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 rpg” outburst, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?