There are many articles on the Internet about JRPG design and what's wrong with the genre, but very few of these articles are written by people who actually make this kind of game. Now, I didn't make Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, but I have created two JRPG-style games for the XBox 360, Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death VII: The Beginning. Let me share some of the thought processes that I go through when designing our games.
My Philosophy on Game Design:
I'm what the media likes to call a "hardcore gamer." I love trying to master games and if they're especially difficult games, even better. Complex RPGs like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, strategy games like the Civilization series, and score-attack games like Pac-Man: Championship Edition DX are some of my favorites.
I have a wife who likes to play games, but doesn't have much time to dedicate to them between her other responsibilities. Her favorite game is definitely Plants vs. Zombies.
I also have a 10-year old daughter who has just started getting into RPGs who loves Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VII, Titan Quest, and Blue Dragon when she isn't playing stuff on Poptropica.
When I first tried to design games, I would try to make games just for me. Inevitably these designs ended up having critical flaws – a result of my focusing just on what I deemed to be the most important while ignoring other less important but still crucial aspects. Then, I came upon the solution! Try to make games that my entire family would enjoy. And thus, I came up with the central tenets of my RPG design making philosophy.
Depth & Accessibility:
The JRPG genre has become a very insular genre – it seems like each new game has even more crazy rules and systems to learn. As someone with a lot of experience in the genre, I often enjoy these highly complicated games, but there's no denying that it presents a high barrier of entry to the uninitiated. Right from the start, I decided that any gameplay system that we included in our RPGs would be easy to understand; we wouldn't create complexity for complexity's sake. Depth would be created by intelligent design, not by a million crazy systems.
Easy to understand rules help with accessibility, but we didn't want to stop there. Multiple difficulty levels (easy, normal, and hard) were easy to implement and help greatly towards making a game more approachable. The ability to save anywhere and a limited number of chances to redo failed combat both help with accessibility and reduce the tedium of looking for save spots or losing progress.
There's grown to be an expectation that JRPGs need to be massive 50+ hour undertakings. Unfortunately, few developers know how to make 50+ hours worth of engaging content and so we get a bunch of games that are poorly paced and full of filler. Is it any wonder that a large number of players fail to finish most games that they begin?
We don't need longer games; we need denser games. We need games with a minimum of filler, where the player gets a fun and memorable experience the entire time. We need games that people with limited free time can play and feel like they're not wasting time. We need more games where you have trouble identifying the best parts because the whole experience is great.
In JRPG design terms, I strive for density by avoiding the normally slow pace that most JRPGs have. Though our games have turn-based combat, the combat itself is fast paced and we try to keep new content (monsters, LV-Ups, new abilities, new characters, new areas) coming frequently. Grinding is kept to a minimum.
Can you imagine an RPG where the developer took the resources that they would normally have taken to make a huge epic and instead tried to create a few extremely dense hours of pure joy? I'd like to play that game.
Although I'm not a big fan of most sandbox games, I think they have the right general idea. Everyone is different. The most enjoyable way for me to play a game may not be the same as the most enjoyable way for you to play a game. Let me illustrate.
One of the most popular features of our games is the random encounter limits. Each area has a set number of random encounters and once you've reached that amount, random encounters are turned off (you can still initiate them by selecting Fight on the menu though). Soon after Breath of Death VII was released, I discovered that some people would enter a dungeon, fight all of the battles right from the start, and then explore the dungeon free of battles.
My gut reaction was "That's not the right way to play the game! You should be exploring the dungeon normally and just take advantage of the encounter limit if you get lost or if you want to search for stuff you may have missed!" I was about to go through and change the system around to make it more difficult to do the initial dungeon purge strategy. But then I stepped back and thought about it. Sure, standing and fighting all of the battles in a row isn't my idea of fun, but some people seem to prefer doing things that way. If that's how they would like to play the game, who am I to stop them? Respect the player and let them make their own fun.
Other ways that we try to allow the player to customize the experience is with different difficulty and game modes (Score Attack & Highlander modes catering to those people who like low level and single character challenges respectively), optional dungeons, multiple playable characters, and a large number of LV-Up choices.
And now, a few words on JRPG combat & encounters.
One character heals, everybody else attacks. Repeat until you win. Far too many JRPGs can be won with this incredibly simple strategy. I didn't want the same to be true of our games so I made a simple but far reaching change to combat. Each round, enemy power increases by 10%. Eventually, any serious enemy is going to get powerful enough that their attacks are going to start instantly killing characters. Efficiency, not endurance, becomes the key to victory. Healing is no longer an "I win" button, but is instead a decision – do I reduce my damage output now to heal or do I risk not healing in order to win faster? We further emphasized the dilemma between offense and defense by causing some healing spells to reset the player's combo count (the key to massive damage with some abilities).
There's a lot of hatred towards random encounters in JRPGs and I think a lot of that anger is misplaced. The true problem is boring combat and bad pacing, not random encounters. I'm sure I'm not the only one who actively sought out combat in Grandia just because it was fun (Grandia is easy enough that grinding is not essential). If combat is interesting, has variety, and appropriately rewards the player, then random encounters can become entertaining and not a chore.
Make combat fast paced (do this by avoiding long animations and load times, not by removing depth). If you do use random encounters, use multiple random encounter charts per location – get the player used to some of the monsters in the dungeon in the first few fights before upping the difficulty and throwing harder monsters at them later on. Have the occasional random mini-boss fight. Give good rewards for winning.
And anyway, a lot of non-random encounter systems that are used in some JRPGs (like Chrono Trigger & Final Fantasy XIII) are essentially random encounter in all but name in that they force the player to fight a number of less important battles between major encounters. Focus on the problem (boring gameplay), not a symptom.
Of course, there are many other elements that go into making a quality JRPG that I haven't really touched upon (story, visuals, music, map designs, characters, LV-Up systems, etc.), but hopefully I've provided some food for thought. The genre can evolve without losing its identity. The best games are still to come.