A lot of gamer discussion has lately been focused on the failure of the Japanese RPG and the ascent of the Western RPG as the genre of choice for interested console gamers over the last few years. Mostly it focuses on the Japanese taste for linear plot progression, cutesy graphics and incoherent narrative of “JRPGs”vs the more “realistic” graphics and open-ended gameplay of Western RPGS. The criticisms are mostly appropriate, but I think they’re missing a big point, one that I come back to time and again:
When Microsoft launched the Xbox, they permanently shifted the American gaming landscape towards western developers.
Although it ran head to head against the PS2 for most of its lifespan, the Xbox stealthily became a platform for PC game developers to try their hand at converting their PC styled games to consoles. Because they had no leverage (and indeed outright hostility) in Japan, Microsoft sought out and perhaps outright paid off software developers whose product was traditionally on home computers. Because those games were on home computers, they were also able to approach the RPG with a great deal more complexity than a console developer really could. You can even reach back to the early 80’s and watch the lineage of Western RPGs and JRPGs branch out from the same root, as Ultima-styled computer games gave rise to ever more complex and open games while staying true to their board game roots (Bioware, Interplay) and Ultima-styled console games maintained their simple world map and focused more on narrative (Square, Enix). One can argue it is a cultural difference, but it could well have been one of circumstance: Video game consoles had limits on graphics and memory that resulted in games that had to be epic through text and sprites.
Once PC developers really shifted to console development, they found ways of bringing their now complex RPG systems to consoles without completely losing them. Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic even bragged of including dice roles in its play mechanics while presenting an incredibly cinematic experience. So now the western gamer has a choice: Big, graphically advanced cinematic RPG experiences made palatable to them by being on a console or the poorly translated and graphically unimpressive (save the cut-scene of course) JRPG that up until now was their only option.
It’s a shame that Japanese developers seem to consistently misinterpret the advances in Western game development in trying to come up with their own response to the popularity of games made by Western developers. In the case of Final Fantasy 13, they took the linear progression of the Call of Duty games but forgot to provide a sense of openness and spectacle those games also provide. If they are continue providing content to the world at large, and not just the relatively small Japanese market, they are going to have to look a lot more closely and let go of many of the traditions they now hold- traditions that developed out of necessity but are now held to as sound game design despite their obsolescence.
Update: While sleeping on this it occurred to me that Demon’s Souls is a great and successful example of combining the complexity of old school PC RPGs with an interface and gameplay design that fits perfectly on consoles.