Making gamers happy isn’t easy: We like to complain a lot. Pleasing us is harder than ever because of the sheer volume of choices we have, not to mention the widening chasm between Japanese and Western-developed offerings. Everybody–gamers and developers alike–has their own idea about what constitutes a “Japanese” title versus a Western one, and grand generalizations abound as a result. If you’ve ever browsed through a game community, you’ve heard it all: “Western games are all grey-and-brown FPSs/JRPGs are linear trash starring emo boys who wear too many buckles,” etc.
Someone at Square-Enix heard the Internet’s cries, and the company resolved to make Final Fantasy XIII appeal to East and West alike. A noble endeavor. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for Square. Reviews for Final Fantasy XIII from professional magazines and websites were generally good, but fan consensus was mixed. True, not everybody is going to be happy with a game, especially a game in a franchise as distinguished as Final Fantasy. But most of the complaints fell on Final Fantasy XIII’s linear structure and menu-based battle system, traits rarely found in Western-developed RPGs.
Motomu Toriyama and Akihiko Maeda, two developers who worked on Final Fantasy XIII, admitted to Game Developer magazine that Square-Enix was concerned about whether Western audiences would enjoy the game. Focus groups were hastily thrown together, but nothing was ultimately done with the subsequent feedback even though Square wondered if JRPGs still have a place in the Western world.
Square-Enix had the right idea by trying to make a game that would find a home amongst English-speakers and the Japanese alike. However, it didn’t push the idea far enough by considering, “Hey, maybe the problem is us. Maybe Final Fantasy XIII isn’t everything that it can be.”
The west’s growing influence in game development isn’t the problem. Scorn towards the JRPG franchise isn’t the problem (the genre had a much smaller audience in the ’80s and ’90s, and it survived). Cultural differences aren’t the problem. The problem is that people don’t play RPGs to be kept on a set path, and they don’t play any kind of game to endure a 20-hour tutorial.
Contrary to Internet Lore, JRPGs are not universally reviled. Demon’s Souls, developed by Namco-Bandai, earned scores in the high 80s and 90s. Nintendo pushed Dragon Quest IX for the Nintendo DS, and players responded favorably. In fact, the latter revels in its JRPG tropes with its menu-based battle system, heavy emphasis on dungeon exploration, and goofy monster designs by famous manga-ka Akira Toriyama. The difference between Dragon Quest IX and Final Fantasy XIII is that Dragon Quest doesn’t present itself as the Messiah of JRPGs with over-produced graphics and a confused attempt at an epic story. It merely hands the player a sword and says, “This is all you really need. You’re here to play, right? Go have fun.”
If developers over-analyze Western players versus Japanese players, they’ll only come up with a tangled mess of half-truths. It’s effort best spent on developing the game at hand–and, if necessary, self-flagellation. A game with the Final Fantasy logo stamped on it isn’t magically granted the mechanics that make for a pleasurable adventure.