Siliconera Sounds Off: Are JRPGs Being Phased Off Consoles?

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Now that everything is in order (finally!) and we’ve gotten debuting Facebook out of the way, it’s time to get Siliconera Sounds Off up off the ground. Here’s the premise: We’re going to have someone from the development side talk to us — us being no more than 2 SE staff members (we’ll rotate) — about matters pertaining to niche games and the industry issues that surround them. We’ll cover everything from sales to localization to design and more.

 

Joining us for our debut — and because he’s such a nice guy, he’s going to be a regular — is Nick Doerr, Script Editor for NIS America. Some of you might know him from the comments.

 

The topic we chose for this week is, "Have Japanese RPGs been (unfairly) phased off consoles?" and was originally suggested by Nick. Douzo, Nick-san.

 

https://d3fd5j8wprxn3h.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/sso_nick.jpgNick: Arigatou, Ishaan-senpai (you’re probably older than me, and you’ve been doing this a while, so it seemed appropriate XD)!

 

The key word is "unfairly" when you ask if turn-based JRPGs have been phased off consoles. It’s impossible to deny they’ve become pretty slim pickings on the current generation of consoles, replaced by and large with more active, or more action-oriented, systems, but is that unfair? Let’s think of it in a couple of different ways.

 

The first way to think of it… is as an evolution of gaming. Turn-based battles, much like random encounters, are slowly being deemed "obsolete" and "archaic" gameplay mechanics. The truth in such claims is entirely subjective, and since this is an opinion piece, I’ll offer mine. That’s just nonsense. Turn-based battles can easily be tweaked into the most complex and strategic modes of combat available for RPGs, J or W. While starting to age visually, look at the Shin Megami Tensei titles, namely Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga, and Persona 3 & 4. All turn-based, all far more satisfying to conquer than any modern action-based RPG. It’s more in a game’s balance than the game’s mechanic itself. It’s a shame, but many turn-based games released lately on other platforms are simply too easy. That definitely makes the battle system boring, a chore, and disengaging. It also makes this reasoning against turn-based games unfair.

 

The second way to think of it… is from a marketing perspective. A bunch of new consoles have launched and gamers are growing intoxicated by large, flashy graphics and giant explosions (generalizing, but still). Turn-based RPGs are seen as more of a niche, even within RPG fandom, and they tend to have less pizzazz than most games. Why, then, risk placing such a title on these new consoles until a sizable RPG fanbase is obvious on one platform over another (or enough for a pleasant multiplat)? Everyone’s just waiting for enough RPGs to hit, but they’re mostly hesitant to release RPGs. Obviously, there’s a problem here, but it’ll get ironed out, I believe. These things usually get moving after Square Enix drops the Final Fantasy bomb. Worked for FFVII, worked for FFX, and it’ll probably work for FFXIII. But, strip away all the graphical prowess and pretty effects of FFXIII, and you’re left with little more than a battle system revolving around QTE’s. An action-oriented and vaguely timed system. This may set a trend against turn-based RPGs. Who knows. I think it’s unfair to let one game set the standard for an entire genre, and not quite fair that there’s some strange war of attrition between devs to release RPGs.

 

I think it’s an unfair cycle. Sure, I could get my fix on the DS or PSP, but there’s a limit to what can be implemented on those hardwares. Plus, I’m sick of staring at tiny screens with negligible resolutions. I’d love to see more turn-based JRPGs on current systems, but the industry and critics alike seem to be sweeping that mechanic aside as too old-fashioned. They’ll still come, but boy, expect the majority of them to be critically panned. Hooray, media influence.

 

https://d3fd5j8wprxn3h.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/sso_ishaan.jpgIshaan: Sorry to disappoint; we’re the same age. (In fact, you might be a year older?) And you’ve been on this side of the industry as long as I have, so I’m hardly your senpai! Besides, you’re the cool one that gets to localize games now. Anyhow, onto RPG talk.

 

I’d have to say we’re in agreement that console JRPGs haven’t impressed of late. Aside from a couple publishers, it seems like the remaining lot have their priorities wrong. Either they’re trying too hard to appeal to the West (and not doing a very good job of it) or they’re still coming to terms with the newer hardware, and are focused entirely on producing graphical masterpieces that make people "ooh" and "aah" with their looks but offer little in the way of freshness or satisfaction. The problem, as you said, is that smaller publishers tend to look to the bigger guys for inspiration and setting trends. Unfortunately, instead of looking at, say, Atlus (who are (a) efficient and (b) innovative), they’re still looking to Square Enix and Final Fantasy, which they’ll never be able to emulate effectively since they don’t have Square’s budget nor the luxury of a four-year development cycle.

 

I feel the reason Atlus RPGs are so popular among our niche is because they don’t treat the player like he’s never experienced a role-playing game before. They know their niche, they know what we’re used to and what it takes to impress us, and they capitalize on that knowledge while balancing out resources. I think most of us are pretty forgiving of JRPGs in general and appreciative even of smaller advancements / refinements in the genre, like Rune Factory’s combination of Harvest Moon and traditional dungeon crawler design. Unfortunately, most publishers seem to be stuck in a past era where the sheer novelty of the genre was what brought in the fans. I will readily admit that the media are partly at fault as well. Square are releasing Crystal Bearers this fall, and it looks like a game that’s trying to break free of the stereotypes that the majority of Square games are bound by. Yet, few sites aside from ours have paid any attention to it, all the while expressing intense excitement for FFXIII, which looks like more of the same from Kitase and Co.

 

https://d3fd5j8wprxn3h.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/sso_jenni.jpgJenni: I think I may be older than both of you. XD Anyways…

 

Both of you make very good and valid points that I totally agree with. Nick is absolutely right in that turn-based RPGs seem to be turning into a niche portion of the RPG genre, and companies tend to wait for a console to definite itself as the RPG system before really starting to develop games for it. If I stop and think about it, the only JRPGs for next gen systems I can think of are Eternal Sonata, Tales of Vesperia and the forthcoming Arc Rise Fantasia.

 

Ishaan also is absolutely correct when he says that developers and publishers are trying to appeal to the west. It seems like Mass Effect, Bioshock and Fallout 3 have made companies believe that that is the future of RPGs and quite possibly the only thing people are going to be wanting from console RPGs in the future. Even Square Enix has been attempting this, what with the two different versions of Nier and The Last Remnant. And, while Ishaan sees Crystal Bearers as possibly breaking free of stereotypes, I can’t helping thinking that it’s yet another Square Enix attempt to create a game that is geared towards the West. (I’m still excited about it, mind you, just a tad skeptical.)

 

Also, I’m not sure Square Enix and the almighty Final Fantasy XIII is going to be the force that determines the turn-based console this time around. For one thing, it’s taken Square Enix far to long to actually release it. Given how long it can actually take to make a quality turn-based RPG, the Xbox 720, PS4 and Wii 2 will likely be out by the time we finally start seeing a substantial flow of games. Second, like Nick said, FFXIII does look like it focuses on battles and QTEs, which isn’t really standard fare for turn-based RPGs. It’ll undoubtedly have a great and dramatic story, but it could end up creating a whole new path for turn-based JRPGS and RPGs in general.

 

I’m actually pleasantly surprised that the DS and PSP ended up becoming the JRPG systems for this generation of consoles and handhelds. While it does mean that the games may not reach their full potential due to hardware limitations, it’s an interesting shift. I think it says something about gamers in general, when the two portable consoles have become the go-to haven for RPGs. It shows that people want to be able to pick up and play RPGs anywhere they have time and perhaps also suggests that JRPG buyers are more interested in the story and core gameplay than fancy graphics.

 

Nick: There’s a lot to agree with in both your follow-ups. I forgot about the shift towards Westernization as Ishaan pointed out… have Japanese devs forgotten that the SaGa franchise, which always seemed to adopt a Western style of play, are practically panned universally in the West (personal preferences aside)? It might sound haughty, but in writing, one of the golden rules is to "write what you know." Why are devs trying to develop a style of game they can’t technically "know?" Dragon Quest seems to be just fine as-is, after all.

 

And as Jenni commented re: the PSP and DS… I can only hope that is exactly why people are gravitating towards handhelds. Some older 3D graphics (FFVII, for example) are extremely dated, but only early 3D games suffer that fate. PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube all have graphics that are fine, possibly forever.

 

Hmm… I really ought to plug NISA, huh? Even though there’s a dearth of turn-based JRPGs, NISA has been trickling them onto the PS3. Cross Edge, for example, uses a rather complicated turn-based system. NIS Japan also has Last Rebellion coming early next year, which is a throwback to more classic turn-based gameplay with modern tweaks. Atelier Rorona, due out in the Summer of 2010, while mostly focused on alchemy, has a basic turn-based system. Turn-based games exist, if they’re your cup of tea – you’ve just gotta look for them!

 

Ishaan: Right. When you think of westernization or localization, you think of Persona 4, where Atlus USA managed to preserve the personalities of the cast while making them relatable to western audiences. I think that’s as far as one needs to go when trying to gear a Japanese designed RPG to the West.

 

@Jenni: I agree, Crystal Bearers is definitely an attempt to appeal to the west. Keep in mind though; CB is produced by Akitoshi Kawazu (who also spearheaded the SaGa franchise), and like Nick said, those were closer to WRPGs in their open-ended nature. He seems to be their go-to man, when it comes to breaking the Square Enix mold.

 

I have to admit, I like the idea of more portable RPGs, too. It makes them easier to play and it gives me more incentive to actually play through them than having to sit in front of my TV for hours with a game that may or may not end up being worth it. Thankfully, when I look at portable games, I see that companies are more on the right track. Devil Survivor is fantastic, and both of Square’s Crystal Chronicles games are awesome fun. We’re even getting multiplayer RPGs on the DS, which is something not even the 360 has much of! Oh, and the fact that Luminous Arc 3 contains dating-sim elements and Fate/Extra looks like it’s drawing some inspiration from Persona 3 both make me very happy. Publishers are starting to experiment in this space.

 

So, here’s an interesting question: What do publishers need to do, to turn it around at this point in time? I have to admit Nick; NIS has had a lot of announcements of late. And as Jenni said, the short-term future of the Wii and Xbox are uncertain. Are people finally settling on the PS3 as the console for RPG development?

 

Nick: Oh, Ishaan, that’s such a loaded question to have aimed at me! =)

 

It’s difficult to say so objectively. I worked for a Sony-centric blog for a few years, and now I’m working with a company that deals predominantly with Sony. For what it’s worth, as far as console RPGs go, I think ultimately the PS3 will house not just the greatest number, but the widest variety of RPGs, just like in the past. I just find it silly to think otherwise, since Sony’s been the main console for these developers for the past dozen years. They have to know a large chunk of their fanbase are going to stick with that brand.

 

The only other dramatic shift in RPG console king…ness… was when Nintendo decided to keep cartridges for the N64 instead of keeping their deal with Sony and adding a CD drive (or Sony deciding to backstab them… whatever side of the fence you want to sit on). Developers wanted more space to play. Even in that regard, budget aside, it seems like the PS3 has the most space, as well. Logically speaking, it has all the ingredients to pull the most RPGs to it, but you can’t taste a cake by stuffing the ingredients in your mouth. You need to bake ’em and see what happens. We need to see the games. The proof is in the pudding. Anyone else hungry?

Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and wrote the book "The Legend of Zelda - A Complete Development History". He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.