A Certain Point of View: Why There Aren't More 2D RPGs in the West

2D RPGs are all the rage in Japan, but Western developers couldn't care less. Here's why.

The resurgence of 2D games has invigorated the gaming industry, and JRPGs are no exception. With the upcoming Project Octopath Traveler being a beautiful 2D JRPG for the Switch, and other love letters flooding the digital marketplaces, JRPGs have found another home in the two-dimensional world.

But what about 2D Western RPGs? With the exception of indie experimentations such as Undertale, the Western RPG genre is flooded with large 3D open world. AAA devs don't dare make games sans that third dimension, even though it seems to work so well for their Japanese counter parts.

This isn't a haphazard mistake on the part of Western developers. And it certainly isn't because RPGs can't work in 2D. It's more because the JRPG and RPG genres are, at the end of the day, very different from each other -- which means they require different techniques and styles in order to succeed. So with that in mind, let's look into the real reason why there aren't more 2D RPGs floating around in the West. 

Different Goals Means Different Styles

When examining possible choices in visual style, developers must first decide if the graphics will drive the purpose of the game. And where Western RPGs use graphics as a primary form of storytelling, that isn't the case for JRPGs.

Most JRPGs use mechanics, dialogue options, and cutscenes to tell a story full of fantastical creatures and lively characters, though often at the cost of creating a fully fleshed-out world. Meanwhile, Western RPGs focus on the player creating their story and becoming immersed in the world around them.

Simply put, a 2D art style doesn't really augment that sense of immersion that make Western RPGs special. They do however, aid the storytelling in JRPGs by allowing the creator to focus less on the graphical design and more on the story itself.

Putting DnD in 3D

As any harcore RPG gamers knows, Western RPGs take direct inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons -- the pen-and-paper roleplaying game that paved the way for the modern RPG experience. Many of the systems that existed in DnD are still used as mechanics in modern RPGs...but what's more important is the fact that the complex scenery and design which DnD inspires is much more suited to a 3D environment than a 2D one. Even with top down adventures such as Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights, the use of a third dimension fleshed out the environment and allowed for more interactivity. It created a breathing world -- which was all any old-school DnD fan really wanted. 

This is not the case for JRPGs. The iconic titles that shaped the genre and future games -- like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest -- were 2D sprite games. They flourished with their stylish pixel art and aged rather well. And since it worked so well for the games that birthed JRPGs, it makes sense that the trend would continue as new titles were made with that style in mind. 

A Push for Realism

Gaming outside of the RPG genre has been pushing toward realism for years. FPS franchises such as Call of Duty and Battlefield made names for themselves with realistic graphics and action. Following suit, games such as Skyrim, Fallout 4, or The Witcher 3 are trying to push graphical fidelity in large open worlds, while still providing the create-your-own adventure approach that's heralded in Western RPGs.

But the realism trend simply doesn't seem to have caught on in the East. Japanese games are consistently more stylized and colorful than they are realistic, and they sell as well on that side of the world as realistic games do here. This means beautiful sprite work can still be a major selling point, on account of being exciting and nostalgic.

While Western 2D RPGs are still a possibility, especially with the rise of the indie development scene, the push for immersion and realism forces most games to be 3D if they want to sell. With how huge the genre is, experiments like Undertale are always going to happen. Just don't expect the AAA marketplace to be creating 2D games anytime soon.

Why do you think there are so few Western 2D RPGs? Let us know in the comments.


Featured Contributor

Published Jan. 20th 2017

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