Square Enix Does It Again!
Square Enix is amazing. What an interesting company. They are certainly one of a kind. What has been one of the primary complaints leveled against Square Enix over the [currently] seven years of [then] Final Fantasy Versus XIII‘s incubation? Might it have had something to do with the game being announced long before it was ready to be announced, only to languish untouched until late 2011? 2013 looks to have seen Square Enix repeat the same old mistakes by announcing a highly anticipated game [Kingdom Hearts III], which they in actual fact do not plan to start developing in any serious capacity until another high profile game [Final Fantasy XV] has been completed. Final Fantasy XV does not seem likely to finish up development until late 2014 at the earliest, and possibly much later.
This week Shinji Hashimoto [a producer on both games] let the cat out of the bag when he stated:
“Both [Kingdom Hearts III and Final Fantasy XV] have Tetsuya Nomura as their director, so we can’t create these two big games at the same time.
A lot of people have wondered for the last couple of years if Square Enix has actually been working on Kingdom Hearts III; that’s why we announced it at E3 this year, but please, we need you all to understand that there’s a lot to do.
Wow. Okay. So, it would appear that Tetsuya Nomura is too busy working on Final Fantasy XV for the Kingdom Hearts III project to begin in earnest until it is finished. Fine. Good. It is preferable if the developer of a large-scale project does not have to divide his attention across multiple fronts, so that is all to the good. But why then was Kingdom Hearts III announced as being in production? Square Enix made that announcement because people had been asking about whether Kingdom Hearts III was in production, and so the company decided that their best course of action was to lie to them about the game being in production despite the fact that it probably will not enter production in any meaningful capacity for another two years. Fantastic! This does not even remotely stand to blow up in Square Enix’s face yet again when gamers start referring to Kingdom Hearts III as vapourware. For all the gamer frustration engendered by Valve’s refusal to announce Half-Life 3, Gaben’s silence has been admirable and much preferable to making a premature announcement which sees the game’s entire fandom embark upon a rollercoaster of frustration and disappointment.
Square Enix boss, Yosuke Matsuda, has used the company’s 2013 report to once again lament the performance of Eidos’ multi-million unit selling franchise games Tomb Raider, Hitman: Absolution, and Sleeping Dogs, while praising the the fantastic performance of the Square Enix Japanese division, because it is not like they have spent the last three years pouring money into a blackhole in order to salvage Final Fantasy XIV [which in all fairness looks to have paid off]:
“In the HD games category, we delivered three major titles in the fiscal year under review, primarily in Europe and North America. These titles— “SLEEPING DOGS,” “Hitman: Absolution,” and “TOMB RAIDER”—failed to reach their respective targets, and resulted in financially unsatisfactory consequences, whereas the HD business in Japan remained strong through sales of the Nintendo 3DS version of “DRAGON QUEST VII: Eden no Senshitachi” (Warriors of Eden) and others.”
Matsuda appears to be sticking to the already much-maligned falsehood that these games failed to meet retail expectations, when Square Enix themselves set the games up to fail by judging them by a metric which was neigh-on impossible to achieve. Matsuda goes on to bewail the fact that disc-based games are essentially killing Square Enix, as promotion, retail-partnerships, and price protection served to make all these games unprofitable – a sentiment which utterly fails to account for the fact that other publishers must also operate within this retail environment, and that both Tomb Raider and Hitman: Absolution were able to dominate their relative launch windows. If these games failed to generate a profit, then it is Square Enix who have done something wrong.
Yosuke Matsuda has a plan to deal with the lack of profitability however, and if one reads between the lines it sounds very much like he wishes to sell Square Enix’s larger games off in a piecemeal fashion:
“How to address the issue is a major task for the executive team. As noted above, the HD games category faces the structural issues of an inflexible earnings model and long-term, large-scale development resulting in a low rate of investment turnover. These two factors are closely interconnected.
First, we have to create earnings opportunities even before a product is released in order to raise investment turnover of a long-term, large-scale development project. Titles of large-scale development are our flagship titles, showcasing our technologies. We will never lower the flag of such titles. In fact, they are strong brands and therefore have the potential of diverse content exploitation. It is possible to establish a business model that delivers content in various formats to customers even before the launch of a game.
Through implementation of such a development process, we will promote approaches to raise investment turnover by accelerating earnings opportunities and reducing financial risks. A lack of earnings opportunities over a long period of time means, essentially, having no contact with customers during the same period. In these days, it is becoming crucial to strengthen customer relations. Re-examining our approach to long-term, large-scale development is also a step toward building a better customer relationship.”
The only message that one is able to take away from Matsuda’s words is that Square Enix plans to find ways to start selling their games before they are even finished. Granted, such an interpretation takes more than a few liberties on the part of this author, yet Matsuda’s choice of wording sounds as if he is planning on releasing AAA Square Enix games in a similar fashion to Tim Schafer’s Steam Early Access release of Broken Game, as essentially both developers are looking to sell a portion of their games before they are actually finished in order to make up for budgetary and revenue shortfalls. At any rate, it certainly seems fair to say that the next great endeavour of Square Enix will be to somehow monetise their HD games before they are even released.
This however is not the beginning and end of Square Enix’s risk mitigation agenda, as the week has seen the unveiling of three new projects – all series which are derived from traditional packaged games, but are now trying to flee that ship. The trademarks of Deus Ex Universe and Hitman Go look to indicate a series transition to MMO and smartphone game respectively. Meanwhile, Square Enix has this week unveiled a new freemium smartphone title by the name of Final Fantasy Agito. If that name sounds familiar, it is only because it was more-or-less the original name of Final Fantasy Type-0. The game itself is to be a direct continuation from Final Fantasy Type-0, and is set to feature microtransactions, a customisable bare-bones protagonist, and player decisions which influence the direction of the story – in essence every me-too bullet-point from the current grab-bag of conventional corporate gaming wisdom.
If Square Enix does not exercise a little more caution in the way they devalue their own properties, then they may eventually find themselves in the unenviable position of Japanese companies like Capcom, who this week revealed that they only have a paltry 152 million dollars left in the bank – that is scarcely enough for one last roll of the dice. This generation has seen Capcom badly botch the Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, and Lost Planet franchises, while [seemingly] deliberately killing-off the Mega Man franchise just to spite Keiji Inafune – and their bottom line has suffered because of it. The Resident Evil name alone no longer sells games in the volumes that it once did, and the company, in its cloistered arrogance, may not survive this decline of fortunes. This should serve as an abject lesson to the dinosaurs of the Japanese gaming industry who are currently engaged in debasing their own currency in order to generate a quick buck – once they no-longer have a name to trade on, there is not much else.
Sony Unveils Plans to Revitalise the Vita
It is fair to say that the PS Vita [despite being one of the sexiest pieces of gaming tech ever created] has not managed to catch on in the way that Sony might have hoped for. Part of this may be to do with the price, part of this is almost certainly attributable to the horribly expensive and horrendously requisite Vita memory cards, and a large part of the Vita’s sluggish performance is undeniably the result of the 3DS serving as such a potent competitor. This week Sony has unveiled two potential avenues for the Vita’s expansion into mass market gaming culture, yet they appear to be odd and disappointing by turns.
Sony’s first grab for a larger share of the portable gaming market comes in the antithetical form of a micro-console [named the Playstation Vita TV], which will allow gamers to play [some] Vita games on their televisions for an incredibly cheap asking price. If this were to catch on it would essentially mean that Sony would be supporting two home consoles over the course of the next generation, as opposed to one console and one portable. The feature-set of the Playstation Vita TV is hardly ideal, given that its lower resolution games are bound to look ghastly on HD televisions, and the fact that many Vita games will be incompatible with this new console, owing to the fact that it does not support touch controls. That said, if this is the only way that Sony will be able to keep the Vita alive in the West, then one must admit to a degree of grudging respect for the ingenuity that went into thinking outside of the box in order to better market what was a handheld gaming console. We all know a gamer [or five] who will stubbornly refuse to play anything that is not blown up to a pixilated mess on their 50″ television sets [*cough* Final Fantasy VI Advance *cough*], and so it would appear that this device is for them.
The second new piece of Vita hardware on the horizon is a new lite model of the Vita. The original model of the Vita was not particularly thick to begin with, yet the lite model is set to be twenty percent thinner and fifteen percent lighter. The Vita Lite is also set to tackle the console’s unpalatable pricing by slightly lowering the price of the unit, while also featuring 1GB of internal memory, meaning that new owners need not purchase a memory card in order to play their physical games. This all sounds pretty good thus far, yet unfortunately there is one pretty huge caveat – the console will feature an LCD screen rather than the original model’s lovely OLED screen. The new LCD screen will allow Vita Lite owners to eke an extra hour of battery-life from their purchase, yet the original model’s OLED screen is undoubtedly its strongest feature, and as such the Vita Lite can only be considered a significant downgrade.
One would not begrudge the success of either of these Vita models, yet it should be fervently hoped that neither of them outright replace the original model, as the loss of that beautiful OLED screen would be a truly sad thing indeed.