Is Sony's RPG Dominance Coming To An End?

Although some diehard PlayStation fans will refuse to admit it, partly to justify their purchase and to protect their favorite company, the PlayStation 3 has been a pretty big disappointment so far for RPG fans. Now, this wouldn’t be that bad if we stopped at the "so far" part, but the problem is that it doesn't seem to be getting any better for the foreseeable future. Now, keep in mind that throughout this editorial, I will only be taking into account the American releases and not the Japanese market.

After the success of the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 consoles and the abundance of RPGs for those systems, it's a hard pill to swallow for those who were expecting the same from the PlayStation 3. Where are the RPGs? Where is Suikoden? Wild Arms? Shadow Hearts? .hack? Arc the Lad? Breath of Fire? Dark Cloud? Grandia? Shining Force? Dragon Quest? Where are the first party RPGs? Where are all the Square Enix RPGs? There's obviously something missing from the PlayStation 3 and that thing is the RPG genre.

Now, before I go any further, I'm going to explain why I think the PlayStation 3 is a disappointment so far and offer some statistics to support my argument. A lot of people are going to argue that the PlayStation 3 has only been out a short while (a year and a half) and that it takes time for RPGs to come to a new system. Now, this might seem true to a certain extent but the problem is that history doesn't seem to support that argument.

First, let's take a look at the current list of RPGs for the PlayStation 3. There are currently 5 RPGs available for the system:

Marvel Ultimate Alliance
Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom
Enchanted Arms
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Now, this is obviously not an expansive list, especially since Folklore is pretty borderline since some websites don't even consider the game an RPG at all. Now, let's take a look at the RPGs that are scheduled to be released from now until the end of the year:

Valkyria Chronicles: November
Rise of the Argonauts: Fall 2008
Disgaea 3: August
Fallout 3: October

Now, these are all "tentative" release dates and it's possible that some of these titles will get delayed. So basically, what we're looking at here is a possibility of a maximum of 9 RPGs being released in the first 2 years of the console's life. That doesn't seem like much to me. And for those who say that it's normal since it is still early in the system's life, let's explore that and compare that with its predecessor: the PlayStation 2. In the first 2 years of its release, 27 RPGs were released for the PlayStation 2. Now, 27 is obviously quite a bit more than 9, especially given the fact that titles such as Final Fantasy X, Suikoden III, Wild Arms 3, Shadow Hearts, Grandia 2, Grandia Xtreme, Kingdom Hearts and Dark Cloud were part of that list of 27 RPGs.

Now, some of you might say that it's not fair to compare the PS3 with the PS2 since the market has changed and things are different now. Granting that logic to be valid, let's compare the PS3 with one of its current rivals: the Xbox 360. Currently, the Xbox 360 has a total of 18 RPGs released. Now, let's take a look at the upcoming releases from now until the end of the year:

Operation Darkness: June
Spectral Force 3: July
Tales of Vesperia: August
Infinite Undiscovery: September
Fallout 3: October
Fable 2: October
Two Worlds: The Temptation : November
Rise of the Argonauts: Fall 2008

That is 8 RPGs to be released in the next 7 months, an average of about 1 per month. This is not a bad ratio at all. Now, those 8 RPGs will bring the total number of RPGs on 360 to 26. 26 for Xbox 360 versus 9 for PlayStation 3. Now, obviously it's not fair to compare it like that since the Xbox 360 was released a year earlier. Instead, let's count the number of RPGs that were released on the 360 within the first 2 years of its release. That gives a total of 13 RPGs, still more than the PS3's "tentative" 9. We also can't forget that to "catch up" to the Xbox 360's total number of RPGs after 3 years (26), the PS3 will need to have 17 RPGs released in 2009. It's possible that this could happen but it is highly unlikely.

To finish up on the statistics, let's mention here that by the end of the year, the Xbox 360 will have a total of 21 exclusive RPGs as opposed to 4 for the PlayStation 3. The 360 will also have 12 Japanese RPGs compared to 3 for the PlayStation 3. There is even also more bad news for PS3 RPG fans. Namco has recently mentioned that Eternal Sonata on PS3 will most likely not see a release in the US. Tales of Vesperia, which is currently an exclusive on Xbox 360 may very well see a release eventually on PS3 but who's to say it won't suffer the same fate as Eternal Sonata and remain in Japan only on PS3? Square Enix has also now announced that Star Ocean 4, widely expected to be released on PS3, has now been announced as an Xbox 360 title with Square Enix mentioning that they are unsure if they will even release a PS3 version and that if it does, it will most likely be released after the Xbox 360 version. There's a similar situation with The Last Remnant. The game is now a timed exclusive for the Xbox 360 with a PS3 release coming later.

We have to keep in mind here that Sony's consoles have always been a haven for RPG fans so it seems inconceivable that the PlayStation 3 is being beaten by the Xbox 360 in terms of RPG releases. This is especially true since the original Xbox faired pretty poorly in the RPG genre, especially when it comes to Japanese RPGs with a big total of 0 JRPGs released during its lifespan. How did this happen? How is Sony being beaten in the RPG genre by an American-made console like the Xbox 360?

Well, I believe, there are several reasons for this decline in RPGs for Sony's newest console.

The first reason is obviously Sony's current market share. Publishers are a little confused right now about which console to make games for. The Wii currently has the highest installed base in the world (out of the 3 next-generation consoles). However, with the Wii being aimed at the casual gamer market, it is not necessarily the best console to make RPGs for, especially since third-party games have sold pretty poorly on the system and it seems like only Nintendo titles are selling like hot cakes. You then have the Xbox 360 who has the second best installed base but is mostly popular in the US and almost a non-factor in Japan. However, Xbox 360 owners buy more games in general and 3rd party software especially sells very well on the system. This brings up the PlayStation 3 which is in last place in terms of installed base. Because of this situation, companies are having a hard time committing to a PlayStation 3 title right now. It almost looks like they are taking a "wait and see" approach with the PS3, basically waiting for sales of the system to pick up so they can justify making a title for it.

The success of the Xbox 360 in America combined with the failure of the system in Japan is creating a new dynamic for the Japanese RPG developers. It has directly led to the multiplatform approach becoming more prevalent. This is a new direction for Japanese RPGs since in the past, they were often exclusive to a particular console. On one hand, developers want to take advantage of the Xbox 360's installed base but they also want to sell their RPGs to their main audience (in Japan). Given the 360's failure in Japan, the developers now port their RPGs to the PS3 in order to sell their games in Japan. The problem with this approach though is that we may eventually see a situation where the English version would be sold only in America on the 360 and only in Japan on the PS3. We're not there yet but it IS a possibility (as we are seeing with Eternal Sonata).

Another reason for the lack of RPGs on the PlayStation 3 may be the fact that the PlayStation 2 is still alive and kicking and developers prefer to tap that HUGE market instead of taking a chance on a PS3 title. On this, Sony is a victim of its own success. So many Sony fans love their PS2 that they don't want to let it go and upgrade to the PS3. On the other hand, Xbox fans didn't really have a choice to upgrade to the Xbox 360 since Microsoft completely stopped making games for its original console. Sony doesn't have that luxury because they can't all of a sudden abandon the highest selling console in history with over 120 million sold.

Perhaps the biggest reason however might be the increased popularity of the portable systems: the DS and the PSP. We have to remember that videogame companies don't make games just to make us happy; they mostly do it to make money. As such, videogame companies are faced with 2 choices. They can make a DS or PSP RPG for a relatively low cost that will be sold to a huge installed base that almost guarantees they'll make a return on investment. Or, on the other hand, they can create an RPG for the PlayStation 3 which is a harder machine to develop for, has higher cost of development and has a much smaller installed base. It seems like a no-brainer to me. If I had my own videogame company, I would definitely go for the low-cost, high return option. So it's no surprise to me that Square Enix, for example, keeps dishing out titles for the DS and PSP while making relatively few PS3 RPGs.

As briefly mentioned earlier in this editorial, another reason for the lack of RPGs on PlayStation 3 could be the difficulty of making games for the system. Many developpers have voiced their opinions on the subject and it seems like it is a lot harder to develop for the PlayStation 3 console because of the very convoluted architecture. It also seems like Microsoft has Sony beaten when it comes to dev kits and development support. Developers are often heard praising the Xbox 360 console as a great machine to make games for because of the ease of use of Microsoft's dev kits. On the other hand, not many developers seem to have the resources and knowledge to take advantage of the PlayStation 3's hardware, which is why most of the graphically impressive games on the system are first-party titles.

Despite the current situation with PS3 RPGs, I often hear people saying they're buying a PS3 because they loved their PS2 RPGs. It looks like these people are making a decision based on the past successes of Sony's consoles instead of the actual merits of the current one. If that kind of logic really held any water, then I guess the Nintendo 64 must have been the best choice for RPG players based on the fact that the Super Nintendo was a great RPG machine. As you can see, sometimes things change in life and maybe Sony's dominance in the RPG field is coming to an end after all. Then again, with Sony's victory in the HD-DVD/Blu-Ray battle and the recent sales data which shows that the PlayStation 3 is faring better, maybe things will turn around for Sony and they'll make a big comeback. But one thing is for sure, time is running out on Sony and if they want to make an impact, they need to make it quick before it's too late for them because the Xbox 360 is certainly making an impression on RPG fans.

- Eric Farand