This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.
It's gone largely unnoticed here in the U.S., but Namco Bandai is in the middle of a grand experiment with its Super Robot Taisen strategy RPG series (which has seen life stateside in the past thanks to Atlus USA). And if you like Japanese RPGs – or anything that's expensive to produce in general – you might want to pay attention, because this could be your future.
Namco Bandai's licensed strategy game series -- which teams mechs like Gundam with the likes of Voltron -- has been around for 20 years now, and in that time it's picked up a loyal audience. I know because I'm one of them. We were all excited because we wanted to see how the story would continue in the franchise's latest arc, which kicked off on the PS2.
But Namco Bandai, of course, had a curveball. Like the last two Harry Potter films, the SRT sequel would be split into two parts. It even released a boxed set that came with the first of the two games, a story digest recapping the event of the storyline so far, and a slot for the second game. The total price for just one of the games at launch was 7300 yen (about $90).
The rising prices go hand-in-hand with the decline of anime and domestic gaming in Japan, and the rise of piracy. Put simply, making a Super Robot Taisen game doesn't come cheap. The series has based its reputation on elaborate 2D animated sequences like this this one, which take time and money to create. And the robots touted in the title are all from well-known mecha series, which means ever higher licensing fees.
So far, the strategy seems to be paying off. The second entry in the Z2 arc –Saisei-hen – has topped the Japanese charts for two weeks in a row, selling a respectable 300,000 copies. Saisei-hen's numbers are right in line with the first game, meaning that, at worst, the two games will sell around 700,000 copies together at a price point of about $180. Saisei-hen has new units and a full game's worth of new maps and route splits, but otherwise it's not hugely different from the first game. The additional overhead created by splitting one game into two ought to be minimal.
As it happens, I'm one of the 200,000 or so people who have put down money for both games. I got into the series back when I was still teaching in Japan, desperately homesick, and looking for a reason to want to stay. For fans of the genre, Super Robot Taisen is basically continuity porn on the order of the Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, artfully mixing disparate storylines with input from the original writers. And to Banpresto's credit, the split between the two halves of Z2 feels pretty natural, being as the story revolves around shows like Gundam 00 and Code Geass, which were split in two themselves.
But as much as I like Super Robot Taisen, Namco Bandai is putting itself in a bit of a bind. Ratcheting up prices means that an admittedly specialized audience is only going to become more so. We're already seeing packages that are borderline insane. For instance, how many people will pay $450 plus shipping for a Super Robot Taisen OG boxset that includes all 26 episodes of the anime tie-in?
All of this should have JRPG fans squirming in their seats. Other RPGs don't have to deal with as much licensing overhead as Super Robot Taisen, but that doesn't mean they come cheap. The fancy graphics, the voice-overs, and sheer size means high development costs. And for PSP (and now Vita, it seems) developers, there's piracy to contend with. In fact, the latter issue has gotten so bad that Super Robot Taisen Z2 opens with a message explicitly begging gamers not to pirate the series. This is just a guess, but that request has probably gone unheeded.
The debate over how much games should cost is not a new one. The Consumerist recently castigated the industry for pricing games like "premium goods." Over on Game|Life, Chris Kohler argued that games can't afford to cost $60.
Namco Bandai, meanwhile, is charging $180 for one game that has been split in two. For Namco, the present of the anime industry seems to be the future of the Japanese video game industry. And for Super Robot Taisen fans, and maybe Tales fans, and possibly other JRPG fans as well, the future is looking more expensive all the time.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.