Over the past few years, Square Enix has become something of a force in mobile gaming. The big Japanese publisher, best known for making console role-playing games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, has also found success making solid games for tablets and phones. Some of them are ports of old classics; others are new, original experiences. Many are excellent.
But Square has also faced lots of criticism for its unorthodox pricing model. Fans have called it the "Square Enix Tax" -- to play its games, you'll have to pay a premium. Two of Square's most recent releases -- Final Fantasy Dimensions and Demons' Score -- cost more than $30 and $45 respectively to play in their entirety. Ports of old games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy III both cost around $20.
In a marketplace like iTunes, where you can get a near-endless number of good games for under $10, this sort of high-end pricing can sometimes seem insane. So I asked Square Enix about it, and after some exchanges, we both agreed to set up an email Q&A with one of its executives in Japan. It wouldn't take follow-up questions for clarification or elaboration, so after each of the answers, I'll give some of my own thoughts.
Kotaku: Most of Square Enix's old RPGs -- games like Final Fantasy Tactics, The World Ends With You, and Final Fantasy III -- run for $16-$20 on iOS. That's significantly more expensive than the majority of games on the iTunes store, and in some cases, more expensive than versions we could get on the PlayStation Network or DS. Why does Square Enix charge so much for iOS versions of its games?
Square Enix: The games you mention and several of our other mobile titles were originally intended for the consoles, and we've reconfigured and optimised them for the mobile platform, releasing them at a lower price than their original console or handheld versions. Square Enix does provide other casual titles in the lower price range, and as the market evolves, we'll take all different price points into consideration on a game-by-game basis.
While it might seem reasonable to treat console ports like console games, what Square Enix has to realise is that iTunes has its own ecosystem, its own set of fan expectations. $20 games are an anomaly there. Charging such divergent amounts for those games not only makes those games less appealing, it builds ill will with fans. It makes them say things like "Square Enix Tax".
Even worse, it makes these games impossible to sell to a new audience. People who don't buy game consoles or handhelds might be interested in something like Final Fantasy Tactics. It's an excellent game. One of my all-time favourites. But why would they want to spend $20 on it when they could get so many other good games for lower prices?
Kotaku: None of Square Enix's mobile games (other than the free-to-play Guardian Cross) are currently in the 200 top-grossing apps on the iTunes store. Would you say that the current pricing strategy has been a success? If not, is Square Enix considering a different method?
Square Enix: The mobile marketplace is maturing and frequently changing. As the devices increase in capability, the quality of gaming experiences we provide increases as well. Each game is priced individually and evaluated based on the type of game, depth and overall experience it provides for players. Some of our higher priced titles offer more than 60+ hours of game time with rich storylines, high quality graphics and challenging, diverse combat.
However, we are aware that the market in North America is accustomed to the lower priced or free to play games. Guardian Cross was our first significant title to utilise the free-to-play pricing model and we've been very happy with the community reaction to the title. The gameplay lent itself very well to the free-to-play pricing model.
Moving forward, we're looking forward to the challenge of utilising our strengths in creativity, world-building, and gameplay mechanics and matching those with a pricing model that are consistent with the market and provides players with a sense of overall value.
Interesting. Based on that list of top-grossing games (which you can see for yourself on iTunes), Guardian Cross, which came out September 13, might be Square's only recent success on iOS. It's comforting to hear them admit that the marketing is evolving. Could we see future Square Enix games follow that same free-to-play model?
Kotaku: Final Fantasy Dimensions costs $30 to play in full. It's a good game, and I've enjoyed it quite a bit, but I find it very difficult to recommend that people spend $30 on a mobile RPG when they could get so many other great RPGs on the same platform for a fraction of that price, many of which look a lot better (including Square's very own Chaos Rings). Why charge so much for Dimensions? Has it sold well so far? Is Square planning to reduce the price?
Square Enix: Final Fantasy Dimensions feels and looks like a nostalgic 2D title that offers dozens of hours of gameplay. We're very proud of the game and feel that is has the same high quality of a console or handheld platform title.
We wanted to provide players flexibility in the way they experienced Dimensions by letting them download the prologue for free, and then offering each chapter as an incremental in-app purchase. If players did not want to invest the time and energy into completing the game, they were able to make that decision at no cost. However, if they wanted to experience the full game, they could either purchase the chapters individually as they progressed or as a bulk download at a reduced cost.
We've been very pleased with the community feedback we've received regarding players' experiences and the game itself.
I worry that Square might be missing the point here. The chapter system is a smart way to divide content, but many players hate feeling like they have to pay money in order to keep playing a game. It's that sort of FarmVille-esque model that has turned countless gamers against Zynga, the company that popularised it.
Most interested players will just buy the full package, at $30. That's what I did. And I don't regret it: in fact, if Dimensions cost closer to $10 or $15, I'd be shouting from the rooftops, screaming for old-school RPG fans to come check it out. Instead, every recommendation has to come with an asterisk. Play this game... if you don't mind spending $30 on something that looks straight out of RPG Maker.
Kotaku: The Western version of Demons' Score is $7.49, with $38 in additional paid content. The Japanese version is only around $20 for all of that content. Why is the non-Japanese version so much more expensive?
Square Enix: We wanted to offer US players the opportunity to purchase and experience Demons' Score at a lower price than the Japanese version. This allowed US players the opportunity to play the game and decide whether or not they wished to proceed by purchasing additional IAPs as they progressed within the game.
It's too bad Square dodged this question. Hard to tell what they were thinking here.
Kotaku: Why doesn't Square Enix use universal applications for iOS? If I spend $US20 to buy The World Ends With You on my iPhone, why shouldn't I be able to play it on my iPad too?
Square Enix: Depending on the device, some games may or may not be universally compatible. Moving forward, we plan to do our best to accommodate games that are universally compatible.
Again, too bad they're not giving us straighter answers here. Universal applications are extremely common, and it's infuriating that Square wants me to pay ~$20 for a game on my iPhone and then another ~$20 for that same game remade in HD for my iPad. And again, maybe this would be less awful if it didn't cost so much damn money.
Look, it's great that Square Enix is cornering the mobile market. I love playing RPGs on my iPad, and Square has pretty much mastered the whole "no buttons" problem -- once you get the hang of the touchscreen controls in games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy Dimensions, they're delightful to play. Some ports, like The World Ends With You, actually feel better on a touchscreen than they did on consoles.
But Square, like many Japanese companies in 2012, needs to realise that the type of fundamental gameplan that worked 10 years ago won't work today. We have different expectations. More options. And nobody needs to play Square Enix games like they did back in the '90s, when Final Fantasy VII and other Square classics helped turn the PlayStation into a gaming giant. The tepid response to Final Fantasy Dimensions is proof of that.
Square needs to be looking at Steam, at Xbox Live, at Torchlight 2, at all the companies that have found massive success charging affordable prices for their games. Valve's Gabe Newell has talked quite a bit about how discounts make game sales jump astronomically, and they also build fan loyalty, get people wanting to support those game makers, encourage gamers that companies are on their side.
As Square Enix is happy to admit, the market is evolving. But they need to do a better job keeping up. Or they're going to be left behind.