This installment of the MAGES blog's series of genre histories focuses on Role-Playing Games. All genres have distinct evolutions, but the Role-Playing game is striking due to the fact that the modern vision of the genre is informed by one specific moment that completely changed the global public conception of the RPG and split the design of the genre into two almost wholly separate philosophies. Both the history that led to this moment, and the resultant changes in the development of the genre, demonstrate the fascinating and versatile possibilities of the RPG.
Early Role-Playing Games did not enjoy much in the way of mainstream success. The first appearances of RPGs as video games came from the Wizardry and Ultima series in the early 1980s. Both of these series featured many of the classic Dungeons & Dragons elements that would become foundational for decades to come. However, these early RPG series were both PC-based, and in those years home personal computers were not as ubiquitous as today. In fact, in 1983, the highest-selling computer of the time sold just 2 million units, versus 55.5 million sold by the top manufacturer in 2016. As a result of this relatively small installation base, the video RPG would not have many opportunities for advancement until the home video game system became a household fixture.
Although preceded by Atari, it was Nintendo's 8-bit Entertainment System which became the platform that the RPG blossomed on, as a result of its substantially larger installation base. Although the NES sold just over a million units in its first year of release, less than the top-selling PCs of the time, the system continued to gain ground, and ultimately the system would go on to boast an impressive 62 million total units sold. The RPG was there from the beginning, quickly becoming a notable genre in the early years of the home video game market with Enix's Dragon Quest in 1986, followed quickly by Square's Final Fantasy in 1987. Both of these games (which would, of course, go on to become franchises of their own) had clear influences from not only Dungeons & Dragons, but also the Wizardry and Ultima games as well, and became the template for a video game RPG: varied character classes, vivid environments, changeable equipment and spells, experience and leveling, menu-driven combat, and a focus on active and engaging storytelling.
Ultimately, however, the early RPG remained a niche genre. Early video games were marketed as children's toys, and unlike a lot of other genres, RPGs were slower-paced, required more patience, more reading, and notably, more commitment to complete. The time requirements for these games was perhaps the most significant obstacle. For example, the original Super Mario Bros. took approximately 2 hours to beat. Most Mega Man titles could be beaten in about 3. Even the first Metal Gear game could be beaten in about 7 hours at a leisurely pace. Final Fantasy, however, took approximately 24 hours to complete all content. This was a lot to ask from consumers, especially children.
Furthermore, as narrative media, RPGs are text-heavy games. Early video games (especially those produced for the NES) were mostly produced by Japanese companies. Although the stories in early RPGs were not necessarily complex or particularly nuanced, this text required translation. This meant that localization costs were significantly higher than for other genres. The combination of higher costs and lower overall sales meant RPGs were not seen as a profitable genre.
This led to a gulf between the Japanese developers and their Western audiences, especially those in the United States. Aware that their work was unlikely to reach American shores, many Japanese developers, including Square and Enix, increasingly developed specifically and exclusively for the Japanese market, and as a result, the Japanese RPG became increasingly reliant on specific storytelling tropes and gameplay devices. JRPGs became, in a way, homogenous. Although the market supported these decisions, this homogeneity nevertheless resulted in games that were repetitive and reliant on cliche, and many of the JRPGs from the 8- and 16-bit eras are not well-remembered today. Games like Faxanadu and Hydelide remain mostly forgotten, and even Sega's much-lauded Phantasy Star series went into decline between 1993 and 2000, at which point the brand was reconceptualized as a multiplayer online game. As a result, the genre stagnated. Predominantly Japanese producers continued to make games that catered to their base, and certain tropes, such as the mysterious orphan protagonist, became so well-worn as to become parodic. The genre became considered so niche that throughout the 16-bit era, many of Japan's most popular RPG titles were never localized to the United States. In fact, only half the games the Final Fantasy series were ported to the US throughout this period, despite the fact that this RPG brand was perhaps the most recognized in the United States. Other popular series, such as the Tales franchise and Atlus' Shin Megumi Tensei games, would not have entries that came to the United States until decades later.
This changed dramatically in 1997, with the release of Final Fantasy VII for the Sony Playstation. Initially, Square had partnered with Nintendo to publish games for the NES and SNES systems, but formed a new alliance with Sony as they emerged into the video game market with their first console. Eager to expand into all genres, Sony itself lobbied to take on the North American publishing rights for the game. Sony organized a three-month promotional blitz in advance of the game's North American release, and the results were a tremendous success. Final Fantasy VII ultimately became the second-highest overall selling game for the original Playstation, which was itself one of the highest-selling consoles of all time. Through these combined successes, the RPG entered the mainstream of US gaming.
This success did encourage more English-language localization for Japanese RPGs, however many JRPG titles still found little favor with Western audiences, ostensibly due to the aforementioned reliance on repetitive Japanese storytelling tropes. Dedicated niche gamers still eagerly awaited releases (or in some cases, resorted to importing untranslated titles), but this was a small base. "Superstar" titles, such as later Final Fantasy titles, did quite well, but for the most part, Western audiences responded better to Western titles. This led to a pronounced bifurcation of the genre. As Western developers began to grow in both number and importance, the RPG became a staple genre for them. However, while the JRPG remained tied to familiar, comfortable tropes, Western developers looked to change some of the fundamental aspects of the genre in order to find a wider appeal. Action elements were favored over traditional menu schemes, and the anime-inspired cliches that were the bread and butter of Japanese RPGs found little favor. The biggest divergence from the JRPG, however, may be a result of the influence of the modern Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. While the MMORPG is quite demonstrably a separate genre, especially considering the gameplay's reliance on community and teamwork, the immediate popularity of entries such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft had a clear impact on design choices in Western RPG franchises, especially those from developer Bioware. Baldur's Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, and Jade Empire all show influences from this sister genre, especially with regards to combat and class-building. These alterations proved successful, and Bioware is now one of the biggest and most successful RPG publishers currently active, continuing to successfully iterate through the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series.
Not long ago, RPG and JRPG were synonymous terms; it wouldn't even have made sense to differentiate one from the other. Today, however, the RPG has radically diversified. While JRPGs still see frequent production, outside of Japan they remain niche and inconsistently translated for worldwide markets. There remain standout series, such as Atlus' Persona games, and Square-Enix's Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest brands remain strong. However, with the rise of Western, and in particular, American game developers, the largest market share seems to be populated by games in the mold of Bioware's design, such as the Elder Scrolls and Witcher series. To be sure, the JRPG still has proponents outside of Japan (including myself), but for now, the JRPG's strict adherence to old standards has been eclipsed in the marketplace by Western designs that are more willing to take risks and reinvent both gameplay and storytelling.
Dr. Daniel Gronsky is a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Science, focusing on media studies in film and video games.