8 January 2011

Vagrant Story and its lessons for uninspired JRPG game design - by Kamruz M

      Posted 01/07/11 09:36:00 pm  


The JRPG genre has long been weighed down by archaic game design choices, all of which are brought on by nothing but nostalgia of its fan base and time worn traditions of the genre.

Ironically the most popular series in the genre, Dragon Quest, serves as the very embodiment of all the needless appendages still shamelessly hanging on the genre formula since it was set in stone back in the 80's. As such many JRPGs and the DQ series in particular, are almost indistinguishable from RPGs that came out decades ago. This is not a good thing, because it means that the genre has not moved forward and if it continues not doing so it will wither and be overtaken by other genres, or god forbid, Western style RPGs, which are full of problems of their own.

Tracing the roots:

I get the impression that the reason for this lethargy in the genre is mostly due to the almost unreal popularity and support it has been the recipient of in its home territory, Japan. In that regard I like to say that JRPGs are to Japan what shooters are to the west.

Shooters, specifically the FPS, today are the antithesis of evolution in the industry. The gameplay in any modern FPS can be traced almost unchanged back to Catacomb 3D. It seems since most developers in the west, due to their popularity, are preoccupied with making first person shooters or games of the shooter persuasion in general, those types of games have come to accept a technical graphical/presentational evolution in place of any gameplay specific evolution.

Similarly any old school, as some would lovingly call it, JRPG will resemble the original DQ to an almost shocking degree. Unlike the FPS, though, where the only gameplay element that separates one game from the other are nothing but superficial, most JRPGs allow themselves to be quite creative in filling out the blanks around the rigid RPG skeleton that was established by the old kings of the genre.

Cultural phenomenon:

Essentially the JRPG and the FPS are victims of their own popularity. I've observed their sizable fan base respond to evolutionary change with either apathy, as is often the case with JRPG fans, or with violent phobia, as is often the case with FPS fans. Focusing on the Japanese JRPG fans I think there is evidence of the fan base there being mostly senior fans who through interest purchase new installments in their favorite ancient franchise. So the DQs and Final Fantasies sell millions of copies to the established fans of old, but there are few new comers to spot among them.

In the last few years, I've noticed many Western gamers, and I imagine Japanese as well, specially having lost interest in JRPGs because they feel they are outdated. I myself, having played dozens upon dozens of RPGs in my time, have formulated the basics of how it would be best to change things for the better.

A call for evolution:

The first and most important archaic game mechanic that needs to be completely removed from all future RPGs is the random encounter. Random encounters were never a good idea, not even back in the 80s, and I am baffled at how this stain on the genre has survived this long intact.

As I see it the only relevant argument any game designer can put forth in defense of keeping this archaic game mechanic alive is that it is necessitated by another equally unwelcome, and long due for retirement, RPG mechanic, the grind. The grind, in conjunction with the random encounter, existed in 80s RPGs to artificially prolong gameplay by forcing players who could not defeat a purposefully overpowered boss to "train" their characters through grinding to level up in order to more easily defeat said boss.

A focus on the fun core:

Half of what makes a RPG fun is the adventuring part, to explore regions off the beaten path and generally let curiosity be one's lodestone in the quest for adventure.

In most JRPGs the greatest obstacle between a player and the true joy of exploration is having the experience inexplicably interrupted regularly for a pace-shattering enemy encounter. By throwing one random encounter after the next in the face of gamers when all they are trying to do is to satisfy their explorer whim of "I wonder what lies yonder", the game designers are actually punishing the player for giving in to their adventuring spirit.

It takes only so many random encounters before players grow tired of the whole debacle and abandon adventuring in favor of trying to reach that next town as fast as possible. In other words random encounters ruin the fun of adventuring, which is half the fun in RPGs.

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