It has pretty much been “common wisdom” for a couple of years now that in the HD era, Action RPGs (A-RPG) sell better than their Turned Based counterparts (TB-RPG). This preconceived notion has become so prominent that Mr. Kitase, producer of the Final Fantasy series, recently stated that the next mothership title “might be an action RPG”, as he sees the gamers’ shift in taste as a “trend you ignore at your own peril”. For this particular argument, we will include in the TB-RPG category all menu-based combat, whether it is classic turn based – like Dragon Quest IX or Atelier Rorona – or active time (ATB) – like Final Fantasy XIII or White Knight Chronicle.
Let us check the data to see if this assumption is correct. It turns out that contrary to popular wisdom, Japanese TB-RPGs have sold better than Japanese A-RPGs this gen. The difference is not astounding: for every Tales of Vesperia, there is a Lost Odyssey and for every Last Rebellion, there is a Trinity Souls of Zill’Oll. But on average, depending on how you do the math, TB-RPGs sell between 1% and 88% better than A-RPGs.
This statement holds true whether we look at total sales or sales per platform and whether or not we include the Final Fantasy and the Souls series in the data (and I’m pretty sure the latter should not be included in that argument, see why below).
All data were obtained through sales tracker Vgchartz (in particular sales data, Critic and User scores). I know that Vgchartz data is not entirely accurate – for instance it does not account for online sales. However, I do not see why inaccuracies would favor one or the other side. If anyone knows of a particular bias that Vgchartz could have towards TB-RPG, please let me know.
The first tests I conducted were pretty rough, but in the future I may pursue a deeper analysis including multiple statistical regressions, a look at portable systems, etc. Anyone interested in my data can get it here.
1. Raw data – average sales of all HD RPGs made in Japan
If we look at all 26 HD RPGs made in Japan that have been released this gen we see that A-RPGs have sold on average 0.63 million units while TB-RPGs sold on average 0.871 million units. The average TR-RPG sold 38% more than the average A-RPG.
If you only look at sales “per platform” so that multiplatform games are put on a more equal ground with exclusives, TR-BRPGs still sell 21% more than A-RPGs.
On PS3, TB-RPGSs sell 38% better than A-RPGs. On the XBOX360, TB-RPGs sell 20% better than A-RPGs.
2. Refined data – taking FF XIII and the Souls series out of the data
One might argue that 3 out of our 26 titles give too extreme results for a proper analysis. First of all, the Souls series is hardly comparable to the other games in the data, and its huge commercial success influences greatly our numbers. Souls games are online co-op RPGs, more akin to Monster Hunter and Phantasy Star Online than to Final Fantasy, and are not classified as J-RPGs, which is the case of every other game on the list. The Souls games barely have any cutscenes, dialog, or story – and even WKC, which also integrates a multiplayer component, has these elements. Hence it is pretty hard to compare Demon’s Souls sales number with, say, Tales of Vesperia or Resonance of Fate. Even if Demon’s Souls is actually very Japanese – although most of its competitors are on the PSP – it is not a J-RPG and it is not what Final Fantasy XV would become if it leaned towards Action combat.
If we take the Souls games out of the equation, the average TB-RPG furthermore outsell the average A-RPG by 88% in total sales and by 65% in sales per platform.
To be fair, Final Fantasy XIII, the bestselling Japanese RPG of this generation takes advantage of its huge fan base, its reputation, and its sales number are so phenomenal that it may distort our analysis. One could argue that Final Fantasy XIII proves that at least 6 million people enjoy menu-based combat (as it is what everyone who bought the game expected from it), but, for the fun of it, let’s take FF XIII out of the equation too.
With Final Fantasy XIII out of the data, the average TB-RPG still outsells the average A-RPG by 1% in total sales, and by 12% per platform.
Menu-based (or Turn-Based) RPGs made in Japan, be it J-RPGs or RPGs in general, sell at least as well, if not better, that Action-RPGs from the same developers on HD platforms. This first study is pretty rough, but I would argue that most objections I can think of are irrelevant to the original point: it seems at least very clear that Japanese RPGs do not sell better when combat is action-based, and that Mr. Kitase’s assumption is incorrect.
Three Japanese RPGs are million sellers this gen (If we do not count Valkyria Chronicle as we ignore Tactical RPGs in this study). One is a mainline Final Fantasy which still sold very well in spite of hesitant reviews, and two are from the new Souls series. But Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon, had they been launched on the right platform(s), would easily have been million sellers too: Japanese games sell much better on Japanese consoles. Moreover, the Souls series success has probably little to do with it being an Action-RPG. Demon’s Souls received more than 50 Game of the Year awards for its unique atmosphere, punishing difficulty, fresh structure and addictive and innovative online integration. But it does not mean reviewers favor Action-RPG either, since TB-RPGs like Persona 4, for instance, have a higher metascore.
“Wait, Mr. Uzuki ! But your only looking at RPGs from Japan !”
Indeed, but the question that Mr. Kitase asks is “Do Japanese game developers have anything to gain by making Action RPGs instead of Turn Based RPGs ?” Even if Final Fantasy XV becomes an A-RPG, it will still be an A-RPG from Japan. If Western RPGs sell better than Japanese ones (For now let’s take this for granted, even though that may be the subject of another inquiry… maybe for every Hyperdimension Neptunia there is a Venetica), Action versus Turned Based is not the only thing that distinguishes Western and Japanese games, far from it. Hence, there is little Japan can do about the fact that Western RPGs may sell better, except developing Western RPGs which would be tantamount to starting back from scratch and abandoning their fanbase – wasting all trust they accumulated in the past in pursuit of a fictional smash hit while their most popular J-RPGs still sell millions.