The Real Situation With JRPGs In The West

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During a discussion on GAF stemming from Square Enix’s comments about the popularity of the Dragon Quest games outside Japan, someone posted a chart that, if legit, proves something about the Japanese RPG market in general I think a lot of people may miss. This has to do with the actual size of that market which has colored conversations on the shifting fortunes of JRPGs in western territories over the years.

User “Square2015” posted a chart displaying sales numbers for Square and Enix RPGs during the 30-year period from 1984 to 2014. I couldn’t independently verify all those numbers but I think the poster just gathered a bunch of NPD numbers from all those games through the years (some apparently from well-known analyst ZhugeEX). They seem to spend a lot of time tracking US and Japanese sales numbers.

If those numbers are believable, then the reason this chart matters is because it gives a bit of hard math to how JRPGs have really been doing in the American market. The common perception seems to be that the genre kind of exploded during the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 eras and then went into decline more recently. This tends to spark all kinds of discussions about why JRPGs declined and what can “save” them. The way I’ve felt on this though has been different: I think they’ve pretty much always been a niche outside of Japan with the exception of a handful of brand names, and I think the chart illustrates this quite clearly. Of course it only displays games made by Square and Enix, but I think it’s safe to say those companies which eventually merged into Square Enix represent a good enough chunk of the JRPG market in the west. Square has been the standard-bearer, so this is at least a good snapshot.

All the huge bars on this chart are either Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts games. There’s not a single game on that chart selling over a million copies that doesn’t have one of those two brands in the title. People may love their Chrono Trigger, but Kingdom Hearts spin-offs did better than that game commercially. I think the only Japanese RPG franchise outside of those with mass market success in the west has been Pokemon. That’s it: for 30 years JRPGs in the western market have pretty much just been four franchises standing atop a heap of niche games.

What’s also important to look at is that the sales numbers of the non-Final Fantasy, non-Kingdom Hearts games on that chart seem to stay pretty stable over a 30-year period. Most sell between maybe 100,000 and 500,000 copies. Outside the mass-market hits, JRPGs never really grew or shrank in the US. The genre pretty much stayed the same size.

What changed is that in the transition out of the PS2 era, many of the JRPGs simply moved to handheld systems. Their absence from the PS3 library relative to the PS2 library convinced some people that fewer of them were being made.

Why JRPGs never really grew in the west outside a few brands is anyone’s guess. I think it’s because firstly, American console users have a heavy preference for action games and secondly, because the cartoon-like fantasy settings aren’t a big draw for the mainstream over here. It would explain a lot about the RPGs that did become big.

Final Fantasy VII had a huge marketing campaign and bucked the fantasy trend by being about a dystopian city and a shadowy corporation instead of dragons and elves. Kingdom Hearts took the foundation the post-VII Final Fantasy games built and added universally beloved Disney characters. Pokemon simply became a big childrens’ property on its own. I guess it would also be interesting to compare with sales numbers of the Mario RPGs.

Today’s biggest RPGs on consoles — games from Bethesda Softworks, BioWare, or CDProjekt RED, appeal much more directly to western audiences. They have settings, characters, and advertising that appeals more to western tastes. None of them are turn-based, and in fact they all have gameplay more in common with action games.

I think the most positive thing one can take from these numbers is that JRPGs were never really in trouble or “dying.”  Maybe there’s been a period where Final Fantasy has been in decline which has made the whole genre look worse off, or maybe it was the period where JRPGs moved away from consoles a bit, but overall their health seems to have been stable for decades.

BULLETS:

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