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!