To clear up any potential confusion, this particular piece was concocted as a response to a reader contributed article on the Metro website which claimed that the JRPG genre was effectively dead, and that Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy XV was its only hope for survival. Angered by this, and yet partially supporting this man’s claims, I promptly threw this article together and sent it in, the website never used it. However, with little in the way of context, I still present to you, the death agony of creativity…
I, like the reader this article was originally addressed to, fell in love with what is now known as the JRPG genre through the brilliance of Squaresoft’s epic Final Fantasy VII, and whilst I feel that it is by no means the defining point of the genre, it will, of course, always hold a special place in my heart as it will for numerous others. It arrived at a great time for gaming, at least from a business point of view, as the Sony Playstation had simultaneously attacked the hard-core gamers hunched over in front of their televisions, and yet somehow made the whole thing look appealing to the cool kids who had previously dismissed the medium out of hand as something for the geeks to enjoy. Virgin markets appeared and quite frankly, business was booming. Seemingly out of the blue, Final Fantasy VII arrived upon shelves everywhere with stunning cinematic sequences and one of Nobuo Uematsu’s finest scores to date, to shift an unbelievable amount of copies for a game, not just for one from the traditionally niche market of the RPG. Despite the game being surpassed both technically and artistically since, it has, however, remained the peak of the genre from a business perspective.
Since that high point, in terms of sales, the series has been in decline, until the poor Final Fantasy XIII appeared to peak at sales nearing 7 million worldwide, making it the second highest selling Final Fantasy title to date. Thankfully, it has not proven to be particularly popular with those who invested in it, as its subsequent sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2, only managed to shift less than half of those units. If that substantial drop is anything to go by, the third game in Lightning’s trilogy will surely be the colossal failure that it deserves to be. But why is it that this series, and indeed the genre as a whole is struggling to gain any traction at the moment?
Final Fantasy XIII was indicative of the decline of the quality of Square’s output post Final Fantasy VII, particularly from Final Fantasy X onwards, highlighting almost every factor in their creations that they consistently get horribly wrong. Leaving the quite dreadful combat system aside, Final Fantasy XIII was a game that relied far too much on brand loyalty – why else would anyone have ever wanted to finish it otherwise? Its extensive use of exceptionally pretty but entirely hollow feeling cut scenes leave most players struggling with the realisation that whilst they may have grown up somewhat since 1997, it would appear that Square have somehow managed to regress. The quality of the writing prevalent throughout the game could only appeal to those with the mental faculties of an immature four-year old, as gamers are subjected to watching the most childish creations in gaming history prance about on-screen as they pretend to talk about deep and meaningful things, like when there will be another JRPG that’s worth playing? This foolish brand loyalty that I mentioned earlier is indeed part of the problem facing the genre as a whole, otherwise this would probably be a question that we need not ask.
Most of the current crop of Square-Enix fans probably wouldn’t be able to tell you who Hironobu Sakaguchi is, or the genre might have already born a modern success story on the Xbox 360. When Microsoft recruited Sakaguchi’s Mistwalker to develop exclusive titles for their console, they were looking at trying to make some headway in the elusive Japanese market. In theory, they made an incredible acquisition, but unfortunately for Microsoft, the sales figures for the two games that the studio created for them fell far short of what they had expected. Between them, Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey only mustered around a pitiful 1.7 million sales, and this would ultimately lead to the rather foolish decision by Microsoft to end the relationship between the two companies. Based entirely on these sales figures, the decision was not only simple but correct, but as a gamer, I look primarily at the artistic strengths of a studio and their creations first.
Lost Odyssey in particular is not only one of the highlights from this current generation of consoles, but is perhaps truly one of the all-time greats. With an interesting and well written story, astoundingly good music (potentially Uematsu’s best work), a brilliant combat system, superb presentation, and fantastic graphics – there really is no reason to explain why the game performed so poorly. However, here’s a theory to attempt just that, and show why there has been, and will continue to be, an artistic drought in the video games industry.
The shifting attitudes of gamers is perhaps an explanation, focus has shifted predominantly towards online shooters such as Call of Duty, or the handful of other monotonous titles that get churned out year on year to be met by consumers eager to buy them. Infinity Ward has recently been quoted as saying what we already knew; the people who play COD are not hard-core gamers, they’re not even gamers at all. The bulk of the game buying public has been reduced to the form of mindless consumers swayed not by the quality of a product, or even by a studio’s proven track record, but by aggressive advertising campaigns and their own misguided brand loyalty. The video game industry has become a rather tumultuous place to earn a living too, with numerous studios – good ones, sadly – being forced to close under publisher pressure due to underwhelming monetary, as opposed to artistic, performance. Such high-profile victims include the legendary Bizarre Creations and emerging talent Black Rock, who both fell victim to launching their last games within a hectic release window dominated solely by Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. Ultimately, they sold too few copies and whilst they enjoy a healthy cult status among their fans, the respective publishers both inevitably drew the same conclusions and promptly closed the two developers down. When UGA’s Rez appeared upon the market in 2001, I rather foolishly believed that video games were moving forward, and that with Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s finest creation as their template, the gaming industry as a whole would further strive to attain the most coveted level of creation that man can achieve – art. Sadly, I was wrong.
When you look at the industry today, it bears remarkable similarities to the one that Sony were trying desperately to create prior to the launch of Final Fantasy VII, and whilst that game was lucky enough to attain the levels of commercial success that most games will strive for, the majority will duly fail. It is an industry that has declined in the same way as both music and films before it, tastes are no longer dictated by the buying public as such, but rather what is force-fed to them through the media. There is no longer any room for creativity among the limited range of AAA titles that dominate consoles, and this means that genres and studios will continue to be pushed to the wayside, steamrollered by the capitalist machine. In this day and age, a game devoid of mainstream pretensions will never achieve the levels of success that publishers seemingly demand of them, whilst in full knowledge of the fact that the chances of it happening are almost non-existent. To put it bluntly, the JRPG genre will never again taste the commercial success of Final Fantasy VII.
However, all hope is not lost, so whilst JRPGs are a niche market, and they always will be -publishers should take heed of the glorious artistic triumphs and make considerations for the games that they know only too well will not be able to compete commercially with the likes of Assassins Creed. With sensible budgeting and more focus towards digital distribution, both the JRPG genre and gaming in general may yet find themselves lifelines, and the works of interactive art that I have waited more than twelve years on may just find themselves a home. In summation, as I would imagine Frank Zappa might say, the JRPG isn’t dead, it just smells funny.
– James Paton @TheBlackPage81