Final Fantasy is one of the most prolific, lucrative and closely watched game franchises of all time.
But how does Square Enix keep it relevant in terms of the globalised games market, and the new wave of online titles.
Here, publisher CEO Yoichi Wada discusses Final Fantasy XIII, and business model plans for new MMO Final Fantasy XIV…
You’ve talked to us in depth about your views for online gaming’s future. So how does having a big traditional console game like Final Fantasy XIII fit with a browser game strategy?
Final Fantasy is our flagship title, so there is no way we will relax our attitude to it. It is important that we keep the global mood in mind for our direction – but there is never a point when something that is 'A' will switch over to 'B', for instance.
Same goes in the transition to include mobile – not everything becomes mobile or iPhone, there will always be a coexistence of something old and new. We wish, technically speaking, that there was a definite switch from A to B but that isn't always the case.
You mentioned trying to keep up with player tastes, but they change quickly. And Final Fantasy takes years to develop. Is it possible to keep on top of changes when it takes so long?
It's hard – but it is a big issue. The secret is to make sure the game you produced is to the expectation of the uses.
There is a big cost involved in making these games, so production taking too long is going to become an issue - it's too much of a risk. The industry has learnt that there cannot be a misalignment of the users tastes versus what is going to be produced.
On FFXIII Square Enix is using a Leona Lewis song to accompany the Western release. Given your view on globalisation, you aren't changing the content of your game but changing the outskirts of it to cater for different markets. Is that an important step?
Previously such content was Japanese artists - and remained that way for the Western releases.
It is an important point – we were very conscious of it in our decision-making. It would have been better if the American team could generate the material from scratch but the lack of team led us to strategically go with Leona.
And Final Fantasy XIV arrives soon. What can you tell us about its progress?
Sometime during the course of next year the beta starts, but we're still looking into the exact timing.
There are a lot of big MMOs on the way in 2010 and World of Warcraft is still popular. What are you doing to compete? How important is it to tempt users away from WoW?
We believe there is a number of people that will stay attached to each title, but we are optimistic in that sense for Final Fantasy.
WoW is a tough competitor, but whether you are talking about EverQuest, Ultima or Lineage there has never been a company that has a continuously successful number one and two MMO.
So there's an opportunity for you to be a serious rival to them?
Yes, but the flipside is that they are a tough competition.
Of course XIV isn't your first MMO given the success of Final Fantasy XI. What have you learnt from FFXI that will apply to XIV? Are you interested in more business models, or more western appeal?
The basic model hasn't changed – it's a monthly flat rate service with additional charges for items that users want to buy.
For FFXI we didn't initially set up the item transaction model that well – although the demand for it was high. We thought that it would be a benefit for users, but that we wouldn't be able to charge. We soon learnt that there are a lot of people who want that kind of model, so we would like to introduce more pay-as-you-use items into the game. But there were too few items in FFXI – however we we don't want to take it to the other extreme entirely for FFXIV.
And also with regards the game design, FFXI was based on parties and playing in groups – but of course that means the advantage is players cannot play alone. So to formulate a party you needed to find a player with a similar skillset, yet it's not always easy to find those kinds of players. In FFXIV we have made that part much easier - so people can enjoy much more on their own. We've made it easier in that way.
How much of that is to do with the fact that online userbase is much bigger now, and therefore player skills and experience varies?
FFXI was online-only, and it drove people to go online. At the time there weren't many people playing online. Now however it's a given that people are online – it's a requirement for most console games – so it definitely impacts how thsoe games are made and played, yes.
You said at the Montreal Game Summit that Eidos Montreal working on 'global game' - what can you tell us?
We wanted to be able to create a game in a different cultural background so that we could drive innovation - so it was important that we take advantage of the global network Square Enix now has. And it was important to pick a cluster that would develop the right game; Stephane [D'Astous, GM of Eidos Montreal] and is team are very talented.
Already in some of the games that are being made under his leadership the pre-rendered computer graphics portion is something our team in Tokyo is working on. And that portion is just easy first step. Because the real impact for all games development and production is the real-time game engine.
Making the CG portion of games has no impact on production. So that was an easy area to collaborate on. But we do want to go further by jointly collaborating on the game design itself.
A recent big Eidos success was Batman, which is an external IP. You also said in your Montreal keynote that you prefer to own IP, like most publisher bosses, but would you work with more external studios on those kind of projects if it fit?
I think it's possible – there are already a few projects that we fund where the developer owns the IP. But overwhelmingly we would like to be able to pour in our wisdom and funding into something we own - it's what we do with our own properties and can bring that dedication to owned properties.
But many external developers talk about owning IP - is there a tension you need ot address when dealing with those companies?
Owned IP is tough to make – so if we think a third party company has the capability we will consider it. But 90 per cent of the time it's not possible. So we are very cautious on how we deal with that.
There is a widely discussed decline in the Japanese market. What is Square Enix' take on it? Have you been trying to offset that with the global growth of the business?
The gaming industry is something that will be playing on a global market. It doesn't really matter if the Japanese market is good or bad – we must be global. So Eidos' acquisition wasn't related to the welfare of the Japanese market.
As for this 'Japanese market decline' - if you look at the numbers alone the market is not declining. The perspective might be different for the Western markets because the growth there was significant.
Compare that to Japan and our growth curve happened a few years ago. But to say the market is declining based on comparable growth elsewhere might not be the right thing to do.
Having said that in terms of the market itself, the Japanese market hasn't been able to appeal as much as it should. So it should be higher in that sense.