The GTA V Of JRPGs?

I've been playing a lot of Threes lately—to the point where every time I close my eyes I just see numbers sliding together—and all I can think is that it'd make for the perfect JRPG mini-game.

Can't you picture it? You're roaming around the map, saving the world or whatever, when suddenly this sketchy dude in a wizard's robe comes up and challenges you to a game of sliding number tiles. If you hit 1,000 points, you get an elixir. 10,000 points for special armor. 20,000 points to unlock your character's best ability. It'd be the greatest RPG mini-game since Triple Triad. Really, all video games should come with a copy of Threes. Sure beats racing chocobos. (If you haven't played Threes yet, be warned that it will take over your spare time, because it is addictive and polished and perfect in every way.)

Anyway, today I've got a special treat for you guys. Welcome to Random Encounters, where we sometimes have mailbags and this is one of them. (If you'd like to send in questions for a future Q&A, e-mail me at jason@kotaku.com with the subject "Random Encounters.")

On to the questions:

After seeing GTA V bring in umpteen-bajillion dollars in its first 3 days, I got to wondering. What would it take for an RPG to open to those kind of numbers? I can't think of any recently released RPG to hit anywhere even close to that. I don't think Mass Effect 3 has made that much money to date (total), and certainly not within its first three days (before everyone found out about the shit ending). Not even Skyrim did that well (again, compared to GTA V). Is there a game release I'm forgetting? Or is it even possible for an RPG, even an extremely hyped one, to pull in that kind of opening weekend cash? —Scott C

Drugs? Hookers? The thing about massive popularity is that it's almost impossible to emulate. Gaming trends always come in cycles. Back in the early 2000s, after Grand Theft Auto III became a smash hit and every game publisher in the world rushed to release their own gritty open-world game, the video game industry learned that not every open-world game will make money. Then came the failed rush to clone World of Warcraft, the ugly Facebook trend started by FarmVille, and now today's big fad is free-to-play, which will inevitably be replaced by whatever next Big Thing comes along soon.

Point is, nobody really knows how to make something big. Nintendo, a multi-billion-dollar corporation staffed by some of the smartest people on the planet, couldn't figure out how to replicate the Wii's success. Even Call of Duty, one of the biggest franchises in video game history, is on the downswing. People knew that GTA V would do well, but I suspect even Rockstar didn't expect it to make $1 billion in three days. To paraphrase Socrates: Nobody knows shit.

So let me answer your question... to find GTA-level success, an RPG would either have to A) somehow catch lightning in a bottle, like Minecraft or Flappy Bird, appealing beyond the hardcore gamer crowd and morphing into a pop culture sensation; or B) allow you to steal cars and murder prostitutes. Nobody knows how to pull off A, so maybe some RPG developer should try for B. Really, though, wouldn't you want to see a gritty, dark open-world RPG that crosses turn-based combat with a city like Los Santos? GTA: Midgar. Let's make it happen.

Hey Jason,

First I'd like to say I'm a big fan of your column. I like that in this age, when 99% of the western gaming press likes to bash JRPGs, there is a writer who stands up and says, "hey, assholes! I like those games!" My question was about this picture I see on the web quite often. Someone took a photo of Skyrim, photoshopped it so the dragon looked like Charizard, and the hero looked like a Pokémon trainer. On the picture is a caption which reads, "I hope to one day play Pokémon with graphics like Skyrim." Whenever I see that photo, I'm just baffled. Why would we want our Pokémon to become these weird photorealistic creatures? Pokémon should be colorful and cartoony! What do you think about this whole idea? Do you think there would be any benefit to a hyper-realistic Pokégame? Or, do you like the artistic direction they're going about now? —Kevin S.

We could never have a realistic Pokémon game for two reasons:

1) Nintendo would never risk tarnishing a kid-friendly IP by exposing it to the cruelty of reality.

2) Pokémon's cartoony graphics mask the harsh truth that the world of Pokémon is really fucked up. If Pokémon were more realistic, we'd have to stop closing our eyes to the fact that this is a world where animal trainers spend their time standing around on roads and waiting to have cockfights with other animal trainers. We'd have to accept the fact that humans regularly force Pokémon to harm one another out of some twisted hunger for competition. Remember, everyone in Pokémon is so mentally deficient that even the professor—a professor!—has to ask what gender you are. He can't tell. Nothing in the world of Pokémon makes sense. Nobody talks about anything but Pokémon. This only works because the graphics are cute.

Do you think some JRPGs would be better off getting rid of grinding and leveling-up all together? Personally, I don't think experience and grinding are prerequisites for being a JRPG, and I think the story, exploration, and combat systems are what matter. Imagine a classic JRPG like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy, but with the leveling stripped out and the game rebalanced for fixed stats, where experiencing those games hinged on how you used your skills and items. —Adam

A few games have played around with this idea. Chrono Cross, for example, built character progression around predetermined points and boss battles. Most recently, Paper Mario: Sticker Star scrapped experience and levels in favor of one-time-use sticker attacks, and as you progressed, you'd get more and more attack items of varying power. Battles themselves gave you money and stickers.

Problem with systems like this is that they make battles wind up feeling inconsequential. What's the point in fighting fodder enemies if you're not even going to get any levels out of it? By the second half of Sticker Star, I found myself fleeing and dodging battles at every opportunity, running Mario around the map as if he were Luigi. The battles themselves weren't very fun, because they felt like they meant nothing. I felt like I was wasting my time.

JRPGs are built around the concept of a character or party of characters starting off weak and working their way up the food chain. Levels are a good way to measure and convey that, and experience is a good way to incentivize battles. These things are tradition for a reason.

Hey Jason, love your column on on Kotaku. Is there any opportunity for you to talk about Conception II for the 3DS and Vita due out in April 2014? From what I understand it is implied that the gameplay is all about making offspring to help traverse dungeons with your female companion? Is the game actually as risque as it sounds? What kinds of road blocks or opportunities do you think companies like Atlus, and Xseed have when it comes to niche titles such as these? Why do you think such a title is getting localized? It must have some unique game play elements considering the premise. What can we gamers do to make our voices heard about making more games such as these hit American shores? Thanks for your time and effort furthering JRPGs and the opinions of those who love them! —Skip Z

Apparently Conception II is a video game where your male main character gets women pregnant and recruits their babies as party members, which is just... I don't even know. I'll have to come back to this one.

The biggest roadblock, I think, is that video game localization is expensive, and the JRPG genre is niche enough as it is without getting into crazy otaku territory. Companies like Atlus and Xseed don't make a ton of money, and games like Conception II sure as hell aren't gonna show up on the front rack at Walmart, so their chances of breakaway success are pretty damn low. Let's talk more about this in a future column.

A lot of indy developers who grew up with SNES RPGs are making 16 bit style RPGs for PCs as a general hobby. Have you tried any of them? Any idea how to weed out the good and the bad? Is the nostalgia that people have for the FFs of their youth hurting the ability of new JRPGs to reach an American audience? —Nikolas Z

The biggest problem in gaming today is that there are too many video games. Well, one of the biggest problems. OK, let's just say it's a problem. Indie JRPGs are no exception—for every basement designer in his or her 20s there are five 16-bit role-playing games that promise to be "love letters to the classic games of old."

A few years ago I put together a list of some of my favorite indie RPGs, and that's still a good reference point today. Here's another solid list, although I haven't played all of those.

I think the best way to determine whether an indie RPG is worth your time is to look at screenshots or a trailer and examine the dialogue. Ask yourself: Could I see myself spending the next 5-10 hours reading this kind of writing? There's your answer.

I'm not sure how familiar you are with Johnathon Blow and Braid or not, but it's not super important that you are. My question is phrased in terms of something he has said repeatedly that sort of struck me. He calls out Japanese games (and JRPGs are likely a big part of what he's targeting) for not 'respecting' its audience. He suggests that the hand-holding gameplay and the "THIS IS THE STORY, THESE ARE THE MECHANICS" style of presentation essentially implies that the audience is stupid and not capable of making the cognitive leap involved in determining what the story is really saying and what the mechanics are really offering and how the two interact. These things, combined with lengthy gameplay often spent at least partially on menial tasks (oversimplified fetch quests or grinding), sort of make the experience much less uhhh.. cerebral than it could be.

As someone who has spent the majority of his life focusing on JRPGs as the most valid and immersive experience video games can offer, I have certain opinions and counter-arguments pertaining to these points. That being said, he also does make a good point in some ways. For example, my best argument for grinding is that, if done correctly, it can be a character and agency developing experience. The longer I spend with given spiky-haired guy, the more I identify with him, even if that time is spent bonking cactuars on the head. Arguably, as well, I get to know the characters better. But that argument is by no means perfect, because one could just suggest that same development could be offered in more meaningful ways. So my question for you: how do you respond these criticisms (and similar ones)? Do you think they are valid or are attacking JRPGs by presuming that they offer what other games are meant to offer (and the criticisms are just missing the mark altogether)? - Josh Q.

Whew. This was the JRPG of JRPG mailbag questions. And yeah, Japanese games certainly like to hold your hand—there's a particularly interesting tendency in JRPGs and visual novels to show you the same scenes and triggers over and over again, and to ask whether you're absolutely sure you want to do something every time you tell the game that yes, you do want to do it!

Josh makes a good point about grinding helping us bond with our characters. I would love to see games that help facilitate these sort of relationships even more, by making characters react to your gameplay decisions—like, say, a spiky-haired hero who comments on your grinding abilities, or cut-scenes that only trigger when you've fought too many random battles in a row without moving on to the next quest.

I don't think fetch quests and level-grinding are always an example of video games wasting your time, though. There's a certain satisfaction to be had in watching your characters' numbers go up and knowing that you were responsible for making them more powerful, and plenty of RPGs use fetch quests as an opportunity to teach you their mechanics, or set up their worlds, or establish plot points that will be important later on. I'd also argue that JRPGs have already found ways to combat the dissonance between gameplay and story—the dreaded "you can't win!" boss battle is one technique that JRPGs use to show you just how much you've progressed over the course of a game. You might not be able to take down Gades right now, but just you wait...

Besides, there are more heinous examples of games wasting our time. Worse than grinding is when a JRPG makes you backtrack through areas you've already visited, or when Bravely Default makes you fight the same damn boss battles five times each.

But—and this is the big "but"—none of these problems are exclusive to JRPGs. That's where I'd disagree with your premise, here. Plenty of games don't feel like they're "respecting" their audience. When I have to revisit the same dull locations in Dragon Age II or re-read the same "You just got 20 rupees!" message every time I open a chest in Zelda, I feel just as disrespected as I do when a JRPG decides it's time to make me re-fight boss battles. All video games need to get better at respecting our time.

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.