I was asked by a couple of people I know to say a few words about Square-Enix. While I have a great deal of mixed feelings regarding this company, I’m going to set down how I feel about it, because it does relate in some ways to Double Cluepon, how Emerald Kingdom got some of its start, and where Square went wrong. (Hint: It was not North American fans, or Japanese fans, or inferior NA releases over better JP releases)
The impetus for Emerald Kingdom has some of its roots in Squaresoft titles. I personally was amazed at the story on Final Fantasy VIII. It grabbed me, but then…so did the battle system. (Yes, yes…a great many do not like junction/draw, but I did, and that’s a topic for another post…)
But there is something to be said for Square in it’s heyday: they had the balls to try new things, to throw it all on the table and take chances…take risks. They had no choice, really; the RPG space was a wild and dangerous frontier on consoles. It was fast becoming a better genre on the PC side of things too.
But after that trilogy of VII, VIII, and IX, something began to change. The beginning of the change was Final Fantasy X, and the height of the change came when Square bought their last real competitor: Enix. The end of that change came when they had finally squandered everything they had, lost their way and released unfettered crap.
We can extol the virtues of Final Fantasy 7, 8 and 9 all we want. Everyone who played in that golden age has their favorite. I will tell you right now, that the Gel, Mark and Weaves in Emerald Kingdom have their spiritual roots in the draw and junction system of Final Fantasy 8.
When Final Fantasy X came out, I immediately purchased a Playstation2, and a copy of it. I was relocating at the time, so I rigged it up to the hotel TV, and went at it. Now, I happened to think it was a very compelling story. The Sphere Grid was about as close as you can get to a pure RPG; you could plan your characters with the same finesse as you could in pen and paper. But Final Fantasy X ushered in a trend that has only grown with time and new FF titles. The trend of evolving from real RPG games to that of interactive movies.
It started with Final Fantasy X. It was subtle, but it was there. They were sacrificing their pedigree in RPG’s by upsetting the awesome balance between story and game play. You could see it in many ways: the side quests were weaker, and not as fun. The battle systems limit breaks were really kind of rehashed, dumbed down and not worthy.
Don’t get me wrong, that first night? I stayed up till about 3 AM playing FFX. I was enthralled. I happen to love story, but I also happen to like seeing how well I can do damage, or fight strategically.
Then came XI, and X-2. XI was a halfway decent foray into Online Gaming with the Final Fantasy franchise. Final Fantasy X-2 was absolutely terrible. X-2 was Hot TopicRPG. It actually lowered and somewhat debased strong female characters in games. It’s battle system was terrible, the characters were weak, the story was contrived and its environments were wretched. I realize there are fans of X-2, and I am not saying that, for those fans…it does not have redeeming qualities. What I am saying is: it’s a weak title when held up to former Square titles, and other contemporaries. But one thing was certain: the Interactive Movie nature of Final Fantasy titles was well on it’s way to becoming a firmly grounded thing at Square.
I stopped playing the Final Fantasy series after X-2. I’ll be even more direct: I stopped playing X-2 less than 1 quarter of the way into it. Stuffing band members into the elevator in the right order? Seriously? I was done. It was wretched.
Kingdom Hearts was a breath of fresh air. Ironically enough, it had an awesome battle system, great story, and revitalized characters from two old stalwarts in their respective areas: Square and Disney. Kingdom Hearts was an amazingly fresh game. Tetsuya Nomura rarely misses the mark when it comes to character design, and you’ll notice that my favorites are typically the ones where he’s left his mark.
So, what happened? Why is XIII rated the way it is, and why was XIV practically D.O.A? Why was Kingdom Hearts II inferior after all of the hype, and the awesome that was the Deep Dive trailer?
It’s simple really: Square bought and merged with Enix. (I dont expect things to get better since they have aquired Eidos either. Although a glimmer of hope was released this year in Deus Ex, so you never know)
I’ll say it right here: buying Enix was a bigger mistake for Square than making that ridiculous “Spirits Within” movie which almost bankrupted them.
Why was it such a big mistake? I’ll tell you why: by buying their main competitor, the drive to innovate stopped to a large degree. There was no need to take big risks. Square “won”. They could rest on their laurels knowing they had come out on top. There are some problems with this attitude. Chief of which is arrogance that your view is the only view that really matters. The next problem is, complacency sets in and begins to stagnate you.
Don’t believe me? “After release, director Motomu Toriyama felt that the lower-than-expected review scores for a main Final Fantasy series game came from reviewers who approached the game from a Western point of view.” If that’s not the height of arrogance, I really don’t know what is. It couldnt possibly be the designers, no…it was the players, they’re wrong. How dare they?
But the real proof in the pudding here is what Yoichi Wada had to say on the same subject, which goes to the point of stagnation:
“Some value it highly, while others really don’t like it.” He added, “Should Final Fantasy become a new type of game or should Final Fantasy not become a new type of game? The customers have different opinions. It’s very difficult to determine which way it should go.”
Even Square does not know which path to follow at this juncture. Lost, rudderless on a tumultuous sea of a changing game landscape. But this was not even the worst thing.
No, the worst was yet to come. It’s name was Final Fantasy XIV. A game so bad the company has issued not one, but two official apologies for it. Square has lost it’s way. From the aspects of design, game play…and most recently…they have lost their way financially as well:
Arrogance, short-sightedness, complacency. You can think whatever you want about their audiences. You can think their failures are because of North American players, or Japanese Players, or people who are hating on them for whatever reason. But the facts are this: Square-Enix has been waning for a long while. Their slide has been going on for years, and they have only themselves to blame. It’s the direct result of not listening to players, and thinking that, having bought all the competition, they are king of the hill. The problem with this is, eventually you have to defend the hill, and there are plenty of people sharpening their swords right now to challenge Square in what has traditionally been their bread and butter staple: the immersive RPG. There are people trying on brass knuckles right now, to steal Square’s milk money in another genre: MMORPGs. XIV is an utter failure, it has harmed the Final Fantasy brand badly. It’s going to take years of development, and release to fix the harm done to the brand itself. (Not XIV, even if they fix the problems, it’s D.O.A. and I am nearly 100% certain it will never break even, and will close with a net loss)
When you remove all competition, and you remove the need to be competitive, and you lose your objectivity. You lose your ability to think in terms of “My competitor just did this, well…I’ll show them…I’ll do THIS. HA HA!”. This, more than anything has salted the soil at Square. Their complete and wholesale dilution of the Final Fantasy franchise is going to haunt them for years to come. At some point, a Mark Zuckerberg or Sergey Brin of RPG’s is going to come along and knock Square the hell out. That’s how the market works…the weak die, and get swallowed up.
Square needs to get their house in order. They need to do it quick. They can start by listening to the players, and perhaps…going back to the basics. People have been telling square for years what they want, and Square has arrogantly time and again told them they know what’s best. It’s time for them to take a step back, listen, and grow.
The opposite of growing is dying. The choice is theirs.