A recent article written by Inverse made a bit sad. And it was the final nail in the coffin that made me decide to write this response. It features the man, the myth, the legend, Final Fantasy 14 director Naoki Yoshida (also known as Yoshi-P to fans) stating:
“In terms of whether Final Fantasy is successfully adapting to industry trends, I believe the series is currently struggling. We’re now at a point where we receive a wide variety of requests regarding the direction of our game design. To be honest, it’d be impossible to satisfy all those requests with a single title. My current impression is that all we can really do is create multiple games, and continue creating the best that we can at any given time.”
The writer states that Yoshi-P believes that “Final Fantasy has never been about chasing trends, but setting them.” While I agree that this is certainly why people love Final Fantasy, I don’t believe this has always been the case. Don’t get me wrong, no one else in the industry has had the guts to take their broken, outdated-before-it-released MMORPG, literally drop a meteor on it, and then reimagine it into the wonder-fest that is A Realm Reborn. But I believe Final Fantasy got into a troubling habit a long time ago, catching a corporate virus that all well-known entertainment brands invariably seem to catch when developers and producers try too hard to bank on nostalgia and familiarity.
It’s called sequelitis. And for Square-Enix, it became a terminal case.
This argument isn’t a new one. It’s the reason Pixar made four Toy Story movies and a Buzz Lightyear movie no one watched (although that bombed for a different reason altogether). It’s the reason they made three Cars movies. It’s the reason the Star Wars sequel trilogy was made. It’s the reason they kept trying to make Terminator 2 over and over. It’s why there are so many Jaws sequels. It’s why they made All Grown Up! from Rugrats, or The Cleveland Show from Family Guy.
It’s why they made Final Fantasy X-2 (pronounced ten-two). It’s why they made two sequels to the hallway simulator that was Final Fantasy XIII. It’s why they made two disconnected and (in my opinion) inferior sequels to Final Fantasy Tactics before remastering the original into The War of the Lions. It’s why Final Fantasy IV: The After Years exists. It’s why Final Fantasy Dissidia exists, and why everybody (including me) was disappointed to discover that the “story mode” in Dissidia NT was nonexistent, and had been designed as nothing more than an arcade fighter. It’s why they’ve made and told every before-and-after story to Final Fantasy 7 that they possibly can, and won’t be stopping for the foreseeable future, no matter how bloated and confusing the whole of it becomes. And even though Final Fantasy XIV wasn’t meant to be a sequel to Final Fantasy XI, the clunky UI and 1.0 system suggests otherwise.
Final Fantasy may not chase trends with the stories they tell. But the decisions Square-Enix makes as a company certainly does.
Earlier this year, Square-Enix sold their holdings over Eidos, Crystal Dynamics, and the Square-Enix Montreal studio over to Embracer Group, the Swedish-based owners of game developers and publishers such as Gearbox Software, THQ Nordic, and Coffee Stain Studios. What did they get for selling such well-known and popular IPs as the Deus Ex, Tomb Raider, The Legacy of Kain (which went criminally unused), and Thief franchises?
$300 million dollars. To compare, Embracer Group acquired Gearbox Entertainment (which includes the Borderlands series, Duke Nukem (for what that’s worth anymore), the Homeworld series, and a few others) for $1.3 billion dollars.
You’re telling me that the company that got rid of Lara Croft and Adam Jensen are now complaining that they’re in a bad financial situation? I totally understand that their most recent Avengers game ended up in the garbage pretty quick (games as a service is a terrible idea). But they had just released Guardians of the Galaxy, and by all accounts, it’s not that bad.
Thing is, they’re not in that bad of a bad financial situation. I mean, look at their financial reports from March 2022. 9.8% sales increase over 2021? That’s pretty dang good, isn’t it? And by their annual investor report, it looks like the only real crash that occurred in 2021 was to their “Amusement” segment, which oversees “amusement facilities and planning, development, and distribution of arcade game machines and related products for amusement facilities.” Dissidia NT, anyone? As of June, the numbers for sales don’t look as good. But is it really worth selling all of your overseas studios so quickly and for so little?
I don’t think Yoshi-P is lamenting the financial state of Square-Enix’s business practices when he says that Final Fantasy is struggling. But we know, Yoshi-P, believe me. It’s been struggling for a while. Ever since Charlie’s Angels took over Spira, by my account. I don’t even know what to make of Chocobo Racing GP, for crying out loud (although it does look fun, I want my Switch back, *sniff*). Final Fantasy has tried to be so much for so long, it’s no wonder it’s struggling to know what it is beyond chocobos and crystals.
For the last two decades, we’ve seen Final Fantasy do just about everything except what made the series so fantastic in the first place: turn-based battles, stories that told fantastic tales of heroism against nihilism, and a true middle finger to the trends of the day. Do you know why Final Fantasy IX is almost universally loved by those who played it when it came out? Because it used nostalgia the right way. It wasn’t a sequel. It wasn’t a prequel. It wasn’t a spin-off. It was a love letter to its own franchise. As stated by Alex Donaldson for vg247.com:
My personal perspective set aside, FF9 is indeed special… It is often reductively described as a throwback game, a tribute to past Final Fantasy titles. While it is absolutely packed with references and winks for fans, it is far more than that, however. It’s a unique Final Fantasy with its own style and energy that hadn’t quite been done before or since.
But what made Final Fantasy IX special, according to Alex?
Part of this is down to the game being made by a multicultural, international team of developers. While of course Japanese-led, a huge amount of FF9’s development, particularly its art, was undertaken in Hawaii, a US territory. The game’s staff included Americans, French, Germans and more. These days, many Japanese games are made by diverse teams thanks to international hiring policies and outsourcing, but FF9 was ahead of the curve.
It’s a real shame that this doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
According to Eidos Montreal founder Stephane D’Astous, the reason Square-Enix let go of all of all of their Eidos and Crystal Dynamics holdings wasn’t really because they weren’t making enough money. Apparently, they just “weren’t committed” to working with overseas studios:
“The pressure was starting to build, and my employees towards me, me towards my superiors. I think when people are in a crisis situation where there’s a lot of situations, you do see their core behaviour or values. And I didn’t like what I saw. There was really a lack of leadership, courage, and communication. And when you don’t have those basic things, no employee can do their job correctly — especially when you’re heading a studio.
I was losing hope that Square Enix Japan would bring great things to Eidos. I was losing confidence in my headquarters in London. In their annual fiscal reports, Japan always added one or two phrases saying, ‘We were disappointed with certain games. They didn’t reach expectations.’ And they did that strictly for certain games that were done outside of Japan.”
It wasn’t just this lack of communication. It was poor planning, too.
“If I read between the lines, Square Enix Japan was not as committed as we hoped initially. And there are rumours, obviously, that with all these activities of mergers and acquisitions, that Sony would really like to have Square Enix within their wheelhouse. I heard rumours that Sony said they’re really interested in Square Enix Tokyo, but not the rest. So, I think [Square Enix CEO Yosuke] Matsuda-san put it like a garage sale.”
So, let me get this straight, Square-Enix. You wanted… ALL of the money. I get that. So in order to get ALL the money, you gave up… a LOT more money?
Nah, Final Fantasy doesn’t have any problems, Yoshi-P. It’s Square-Enix leadership that has the problems. Call it a symptom of late-stage capitalism if you have to. I call it “being stupid and impatient”. If Square-Enix really is planning on being acquired by Sony, great; maybe putting a company with corporate problems into a larger corporation will fix things (I say with GREAT and MIGHTY sarcasm). But Sony had better be watching. If they do acquire Square-Enix (and it looks like it may be becoming more likely), get rid of Mr. Matsuda, and whoever else thought it wise to sell Lara Croft for a penny.
Better yet, don’t acquire them. Let them stew. Make them regret not having ALL the money.
Maybe I don’t know how intellectual property rights work. But could they not have simply sold the overseas studios without giving up the rights to the IPs? Or, you know, hung onto Tomb Raider, at least? Or was that part of the package? I could just imagine Sony salivating at Playstation-exclusivity with Tomb Raider just as someone at Square signs the paperwork and hauls Lara away in a cardboard box with holes punched in the top so she can breathe.
Square-Enix is not helping to fix the image of poor corporate decision-making.
I hope Final Fantasy 16 becomes a masterpiece. I really do. I mean, the fact that they’ve put almost all of FF14’s best developers onto FF16 (Yoshi-P as director, Masayoshi Soken as composer, not to mention the battle system designer Ryota Suzuki for Devil May Cry 5) is saying something. The way Square-Enix trashed Eidos, if they “lose” Final Fantasy (or sell it to the Swedes for lunch money, who knows), it will be corporate’s fault.
Like it always is.