At the genesis of RPG games, a distinct paradox began. Should RPGs play out like Dungeons and Dragons, where RPG is defined by character creation, customization, realism and open-endedness or rather tell a story and put the player in the place of one of its major characters for a more intimate experience. This obvious distinction is what we refer to as Western vs Japanese-style RPGs.
While the former has undergone major upgrades over the last decades, and is now quite a best seller (TES: Skyrim for example) the once king "jRPG" has been undergoing a major identity crysis. While it has gone through a major arms race in the 90s, developers have now lost faith in their ability to produce quality jRPGs it seems. In fact, there is nothing really new under the sky for jRPGs since Final Fantasy VII which was released back in 1997.
I will not analyse the reasons and impacts of this crysis here as a large number of writers have already done just that. Rather, I will spend time here discussing a reccurring statement that has shed some light for me on the nature of the problem and how to solve it.
The Story so far
Over the last couple of years, there's been a major upheaval of interest for a specific series. Chrono Trigger was a game from the apogee of SNES jRPGs that had found a large base of devoted fans in 1995, only 2 years before the end of the genre's expansion. The game's reception was so great that, obviously, Squaresoft (now SquareEnix) just had to develop a sequel which would be known as Chrono Cross in 1999 (I will not talk about the Radical Dreamers experiment here as, though it may be canon to the game's lore, its impact was hardly significant). That sequel was not exactly what people had expected, so people continued to claim for a Chrono Trigger's sequel (I'll speak to that shortly).
In 2000, Squaresoft registered the name Chrono Break, which aroused the fans of the series. The thought that a sequel was perhaps in the works made the fans go nuts. Until the name was actually dropped. This left a great feeling of emptiness amongst the crowd, and from the ashes of the sequel-less series, a few groups of fans formed. Chrono Resurrection (amongst others) was born, a fan-made project that attempted to reproduce Chrono Trigger in 3D! After a few months in the work, the developers received a cease and desist from Squaresoft and ultimately had to abandon the project altogether. Some eager fans believed that Squaresoft would hire the developers, but this did not happen (I know a few of them, and they are well seated in other companies as of now).
With all hope lost, fans began writing to SquareEnix claiming for a sequel.
While the fanbase for Chrono Trigger is very large, SquareEnix received the fans' request coldly. Fans started insulting SquareEnix for this behavior, but truth be told, SquareEnix was absolutely right:
SquareEnix is a game developing company and a well reknown publisher. They don't make "charity games". They run a convenient business, undergoing the jRPG crysis. Therefore, if a bunch of kids ask for a sequel, but their marketing tells them they won't turn up a profit, you can bet a whole damn lot they won't make that sequel.
"Secretly", SquareEnix has been testing the waters for a fair while. They've made a reedition of the game on the playstation, and yet another reedition on the Nintendo DS, both of which received relatively mediocre sales despite near heavenly reviews. I have no doubt that SquareEnix's developers would be interested in developing such a great game, but it would have to sell, and right now, there's just no guarantee that it would.
The Sequel Syndrome
I won't deny I'm a big fan of the original (in case that didn't show already). I too, hoped for a sequel. I too, played Chrono Cross with very high expectations and felt betrayed. Why?
You see, when people asked for a sequel to Chrono Trigger, they were extremely vague. Squaresoft produced something that was definitely a sequel to the story. Yet, fans felt like this was not 'Chrono Trigger's sequel'. Furthermore, they merely chose to ignore the sequel when they started asking for a sequel to Chrono Trigger. Normally, when fans ask for a sequel, they do not refer to the series by its first title but by the last iteration, or their commonality (a sequel to Chrono, or Chrono Cross would've been appropriate). Squaresoft made it clear that Chrono Cross was not an 'installment in the series' by refusing to use the term "2". In series such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, where the story is not necessarily canon, a number can represent the chronological order of game release, but is not necessarily a 'sequel'. Fans of Chrono Trigger demanded a sequel, and that is what Squaresoft gave them. Yet, that is not what the fans were really asking for. This is, the Chrono Trigger Sequel Syndrome.
I've been asking myself why me, and thousands of other fans, had refused Chrono Cross as a sequel. What was so bad about it? In fact, not much, if not for the fact that it wasn't Chrono Trigger. It became obvious that people wanted 'more of Chrono Trigger' and that replaying it wouldn't be enough.
The real question thus was, "what is Chrono Trigger that Chrono Cross isn't?" I've asked a couple of people what they imagined Chrono Trigger's sequel should be like, and I was surprised by the answers.
Please note this is based on a relatively small sample of people's opinions (50 ish) which I strangely believe is representative of the whole. Here are the reccurring thoughts on Chrono Trigger 2.0:
Chrono Trigger's sequel should be a 2 dimension jRPG with a real-time battle system and an epic story revolving around few detailed heroes.
Repeat, come again?
Should the story be canon?
Should reccurring characters come back?
Maybe as optional characters. (*Although Magus received a big 'yes' even though he was optional in Chrono Trigger, note that this wasn't the case for Frog/Glenn)
Should time-travel be involved?
Do you see where this is going?
Chrono Cross was badly received as Chrono Trigger's sequel because Squaresoft and the fans did not agree on the definition of "sequel".
Fans have been nurtured by series such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest where a 'sequel' is more or less a spiritual successor to the game's mechanics and lore with its own original story, mechanics, etc. It is quite possible that when Fans asked for a sequel to Chrono Trigger they were not even aware of it, but that they expected something similar, with high production values, 2d refined graphics, an engaging plot and combat system, well tailored for both the hardcore and casual gamer, etc. Not necessarily something that would try to pick things up where Chrono left them...
Squaresoft, envisioned a sequel in a different way: The Story was the driving factor. Chrono Trigger had left little design space for an interesting story pickup, and they didn't want to do more of the same. They had to rework the entire game mechanics in a whole original way to fit around the story they had chosen.
The Botom Line
My personal belief is that at least part of the RPG crysis problem relates to fans being too vague about what they want. The game developers have taken insane amounts of risks in trying to find the next thing, and have erred too many times. Developers have ceased to risk, and decided to go for the 'safe' plan, developing boring clones. Ultimately, when they stop selling, jRPGs will die unless the fans tell the developers exactly what they want. Obviously, fans rarely know what they want until they see it, but expressing a thought as 'I want a game that is like that' rather than 'I want a sequel to that' can go a long way. It would force developers to think outside of 'brands' and more in terms of features / ambience requirements.
Ultimately, the developer is responsible for not having gauged effectively what was so good about Chrono Trigger and how to tap into that (they've actually scrapped the very fun combat system of the original game for something much less appealing, and have taken all player freedom away from them) but that doesn't mean it couldn't help them to receive constructive criticism once in a while.
Moreso, it is my sincere belief that such misunderstanding spread from Final Fantasy VII's success and led to the series of extravagant 3D jRPGs we've seen achieve limited success over the last decade.
On a sidenote, I will only mention briefly an article I've read a few months back which illustrates a part of my understanding of the other half of the problem where companies have been influenced by a 'Borg-like' train of thought. In this article, you can read, to a certain extent, the ignorance of the writer which believes that everything that is wrong with the jRPG genre is that it is not a western RPG.
Sadly, it seems that the companies themselves have started to think that what's wrong with the JRPGs is the "J".