Some people believe that Japanese role-playing games are meant to be single-player experiences, enjoyed alone in the dim blue light of your living room during marathon binge sessions involving little to no contact with other human beings.
Other people believe that the first group of people are totally boring and that the single-player-only model is as obsolete as VHS tapes or paying for music. And also multi-player games make lots and lots of money.
"So who's right?" you might ask. "The hermits or the money-mongers?"
Good question. I don't know if there's an answer.
On one hand, if you ask the business executives behind gaming's biggest companies, single-player games are on the fast track to extinction. Square Enix Europe CEO Phil Rogers said as much just this week.
"The industry as a whole is realizing that all games, whether they be on console, PC or handheld, need to be social to survive," he told Gamasutra. "There are, of course, many different aspects to online play, but we see social and collaborative play as something that players of all types are increasingly interested in."
Square Enix is, of course, the publisher behind mammoth series Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy and one of the biggest players in the world of JRPGs. So when one of the company's top executives says that games can't survive without some sort of social play, it's worth a listen.
Not that Rogers' comments are much of a surprise to JRPG fans, who by now have probably noticed that the industry's most talented designers are focusing on social and mobile projects. The creator of Final Fantasy, who left Square Enix a while back, is now working on a mobile surfing game (that will likely have some sort of social aspect). Other big names that you may or may not have heard of are also working on games in the mobile and social sectors.
Even Dragon Quest, a series that for decades has been the Republican Party of JRPGs, is going all MMORPG for its next release, out this summer in Japan.
This is because social games make lots and lots of money. Loads. More money than your average game maker knows what to do with. (This is generally a good reason for a business to chase a trend.)
So if you're a fan of traditional JRPG experiences, this might all seem nothing short of terrifying. You might hear the word "social" and instantly shudder, your mind filled with dancing Zynga cows and endless pop-ups about sharing things on your news feed. You might envision a world where the only way to play a JRPG is to dish out $15/month for the privilege.
This kind of future is indeed worrying. Even with smaller developers like Falcom and Atlus and tri-Ace pumping out single-player JRPGs on a regular basis, we could see more and more talented designers heading to the social sector in droves.
But social games are making money for a reason. So let's not condemn them. Let's be more creative. Why are multiplayer games so appealing to so many people, even when they're saddled with repetitive, grindy gameplay ("go kill 20 slimes, please")? What is it about interactive entertainment that makes multi-player components so essential?
I think the answer is simple. We enjoy playing games with our friends because, as a general rule, our friends are more interesting than video game characters. This is because our friends are actual human beings. But it's also because video game characters tend to be boring.
Have you played Persona 3? It's a beast of a JRPG, a critically-acclaimed delight that I've been grinding through for the past few weeks. I love it to death. And I think it's just as social as any multiplayer title.
Here's the part where I sound like a mad man. Persona 3 is a social game because it lets you interact with people who feel real. Its cast of characters—genuine, oft-crazy personalities like the goofball Junpei and the sweaty Gourmet King—are Persona would never work as an MMORPG because its inhabitants would be more boring than the characters that have populated the series for years. In other words, Persona 3 is successful because its characters are just as, if not more interesting than human beings.
That takes a lot of skill to pull off, of course. And not all games can do it. In my review for Xenoblade, released last month for Wii, I pointed out that it felt like a single-player MMORPG. I also pointed out that its characters, with the exception of a rogueish Han Solo-type named Dunban, had the personality traits of your average MMORPG player: stuffy and dull. Xenoblade would be the perfect MMORPG because its strengths lie in its world and its environments, not in its characters.
Of course, "make interesting characters" isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to the debate over social gaming. There are other solutions. Why not try out an episodic JRPG, released on a regular schedule that almost feels like television, giving fans cliffhangers and story theories to discuss and debate on a weekly basis? Or what about a single-player JRPG that ships with a hefty multiplayer component, like Final Fantasy VIII's addictive Triple Triad card mini-game or Final Fantasy X's blitzball?
The possibilities here are limitless, and I hope JRPG developers decide to explore them before jumping ship for straight-up MMORPGs or Facebook clickfests. "Social" doesn't need to be a curse word.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.