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Square Enix Missteps Again With Shift Toward Mobile/Online Gaming
Square Enix seems to be digging themselves into deeper and deeper holes lately. If you haven’t been following the company for the past couple of years, here’s the abridgement: their CEO, Yoichi Wada, resigned his post shortly after the “disappointing” release of Tomb Raider (disappointing = 3.4 million copies sold in one month), the entire company was restructured, and they have attracted scrutiny for poor releases, such as the original Final Fantasy XIV, which was considered so awful the entire game was scrapped and rebranded. Square Enix took a ¥5.5 billion ($56 million) loss last year, and the eagerly-awaited Final Fantasy Versus XIII spent so long in development purgatory (eight years and counting) that it was also rebranded (as XV) and moved to next-gen consoles.
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel…or so it would seem. According to GamesIndustry International, Square Enix has reported a net profit of ¥2.6 billion ($26 million) for the past six months, ending September 30. This, the company says, is attributed to its “Digital Entertainments,” including Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, which currently has 600,000 paying users. Now the company says it will shift focus toward online games with variable pricing models overseas and accelerated production of mobile content on Japanese shores.
This is where I once again find myself shaking my head. Having been a devoted Square Enix fan for much of my adolescence, I have painfully been forced to admit that, while I still love some of the company’s original IPs and enjoy their older works, they are going downhill, and fast. Much of that I attribute to Final Fantasy’s continuing mediocrity, but all in all it seems Square Enix is plagued with poor financial forecasting and decision-making. This recent choice is just another blow.
Square Enix, like many companies, seems to be under the impression that mobile gaming is the road to profitability. I have always believed that to be an erroneous philosophy, primarily because hardcore gamers will never be satiated with the pick-up-and-play experience of mobile games. While some may prove interesting and engaging, those same games seem to beg the question: “Why wasn’t this developed for consoles?” Simply put, the mobile market is distinct from the console market.
Worse yet, Square Enix’s goal is accelerated production of mobile content in Japan. So, if they release something awesome, we once again may not see in internationally, a la Before Crisis: Final Fantasy VII. If they are going to invest in the mobile market, it would make sense to focus on international production, as well. As for online gaming, it is certainly viable, but for the types of games Square Enix is most known for (i.e. Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Kingdom Hearts), online just isn’t the best thing to focus on.
This one’s a little harder to sell, but let me explain. MMORPGs, I feel, are largely a product of the West. Look at western RPGs like The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age. They are much closer in style to MMOs. Both have an emphasis on exploration and character-building while downplaying elements like plot and characterization. That is not a criticism against western RPGs or MMOs; it’s just an observation. JRPGs like Final Fantasy, on the other hand, are much more notorious for in-depth storylines and developed characters. While Final Fantasy XI may have been a success and A Realm Reborn is doing well thus far, Square Enix’s strengths have always been in crafting involving stories and strong characters. Yes, there have been missteps in the past (though more here recently, I’d argue), but games like Final Fantasy IV, VI, and VII, as well as Kingdom Hearts (especially the console installments) are cemented in gaming history not because of exploration, the ability to build your own character, or social interaction, but because they told stories that moved gamers and connected them with the characters they both led through the adventure and faced off against.
To illustrate my point, let me make a reference to an odd but awesome game in the Final Fantasy library: Dissidia. Where were XI’s characters? Sure, Shanttoto appeared…as an unlockable character who was in no way involved in the game’s main quest. Why? I’m guessing the developers realized no one had as deep a connection to the characters in XI as they did in all the other installments. Even Dissidia 012 failed to include characters from XI in the main campaign, while Vaan from XII was heavily involved in the story. Few, if any, elements from XI were included in Dissidia, which did a wonderful job of tying in plot points and worlds from the different games.
As I have stated previously, I believe Square Enix is in a dire situation and in desperate need of a reevaluation of what they choose to focus on. Seriously, how many fans have been clamoring for another classic Final Fantasy, complete with a world map, deep plot, and believable characters who are not overplayed? And why do they keep releasing Kingdom Hearts on every handheld on the market? While we’re at it, why haven’t high-demand titles like Before Crisis and Final Fantasy Type-0 been released internationally?
The problem with Square Enix is that they refuse to give fans what they want. While many enjoyed the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, I think most everyone can agree it wasn’t without serious flaws that could have been avoided if Square had given it a little more attention. Despite a Final Fantasy VII remake being an obvious and ridiculously easy source of incredible revenue, Square Enix has repeatedly refused to indulge fans. Instead of doubling their efforts on Final Fantasy XV, another highly anticipated title, Square had to focus on another Final Fantasy MMO, superfluous sequels to XIII, and, of course, mobile gaming.
On the business side, Square is simply being unrealistic, expecting games to sell far better than they ever will, and they continue to delay huge projects such as Kingdom Hearts III and the aforementioned Final Fantasy XV, which are other easy ways of raking in money. I’m not arguing Square should entirely abandon the online or mobile markets, but the decision to shift more focus to these avenues is ludicrous. Square Enix’s biggest titles simply do not cater as strongly to those markets as they do core, console gamers. Perhaps console gaming will stall in another generation or two, but while console games are grossing over a billion dollars in a matter of days, that isn’t happening any time soon. Maybe Square just needs to work on releasing console games people actually want.