The Past and Future of RPGs
It's 1997. You're playing your favorite JRPG on your Super Nintendo or perhaps your Sega Genesis. You love the intricate plot and well-developed characters. You enjoy the turn-based battle system. Or perhaps you didn't have a console in 1994, instead you have a computer. You are instead playing your favorite WRPG, you love how much freedom you have to explore. You love how open-ended the gameplay is. You love how the character you are playing as is more of an extension of yourself than a written character. You also have fun with the real-time battle system. In 1994 the RPG genre, and the extent video games as a whole, were split between console gaming and PC gaming. Most games were made for one or the other, not for both as is often the case now. And even when they were made for the both they were virtually always made for one originally and just ported to other latter. And the port was rarely successful.
Another interesting split with RPGs of that era, which were very different depending on whether it was made for console or PC, was that with relatively few exceptions the console games were designed in Japan and the PC games were designed in America and other western countries. Japanese RPGs are commonly known as JRPGs and Western RPGs as WRPGs. They used to be clearly divided between PC and consoles but started to blend in the 6th generation.
If you look at 3rd gen through 5th gen a RPG of any level of success was a JRPG on consoles and a WRPG on PC. PC had WRPGs like Ultima, Might & Magic, Diablo, Badlur's Gate, Elder Scrolls, and Lands of Lore. Consoles had JRPGs like Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, The Secret of Mana, Tales, Star Ocean, and Phantasy Star. Traditionally WRPGs focus on real-time combat, exploration, large open-worlds, freedom of player expression, a main character that is an extension of the player, and placing the player in a story that they can interact with. Traditionally JRPGs focus on turn-based combat, detailed narratives, more linear gameplay, a well-developed main character that has motivations separate from the player, and telling the player a story. There would sometimes be exceptions to these traits, even back then. For example the JRPG Secret of Mana had a real-time battle system.
Then the 6th Gen comes along. The four biggest consoles of this gen were Playstation 2, Xbox, Gamecube, and Dreamcast. On the Playstation 2, Gamecube, and Dreamcast it's pretty much business as usual The Gamecube and Dreamcast don't have any commercially successful WRPGs, if any at all. The Playstation 2 had a mildly successful port of the PC WRPG Deus Ex, though sales paled compared the PC original. If you look at the Xbox however you see a different story. The port of the WRPG The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was highly successful. There were also several WRPGs made for the Xbox, such as: Star Wars: Knights of The Old of The Republic, Fable, and Jade Empire. All three of which were very successful and later ported to the PC. The console also had other WRPGs for the system, and relatively few JRPGs. A lot of this most likely comes down to two factors. The Xbox was western made, unlike every other successful console released after the 2nd gen. The Xbox was also made in a way that made it easier for PC games to be ported to it and easier for developers used to PC architecture to develop games for it. In regards to the lower number of JRPGs the Xbox sold very poorly in Japan, making the system seem less desirable to Japanese developers. The Xbox was really just setting the groundwork for the generations to follow, where the once relatively separate PC and console games would be merged more than ever before.
In the 7th Gen we have an overall shift. In the 7th gen the division between PC and console gaming got a lot smaller. The amount of games that were released for both the PC, as well as either the Xbox 360, Playstation 4, or both was substantial. The other major console of the generation however, the Wii, was largely separated from the others, especially in teams of library, and to an extent the types of games that were released for it. The merging saw most big budget, and some small budget, WRPGs being released for both PC and consoles. However, the JRPGs remained primarily on the consoles. This generation saw the sales of the WRPG soar, and the JRPG sales plummet. The amount of units sold (in millions) for the more successful WRPGs are: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (7.76), The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (19.23), Mass Effect (3.58), Mass Effect 2 (4.94), Mass Effect 3 (5.44), Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (2.02), Dragon Age: Origins (4.74), Dragon Age II (2.57), Deus Ex: Human Revolution (3.34), Diablo III (8.54), Fallout 3 (9.87), and Fallout: New Vegas (8.35). The amount of units sold (in millions) for the more successful JRPGs are: Final Fantasy XIII (7.51), Final Fantasy XIII-2 (3.36), Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (1.34), Super Paper Mario (3.72), Star Ocean: The Last Hope (1.51), Blue Dragon (.92), Tales of Vesperia (.74), Tales of Graces f (.99), Tales of Xillia (1.22), Tales of Xillia 2 (.85), White Knight Chronicles (.94), and Ni No Kuni: Wrath of The White Witch (1.51). As you notice, the sales for the best-selling WRPGs are mostly extensively higher than those of the best-selling JRPGs. However there are some other JRPGs not included in that list, JRPGs that incorporate WRPG elements. There are the Souls games, made by FromSoftware. The Souls games released during the 7th gen were: Demon's Souls (1.87), Dark Souls (3.71), and Dark Souls II (2.22). Not the highest numbers, but higher than any JRPGs in the list that wasn't Final Fantasy or Super Paper Mario. A major difference is that despite being made in Japan, these games are really WRPGs in style. If you didn't know who made them, you'd swear they were WRPGs. In fact many people think they should be considered WRPGs despite being Japanese, because it's style is so completely WRPG. FromSoftware's previous RPGs, like Lost Kingdoms, were far more traditionally JRPG in style. But for these games FromSoftware decided to go completely with the WRPG style and found great financial success. There is also Xenoblade Chronicles (.91) which is much more of a traditional JRPG. The previous Xeno games were far more traditional JRPGs. This game made to major changes, both of which are elements from WRPGs. Xenoblade Chronicles added a completely open-word with a heavy focus on exploration and a real-time battle system. It should be noted there have been JRPGs with real-time battle systems before, but it is something traditionally more of a WRPG element. Every generation shows a greater amount of JRPGs with real-time battle systems, with Super Paper Mario, Star Ocean: The Last Hope, and the Tales games all having real-time battle systems. While these game did not have huge sales numbers, it had about as many sales as the last two Xeno games combined. By still keeping the core elements of JRPG (such as a strong narrative focus and aesthetics) it maintains what people love about JRPGs, while incorporating what people most prefer about WRPGs. Another game of note to look at is Dragon's Dogma (2.54). There are also other JRPGs that incorporate WRPG styles, such as Monster Hunter Tri (2.22) and Dragon's Dogma (2.54).
The current generation of video games, the 8th gen, sees a continuation of the trend of JRPGs incorporating WRPG elements. Dark Souls III (2.49), Bloodborne (2.68), and Xenoblade Chronicles X (.89) all continue this trend, generally outselling more traditional JRPGs like Star Ocean 5 (.40) and Tales of Zestiria (.44). There are, of course, still many high-selling WRPGs as well: Fallout 4 (13.44), Dragon Age: Inquisition (3.75), and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (6.50). A JRPG of note during this gen is Final Fantasy XV (5.36). Final Fantasy does what Xenoblade and others have done before, take the JRPG formula, and combine it with WRPG elements like an open-world, an emphasis on exploration, a bunch of side-quests, and a real-time battle system. The reason why this is a much bigger deal, in addition to the high sales numbers, is Final Fantasy has been considered the front-runner of JRPGs for decades. It is usually among the best selling of JRPGs and often sets industry trends, so this could easily open the floodgates for even more JRPG series to also adopt WRPG elements.
So this leaves the question, what's next? Well it looks like eventually JRPGs are going to be more and more like WRPGs. Which in turn might make them real competition to the WRPGs. Which might cause the WRPG to take on traits that people tend to prefer in JRPGs, like the story. Which would likely result in a back and forth of each genre incorporating the more popular aspects of the other. If that happens eventually JRPGs and WRPGs would meld into one cohesive RPG genre.