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Vagrant Story and its lessons for uninspired JRPG game design

The genre labeled JRPG is one whose design is largely stuck in the 80's. In this part I discuss how a potential modern future of genre might have looked, by using Vagrant Story as an example. In the next part I'll discuss where JRPG's instead ended going


The JRPG genre has long been weighed down by archaic game design choices, all of which are brought on by nothing but nostalgia of its fan base and time worn traditions of the genre.

Ironically the most popular series in the genre, Dragon Quest, serves as the very embodiment of all the needless appendages still shamelessly hanging on the genre formula since it was set in stone back in the 80's. As such many JRPGs and the DQ series in particular, are almost indistinguishable from RPGs that came out decades ago. This is not a good thing, because it means that the genre has not moved forward and if it continues not doing so it will wither and be overtaken by other genres, or god forbid, Western style RPGs, which are full of problems of their own.

Tracing the roots:

I get the impression that the reason for this lethargy in the genre is mostly due to the almost unreal popularity and support it has been the recipient of in its home territory, Japan. In that regard I like to say that JRPGs are to Japan what shooters are to the west.

Shooters, specifically the FPS, today are the antithesis of evolution in the industry. The gameplay in any modern FPS can be traced almost unchanged back to Catacomb 3D. It seems since most developers in the west, due to their popularity, are preoccupied with making first person shooters or games of the shooter persuasion in general, those types of games have come to accept a technical graphical/presentational evolution in place of any gameplay specific evolution.

Similarly any old school, as some would lovingly call it, JRPG will resemble the original DQ to an almost shocking degree. Unlike the FPS, though, where the only gameplay element that separates one game from the other are nothing but superficial, most JRPGs allow themselves to be quite creative in filling out the blanks around the rigid RPG skeleton that was established by the old kings of the genre.

Cultural phenomenon:

Essentially the JRPG and the FPS are victims of their own popularity. I've observed their sizable fan base respond to evolutionary change with either apathy, as is often the case with JRPG fans, or with violent phobia, as is often the case with FPS fans. Focusing on the Japanese JRPG fans I think there is evidence of the fan base there being mostly senior fans who through interest purchase new installments in their favorite ancient franchise. So the DQs and Final Fantasies sell millions of copies to the established fans of old, but there are few new comers to spot among them.

In the last few years, I've noticed many Western gamers, and I imagine Japanese as well, specially having lost interest in JRPGs because they feel they are outdated. I myself, having played dozens upon dozens of RPGs in my time, have formulated the basics of how it would be best to change things for the better.

A call for evolution:

The first and most important archaic game mechanic that needs to be completely removed from all future RPGs is the random encounter. Random encounters were never a good idea, not even back in the 80s, and I am baffled at how this stain on the genre has survived this long intact.

As I see it the only relevant argument any game designer can put forth in defense of keeping this archaic game mechanic alive is that it is necessitated by another equally unwelcome, and long due for retirement, RPG mechanic, the grind. The grind, in conjunction with the random encounter, existed in 80s RPGs to artificially prolong gameplay by forcing players who could not defeat a purposefully overpowered boss to "train" their characters through grinding to level up in order to more easily defeat said boss.

A focus on the fun core:

Half of what makes a RPG fun is the adventuring part, to explore regions off the beaten path and generally let curiosity be one's lodestone in the quest for adventure.

In most JRPGs the greatest obstacle between a player and the true joy of exploration is having the experience inexplicably interrupted regularly for a pace-shattering enemy encounter. By throwing one random encounter after the next in the face of gamers when all they are trying to do is to satisfy their explorer whim of "I wonder what lies yonder", the game designers are actually punishing the player for giving in to their adventuring spirit.

It takes only so many random encounters before players grow tired of the whole debacle and abandon adventuring in favor of trying to reach that next town as fast as possible. In other words random encounters ruin the fun of adventuring, which is half the fun in RPGs.

It has already been done, and well:

Permit me to reference two games I hold in the highest regard in the RPG genre, both of whom were light years ahead of their contemporaries, when giving my answer to how to perfectly get rid of most archaic RPG mechanics, such as the random encounter and the grind. These two titles are Vagrant Story, made by a person I hold in the highest regard, Yasumi Matsuno, and Chrono Trigger for the Super Famicom which both were the result of the adventurous experimentations of the Square of old.

Both of those titles contained no random encounters and instead had enemies visibly present in the game world to avoid pointless encounters. Vagrant Story took its commitment to innovating the RPG genre one step further by also abandoning the need for the grind by making the level of a character a largely unimportant factor in its ability to vanquish a foe or boss.

If you build them, it'll be more fun:

Instead of the character's level Vagrant Story made the gaining and customization of weapons, armor and character abilities the focus of how to succeed in battle. In Vagrant Story there was no overworld map or towns either, as that game also discarded such needless traditions of the genre. In so doing there were no weapon shops from which to hypnotically purchase better weapons needed for the next iterative boss encounter. Rather Vagrant Story relied on the player to build their own weapons and armor by combining weapons and armor dropped by vanquished foes.

I found that method of strengthening oneself to be genius when compared to just making stronger weapons automatically available in the next town in other RPGs. For one, making your own weapons through the deep and engaging crafting system really required mental effort towards becoming stronger instead of just mindlessly grinding through random encounters, most of which can be completed by just choosing the "attack" command over and over again, or purchasing better equipment which is equally none engaging, unexciting and effortless.

The other part of the formula for success in battle was to customize the abilities a character gained as it progressed through the game. Without going into too much detail I will say that the abilities, physical as well as magical, in Vagrant Story were great and choosing the right combination for the encounter at hand was very strategic, which really added to the gameplay.

Adventuring means exploration:

To get back to adventuring, by removing random encounters one will affectively remove the main barrier dissuading gamers to go exploring the game world at a whim. It's then that developers have to turn their attention to making a more exciting looking and feeling game world. The traditional town/dungeon/overworld break up present in traditional RPGs, like all DQ games, rarely provide players with very exciting locals that would pique the adventurous spirit.

Because of the need to break their world so abruptly into these three aforementioned sections most traditional RPG's do not offer very varied or exciting locales. They also create the illusion of their worlds being very boxed-in and none dynamic, simply existing to connect one town to the other or to a dungeon.

Playing RPGs would be much more exciting and enjoyable if less effort was put into making the world unnecessarily large and more effort was put into the locales to make each area of the world unique, beautiful and adventurous, instead of just feeling like a repetitious backdrop for constant random encounters. For examples of how to create breathtaking locales that encourage one to go explore one can turn to ICO and Shadow of Colossus. For more RPG-like examples the recently released western RPG, Fallout 3, can be mentioned, which contains one big seamlessly connected world full of interesting places that beckons explorers to discover their many secrets.

Too many RPGs stoop to creating generic looking locales to artificially prolong the distance between each stop, usually in the form of a town, and the DQ series has long been guilty of doing this.

Unfortunately where Fallout 3 succeeds in creating a beautiful, exciting looking world it fails in providing rewards for all the exploring it invites. There is rarely a "pot of gold" at the end of the many symbolic rainbows in Fallout 3, so exploring ends up feeling unrewarding. Rewarding exploration with good useful treasures is equally important to the joys of RPG gameplay.

Up quality by reducing quantity:

Another two things I feel needs to be addressed in all future RPG's is emphasis on quality of enemy encounters in favor of their quantity, which directly relates to the length of the average RPG. As is to be expected the RPG genre has always thrown thousands upon thousands of enemy encounters into the face of their players before completion. As a result, the majority of these encounters offer nothing in terms of quality, enjoyment or challenge and do nothing but extend the playtime to unacceptable lengths.

Most RPG's, I've noticed, contain in them somewhere between 70-100 hours of raw gameplay for the average player. The vast majority of this time is spent pressing the same button to repeatedly attack and grind through yet another effortless, pointless encounter, a mad practice of pure genre loyal padding. What an inexcusably decadent waste of people’s time.

Vagrant Story did not do things this way, almost each one of the encounters in Vagrant Story was both engaging, challenging as well as meaningful. This was in large part because Vagrant Story did not have intentionally weak generic enemies to serve as artificial stumbling blocks for its player. As a result each encounter was a quality encounter because it needed the player to pay attention or risk dying, even when fighting a normal enemy.

Exactly because of this the gameplay time in Vagrant Story was shorter than the RPG standard by many tens of hours. The average gamer can complete Vagrant Story in 40 hours or less but that does not mean that its players felt they were short-changed because the quality of gameplay within was much higher than any 100 hour RPG.

Because there was no grind or weak pointless encounters the game felt devoid of the crippling repetition that brings down the quality of most RPGs. 100 hours is too much time to ask gamers to invest in games these days. People are busy and too many interesting games come out for one to spend 100 hours on just one, especially if one does not get more quality gameplay in exchange of the extra tens of hours put in. A length of 30-40 hours is much more appropriate for RPGs these days, because any game that is longer cannot possibly hope to keep things from becoming horribly repetitious.

Interruptions are archaic:

I'll mention a few last things before wrapping things up. In Vagrant Story, Fallout 3 and Final Fantasy XII the transition into an enemy encounter happens seamlessly. But in the DQ series and all other old school RPGs encounters result in a scene change into an encounter scenario. This transition, and the subsequent return after the encounter ends take up many precious seconds which are nothing but a waste of time. They might not seem like much, but even something that takes 5-10 seconds adds up when repeated hundreds of time during the life of a game.

Much ado about narrative:

Finally all that remains is to discuss the recent hubbub around how story is presented in most JRPGs. Let me get back to Vagrant Story once again for this discussion. That game told its story via real time rendered non-interactive cutscenes, but they were very short and sparse. Despite that, Vagrant Story contained an incredibly deep and complicated story, one on the same level as any Final Fantasy game. Typical of its creator, Yasumi Matsuno, Vagrant Story's story was fraught with political intrigue, back stabbing, behind the scene dealings and lastly meddling with the dark arts. An exquisite tale told not through extravagant or lengthy cutscenes such as older FF's did, but in short bite sized very subdued cutscenes.

This is an approach that Japanese RPG developers could employ to not lose Japanese gamers, who enjoy a good story, while at the same time appeal to impatient Westerners. In fact, Vagrant Story should be the gold standard for how to make an RPG for all JRPG developers. It did not have a grind, it did not have towns, its world was one giant connected city, it had a very deep plot told through real-time rendered short sequences, its combat system was simply amazing and instead of relying on leveling up to defeat tough monsters it relied on a very deep weapon customization system combined with property changing magics and lastly, it was no longer than it had to be, around 30-40 hours in length. About the only problem it had was that it was a complete commercial failure, but I like to think that we are responsible for that, not its makers.

Closing comments:

I genuinely feel that this change is needed for the future survival of the genre as many gamers today feel they cannot continue to enjoy RPGs as they are now. As of FFXII SquareEnix had demonstrated their commitment to shaking things up, but as soon as I got my hands on FFXIII it was made clear to me that contrary to my logic JRPG’s are heading in a very strange and counter intuitive direction in the future. This is a direction which I in the future wish to dedicate some time discussing the details of as well as express my bafflement with how it could have come about.

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