Anyone who's been playing RPGs for the past few years may have noticed a strange trend beginning to develop. There is a dichotomy in the RPG world with the development of technology that didn't seem to be present with the 8-bit, or even the 16-bit system. The two contradictory types of games that have been evolving are those focusing on graphics and plot, as opposed to those focusing on innovative, more action-filled gameplay.
The beginnings of this development can be seen in the 16-bit era, with games such as Final Fantasy IV, and Crono Trigger. Their Active Time battle-system gave a sense of action to otherwise solely turn-based RPGs. Some games have maintained that low level of action, which can be turned off in the most recent Final Fantasies, while others have developed it further. Star Ocean 2 and Tales of Destiny have begun to give a more action-game feel to combat RPGs, while focusing less on plot, and more on fun battles.
Another instance of this lack of plot can be seen in games such as Ultima Online, Everquest, and Asheron's Call. MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs) have no real plot, since with all these people, there can be no ultimate end. The emphasis is on keeping the gameplay fun, and keeping players paying their $10 a month. I would characterize tactical and strategy RPGs in the same category, since they emphasize a certain type of gameplay instead of a story.
Compare all these games to the Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, Suikoden, and Crono Trigger series. Each series has such amazing similarities, and focus on flashy graphics, and a specific way of telling a story to sell their games. The gameplay truly takes back seat to the way the story is told. That difference keeps evolving to the point where in Final Fantasy VIII, random battles are totally unecessary. Gold is earned as you walk, and monsters level at the same pace you do.
Where is this going? Well, the fact is that the Final Fantasies and the Crono Triggers seem to be the games appealing to the mainstream. I find this rather odd. With so much of the market obsessed with action, one would think that it would be action RPGs that would sell more copies than their turn-based, plot-based counterparts. But yet the only action-RPG that seems to appeal to the mass-market is Zelda, which has been around for so long, and is a staple of the Nintendo-enthusiasts game library.
The market is clearly separating, with people tending away from one type and selecting others. Strategy and Tactical RPGs are likely to begin to diverge from action and "classic" RPGs with so many coming out (Vanguard Bandits, Arc the Lad Collection, Front Mission 3). This could solve the crisis with RPGamers today, with so many selections, and so little free time. As the markets diverge, people will more readily be able to pick and choose what types of RPGs they want to play, while having ample selection, but having it not be overwhelming.
Increases in technology are to blame. The creation of CD-based systems has given RPGs the ability to branch out. Without limitations on space, RPGs are free to add in FMV as they please, without worrying about space. At the same time, companies are able to fully ignore FMV in favour of focusing what they consider the "true" aspects of RPGs, such as innovative adrenaline-pumping gameplay, or possibly just 3D strategic combat. The prescence of CDs and 3D engines really makes this divergence apparent. Compare Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy VIII, and tell me which aspects of the Playstation each takes advantage of.
So to close this all up, I will make some predictions (which will doubtlessly fall flat and make me look like an idiot). First of all, I predict that the gap between action RPGs and plot-based RPGs to expand greatly. I expect Strategy RPGs to flourish and create their own fringe market. With increasing technology, I think that the difference will be increased even more greatly, with RPGs that focus on exceedingly large amounts of dialogue and even more complex plots, with graphically stunning, but technically simple gameplay, and RPGs that excel in incredible graphics and incredible gameplay, but leave out excessive plot in favour of a mission to drive forward the desire for new and innovative combat.