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Mobile is eating the JRPG genre whether you like it or not

We haven't been getting all that many JRPGs here in the West, but Japan's mobile scene is drowning in them as the genre migrates.

Did you ever expect turn-based RPGs to be essentially exiled from consoles? I certainly never did, considering the genre's popularity on the Super Nintendo, PlayStation, and PlayStation 2. But here we are in 2016 with an ever-diminishing trickle of the genre on the Nintendo 3DS and the rest on mobile.

There are so many mobile-focused RPG developers these days, it's hard to keep track. There's no reason to want to, anyway: most mobile RPGs are not very good from a gameplay nor overall quality standpoint.

But just because most aren't all that good doesn't mean they're all that way. That's something I didn't bother thinking about until I gave Granblue Fantasy, Japan's biggest mobile RPG, a shot. The game's general classic Final Fantasy feel made me step back and reevaluate my opinions on the genre on mobile--it is possible for quality, memorable titles to come out on mobile after all.

Japan and mobile RPGs

I briefly touched on the plight of the Japanese RPG developer in the modern market in my Granblue Fantasy review. Budgeting has always been an issue for Japanese studios that focus on RPGs -- and it's only natural this genre, which traditionally has had small budgets, moves to mobile as development costs rise and interested install bases shrink on consoles.

The one JRPG developer that most in the West know of is Square Enix, and based on our own Westernized perception of the market we assume they are primarily console-oriented. Their English mobile releases are mostly ports of classic titles, but it's a different story on Japan's Google Play.

Oh look, it's not 90% Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest ports.

Not only are there multiple Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and other series spin-offs and new iterations; but there are also new IPs like Popup Story, Million Arthur, and the upcoming Samurai Rising.

Now, I'm not saying Square Enix's mobile offerings are amazing -- usually they're mediocre at best -- but you take notice when you see a big developer like SE start putting as much effort, artistic talent, and marketing towards these games on what is very much still a new and growing platform. It's a telling sign of what's to come. And they're not the only JRPG developer/publisher placing their bets on mobile.

The F2P = P2W issue

Free to play mobile titles do not have a good reputation in the West, while Asian markets more or less accept them for what they are. It's not uncommon to hear about players spending the equivalent of hundreds of even thousands of dollars on character/unit pulls in mobile RPGs, especially among Japanese mobile RPG players.

East and West see free to play monetization in different ways. While we here get in a tizzy over even the smallest microtransactions, they are more or less an expected and even accepted part of Japanese gaming in the current market. Paying the equivalent of $5 for a single unit or character pull in a F2P game is a lot less painful than coughing up $5 to $30 for a costume or other fluff in a game you've already paid for, which is more common in Japanese console gaming than most Western gamers realize.

I know a guy who's spent over $100 on Bravely Archive D's Report just last month.

You can see free to play models taking over outside of the mobile space, no matter the kicking and screaming from the core gaming community. I don't like it, you probably don't like it, but there is no stopping the money train that is F2P monetization.

The JRPG genre is slowly becoming free to play + mobile exclusive, for better or for worse. Many are borderline if not outright predatory in not only the amount of cash shop-buyable in-game currency that's needed to make tangible progress, but also in how low good character pull rates are.

Character pulling is one of the biggest aspects of mobile JRPGs and it generally has huge amount of control over how well you do and how you progress, no matter the game. Often these games give absolutely abysmal chances to get a character worth using at mid to late game.

This is the biggest problem with the JRPG shift to mobile and the only way to divert some of that soul-wrenching depression that comes from repeated bad pulls is to make a game fun and enthralling outside of character pulls--which is something much of the genre is currently having trouble with.

The need to grow

While games like Granblue Fantasy and Mistwalker's Terra Battle do a great job of keeping players engaged by being high quality (for mobile) games despite their terrible pull rates, most others can't quite get there. Even much of Square Enix's mobile library, as mentioned above, is less than stellar in the gameplay and story departments, and plagued with awful pull rates to boot.

Console JRPGs went through a lot of growth from the Nintendo to the PlayStation 2, and the mobile market is still essentially in its infancy. Mobile JRPGs are finding their way now very much like they did in the 90s. And while one can certainly argue the titles from Japanese RPG developers even in the early 90s were of much higher quality than what we see on mobile today, the areas that need improvement (the extent of monetization and innovation) in the current market are still being tested and honed.

Mobile-only Mobius Final Fantasy.

With the mobile market oversaturated no matter the region, developers are going to have to really step it up over the next decade to make their games stand out. I don't like what was once my favorite genre making the migration to mobile as its home, but there is no denying nor stopping a transition that's already at this late of a stage. All we can do is hope more developers figure out the magic combination of totally reasonable in-app purchases, good gameplay, and pleasing presentation sooner rather than later.

Published Apr. 30th 2016

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