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Updated: May 17, 2011

What follows is something I have been working on for awhile now. Given the recent discussion about "JRPGs" and "WRPGs", I've decided to let people read my notes to better understand the way I look at games and how I believe others should look at games when trying to quantify their elements.

While I have encouraged people to use the older terms of "console-style" and "PC-style" in place of "JRPG" and "WRPG" since the older terms are more politically correct, I do recognize the older terms are also misnomers and many people see no reason to stop using misnomers in place of other misnomers.

A recurring problem with videogame classification is that a lot of the genre labels we use for games are misnomers; even "strategy rpg" and the Japanese equivalent for the genre, "simulation rpg", are misnomers because all games require strategy and all games are simulations.

One of my core design principles for creating game mechanics is to make the design modular. 'Modular' means you can swap out parts of the design for other parts and the game will still function correctly (which is important so that new rules can be added to an existing game without upsetting its balance). Since I personally would prefer to see genre labels be modular I have attempted to create a modular system for identifying CRPG game genres.

Please note that this is a work in progress-- I think the labels I currently have here are a'bit of a mouthful-- but you can see the direction I'm going.


Syntax of the definitions.
Modular systems require a syntax-- a pattern, if you will. The syntax I have created for defining computer RPG genres is as follows:

[Combat system] [narrative model] [target audience] [narrative genre] RPG

An example would be,
'Real time based linear Children's fantasy RPG'


..."real time based" representing the combat system...

..."linear" representing the narrative model...

..."Children's" representing the target audience...

...and "fantasy" representing the narrative genre...

A 'Real time based linear Children's fantasy RPG' would be Secret of Mana.

Combat genres

In an attempt to best identify different types of combat systems that appear in combat RPGs, I have created the following terms:

Phased turn based : DQ and Wizardry system; at the start of combat the game waits for the player to decide the actions their character(s) will take when combat begins. These systems have combat time divided into blocks called 'rounds'. The combat system descends directly from the tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons, though the games use a more abstract concept of range than D&D did (example: Final Fantasy has a concept of a "front row" and a "back row"). In a Phased turn based system, the player's character(s) will always act in combat before the opposing NPCs can act.

Sequential turn based : A turn based system where each character (including NPCs) has a Speed rating that determines the precise order they will act during a combat round. The system is otherwise identical to Phased turn based combat. While the way turns are determined is more similar to D&D, the abstract nature of range remains.

Active turn based: Games using a system derived from Final Fantasy IV's Active Time Battle System. Unlike Sequential and Phased there is no "pause" between rounds; after taking an action, characters gradually accumulate points as time passes to fill a "bar" and when that bar is full they can make an action. However, like Sequential turn based, characters have a Speed rating that determines how quickly their bar fills up.

Real time based: Games where characters do not take turns. Instead action happens in real time. Characters may or may not have delays on what actions they may take but are capable of moving at any time and almost always have some meaningful action they can do during combat.

Pausable real time based: Real time combat games where players must pause the gameplay to issue orders to characters. Once the game is un-paused the orders are carried out by the characters. Some examples are Secret of Mana, Fallout 3 and Parasite Eve.

Wargaming turn based: Games using a system descending from tabletop wargames. These games tend to be called "strategy RPGs". The player controls a squad of characters who fight across a battlefield using a turn based combat system. They tend to have a more definite concept of range, whereas a Sequential turn based game like Final Fantasy only uses an abstract concept of range (the "rows")

Wargaming real time based: Games using a system descending from tabletop wargames. The player controls a squad of characters who fight across a battlefield using a real time based combat system.

Rogue-like based: A game that uses a combat system derived from Rogue. An example would be the Mystery Dungeon series of games.

Narrative models

Linear: The narrative travels in a straight line with no alternate routes. This is the narrative model used by the majority of fiction, such as novels, films, television shows and video games.

Dynamic non-linear: The rarest type of non-linear narrative model. The player makes choices during gameplay that shape the game's narrative in a meaningful and critical ways so as to substantially change the direction of the game's narrative. There are either no or very few milestone events that the player "must" clear in order for the narrative to advance. The game offers a large number of narrative routes the player can choose to bypass and that will not prevent the narrative from moving forward (an example: Romancing SaGa: MS)

Because I realize this can be a difficult concept for one to visualize I have created the following image to demonstrate what the narrative paths in a Dynamic non-linear narrative look like:

Dynamic non-linear narratives are rare in games because the model gives the writer less control over the flow of the narrative, making it harder for him to craft a meaningful story that hits all the correct emotional buttons in the player. The difficulty and additional time spent writing these narratives are, in my opinion, usually not worth the effort.

Static non-linear: The most common type of non-linear model. The choices made by the player do not alter the narrative in significant ways and the narrative generally travels in a single direction with few deviations. This kind of non-linear narrative is built around "milestone" events which HAVE to be passed through regardless of what "route" the player takes. The game's narrative cannot move forward if these milestones are not cleared. (an example: Persona 4)

I have also created an image to illustrate what the narrative paths of a static non-linear narrative look like,

Target audience:

Some people believe the intended audience of the game is not a core part of the game's design. This is incorrect; game companies do not invest millions into producing videogames unless they already know who the game will appeal to. Designing the game to appeal to a target audience is crucial and often determined before a single line of code of the game is ever written.

Here I am using the same labels as those used by the publishing industry, as I feel they are more appropriate given there is no international rating system at the moment.

Children's: Games intended for play by children up to age 12. They carry an ESRB rating of 'E'.

Young Adults : Games intended for play by teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17. They carry an ESRB rating of 'T'

Adult: Games intended for play by adults (18+). They carry an ESRB rating of 'M'.

Note that this does not mean the game cannot be enjoyed by other age groups; it merely means the developer intended the game to be primarily purchased by one age group.

Narrative genres:

Narrative genres are the same as those used in other creative works; Science-fiction, fantasy, romantic comedy, high school drama, etc


Sequential turn based linear Children's fantasy RPG = Final Fantasy

Real time Static non-linear Adult science-fiction RPG = Mass Effect

Active turn based static non-linear Young Adult science fiction RPG = Chrono Trigger

Sequential turn based dynamic non-linear Young Adult fantasy RPG = Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song

Real time based static non-linear Young Adult science-fiction RPG= SW: Knights of the Old Republic

Active turn based static non-linear Adult fantasy RPG = Dragon Age: Origins

Real time based linear Children's fantasy RPG = Secret of Mana

Real time based dynamic non-linear Young Adult fantasy RPG = World of Warcraft

Notice that these new definitions are still very broad; Dragon Quest and Xenogears are both Sequential Turn based games but they possess vastly different combat subsystems from one another. It would be unwise for one to assume that just because a game has a similar type of combat system or narrative model that the games play identically or have similar levels of complexity.

That said, I believe these new definitions are more politically correct than "JRPG" and "WRPG", which express an "Us Vs. Them" mentality concerning games made by the Japanese and games made by Americans. I also believe they better represent the actual mechanics of the games than the older labels "console RPG" and "PC-style RPG", or any other terms I've came across which are misnomers that don't represent the actual mechanics or narrative genres of the games.

Another JRPG Rant!

16-Bit Gems (a videogame review show hosted by Blistered Thumbs and Retroware.tv) recently did a rant about people who dislike the term JRPG.

I decided to counter the rant. Watch my response.

UPDATE: Roo (host of 16 Bit Gems) responded to my video in his comments for the video on Retroware.tv;

Roo: Fanatic, I'm actually rather disappointed that your video was not up to the normal quality of your other work, which I usually enjoy. Beyond the fallacies, opinions presented as fact, a whole lot of strawman arguments, little to no evidence, and some personal attacks peppered in for flavor, I found one salient point that I did not address in my video - and that's the question about games like Secret of Mana above.

As I said earlier to Cynic, I don't mean for the term JRPG to be an exclusive and monolithic term. In the case of Secret of Mana, I would call it a JRPG and an action RPG. Video games straddle genres and subgenres all the time. Look at Portal - FPS & puzzle. Lost Vikings - Action platformer & puzzle. Metroid Prime - FPS & action & adventure. You get the idea. Other than the turn-based battle aspect, it shares many other aspects of JRPGs, such as the simple level up system. Thus, it's a cross-genre game.

As for the "people who disagree with me are racists!" argument (I once again point to my video as a response, since you did not rebut it at all), that tactic is really old hat and goes a long way in destroying credibility when it's used superfluously. I'd suggest you tone that down if you want people to take you more seriously in the future. You are not some video game civil rights martyr fighting to right a inherent wrong in a governmental system. You are just like me - some guy on the internet who's arguing over the exact classification of a small subset of interactive entertainment. Step back and breathe a little.

And just to be clear, I don't know your history with Retroware, and in no way was my response related to the application you sent them months ago. I never even knew you reached out to RWTV. As I've had to say many times to several people: neither Retroware, nor Blistered Thumbs, nor Reviewtopia, nor anyone else but me has editorial control over my videos. If you have a problem with this particular site, I would suggest talking to John and/or Lance about it in private instead of taking it out on me through a public rant without fully understanding the situation.

Consider this my full and final rebuttal on the JRPG topic. For two reasons:

1.) If you can talk so much yet say so little on this subject for 20 minutes, then I doubt there's anything else of value to be brought to the debate.
2.) I really just don't care that much about this issue to go beyond the 3 minutes or so I talked about it in my previous video. I laid out my argument and haven't seen a good enough rebuttal to change my stance (though I can understand moderate positions on it - like Cynic's). I'm not interested in prolonging this e-pissing match for the sake of arguing. I can go to Fark for that.

Also... I generally keep my soap in the bathroom.
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Here is my reply;

RPG Fanatic: Roo, I covered this in my video but again, please respond to the following points:

1) Did you or did you not dismiss the term "console-style" and "PC-style" as if they had little use or history despite them used by GameFAQs, which has been in operation since 1995 and is hardly a small site. Despite this you called those who use the labels a "small movement".

You implied the terms "JRPG" and "WRPG" had history behind them, whereas "console-style" and "PC-style" did not. This is factually incorrect and demonstrates you did no research into the subject.

2) Did you not generalize "JRPGs" as having turn based combat systems when you know many of them are real time based?

3) Did you not point to relatively new games like Fallout and Mass Effect as being representative of "WRPGs" and completely ignore the overwhelming majority of "Western" made computer RPGs that have turn based combat and linear narratives?


Not a complete list but a good start.

The majority of computer RPGs simply do not have non-linear narratives, let alone the majority of those made by "Western" developers.

It is true that many game journalist claim "WRPGs" are basically games like SW: Knights of the Old Republic. These "journalists" do not cite their sources and largely expressing opinions based on their limited knowledge of computer RPG history. They also tend to completely ignore games not released by a large publisher. Anyone with actual knowledge of the genre knows they are wrong and I was extremely disappointed that you would tell your audience information you did not check the facts of because it just hurts the efforts of people like myself who are trying to get people to stop making assumptions that are hurting the industry.

Sure, you can argue that games "straddle" genres but that is just excusing that you, during a defense of the term JRPG, tried to define them and failed to adequately do so. You're also ignoring that definitions that are only good some of the time are not useful for classification; it just confuses people.

The three critical arguments of the "Stop calling them JRPGs" movement is that...

1) Japanese developers make too many different types of computer rpgs for one label to define them all.

2) American / Canadian / European developers make too many different types of computer rpgs for one label to define them all.

3) The term "JRPG" is used with the term "WRPG" as its opposite. This implies that "The West" or Americans, make games that are vastly different than the Japanese. This is actually false and anyone who does even a little bit of research can see that. It is not hard to find lists of computer RPGs, even Wikipedia (which I strongly dislike) has lists. The use of these terms imply an "Us Vs. Them" mentality that is absolutely 100% racist.

You ridiculed these three points. You did not give them the merit they deserve.

And even if you want to label games by their graphical style, there are many computer RPGs made by non-Japanese that have "anime-ish" graphics (examples: AdventureQuest, World of Warcraft, Farmville, Frontierville, and lots of the indie stuff by small places like Rampant Games or Zeboyd). Therefore graphical style cannot be used to classify them either because it's not a reliable method.

The only reliable method to classify games is by looking at their actual mechanics, not their nationalities. Even if there are differences in popular art styles or narrative devices, these devices are very inconsequential (games made for kids or meant to be comedic always look more colorful and cartoony regardless of what region they come from; games with narratives always have archetype characters common to the culture the game is primarily designed to appeal to). These elements really are not worth pointing out when trying to define game genres.

Now, Google "define:racism". One of the results is, "A set of incorrect assumptions, opinions and acts resulting from the belief that one race is inherently/genetically superior to another. It occurs when people are not treated fairly because of their cultural or ethnic differences....". This is most definitely how the term "JRPG" is being used. There are numerous editorials about how the "JRPG" industry is dying and the "WRPG" is being so gosh darn great and innovative. These editorials ignore actual facts like sales numbers of the big titles released by Japanese and American developers (they have pretty similar sales numbers) and the entire indie industry.

If you had only said that "JRPG means computer rpgs made by the Japanese" and nothing more, that would not be an assessment I'd take issue with. The problem is that you attempted to define "JRPGs" by mechanics that, in reality, a substantial number of them do not share and simply are not unique to the Japanese developers. This is the problem. This is where you expressed a racist viewpoint.

And what you did was indeed rant. Calm as it was delivered, it is clear you wrote it without any research into the topic and there are indeed portions of it where you were rather dismissive toward those of us who have done the research. By your own admittance you wrote it to, "...challenge this assertion before it gains too much steam."

I also took offense that you would dismiss the arguments without doing any research into the topic and clearly having not put much thought into it either. And then there is the issue of the "THAT'S RACIST!" ending the rant with a black kid shouting. Seriously, what the hell was with that?

I will admit that "console style" and "pc style" are not the best terms. However, they are certainly more politically correct. That said, I am attempting to come up with better definitions for computer RPGs that are not misnomers so as to lessen the extraordinary amount of confusion players have about these games when they use the currently popular terms.