What makes a good RPG?


Lately, ever since i picked up my Vita, I’ve been playing J-RPG’s like there’s no tomorrow. I’ve also picked up a couple of other, standard RPG’s and after playing them for a while i started thinking about what makes a good RPG. While the emphasis in this post will be on J-RPG’s, since that’s where a lot of my experience lies, the points i raise can and should be applied to all RPG’s.

So what makes a good RPG?

Honestly, only one thing is needed to make a great RPG, and that’s a kick ass engrossing story that grabs you by the throat and drags you into the game by force. Frankly, J-RPG’s beat most western RPG’s hands down in this regard.

So what about art, music, mechanics and voice acting? Surely a good RPG needs those elements?

With the exception of music, the answer is no, none of the stuff listed are needed. They add icing to the cake definitely, and increase the enjoyment of some games. But the only thing that’s really needed is a great story backed by a killer sound track.

J-RPG’s such as Final Fantasy, and the Ys series are prime examples of this. Many of the early versions of these games look like they were done in the RPG maker software with sprite characters. Yet these games can take well over 80hours to finish, some of the Final Fantasy series has taken me over 100hours to complete, and i still replay some of those games again and again.


What makes these games so desirable, and so repeatable, is that they have amazing stories that draw you in and make you feel for the characters in ways many western games don’t. These are all told through dialogue, that initially wasn’t spoken, but read through subtitles. The music backing the dialogue was usually highly emotive, drawing you on and adding emotions to what would otherwise be dry text. This combination of story and music is what created the franchise that would become one of the biggest selling franchises of all time.

The thing about the Final Fantasy series is that up until the later games (FFX i believe) none of the games had full voice acting. At best you had the odd voice over, most were text based music driven 2 or 2.5d art.

Other games, such as Xenosaga, Phantasy Star and others all followed a similar style of design. Truth be told even today we get games made using similar styles of art and mechanics to the early Final fantasy series, by that i mean sprite based games. Recently for example Disgaea 3 that I’ve been playing uses a sprite system, lending itself to the old adage, if it ain’t broken don’t fix it.

Western games by contrast however tend to focus more on flashy graphics and game mechanics to sell the games. As a result a lot of western RPG’s are significantly shorter than their japanese counter parts. There have been a few exceptions to this, for example way back in the day Baldur’s Gate became  beacon all western RPG’s tried to mimic. However these days RPG’s tend to be shorter, taking anywhere between 8 and 30 hours to complete. Even games that are heralded as the best western RPG’s ever, The Witcher series and Kingdoms of Amalur: The Reckoning, all could be completed within 20-30 hours.


Part of the question i think is what do the consumers expect from their games. Sadly, western fans tend to be happy with shorter games. In a culture of consoles, and multiplayer games such as CoD. Open games that are story heavy don’t do so well. Again there are exceptions, Skyrim for example, however even these games have a number of problems that for a lot of people make the game dull. for example Skyrim has a very shallow story that’s non-dynamic, the game has no sense of urgency to it. Which is a shame since the game story is all about the end of the world sort of thing. You can literally spend years going off doing side quests and doing your own thing, and come back to the main story and pick it up right where you let off.

Games such as Final fantasy have changed over the past few iterations, starting from X and up they introduced a lot of changes. These changes did make the game more appealing to the western player, since we tend to enjoy games that hold our hands and stuff. The past few games have been exactly like that, however fans of the franchise have watched the changes with dismay. I personally haven’t played any since X-2 because the games lacked the spark of the previous games.

The voice acting has frankly gotten worse with each release since X, which was lauded for it’s english dubbing. I’ve never really understood that, since i found the english dub tolerable at best, and cringe-able at it’s worst. The past few games, frankly the english dubs made me want to cry they were so bad.

For me, it boils down to this: The only thing an RPG really needs is a killer story backed by a killer sound track. Graphics and mechanics are nice deserts, and dubbing is frankly un-needed, especially english dubs


  1. The thing was, and Extra Credits at Penny Arcade hit upon this point, is that JRPGs used to have a stranglehold on storytelling in the video game industry. Before drawn out cut-scenes, voice acting, and all that stuff you had to go to JRPGs for a story driven game.

    Now FPS, RTS, and all sorts of games can have an in-depth story. Meanwhile, the JRPG scene hasn’t exactly done much to change with the times. I think they could take some cues from the most recent Starcraft game if they want to modernize. The original Starcraft was really grindy and sometimes monotonous, a lot like some older JRPGs. Blizzard eventually learned to push the storyline along faster, while at the same time giving the player more choices and more advanced game play.

    1. That’s such a small market, however. Compared to how many people buy the standard action and shooter games that almost little to no story whatsoever, but only focus on the multiplayer. Some of those games, unfortunately, win awards for grand stories, when it was honestly of shit quality, compared to some other under the table games.

      Starcraft, for example, has its niche market, and know of how great the game is, story, evolving mechanics, etc. but if you walk into a retail game store and ask half the clientele what Starcraft is, it’d be a vague or no answer.

      RPG’s have in their own way tried to solve, while keeping to their core gameplay, to attract new customers. But the problem is, if they go too far off the path, it’s a flame fest of how shitty the game is and how they ruined it, etc etc. so they have little wriggle room on what to do. I can see how this is an excuse, where some rpg’s have done changes and succeeded; but that was a risk they had to take. Some companies with budget problems can’t afford to make something that even their market rejects, because that’s a down the drain money fail project.

      Final fantasy, for example; tried to be a little more modernized, and there are vast mixed feelings of those changes. Some people find the modernization refreshing, while people complain that it’s not the same as it used to be because bleh blah and ugh. Which makes future releases of that title hard to sell because of the burn it received before. Some companies don’t want to make that business risk.

      Now, he took disgaea as an example. They don’t fix what’s broken, and add small changes with each release to keep the game fresh and enjoyable. Expanding with each entry. Not all RPGs do that, and I agree with you that sometimes these risks are needed in order to increase awareness and sales; but there’s not much to be done when America is dominated by shooters.

      But yeah, to conclude; if it ain’t got a story, it’s more than likely shit. Decent mechanics help though > .>

      1. @Peter: I like Penny arcade, but they clearly dont understand the RPG aspect of things. JRPG’s have never had a stranglehold on story telling. In truth if you look at classic RPG’s released by the west they were equal to JRPG’s in story telling, and in some cases they were even better. Such as the grand-daddy of them all, Baldurs Gate 1 and 2, 2 of the longest RPG’s i’ve ever played, and by far 2 of the best.

        When the MMS took off and games like CoD and MW became so popular western RPG’s had to change and follow suit, losing out on the SP story that made them stand ouf and focus on the MP aspects. As a result they sell less, since the companies never seemed to realise that RPG fans aren’t interested in hand holding or MP, they’re interested in an immersive story.

        As for the FPS/MMs scene, i’ve not seen any of them that had a story worth a damn. RTS is getting there, with games like Supreme Commander having half decent stories. Starcraft is meh, SC1 was bad, SC2 is okay, and the expansion feels more like an RPG than a RTS. This is never good.

        @Raiko: Yeah i agree, i usually end up shaking my head in disgust when games like CoD or MW win awards for story and stuff, when they’re some of the worst games ever made.

        Final Fantasy is a prime example of a RPG destroyed by over westernisation. To make the game more appealing to the western market Square made it more like western RPG’s. Loads of hand holding, little to no open worldness, countless cut scenes that break immersion, and an english dubbing thats so bad it’s painful.

        Hopefully Square will return back to the roots of telling a great story and saying screw you to the guys that want hand holding through the game. The past couple of FF games were good, but they werent really a FF game, that was the complaint a lot of hard core fans (like myself) had. It’s fine to try out new things, but you need to listen to your feedback, if your primary source of money, the hard core fans, hate it and refuse to buy it, then there’s a problem.

        Thing is when it comes to RPG’s, there’s not really a lot to inovate with. So they’re left with little changes every now and then, or complete changes that can leave a lot of fans hating. Though if those changes had been introduce over a couple of games they’d have been more open to them.

        Of western RPG’s only one company really stands out as a great company making amazing RPG’s, CDred Project and their The Witcher Series. Which is freaking awesome, though admitedly their story is taken from a series of polish fantasy books, so they had a great base to work with.

        The only other western RPG of note was kingdoms of Amalur, which we’ll never see again thanks to the publishers going bankrupt

  2. I’m an old school computer RPG players, cutting my teeth on the the original Ultima and Bard’s Tale games. I completely agree that graphics are not the key element to a good RPG.

    I will say that a well realized world is the foundation on which a good story is built. That’s what I find even more compelling. The story is important, but the games that I found most addictive focused heavily on building the world first.
    I think you guys are bang on when it comes to how action games have eroded western-made RPGs. Good ones are few and far between. Heck, I like the Diablo series, but it still chafes when I hear it called an RPG.