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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.