Square Enix: A Death, A Birth
Square Enix president Yosuke Matsuda recently sat down to an interview with Nikkei Trendy (translation courtesy of Siliconera) to primarily discuss the success of Bravely Default, its recently released JRPG for the Nintendo 3DS. This in turn morphed into a wider ranging discussion about what the sales numbers of Bravely Default mean for the future of the studio. When asked about the imminent release of any mobile titles, Matsuda-san’s response was revealing.
“Not just limited to games for smartphone or console, but we do have some global titles lined up. However, regardless of whether they’re for smartphone or console, there’s a difficult element to developing global titles, so we’ll be making them without focusing too much on the ‘global’ aspect. For example, in the past, when we developed console games with a worldwide premise, we lost our focus, and not only did they end up being games that weren’t for the Japanese, but they ended up being incomplete titles that weren’t even fit for a global audience.”
He then goes on to specifically name Hitman: Absolution.
“The development team for Hitman: Absolution really struggled in this regard. They implemented a vast amount of ‘elements for the mass’ instead of for the core fans, as a way to try getting as many new players possible. It was a strategy to gain mass appeal. However, what makes the Hitman series good is its appeal to core gamers, and many fans felt the lack of focus in that regard, which ended up making it struggle in sales.”
Upon reading his first response, you’d be inclined to assume he avoids naming specific titles for the sake of shielding development teams that were likely heavily internally criticized. That he follows the response with an indictment of Hitman: Absolution is bizarrely discordant and also comes across as woefully out of touch. While Hitman: Absolution may not have met its sales expectations, that had little to do with the game being overwhelmed with newfangled mechanics, the conclusion Matsuda-san seems to be drawing. By most accounts, Hitman: Absolution was a relatively enjoyable game. The multiple means of assassination, the creative – albeit occasionally ridiculous – stealth elements, and the high replay value combined to outweigh the vapid narrative. Hitman: Absolution was not sunk by core gamers decrying drastic shifts from the earlier entries in the series. Instead, it is far likelier that the game’s success was hindered by the shock-driven promotional campaign, replete with BDSM nuns and uninspired, Inception derived bass and treble. That aside, the greatest issue has to do with the sales projections themselves. As of March 2013, Hitman: Absolution had sold over 3.5 million copies. Tomb Raider was additionally cited as a reason behind the recently publicized financial woes Square Enix. Tomb Raider sold just under 4 million copies by March of 2013. When sales of that scale constitute a “struggle in sales,” ‘success’ is a goal that will always seem out of reach.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the FFXIII series. On the face of it, the fact that three games were created under the IP suggests that the IP itself must be doing well. But framing the actions of Square Enix with logic has always been a perilous endeavor. Final Fantasy XIII, while a commercial success (though, with 6.7 million units sold across both the PS3 and Xbox360, perhaps Square Enix would consider it a measured success, and not an outright one) was panned by most fans of the series, and critical reception was mixed. Final Fantasy XIII-2 was meant to be a mea culpa, but only barely bested 3 million sales. Square Enix seemed genuinely miffed when fans weren’t impressed by the argument “Of course we changed what annoyed/disappointed you! Look, towns! And…err…Moogles! And…come on developers, what else is there? …more Chocobos!” The somewhat less than linear narrative was a step in the right direction, but a time traveling tale of two twerps (one of whom you likely never cared about in the first game and won’t in the sequel, the other a mysterious newcomer who never really becomes interesting) who seek to undermine every major plot element of the preceding game is always going to be a tough sell. Combat that’s still based on
Dresspheres Paradigms and character progression that’s still based on heavily gated roles on a Spheregrid Crystarium aren’t going to be sources of major excitement either. Final Fantasy XIII fell into the trap of assuming that because RPG players like numbers, they must want bigger numbers. In actuality, what RPG players want is a sense of control, and numbers are meant to provide it. You want to know that putting four points into your character’s strength statistic will yield twelve more damage points, assuming all else remains constant. You don’t want to be shoehorned into a track of random globules giving you random amounts of hit points or strength or ‘magic’ that correspond directly to nothing. No one has ever said “Oh, thank the gods. These four strength points from the Sentinel track will now lead me to have just enough damage to crush that blasted Adamantoise! They may take our lives, but they may never take our FREEDOM!” Much like the plot, any investment you made was met with a nebulous, scattered, existential lump of nothing. Final Fantasy XIII-2 did nothing to fix either. By incorporating time travel, it was almost as though Square Enix thought, “Developers! These demands for a compelling storyline and a less than tedious, automated, soul-sucking combat and leveling system are too much. Give them…plot convolution! And add in some QTEs when you can.” It was a hollow attempt at redemption, and failed accordingly.
Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns therefore had a Herculean task in redeeming the trilogy. With the lowest opening week sales of the three entries in the series, and a miserable sales pace to date, it’s relatively safe to say it has failed in that mission. As is often the case with Square Enix, one hand giveth, the other taketh away. As is always the case with Square Enix, the superficial has been emphasized, and the critically significant has been disregarded. “Look, more
dresspheres roles!” is tempered by the fact that you are restricted to a party of Lightning, and…no one else. In keeping with the theme of restrictions, Square Enix in their likely panicky spitballing decided to follow the lead of the Atelier series, and inhibit exploration through the implementation of an inescapable countdown to endgame. Because if there’s one thing players universally hate, it’s freedom.
It is a shame that the success of Bravely Default and subsequent re-dedication to the JRPG form will be undermined by the misplaced negative comments towards Hitman: Absolution and Square Enix‘s misguided restructuring. By calling out non failures and seeming incognizant of true failures, it is hard to have much faith in the publisher. A faint glimmer of optimism is provided by the fact that the publisher is at least tangentially aware of the problems associated with titles aimed purely at the mass market. Unfortunately, they still don’t seem to properly weight the mitigating factors accordingly.