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Can the Japanese RPG Be Fixed?

Editor's note: Jon's ideas to repair issues he sees with the Japanese role-playing game has sparked a great deal of debate in the comments. Do you agree with Jon that the genre has issues that Japanese developers need to address? Are there problems that he left out of this post? Join the discussion! -Jason


It’s no secret that the Japanese role-playing game, once the provider of some of the deepest gaming experiences around, is going through a period of stagnation. Like the rest of the Japanese industry -- aside perhaps from Nintendo -- the JRPG is facing a very quiet and yet very real crisis, trying to broaden its appeal with Western gamers while retaining what made the genre great.

The genre still has games that continue to do well critically as well as commercially. Dragon Quest 9: Sentinels of the Starry Skies recently released to a fanfare of praise, even from gamers who’ll admit to never having played a Dragon Quest game before. Persona 4 also found great success recently, with its unusual setting and art style that really helped to set it apart from the crowd. Final Fantasy, once the king of the hill, fell into something of a critical rut with its 13th game of the main franchise. It may have sold well, but critics such as Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker and the staff of Edge magazine panned the game for its insufferable hand-holding and lack of innovation.

When considering how to reinvent a genre, it’s always important to keep what made it great to start off with. Storylines and epic battles have always appealed to the hardcore JRPG fans, and as such it would be wise to keep these features intact when trying to broaden the appeal of the genre. Likewise the emphasis on loot collection and equipping characters with the best possible gear is something that’s made those 100-plus hour saves in Final Fantasy 10 something to be proud, rather than ashamed, of.

Finally -- and I realize this may be a controversial choice here -- turn-based battles should remain a part of the JRPG formula. Sure, it may be annoying to have all of your battles take place in a completely separate arena in the main game, and many may find it irritating to not have full control of the movement of your characters. But by taking movement control away from the player, a game’s animators have the freedom to create elaborate attacks and moves for your party members. The presence of menus is also a very useful tool to have in battle, without it you’re having to rely on only as many actions as your controller has buttons to perform.

With these crucial features ring-fenced, let’s move on to what’s holding the Japanese Role Playing Game back - the problem of assumed knowledge.

 

These games expect the play to work out too much on their own, with often little to no explanation. Character stats are a prime example of this; I couldn’t begin to explain to you what my character’s “Endurance” or “Luck” ratings do for them in Persona 3, and I’ve been playing that game for 15 hours now. I just about understand the stats of attack and defense, but beyond that it's just guesswork, and guesswork doesn't make for a fun game.

A common method of trying to get all this information across is to include a character or shopkeeper with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game’s battle system. Theoretically, the player then has access to all the information they could possibly want on character stats, weapon types, status ailments, and elemental attacks, but in practice these walls of text are uninviting, boring, and don’t deliver the information in a way you’re likely to remember for long.

Other genres have managed to work out how to explain their often complex mechanics to the player. Rather than bombarding the player with information from the outset, most games will wait until a relevant moment before explaining in as few words as possible what’s just happened. A JRPG could likewise wait until the player gets poisoned for the first time before having a character describe what  poisoned entails. Descriptions like this could ease new players into a complex system without the need for dumbing it down to appeal to the lowest common denominator. As always, players should have the ability to turn off these tutorial snippets, to avoid alienating the RPG literate.

As previously mentioned, a large part of the genre's appeal comes from their huge storylines, often involving dozens of characters, and a plot that’s global in scope. Whilst these kinds of plots were once fresh and exciting, it’s hard to feel they’ve really moved on much in recent years. Yarns spun around the search for magical crystals or the quest to stop someone’s attempt to take over the world simply don’t cut it in today’s landscape of conspiracy and intrigue.

The same could also be said for the genre’s over reliance on cutscenes as a means to deliver its story. Final Fantasy 12’s story managed to break new ground in the genre by telling the tale of a small nation trapped between warring superpowers, but its delivery method was frankly ancient, compartmentalizing the game’s story and gameplay sequences into completely separate boxes. If we were to oversimplify the issue, we could claim the world needs to be struck by the BioShock of JRPGs.

Finally, there’s the length issue to address. “Vanilla” role-playing games have, are, and probably always will be long. This is especially true in Japanese role-playing games, which manage to be long in an entirely different way to Western games. While a player’s 50 hours spent with Fallout 3 likely saw them spending huge amounts of time exploring the game’s world, the same cannot be said for your average Final Fantasy save, made up of hours “grinding” (running around the same areas fighting monsters purely to increase your own characters’ skill levels) as well as the inevitable slow start inherent with nearly every game in the genre.

Game length is not in itself a bad thing. Despite rumblings to the contrary, many gamers are still very happy to play a game for upward of 20 hours. What is a bad thing is poor pacing and time that is for all intents and purposes “wasted.” Sitting through the opening hours of a game without getting to play anything is neither fun nor serves any greater purpose. Likewise, having to fight the same monsters over and over again can very easily sour the best of games. Include these things if you must, but please have the courtesy to shield us “casual” RPG fans from them.

The Japanese RPG is a fantastic genre that more people should play. It has the potential to deliver the greatest storylines and battle systems in gaming, which is why it’s such a shame seeing this squandered on what are in many cases the same sort of games we were playing back in the '90s. A revolution is due, because the JRPG won’t be going quietly.

Comments (17)

Who says the JRPG needs to be fixed? Right now, they've got more going for them than Western RPGs, which are stuck in a cycle of over-the-top cinematics, bland heroes, and restrictive morality systems. In Japan, we've got:

1) Dragon Quest: The innnovations this time around include a surprising multiplayer approach. Paired with some freedom to determine your own character and party along with the traditional Dragon Quest charm (something the West ignores), you've got one the of the best RPGs of the year.

2) Some may not like Final Fantasy 13's "hand-holding," but it's hard to argue that its approach to combat isn't innovative. It's the most innovative approach to party-based combat in the genre. It's fun and addicting as well.

3) Persona continues to pair strong mechanics with great storytelling. That never goes out of style. 

4) Atlus's status as a niche RPG developer and publisher allows it to experiment with its games. Etrian Odyssey knows it's an old-fashioned RPG and defies you to take it on its own terms. That in itself is innovative, as few games in the West dare you to accept it for what it is. Throw in games like 3 Dot Heroes and Demon's Souls and Atlus is definitely pushing the edges of traditional RPG gameplay.

5) The "slow start inherit to the genre" is sometimes essential to telling the story. In Dragon Quest 9, you spend some time setting up the plot before the main "game" begins. This hour or so is wondrous, one of the best hours of plot development I've played in a RPG in some time. 

It's easy to pick on Japanese developers. They don't talk as much to the West, and they don't defend themselves (which needs to change -- if they would talk to the press more, I think we'd have a better understanding of what they're doing, why they're doing it, and what it means to gamers). But don't ignore the staleness creeping into Western design -- similar-looking heroes (Commander Shepherd and the lead in Infamous look like they were developed by the same designer), morality systems that put you on the good/evil path but neglect that morality comes in gray, and this insistence that mechanics from first-person shooters, of all things, need to be in RPGs. If there's one genre that's as stale as can be, it's the FPS. 

I wasn't aware the JRPG was broken (although I must admit that I haven't yet played a current-gen JRPG; my direct experience with JRPGs consists of previous-gen releases and DS remakes of SNES games).

From what I've seen, all the established and popular genres -- JRPG, western RPG, FPS, and the various kinds of action-adventure hybrid -- are having issues with staleness, but someone always comes along and innovates, starting the cycle anew.

I agree with you about the excessive grinding and compulsory tutorials being annoying, though.

Here's a different perspective on things.

The JRPG does not need a change. Rather, people's expectations of what a JRPG represents needs to change. By virtue of its namesake, a JRPG is an RPG made by the japanese infused with japanese sensibilties while mired in japanese culture. Call it a curse if you will, but the popularity of FFVII that lured in the hordes of western gamers also brought in expectations, Americans being the most self-indulgent people on earth and all. Suddenly, a JRPG has to be relatable to westerners, in effect forcing japanese developers to make a japanese RPG that conforms to western ideals of gameplay. Effectively, the end result is a bastardised game that neither appeals to any demographic. In case no one has picked this up, the most vocal groups criticizing the stagnation of JRPGs are *surprise* Westerners.

Pardon my bluntness, but America's self-importance is the main cause for the current malaise in JRPGs, particularly the FF series. FFXIII gets derided for a lack of innovation? Anyone ever stopped to consider that XIII is the most radical departure from the entire series? If anything, it innovated to the extent to become detrimental to the overall game. For a change, why not just let japanese developers have free reign to make something truly japanese without saddling them with western-infused expectations. If John Everyday doesn't like it, he should simply not purchase it and get his RPG fix elsewhere.

JRPG's need to change because the Japanese market doesn't seem able to support their own gaming industry. When it was only Kenji Inafune making comments about the Japanese gaming industry being in trouble, that was one thing...but when Hideo Kojima starts making similar comments? It's probably time for Japanese developers to start paying attention.

http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/kojima-japan-lacking-the-motivation

@Dennis You need more than Kojima to back up that point, buddy! Kojima makes a certain type of game, one that, when you step back, really has limited appeal (you have to like stealth and what's going on in Kojima's head) once you strip away its hype and absurdity. And the long cutscenes? Even Final Fantasy 13 doesn't make you sit that long. 

I'm not saying a slow story start is wasted time, of course many games put it to good use setting up characters and story, but other developers manage to set up equally dense narratives in a much smaller amount of time, whilst allowing the player direct control. 

After all, who can forget their first quarter of an hour spent in City 17? Valve are the masters of showing rather than telling, and as such their games' intros never end up feeling rushed.

But yes, I'll admit my perspective is unashamedly 'Western' and my preferences are coloured as such. It just seems to me that whilst games like Mass Effect 2 have brought Western RPGs forward in leaps and bounds, the Japanese development scene has lacked this sort of refinement.

@Jon Mass Effect 2 has brought Western RPG development forward by leaps and bounds? Some would take exception with that. I do. I don't want an overly cinematic, RPGy shooter. I want an RPG. 

The improvements in JRPGs never started with JUST Persona 3. The "improvements" have been around since the original Megami Tensei games on Famicom... but those are less JRPGs and more like Dungeon Crawler. So, yeah, I think it's the original Persona that started Atlus' reputation for progressive JRPGs. 
We also shouldn't forget to give credit to Nintendo for their contributions to the genre, more specifically the Mario RPG games and Earthbound/Mother series.

The first step towards improvement definitely should start with the individual gamer rather than developers. Just cause a certain game like Mass Effect 2 receives critical acclaim from the gaming press (i.e predominantly western media) does not mean it has advanced the genre by 'leaps and bounds'. It only demonstrates that the game manages to hit a lot of sweet spots that appeal to westerners. ME2 hardly sold as well in Japan, and this also applies to many other megahits. GTA, COD, God of War etc didn't exactly set the Japanese world on fire.

 

I do think there's a compromise to be had somewhere in the middle here though. A way of preserving the charm and sophistication of the genre, whilst leaving behind some parts that many (myself included) would rather go without. Think grinding for example.

Yes, this would mean sacrificing individuality in pursuit of more western consumers, but since when was letting more people enjoy a genre a bad thing? Surely so long as Japanese games keep the features that make them so special then everyone can benefit.

To reiterate, I don't think eastern and western design philosophies should become a single grey blob though.

From what I've heard about the upcoming Xenoblade and The Last Story, I'm keeping my hopes up that these will bring JRPGs forward.

@Jon While should the Japanese -- who enjoy grinding -- drop a mechanic for American/Western audiences? 

You know what Jason; you've got me. I'll admit the only reason I can come up with is a very subjective "So that I, Jon Porter, can enjoy their games more."

The simple truth is that there's so many things I love about the genre, and yet a couple of features that often stop me from completing such games. That's almost certainly selfish of me I'll admit. 

@Jon I think the better question is: What do you dislike about grinding? Is there a sort of grinding you do enjoy? In some games, I don't mind grinding at all; the combat's enjoyable (Final Fantasy XIII, Dragon Quest IX, any D&D-based game [though grinding's gone from modern versions]). But in something such as Valhalla Knights, one of the worst RPG series of this generation, grinding is slow, tedious, and awful because of the combat system. 

My problem with grinding is that in my experience it's forcing you to complete tasks/beat enemies that I've already done. For example in Persona 3, when I reach a boss who I have no hope of besting I'm expected to go back to previous floors to defeat enemies I've already worked out strategies for. If I get this enemy I hit him with Zio to stun him and then go for an 'All Out Attack' to whittle down his health before laying the killing blow.

I'm getting no enjoyment out of it because I'm just repeating a series of attacks I've already gotten memorized, there's not really any challenge there.

I suppose I enjoyed the 'grinding' in FFXII, because I didn't really need to treat it as such. Optional side missions took me to areas I only glanced at the first time through, and lead me to fight enemies I hadn't previously encountered. It was new, it was challenging, and I enjoyed it so much I ended up becoming so over powered the rest of the game lost its appeal.

Does any of this make sense?

@Jon 'Repetitive' is often used with negative connotations by the media, for good reason. But there exists a community called the Japanese, which also happens to be the MOST important community to japanese developers. While the Jon Porters of the world far outnumber them, its also an open secret that the the japanese market is the most important demographic to japanese developers. The release of each DQ game is a national event, and this is a series that has hardly progressed in terms of gameplay. Its common sense that any profit driven company needs to produce stuff that appeals to their consumers, and most have tried to pander to western tastes, to their overall detriment. So my advice is, either take JRPGs for whatever they are and enjoy them within your own capacity and preference, or pick up the Fallouts and Dragon Ages of the western world.

@Jason I don't think that Kojima's comments have anything to do with the sorts of games he's making. He was making a general statement about the entire Japanese game development industry, wasn't he? The point is that it isn't a lone voice in the wilderness, Inafune, making these comments any longer. Other Japanese developers are echoing his sentiments, and that suggests there's a real problem here.

We could also look at these comments by Yoichi Wada:

http://kotaku.com/5585527/square-enix-boss-says-japans-core-gameplay-not-as-strong?utm

When the Japanese developers themselves are complaining about the state of their industry, I don't see why we should argue with them...and JRPGs, then, would be just one piece of the development puzzle which needs shoring up.

A source of mine who is a successful games journalist thinks that the current breakdown of where videogame profits are coming from is 40/30/20 United States/Europe/Japan. That could not be more anecdotal, but I don't know this person to speak out their ass and they've been following and writing about this industry for a decade...if there's any truth to that, combined with these comments from Japanese developers, and they may truly be on the decline, which speaks to their needs to rethink how they design games altogether to compete in a world market.

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