12
Feb
12

What happened to the jRPG?

Final Fantasy VII World Map

Surveying the ruins of the jRPG genre has been a small hobby of mine over the last few years.  I’ve been revisiting much of the Final Fantasy series and following how it’s tried to fit in to the modern gaming landscape.  It’s fairly clear that even jRPG juggernauts have had difficulty doing that.  In any case, these games are anything but prolific compared to 10-15 years ago.  They occupied a space in the collective gaming consciousness that games like Modern Warfare occupy today: we couldn’t get enough of it.  It was clear though, then and now, that the genre has its flaws which Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 have sought to address.  Turn-based combat, random encounters, melodramatic plots, and linear gameplay are pointed to as reasons for the decline of the genre.  It’s also been pointed out that developing an HD jRPG of the same size and scale of those of previous generations would take a disproportionate amount of time and resources compared to other genres.

I’d like to suggest another contributing reason to why the market for jRPGs has atrophied: the value of the jRPG has declined as the internet has expanded.  It might be hard to believe, but there was once a time when we connected to the internet using “modems” and you couldn’t talk on the phone while you did it.  You might be able to download a few MP3s in an evening, and if you were lucky they really were the tracks that the internet said they were.   Around this time, gamers were impressed when a game was going to be released that was three or four discs long.  It was an incredible deal, you got enough music to fill four CDs, 50+ hours of gameplay, hours of movie quality cut scenes, and an entire world to live in while you waited for stuff to download.  I think of jRPGs as a more passive experience when compared to western RPGs or other games.  The player mostly sat back and took in the world, doing what they wanted when they wanted rather than being about the player expressing themselves in and impacting that world.  jRPG designers were determined to douse/smother you in content while the real world was still dependent on narrow-band or meat-pace content delivery systems.  Your options for entertainment were limited, expensive, and required you to be seated in front of a low-res screens.  jRPGs, for receptive audiences, thrived in a moment in time when people were hungry for more.

It didn’t matter if their anime-style plots were ridiculous and melodramatic, or that the game followed a strictly linear plot, or if the core gameplay was selecting menu options and taking turns hurting each other; jRPGs were a refuge from a world suffering from a dearth of content.   Eventually we got Youtube, Wikipedia, Google, Netflix, Facebook, and other sites along with 24/7 access to the internet that’s available on your phone, where you are mere moments away at any given time from being able to access libraries of movies and music.  The floodgates of commercial, and user-generated content were opened, and the advantage that the jRPG genre once held evaporated.  The cracks in the formula became more apparent.  Quantity over quality was far less attractive, and the things that made a jRPG fun to play quickly became things that made them annoying.  Why should I bother to sit down in front of a TV for 50 hours to access a game world’s content when I can just watch Youtube on my phone while simultaneously doing something else?  The ratio of time to quality entertainment was diminished compared to what we could find on the internet on the whole.

Obviously there are still games that people are willing to sink inordinate amounts of time into enjoying.  But these are games that put the player in a more active role or offer a deeper social element.  Shoveling heaps of content onto the player in the form of towns, movies, monsters, and music isn’t as easy to justify now when it must be in HD or be fully orchestrated.  The value of the genre has gone down, while the costs of producing these games has gone up.  They succeeded in a narrow-band world and there are still qualities of the genre that remain strong today, but they can’t hope to succeed the same way that they once did and so now they flounder.  They don’t need to be re-invented – developers and publishers need to figure out how to build one that fits in as part of someone’s life and not something that demands a great deal of undivided attention.  They’ve found moderate success on mobile platforms, and that should be a good indicator that there are yet good opportunities to push the genre forward.  But while there are even better opportunities to build Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Mass Effect I won’t hold my breath waiting for a HD remake of Final Fantasy VII.  The moment for jRPGs has passed unless developers find a clever way to re-interpret their past value.

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