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Examination of the genre of JRPG and throughout analyze the reasons of its current declination.

Clordia Wang, Blogger

December 8, 2014

22 Min Read

“Everyone is making awful games. Japan is at least five years behind”, said Keiji Inafune, head of global research and development and global head of production at Capcom, “Japan is isolated in the gaming world. If something doesn't change, we're doomed.” The comment he made about current Japanese industry is startling, but also a sad truth. Back in 90s, the Japanese software market was worth 537 billion yen. But it slumped to 326 billion in 2014. The downfall could be illustrated through the examination of Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPGs), once a symbol of Japanese game industry’s major global success. Known for its heavy reliance on story-telling in fantasy setting and visual design, the game genre had its biggest success during this paradigm. The tremendous success of Final Fantasy VII (Squaresoft, 1997) laid worldwide attention on ‘RPGs made by the Japanese’. However, since the arrival of 6th generation consoles (PS3 and Xbox 360), there has been significant stagnation, if not declination of this genre. The Japanese RPG has become a subject of scorn for many Western critics for its failure to evolve -- slow, menu based combat, banal stories, over-reliance on narrative. Quite noticeably, there was drop in both quantity and quality, while the JRPG fan base has dissipated into much hyped Western RPGs such as Fall Out and Mass Effect. Google ‘is JRPG dying?’, you will be surprised by how often this kind of topic is brought up by nostalgic players and game critics nowadays. The current predicament of JRPG leaves complicated myths to be solved: what happened to JRPG? Why is it dying? To answer these questions, it is imperative to take a closer look at the genre itself in relation to game design philosophies in Japanese cultural context and investigate the current game culture. Ultimately, we should arrive at the conclusion that the limitation of the genre itself and Japanese game industry’s reluctance to adapt and innovate result in JRPGs being continuously marginalised.

The Magic of JRPG

    August 31st, 1997. Thousands of Americans lined up outside game retailers for a video game made by people across the Pacific ocean. Final Fantasy VII (FF7), one of the greatest Japanese role-playing games in the history was released on this day and broke the industry record in debut weekend. To date, over ten million people around the world own a copy of FF7. Aside from gigantic number of sales and numerous awards it received , the game had successfully gave the genre tremendous worldwide popularity. It was not until the release of FF7 that people began to take notice of ‘RPGs made by the Japanese’. Followed by the triumph of FF7, JRPGs have flourished through 20th century. Classics such as Chrono Cross, The Tales of series, Xenogears and Kingdom Heart were continuously produced and translated into English.  Since then, JRPG has achieved its worldwide popularity, also became one of the few Japanese products that had major influence overseas (besides Hello Kitty and Super Mario Bros).

Although deeply rooted in American computer RPGs of the 80s, JRPG has evolved to be a distinct counterpart of Western games. Western RPGs usually concentrate on open-ended gameplay, giving players much freedom to explore the game world and many options embedded in the mechanics, while Japanese RPGs concentrate on narratives, as Kalata (2008) points out “being more eager to tell a story than let the gamer play a role”. The artistic influence and historical role of Japanese video games has been analyzed by Ralph Kohler (2004). In his work, he argues that Japanese developers were the first ones to establish a sense of narrative within their own games, thus establishing a new envisioning of game design that has defined the whole medium since. The emphasis on story can be seemed as part of Japanese anime culture. In Anime Creativity, Ian Condry, a cultural anthropologist and professor at MIT, touches on  the concept of ‘creating the world’ and its role in the creation of anime, which sheds some light on its importance in video games. “The combination of characters (kyarakutaa), premises (settei), and world-settings (sekaikan) generally came prior to the writing of the story (Wood, 2008).As a result, most of JRPG lie in the category of fantasy genre, as this fantasy world creation allows the designer’s imagination and creativity to be maximized. With meticulous and detailed design, the fantasy world in JRPG usually has its own unique and integrated universe, with every element fitting with the game world and makes sense on its own terms. Contrary to the Western obsession with recreating the reality, JRPG usually deploys cartoon-like visual design to illustrate the fantasy world. In fact, in Playstation 2 era, Western games outperformed JRPG in terms of graphics and systems, nevertheless, JRPG has survived and retained its fan base, largely due to its carefully-crafted game world and impressive stories. JRPG does not try to attract their players through their rules and gameplays, but through the quality of the story itself. In other words, if the story of a particular JRPG is not good, then the game is pretty much ‘doomed’.


The JRPG formula: Teens save the world

As mentioned above, Japanese video games, as part of Japanese popular culture, should not examined alone as many of its conventions are tightly related to other popular media, such as manga and anime. “In Japan, many creators are inspired by comics and anime.” says Hirokazu Hamamura, president of Enterbrain - the company which publishes Japan's most popular video games magazine Famitsu (Cieslak, 2010). The general theme of those two medias, which target mainly at the Japanese young people, is about friendship, love and adventure. The protagonist are also young, usually high school students, so the young readers could project themselves better in the world created by the author through the avatar who resembles to them. From Dragon Balls to recent hit Attack on Titan, Japanese video games, deeply rooted in the popular culture, have deployed the same formula. Naive, ignorant and reckless at first, the protagonists will gradually ‘mature’ through a series of adventures. Along the way they will encounter and interact with other characters, generating complicated social bonds such as friendship, rivalry or mentorship, which in turn drive the narrative. Essentially, it’s about the story of ‘growing up’. As a result, having an older guy who is sophisticated enough to be a protagonist leaves little room to traditional character development, as players can hardly grasp the sense of ‘growing up’ and be attached to a character like this. This explains why Metal Gear Solid series achieved far more popularity overseas than its home soil. Since it is relatively easier to tell a story though a young protagonist, many JRPG adhere to this convention, gradually forming a rigid plot that tolerates few variations, that is -- a group of teens fight against the evil to save the world. Although JRPGs have different kinds of stories, the gist of their plots inevitably could be summarized as above. While there is no problem of this plot per se, the players demographics are ever-changing. The Japanese game makers simply overlooked an important fact that what worked before may no longer work today. Players are also growing up, there is bond to be a day that they will be getting tired of playing as teens. In fact, the generation which grew up in JRPG’s prime time in the 90s -- those who played FF7 when they were young, should have reached their 30s or 40s by now. Most of them should have their own families and business. It is difficult for them to still project themselves through a character who looks and acts like a high school student with the immense gap of recognition between them and the characters.

Therefore, we can deduce that the convention of JRPG itself is limiting its target audience to young people only, which is not enough to sustain the evolvement of this genre in the long run, as young players only represent a portion of the gamer community. While Western RPGs were exploring new elements to enrich their games, such as branching storylines and open world. JRPG is still strictly following the old-school “fight the evil and save the world” plot with absolute linearity. Therefore, it is just a matter of time when it would be considered as banal, inflexible and unoriginal genre. “Developers have mired the modern JRPG in unoriginality,” claims Brittany Vincent, contributor to RPGFan.com, “It’s harder to empathise with characters we’ve met a hundred times before – the shrieking, hyperactive schoolgirl and the quirky oddball. (Game Radar, 2010).” Recent JRPGs titles, Tales of Xillia, The Last Remnant, Star Ocean, Eternal Sonata – all conform to Vincent’s theory. The stories of JRPG, once used to be the brightest attribute of this genre, after years of repetition, simply don’t surprise the players anymore.


The ‘J’ in the RPG: Too much ‘Japanesness’

When the West makes a game like Skyrim, the game doesn't feel particularly "American" nor "British" nor "German" nor any other sub-culture of the West. The Witcher 2 doesn't feel "Polish". Yet games like Star Ocean or The Tales of Vesperia most certainly come across as "Japanese", and that's because the developers aren't thinking of a worldwide audience . JRPGs these days suffer from a lot of bad design choices in terms of what stuff will appeal to a worldwide market. They are alienating a worldwide audience in favor of a quick, reliable, local audience on their home soils. Ironically, JRPG was born highly hybridized of Western and Oriental cultures. like the first Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, which borrowed many elements from role playing tabletop games and sometimes mixed them with those from the steampunk and cyberpunk genres. This behavior started to change radically towards the mid-2000's, when American hardware developers and publishers started to be bigger than the Japanese ones (Sloan 2011, Russell 2012). Paradigms in game design and hierarchies of game quality had already started to change during the late 90's with the popularity of 3D engines, but they didn't start to gain influence until these dates. Even more noticeably, JRPGs had started to cater exclusively on East Asian audiences, and fewer games were being ported into the West (with the exception of those ‘big titles’). The narratives and mechanics of these games also changed: instead of evoking Western tropes and cultural activities, products like Catherine and Monster Hunter were more localized and catered to specific locales instead of general audiences.

    Gradually the Japanese gaming market has been identified as a clearly distinct space, where only specific games and genres can be found. Reasons for this differences can account to culture and artistic sensibilities. As mentioned above, JRPGs are more based on manga and anime aesthetics, evoking specific Japanese culture throughout the aesthetic of their playworld (Street 2012). Some games like Okami and Shemmune are clearly designed to simulate a cultural, historical and social space similar to post-war Japan. Those games assume players have premature knowledge of Japanese history, myths, aesthetics and sociology. These trends show that JRPGs have become artifacts with bigger cultural signification than other genres, as De Pablos pointed out, “they have established intertextual links with those cultural products that are already integrated within those specific spaces of discourse” (De Pablos). Consequently, JRPGs can only rely on its die-hard fans -- those who truly appreciate the “Japanese way” of game-making. If the Japanese developers want to expand their fan base, an utter change is necessary: rejecting traditional character archetypes and banal storylines. However, this will inevitably give rise to a series of new problems: can they still be called ‘JRPG’ then? Will the traditional fans ever accept the changes? This leads to our next issue.


Taking the ‘J’ out? The dilemma of present JRPGs

The 90’s witnessed drastic change in the game industry, when the sudden introduction of 3D engines into consoles expanded the possibilities for the creation of game genres or the improvement of existing ones. Cinematic and narrative techniques were started to be implemented in a wider variety of titles that hadn't had anything before, such as First Person Shooters like Half-Life, Resident Evil, and action-adventure games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. As such, the elements that had made JRPGs so prestigious were no longer exclusive to them. Newer genres that have become much more popular today, and their presence in the market has diminished considerably. While there still exist die-hard JRPGs fans, the genre is simply no longer dominating the market, definitely not like back in 1997 when FF7 was released.  Used-to-be JRPG fans have grown and found out this genre is no longer attractive to them, new gamers are being bombarded by monstrous triple-A games like Grand Theft Auto, Dragon Age and Assassin’s Creed.  The Japanese developers know they are losing the users, being outsourced and outperformed, what they can only do is sticking with their existing fan base. Fewer and fewer developers are willing to step outside the ‘comfort zone’, result in the stagnation of the genre.

Square Enix’s CEO Yoichi Wada pointed out the gist of the problem is the fear of change: “Internally and externally, I feel there’s an expectation for us to offer something new. I really think that the Final Fantasy team could create something completely different, but at the moment they’re strictly catering to a particular audience (Games Radar, 2010).” Square Enix, the lead role among JRPG developers, has attempted to come back with their ambitious Final Fantasy XIII series. The so-called ‘true next-gen JRPG’ was released on PS3 and Xbox 360 (it used to be loyal PS franchise, releasing on Xbox 360 is an indication of their eagerness to expand the user base) in 2010, ironically, it turned out to be ultimate fiasco. Sure, the visuals were stunning and battle system was superb, but the game was trying so hard to ‘dy-Japanesnize’ itself to be universally appealing that it got rid of all the elements that people were expecting for a good JRPG. Meanwhile, the developer did not know what would attract players outside its fanbase. Traditional JRPG fans criticized it as it was not like JRPG anymore, on the other hand, new users did not buy it just “because there are more Westernized faces in this game”. Ultimately, Square Enix has failed to retain traditional users and attract new users. As a result, the game was considered a huge drawback of FF series, and a sign of “the death of JRPG”.

The failure of FF13 has further diminished Japanese developer’s willingness to make changes. They have no choice but rely on those die-hard fans, which determines that it won’t be big sale. Consequently, the company could never make much revenue to compete with games like Skyrim and Dragon Age, which has sold millions copies. Therefore, today’s JRPGs are trapped in a vicious cycle. While the Japanese do not want to take risks, the West continues to evolve – how should JRPGs move forward?

    As this decade reaches it middle point, it seems that JRPGs have followed the same path that other game genres did, like graphic adventures and visual novels: they have started to experiment a decline in popularity, so they have become minority products or they never were able to cater to global markets in the first place, and thus remain local (Picard 2013). It would seem evident that some of the elements that characterize JRPGs relate to the gaming audience of Japan on a cultural level. Since these elements would need to be directed to the locale, they are embed from the start into semiotic codes and discourses that were already present in other forms of media. Companies specialized in these products are acting as a resistance against the hegemony of play from the moment that they not aim at a "universal" audience (De Pablos), but instead try to be "specific." Even though the games themselves may be culturally hybrid (since the genre itself borrows from game design philosophies of other cultures), it is the space on which they operate that charges them this specificity.

As game designers recognize the local appeal that these kind of games posses, their priorities will adapt to direct themselves specifically into these locales. An important consequence of this is that some games, genres and even play styles will be linked a priori to spaces and minority audiences. Their presence in the discourse of the industry will be, then, enclosed into specific parameters and expectations about the Japanese market. JRPG will be considered an inherent "Asian" artifact, and every element of their gameplay, from their mechanics to their playworld, will be charged with images and perceptions of "Japaneseness". It will be important to analyze how these games trade in images into Western audiences. It will also be important to remember that the gaming industry is still mostly composed of hybrid products that flow freely between cultural boundaries, even though some specific types like the JRPG may be getting stagnant and less "mobile." As long as there are still JRPG fans, we cannot say this genre is ‘dead’. However, it is certainly declining. Sadly, the Japanese developers are simply lacking resources and funding to do anything about it. Nevertheless, it will be significant to keep in mind that this genre has had an important historical presence in the medium, and because of that, its influence will still be felt in the industry over the next years.



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