In recent years the Square Enix E3 booth has resembled that of your stereotypical Western publisher.
For two years we've had Lara Croft and Agent 47 dominate the firm's showcase. The stars of Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts were there, just hidden away behind the banks of Tomb Raider demos.
So it was refreshing to find a more traditional Square Enix at E3 this year. Complete with bug-eyed characters, ridiculous haircuts and unnecessarily large swords.
For the team at Square Enix, E3 was about the return of Final Fantasy – a series that has floundered after a series of missteps. Final Fantasy XIII didn't quite achieve the praise expected of a Final Fantasy game, while the MMO Final Fantasy XIV was nothing short of terrible.
Meanwhile, Bethesda and Elder Scrolls have knocked Square off its perch as the king of the RPG.
The big Square Enix news at E3 was Final Fantasy XV, which was unveiled during Sony's pre-E3 press briefing. But there were two other major titles on the show floor, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.
It's the latter that has a crucial role to play in Final Fantasy's rebirth. Because although XIII was a mixed-bag, XIV was a disaster. Criticised by everyone – from fans to Square Enix's own CEO – its Metacritic score limped in at 49.
But rather than cast it into the bargains bins to be forgotten, Square decided to fix it. Naoki Yoshida, a games veteran best known for his work on the Dragon Quest series, was recruited to lead a new version of XIV called A Realm Reborn which will finally arrive on August 29th.
We have remade everything,”?Yoshida tells MCV. We can say with confidence that this is a completely new game. The original Final Fantasy XIV was a shock to a lot of fans. It did a lot of damage and we lost a lot of our users' trust. To regain that trust we need to do something that takes time. We have to show them that we really mean it when we say we're sorry.”
We have remade everything. We can say with
confidence that this is a completely new game.
The original Final Fantasy XIV was a shock to a
lot of fans. It did a lot of damage and we lost a
lot of our users' trust. To regain that trust we
need to do something that takes time. We have
to show them that we really mean it when
we say we're sorry.”
Naoki Yoshida - producer, Final Fantasy XV
It's unusual to hear a company talk so openly about a game it got wrong. But XIV's failure had a dramatic impact upon Square Enix.
It humbled us a lot,” says Yoshida. At the time of the first game, there was this feeling that we could do no wrong. And there wasn't really a communication with the players, we just did what we thought was great and didn't listen to the fans.
In the two and a half years since I joined the project, I have made it a point to listen and make a game that players want. And this stance has not just transformed Final Fantasy XIV, it has transformed the entire company.
Square Enix now has these radio and TV shows to speak to fans. That mistake we made two and a half years ago has woken up the company.”
It's not just about listening to the fans, the Final Fantasy team are now listening to each other, too.
We do feel it is a rebirth for the Final Fantasy series,” says Yoshida. Each game in the series up until now has been made by a different team that operated independently. We've now made it a company motto that we will get together and move to the future as one entity. That's why you see Final Fantasy XIII, XIV and XV pushing forward as one.
We still have separate teams working on these games, but the big difference here is that the leaders of these teams are working together, communicating with each other.”
And this new approach seems to be working. The early buzz from the A Realm Reborn beta is that the game is significantly better than its predecessor, and Yoshida believes Square Enix has cracked the problem of making MMOs work on console.
We wanted to create a game that's not only for fans of Final Fantasy, but also the MMO genre and console RPG fans,” he explains.
We've put a lot of work into the interface of the PS3 version, and we think it's revolutionary. It will allow people on PS3 to play with PC users, but not be at any disadvantage.
Instead of building the PC controls so they are closer to the console version, we are trying to bring the console controls closer to what it's like on PC. That has meant making this new system that gives players using a controller almost the exact same level of freedom as players on a keyboard and mouse.”
The console versions – both current and next-gen – are intended to open A Realm Reborn out to the widest possible audience. There may even be a tablet version one day.
This build of Final Fantasy XIV has been a real challenge. We have put a lot of time, money and effort into building it. So we want as many players to experience it as possible.”
He adds: The hardware on tablets right now is probably not good enough. But once those devices can run it, it will be definitely something we think about. We have moved from that console era into a device era.”
A Realm Reborn is an ambitious, expensive project for Square Enix. But there's more at stake here than just the success of a single game.
Yes, it is important that it makes money. But just as crucial is that it satisfies a dissatisfied fanbase. After Hitman and Tomb Raider failed to hit their ludicrously high sales targets, it's now down to Final Fantasy to deliver financial returns. And it's not going to do that if it doesn't get the fans back on side.
Concludes Yoshida: The reason Final Fantasy XIV has made it this far – even with that rocky launch – is because we have a strong community. Our strategy is to show that community that we have remade this game, get them to fall in love with it, and from there instead of us telling new players ‘you should play this game' we are getting our community to do it. Because they are the stronger voice, not us.”
STICKING WITH SUBSCRIPTIONS
The MMO genre has undergone a painful transition in recent years. A transition that has seen publishers ditch the subscription-based model made famous by World of Warcraft, and go free-to-play.
But Square Enix will not follow the trend with A Realm Reborn.
There is this big talk about what is the best model for MMOs – the subscription model or the free-to-play model,” says producer Naoki Yoshida. Everyone has an opinion. But we believe to have a successful MMO that has regular, large-scale updates, then the project needs a stable income. If you are going free-to-play with microtransactions, one month you may have a lot of money, but you might not the next. That makes it hard to plan for the future.
Also, subscription offers stability to your staff. They know that if they don't make enough money from free-to-play one month, their job is gone.”
Yoshida adds that the reason so many MMOs start off subscription-based and end up free-to-play is due to the need to pay investors. This isn't an issue with A Realm Reborn.
Making an MMO is very risky. It needs a lot of money to start up, and to get that money a lot of companies have to use investors. And investors want returns quickly. If you don't get hit your subscription goal, then these companies switch to free-to-play to get that financial boost and instantly pay back investors.
What makes us – and the likes of Blizzard – different is that we are using our own money. We don't have investors to pay