Editorial: Bioware follow up their genre trolling with more genre trolling

Forgive the hyperbole, Greg Zeschuck’s latest response to the JRPG industry was actually rather more diplomatic than Daniel Erikson’s “You can put a j in front of it, but it’s not an rpgoutburst, though the inherent arrogance looks to be much the same. Their central message seems to be that the only way for the JRPG industry to once again produce good games is to copy the lead of WRPGs, a sentiment which this author does not believe bears scrutiny. Zeschuck is essentially claiming that JRPGs have become complacent, creating the same game over and over again, allowing for WRPGs to muscle in on their market share, and that JRPG developers are increasingly looking to WRPGs like Fable for their ideas. He then follows up by noting that the Japanese game market is in decline, that traditionally structured JRPGs are no longer selling, and that we will see some changes in their design going forward.

Japan has a neux Sakaguchi.

The JRPG industry has not grown complacent so much as actively retreated into its cultural shell, voluntarily ceding the middle ground to WRPGs without so much as a word in protest. The trouble with Japan’s aging population is quite simply that JRPG developers have not matured their craft in line with the increasing age of their former players, but rather have increasingly courted the dwindling younger generation, taking on tween anime sensibilities which have resulted in narratives with all the philosophical depth of an episode of Pokemon (FFXIII). This Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic does not sit well with older Western RPG fans, so it is little wonder that JRPGs are haemorrhaging players to the likes of Bioware.

Zeschuck would be correct in assuming that the JRPG industry are increasingly looking to Western game design in order to bridge this disparity between gamer sensibilities, yet this is a highly dubious approach. Demon’s Souls has been met with much acclaim as a hardcore facsimile of Western RPG sensibilities, while Valkyria Chronicles adopts a TPS mechanic which will feel instantly familiar to Western gamers. Both games use Western mechanics to meaningfully evolve their genre, yet both are thoughtful enough efforts to stand on their own, effectively sidestepping the weakness of the industry.

Square Enix President Yoichi Wada.

On the other side of the equation languishes Square Enix who imagine “MOAR OF TEH BLOOD” equates to a “Square Enix RPG for the world”, hold to the assumption that old man Nier must resemble Frankenstein’s monster in order to appeal to Western gamers, and that the failed sandbox of The Crystal Bearers is in some way representative of the fabled next frontier in Western popularity. This infantile Western tokenism is symptomatic of a developer that has become lazy in its thinking and is typical of Yoichi Wada’s focus group mentality. It is also symptomatic of one man’s effort to stamp out the creative licence of his game designers, going so far as to threaten layoffs for any division not targeting the mainstream in their projects, his director’s artistic discretion being ceded to focus groups resulting in Vann’s imposition on Yasumi Matsuno, and FFXII writer Miwa Shoda being told that RPG narrative is not important as gamers do not expect it, so only the minimum number of event scenes are required. Yoichi Wada is the Bobby Nodick of Japan. When Square Enix is not busy using Western appeal to butcher their games, they can also be found using it to explain away their copouts to an increasingly disenchanted domestic market. They can claim FPS influences all they like, but I have yet to experience a shooter as linear, sterile and uninteractive as FFXIII.

Greg Zeschuck is absolutely correct in sales of JRPGs having softened considerably, and that we shall see some western style changes in their formula, we have already seen this to an extent and there will be more for a certainty. The assertion which I believe requires greater scrutiny however is his implicit suggestion that this will be a positive step for the JRPG industry, that this is somehow their only way forward. Perhaps I am old fashioned in my thinking, but I view the refashioning of JRPG design after the image of WRPGs as a recipe for their remaining perpetually in the shadows of Western developers. Positive change must come from within the industry, if they look to without then they will fail. Destructoid’s Jim Sterling counters Zeschuck’s claim deftly in stating :

The last truly great console JRPG, in my mind, was Lost Odyssey, and it was great because it didn’t change a thing. Meanwhile, you have utter drek like Infinite Undiscovery, trying a brand new battle system and failing because the rest of the game was so crap. If anything, JRPG makers need to stop attempting to be “innovative” and concentrate simply on making a game that doesn’t completely suck.

We need more games designed by this man ...

Lost Odyssey did not attempt to borrow any radically forward thinking gimmicks to reinvent the wheel; it merely nailed the fundamentals of good game design in creating a challenging journey though interesting locations, which told a thoughtful story. In addition to this I would also mention Atlus and their Shin Megami Tensei series in totally debunking the assertion that traditional JRPGs can no longer be enjoyed by RPG enthusiasts. What is so different about the SMT series? I would suggest that the aspect which is key to their consistent quality is the developer’s own keen understanding of their identity. SMT games are unerring in their presentations of thoughtful, darkly philosophical narratives, and are unapologetic in their use of traditional JRPG mechanics.

This traditional focus, far from rendering their battle systems anachronisms, provide for consistently fresh and focused gameplay experiences, owing to the expert polish and balance applied by competent Atlus game designers. This is why you have Atlus being touted as the new Squaresoft even as Square Enix hops from gimmick to gimmick in search of a pre-existing game template that will allow for them to imitate their way to a profit in the West. In short Atlus know who and what they are, and they understand what appeals to their fan-base. They have the integrity to realise that attempting to make your games all things to all people will never ever produce a good game. Square Enix on the other hand is having something of an identity crises and their game design philosophy is in a constant state of flux, heavily beholden to Yoichi Wada’s focus group approach to design. I do not believe it premature to declare that the appeals of Square Enix to Western sensibilities have not been met with any measure of success, while some of the most widely acclaimed JRPGs of recent years have made use of traditional mechanics.

... And MOAR of the things that make JRPGs great!

I would suggest that traditional JRPG design is only as dead as the imaginations of Japanese developers and their shareholders. The genre is in a rapid state of decline, that is undeniable, yet this has more to do with the industry’s unforgivable lack of ambition in pegging their wares to the lowest common denominator. Ultimately this creative deficit cannot be addressed by cherry picking Western game mechanics. But what do you think Lusi-pals? Are JRPGs just as vital as they always were? Are they done for, and doomed to fade from the Western conscious? Or is the true state of the industry’s health somewhere in between? And should the industry look to ape successful Western RPGs?

19 Comments

  1. evilpaul
    Posted 2010.06.08 at 12:51 | Permalink

    I think there’s a few things at play here.

    First, Square-Enix hemorraged away most of its talent and after merging with Enix has been more Enix-y than Square-y. Now that developers regardless of where they’re from can do pretty graphics they can’t just flash up some FMVs and get everyone to run out and buy their games. It doesn’t help that they’re making games that aren’t as fun, either.

    Second, how and what people play has changed. There’s lots of people who play Farmville, Bejeweled, and various other casual games. There’s another pool of people, probably the ones who bought JRPGs for the shiny graphics, who now play FPSes online mostly. The Halo 3 people who act like fratboys and call everyone “faggots.” If you just play games to enjoy mindless clicking, solving simply presented puzzles, or to deride people’s mothers, then you’re probably not going to enjoy turn-based battles.

    And tying in to that last part is that consoles themselves have changed. With online gaming taking off and consoles that have HDDs you can now find PC style RPGs on consoles. It wasn’t too long ago people didn’t say “WRPG vs. JRPG” it was “PC RPGs vs. Console style RPGs”. You couldn’t really do WRPGs very well without a HDD and/or DLC. Anyone play Diablo or Morrowind on a console? It sucked compared to PC.

    I think most of the “JRPGs are dying/complacent/boring/I don’t like them” is mostly just people using a new name to be some combination of vaguely racist and genre-crapping on something they don’t like. Sure, pick a Tri-Ace game and point out how much it sucks. But there’s how many space marine first and (OMG INNOVATION) third person shooters by western devs? And how many of those suck?

    There’s plenty of good and bad games being developed all over the world. People seem to forget how many bad RPGs we used to play back in the day. They aren’t some startling new phenomenon.

  2. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2010.06.08 at 13:03 | Permalink

    They’re certainly not a startling new phenomenon, but there seems to be fewer developers still capable of producing a good JRPG.

  3. Oyashiro
    Posted 2010.06.08 at 13:57 | Permalink

    That was a fantastic article! I agree 100%. And OMG! UNDERBOOBS!

    I enjoy the freedom of WRPGs, but what I enjoy more is a good narrative which sadly WRPGs often lack. Many Japanese companies seem to be in a rut this gen. But when that 1 in a 100 game comes out of Japan, no WRPG stands up to it in my eyes. Yakuza 3 is a freaking Masterpiece.

    And They just announced the Yakuza 4 is indeed going to be brought over to the west. HUZZAH!

    http://blogs.sega.com/europe/2010/06/08/iamkazuma/

  4. squalldane
    Posted 2010.06.08 at 16:12 | Permalink

    Don’t forget the Tales series :)

    I’m a die-hard fan of Final Fantasy IX. I’ve always been in search of another game that would raise the bar from there and Vesperia is the title that did it.

    With Final Fantasy getting worse and worse, maybe Tales is on a correlated inverse slope?

  5. DanChiSao
    Posted 2010.06.08 at 16:26 | Permalink

    I completely agree that Square hasn’t been on top of its game since the merger. To me, FF6 was the height of their work, and the company hasn’t really been comparable since then.

    Unfortunately, to most North American gamers, JRPG=Square Enix because they are the name in the big flashing lights. You’ll never see Atlus or Gust or Nippon Ichi sponsor an NBA all-star game, that’s for sure.

    While some of these other companies still make fantastic games (Persona 5 can’t get here fast enough), they go relatively unnoticed because they don’t advertise their games the way Square Enix does, nor do they aim to make the most graphically intensive titles. Instead, they stick to their guns, making their style games and making improvements here and there that their fans want to see. That’s how you consistently sell games.

  6. Ethos
    Posted 2010.06.08 at 16:44 | Permalink

    …Tales of Vesperia raised the bar from FFIX?
    I cannot agree with that.

  7. juan22
    Posted 2010.06.08 at 17:57 | Permalink

    i think there is a double standar.
    jrpg review:lets say by ign.

    rescuinga princess cliched warrior with long sword cliched inmature,etc.
    4/10

    now a wrpg/shooter/sandbox or whatever
    so cool we are fighting the russians for 500th time and the arabs and those evil servs. so much adrenaline and so much gore and and so mature. and you control an excia agent/space marine. and you shoot inocent people all the time is this wide brown/gray world
    9.5/10 Masterpiece
    Halo 6 “Iran black ops” is better than Uncharted 3 deal with it.
    Joe johnson IGN Texas

    Now seriously, i think jrpgs need to improve their gameplay and make it way faster. They also need to stop puting loli characters in them. to name a few things, but the real problem i think it is Japan´s lowbirthrate . If they dont star having kids soon they are Fu~c up.The whole country, not only the gaming industry.

  8. Lusipurr
    Posted 2010.06.08 at 19:45 | Permalink

    There is no such thing as a good Tales of game.

    The notion that a Tales of game is better than FFIX is the height of absurdity.

  9. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2010.06.08 at 20:51 | Permalink

    Tales of Vesperia was great, but it was no FFIX.

  10. evilpaul
    Posted 2010.06.08 at 23:27 | Permalink

    I haven’t played Vesperia, but I’ll agree that Tales games don’t compare to pre-FFX FF games.

    FFIX I don’t think was that amazing having replayed it again recently though. Not much happened really in it. You just kind of had a plot that was an excuse to ferry you around to different set pieces. Sure, they were pretty cool, nostalgia-poking set pieces, but still: set pieces. Then there’s the 11th hour, obligatory, post-FF7, mindfuck Reveal. Then another, quite cool, set piece (Pandemonium/Crystal World), the game pulls a Necron on you, and it ends with a mostly happy ending.

    I liked the character progression system and the set Jobs, but still providing some customizability. The Battle System was just slow though. It’s a complaint I’ve got with most PSX RPGs I replay. SNES RPG random battles load instantly, are fast paced, and end quickly. FF7, FF8 (UGH, and FF9 are slow loading and laggy by comparison. I’ll have given all my dudes commands and a good thirty seconds later the fourth enemy is doing its slow as shit dry humping Quina’s face attack animation. I know they don’t have to be slow. Replaying Chrono Cross which also had a slow battle system they give you a Fast Forward button!

    I guess my point is FFIX is a pretty good game, not at all deserving the FAN HATE it gets from FF7 fanboiz, but Ethos is wrong to like it as much as he does.

    Also, does Tales of Vesperia still use berries as curative items? That always seemed kind of arbitrary and stupid to me. I mean I realize I can’t shoot lightning from my fingers, kill dudes with my mind, or ressurect dead people, but eating the thing of blueberries in my fridge I wouldn’t expect to change that.

    Then again, Mario 64 taught me that swimming, but not drowning, heals you completely. So I guess my real point is that Tales games and all the 3D Mario games I’ve played are retarded.

  11. Lane
    Posted 2010.06.09 at 00:22 | Permalink

    Tales games repeat tropes, just like Final Fantasy does. Seriously, how many “disguised princess and rogue swordsman save the world from evil sorcerer!” games is the NamcoBandai going to put out?

    About as many as Square-Enix will put out in the plucky rebels fight evil empire genre.

    The problems are (1) JRPG gameplay hasn’t been significantly updated from the FIGHT MAGIC ITEM RUN command menu system (Final Fantasy XII was the best attempt); (2) JRPGs endlessly repeat the same tropes that are scrutable to the Japanese but old and played out to Western audiences; (3) minigames get mistaken for “depth” and replayability; and (4) Western RPGs have evolved past crude D&D clones and the comparisons aren’t as stark.

    The solutions are: (1) new and better story lines that have complex characters and not a spiky haired swordsman, comic relief mage, and spunky princess; (2) game mechanics that borrow more from MMOs and action games and require more active input from the player; (3) abandonment of minigames and crafting systems wholesale, no exceptions; (4) technical precision and good production values (seriously, no more tearing and judder and bad rendering in video); and (5) more control over character development.

    The last “good” JRPG I played was Rogue Galaxy. Apart from a stupid crafting and minigame system and a punishing grinding system, it was a really excellent game. Unfortunately, even among JRPG fans, White Knight Chronicles sounds like doody so I won’t be buying it. Demon’s Souls was a well-made game but beyond my ability to invest time in it. And no Asian company has been able to create a Western-casual-friendly RPG. I mean, I think raiding 4 nights a week for 4 hours at a time is “semi-hardcore.” I can’t compete with some Korean kid that has a sponsor and plays 18 hours a day. I just can’t.

  12. Ethos
    Posted 2010.06.09 at 01:42 | Permalink

    “but Ethos is wrong to like it as much as he does.”
    Now I know!

    And Lane, you liked Rogue Galaxy? Believe it or not, I don’t really link to my site from this one, but nothing summarizes my feelings for Rogue Galaxy like this article.
    http://riddlethos.com/2009/09/wrong-hole-darling-%E2%80%93-love-story-misses-countdown-2/

  13. evilpaul
    Posted 2010.06.09 at 01:52 | Permalink

    A really close friend of mine said his biggest problem with Rogue Galaxy was that you got to the end and then you found out you needed to use party members you hadn’t touched in 40 levels for a one on one boss fight.

    Also, @Ethos, the more you know!

  14. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2010.06.09 at 08:33 | Permalink

    “but Ethos is wrong to like it as much as he does.”

    What an odd assertion. Of course Ethan is going to like what ever he likes however much he likes it. I don’t see how Ethan is to profit by liking what he likes any less than he already likes it, so I don’t see how it is wrong for him to do so. If Ethan has to like something then so much the better if it happens to be one of the best RPGs ever made … your love for FFVIII blinds you to all of life’s other joys evilpaul, you can’t see past where you’re going to draw your next hit of Thundaga from.

    @Lane: If JRPGs borrowed more MMO mechanics then I’d probably stop playing them altogether.

  15. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2010.06.09 at 08:36 | Permalink

    -Rogue Galaxy was quite a solid game, but the story was a bit meh. Subsequent releases like P3 and P4, Lost Odyssey and Tales of Vesperia have all been better IMO.

  16. breaka666
    Posted 2010.06.09 at 15:31 | Permalink

    great article!

    @Evilpaul – regarding your Halo fratboy comment, while I dont like to give those pricks any type of credit, didn’t, like, everyone like FFVI? of all the Final Fantasies that seems to be the one no one really talks shit about and surely a lot of the people who played that grew up to Teabag Teh Noobs.

    @Lane & SiliconNoob – I’m with noob. if JRPGs start borrowing from Wow and it’s ilk I’mma start playin more fightin games.

    @Juan22 – ah, you noticed that shit too? I always wondered why reviewers are so keen to rag on a characters outrageous hair and yet not bat an eye when a game blatantly rips off Tolkein…

    you know, everyone talks about how the JRPG is one hit-point away from passing its last bowel movement but I’m not sure I believe it. everyone goes on about how the’s only a few JRPGs that anyone gives a shit about (read: buys) but are western rpgs really that better off? the only WRPGs that people really buy in large amounts are on the consoles, from what I understand. Gothic ain’t pullin Mass Effect numbers. even if you count WoW that’s only one more very popular one. now that I think about it, what were the really popular WRPGs before Mass Effect: Virtual Orgasmic Rape Simulator and Fallout 3 came around? and how popular were these other games, really? I won’t deny that the JRPG has had better days but are WRPGs really doing that much better?

    I get that the big JRPGs are made by one company but it seems like the big WRPGs are made by two, Bethesda and Bioware (I’ll count Blizzard when they actually release something).

    and fuck elves. unless the have Underboob and/or Badonkadonk. but then only the women.

  17. squalldane
    Posted 2010.06.10 at 15:38 | Permalink

    You’ll have to fogive my blatent incorrect statement from above –

    “With Final Fantasy getting worse and worse, maybe Tales is on a correlated inverse slope?”

    – I was thinkong that Vesperia was the latest Tales game. I still have yet to play Hearts and Graces.

    The main point I was getting at was the sheer fact that Tales has a great battle system, amazing puzzles that make use of your noodly appendage, and a story that really takes you on an unforgettable ride (as did FFIX)

    Nearly every other Tales game that I played before this one had an impact on me like that of a mere bug. But, with this game being one of it’s latest, I am looking forward to the future of Namco Bandai.

  18. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2010.06.10 at 22:52 | Permalink

    I thought Yuri was a really great protagonist.

  19. Kirk Darakjy
    Posted 2010.09.05 at 15:47 | Permalink

    I’ve read over a number of your posts and I was curious about if you were interesting in swapping blog site links? I am usually wanting to switch links with blogs on the same content! I look forward to hearing back from you in the near future.