Last month, Microsoft had an RPG conference in Japan. The biggest news out of the event was the announcement that Star Ocean 4, previously thought to be a PS3 exclusive, is in fact, an Xbox 360 game and might not show up on the PS3 at all. Xbox owners can also cheer that The Last Remnant, a multiplatform Square-Enix RPG, is going to be released earlier on the 360 than on the PS3. Other highlights from the conference include additional media and information on Tales of Vesperia (a 360 exclusive by Namco in the series made famous in the US by Tales of Symphonia for the GameCube) and Infinite Undiscovery (a 360 exclusive by Square-Enix that looks similar to Rogue Galaxy).
I'm reminded of this quote from Vic Ireland, the president of the now-defunct RPG localizing company, Working Designs:
For the future, there are still great opportunities. I have been in touch with a number of other publishers and manufacturers and I will be working with some of the WD staff to do games for other publishers for the time being, but not as Working Designs. One thing that holds a ton of promise is Xbox 360 RPGs, and I've contacted Microsoft about getting what's underway in Japan out in the US and helping to get more done worldwide. We'll see what happens on that front, but please let them know that you want more rpgs here. There's some amazing stuff coming for the '360 in Japan, and I know I want it — I think you will, too.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who read those words from Vic Ireland back in 2005 and laughed in disbelief. The Xbox 360 being a great RPG machine? Aside from a couple Bioware games (Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire), the Xbox's library of RPGs was practically non-existent. Why would the 360 be any different? And yet, here we are in 2008 and those words of Vic sound more prophetic than crazy.
How did we get to the point where the PS3, aside from Final Fantasy XIII, is sparse in the RPG department, despite the PSOne & PS2's utter dominance in the genre? How did the Xbox 360 come to look so impressive compared to the original Xbox's pathetic showing? There are a number of factors: Microsoft's courting of Japanese developers and their own investment in Mistwalker Studios (Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey); the Xbox 360's one-year head start; and the cheaper price tag are all factors. But I believe the biggest contributor is that Microsoft published good RPGs significantly earlier than its competition. RPGs tend to be games with low replay value; thus, fans of the genre tend to buy more RPGs than fans of other genres with greater longevity might. The early availability of RPGs on the Xbox 360 combined with RPG fans' tendency to buy many RPGs created a snowball effect: a good RPG comes for the system encourages more fans of RPGs to buy the system, which in turns encourages more companies to make RPGs for the system. The system has momentum now — Western RPGs like Too Human and the Mass Effect trilogy, Japanese RPGs from companies like Square-Enix & Namco, Strategy/RPGs from Atlus — and I don't see that changing any time soon.
Will the PS3 or the Wii be able to catch up and overtake the 360 in the RPG field? I don't think so. Final Fantasy XIII, though a big title, looks like it'll be too little, too late. And with Square-Enix showing more and more support for the 360 and less support for the PS3, there's always the chance that FFXIII could end up as a multiplatform title. The Wii has a fair chance of developing a good RPG library simply because the system is selling insanely well and the dominant system inevitably gets strong game developer support, but I don't know. Whether it's true or not, the Wii is getting a reputation as being the console of choice for casual gamers and so developers may prove hesitant to develop RPGs for the system. The Wii might end up with a strong lineup of RPGs, but as of now, that's merely a hope; there's nothing particular noteworthy in the genre on the system at the moment.
In the meantime, I plan on enjoying the 360's RPG library while marveling at the strange and bizarre world we live in.