The Final, Final Fantasy?
April 11, 2010
The Final, Final Fantasy?
By Jason Young
An introspective look on the past and present state of the Japanese RPG industry
The genre that's inspired millions of bad cosplayers all over the world has a problem. One that isn't so easily fixed. However, before we explore that, let's take a trip down memory lane. For you see the problem began long, long ago. During the early '90s and the '00s, RPGs were once known as the home of Japanese developers such as Square and Enix (pre-merger) where it was easy to sell a million of any given game based on publisher name alone. Square's Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII and Nintendo's Pokemon series provided endless hours of entertainment for gamers everywhere, presenting some of the best elements of cinema with intense unbridled gameplay. Who could forget about their first time walking in some tall grass, only to read the sign “a wild Pokemon appeared!” or the heart-wrenching climax of Final Fantasy VII? These games were a force to be reckoned with and titles such as Xenogears and Final Fantasy Tactics proved to be the highlight of the genre; and more importantly, no one cared that they were linear.
This wave of excellence continued all the way through the PlayStation 2 era with titles such as Namco Bandai's Xenosaga to more niche games such as Persona and Gust's Ar Tonelico and Alterier Iris series. Where Final Fantasy X and Star Ocean presented players with amazing graphics and innovative gameplay; many developers began to carve out niche holes for themselves by combining newer technology with classical turn-based style action. After all, with none of the other two systems, the Nintendo Gamecube and Microsoft Xbox, as viable platforms to sell their games on, many of these smaller developers found their home on the PS2 riding on the curtails of Final Fantasy. Then came the problem: the rise of the Western RPG developer and the HD era.
Beginning with BioWare's award-winning Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on the Xbox, people began to realize that they wanted more from their RPGs. Exploration, multiple dialogue trees and action-style gameplay began to replace the old stylish conventions of turn-based, linear storytelling that became a trite characteristic of Japanese RPGs. The ripple effect was felt in the overall sales of JRPGs to decrease as games no longer sold millions of copies just because they were published by Square or Namco. “Most Western RPGs, they just dump you in a big open world, and let you do whatever you like... [It] becomes very difficult to tell a compelling story when you're given that much freedom," said Final Fantasy XIII producer Motomu Toriyama during an interview with Xbox World 360.
Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic
While Toriyama-san may be correct, to an extent, it's not impossible to tell compelling linear based narratives with a degree exploration. Something that Final Fantasy XIII lacks. BioWare does it with games such as Dragon Age: Origins and the Mass Effect series, and to a lesser extent even Final Fantasy XII did. In fact, some gamers may argue that it's actually more compelling when you're given a certain degree of freedom.
I'll be the first do admit that I love linear storytelling, after all I am a bishoujo gamer and the only thing that visual novels have are stories. That said, I honestly have to state that I found Mass Effect 2's narrative to be as intricate and personal as Final Fantasy XIII's. Choices that I consciously made in Mass Effect 1 continued to have repercussions in the game's sequel that I found to be amazing and character development was just as immersive as in XIII. Was the game linear? Hell yes. However, being able to explore dungeons and towns again in HD were enough to warrant a second playthrough. Final Fantasy XIII on the other hand, I don't see myself ever revisiting.
Although it's a great game with a compelling backstory, but where are my towns or my mini-games such as the Final Fantasy VII snowboarding game and Triple Triad? It was only after these little things were taken away that I realized that I missed them. If this was Square's attempt to 'move the genre forward' then I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry as these mini-games usually tend to be just as fun as the actual game itself. What developers need to do is find a balance. Innovate, but don't forget where your roots are. Keep your linear stories and art direction, but don't forget your charm. After all, many of us are still willing to put up with the silliness of a chocobo race.
Oh, FF mini-games, where art thou?
Truth be told however, the real victims are not the gamers, but the Japanese developers themselves. With ever declining sales and ballooning development costs due to hi-def, many companies are finding themselves in a strange predicament. Do they continue to develop for the PS3 and/or Xbox 360, where sales may never reach the same plateau as the PlayStation 2 or do they opt out to the Wii, where sales for hardcore-type gaming has been extremely lackluster? Case in point, Nippon Ichi's profit margin has gone down by 97.5%, yet they continue to develop for the PlayStation 3. Instead, a majority are opting to releasing their games on handhelds, such as Sega with Valkyria Chronicles 2, as many big budget games such as Lost Odyssey and Star Ocean: the Last Hope continue to underperform.
Is this a sign that the JRPG genre that I've come to love is a dieing breed? It's something that I've begun to ask myself time and time again as this generation continues to progress. Are the days of Japanese linear storytelling finally over?
Not so fast. In a recent twitter message to their club members in Japan, Square announced that Final Fantasy XIII has become the fastest selling game in the series to date in the West, despite the copious amounts of negative and mixed reviews about its linear progression. As one of the first prime candidates forJRPGs to sell more than a million copies domestically this generation, it's definitely a welcome sight. On the handheld front, Pokemon SoulSilver and HeartGold have continued to carry the torch for Nintendo as one of their best selling IPs, showing no signs of slowing down any time soon. While one-year old PS3 ports like Tales of Vesperia continue to outsell their 360 counterparts, helping to earn a decent profit margin after their original development costs. However, if that's the case then, why would Japanese developers create time exclusives in the first place?
The simple answer of course is money. For you see, without the help of Microsoft's development funds/exclusivity contract many of these games would not be available today. Through entering agreements with developers, not only are they able to push games out faster, but games like Final Fantasy XIII, Vesperia, and Lost Odyssey may have never come out which would have been a crying shame for everybody involved. They key to remember is that gaming, like everything else, is a business. As long as there is profit to be made with a target demographic for JRPGs in mind then the games will continue.