Do JRPGs Need To Be Social To Survive?

Some people believe that Japanese role-playing games are meant to be single-player experiences, enjoyed alone in the dim blue light of your living room during marathon binge sessions involving little to no contact with other human beings.

Other people believe that the first group of people are totally boring and that the single-player-only model is as obsolete as VHS tapes or paying for music. And also multiplayer games make lots and lots of money.

"So who's right?" you might ask. "The hermits or the money-mongers?"

Good question. I don't know if there's an answer.

On one hand, if you ask the business executives behind gaming's biggest companies, single-player games are on the fast track to extinction. Square Enix Europe CEO Phil Rogers said as much just this week.

"The industry as a whole is realising that all games, whether they be on console, PC or handheld, need to be social to survive," he told Gamasutra. "There are, of course, many different aspects to online play, but we see social and collaborative play as something that players of all types are increasingly interested in."

Square Enix is, of course, the publisher behind mammoth series Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy and one of the biggest players in the world of JRPGs. So when one of the company's top executives says that games can't survive without some sort of social play, it's worth a listen.

Not that Rogers' comments are much of a surprise to JRPG fans, who by now have probably noticed that the industry's most talented designers are focusing on social and mobile projects. The creator of Final Fantasy, who left Square Enix a while back, is now working on a mobile surfing game (that will likely have some sort of social aspect). Other big names that you may or may not have heard of are also working on games in the mobile and social sectors.

Even Dragon Quest, a series that for decades has been the Liberals of JRPGs, is going all MMORPG for its next release, out this winter in Japan.

This is because social games make lots and lots of money. Loads. More money than your average game maker knows what to do with. (This is generally a good reason for a business to chase a trend.)

So if you're a fan of traditional JRPG experiences, this might all seem nothing short of terrifying. You might hear the word "social" and instantly shudder, your mind filled with dancing Zynga cows and endless pop-ups about sharing things on your news feed. You might envision a world where the only way to play a JRPG is to dish out $US15/month for the privilege.

This kind of future is indeed worrying. Even with smaller developers like Falcom and Atlus and tri-Ace pumping out single-player JRPGs on a regular basis, we could see more and more talented designers heading to the social sector in droves.

But social games are making money for a reason. So let's not condemn them. Let's be more creative. Why are multiplayer games so appealing to so many people, even when they're saddled with repetitive, grindy gameplay ("go kill 20 slimes, please")? What is it about interactive entertainment that makes multiplayer components so essential?

I think the answer is simple. We enjoy playing games with our friends because, as a general rule, our friends are more interesting than video game characters. This is because our friends are actual human beings. But it's also because video game characters tend to be boring.

Have you played Persona 3? It's a beast of a JRPG, a critically-acclaimed delight that I've been grinding through for the past few weeks. I love it to death. And I think it's just as social as any multiplayer title.

Here's the part where I sound like a mad man. Persona 3 is a social game because it lets you interact with people who feel real. Its cast of characters — genuine, oft-crazy personalities like the goofball Junpei and the sweaty Gourmet King — are Persona would never work as an MMORPG because its inhabitants would be more boring than the characters that have populated the series for years. In other words, Persona 3 is successful because its characters are just as, if not more interesting than human beings.

That takes a lot of skill to pull off, of course. And not all games can do it. In my review for Xenoblade, released last month for Wii, I pointed out that it felt like a single-player MMORPG. I also pointed out that its characters, with the exception of a rogueish Han Solo-type named Dunbar, had the personality traits of your average MMORPG player: stuffy and dull. Xenoblade would be the perfect MMORPG because its strengths lie in its world and its environments, not in its characters.

Of course, "make interesting characters" isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to the debate over social gaming. There are other solutions. Why not try out an episodic JRPG, released on a regular schedule that almost feels like television, giving fans cliffhangers and story theories to discuss and debate on a weekly basis? Or what about a single-player JRPG that ships with a hefty multiplayer component, like Final Fantasy VIII's addictive Triple Triad card mini-game or Final Fantasy X's blitzball?

The possibilities here are limitless, and I hope JRPG developers decide to explore them before jumping ship for straight-up MMORPGs or Facebook clickfests. "Social" doesn't need to be a curse word.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.


Comments

    I like my single player rpgs. I wouldnt buy one that needs to be connected to play. Because its a story, not a party.

      This.

      And can we please stop all this nonsense about "THE DEATH OF JRPGS ZOMG"? I don't see anyone complaining that great Western RPGs like 'The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings' or 'Deus Ex: Human Revolution' are lacking "social" features. There will always be a market for these games, because there will always be people, like myself, who enjoy immersing themselves in a story that is completely separated from real life. Some of the older JRPG series have problems, but they are nothing to do with a lack of multiplayer mini-games.

    I think JRPG designers just have to stop catering for fan service. You get the stereotypical characters in every JRPG. The girl who is a 'childhood friend' who everyone knows the main character will fall for, the big guy who's stronger than you and is kind of a mentor, the child character, etc. That, plus their boring combat systems and gameplay design

    People are screaming for FF versus XIII so much and theyre not getting it. The main reason I believe people want it so much is because of the combat, the open world and because the graphics look freakin awesome.

      The reason most jrpgs are like that is because it works. I kind of disagree with your comment about versus though. Combat and open worlds people have. People want it because it's kind of like SEs troubled child dark and mysterious and people really want to see how it turns out, they want to see if SE can succeed with something completely new.

    First paragraph agreed! The rest... tl;dr.

    I play mmos and actually resent the idea that I need to work with others sometimes. I quite like being alone. so I end up not engaging with others and then quitting from boredom...

    No - I want to play single player RPGs and JRPGs. I don't care about the "social link" in games. I avoid all games on fb cos I find them irritating with their requirements. If I want social stuff I'll play an MMORPG - that's what they're for. But leave single player RPGs/JRPGs as they are. Persona 3 and Persona 4 are great games with pseudo social stuff since you're interacting with the characters in the game, which is part of the whole story of those games. That doesn't need to change.
    I think this whole social gaming thing is a bubble.....

    I like my JRPG's single playery. The social element comes in talking about it with other people, fan art etc not sharing it as it happens. Thats just forced and silly.

    Nothing good will come of this :\ JRPGs are perfectly fine without multiplayer.

    Yet, I have never found a multiplayer rpg that works, because levels, progression, loot, all these are designed to separate players, not unite them. And don't even get me started on MMO as a conduit for narrative and what that does to players...

    All the comments make my heart swell! I'm so glad people are sticking up for the single-player RPG experience; there are enough social games out there for people who are interested. But for others, playing an RPG is like reading and getting involved in a really good book or watching a good movie and then being able to discuss and share and fan over it with other people the experience has touched. Having the social aspect could break the immersion of the world/experience because you'd find yourself faced with things such as requiring a certain number of friends or gifted items or whatever to keep the game going!

    (also I wish there were more (non-rpg) games with offline multiplayer, I prefer having people around me when I play; not remotely!)

    Some of us don't want social media to invade EVERYTHING.

    JRPGs don't need to be social, they need to stop being terrible.
    Just look at the last few Final Fantasy games and you have your answer for why people don't buy them as often anymore, while a look at the Shin Megami Tensei series shows how well a JRPG can sell when it does it right.

    Take a look at FFXIV Online to see why it fails. If all JPRGs became this annoying social online internet thing I'd stop playing them immediately, it'd break up the story & if the internet was down then I couldn't play it

    If I'm ever going to play an RPG again I want to feel like I gained something when it's over. Modern RPGs deliver absolutely nothing and just waste hours of your life.

    Video game business logic makes my head hurt. Too many devs and publishers focus on recruiting new players and appealing to as many people as possible rather than maximising the quality of a title aimed at a specific audience. In real life it would be like opening a gay bar then focusing on how you can bring in as many hetero patrons as possible.
    Hollywood fell to this trap decades ago. Almost every big release from a major studio follows a checklist. Its why almost every movie has a romantic sub plot.

    No please. I prefer most of my RPGs single player. Skyrim is your ultimate example. Not remotely social, still did stupidly well. JRPGs just need to innovate, but not multiplayer innovate. I'm not a major JRPG hater in their current state. I didn't hate FFXIII as much as many others did.

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