In early 2010, gamers were anxiously awaiting the release the latest entry in one of gaming’s most iconic franchises. Final Fantasy XIII had been announced four years prior, and with hype levels at an all time high for the final release, it was impossible to think that anything could go wrong. Though the game was a massive financial success at launch, with mostly positive critical reception, a vast majority of gamers found this particular entry to be wanting. Gone was the open ended gameplay, replaced by a linear corridor crawl for almost the full length of the game. Many were left jaded, frustrated to see a classic Japanese role playing franchise lose much of what made the genre great in the first place. Over the next few years, leading into the present, the genre experienced a significant decline in popularity in the west. What happened to cause the JRPG genre, which I contend to be one the most influential and important genres in gaming history, to lose it’s appeal in the western world?
The Journey Begins
To start, we must take a brief look at the history of Japanese role-playing game elements. Though early games were influenced primarily by American releases, as well as visual novel formats, the genre solidified its roots with releases of Dragon Slayer (knownas Dragon Quest in the west) and Final Fantasy. These games popularized the turn based gameplay the genre is most known for, with character and skill development also playing a crucial role. Characters in these series embarked on epic quests, usually with other party members, and the storylines were usually lengthy and highly involved . Gameplay difficulty could change from remarkably easy to brutally hard, and the technique of “grinding” your characters to make the gameplay easier became well associated with the genre. It would be remiss of me to neglect to mention the fantastic artwork, world design, and musical scores of these games; three aspects of JRPG’s which have consistently improved with each new technological advancement in gaming. Though there are a few notable exceptions, most of the aforementioned elements can be found in any JRPG you pick up today.
Now let’s take a glance at the global impact these games made on the industry in their heyday. The first six entries in the Final Fantasy series were largely successful abroad, with the Dragon Slayer and Megami Tensei series finding a large audience in Japan. The release of Final Fantasy VII was a landmark moment in gaming, showcasing 3-D computer graphics on a scale that few had seen before. One of the more notable JRPG franchises is Pokémon, a portable game which found the widest audience out of any series in the genre. Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI are still regarded by gamers to be two of the greatest games ever made. Games in the JRPG genre were practically untouchable for many years, with each nearly every major release being praised by both critics and gamers alike. A new entry in the mainline Final Fantasy series promised a revolution for graphical tech, and it seemed impossible for the Pokémon craze to ever let up. While recent events have shown the last two factors are still in effect, JRPG’s as a whole are losing much of their audience in the west.
Western audiences seem to have a more defined taste in role-playing experiences than they did a decade ago. Then, western developed games such as Morrowind and Fable were performing equally as well as eastern games like Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts. Now it appears that more western gamers have a predisposition to play games developed in the west. Western RPG’s are more popular than ever now, and their reach has expanded to more casual audiences in recent years.The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim sold more than 20 million copies, and was one the biggest media releases of 2011. Entries in the Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Witcher franchises have also been major critical and financial successes. In comparison, the last “big” JRPG release was Final Fantasy XIII in 2010, which while still selling over 7 million copies, was the last game in the genre to achieve such high sales. It’s rare that we see a high profile JRPG release that sells well in the west anymore, and western RPG’s seem to be filling the void for most genre consumers.
Freedom of Choice
So why are more consumers playing western developed games instead of eastern ones? It could come down to a few factors. For starters, we have the broader appeal of many western RPG’s. As mentioned previously, games like Skyrim and Mass Effect have found great success in recent years. Skyrim features fantastic open-ended world design with a large focus on role-playing, while Mass Effect allows the player to alter the blockbuster narrative throughout gameplay. Open worlds and non-linear storylines are two elements that both of these products have in common, and there have been many more success with other games that include them. On the other hand, JRPG’s tend to have a more restrictive focus with their storylines, and while many still have feature open worlds, the explorative side content has become increasingly lacking (e.g. Final Fantasy XIII, Bravely Default, Pokemon X/Y). Some JRPG’s certainly still include vast amounts of content, but it’s become more of the norm to streamline gameplay within them. It seems pretty clear that the enhanced level of “player freedom” offered by multiple western RPG’s has drawn many audiences towards them.
Another potential factor is the overall stylings of modern JRPGs. JRPGs share many similar characteristics and tropes to other forms of Japanese media, and in recent years, anime particularly. Character dialogue can come across as absurd or bizarre, emotional over dramatization is a regular occurrence, and morality is often viewed much differently than in western cultures. In more recent years, the JRPG industry has seen also seen massive surge in releases that are directly inspired by anime (eg. Hyperdimension Neptunia, Atelier). JRPGs in this area are usually released frequently, and then localized en masse to western regions, leading to many bad translations and even more bizarre storylines. It’s also become somewhat “taboo” to enjoy Japanese media products such as anime and manga in western cultures, for a variety of reasons that I won’t go into greater detail on. JRPGs have become even more niche than they already were, and that has dramatically decreased the appeal of eastern RPGs to mainstream gamers in the west.
It’s become increasingly more difficult for eastern developers to make games that appeal to a global market. Localization issues, cultural differences, and slower turn-based game based gameplay are a few more factors that eastern developers must consider when aiming to market their game abroad. Square Enix is one of the few eastern developers that can still deliver technologically advanced gameplay and graphics with their mainline Final Fantasy releases. But, the long period between releases and streamlined gameplay have caused many to lose interest in that particular series. Atlus’s Persona series has received massive critical and public praise from gamers, but consistently fails to sell more than half a million North American copies per release. Many JRPGs still find critical success abroad, but it’s sad to see the genre’s fall from grace with mainstream, western gamers over the past few years. With anticipation increasing every day for the western releases of the next iterations in the Final Fantasy and Persona series, the west’s future with the Japanese role-playing genre hangs in the balance.