Japan’s Big RPG Bubble

Japan’s Big RPG Bubble
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Earlier this week, Square Enix boss Yosuke Matsuda said some things that left a whole lot of RPG fans scratching their heads. “Due to having split [the development mindset] according to regions around the world, we weren’t able to see this clearly up until now, but fans of JRPGs are really spread around the world,” Matsuda told Nikkei. “For the new games we’ll be developing from this point on, while this may sound a bit extreme, we’ve been talking about making them as heavy JRPGs. I believe that way, we can better focus on our target, which will also bring better results.”

While those are nice words to hear from the guy who runs one of Japan’s most influential video game companies, they’re also rather baffling. Did it really take him this long to notice how many JRPG fans live in the United States and Europe? Do companies like Square Enix really not pay any attention to the critical and commercial success of games like Ni no Kuni or Fire Emblem? Do they actually not realise how many gamers grew up on their own classics, from Chrono Trigger to Xenogears to Final Fantasy Tactics? Why would they ever think that their games should be segmented from country to country?

This sort of parochialism is an alarming trend in Japanese game development. And it’s not even new — the “American gamers don’t get it” mentality has been around since Square released a game called Final Fantasy USA. (Called Mystic Quest in the U.S., it was simple and straightforward, designed primarily to introduce younger players to the genre. So of course they called it “Final Fantasy USA.”)

Big Japanese game publishers have long had a tendency to put most of their energy into the domestic audience; English localisation has at best been an afterthought, a secondary objective to be handled once the bulk of a development team has moved onto new things. Because of this mentality, many Japanese RPGs — a genre beloved by many outside of Japan — never actually make it to the west. With some exceptions — Atlus, XSEED, NIS America — Japanese companies tend to make domestic business priority #1. Everything else is just gravy.

It’s a shame. Even games announced in North America sometimes don’t leave Japan. Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Type-0, announced in Los Angeles at E3 2006, has yet to make it here in any form. Two years ago Sega promised that Phantasy Star Online 2 would head west in early 2013, but they have been frustratingly silent ever since.

This parochial attitude isn’t good for Japanese companies. It appears to be actively hurting them, and from 6,500 miles away, I can’t help but worry when I see comments like Matsuda’s. Um, yeah, Americans like JRPGs. We could’ve told you that 20 years ago. By making games that they think Americans will like rather than aiming to make their own games resonate with global audiences, Japanese companies are struggling.

Look at Konami, for example. By totally ignoring the large western audience that craves Koji Igarashi-style Castlevania games — you know, the ones that feel like Super Metroid — they managed to drive Igarashi to quit and do his own thing. Now he’s operating solo, and freed from the restraints of a big corporation, he doesn’t mind making games that appeal more to American audiences. Meanwhile, Konami’s most recent Castlevania game — made because they thought it was what Western gamers wanted — was a major dud.

And what about Capcom? For years they have mistreated Mega Man, and now everyone who loves the Blue Bomber is stoked for Mighty No. 9, the Kickstarter project put together by ex-Capcom designer Keiji Inafune that hopes to do what Capcom wouldn’t.

It’s a safe bet that Square Enix’s executives aren’t psyched that they passed up on the western release of Bravely Default, which Nintendo of America brought to the U.S. earlier this year. The game was commercially successful here, selling 200,000 copies in three weeks. I won’t pretend to be a financial analyst, but by all accounts that’s a solid number for a handheld JRPG. And bringing a game like that to North America helps build trust and respect among a loyal army of JRPG fans, which might be just as important as hard numbers.

As Japanese publishers and developers are struggling, chasing the social bubble in an attempt to reclaim their own market, they should all take a closer look at the global gaming landscape. Matsuda’s comments might be baffling, but they’re totally accurate. Japanese companies need to do a better job respecting and communicating with their players abroad. They need to realise that not all American gamers subside on a diet of bro-shooters and football games. There are a whole lot of JRPG fans outside of the bubble. The big guys just need to pay attention.

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


  • As much as I’d like to agree with this, I don’t think JRPG studios are ignorant of western markets. They’re just not willing to take the risk. I recall watching a Q&A thing from the makers of Tales of Graces. In response to someone asking why Tales games took so long to get localised, they responded that the reason was cost. While there was a global market, Japanese sales remain as their bread and butter (Tales is also much more Japanese oriented than say, FF).

    While there are JRPG hits today like Bravely Default, I don’t think every JRPG is capable of emulating that success. Nor are smaller distributors going to take the risk, particularly when the Japanese market is so secure for them.

  • IMHO… what I see is pretty much the same decay that’s been happening in western games that allows CoD cloning and whatnot to become rampant in the west – “pandering to the common denominator”

    It just seems like out of touch to us westerners because we’re outsiders looking in to a local market. Western devs also get away w/ pandering because we’re a bigger market. But it’s the same problem but different genre. Instead of focusing on what a “good JRPG” should be their focusing on which “JRPG would sell to the market”

    Unfortunately “good games” require risks and capital. Something established studios whether east or west are very adverse to in this new corporate culture.

  • I kind of feel like it’s just that Squeenix is late to the party and while there are still a number of companies that have the same problem, there are a lot more these days that recognise the Western audience has an interest in JRPGs as well. NISA has actually started out-ranking ATLUS as my JRPG localisation hero, mainly due to the number of times I see their name associated with games and because they don’t take years to release games for the European market.

    That being said, it’s not just a failure to recognise a market outside of Japan that’s been holding publishers back. It’s the fact that you’re localising for a vastly different culture, you have to fund English voice actors, text translation is a really big effort (given the distinct differences in lagnuage and alphabets) and getting your game rated in other countries can be quite expensive (Australia, I’m looking at you). I’m guessing that the recent economic climate of Japan hasn’t been a great help to motivate people to release games overseas either.

  • They just havnt evolved and streamlined the jrpg gameplay. Not much evolution has happened in yonks. Bravely default was a step in the right direction.

    Also stop writing cliche characters and work on pacing. Your game does not need to go for fourty hours if most of the story is boring coughff13cough

    • FF13 was created for what SE think of as Western fans. They made it linear because they were, and I am not joking, trying to imitate Call of Duty. Just cut scenes between corridors. SE had no idea what they were doing.

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