Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
For those of you expecting this post to be up on Friday, I apologize. You’ll notice it’s a much longer post than usual, that it involves a lot more research, and that everything had to be stitched together much more carefully as a result. I wanted to take the extra time to make sure I had everything in order before putting it up for your perusal. I hope the extra care has paid off.
Chances are you’ve noticed that the vast majority of games I review for this blog are role-playing games, and usually Japanese role-playing games at that. I won’t hesitate to admit that my gaming tastes are a little lacking in variety, but a girl likes what she likes and I’m no different. After all, barring Mario Kart 64 and early Donkey Kong games, I got my gaming start with RPGs – Final Fantasy VIII to be exact, which I clandestinely played over at a friend’s house back in elementary school.
Because of this, I’ve always appreciated games with strong storylines and well-developed characters, games which invite you to take control of a small group of eccentric characters and save a vivid world, one turn-based battle at a time. I’ve always wanted to play games that allow me to sink hours and hours into gameplay, during which I constantly discover something new and work towards important goals. I once considered a game that ended in fewer than 80 hours to be substandard, and I still have to stop myself from thinking that way even today.
But the gaming world is continually changing, and the era of the single-player RPG seems to be dwindling away, replaced with first-person shooters, beat-‘em-up brawlers, and multiplayer extravaganzas. [In the words of Greg Zeschuck], co-founder of game developer BioWare, “the RPG in the context of the current world is – well, it’s not specifically irrelevant, but it’s becoming less relevant in and of itself.” This isn’t a particularly inflammatory statement, at least until one remembers that BioWare is responsible for games like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age. You know, some of the biggest brand-name Western RPGs past and present.
It seems that even the developers of RPGs believe that the RPG-proper is fading into obscurity, and they don’t seem much inclined to stop it. Why, then, is this happening? Is it a lack of interest on the part of consumers? Is it a shift in the market from quality products to quick cash-grabs? Is it a movement towards multiplayer experiences at the expense of single-player campaigns? These three issues are all responsible, but they’re also symptoms of a greater issue: gamer entitlement.
But first, we’ll look at the symptoms themselves. The main purpose of any business is to turn a profit by putting your product into the hands of consumers, and the easiest way to do this is to produce products that you know they like. In gaming, this translates to dozens of clones of the game-of-the-hour at the expense of other genres/titles. When Final Fantasy VII captured the attention of the gaming world, developers churned out games with J-RPG stylings; when Grand Theft Auto 4 garnered copious amounts of attention, violent sand-box games saw a resurgence; nowadays, the Call of Duties and Halos have led to the predominance of squad-based shooters.
Money is poured into these crowd-pleasers, and it no longer becomes financially feasible to take a risk on an out-of-fad title. RPGs fall squarely into that out-of-fad grey area right now, vividly shown by [Nintendo of America’s refusal] to release Xenoblade Chronicles, Pandora’s Tower, and The Last Story in the North American market. All three games are mature RPGs for the Wii, a rare breed in and of themselves on a console that has been marketed towards the casual gamer since its North American release. Despite a fan-movement titled Operation Rainfall which started a letter-writing campaign in favor of the games and which managed to make Xenoblade Chronicles the top-selling game on Amazon for a period of time (despite being unannounced and listed under an older, alternate title), Nintendo of America still refuses to localize the games. A European release has been announced, but American gamers will have to import or miss out.
Nintendo of America’s argument is that the games are not a good financial risk, as they cannot possibly sell enough copies on a console that’s better known for Wii Sports and Wii Fit than it is for its few mature titles (Resident Evil 4 comes to mind). It doesn’t matter that the fans have done everything in their power to prove them wrong; Nintendo believes that the numbers do not lie, and the numbers claim that RPG fans are on the decline. So it’s not the lack of fan interest that’s dooming RPGs – it’s the perceived lack thereof, instead.
I’ve just illustrated how lack-of-profit can damn a project from the get-go, but shouldn’t companies be focusing on higher quality projects rather than quick cash-grabs? Shouldn’t there be pride involved in the production of a product? Game developers will argue that quality games can’t be made without significant financial investment, and that if poorly-made, unoriginal, but quick-selling titles allow them to work on their diamond-in-the-rough projects, so be it. The issue is that RPGs can rarely be (successfully) made on the cheap. By their very nature they require copious amounts of dialogue, some of which must be voiced, and the expansive worlds that dominate the genre require a lot of technological power to build and run. All of this costs money. Furthermore, a foreign game requires all of that work to be doubled, as the game must be translated and localized for a different culture.
Ken Berry, director of publishing at game developer Xseed Games, recalled this experience in an [article on 1up.com]: “Some titles have a ton of text that would take too much manpower to translate, while another title may not be that bad text-wise but have over 15,000 lines of voice-overs spanning 170 different characters which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to dub in English. This is an actual past example.”
That explains the foreign games, then, but why are Western RPGs listing as well? It comes down to a simple math problem. “Space Marine Shooter A” can be produced in a third the time of “Teens Save the World RPG,” yet both games will market for the standard $60. Why would the game developer choose the RPG (and earn $60 per person) when he can make “Space Marine Shooter A” and “B” and “C” in the same amount of time (and earn $180)? This is obviously an over-simplification of a complicated market, but it demonstrates the underlying problem.
The final symptom is the focus developers are playing on the multiplayer experience over single-player campaigns. FPS and real-time strategy games benefit from this emphasis – it’s how they get their replay value and keep the audience’s attention beyond the first few hours. On the RPG side of things, massively multiplayer online RPGs have adopted this model as well, sacrificing a single, linear storyline for team-based quests and individual story events. There’s nothing wrong with this model, but it is killing off the quality single-player experiences I lauded so fully in my opening arguments. For those who enjoy the MMO model, by all means keep playing, but I find myself yearning for the end-goal that single-player games provide.
So what’s the culmination of all these symptoms? What’s causing game developers to focus on the dime and dollar aspect of gaming? It’s not simply corporate greed, the way most people seem to wish. Rather, it’s the greed of the players, as well – gamer entitlement. Perhaps this is the result of being a young industry, and perhaps it’s also due to the young age at which most people are introduced to video games, but gamers tend to feel that the corporations that produce their entertainment do so because those corporations owe the gamers. Many players feel that playing games is their absolute right, and that any corporation who does not satisfactorily deliver on that expectation is in grave violation of some unspoken law.
In this age of bittorrent and file sharing, a gamer does not have to pay for their games if they choose not to; they can steal and scam their way to free copies in seconds flat. If, however, a company dares to make stealing their product more difficult, gamers respond by [lambasting their product] and stealing more fervently, or at least promising to do so. The end result is the gaming community looking like a bunch of self-entitled children.
For another example of gamer entitlement, look to the [“Straight Male Gamer” post] on BioWare’s own forums. In it, an anonymous poster laments that that BioWare has “neglected their main demographic,” the straight male gamer, by including as many homosexual romance options as heterosexual ones in Dragon Age 2. To clarify, he is not complaining because the game contains nothing but homosexual romances, nor that there are more homosexual romances than heterosexual ones, but rather that the equality between the two is somehow offensive to his sensibilities. According to his argument, because straight males “dominate” the gaming market (a statistic that is challenged more and more each day), games should always be geared toward them and never aim to include any other influences/material/audiences.
BioWare politely told him to shove off. More specifically, they told him “the majority has no inherent ‘right’ to get more options than anyone else,” and reminded the original commenter that just because things have “always been this way” doesn’t mean they shouldn’t change. That one gamer allowed his sense of entitlement to ruin a perfectly good game for himself, just because he felt a little threatened by a scruffy mage putting the moves on him.
When gamers feel entitled, they steal, boycott, fake poor reviews, or in some other way deny developers their hard earned money while still enjoying that company’s product. They do this because they feel that it is their right as gamers. In fact, their rights as gamers are to pay for and enjoy games legally – they enter into a contract with developers just as much as the developers enter into contracts with them. The developer makes the game; the gamer enjoys it legally. Any variation in this, on the part of either side, constitutes a breach of contract. No matter how loudly gamers cry out that the developers and corporations have deserted them, they do not have the right to break their end of the bargain.
So is this immature behavior dooming gaming? Not yet, but it’s doing nothing for our reputation as an industry. And if our reputation as an industry suffers, we will never be able to grow out of the stereotype of “loners playing in their parents’ basement.” Furthermore, I’m not claiming that this gamer entitlement is dooming RPGs alone, but RPGs are becoming a niche genre in a market that is deeply affected by the aforementioned entitlement, and it will become increasingly difficult for them to survive when developers are forced to focus on the bottom line rather than on the experiences they’re producing.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that RPGs are going to disappear completely, as the big-name titles are going to be sticking around into perpetuity. MMOs will keep going strong. I doubt there’s anything that can stop the nostalgia-fueled juggernaut that is Final Fantasy, and other well-known series (Dragon Quest, Tales of…, Persona, Fire Emblem, etc.) will see new installments dotted on release calendars.
The games and developers that are going to suffer, however, are the ones without brand-name recognition, your indie companies and your quirky stand-alone titles. Lost Odyssey and Resonance of Fate are two RPGs that I stumbled upon by mere happenstance (and even these don’t really count as “indie” or “unrecognized,” as both had some form of marketing presence and came from established companies), but I enjoyed them both immensely. In fact, Resonance of Fate is the first game in which I’ve completed all optional content, forgoing sleep to do so. Sadly, I’d be willing to argue that, if one asked a typical gamer to name an exceptional RPG, neither of these two titles would be mentioned. They simply don’t have the presence to be recognized as they deserve, and it is games like these that are going to vanish from the market.
However, elements of the RPG have been absorbed into other genres of gameplay. Zeschuck illustrated it nicely [when he said], “we had the conversation about ‘what is an RPG,’ and it’s a blend. […] The genres are blending right now, you’re getting lots and lots of progression and RPG elements in shooters – online persistence and so on.” He’s specifically speaking of BioWare’s own action-RPG title Mass Effect 3, but this can be applied to the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Bioshock as well, games with defining narratives that drive the player and the action. I’ve played and enjoyed both the Assassin’s Creed and Bioshock games and loved them immensely ([for the most part]), so perhaps my gaming tastes are evolving along with the RPG.
Still, what can be done to stop the decline of the traditional RPG? Buy RPGs, simple as that. Avoid buying used (the proceeds go to store, not the game developer), but don’t feel obligated to buy it right out of the gate, either. Buy the games you like in order to send a message to the developers: make more of these, and I’ll give you more money. Participate in fan movements like Operation Rainfall. Even if Rainfall itself was unsuccessful, future messages might be heard by the right people at the right time.
And remember, this applies to other genres of games as well. Do you enjoy the FPSs that have dominated the market lately? Keep buying them, and they’ll keep making them. Are you more of an RTS fan? A competitive brawler? A connoisseur of MMOs or social gaming? Keep the money flowing, and they’ll keep the games coming. It’s easy to forget, but we gamers have to hold up our end of the bargain, too.