William linked me to an interesting article today on IGN where two of its writers, Erik Brudvig and Hilary Goldstein, published an article that lambastes the quality of Square-Enix’s work as a developer of RPGs (the omission of JRPG was intentional, as both Erik and Hilary did not make such a reference either).

It was quite frankly, ridiculous. Having ruined their credibility five sentences into their first point, both Erik and Hilary make themselves victim to the one of the core reasons why JRPGs have suddenly lost so much appeal in the West. William and I couldn’t seem to contain ourselves and have consequently chosen to publish a rebuttal against such a carelessly ignorant article.

“We give the storied RPG publisher some tips on getting its next game right.

William says: Instead readers are subjected to a poorly written editorial on how much the Xbox 360 editors on IGN praise the model of Western RPGs as the Holy Grail and tell the famed RPG publisher, Square, “… to suck up its pride and start playing some Western RPGs.” In their “prescription” to remedy the nuances of what they perceived as “wrong”, they ultimately fall flat on their face and instead render the image of a western media publication that is too self-appraising of its culture to understand the differences inherent in Japanese role-playing games.

Taking Will’s lead, let’s take it step by step.

1. Learn to Use the Unreal Engine

Or just ditch it. The quality of the Square Enix Xbox 360 releases has been dragged down by crummy technical issues that shouldn’t be a problem in high quality RPGs. Infinite Undiscovery has framerate issues. The Last Remnant has them worse — and it’s a turn-based game where relatively little is happening on-screen at once. Both use Epic’s Unreal Engine 3. Write The Last Remnant off as running better with a hard drive install all you want, but the fact of the matter is Square Enix released a game that performs poorly on the hardware SKU (Xbox 360 Arcade) Microsoft is pushing the hardest this fall.

One game could be seen as a fluke. Two is a trend. It’s time that the powers-that-be at Square Enix take a long hard look at the tools the company is using to make its games. If the Unreal Engine 3 isn’t working, scrap it and move on before the Square Enix brand gets tarnished.

While this point has its own merits, I fail to see how learning to use the Unreal Engine (or ditching it) is functionally relevant to “fixing Square’s RPG machine” as Erik and Hilary so confidently phrased. What’s more, any integrity these two writers had at using this point to sell their theory went completely downhill the moment they said Infinite Undiscovery uses the Unreal Engine 3. This is a ridiculously hilarious blunder. Infinite Undiscovery–and let’s ignore the fact that it was developed by Tri-Ace, not Square-Enix–used an in-house engine. I have absolutely no clue where Erik and Hilary got this fact from, but evidently the source lacks any credibility in the same way Erik and Hilary lost all of theirs the moment they made such a claim.

“One game could be seen as a fluke. Two is a trend.”

Yet another incorrect statement after one realizes that Infinite Undiscovery was neither developed by Square-Enix nor did it use the Unreal Engine 3. Erik and Hilary infer the causality of the frame rate issues based on this erroneous assumption, when in reality, other than the fact that both games have the Square-Enix logo on the game case, the frame rate issues in both titles are mutually exclusive. This is because Infinite Undiscovery was developed by a completely different company and The Last Remnant was the only game using the Unreal Engine 3. Frame rate is undeniably an issue in both titles, but inferring a trend in Square-Enix’s RPG quality based on this is unfounded as The Last Remnant is the first Square-Enix developed RPG title for the consoles since Final Fantasy XII. If this happens again in Final Fantasy XIII I’ll gladly reconsider.

2. Upgrade the Presentation

Back in the day, the CG cutscene ruled the RPG world. They have largely gone the way of the dodo, with just a few popping up here or there. Whether that makes you sad is a matter of taste, but what we have gotten as a replacement is hardly satisfactory. In-engine cutscenes have the potential to look fantastic, but using the same engine that doesn’t work well for you and the same animations we’ve seen since the PS1 era doesn’t do it for us.

Animations don’t make or break a game, but they can add a lot to the sense of immersion RPGs would hope to convey. People don’t wave back and forth slowly while they stand in one place. They don’t move stiffly. And more than just the lips move when somebody talks.

If the story is important to your game — and in an RPG it should be — then you had better make sure you present it in the best possible way. That also means doing away with text-box cutscenes. If Square Enix wants to compete with Western developers, it needs to voice every major conversation. The company is simply being outhustled right now.

CG cutscene ruled the RPG world back in the day? I have absolutely no idea where this statement would be true when CG cutscenes, ever since I can remember, have always been scarce. They take up a lot of damn space, and anyone who’s been paying attention knows that this is why you couldn’t have so many in a single video game. Square’s CG cutscenes have always been one of the most memorable ones, but these were always limited to just a handful and only in later years when the CD-R became the DVD-R and now the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray can we be spoiled with more of these CG scenes. I challenge Erik and Hilary to provide me with an abundance of examples from ‘back in the day’ that show how CG ruled the RPG world, because clearly I’m out of the loop.

Square-Enix has been using the same animations we’ve seen since the PS1 era? Do they even recall how animations looked in the PS1 era? Maybe Erik and Hilary have forgotten, but characters in FFVII had blocks for hands and simply twitched all the time while engaging in conversation. FFVIII improved on this significantly, with Squall having distinguishable looking fingers and a more realistically proportioned body, but the fact that these two writers can insinuate that The Last Remnant’s animations are the same as those of the PS1 era is hysterical. Both Infinite Undiscovery and The Last Remnant use motion-capture technology, which was non-existent in game development during the PS1 era and they claim them to be the same? Bollocks. They should re-familiarize themselves with the archaic nature of PS1 animation before making such a grand claim.

3. Evolve the RPG Elements

Let’s face it, most Japanese-developed RPGs still use the same design philosophy that worked 20 years ago. Just about every Square-Enix RPG has towns you walk around in, with dozens of people you speak with for no reason. There are poorly conceived fetch quests and uninspired city designs. The popular comes off as a bunch of animatronics from a Disneyland attraction there to repeat the same line over and over. It’s time for a change.

More and more Western RPGs are creating interesting cities with people that feel as if they exist even when you’re not around. One way to remove unnecessary conversations is to display names over the heads of all citizens, with unimportant NPCs being named “Shopkeeper” and “Millworker” while those who matter can be “Jim the Barber” or what not. The most recent Square-Enix RPGs have large, empty, uninteresting towns that seem there more out of habit than necessity.

Square-Enix needs to suck up its pride and start playing some Western RPGs. Let Mass Effect, Fallout 3 and Fable II inspire you. This doesn’t mean you have to provide morality choices, but you should endeavor to create cities that feel lived in with citizens who have a place within the community.

Has no one ever thought of these people as a device to help the player understand more about their surroundings and add breadth to the overall experience? While these editors may dismiss these NPCs as irrelevant, the reason it has remained a staple of Square-Enix’s RPGs is that it encourages the player to invest time in their world and notice subtle details of the crafted fiction.

Just about every Square-Enix RPG has towns you walk around in, with dozens of people you speak with for no reason, poorly conceived fetch quests and uninspired city designs, they say. Spooky how one could easily surmise the same thing about WRPGs if they so desired. Quite frankly, I’d say Japanese developers have some of the most artistic city designs in the industry. Of course, saying so would really be just an opinion, so just as my aesthetic tastes may not be like someone else’s, so too are Erik’s and Hilary’s and thus the entire debate on city designs and fetch quests (which is also quite an generalization) is yet again irrelevant in supporting why Square’s RPG machine needs fixing. On the topic of “poorly conceived fetch quests” and “dozens of people you speak with for no reason”, this is an unfair comparison when JRPGs and WRPGs are structured in completely different ways. It is also a completely weak argument to debate such trivial matters such as how to name NPCs. Sorry, but adding “Jim the Barber” over someone’s head does not make a conversation with him any less ‘unnecessary’ if he has absolutely no connection to the game’s plot.

Now, I love how Erik and Hilary advise Square-Enix to “suck up its pride” (as if to say: we in the west are now better than you at making RPGs) and to “start playing some Western RPGs” (as if they’re indisputably better) and be ‘inspired’ (as if Japanese people are no longer creative) by titles like Mass Effect, Fallout 3 and Fable II when these three titles are exactly how JRPGs and WRPGs differ in its greatest respect: linear vs sandbox storytelling. Was such a difference ever apparent to Erik and Hilary? And did it ever occur to them to wonder why there is this significant pattern between JRPGs and WRPGs? In a nutshell, it’s culture.

Unfortunately, I refuse to go into any great detail about that as I’d rather save it for an editorial I plan to write in the future, but in summary, the structure and development of JRPGs are undeniably a reflection of their cultural values. It’s not a mystery to see why then that Japanese gamers play and love their JRPGs because they not only enjoy them, but they also understand them. It is also then, unsurprising why so many people here in the West consequently dislike JRPGs, since their structure and presentation are fundamentally shaped by Japanese culture. So saying that Square-Enix should learn from titles like Mass Effect, Fable 2 and Fallout 3 is like saying “Try to be more Western, because our way is better.”

4. Flesh Out Your Gimmicks

Infinite Undiscovery has a flute that often serves no purpose and The Last Remnant has unions which don’t fully make sense. As far as IU’s flute goes, it was an interesting idea that never fully formed. The flute was your hero’s version of magic, but for a good portion of IU, it was pretty much unnecessary. The non-combat properties were made too obvious (you can “see” the invisible areas you are supposed to reveal with the flute) and using the flute in combat meant you were just standing around unable to attack.

The unions in The Last Remnant is an attempt to add some strategy to the combat, but is just too simplistic to work well. The unions you create separate from you in combat, giving a sense of a larger battle. But having no direct control over your unions is actually too limiting. It doesn’t help that none of the characters you can recruit are better than the six characters available from the get go.

So how can this be fixed? Make certain that whatever the gimmick is for the next Square-Enix game, it is integral to the story and is a primary focal point when designing gameplay. The gimmick needs to become the star in some way, instead of feeling like an idea tacked on halfway through development. Give greater thought to the gameplay elements and how they can be given greater depth.

Finally, a point that actually makes some sense. The unions in The Last Remnant are debatable in terms of just how “limiting” it is, but once again, criticizing Infinite Undiscovery’s flute gimmick is completely irrelevant to bettering “Square’s RPG Machine” when the game was developed by Tri-Ace. It really amazes me how so many people are unaware of this fact, and still muster the confidence to post such critical editorials while remaining so ignorant. Characters you recruit are never better than the first six you get because they were never meant to be. You’re recruiting soldiers, not superstars. If you stepped into the Golden Chalice and recruited someone more powerful than Athlum Generals like Torgal or Emma, logic would begin to question how such a character became so strong while being only a hired mercenary? More so, there would have to be a particularly compelling reason for such a circumstance than simply “I walked into a guild and recruited Awesome Mercenary #4, who so happens to be stronger than a General of an entire country.”

5. More is Not Always Better

Just because your game is 50 hours long, it doesn’t mean that all 50 of them are necessary. Just because you have a ton of characters in the game, it doesn’t mean that gamers will be excited to use them all. It’s important to provide a sense of focus.

There seems to be this belief that an RPG is worthless if it isn’t a 50 hour epic. We’re all for getting the most out of our games, but simply cramming extra generic battles or extended boring dungeons into a game doesn’t make it better. In role-playing games, it’s often the choice to extend your game that is most important. Forcing a long game just makes it tedious.

The same goes for playable characters. Infinite Undiscovery had over a dozen playable characters and forces the player to use all of them rather than allowing them the choice of which to enjoy. The Last Remnant swings the pendulum in the opposite direction and offers even more playable characters, though no party members are required. The trouble there is that every single optional character you can recruit for your party is worse than the six you start the game with. Neither option shows focus on what the player might enjoy and instead forces the issue.

I’m not quite sure how this point is inherently Square-Enix’s problem when so many other developers have made this mistake. This is more of a general tip to any aspiring RPG developer, and it’s quite peculiar of Erik and Hilary to pin this on Square-Enix, yet again. “Forcing a long game just makes it tedious” is a true statement, but if you skip out on sidequests and ignore supplementary tasks like finding/synthing the best gear, collecting rare items, etc, there are very few JRPGs that I can think of that exceed the 20-30 hour range.

Again with the Infinite Undiscovery jargon so I’m ignoring that, but after seeing how Erik and Hilary have recycled the ‘recruits are worse than the six you start with’ argument, I can’t help but feel like they’ve tried far too hard to nitpick at Square-Enix’s apparent shortcomings. But since they’ve given it such dedication, I might as well too.

So Erik and Hilary are now using the recruits-weaker-than-original-six argument to support how more cast members are not better. In Infinite Undiscovery this is most definitely true–although once again, please redirect this criticism to Tri-Ace, as I totally agree it’s a good point–but in Last Remnant, the battle system uses unions. The argument here is a bit misguided, since instead of “More is Not Always Better”, the question you ask yourself in The Last Remnant is if “More is Not Always Needed”. Battles can get rough, and often times you are sourly outnumbered by enemy ranks. In most cases, it is important to have as many characters as possible to fill up your unions since it increases your chances of survival–as the union’s HP is not only a total of all its constituent party members, but also shared among them. This only furthers the emphasis on each union being perceived as single ‘units’, and not each party member being looked individually. Recruits were never meant to be anything special, but rather, they are there to support your lead ranks like Athlum’s Generals and Rush Sykes. This amazingly goes back to the cultural argument I prefaced earlier on, but once again I withhold going into that discussion here.

The point to take home here is that JRPGs are at the end of the day, made by Japanese people with the Japanese people in mind. Localizations do exist, but JRPGs are inherently made for the people of its land. It has its own style and flavour that is reminiscent of a culture that is significantly different from our own. It is not only arrogant, but also ignorant of Erik and Hilary to not only suggest that Square-Enix follow in the footsteps of developers like Bethesda and Lionhead, but to also say that doing so will make their games better. But this is not the first time in history that the Western mind has claimed to be better than the East, and certainly not the first time the West has ever tried to push its culture onto it.