A Planet Without Square-Enix

It has come to my attention that we might, within a few short years, find ourselves living on a planet devoid of Square-Enix.

Square-Enix, for those who don't know, is a suit-wearing organisation whose members enjoy excellent health benefits in addition to an opportunity to get paid to do things that, as God as their witness, they'd be doing anyway.

Square-Enix is, at the end of the day, a large, shiny office building full of young people with coffee-stained teeth drawing endless pictures of Mickey Mouse and / or wasteland-wandering rhinoceros-sized flame-crackling hovering ghost motorcycles. If I'm not mistaken—and I'm probably not—the average employee of this organization's lunch consists of fried onion ring snacks, and their blood vinegar content is in excess of .02—whatever that means!—what with how much cheap ramen they eat for dinner. Lording over these youngsters are a dozen black-cloaked men—known as "The Thirteen"—whose hoods hide sun-leathered faces (they own yachts) and coal-tar-stained teeth (they eat tar). A few years ago, The Thirteen lost touch with The Five Billion Nine Hundred And Ninety Nine Thousand Nine Hundred and Eighty-Seven, and it seems that now, conveniently, in the wake of a major natural disaster, they're willing to admit that they are in Serious Financial Trouble.

I will tell you what—it's no secret that seven out of ten game pitch documents here in The West are plastered with concept art pulled shamelessly from Deviantart.com, with asterisked captions under every tenth or eleventh image: "This art is copyright Some Talented Individual From The Internet—she or he is not our employee, though this is definitely the sort of thing we would want an artist to do; in fact, we might hire this person." I don't see anything wrong with this method. Well, in Japan, they do: You can't photograph your friend hugging a plastic statue of Colonel Sanders without a representative of Kentucky Fried Chicken theatrically weeping and groping his face at you. It's confusing and weird.

So what I'm driving at is this: they say Japan is on the skids—re: games, anyway—and they say that The West is on the smooths. I tell you what—the smooths are pretty smooth, up in here. And I tell you what again—in Japan, they wouldn't use some kid's art in their pitch document. They'd have to offer the kid a lifetime contract first. So, in this manner, I present you with a hypothesis that Square-Enix has accumulated—through numerous expansions, attempted expansions, and maybe-superfluous conglomerations, so many artists that a nuclear physicist wouldn't feel wrong assuming that they were probably—and definitely—the most important members of the company.

"They" say one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. I say one bad apple usually means you have ten or eleven more. Square-Enix probably has over a hundred bad apples. I realise it sounds like I'm being snippy and mean. I am not: I am being myself: what I'm saying is that they probably have a whole lot of dumb people working, and making decisions, at Square-Enix.

Nearly two months after one of the five largest earthquakes in recorded history, Square-Enix has one of those public meetings where they talk about money like money were a dead monarch. Every word falling out of the mouths of gray-faced businesscodgers has an ethereal implied apology attached. The point of truth is that, between a little while ago and right now, 600 million yen has turned into a ghost. I'll paraphrase the punchline—as if apologies had punchlines: "We lost 600 million yen, because it's tough times, these times, what with that big earthquake and all." 600 million yen is what Square-Enix would pay me to work for them flex-time five days a week for one hundred gosh darn years.

So is it the earthquake's fault that Square-Enix is crumbling? Or is it that they are merely a shadow of their former spastic, gorgeous glory, now less of a knight in shining armour on a white horse than a headless centaur whose hind legs are a little motorcycle wheel? I'd say the earthquake—real and scary and tremendously horrible as it is—is a mere melting rubber puppet of a convenient excuse. The truth is that Square-Enix is deflating because of all the sucking.

(You want to know which Japanese company could blame the earthquake for their financial collapse? That'd be Irem, who decided that they shouldn't release their years-in-development post-earthquake-survival adventure game Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 4 immediately after the earthquake — when it was planned to drop — or ever, as the issue would likely never stop being a serious, sensitive subject. Irem, for the record, has no other large-scale projects in the pipeline, and likely not enough money to start another one, wonderful and talented as they are.)

The truth is that Square-Enix is deflating because of all the sucking. Here's what I know for sure about Square-Enix. I know that I loved the Final Fantasy games, as a child. Final Fantasy I, IV, VI, VII, and VIII were integral elements of the experience of my growing up and realizing that mainstream entertainment was the gnarled plaything of rubes. Okay—enough snippiness. Here's what I know about Square-Enix: I know that, by 1986, the company then known as Squaresoft had tried and failed many times to make a game that was as profitable as gasoline or air-conditioning; their investors' faces had transformed into psychedelic angry clown masks. Feeling heat and pressure (also symptoms of a heart attack), Hironobu Sakaguchi fired his soul into the hole of a top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art computer. The game was nicknamed "Final Fantasy", because it was fantastic in theme and would likely be the last thing he ever made, if it didn't succeed.

It succeeded. It was such a runaway success they had to call animal control—figuratively. The moneymen clapped Sakaguchi's shoulder hard enough to gift him with chronic back pain well into his own seventies. So it was that Hironobu The Mustache earned a saintly status as a creative juggernaut, one that remains largely unchallenged to this day, when his name appears on the back and front of a game box. For a few years, even, back then, Squaresoft let Sakaguchi flex that creative muscle, dipping the Final Fantasy series like a penny on a string into a growing-deeper wishing well of weird concepts and bigger budgets.

I have met Sakaguchi and conversed with him, and found him to be a supremely, fantastically, wonderfully intelligent human being. I suppose that's why Squaresoft decided, sometime after he directed the failed motion picture "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within", that this risk-taking creative juggernaut was, frankly, dangerous to a company as large as Squaresoft had become.

So rather than bite the hand that feeds, they took on a housefly with a shotgun, and swallowed the entire arm of the hand that feeds, all the way up to the shoulder: they gave him a Little Job in Hawaii until, one day, he quit to form his own company, taking half of the development team of Final Fantasy XII with him.

Before that, though, there was Final Fantasy XI. It was announced as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, much to the aghastment of the human-interaction-avoiding series fans whose favourite games had taught them that people were either ghosts, demons, or alien cockroach vampires. Final Fantasy XI, from the announcement of its concept, format, and genre, was a crushing disappointment to the company's core fans.

Today, I woke up, slipped off my silk comforter, and, cracking my sore neck—beds of money are not actually very comfortable—checked my email on my white 32GB Verizon iPhone 4. There it was—no matter how hard you grit your teeth when you click "Unsubscribe", all you're going to get from The Square-Enix Email Newsletter is a cordial reply confessing that it'll take at least three months to process your request. Right there, at the top of the newsletter, is that same bland, tired marketing copy every Japanese company uses to announce everything: "Debut! [Game title] ! On sale soon!" In this case, "[Game title] " is "Final Fantasy XI Vana Diel Collection 3". What the heck is that? First of all, it's a Roman eleven and a Hindu-Arabic three. Second of all, it's a collection of a bunch of Final Fantasy XI expansions for 3,980 yen. Unearthing the secret identity of this product took about as much work as it had been to discover cuneiform. I had to actually Google it, because on the newsletter, under "product description", it says "This product costs 3,980 yen. It costs 1,134 yen per month to play online, and 105 yen for each additional contents ID created by the user." The golden age of marketing copy this sure ain't!

What I'm driving at is this: the fans lined up to diss Final Fantasy XI the microsecond it was announced. Now it's one of the company's flagship products. Square-Enix sends me failing cult-indoctrination mails about it thrice weekly, and pillows full of dollar bills are uncomfortable. Again: what was once presumptively despised now has devoted fans, and this has not been all that much of a lesson to Square-Enix.

Somewhere along the line — somewhere between telling Sakaguchi to GTFO and then FOADIAF and that enormous, devastating earthquake, Square-Enix (formerly Squaresoft) lost touch with its audience. This could be because, from the start, they had, in fact, never really wanted to touch their audience. (I sure wouldn't.) Between the losing of touch and the losing of money were numerous red flags so red and so flaggy it would take a slobbering anti-genius to not see a single one of them. To wit:

Final Fantasy XIII sucked: Whenever the subject of "lol Japan" comes up during a board meeting at Action Button Entertainment headquarters here in the technology hotbed of Silicon Valley, one of the first sentiments someone throws around is "Japan still doesn't know how to make a next-gen game". Then someone says, "Man, whatev, [such and such game]is next-gen." Then someone else says, "No it's not you jerk", then the other guy says "Yes it is". Then everyone looks at me, and I sigh, and then say, "No, it's not—and here's why." Then I say a whole bunch of stuff with so much eloquence that, if you heard me speak that way, you'd realise that I'm not just some kook writing weird stuff on the internet. I will refrain by choice from such eloquence in this particular venue, and instead posit that Final Fantasy XIII is not next-gen because it's a horrible mess. And I'm not just talking about the story, game mechanics, level design, voice acting, music, learning curve, tutorial length, battle system, and game flow—though yes, dears, those were a mess, too. I'm talking about the way they made the darn thing.

One of the game's producers, in an official statement tantamount to a poop-nugget, let slip that the artists working on Final Fantasy XIII had made so many levels that they could have made an entire extra game out of them. This was an enormous red flag for me. This is the kind of thing that I, as a marketing consultant, made it a point to never encourage representatives of large Japanese corporations to say. This points a big bouncing gloved hand-cursor at a massive crack in the type of workflow Square-Enix finds befitting their flagship series—namely, that they have artists endlessly dreaming up and making a whole bunch of stuff that ends up not, in fact, being contextually related to anything in the final product. This is the way, say, a single artist would write a comic book in his garage, not the way five hundred people should make a fifty-million-dollar game in a platinum-sided office-castle.

Five years ago, we had Final Fantasy XII, a big, clumpy, jumbled mass of spectacular, genre-advancing ideas, presented about as effectively as a basketball-sized yarn-knot, dropped in the lap of gamerkind, a pistol pointed at their collective head, and the command, "Fix it". I loved the game because I am a kook who writes weird stuff on the internet, though fans freaked out. It was an "offline MMO", they cried, still sore about Final Fantasy XI, and a cause of mass motion sickness. The first complaints of motion sickness hit Amazon.co.jp reader reviews mere minutes after the game's release: the 3D camera movement was, apparently, too fast for the 2D-weaned casual Final Fantasy fan.

The slightest hint of complaint was likely the straw that broke the camel's back within the internals of Square-Enix: The game had been a burden throughout its beleaguered development, with director Yasumi Matsuno citing creative differences probably about as frequently as he used the bathroom. Hironobu Sakaguchi, perhaps inspired by the weird risk-taking happening all around him, left his desk one day and invited everyone else to join him in Hawaii, where he would be founding his own game company. I am sure it was not the prospect of getting a tan that caused many a pale, ramen-subsisting programming uber-genius to stand up and rip off his tie that day. Lots of screaming ensued. The big dogs called in resident renegade Akitoshi Kawazu to finish the game when Matsuno maybe had a nervous breakdown and disappeared. Eventually, the game was released, and people didn't love it.

So the vicious cycle swung back around. (If you haven't been keeping score, the vicious cycle is this: Square-Enix, high on success, takes a big risk → Square-Enix, in light of a backlash, becomes stone-cold afraid of their audience, panders to them, succeeds.)

This is an anecdote I like to recount, usually on occasions much less apt than a piece actually about Square-Enix: On the day Final Fantasy XII was released, Square-Enix held a launch event at the Tsutaya store at Hachiko Crossing in Shibuya, Tokyo. Fans were told that the first customer in line would be permitted to shake hands with Square-Enix Final Boss Yoichi "Imperial Hot" Wada. One dandruffy young man took that challenge, waiting all night in the pleasant weather. He shook hands with Wada, had his picture taken, listened to Wada's perfunctory thanks for his years of customer loyalty and fan servitude, and then, when offered a chance to weep in thanks, accepted the microphone and spoke in a quick super-whisper: "Please remake Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation 3 thank you goodbye". He gave the microphone back and walked off. (I was there.)

A man had a brand new video game in his hands, still shrink-wrapped and in a double-taped plastic bag, and he already didn't care about it anymore. In case you're looking to me for an explanation of what happened, here it is: a man had a brand new video game in his hands, still shrink-wrapped and in a double-taped plastic bag, and he already didn't care about it anymore. He was already thinking about something else — about The Next Big Thing, which was more or less The Thing That Hooked Him All Those Years Ago, Only Shinier. This is the type of human being corporations like Square-Enix are manufacturing.

The truth is that people like things that they like. Kingdom Hearts is more successful than Final Fantasy, today, not just because it has Disney characters. Kingdom Hearts is more successful overall than Final Fantasy because Kingdom Hearts has Final Fantasy characters that Final Fantasy fans already recognise.

What the young man outside Tsutaya that day Final Fantasy XII launched was saying was that he liked things he already liked a lot more than he believed he could like anything brand new. I could be hyper-critical and over-the-top cynical about this. I'll refrain, and instead say that it's because the original Final Fantasy games were so good—and this fan-man had been so very young and impressionable at the time he played Final Fantasy VII—that they acquired an ethereal sheen of perfection in young minds.

If nostalgia were personified in a human body, that human would probably be a real jerk. "Nostalgia" has an undoubtedly negative connotation; it carries a heavy meaning that, somehow, the thing we feel a feeling for does not deserve the feeling we are feeling. Though you know what? I personally believe that without darn good reason, we once-children wouldn't fondly remember the things we fondly remember.

I think Final Fantasy did have something great about it, god darn it—it was the at-wall-stuff-flinging risk-breaking spiritual exuberance of Hironobu Sakaguchi and company. It was desperation akin to lunacy. It was the idea of a game that starts you in a wooden boat with propellers on top flying over the ocean and ends with you fighting a monster alien cockroach beneath the surface of the moon after flying there in your spaceship. It was ideas like cross-dressing your human-body-length-sword-carrying spiky-haired blonde effeminate male hero so he could seamlessly infiltrate a house of prostitution to rescue his high school sweetheart and partner in bioterrorism.

Somewhere along the line, we started trying to manufacture happy accidents. You can't do this. It doesn't work! You can't plan an accident — that's why they call it an accident. (Ask my mother.)

So Final Fantasy XII didn't set the world on fire. Final Fantasy XIII ended up actually dropping the temperature of the planet by a couple of degrees (they call it "climate change" instead of "global warming" for a reason), despite being more or less the closest thing Square-Enix could do to remaking Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation 3 without philosophically imploding themselves. Stepping back and looking at it, we can see that Final Fantasy XII was Square-Enix trying to reclaim the risk-taking attitude of old; Final Fantasy XIII was them giving up and trying to make something that, at the very least, looked "familiar". It was a Eurobeat cover album of Final Fantasy VII, flimsy and cheap and weird and "polished".

A brief aside: I have participated in numerous game design planning meetings at Japanese companies in which some old man literally throws up his hands and says, interrupting a game designer, "Look, the kids don't care as long as it looks cool. If they had any taste, they wouldn't be playing video games." I imagine many at Square-Enix had the same attitude about Final Fantasy XIII.

What happened in Final Fantasy XIII is that they had no idea what the game was about or who the characters were. In my review, I hypothesize that Tetsuya Nomura went on making characters, the other artists went about drawing concept art for environments and the 3D artists went about gleefully making objects until, at some point after they'd cut a demo out of the gelatinous marble of game-material they'd slammed together over a period of three years, a new producer stepped in and said, "Guys, let's turn this . . . thing into . . . something." Hence: half of the environments were unused. Hence: when the characters banter during levels, their banter never has anything to do with the scenery of the psychedelic racetracks down which they shamble: it's always "Hurry", "This way", "We have to keep going". Though hey! It sure looked great! And I still get hungry every time I think about Lightning's hair. (Cotton candy.)

A postmortem in Game Developer Magazine more or less proved my hypothesis.

So came the wake-up call: looks aren't everything and brand-names don't mean a thing if your Louis-Vuitton wallet is falling apart. Square-Enix hit the snooze. They released Final Fantasy XIV, which, as I understand, is a fifty-dollar demo of game being released sometime in 2013. One of their biggest fans, who just so happened to own an enormous amount of stock in the company, sold the stock, leaving behind a memo of "I invested in Square-Enix because I beheld the quality of their products as superior; I can no longer maintain this opinion." Nerd rage, to be sure, though I tell you what — nerd rage means a heck of a lot more when the raging nerd also has millions of your dollars.

Final Fantasy XIV, as I understand it, is a fifty-dollar demo of game being released sometime in 2013. Square-Enix hit the snooze again. Their release calender is at present a landmine of retreads, remakes and reprises. They make weird financial decisions, like paying Bon Jovi untold reams of hundred-dollar bills to tout an earth-shatteringly inconsequential Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles game.

Meanwhile, over in my second home of Honolulu, there's Hironobu Sakaguchi, the tortoise to Square-Enix's hare, slowly and steadily making Neat Little Games like Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey, and The Last Story, all games I adore for unique little palm-sized reasons. The Fan Collective didn't like Blue Dragon; they liked Lost Odyssey a little more; The Last Story has been at the top of Japanese hardcore gamers' "Heck Yeah" list since its release. You might see Sakaguchi at Nintendo's next major Japanese press event, no doubt once again crashing into the gate of 1080p next-generation megalithic role-playing games, this time with the support of a company that is less making an effort to understand him and more making an effort to not bother understanding him and just let him be.

In short, if you put a gun to my head right now and told me to predict the future, I'd say that the fans will love Sakaguchi—and hard—once again. I wouldn't say Square-Enix is going to crash and burn—they yet have Heaps Of Money, and seeing as their success in the first place, decades ago, was an accident, I wouldn't put it past them to mess up and get rich again. All they need to do is relax and let what happens happen.

Not that I have any reason to believe they're going to do that. It seems that even their ability to let things happen is insulated by fear of rejection. Five years ago, when they announced Dragon Quest IX was going to be a multiplayer action game for the Nintendo DS, the fan collective screamed and hissed like a barrel of cobras. Square-Enix quickly stepped back and said, "o jk guys" and gutted the action elements out. Around the same time, Monster Hunter Portable made it so Capcom had more money than God, speaking in a deep slow whisper to the world's want, need, and demand for a portable multiplayer action game with the depth of Dragon Quest. That was an accident Square-Enix almost manufactured.

A friend of a friend asked my friend—and then my friend asked me—what game their studio should pitch to Square-Enix right now. I immediately said, "Dragon Quest Hunters". Explanation: "It's Monster Hunter with Dragon Quest characters, for the Sony NGP." The documents got written, the pitch got shipped off, Square-Enix told them to GTFO. This is one of those "Well, I can't help you" situations. (Hopefully, Square-Enix are making it themselves. (I'd play it.))

So we come back — sort of — to the earthquake. The earthquake was definitely a thing that happened. Is it, however, the cause of Square-Enix's financial distress, or even a significantly large part of it? I'd say that saying so is ridiculous. It's not like Japanese companies don't lie.

Heck, even the Japanese government lies — look at this very recent news piece in which the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (TEPCO) admits that a nuclear reactor melted down sixteen hours after the earthquake.

Square-Enix, however, was melting down before the earthquake. Before the quake, they canceled their weirdo shooting game Gun Loco (they didn't announce the cancellation until a week after the quake). Remember that? Well, let me tell you something. When they say, in Japan, that a game has been "in development" for a year, they usually mean it's been being kicked around in pre-production for half a decade. In addition, they're working hard on some games for three years before they announce them, at which time they say they've been working on it for six months. These things get canceled all the time without you ever hearing about them. I know that Square-Enix had a slew of exciting projects in the works for several years, and that they suddenly canceled the lot of them around the end of 2010 for reasons of their not being Final Fantasy enough. Apparently, as previously hypothesized, they don't understand that happy accidents are an art, not an industry.

Train hours away from Square-Enix headquarters, we have Level-5, a company that represents, for better or for worse, everything Square-Enix is not. Where Square-Enix is a worldwide name, Level-5 is not. Where Square-Enix makes awful business decisions, Level-5 does not. Level-5 have always been about building their company as an "entertainment" factory, actually trying to become a Disney or a Pixar or a Ghibli, where Square-Enix only hoped to collaborate with them for Fast Bux. And look — though Studio Ghibli lord and master Hayao Miyazaki claims to loathe videogames, shunning offers from game-makers since 1998's Jade Cocoon, Ghibli is working closely with Level-5 on Ninokuni, a triple-A production for the PlayStation 3.

Heck, Level-5 are so good at crafting Square-Enix Quality that Square-Enix has used them to develop the Dragon Quest series since 2004. Dragon Quest creative mastermind Yuji Horii has called Level-5 boss Akihiro Hino a true visionary; it's likely that Level-5's one-off non-hit Rogue Galaxy was the result of a friendly challenge from Horii to Hino, to make a proof of concept of Dragon Quest VIII as a seamless, action-based adventure game. If you asked my opinion as Professional Game Designer and an oft-alleged "artist", I'd tell you that, success or no success, huge money or no huge money, Level-5 "Has Got It", and that they already are The New Square.

Meanwhile, what's Square-Enix doing? They are making Final Fantasy XIII-2, a sequel to a Final Fantasy game that roughly no one liked; this is a deep corporate sigh, a chorus of black-cloaked old men intoning, "If we pretend that we like it, perhaps they will start pretending they do, as well".

This leaves Square-Enix, unfortunately, as "The Old Square". And there's nothing pitifuller than an Old Square. (Just ask my rectangle.) Will they fall apart and fade away? As I stated above, I refuse to put my foot down and say "yes". At Kotaku.com Deputy Editor Stephen Totilo's request, however, I will pretend to put my foot down:

[Editor's note: Warning... Tim's just riffing here. We don't believe he can actually see this far into the furure.]

Autumn 2011: Following a cyberterrorism incident roughly the size of the anonymous PlayStation Network Attack of Spring 2011, Square-Enix will take Final Fantasy XIV down forever, releasing an apology to the non-existent fans, who collectively reply with "lol whatev".

Winter 2011: The first Final Fantasy XIII pachinko machine is released. When you're Playing Really Well (or something) Lightning's hair changes colour from pink to purple. This is touted on the fliers and advertisements as "bonus content heretofore unseen in the Final Fantasy XIII universe". Fans will fail to flock to the gambling halls, because that would mean probably accidentally touching people. Old men, however, will play the game, because they don't care what it is as long as it's pachinko. A few old women in bingo visors will complain that the battle system is too obtuse. A Final Fantasy fan will accidentally give chain-smoking and gambling a first attempt, and come away with enough motion sickness complaints to crash Amazon.co.jp.

Spring 2012: Square-Enix will release a remake of Dragon Quest VII for the Nintendo 3DS, by God, and I will buy it and grin like a three-year-old. It will sell a million copies on day one; Yoichi Wada will rub his hands together like a greedy thief while staring into a mirror at his own eyes. Yuji Horii will smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in one puff. Akira Toriyama will let his phone go unanswered as he snoozes in his bathtub.

Summer 2012: Square-Enix will release a remake of Final Fantasy VI for the Nintendo 3DS, in the style of their Final Fantasy III and IV remakes. It will sell less than their Final Fantasy V remake, though still enough to buy Wada enough blood diamonds to finish crunking the steering wheel in the Mercedes his wife bought for the dog.

Late summer 2012: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Exteen Quadriceptoceros for the Wii 2. They somehow trick Bob Dylan into appearing on the TV commercials. It sells fifty thousand copies to young mothers whose children are now old enough to play Pokemon and think Crystal Chronicles is lame.

Autumn 2012: Dragon Quest X for Wii 2 delayed to "holiday 2013", which actually means "holiday 2016".

Winter 2012: Square-Enix announces remake of the original Dragon Quest for the Wii 2, in the graphical style of Dragon Quest VIII, now in full HD. Jaws drop so hard that floors break worldwide. Toupees explode off the tops of heads with such velocity than half the world's buildings now lack roofs. It begins to rain.

Winter 2012: Final Fantasy VI. Virtual Console. Someone's dog throws up on a carpet due to something mostly unrelated (rabies).

Winter 2013: Final Fantasy VII released, with original graphics, for Sony NGP, "formatted for widescreen" in big bold letters on the box. Yes — they find a way to put it in a box.

Spring 2013: Hironobu Sakaguchi's Mistwalker releases a game for the Wii 2, backed by millions in Nintendo marketing. It's a genuine success.

Summer 2013: Level-5 releases a game for the Wii 2, backed by millions in Nintendo marketing. It's a genuine success.

Autumn 2013: Square-Enix releases Kingdom Hearts 3: The Third Number for Wii 2. The game is about Disney characters having their testicles stomped by snaggle-toothed dominatrices. The fans, unfortunately, have grown up — and not in that particular way. Daisy Duck files for a restraining order against Tetsuya Nomura.

Autumn 2013: Tokyo Game Show: Square-Enix, at last, announces the remake of Final Fantasy VII.

Winter 2013: Without an earthquake to blame, Square-Enix makes a trembling, frightened announcement of sorts.

Winter 2013: Tetsuya Nomura gets a job at Hot Topic.

Winter 2013: Just kidding! Hot Topic will be extinct by Winter 2013. Tetsuya Nomura will leave Square-Enix to start his own company. It'll be a game company. Being totally realistic: they'll make a whole bunch of half-decent, conceptually neat games. (In a perfect world, Nomura would instead start a fashion label. (And maybe design some clothes for himself, while he's at it. (Those T-shirts he wears are so 1995.)))

Spring 2013: Final Fantasy series producer Yoshinori Kitase, privately citing the urge to return to actual hands-on game creation as opposed to project management and production, will leave Square-Enix. He will then start a company with the word "holdings" somewhere in the name.

Spring 2013: Square-Enix founds The Final Fantasy Company, which exists to hold and protect the Final Fantasy Intellectual Property in an impenetrable crystal shell for all eternity, or until The World Is Ready — whichever comes first. (Neither will come at all.)

Summer 2013: Yuji Horii smokes an entire pack of cigarettes in one suck, gets out of the bathtub, calls the office, and says he's moving to Fukuoka. He goes to Level-5.

Summer 2013: Akira Toriyama wakes up. He is now 95% blind in both eyes. He fills an entire sketchbook with characters. (Two years later, the pope will see these characters and literally cry.) Yuji Horii, Akihiro Hino, and Level-5 make a massive-scale role-playing game that combines Akira Toriyama and Monster Hunter with the glory of Dragon Quest. It probably has "Dragon" in the title. "Dragon Kingdom"? "Dragonstan"?

Autumn 2014: It's been over a year since the last news of the Final Fantasy VII remake.

Summer 2015: Millions and millions of Nintendo marketing dollars later, Level-5 is the premiere name in role-playing game development. Square-Enix has transformed into a vehicle for Akihiro Hino's SaGa series, which guys like me, now pushing forty, continue to play, scoffing at other games, pretending to like Square-Enix better now than ever before. In reality, the cold truth is that we don't like anything—and we never have. Ah, the world! Oh, the world!

tim rogers is a professional game designer who lived in japan for ten years and no doesn't anymore; he edits Action Button Dot Net, tweets at twitter.com/number108, and plays in a band you have no excuse for not seeing if you're in the san francisco bay area!

harvey james, author of the comics strip way higher up in this column, is a comic and graphic artist from the UK; you can get to know much about him here; whatever you do, don't follow him on twitter unless you want to become cool and rich.


Comments

    Please warn me about the next 20-minute read. This was great, but now I am late for work ;_;

      Pro-tip: if the author is 'Tim Rogers' you're lucky it was only a 20-minute read. He is an extremely verbose character.

        Thanks for that one, Strange. I'll try to keep it in mind... *workwork*

    There hasn't been a good Squenix game since FFIV (US 4, not Japan 4). Since then, they've focused more and more on being pretty to look out whilst completely devoid of gameplay. They'd make for good movies to be sure, but i I am to buy a game, I want to get some gameplay. Also, GIVE US CHRONO BRAKE (BREAK?) ALREADY

      *hasn't been a good Final Fantasy game

        I would have to say, with respect for you opinion, that final fantasy 9 was the first legitimate ray of light since 4, While I had played 6, 7 and 8 they bored the hell out of me. Final fantasy 9 almost got it right by going back to the basic gameplay of 4 and adding some new additions (plus, not that i'm a graphics whore but the visuals in 9 were an amazing spectacle). The story in 9 was almost there but went downhill FAST during the last hours. It almost lent itself towards a sequel, but to no avail...

    Good read, although he didn't mention the merge between Squaresoft and Enix, which I think contributed a lot to the quality control of their titles, and the fact that the FF series is now being milked to death. I yearn for the days when the FF games didn't spawn sequels and spinoffs.

      He didn't mention Eidos either, but it's not that much to mention.

    - Scrolled to FF XIII area
    - Noticed "music sucked"
    - Decided not to read the rest.

    It's the one freaking redeeming feature about the game.

      Yeah the music and the battle system were the high points for that game, gotta give credit where its due.

      Yeh, music was awesome in my opinion. Probably the best highlight of that game.

      i didn't say the music sucked! the music was great. i definitely did not say the music sucked in final fantasy xiii. i say the game sucked.

    Started to read, but then realised it was Tim Rogers and I stopped because long.

    Don't know what it says overall but I probably couldn't care less about a world without SE. I think the only thing they've done that I care about at all is publish Space Invaders Extreme, but they didn't develop that so it's only a partial care.

    U mad bro?

    Seems we have a butthurt zelda fanboi or something happening here.

    Final Fantasy will and always will be the pinacle of console RPGs. They made one mistake... ONE mistake with FFXIII and they're repairing FFXIV as we speak.

    Whether you like it or not, there will always be Final Fantasy, until we're all old and grey.

      Hate to break it to you "bro" but using a meme to comment on an intelligent conversation only proves how little you actually understood of the article.

      And FYI it has been a long time since I have found a group of people that think any post Final Fantasy VI title was worth more than it's weight in crap.

      The last time I enjoyed an FF game was IX and even then it would probably have served better as a cartoon than as a game.

        Please, don't assume people's intelligence from a brief comment, it's absurdity at it's best and only makes you look more the idiot in retrospect.

        Your views I can hazard assuming, are a product of a small network of people. Any simple google search will reveal the public's views and attitudes on each Final Fantasy game. A very simple five second search completely renders your argument null void in every aspect.

        How does the sand that surrounds your head feel? Does it get into your eyes and obscure the quality of good games?

          Ok, I'll judge you from the content of your post -- you have nothing interesting to say, but don't quite understand this. You think you're putting forth an argument, but you're just spilling words onto a page that indicate your lack of insight. You think you're being humorous, but it's just the tired old regurgitation of memes redditors use to convince themselves they belong to a community.

          Example: Tim Rogers is not an anonymous individual it is hard to find information about. Indeed, he vomits forth an extraordinary amount of opinion onto the internet. So when you write something like:
          "Seems we have a butthurt zelda fanboi or something happening here."
          What you're *really* signalling is that you prefer compartmentalizing someone to understanding them.

    Fanstastic Article - I understood none of it - but it was entertaining!

    Man that was hard work.
    I didn't see the the byline until the end, but It's like a long form version of the stuff Tycho Brahe writes.

    On topic, my thoughts on J-RPG's are, I think, well known... so I could live in a world without Square Enix.
    What I'd rather see happen is that they get taken over by a western company, broken down and rebuilt into something efficient... maybe adopt EA's current quality > quantity approach.

      lol because Madden and other EA IP's are high quality products. Stop drinking the kool aid.

    Personally I welcome the end of Square Enix. Whenever I see their logo on the box of a game, I know not to buy it because I won't like it.

    Just release ff versus XIII before you go bankrupt pleeeeeeease

      also i only read the first 2 paragraphs

    *read a couple of paragraphs, feels confused and annoyed*
    "wait a second..."
    *scrolls up, sees "Tim Rogers"*
    "yep, thought so..."
    *makes snarky comment on article, closes"

    "Final Fantasy XIII sucked",

    "..Final Fantasy XIII-2, a sequel to a Final Fantasy game that roughly no one liked..."

    Whenever I see or hear these sentiments expressed with such confidence I feel compelled to note the following truth: I thouroughly enjoyed FFXIII and am really looking forward to FFXIII-2.

      Ditto! I can't deny that the way in which they made FFXIII was entirely wasteful, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the finished product and can't wait to see what they do with FFXIII-2. :)

    That was a good read, thanks. The only thing I disagreed about was FF XII which I thought was soulless & dull. I wanted a narrative & instead I got GTA: Final Fantasy.

    I liked FFXIII. it's the only FF and the third JRPG I've bothered to finish. I really dug the combat.

    I think the "happy accident" is the essential nature of Square Enix's plight. They have the problem plaguing a number of developers now where Marketing has more power then the dev team. Consequently we get dross.

    all true, all true. I hope square-enix gets their act together sometime soon because they used to make amazing games. Infact my all time favourite game was Drakengaurd and at the single idea of a remake for the ps3 would make me cream in my pants..... ah but those where the days.....

    Brilliant article. I've become a fan of this human being's writing style.

    "The truth is that people like things that they like. Kingdom Hearts is more successful than Final Fantasy, today, not just because it has Disney characters. Kingdom Hearts is more successful overall than Final Fantasy because Kingdom Hearts has Final Fantasy characters that Final Fantasy fans already recognise."

    Lies. Pure BS. The reason so many people liked Kingdom Hearts and not FFXIII is because FFXIII had REALLY bad gameplay, characters, and it was a character driven, story based, linear gameplay experience - minus the gameplay! Now let's compare that to Kingdom Hearts. A good but cliched story with cameos from characters we already like, but with good original main characters, and gameplay that was simple, fun, and most importantly, engaging and skillful (not really, but more the the "gameplay" of FFXIII. Don't retaliate with FFXII either. at least the story made me want to play that game, because it had interesting characters, and a properly constructed story, unlike the stereotyped, caricatured drivel populating FFXIII. But you know where FFXII failed? GAMEPLAY A.K.A the most important thing in a game. It was, quite frankly, without any sort of skill, it was just, okay, you're watching story, now grind until you can unlock the next part. so you know what? FFXII and FFXIII can both get stuffed. Both are lying on my shelf, unfinished. If Square Enix wants me, and others like me to respect the Square name, and be able to impulse by anything by them, because we KNOW it's going to be good, they need to stop trying to pander to the gamers, and start making great games, like in the old days. When KH came out, if i saw the Square logo on a box, I would instantly know it was a good game. If i see the Square logo on a box now, I will pass it up (unless it's actually an Eidos game).
    Have you read your own article? The blatant disrespect you have for gamers is apparent. You think us all to be mongrels, only interested in repeating one story over and over, never able to allow more characters into our hearts. I entered FFXIII hoping for interesting characters, like FFXII, but a better battle system, and instead getting boring cliches, and an interactive fight video. I enjoyed FF one and two (when I replayed them recently) more than FFXIII. I don't care about graphics, so long as they don't obscure the gameplay. The utter disrespect of this article towards people who are longtime fans of Square Enix and gamers at large shows your true intelligence. So, in conclusion to my short essay, I think there's someone else here who can get stuffed, and it sure isn't me.
    On the flipside of my rage, i'm not saying that you are entirely wrong, but you are WAAAAAAAY over generalising. I also agree with your point the Level-5 are in fact master craftsman... sometimes. So were Square some years ago, and all it would take for them to return to that is for them to ignore their graphic fetish and instead push innovation and creativity in the JRPG and in it's place. I can hope for at the moment is that they don't continue on this reckless path toward destruction (or at least quality degradation), and instead go back to the Square we know. A guy can dream, can't he?

    I played most of "new" Square games and yes their games just getting far away of become good and enjoyable game, they just build something that looks cool, make the story too focused on characters, and anyone who put lame poems at openings deserve some kicks in their head....

    lately I watch the latest Final Fantasy XIII versus trailer yeah it's "looks" cool... real world setting, riding weird looking vehicle, Kingdom Heart battle system, and that Behemoth....
    but still I can't say it an RPG.

    I wonder why they create such a game under Final Fantasy title, why not call it Adult Kingdom Heart, or something fantasy.... but not a Final Fantasy,
    I just hope I'm not controling bunch of Emo-looking models againts Evil organization again...
    I hope they make right decision this time, they can only count XIV as their final fantasy games...

    still I love Dragon Quest of it's simple classic elements that's not stray too far away of become an RPG.

    Forget the legitimate journalism in this article, I want to see more satire like this. Simply hilarious.

    *scared to comment*
    Tim Rogers you rock! This article made me : D.
    My opinion on Square Enix doesnt really count. Im not a "gamer" per say. I play a couple games here and there when I get a chance. Yes I play Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy. Ff VII is my all time favorite RPG. Dont tell me not to put it on its pedastool cuz I dont have time for the haters. Its the greatest game .
    Yes I believe in harassing Square to give us a remake and continue the compiliation until they break down and do it.
    Square is a flawed but brilliant company. I love them because I never know what to expect. Flawed but wi th the tiniest dose of accidental brillance.

    They are making Final Fantasy XIII-2, a sequel to a Final Fantasy game that roughly no one liked.

    Wow. That's big news. Nobody liked it? Well, I'll just check the Metacritic and...oh. 83%. Well, seems like the critics liked it. Fans gave it about an 8.3 on there, too.

    But, hey, maybe it's just that it didn't sell! Oh, wait, no, it sold six million copies or so.

    So, um, Tim? What exactly are you basing this on, other than wanting to follow along with the current fashion among the "enthusiast press" to write eloquent eulogies for Japan?

    And, for that matter, why did you pull that cute little dodge of imagining that an unnamed, apocryphal old man that (supposedly) said "Japanese kids have no taste" has anything to do with what S-E does or doesn't think about the industry? Yes, FFXIII's development was obviously scattershot and, yes, it's pretty clear that you're no great fan of the character design. But that's a far cry from providing any sort of decisive proof for this claim of yours that you know exactly what's wrong with Japanese development.

    (Or at least nothing with more explanatory power than "the kids want the brown manshoots and Japan doesn't make brown manshoots.")

    Sure, it's a nicely written piece, and I agree that Level 5 are fantastic developers. But I don't see why anybody should believe a word of it.

    While I agree that Level-5 is a growing studio with potential for the future, I think most of their games aren't that impressive. I don't think (at the current time) that they are at the level of Square. Rogue Galaxy and White Knight Chronicles didn't look generic to me, and personally I never found Dark Cloud appealing. (and it's not similar to their DS output). I don't even think their DS output looks like anything I'd care about. The only games I think look like upper tier are Jeanne D'Arc and their collaboration titles: The 2 versions of Ni no Kuni, and recent Dragon Quest games.

    Besides that, they couldn't write a story to save their lives. Hopefully that will change, but for now, the only games they make with good stories are with major assistance from other parties.

    I think they show potential, but to be honest very few of their games are worthy of your level of praise yet.

    I will agree that getting Matsuno was a brilliant business decision, but I have my doubts about what he will do there. I have a feeling it will just be children's games which I don't find appealing.

    While a good portion of your editorial has some truth to it from the perspective of long time fans, I think you are mistaken that Square-Enix no longer has an audience. Besides that, I enjoyed Nier and Moon Diver. Yes, they weren't developed by them, but they were quality titles on home consoles.

    BTW in the sentence "Rogue Galaxy and White Knight Chronicles didn’t look generic to me", I meant that "Rogue Galaxy and White Knight Chronicles looked generic to me", sorry for the typo.

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