Why JRPGs should look at the NFL's playbook

This is a column by Jason Schreier dedicated to the analysis (and occasional mocking) of his favorite genre, the Japanese role-playing game. Whether it's because they're too antiquated or just too niche, he believes JRPGs don't get enough attention in the gaming industry today. It's time to change that.



Joystiq's Ben Gilbert once bemusedly pointed out that my taste in games oscillates between "kawaii!" and "yeah bro!" This is true. Two of the games I enjoyed most this year were Radiant Historia and Madden NFL 12, which is about as huge a disparity as you can get without diving into the terrifying click fields of games like FarmVille.

But wait a minute. Are they really all that different? Sure, the National Football League athletes who lend their images to Madden might not have much in common with the anime-like sprites of a Japanese RPG, but in terms of game design, there are some striking similarities.

As Kill Screen Editor-in-Chief Chris Dahlen pointed out in a GameSpy article last year, football is, at its core, a strategy role-playing game. Each team gets several turns to move the ball down the field, during which they can select from a variety of different attacks. Competing teams match wits over field position and strategy in an attempt to wrest an advantage. At the end of the game, whichever team does the most damage -- or scores the most points -- wins.

Though it has been tweaked quite a bit over the past century, the core rules of football have remained the same since the forward pass was introduced over 100 years ago. It is America's most popular sport for a reason: it is an extraordinarily well-designed game.

Perhaps it could teach JRPG developers a thing or two about combat.

D-Fence

For some reason, we all casually accept one of the silliest aspects of turn-based combat: the fact that our characters stand around doing nothing while enemies bite their faces off. In football, the landscape is a bit different.

"You don't have to stand there with your spiky hair and your giant sword, watching something smack you in the head," Dahlen says. "When you don't have the ball, you can play defense."

Cornerbacks cover receivers. Defensive linemen rush the quarterback. Safeties guard the backfield. Even when your opponent is on the offense, you have the opportunity to make a play.

SNES game Super Mario RPG does something similar, allowing you to defend yourself with timely button presses during every turn. Many action-RPGs also give you the option to block or counter-attack enemy slashes and jabs.

What if more turn-based combat systems followed in those footsteps? Imagine a Final Fantasy game in which you have to read your opponents' moves during each turn and execute complex defensive schemes to prevent them from attacking. Maybe you have to anticipate where your opponent will move next and set up your position accordingly. Maybe you have to pick a defensive stance based on whether you think an opponent's next attack will be physical or magical.

Or maybe don't just stand there while goblins swing axes at your legs?

Those Magic Moments

Every NFL fan can spend hours describing how it feels when their favorite team makes a huge play. From the Helmet Catch to the Immaculate Reception, football's most powerful moments have been canonized throughout history. Even your average Madden match can leave you with the occasional "Wow -- I just did that."

Turn-based combat has no such moments. Even when JRPG developers pack their battles with gargantuan summoned beasts and flashy spells, they can never really emulate that jolt of excitement that hits you when your quarterback throws an 80-yard touchdown.

So how do you capture that? Simple: Raise the stakes. We don't care all that much about the events in a turn-based battle because we know that if we lose, we'll just start again from the latest save point. But what if losing a fight was far more significant than that? What if instead of taking you to a Game Over screen, every defeat changed the course of your story?

Say you have a hero who gathers a group of party members and sets out to save the world. Say he and his team lost to a powerful enemy. What if that enemy came back later and made things more difficult for you? Or what if he permanently killed one of your allies? That lucky critical hit would feel a lot more magical if it actually saved somebody's life.

Of course, this would be easier if we had...

Fewer Battles

Every NFL team plays 16 regular season games a year. At most, a team can play up to 20 (non-exhibition) games, including the Super Bowl.

The biggest advantage of this schedule is that it makes every single game matter. Short of a few rare exceptions toward the end of the year, no team can afford to coast through any match-up.

Have you ever played a JRPG where every single battle mattered? Has anybody? Even in strategy RPGs with rarer, more engaging battles, like Final Fantasy Tactics or Shining Force, fighting can sometimes feel like going through the motions.

Look at critically acclaimed adventure game Shadow of the Colossus. Each of its battles is weighty and challenging, perhaps because there are so few of them. Every fight is a significant obstacle that you have to overcome in order to lead your character to victory. You're invested in all of them.

I want to play a turn-based JRPG in which combat is something I care about, not just that thing I do between each scene of the story. Is that so much to ask?


Jason Schreier is a freelance writer/editor based out of NYC. He's a contributing writer for Wired.com and occasionally writes for a number of other sites and publications, including Edge Magazine, the Onion News Network and G4TV. You can follow him on Twitter at @jasonschreier.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.