Japan's Big RPG Bubble

Earlier this week, Square Enix boss Yosuke Matsuda said some things that left a whole lot of RPG fans scratching their heads.

"Due to having split [the development mindset] according to regions around the world, we weren't able to see this clearly up until now, but fans of JRPGs are really spread around the world," Matsuda told Nikkei. "For the new games we'll be developing from this point on, while this may sound a bit extreme, we've been talking about making them as heavy JRPGs. I believe that way, we can better focus on our target, which will also bring better results."

While those are nice words to hear from the guy who runs one of Japan's most influential video game companies, they're also rather baffling. Did it really take him this long to notice how many JRPG fans live in the United States and Europe? Do companies like Square Enix really not pay any attention to the critical and commercial success of games like Ni no Kuni or Fire Emblem? Do they actually not realize how many gamers grew up on their own classics, from Chrono Trigger to Xenogears to Final Fantasy Tactics? Why would they ever think that their games should be segmented from country to country?

This sort of parochialism is an alarming trend in Japanese game development. And it's not even new—the "American gamers don't get it" mentality has been around since Square released a game called Final Fantasy USA. (Called Mystic Quest in the U.S., it was simple and straightforward, designed primarily to introduce younger players to the genre. So of course they called it "Final Fantasy USA.")

Big Japanese game publishers have long had a tendency to put most of their energy into the domestic audience; English localization has at best been an afterthought, a secondary objective to be handled once the bulk of a development team has moved onto new things. Because of this mentality, many Japanese RPGs—a genre beloved by many outside of Japan—never actually make it to the west. With some exceptions—Atlus, XSEED, NIS America—Japanese companies tend to make domestic business priority #1. Everything else is just gravy.

It's a shame. Even games announced in North America sometimes don't leave Japan. Square Enix's Final Fantasy Type-0, announced in Los Angeles at E3 2006, has yet to make it here in any form. Two years ago Sega promised that Phantasy Star Online 2 would head west in early 2013, but they've been frustratingly silent ever since.

This parochial attitude isn't good for Japanese companies. It appears to be actively hurting them, and from 6,500 miles away, I can't help but worry when I see comments like Matsuda's. Um, yeah, Americans like JRPGs. We could've told you that 20 years ago. By making games that they think Americans will like rather than aiming to make their own games resonate with global audiences, Japanese companies are struggling.

Look at Konami, for example. By totally ignoring the large western audience that craves Koji Igarashi-style Castlevania games—you know, the ones that feel like Super Metroid—they managed to drive Igarashi to quit and do his own thing. Now he's operating solo, and freed from the restraints of a big corporation, he doesn't mind making games that appeal more to American audiences. Meanwhile, Konami's most recent Castlevania game—made because they thought it was what Western gamers wanted—was a major dud.

And what about Capcom? For years they've mistreated Mega Man, and now everyone who loves the Blue Bomber is stoked for Mighty No. 9, the Kickstarter project put together by ex-Capcom designer Keiji Inafune that hopes to do what Capcom wouldn't.

It's a safe bet that Square Enix's executives aren't psyched that they passed up on the western release of Bravely Default, which Nintendo of America brought to the U.S. earlier this year. The game was commercially successful here, selling 200,000 copies in three weeks. I won't pretend to be a financial analyst, but by all accounts that's a solid number for a handheld JRPG. And bringing a game like that to North America helps build trust and respect among a loyal army of JRPG fans, which might be just as important as hard numbers.

As Japanese publishers and developers are struggling, chasing the social bubble in an attempt to reclaim their own market, they should all take a closer look at the global gaming landscape. Matsuda's comments might be baffling, but they're totally accurate. Japanese companies need to do a better job respecting and communicating with their players abroad. They need to realize that not all American gamers subside on a diet of bro-shooters and football games. There are a whole lot of JRPG fans outside of the bubble. The big guys just need to pay attention.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET. You can reach Jason at jason@kotaku.com or on Twitter at @jasonschreier.