Over the last month, there’s been a lot of news coming out from Square-Enix in the wake of the Tokyo Game Show. The news has mostly been about change, and the change is pretty surprising. This is Square-Enix, after all, formerly known as SquareSoft, or just plain ‘ol Square to its fans of yesteryear. From the NES to the PS2 era they were the undisputed kings of the JRPG, and became synonymous with engaging story and cutting edge production values. Now, however, they are known as the company that makes a lot of expensive mistakes, and this latest bout of announcements merely confirms that. How does a company go from being one of the premiere studios in the industry to a struggling publisher relying on its Western acquisitions to squeak by?
Final Fantasy XV, for example, spent years in development hell, originally as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, a PS3 exclusive headed by Squenix Wunderkind, Tetsuya Nomura. Nomura was originally a character designer, and responsible for iconic FF characters like Cloud and Sephiroth, but as his star ascended, Squenix used him everywhere, including putting him in charge of his own game franchise, the Kingdom Hearts series. If it sounds like a bad idea to put one man in charge of an FF game AND continue to develop sequels for his new series, you’d be right. However, it didn’t take you seven years to realize that. That’s how long it took Square, beginning production on the game in 2006, missing an entire console generation while working on it, getting in a second director to help out Nomura in 2012, and finally moving Nomura entirely OFF the project in 2013, then waiting another year to make that announcement, while migrating the console exclusive to a multiplatform next-gen title.
This, according to Square-Enix, will allow Nomura to fully concentrate on Kingdom Hearts III, yet another beloved Squenix franchise that enjoyed two games in the PS2 era, and completely missed the last generation of consoles. Surprisingly, after years of development at Square-Enix, one of the most recent announcements about the game’s progress confirms that the production staff have abandoned their in-house engine, and are moving to migrate the game over to the Unreal engine that is now the mainstay for many Western games. That, obviously, is going to add more time and production money to the release of the game.
Oh, and somewhere in there, Square-Enix catastrophically launched a terrible MMO in the form of the original Final Fantasy XIV, and then had to waste more time and resources bringing in staff to actually make the game good. It is good now. Very good, in fact, but it begs the question, why would Squenix waste all that time making a bad game in the first place, when they could have just made it good from the start?
This is the single biggest question surrounding the way Square-Enix’s internal studios operate. What kind of decisions are being made that allow things to go so wrong for so long before 11
hour efforts are required to save these projects? Enormous amounts of money are burned by the Japanese studios with mistakes that literally go on for years before being fixed. That money is coming from games like Tomb Raider and Batman: Arkham Asylum (or at least it did before Warner Brothers wised up and bought their franchise back), and those games get blamed when they don’t pull in enough money to support the production efforts of the internal Japanese studios. On top of all this, Square-Enix went from producing three separate, distinct FF games in the PS2 era to making Final Fantasy XIII in the PS3/60 era and, despite the less than stellar reception, milking that investment for two more FFXIII-based games that people didn’t want.
Part of the blame obviously goes to leadership. There’s a reason Yoichi Wada, former CEO of Square-Enix, stepped down last year, and then was moved to a less influential position of Chairman for Square-Enix Tokyo. But that was last year, and there’s still been a lot of fallout since then. The HD generation with the PS3 and Xbox 360 caught Squenix completely off guard. They’ve handled the transition very badly, and even now, a second generation into the HD era, they are struggling to make games in any reasonable kind of time frame. And the games they do make are not games their fans want. There are profound problems at Square-Enix. If they can’t solve them by the end of this generation, they may not be around for the next.