“Here’s a note to developers regarding what we hope will become an industry-wide policy: if your game has some good parts, try to put them at the […] beginning. It takes us ten hours of dismal labor to earn enough money to buy your game, so please commence the entertainment early on. If possible, pack something fun right into the box, for instance a balloon.”
I think all hardcore JRPG fans have had a similar experience: You sit down to play one of your favorite old games, filled with excitement. You get nostalgic pangs watching the opening. You hum along to the iconic music. You greet the main character like an old friend.
And then, a few minutes in, you hit a roadblock. Oh, right, the tutorial. Forty-five minutes of mashing the “skip dialog” button later, your enthusiasm has been dampened a bit. And then you remember that the first dungeon is really easy. Another half hour of slogging.
Spam the fight command. Skip through all the expository dialog. Sigh as the game seizes control for a lengthy explanation of how skills work, even though it’s perfectly intuitive.
After a couple of hours, the enchantment is gone. You realize that item crafting and character customization won’t be available for twelve more hours. That’s the whole reason you wanted to replay the game! With a heavy heart, you turn it off. You tell yourself you might come back to that save file later on, but you know you won’t.
A Problem Of Pacing
Unfortunately, this experience is not limited to replaying old games. There have been many times when I’ve tried to get into a new JRPG, only to hit a similar wall.
I spent my first four hours with Bravely Default banging my head against the wall to stay awake, droning, “Bored, bored, bored,” to punctuate each impact. (Also the last two hundred hours, but that’s its own article.)
Even good games aren’t immune. I’m just now getting into the critically acclaimed Grandia. I’m enjoying the systems and characters so far, but I did have to push through a couple of hours of sheer boredom right at the beginning. The load times that occur every time I get into a fight, move between areas or open the menu are also starting to grate.
By their nature, JRPGs are slow-paced games. They have complex mechanics that have to be explained. They have complicated stories that require a lot of dialog. They have detailed worlds that need exposition.
In addition, JRPGs have become more cinematic over time. There is more of an emphasis on uninteractive cutscenes. Attack animations have become longer and flashier. More detailed music and graphics require longer load times.
These aren’t necessarily bad things. Deeper stories, more detailed worlds and more satisfying aesthetics have pushed this genre forward. Unfortunately, these things have had a nasty side effect: they have made it more acceptable for a developer to waste the player’s time.
Doing A Lot With A Little
So how do we show respect for a player’s time? How can we tell when some slowing down is necessary and not mere self-indulgence?
The first principle to embrace here is concision. We must strive to be concise in every area of our design, from mechanics to aesthetics to storytelling. We must become adept at doing a lot with a little.
Keep encounter rates low and fights quick. Keep animations short, especially any that the players are going to be watching over and over again. Carefully choose your words for information density. If you can say something in one text box, don’t use four. Do everything you can to keep load times short and waiting to a minimum.
Carry this dedication through in the big picture as well. If you have ten hours worth of good ideas, don’t try to stretch them into eighty hours of grinding. Some of the best JRPGs ever made are among the shortest. Chrono Trigger, Mother 3 and Undertale can all be thoroughly cleared in less than twenty hours apiece.
The second principle to embrace is engagement. Every time you take control away from the player you should reflexively ask yourself, “Is this necessary?” Be ruthless in your answer.
Rather than giving the player information in a cutscene, put that information in dialog triggered by player action. Make fights fast and flexible, not drawn out and repetitive. Ensure that using items and equipping characters involves meaningful decisions so that even using the menu is engaging.
An important part of engagement is variety. You should be constantly introducing new concepts, locations and challenges to the player, right up to the end of the game. Even when content must be reused, put a new spin on it.
JRPGs are big time investments, even more so than novels. The immersion players crave requires deep mechanics and storytelling. To this end, players are willing to put up with deliberate pacing. However, we should not take this as an invitation to abuse their good will.
JRPG fans tend toward the older side of the demographic chart. We’ve got families and careers and other hobbies. We all have fond memories of the eighty-hour epics we played in our youth, but neither you nor your audience are bored high school students anymore.
Your cuts and changes don’t have to be dramatic. Little things add up. If you can save just twelve seconds of pointless waiting out of every random encounter, then over a hundred random encounters you will have reduced your dead time by twenty minutes.
Show respect for your player and their limited free time. Don’t make a long, grinding chore that all blurs together. Deliver a lean, impactful experience that your players will remember forever.