Opinion

Published on October 14th, 2016 | by Josh Smith

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A Final Fantasy: The Declining Appeal of JRPGs in the West

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

Dragon Quest I

Dragon Quest I (Known as Dragon Slayer in Japan)

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.

Widespread Success

chrono-trigger

Chrono Trigger, a JRPG considered by many critics to be one of the greatest games of all time.

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 Takeover

morrowind

Modern Western RPGs, such as Morrowind, tend to feature real-time combat instead of turn-based combat.

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

Mass Effect Decision

Mass Effect popularized story affecting decisions in gameplay, a mechanic now quite prevalent in AAA Western RPGs.

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.

Niche Market

Hyperdimension neptunia

The vast majority of JRPG releases localized in the west are niche, Anime inspired games, such as Hyperdimension Neptunia.

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.

Despite being praised for it's graphics technology and visual design, FFXIII's linear gameplay turned many away from the series.

Despite being praised for it’s graphics technology and visual design, FFXIII’s linear gameplay turned many away from the series.

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.


About the Author

Josh is a longtime gamer and game development student who will play anything you throw at him. When he's not producing music, programming, or skiing, he can usually be found playing Super Mario World with multiple liters of cola by his side.



  • Kara Ashbeck

    As an avid consumer of JRPGs, I can definitely say that there are a ton of people who just can’t get into the anime style. Yet, many of these same people love the Pokemon games and Pokemon Go, which is an interesting cognitive dissonance that I think would make for another interesting article if you’d like a more research-based idea.

    Moving onto the Pokemon point, I think that’s one of the few extremely popular JRPGs that has sustained the purity of the JRPGs from the past. Much like the ones you referenced. But I think there’s also a ton of games that have JRPG elements, even if the “pure” form might not be as represented in the AAA market. MMORPGs and MMOs in general have a ton of JRPG aspects (grinding, anime style, party-based, turn-based in some cases), as well as the Fire Emblem series. So even if the “pure” Final Fantasy form may not be as popular as it once was, the influence of JRPGs is clear even in our current games.

    I do agree with your point though that classic JRPG games are being seen as “niche”, but it might be more for the anime art style versus the gameplay itself. I’d be curious in a survey as to why the mass demographic of video gamers don’t play JRPGs. Thanks for the article, especially on a subject I have a vested interest in 🙂

  • Evan Maier-Zucchino

    Good article, fun read. I like the way you trace the history of JRPG’s and WRPG’s to give us a sense of context for your argument. It was well done and each point felt like it was important to building the argument. Obviously you didn’t have space to get into every point related to this subject but another thing to consider is that video games started out as a distinctly Japanese thing. Nintendo was already a fairly successful games company in Japan when they decided to broach the American market. Before then there was the great video game crash when Atari and other developers went defunct. So Japanese games in general were better because the developers had spent more time honing their craft, they were essentially starting a “race” a couple feet ahead. Now western developers have caught up and developed their own style which, since it stems from our cultural norms/thoughts, just tends to appeal to us more I think. Also, watch out for some typos. They don’t detract too much from the process of reading but better to check for them carefully. Overall though, good article, cool premise, and great use of pictures!

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