Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Death of JRPGs - But Not Really


A few days ago, Gamasutra posted an opinion article called The Last Days of the Japanese RPG. I don't care for the sensationalist title, but as a lapsed JRPG fan, I agreed with pretty much the entire article. JRPGs are not dying, and contrary to some popular opinion, they are evolving - they just happen to be evolving in a way that I (and, apparently, a number of others) don't really care for. Naturally, the hardcore JRPG folks, insular as any fanbase, are deriding the article as the usual (embarassment to video game journalism, humanity, etc.), so I feel oblidged to defend it. One of the biggest point of contention is this one, labeled as one of the reasons why the JRPG has lost its popularity.

The anime and manga bubble has burst. The late 90s saw a tremendous surge in Western interest in Japanese pop culture. Book and comic stores rushed to create floor space devoted to vast piles of manga. Video retailers that had previously only carried the odd Akira or Ghost in the Shell tape suddenly embraced anime with shelves of outrageously expensive box sets and bizarrely titled movies, all delivered on the new DVD format. Kids were buying up anything sporting multicolored hair and big eyes and JRPGs benefited greatly from this hunger for all things Japanese. The current reality, however, is that the teens that were driving all this economic activity are now adults with different priorities and like all fads, anime and manga has somewhat run its course in the West.


The two main arguments against this statement are:

(A) There is no correlation between anime fans and JRPG fans, and

(B) Anime and manga is as popular as ever, if not moreso, it's just that the retail market is failing due to fansubs and its associated piracy.

I think the answer to (A) is obvious - not every JRPG fan likes anime, nor vice versa, but there are definite commonalities between them, and there is some crossover appeal, although getting hard numbers is unlikely. But many JRPGs use the same style of storytelling, character tropes and plot devices - some, like Namco's ubiquitous Tales series, may as well be interactive animes, with its episodic structure and its fancy introduction movies set to trendy J-Pop. A lot of the furor comes with the misinterpretation of the causal relationship. It's not saying "JRPGs are dying because anime is dying", but rather "JRPGs are dying for the same reason that anime is dying." Let's leave this point alone for now, but we'll get back to it.

The answer to (B) requires a bit more thought. My gut tells me that, yes, the anime/manga fad is over, but that's mostly due to my own personal opinions, as well as the group of people I run with. The numbers that are brought up show something different - that, yes, DVD and manga sales have fallen drastically, but enthusiasm is still up, according to convention attendance growing. And they're right, as Otakon's records show.

I don't think looking at convention attendance numbers tells the whole story, because there are other factors too. Several years back, the Cartoon Network aired a number of anime, especially in their Toonami block. Now, with few exceptions, it's gone, suggesting that the audience isn't there like it used to be. The lack of DVD releases also brings up another point - as much as the hardcore audience hates to admit it, there is a reasonable chunk of the fanbase that will only watch dubs. If anime studios don't produce them because they aren't selling, then that portion is left with two choices: deal with subtitles or just give up altogether. I don't know which would be more favored, but it definitely cuts down on the more mainstream folk.

Back on topic...The nature of many fandoms is cyclical - people will continue to consume until they get tired of it. To combat this, the media needs to (A) bring in new fans to replace the old, and (B) find ways to remain fresh so the current fans don't leave.

This part is where I don't think the piracy argument entirely holds water. Generally, a paying customer will not turn into a pirate, unless a life situation occurs where they can't afford it (admittedly not uncommon in this economy) or it becomes devalued to them. Lately, though, anime hasn't been keeping itself fresh or relevant (or at least the good ones are being drowned out), leaving the older fans to give up on it entirely. From my personal perspective, there doesn't seem to be much out anime out there for me, and instead I've moved onto live action TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, 24, The Wire, and others. I'm sure many older fans have similarly given up. The piracy argument DOES hold up with the newer, younger fans though - these are the ones with the entitlement complex that refuse to pay for anything, and since that's the only market that's really being catered to, that means that sales collapse.


And here's where it ties back into JRPGs - like anime, they target a younger audience, ranging from junior high students to young adults. Gamers are getting older, because while they still enjoy the games from their youth, they either find them thematically immature or require too much time devotion. This demand, much like the comparison I made with live action TV, is being filled elsewhere by Western RPGs, ranging from Fallout 3 to The Witcher to much, much further. They all have several themes in common - namely, they don't waste the gamer's time with juvenile themes (nudity in the The Witcher notwithstanding), and you can play them in shorter bursts while still being immediately gratifying. (They're also real time action games, as compared to traditional JRPGs, although that's neither here nor there for the sake of this argument.) I do think the JRPG market is healthier than the anime market, because it's not quite as overwhelmed with piracy - it's not hard to pirate a PSP or DS game, but it's not as easy to downloading an anime episode either.

On the opposing side, the apologists clamor, JRPGs are supposed to be developed for youngsters, because that's where the market is. What a lazy attitude! If WRPGs can target older games, why can't the Japanese! Yes, yes, I know that JRPGs are made for the Japanese first and foremost, but that doesn't leave them immune to criticism. I'm not going to cater to their design style - I'm just not going to buy them anymore.

Still, as much as I've had a better time with Mass Effect and Borderlands than any JRPG this generation, there are certain aspects I definitely miss. I like snappy turn-based battle systems and funky customization systems - there's still nothing I've seen on the WRPG side that as cool as a FF Tactics-style Job system or FFVIII-style Junctioning. These are elements that should not die nor be swept under the rug - they just need to emerge from the BS that keeps being shoveled on them. (Persona 4 is great, but did we really need to wade through two hours of yammering to get to the game?) The one big exception to the rule this year is Demon's Souls, which I'm not even sure if I'd classify as a JRPG, given that it's really more of an action game. There's nothing wrong with that though - reworking elements so the game doesn't fit into any set definition is a fantastic sign of progress. They're trying, given that Square Enix's The Last Remnant was meant to bridge the gap, although for whatever reasons, that didn't quite work. It's good to that the rogue-like and first person dungeon crawlers seeing a resurgence, although they're still not really to my liking. Maybe in the future, we'll see some more publishers doing better, but until then? Sorry Japan. Motto ganbatte kudasai!

15 comments:

  1. Very interesting take on the situation!

    I think the bubble has definitely burst for anime as an exotic fad, but it has also become much more mainstream. There are more Japanese cartoons for children aired in the US now than ever before, and many more Western cartoons and comics have Japanese influences.

    There seems to still be a glut of quality RPGs on the DS and PSP. (Most of which I don't play because I'm too old and busy.) A couple days ago I was thinking that this glut of portable RPGs may be similar to the abundance of platformers on the Gameboy Advance that prefaced a dry spell in the latter half of the decade. Maybe the next generation of portables will always have internet access and that will kill offline RPGs, the same way 3D graphics hurt 2D platformers, but the lack of interest may only be temporary: can you imagine how much more excited people would be if games like Gunstar Super Heroes and Drill Dozer were released today?

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  2. I think you're right. I had another paragraph in there that I ended up cutting out - I think the core anime shows like Bleach, Naruto and One Piece are the ones that are really getting popular, and much of everything else is on the fringe, but I've been out of the fandom so long that I could be wrong.

    I'm not a huge fan of the portable RPGs this gen, because a lot of them are scaled back spin-offs (Suikoden, Valkyrie Profile, even some of the Final Fantasy stuff), remakes (at least there's DQV in English) and other assorted mid-tier stuff (Crimson Gem Saga, Nostalgia). Devil Survivor is damn good though, I hope 7th Dragon gets localized, and the Falcom support for the PSP is pretty great in Japan.

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  3. Being an avid gamer for over 25 years, I find the arguement is quite different, and possible in fact misdefined. It's more like TURN BASED rpgs are going out of style (which is the basis of most JRPG).

    Over the years I've been slowly getting pulled off from the turn based rpg when I find more and more is just: Plod though a village to read text that forshadows the storyline, travel through either a clever or dense maze while encountering random attacks (or sometimes not random), click Attack>Attack>Attack>Attack for all characters, later, rinse, repeat.... and collect and inventory of items that you'll never use since Magic gets used either for healing or bosses.

    I did manage to work my way into some strategic RPG's like that of Nippon Icchi's games and had a better time. Strategy was needed instead of always brute Attacking everything.

    The nature of the turn based PRGs almost stems from limitations of computers and game systems. On an NES, you certainly couldn't play a game wehre you have 4 characters moving around at once attacking various enemies on the screen. We had to settle the little character walking on the screen being more an Icon for the party traversing though a dungeon filled with monsters.

    With modern gaming systems and computers, we don't need to rely on iconic representations of characters and actions. We can make them move freely, attack freely, develop skills. Many action games of today (say God of War), is merely the representation of our oldschool games (like Dragon Warrior... yeah, that's stretching it). That's why the popularity of the WRPG is picking up, they've become more than just turn based fighting, but either multiplayer RPG's like Warcraft, heavily evolved single player RPG's like the Fable series or (dare I say) Crackdown or Fallout 3, or all out action games like the previous mentioned God of War or even Devil may Cry.

    Mostly, the line between RPG and Action game has been almost totally blurred, but the Japanese reception has usually kept away from crossing the line. The somewhat failure to do so has seemed to put them on edge and just stop making them, importing them to this side of the world, etc.

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  4. Maybe people are just bored of slogging through menus and text boxes, and tired of watching numbers fight each other...

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  5. And why should they feel obligated to aim the level of their product to a higher age, Kurt? The largest demographic for games, even in Japan, is teenage boys. The developers of these games know that demographic very well, and know how to sell to them. That's why they still look like they're for teenagers. Because they are.

    You're acting like that decision is borne out of something other than purely financial reasons. It's not. They're doing what's best for business. And surprise, surprise, it works.

    Now, as you say, it doesn't free them from criticism, but there's a difference between criticism and declaring a (quite healthy) genre dead. Essentially, your problem, and the problem of those like you, is that the games haven't grown up with you.

    It's the Peter Parker problem. They can keep chasing your age group as it creeps up and up at the risk of abandoning the younger demographic, but then when you and your cohorts die, where does that leave them?

    They're doing what's best for business, and you don't like it, like the Wii fan bemoaning the fact that the newest third party awesomeness is coming to PS360 instead of Wii.

    Anyway, just thought I'd try to defend the position a little bit, since you've decided to take the discussion to a place where you can paraphrase the argument however you like and preach to your choir. Have a happy new year!

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  6. @Atari

    Ever since the first console RPG was brought over, there were concerns because the American audience has typically been more welcoming of action games. I think that's still the case, but things like FF7 popularized it because the fighting was flashy. Ten years later, that flash has lost its luster, and all that's left is long load times.

    I don't want to see turn-based battle systems disappear though, because there's definite value to them. They just need to make them less tedious and more rewarding. But yeah, they need retooling.

    @Segata
    But business sense and financial sense is pretty much the same thing?

    I'm not declaring the genre dead either, and that was the one big problem with the article. It was strange because, outside the end, it was mostly just a summary of the Year in JRPGs. It just ended up with the author's disappointment in the state of things, as aspect which I happen to agree with.

    I've found arguing with NeoGAF is mostly just a waste of time, because the number of people bringing up their pitchforks and making snarky replies does little to further (and often drowns out) any relevant discussion.

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  7. Frankly, I think the problem with a lot of these kinds of articles is that most of the people who once played RPGs never really liked them (not saying this about you, Mr. Kalata, just generalizing). They played them because, for a long spell after FF7, they were trendy -- the flashy graphics and cgi cut scenes for which Final Fantasy became infamous were what sold the games to many, but the genre also enjoyed an absurd degree of favoritism from the enthusiast magazines of the 90's.

    Now that practically everything can match or exceed the graphics of a typical JRPG and gaming journalism no longer consists only of a handful of magazines, it's become increasingly clear that most gamers never really liked role playing *games* in the first place. They played them for the stories (there's where that anime/manga thing becomes relevant again) or because games like FF10 were something along the lines of events -- games the were relevant to the broader hobby of "gaming." Most of these people never enjoyed turn based combat or character building. It was a means to a (dead) end.

    In terms of game mechanics, the Japanese RPG scene is way more diverse, experimental and healthy than the West, in which a few developers basically make a few games over and over again (Fallout 3 was barely an improvement on Oblivion, Dragon Age: Origins feels like it could be called Never Winter Nights 3). I too am tired of the school settings and chibi characters, but Class of Heroes is a really well made dungeon crawler, whereas Mass Effect is basically a shooter with dialogue branches and some shallow stat-building/customization.

    That's one of the problems I had with that article -- it misses the biggest reason why Japanese RPGs are waning in popularity, and the writer doesn't seem very aware of the mechanics of games he writes off in sentence fragments. Not all of it was wrong, but I think he's painting not only a dishonest (is anybody actually convinced JRPGs are dying?) picture, but a myopic one.

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  8. Wow good article.

    DiscoAlucard you bring up some good points, but there is one thing I haven't seen mentioned yet about JRPGs.

    The PS3 is not number one this time around. If you want to make a high profile RPG with HD assets while still making a profit you have to plan on a 360 port to break even. I don't think many JRPG developers are doing this, thus the massive shift towards handhelds this time around.

    What do you think?

    To Atari, I can think of one JRPG that tried to deal with the issues you talked about, FF12. When that game was released the JPRG shad a brick. Supposedly Persona 3 and SMT:Nocturne sorta do, but I haven't played those.

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  9. A thing that amazed me was when (I think) The Last Remnant was released outside of Japan and got blasted by the international media. The designer guy mentioned in an interview that he didn't even know that there exist such clear distinctions among gamers and the media between JRPG and WRPG outside Japan, showing that their industry was insular on a level that I personally thought impossible.

    Companies like Capcom and (on to a lesser extent) Square-Enix have the right strategy in my opinion, but after so many years of secluded game-delevopment, Japanese companies shouldn't expect the transition to go smoothly, nor without a few stinkers along the way.

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  10. Sorry for the double comment, but I forgot to add one thing. FFXII, and even moreso, FFXI are, to me, some of the best examples of Japanese-style forced innovation. Both were made with seemingly little knowledge about the inner workings of MMO games, and, on a technical level, they are comparable to something like Ultima Online (which is actually semi-popular in Japan), but certainly have extremely dated and unwieldy gameplay compared to a modern Western MMORPG.

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  11. Ah, yes. The anime situation. I've been seeing more and more anime that are either mostly generic moe or generic shonen; For every Bakemonogatari or Soul Eater there's a buttload of To-Love-Ru's(I liked it when it was called Love Hina, though the anime is awful) and Dragon Tail(the manga-ka has no shame in ripping off One Piece's art style, even if he DID work with Eiichiro Oda.).

    I used to admire KyoAni's works - Haruhi Season 1, AIR TV, Clannad, etc. - , despite them all oozing with moe; Now it looks like their success of shows like Lucky Star and K-ON got to their heads and went and pooped out Haruhi Season 2. It wasn't just the fact that there were EIGHT EPISODES that repeated the same thing, but also they started to use the K-ON character designs - which just seems insulting to fans.

    Now, I look up to SHAFT, the studio that brought us the hilarious Pani Poni Dash and Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, but even more, Akiyuki Shinbo, who directed one of the best anime of 09 Bakemonogatari.

    Now back to JRPGs. They need to get out of the DragonQuest/FinalFantasy shell if they want to be more successful. But besides just adopting WRPG(Actually, Ys already had a questing system) mechanics, they could try teaming up with Western developers.
    Imagine, will you, a powerhouse character designer such as... say Tsukihime and Fate co-creator Takahashi Takeuchi famous for characters such as Saber, Akiha, and Ryougi Shiki; And that guy would be working with Bioware on something... Wouldn't that be intriguing?
    For me, I'd pick him and ZUN, the Touhou creator(If you can't say something nice seal your lips), to work with me and make a pure action/RPG with Roguelike emergent gameplay. Oh, and Ted Woolsey would help with the writing.

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  12. I don't know why older people hate the newer animes that much.

    I'm a male, almost 25 year-old, and I love animes like Lucky Star, K-ON, Hidamari Sketch and the likes. And I like J-RPGs like the Tales Series, Ar Tonelico, Disgaea.

    Just because the char design are cuter, watching tohse animes and playing those games doesn't make me a retard, or a gay, just like people at my age or older think.

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  13. Interesting write up (I've not actually read the replies, just the main post).

    The sad thing with JRPGs, to my eyes, is that something like the FF series, which feels to painfully stale to me, will sell millions. Whereas an innovative JRPG, such as The World Ends With You, sells so poorly that Squeenix says it won't be doing anything like that again, and will instead focus on guaranteed sellers like FF.

    I realise one series is on consoles and normally displays cutting edge visuals, and TWEWY is on a handheld, but the latter was so amazingly fresh I clocked around 120 hours on it. I'd describe its gameplay mechanics as revolutionary... except they didn't seem to cause any revolutions, just apathy.

    Very anime styled though, with a strong J-Pop influence. Which reminds me of what a games journo colleage said: the pendulum has swung back and we've now reached a period in gaming where something which is stylistically distinguishable as Japanese, puts people off because the casual consumers says "This obviously isn't meant for me."

    Which I guess brings us back to the original point of the bubble bursting - appreciation for the Japanese aesthetic has died.

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  14. @Goldenpigsy,
    I think you're right actually. RPGs take a certain type of personality to really like, but at the same time there are people that just want an interactive experience. By marrying them together, specifically like in FF7 you get both audiences, and can potentially act as a gateway drug into more advanced games. Mass Effect did something similar, recognizing that Gears of War is basically The Game of the Generation. In parts it might be a mediocre shooter merged with an iffy RPG, but together they worked pretty damn well, and at least clicked with me more than any other Bioware game (except for maybe KotOR).

    A big part of the audience for people there for the story/experience relies on the graphics, though. As many have pointed out, the JRPGs are mostly moving to the portables, which makes sense for their home country but looks to be a regression to everywhere else, which is a big part why people are claiming they're "dying". The DS has potential for good (or at least engrossing) storytelling, as Phoenix Wright can attest, but I don't even know any portable RPG that's really latched onto that. They tend to be more focused on the local multiplayer portion, which is almost meaningless to US audiences outside of the Pokemon folk.

    The aesthetics and settings are off putting too. The ones that really innovate the most - the TWEWYs, the Personas, to a lesser extent even Valkyria Chronicles - are really just too Japanese. Demon Souls succeeded in many ways because it completely sidesteps that look.

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  15. I forgot about Valkyria Chronicles. The fact that we can say they're too Japanese for some people to appreciate, and I'd agree with that statement to a degree, is kinda depressing.

    On the other hand, VC2 is only being developed due to the success of the anime, and if anything its style seems to be heading even more in that direction.

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