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Active Topical Banter - Episode 6: The Modern JRPG: Shark or Panda?

Fowl SorcerousFowl Sorcerous Dread News EditorRPGamer Staff
edited August 2014 in Latest Updates
We tackle the notion of evolution within a game genre via a pair of related metaphors about rare animals. Whether or not JRPGs have to change in the face of "extinction" is left up in the air.

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Talking points for the Episode:
-Everyone gangs up on Scott to says wrong (either about pandas or JRPGs)
-Evolutionary and teleological stance on game design is bunk
-'Moving the genre forward' is a meaningless sentiment
-push and pull design
-moving 'out' rather than forward/genre hybrids
-cult-dependent production

Next time: time and the critic

Comments

  • Strawberry EggsStrawberry Eggs Hands off the parfait! Administrators
    edited July 2014
    Hate to disappoint you, Scott, but I agree with you all on just about everything.The evolution metaphor is really apt, as there is no "goal," just survival and change. Even organisms (or games) that apparently have changed very little from their common ancestors are still at least slightly different than before. Others have given rise to whole new clades (sub-genres and certain poorly-defined "styles"), while some individual species (or series) have gone extinct. I'd go on, but you get the idea.

    Though I am actually quite satisfied with the JRPGs that came out in the past few years, but I'm starting to think I'm pretty easy to please. :P
    Bravely second...
    The courage to try again...

    Twitter: BerryEggs

  • NyxNyx Staff Girly Girl RPGamer Staff
    edited July 2014
    Hate to disappoint you, Scott, but I agree with you all on just about everything.The evolution metaphor is really apt, as there is no "goal," just survival and change. Even organisms (or games) that apparently have changed very little from their common ancestors are still at least slightly different than before. Other have given rise to whole new clades (sub-genre and certain undefined "styles), while some individual species (or series) have gone extinct. I'd go on, but you get the idea.

    Though I am actually quite satisfied with the JRPGs coming out in the past few years, but I'm starting to think I'm pretty easy to please. :P

    Whaaaaaaaat? Berry and Fowl agreeing? It's the apocalypse!

    <3
  • VictarVictar Member Full Members
    edited July 2014
    Evolution in biology and evolution in JRPGs (or any other market product) are two very different concepts.

    Evolution in biology is the gradual adaptation through natural selection over time... there's no coherent plan or design, it's "which random mutations will best help this creature and its descendents survive?" It can also backfire spectacularly. Sure, sharks evolved to be perfectly adapated to their environment - but so did the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs were enormously successful for millions of years, the pinnacle of evolution for their time.

    Then their environment changed drastically in the blink of an eye. They died out not because they were evolutionary failures, but because their climate shifted. If something similar happened to sharks, they'd die out too.

    Pandas are not evolutionary "failures" - they're quite well adapted to their environment. Their reproduction rate is low because their environment cannot sustain high numbers of them; they need a lot of bamboo to survive. The problem is, human encroachment destroyed much of their environment. With such a radical change, it's no wonder they're endangered. It's the same reason many, many other species are endangered, especially large species who consume a lot, from gorillas to tigers.

    Also, those who argue against trying to preserve the panda ignore the power of symbols, and hope. Destroy people's hope, and they may stop caring about man-made extinctions at all.

    TLDR version: Stop hating on pandas.

    How does this compare to JRPGs? It doesn't. "Evolutions" in JRPGs are designed by people, not random chance. The closest thing to "evolutions" in terms of "adaptations conducive to survival" might be conveniences like the ability to save anywhere. Theoretically, if your game has less frustration than your competitor's, buyers should gravitate to it...

    ...or so I would think, and then I read this site's review of Agarest.
  • daveyddaveyd Turn-based lifeform PAFull Members
    edited July 2014
    Sweet, I got called out in the podcast! *prepares to grind axe* :p

    First, I will concede that when I talk about JRPGs, I tend to make sweeping generalizations and that is a bit unfair; particularly because I haven't been playing them nearly as much as I did in the early 90's. My favorite JRPGs from that era include Shining Force 1 & 2, Beyond Oasis (best Zelda clone ever!), and Sword of Vermillion (I suspect this one hasn't aged well, but I recall really enjoying it). It's not that I don't understand the desire for modern games that feel like the classics (I've backed quite a few KS games largely out of nostalgia after all). I just want more RPGs that are actually fun to play.

    I also really like Chrono Trigger and that can't be my nostalgia talking, as I never played it until fairly recently when I picked up the DS version. It added a lot of improvements to the classic JRPG formula; multiple endings, some interesting battle mechanics, no random encounters (although I probably wouldn't hate random encounters so much if they aren't too frequent and if the battle system is actually fun), etc. It's a great game and while I think there's always room for improvement I consider it one my favorite RPGs. I haven't found many JRPGs that measure up to Chrono Trigger. Radiant Historia and Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time are the most recent JRPGs I've played and really enjoyed (I guess technically WoT is an older game since it was a port of 2003 PS2 title). But anyway, I can definitely see why Chrono Trigger is held in such high regards by so many; not so much for some of the other classic JRPGs I've tried.

    So what do I want JRPGs to change or evolve into?

    1. Do with away with the need for excessive grinding. Having select areas where enemies respawn so you can grind to make your characters a bit stronger would be fine, but I dislike RPGs that basically make grinding a requirement. That feels like work, not fun. You have to spend so much of your time with generic enemy encounters in lots of RPGs, and I just don't have the patience to sit through 50+ hours of battles; particularly if the battle system is nothing special. If grinding is primarily about allowing players to adjust the difficulty of boss fights, then IMHO it is an archaic mechanic that needs to die. Grinding could be replaced by a difficulty setting (easy, normal, hard, etc.)- what should change between settings is subject of another debate, but this is a far better alternative than requiring players to grind for hours. No reason JRPGs couldn't be more like the cRPGs where your character gets most XP from completing quests, but gets little XP from killing random enemies.

    2. More strategic / engaging challenging battle systems. Who says that only boss fights should be challenging? I prefer more tactical RPG combat to the simple menu based stuff. I'm a fan of SRPGs so even something relatively simple, but still tactical like Shining Force 1&2 is preferable to "attack, attack, heal" ATB battles. I love Growlanser's combat. I think Radiant Historia was on to something, although it wasn't balanced very well (most of the fights are too easy, except near the very end which where they got pretty tough). But I'd love to see more RPGs have combat with the level of depth that Divinity Original Sin has. Using magic to affect the terrain and environment is a really awesome mechanic that makes battles very exciting. I want to battles that make me think and keep me on my toes, but not just because I'm not sure whether I have enough healing potions or if I should have grinded more.

    3. Stories / characters that are more mature and not just "possibly amnesiac chosen teen saves the world from an ancient evil" type of thing. (certainly a lot of WRPGs follow this formula as well). I'm not saying every RPG needs to be as dark as The Witcher, and I can appreciate that some people prefer a more light-hearted tone JRPGs tend to have. But any JRPG that averts those tired JRPG tropes deserves praise in my book. I'm an adult now, I don't want to play the role of an angsty teenage boy with daddy issues any more. Radiant Historia is a great example of a more mature protagonist / story.

    4. Somewhat less linear and more freedom and choices - While it seems that over that past decade WRPGs have tended to tout the concept of choice & consequence (although choices often don't have as much consequence as we'd like, there is at least small choice and the illusion of choice), it seems to me that JRPGs have become increasingly cinematic. (Which obviously some people are OK with, as you touched on in the podcast, some people basically play these games to watch the story unfold through anime cutscenes). And arguably, it's much harder to give the player meaningful choices when the protagonist has a pre-defined personality / background (as most JRPGs do), than in the RPGs where the main character is more of a blank slate. However, The Witcher series shows that you can still give a player interesting choices even if the character has a predefined backstory. But for a JRPG example, see Growlanser (except perhaps Growlanser II) where players get to shape the protagonist's personality through dialogue. What I'm definitely not saying is that I want all JRPGs to be open world / sandbox games. If I haven't mentioned it I hate Skyrim (yes, it's nothing bu fetch & courier quests). But I would like some opportunities to put myself in the character's shoes and I can't do that if every line he / she speaks is scripted. It doesn't necessarily need to be on the level of Bioware where I always have 3 conversation options, but I'd at least like see more JRPGs that have multiple endings. Let me choose who the protagonist falls in love with. Something. Maybe I can't choose their class, race, or gender, but give me some meaningful choices that make the character my own.

    5. No more J-Pop. :) Fortunately intro movies can be skipped or at least muted but seriously, these songs are terrible and seem so out of place.


    Well, I could probably go on, but in short: adding in things that make the game less tedious / more engaging are good things. I don't mean to imply that you have to completely change everything all at once, nor do I expect every single JRPG to appeal to me, but some change and innovation can be good. If you want the same old, same old, then well what's the point of even playing new games? Better graphics?

    Lastly, as always, if anyone can recommend some JRPGs that would fit with my aforementioned preferences, I'd appreciate it. I have a gaming PC, PS3, 3DS, PSP, and an Anrdroid tablet. I'd love to find more JRPGs that improve or expand upon the classic formula.
    Currently playing (on PC): Hard West, Eisenwald: Blood of November, Dungeon Rats, Wasteland 2, Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire





  • JCServantJCServant Certified Polygameist RPGamer Staff
    edited July 2014
    You make some great points Dave, and I agree with most of them.

    1. I've said this once, I'll say it again. Grinding of any kind is evil. Early computer RPGs tried, in a limited way, to emulate the table top experience. In P&P (Pen and Paper), you never have the group saying things like "Well, we know there's a dragon in that cave. But, before we go after him, we should hack 20 slime to level up!" Earning XP, leveling up and learning new skills was something that happened along the way. It was a part of the journey, and never an end onto itself. Only when computer RPGs came on the scene, with random battles and the such, players saw grinding as a way to make the game easier. There are multiple solutions to this issue. One, that you rarely hear of, is ad hoc experience. Instead of giving XP to players for how many monsters they beat, you give them a level at certain points in the game. Of course, in between those points are various encounters that the party will have to over come. Having different ways to overcome them (such as a dragon that may be bribed to allow the party to pass) means you get through the game your way, and you don't feel pressured to find things to kill. Your focus stays on what matters most... working through the story and overcoming obstacles in the plot along the way... not seeking out seemingly endless fountains of random monsters to make the later game easier.

    With that being said, I do not mind games that have lots of fights, grinding, etc., if the battle system is super fun and supports it. I was looking for things to kill in Grandia III. Yeah, it's THAT good.

    2. I absolutely agree with you, once again. And, many times, it doesn't take much to make the JRPG battle system fun. For example, in Shadow Hearts, there's a spinning wheel you have to stop whenever you attack. Where you stop it determines if you hit or miss. It's a simple mechanic added to what would otherwise be a basic "attack,attack,heal" set up. Yet, that one addition is like seasoning on plain meat...it makes it good. For something with more depth, I think I need to mention Grandia III. ZOMG. Oh so good. Turn based, Strategy, fast combat...and you knock people WAY up into the air. Man... its SO satisfying.

    3. Yup. Totally agree, once again. Check out Shadow Hearts. Granted, it's kind of a teenager/young man involved, but its got a modern setting and a story that doesn't really come close to the standard fare. Yet, it's a JRPG through and through, both in the combat system, in the artwork and overall style. And did I mentioned Grandia III? Awesome battle system. What's that? Bullet point #3 has to do with story? Well, yeah, Grandia III's story is as cheesy and chiche as they come...but who cares? It has an AWESOME combat system!!!

    4. Absolutely agree here. It's a shame that despite the fact that space and the such is no longer a limiting factor in games, the vast majority of games still don't get this right. You either have a linear experience, or you have the "open world' experience that does not make a great JRPG-type focused narrative.

    5. Get out. I love my J-Pop! Especially in Persona (where it does kinda fit better, thematically). PERSONA!! Hey, did I mention Grandia III's combat system?

    6. I could recommend a few, I think...but a lot of them would be on the PS2, which you don't list as having. Dude, the PS2 is like a golden haven of off-the way JRPGs. It's calling you to buy one...today! I have more PS2 JRPGs than any other console (and I've been collecting since the 80's!) . We should do a skype call one day and chat! (I'm jcservant7)
  • OcelotOcelot is not declawed RPGamer Staff
    edited August 2014
    The music in Persona isn't the stereotypical J-Pop that people tend to object to.
    Becky Cunningham, Staff-at-Large
    Twitter: BeckyCFreelance
  • daveyddaveyd Turn-based lifeform PAFull Members
    edited August 2014
    JCServant wrote: »
    You make some great points Dave, and I agree with most of them.

    1. I've said this once, I'll say it again. Grinding of any kind is evil. Early computer RPGs tried, in a limited way, to emulate the table top experience. In P&P (Pen and Paper), you never have the group saying things like "Well, we know there's a dragon in that cave. But, before we go after him, we should hack 20 slime to level up!" Earning XP, leveling up and learning new skills was something that happened along the way. It was a part of the journey, and never an end onto itself. Only when computer RPGs came on the scene, with random battles and the such, players saw grinding as a way to make the game easier. There are multiple solutions to this issue. One, that you rarely hear of, is ad hoc experience. Instead of giving XP to players for how many monsters they beat, you give them a level at certain points in the game. Of course, in between those points are various encounters that the party will have to over come. Having different ways to overcome them (such as a dragon that may be bribed to allow the party to pass) means you get through the game your way, and you don't feel pressured to find things to kill. Your focus stays on what matters most... working through the story and overcoming obstacles in the plot along the way... not seeking out seemingly endless fountains of random monsters to make the later game easier.

    Yes, aside from being incredibly tedious, grinding always feels really forced, unnatural, and even immersion-breaking. Ad hoc exp sounds like it would work just fine, at least for very linear games. Of course it couldn't be so simple in non-linear or open world RPGs... Although so far, I tend to find the "open world" concept pretty overrated; Divinity Original Sin is basically open world but I find there's a "right" order to explore the world so that you aren't fighting enemies that are too powerful. But it's better than in the Elder Scrolls where all enemies scale, which makes increasing your stats virtually meaningless. I also like the way it works in Shadowrun Returns where you only get Karma (exp) for completing missions. There's plenty of good alternatives to grinding.
    JCServant wrote: »
    2. I absolutely agree with you, once again. And, many times, it doesn't take much to make the JRPG battle system fun. For example, in Shadow Hearts, there's a spinning wheel you have to stop whenever you attack. Where you stop it determines if you hit or miss. It's a simple mechanic added to what would otherwise be a basic "attack,attack,heal" set up. Yet, that one addition is like seasoning on plain meat...it makes it good. For something with more depth, I think I need to mention Grandia III. ZOMG. Oh so good. Turn based, Strategy, fast combat...and you knock people WAY up into the air. Man... its SO satisfying.
    I did play Shadow Hearts. I was kind of ambivalent about the spinning wheel. On the one hand, it was something different but having the outcome of battle affected by my reflexes in a turn-based RPG just didn't sit right with me. I seem to recall at one point going insane in that game trying to get the wheel to land in a tiny area (possibly to unlock a special weapon / skill). I played Grandia II, but not III. But I take it the combat in III is very different?
    JCServant wrote: »
    3. Yup. Totally agree, once again. Check out Shadow Hearts. Granted, it's kind of a teenager/young man involved, but its got a modern setting and a story that doesn't really come close to the standard fare. Yet, it's a JRPG through and through, both in the combat system, in the artwork and overall style. And did I mentioned Grandia III? Awesome battle system. What's that? Bullet point #3 has to do with story? Well, yeah, Grandia III's story is as cheesy and chiche as they come...but who cares? It has an AWESOME combat system!!!
    Well, I think the actual age of the protagonist isn't the problem.. it's all about maturity. Crono is a presumably teenager but that didn't bother me because he's a silent protagonist so he wasn't being a cocky / whiny brat like the stereotypical JRGP protagonist. I don't even mind that the protagonist of Ni No Kuni is a little kid because the story is serious (unfortunately I haven't been drawn into the combat so I haven't found the motivation to play it).
    JCServant wrote: »
    5. Get out. I love my J-Pop! Especially in Persona (where it does kinda fit better, thematically). PERSONA!! Hey, did I mention Grandia III's combat system?
    Haha. I'm sort of kidding. I mean, I'm not kidding that I detest the stuff, but I don't actually expect JRPGs to do away with it entirely. As it's often only in the intro, it's not a big deal. Of course I'd prefer all JRPGs have soundtracks done by Yasunori Mitsuda ..or least someone in his kind of style.
    JCServant wrote: »
    6. I could recommend a few, I think...but a lot of them would be on the PS2, which you don't list as having. Dude, the PS2 is like a golden haven of off-the way JRPGs. It's calling you to buy one...today! I have more PS2 JRPGs than any other console (and I've been collecting since the 80's!) . We should do a skype call one day and chat! (I'm jcservant7)

    I actually still have my PS2, but I didn't mention it because I don't really like using it any more as the TV I have it hooked up to has poor picture quality and emits an annoying tone I can't get rid of. Perhaps I should look into getting a cable / converter to hook up my PS2 to my HDMI / DVI monitor (assuming that's possible). Shame there aren't more RPGs on PS2 classics. I'm hoping the rumor about Suikoden II going around a few months ago turns out to be true as I really want to try it.
    Currently playing (on PC): Hard West, Eisenwald: Blood of November, Dungeon Rats, Wasteland 2, Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire





  • JCServantJCServant Certified Polygameist RPGamer Staff
    edited August 2014
    I did play Shadow Hearts. I was kind of ambivalent about the spinning wheel. On the one hand, it was something different but having the outcome of battle affected by my reflexes in a turn-based RPG just didn't sit right with me. I seem to recall at one point going insane in that game trying to get the wheel to land in a tiny area (possibly to unlock a special weapon / skill). I played Grandia II, but not III. But I take it the combat in III is very different?

    I loved the wheel. Something so simple made the game much more fun than a typical JRPG battle system to me. Of course, its not Grandia III (I mean, what game is? Did I mention GIII is awesome?), but I felt like I was a lot more involved than most JRPGs. In pen and paper, you not only have the strategy of the tactical, turn based system, you also have the act of rolling the dice. Even though it's completely random, handing players a set of dice is awesome. They feel they hold the power of life and death in their hand, even though its completely random! That wheel is like that. it's a bit too fast to be a sure thing, but you do play a role in whether or not it hits.

    But, yeah, if I have a hit zone that's a tiny sliver, I don't usually try for that, unless its right next to a larger 'normal hit' zone or something. (So, if I miss that tiny zone, I probably still nail the attack). To get frustrated with that is similar to a player getting frustrated with a skill, in pen and paper, that only happens on a confirmed critical hit (which is around a 1-2% chance). Don't count on it. Don't even think about it. But, when you 'accidentally' hit it once in a while, it usually does something awesome.

    Oh...as far as GII vs. GIII...it's not Super different...BUT, it has one really awesome addition that sticks out in my mind...air combos. There's just no replacement for the ability to knock an enemy into the stratosphere. Seriously. Awesome sauce. The combat system carries that game (Because, the story sure doesn't!). Did I mention it's awesome?

    We should Skype chat sometime. Or talk on phone. My ability to type too much is somewhat limited :P

    Yes, aside from being incredibly tedious, grinding always feels really forced, unnatural, and even immersion-breaking. Ad hoc exp sounds like it would work just fine, at least for very linear games. Of course it couldn't be so simple in non-linear or open world RPGs... Although so far, I tend to find the "open world" concept pretty overrated; Divinity Original Sin is basically open world but I find there's a "right" order to explore the world so that you aren't fighting enemies that are too powerful. But it's better than in the Elder Scrolls where all enemies scale, which makes increasing your stats virtually meaningless. I also like the way it works in Shadowrun Returns where you only get Karma (exp) for completing missions. There's plenty of good alternatives to grinding.


    I've almost always found stat increases to be somewhat meaningless. HPs, ATK, INT, etc., all go up...but so do the monsters. This happens in every RPG. Usually, the numbers increase so fast, it becomes ridiculous. Somehow, I'm supposed to "Feel" more powerful because I see bigger numbers when I hit? Please. It took me 3 hits to kill a goblin at level 1. It still takes 3 hits to kill a monarch angel at level 30. And, it works in reverse. I have 10x more HPs at level 40 than I did at level 1...but the enemies still kill me with 3 solid hits. What's the point?

    Yeah, I know... you can go back at level 10 and completely decimate those goblins since your numbers are so much bigger...but how many times do you actually do that willingly? It's more of an inconvenience that happens when you run through old areas, than something that completely makes you feel like a super hero. I do recognize that i
    n games where enemies do not scale, you "feel' those increases a bit better since you may notice that the goblin you fought last battles goes down faster if you just leveled up while you're working through. However, at the end of the end of the day, the net result is the same. Oblivion didn't bother me as much as most because I've never appreciated stat differences in levels.

    The joy and awesomeness of leveling, for me, is learning new skills which give me more strategic options each round of combat. It's one of the reasons I like pen and paper games like Pathfinder. But that time you are level 5, you have (easily) twice as many options for taking down a baddie than you did at level 1. Even a normal fighter learns feats that can make a huge difference if used at the right time. Gear that gives you a higher DEF or ATK is ok...but, again, enemies start hitting harder/taking more damage at some point, anyway. Gear that does cool things and/or give me more options in combat is a LOT more fun.

    Speaking of Pen and Paper and stats, I like Savage Worlds for this reason. A level 10 character has almost the same life/hits/etc as a level 1. A guy with no armor on, standing still, will die to one arrow regardless of how experienced he is. As you level, you get more skills and a few stat boost which really seem to matter a lot more (since they're so few and each one can make a big difference). Some of those skills may help you dodge a little better, and new armor you find along the way may help deflect an arrow, but you won't become impossible to defeat just because you're experienced. Just a lot harder in one on one.
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