Who are the underdogs in the gaming industry: the small-scale developers and publishers? The indie programmers releasing freeware? Maybe. Why do we love to cheer on the little guy, and how does this affect RPG fans?
Lest we forget, there was a time when the veritable giants of RPG-dom were the little guys. When Hironobu Sakaguchi created Final Fantasy, it was named as such because it was expected to be Square's last game due to poor sales of previous titles. Enix also hit it off big with their hit game Dragon Quest. Today, Square Enix is a mammoth-sized company, doing in Japan what we've seen EA do in North America: swallow other companies whole. Square Enix recently acquired Taito, and they are now pursuing the possibility of taking Tecmo under their wing as well.
A lot of self-proclaimed "hardcore" gamers dislike Square Enix for what they've become. But they have humble roots, and there was a time when playing Final Fantasy was one way to help support the underdog. But at some point, it is argued, Square "sold out" and went too corporate, like when Green Day left their punk roots and signed with a major record label. When and how does this transition take place, and should gamers really be afraid of it?
In my opinion, the answer to the latter question is no. In all businesses, it is difficult to simply remain where you are. Either you move forward, growing bigger and making a profit; or, you move backwards, perhaps to the point of bankruptcy, and then there are no more games to be made. The fact that Square Enix is so successful now can be attributed to their excellent track record of games for the past two decades: particularly the RPGs.
Some people like to simply cheer on the underdog. Others find themselves attracted to simple, low-budget games with 2D graphics, meaning that they are likely to find themselves interested in the underdog companies by default. In North America, there are four companies that come to mind whose track record shows they are committed to releasing RPGs from the "underdog" developers of Japan. One is Atlus (releasing games from Sting, Success, and others). The second is NIS America (Gust, Hit Maker, and Idea Factory, alongside their own NIS titles). Third is XSEED, who recently struck a deal with Marvelous Interactive to localize a number of RPGs. Finally, there is Aksys games, who release games from all sorts of Japanese developers, mostly smaller ones.
These four companies help to represent some of the underdogs in the JRPG market today. But will this always be the case? Even now, we see that Atlus seems to be gaining ground, particularly with first-party titles from the Shin Megami Tensei mega-franchise. And with XSEED striking a deal with Marvelous, the extensive library of games alone could help them to thrive. If they aren't the "underdogs" five years from now, will people who once praised everything they do then abandon them?
This is perhaps the trend I hate most about the self-proclaimed "hardcore" or "indie" gamers. The reverse-bandwagon idea that they've become "too big" or "too cool for me" irks me to no end. By supporting them, you helped them reach newer and higher levels of success. It is the same with the music industry, and probably any business at all. The South Park episode regarding Wal-Mart is certainly a good reminder of how this works. If you didn't want the company you love to get too big, maybe you shouldn't have given them your unyielding (financial) support for so many years...
I love independent developers. I love small-scale, low budget RPGs. But I also have a deep love and respect for the "big-budget" titles, so long as they actually have good content to them. I look forward to Final Fantasy XIII as much as I look forward to Ar Tonelico 2. I do not mean to sound haughty, but I think this is the sort of attitude all gamers, particularly RPG fans, should strive to uphold. Can we appreciate the big and the small? Can we love the underdog without tarnishing the name of yesterday's underdog, who now rules the market thanks to our support? Keep these questions in mind as you continue to enjoy the products of the gaming industry.
- Patrick Gann