Modest Proposals
Has the Sun Finally Set on Easern RPGs?
Modest Proposals is a recurring chance for a rotating stable of Review to Be Named writers to sound off on pop culture at large, presenting ideas, theories, or observations about areas of pop culture that might not fit comfortably into our other running features. These ideas might not always be right. You might not always agree with them. Even the writer might consider them patently absurd. But this is Modest Proposals, and these are things worth thinking about.

I was reading an interesting article the other day on Kotaku that detailed what Eastern RPGs, or JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games), need to do to survive in the Videogame marketplace. Damned if I remember what that link was, but it was a cool feature on the powershift from East to West that's been going on in RPG land. Essentially, the writer stated that JRPGs need to adapt to the new strategies and features that Western developers have been incorporating in their RPGs recently.

And I couldn't disagree more. Japan, don't look to the Americas for innovation. You've always been ahead of us and you're doing just fine.

For those that are unaware, the RPG genre is divided into two sub-genres that aren't really defined. A JRPG, strictly speaking, is just an RPG that's made in Japan and not the Americas. However, there are certain themes and tropes found in JRPGs that are easily identifiable: a set, intricate storyline, an eager yet brash protagonist, a brooding and reluctant mentor, turn-based combat, gathering party members, set story progression, honor and death, airships, dungeons, and friendship overcoming all. And yes"”most JRPGs actually look like they were made in Japan, right down to using an anime graphical style. Expect everything in a JRPG to look like a huge-eyed miniature-sized girl. Everything.

It used to be that JRPGs defined the genre. Final Fantasy 7, the prototypical JRPG, was one of the first worldwide successes of an RPG in videogame history, and set the standard for what future RPGs should entail. Chrono Trigger, the Dragon Quest series, the Persona series, and Suikoden were other examples that set standards for Western RPG companies. If you wanted an RPG to sell, you'd follow the JRPG blueprint.

However, with technology and the increasing capability of videogaming, a very apparent shift in successful RPGs has occurred. Now, you have a unique Western hybrid set by developers like Bioware & Bethesda in which you the player create the story. Gone are the streamlined stories, gone are the set protagonists; YOU create the character and YOU create your own story in an open-world map you can explore in any order. The amount of choice given to players in Western RPGs is staggering, from huge, story-changing decisions to how much you want your character's eyebrows to furrow.

Games like Skyrim, Knights of the Old Republic, Bioshock, and the Mass Effect series, are creating a new standard for RPGs, which is reflected in their sales now consistently overtaking the sales of their JRPG brethren. Players want choices, character customization, open-world exploration, and other things that JRPGs don't really touch upon. You can bet Japan is feeling the pressure.

The Kotaku writer used Final Fantasy XIII-2 as a good example for what JRPGs should do going forward. The game followed all the guidelines of a JRPG, but tried implementing game mechanics frequently used in Western RPGs. There were dialogue choices for your main character, branching paths based on decisions made on important plot points, appearance customization and open world exploration. All of these were applauded on various review sites, but"¦

"¦what wasn't realized is that, by having Squareenix concentrate on implementing Western RPG techniques, the JRPG mechanics that defined their Final Fantasy games in the first place were left to waste. Gone were the grandiose storyline, the airships, the dungeons, and that annoying main character that you can't help but love by the end of the tale.

Not only that, but the implementations were surface-level at best, often having branching paths and dialogue choices lead immediately back to the same streamlined story. Squareenix even went as far as to incorporate Quick-time Events in what was their most apparent attempt to appease the Western fanbase. Essentially, Final Fantasy XIII-2 successfully alienated their former fanbase by giving the Western fanbase shoddier versions of Western mechanics. And it showed in sales, with the game selling almost 1 million copies less than Final Fantasy XIII.

Maybe what's needed instead of Eastern amalgamation to Western standards is for game retailers to make a clearer division in the RPG subgenres, because Japan clearly plays its best when it sticks to its blueprint. Divide "RPG" into "JRPG" & "WRPG", because the differences are enough now that delving into 1 fanbase will alienate the other.

Sure, maybe JRPGs won't sell as well worldwide as the now Western RPG kings do, but sales in Japan for JRPGs are doing just fine. And if this year's E3 is any indicator, there are plenty of JRPGs coming that stick to the formula and will certainly make a splash.

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