Where have all the RPGs gone?

Excluding the leveling mechanics in mobile games and a small handful of indie games, it seems like JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games) haven’t been around as much. Final Fantasy seems to have fallen from favor, Dragon Quest is no where to be seen, and even Pokemon recently got usurped in Japan’s market. What’s the cause of this?

What is a JRPG?

The literal name “Japanese role-playing game” is kinda a misnomer. In many of them, plot suspense or character customization means that the role you play isn’t even that clear. Further, the fact that you play as a character isn’t really even the main draw of the game (there’s lots of games where you play as characters, after all). Because of this, I’m going to use a more pragmatic definition in this article: a JRPG is a game that primarily serves the aesthetics of exploration, progression, and narrative with a mechanical leaning towards quantifying character abilities using stats, often implementing a turn based combat system. This probably isn’t the tightest definition out there, but it’s a decent starting place. Specifying the “JRPG” subgenre is mostly an admission that including the other RPG experiences, such as Dungeons and Dragons or “roguelikes”, makes the analysis more difficult.

“The market isn’t interested in the genre anymore.”

I hear this argument less and less these days, but just a few years ago, people thought that the RPG was going out of style. All the complexity of the stats, and seeming lack of action when compared to other genres seemed to imply that the JRPG, kinda like the 2D Adventure genre, was going out of style. Maybe gamers were tired of imagining magic spells and swords and just wanted to get in there and hit/shoot things themselves.

While that’s a conceivable explanation for seeing fewer games of that genre, especially with the insane guess-what-the-market-will-want-in-two-years game publishers have to play, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Tabletop RPGs have actually been making a comeback since around the 2000s.

Tabletop RPGs such as D&D have been on the rise! If players were tossing aside the exploration and narrative aesthetics for action, this would not be the case. Besides, the growing “nerd culture” is making it a less and less hostile place to take these trips of fantasy than it was before.

“The amount of content required is too expensive.”

Many opinions on this matter seem to be along the lines of “the level of detail and volume of content required of that genre is too high to be sustainable”. This never really totally made sense to me. Even if we nuance the argument to be “the content is too expensive for the size/amount of interest from its audience”, all the best games have always stretched the developers and seen great attention to detail from its designers, even if they haven’t all done so in a resource intensive manner. To take an example from game art, the development of the cell shaded and pixel art styles of illustration have allowed for artists to clearly create the look they’re going for without having to throw more time into rendering graphical realism. Shouldn’t the same sorts of advances been possible in delivering on the feelings of exploring and adventuring as well?

What does game design say about this?

Adapting Day[9]’s 4 categories model for gameplay depth in CSGO and Multiplayer Game Design provides some interesting insights into this enigma. To summarize, you want 4 things in a well designed game: an Engine that moves players towards interacting, aspects of Strategy that have meaningful effects on the player’s performance in the game, skills that can be honed to improve on their Execution, and Content for the player to explore.

I would propose an additional hypothesis to this model: a game’s overall depth correlates more closely with the product of these categories rather than the sum. Each of these categories will affect the gains from the other categories. For example, rewarding a player based on the quality of their Execution makes it so some Strategic options become available as the player gains mastery of the game (aka “Advanced Strategies”). Further, one of the driving factors of the Engine might be unlocking a power-up (Content) that makes attaining the same results by Execution easier.

With this in mind, let’s look at how classic RPGs stack up in these categories by thinking about typical questions players may be asking themselves as they play.

Engine

  • What’s going to happen in the story next?
  • What’s in the treasure chest?
  • What does that new ability named “Inferno Storm” do?

Strategy

  • How do I set up my party to make sure I have enough healing and damage at the same time?
  • Who should equip with this gear?
  • Should I take down my foes by focusing on elemental bonus damage, buffs, or something else?
  • Which characters should I level up?

Execution

  • Should I use physical or magic attacks against this foe?
  • What element should I use against this foe?

Content

  • What does this new character do?
  • Who am I up against now?
  • What is the villain’s true plot?

I’ve noticed 2 interesting things about this profile:

  1. The engine that drives the player forward is essentially discovery of new content.
  2. Execution has far less interesting questions to be asking of the player.

In other words: RPGs tend to entertain their players primarily by having deep strategy and a wide variety of content, but can suffer from a lack of short-term tactical/executional gameplay and motivators outside of their content.

We can also see this in the two reservations brought up previously! If players aren’t interested enough to buy the game anymore, it’s an indication that the Engine needs more features than its content. Further, if the amount of content required to be produced is getting too expensive, it could be a side-effect of the exponential catch-up game an RPG might have to do to keep up with games that are more well balanced!

The Plot Twist

Like any good plot twist, I hope some of your speculations into this punch line were correct.

RPGs haven’t vanished! They’ve just been assimilated or evolved into other genres. In the same way pixel art was the highest definition of its time, many “classic” RPG mechanics were the best interaction design of their time.

Here’s a few solutions that have addressed some of these short comings that may have accidentally created a new genre or got players to think of games differently:

  • Mass Effect/Fallout/The Elder Scrolls/Dark Souls – Adding the execution elements of aiming and positioning your character(s) means that you don’t just have to have the best gear or builds to win.
  • The Tales Series – These games add a fighting game’s execution! Discovering the chain of moves that provides the most hit-stun for your opponent or lets you break out in time to dodge attacks helps you get the most out of your stats.
  • Crypt of the NecroDancer – All the execution of a rhythm game with the complex decision making of a a roguelike. I’m personally of the opinion that roguelike is a subgenre of RPG.
  • MMORPGs – A little bit of a give-away on this one, given the name, but these games are great at providing players more reasons to play, whether it be interacting with guildmates or dominating the Auction House. They often add execution elements such as positioning and cooldown management as well.

So while it may not seem like many new JRPGs are being released, really, the genre has just adapted to some of the problems that have been plaguing since its discovery.

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