN’T get. If you played Sega RPG’s you were weird by the way, who are you? Since FF7 made them huge out west, we’ve gotten much more coming out over here, and so the amount of bad ones are more noticeable. There were, and is, lots of bad Western RPG’s too (what was that, Heroes of the Lance on NES).

    In conclusion, the state of the video game industry, and symptomatically the JRPG genre, may be at the same point of the history cycle when Atari crashed. Being overbloated, we’re waiting for special auteurs to create amazing art rather than consume more mass-market garbage. Good art exists, but profit-driven industry smears it. Personally, I don’t care a whit about the medium of video games becoming more technically impressive or hand-held and manageable; just please produce something more meaningful. Compared to every other genre, some Japanese RPG or another has always given me a qualitatively better experience. I think they’re still capable of doing that, or at least better than the rest.

  6. “Yet, to look at what constitutes the inspiration for Western RPG’s (which I would posit constitutes a different genre at this point, rather than a different approach to the same genre), we find much from fantasy (to wit, Elder Scrolls, Kingdoms of Amalur, &c) and sci-fi (Mass Effect, Star Wars), which are pretty much the Western equivalents of anime.”

    Both WRPG and JRPG genres strongly adhere to their respective source genres to be sure, but fantasy and sci-fi tend to have a lot more literary and thematic substance to them. You can’t really assert that WRPG’s adherence to Western literary/film traditions is a similar hobble as anime, which is lousy with annoying and vapid stock characters.

    “There was a lot that we DIDN’T get. If you played Sega RPG’s you were weird by the way, who are you? Since FF7 made them huge out west, we’ve gotten much more coming out over here, and so the amount of bad ones are more noticeable. There were, and is, lots of bad Western RPG’s too (what was that, Heroes of the Lance on NES).”

    I have never doubted that the number of poor JRPGs has stayed relatively constant as a proportion of total output. The difference is that fewer great JRPGs are being made. I view the PS1 era of JRPGs as the greatest era the genre has ever known.

  7. @SN: You’re absolutely right that the anime influence can be more vapid. I just wanted to point out that there are thematic limitations outside of Japan, but as a disclaimer I’ve played far more Japanese games than western, so I am biased and less informed. Still, there are great anime (i.e., Hayao Miyazaki), that I feel for example the Final Fantasy games through IX were sort of the video game equivalents to. Nowadays the inspiration seems to be very bland, generic anime.

    I especially like the PS1 era because it produced more variety than the SNES era (which were still the basic Dragon Quest mechanics, improved) while continuing to enrich the content. I think what we’ve seen since then is a sharp decline in innovation while sticking to certain types of games, making them more niche.

    Historically, I refer to the 90’s decade as combining the best of both SNES and PS1, ending definitively with FFX and PS2. At this point, I think a new generation of gamers were coming into RPG’s who had much different expectations from the ones who started earlier. And I’m generalizing western audiences here, keep in mind that people in Japan were flagellating themselves with Dragon Quest all the time we weren’t so much.

  8. If JRPPGs took their lead from Miyazaki anime, then there wouldn’t be a problem. Similarly, the Persona aesthetics are heavily influenced by anime style, yet they are absolutely superb games, because they do not allow anime style to limit their scope.

    The reason that anime style is such a detriment to JRPGs isn’t due to its aesthetic quality, but rather because too few JRPG developers see fit to develop their game scenarios beyond the horrible drek that passes for anime narrative (Black Butler and Hetalia excluded).

  9. I want to play a World War II-era JRPG based on Hetalia: Axis Powers.

  10. I triply concur. Speaking of WWII JRPG’s, how is Valkyria Chronicles? It seems like it could be exactly the sort of thing I’m looking for.

  11. The general consensus around these parts is that anyone who enjoys SRPGs will enjoy Valkyria Chronicles.

  12. @Matt: Valkyria Chronicles, which we did a playthrough of, is a brilliant game.

    It’s effectively an SRPG where you command your troops in a beautiful, first person environment to move them, though they have turn-based attacks and so on.

    It is hard to explain, but you can look through our playthrough list and see what people were saying about it back when we did our playthrough of it (I think you’ll find the opinion was overwhelmingly positive).

  13. Thanks SilliconNoob and Lusipurr! I will look for the playthrough post-haste.

Comments are closed.