I've been playing a lot of Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD of late, and it's impossible not to do so without remembering a time when Square knew who and what it was as a company, where its strengths lay, and what it was truly best at.
A week or so ago, Jon reported on a few telling quotes from Square Enix president Yosuke Matsuda, as he talked about the company's desire to pursue mass market appeal with their games.
"If you focus too much on the global aspect, you might lose sight of who you're actually making the game for," Matsuda said. "For example, if you look back at 2013, we've had some home console games made for a global audience that struggled."
He pointed to Hitman: Absolution in that regard, before holding up Bravely Default as an example of a game that stuck to its guns and delivered an outstanding JRPG that refused to compromise, and sold well because of it.
But why did Square Enix go down this path in the first place? Why try to fix a problem that wasn't broken to begin with? To take a look at the recent instalments in their flagship series -- Final Fantasy -- is to see a process of paranoid tinkering, desperately trying to make the series more streamlined and action-oriented, to the point where, in Final Fantasy XIII, all you had to do for the first fifteen hours was push "Up" and "A". Now, with Lightning Returns, we have a game that's barely recognisable by the standards that made Final Fantasy a household brand name.
The same can be said of Capcom and Resident Evil. "Survival horror doesn't sell," came the quotes. But where was the proof? Did no one look across to the PC and see that actually survival-horror was not only doing very well thankyouverymuch, but it had evolved and progressed. Resident Evil 6 did neither, instead releasing as a third-person action title that bore about as much resemblance to the series as a ham sandwich. And then there's Battlefield. What I wouldn't give for a version of Battlefield 4 that had thrown absolutely everything into the multiplayer and the netcode and making sure everything on that side was top notch rather than the buggy mess that we still, still have months after launch, with its limp excuse for a singleplayer mode. It's a series seemingly caught in limbo between the excellence in multiplayer gaming that has brought it to this point, and a desire to become a one-stop, does-everything package just like Call of Duty.
The fact is that everyone wants what Activision have -- a money-spinning leviathan that a company can pump out ad infinitum, accessible enough to cater to more than niche, more than the hardcore market. But it's a fools errand because the mainstream gamers beyond those hardcore audiences only buy a select few titles a year. And they're usually called FIFA or COD. Homogenisation is not the answer, but being different might just be .
As development costs have spiralled upwards, this "need" to appeal to wider audiences has come down from on high, only seeing the successes of the few megasellers and failing to adapt to changing environments, burgeoning communities, and modern development practices. Trouble is, hamstringing your game is not the answer. You can't try and appeal to both a mainstream audience and a core audience, you need a clear vision and then the determination to build the best thing that you possibly can. Hitman: Absolution is a relatively inoffensive experience as far as gameplay goes (we won't go into the needless idiocy of hypersexualised, latex-clad nun assassins), it's reminiscent of previous games in the series in a number of scenarios, but in the end it makes too many concessions and compromises to be considered special, and squanders any goodwill with a story that no-one asked for and was completely unnecessary. In the end, what we had was a game that's fine, even fun perhaps in places, but ultimately unspectacular.
The stretched development period for Thief showcases a game undone by switches in company policy at Square Enix. Hideous backlash to begin with, followed by a focus on what it was that made the previous games great. The result is a jumbled mess of a game that ends up with its heart in the right place, but has been chopped and changed and shifted around over its dev cycle too many times to feel cohesive. In the end, it was too little too late.
You want progression of course, you don't want to be stuck making the same game again and again. But neither do you want all games gradually gravitating towards some specious mainstream Mecca. Accessibility is not the issue, but dumbing down an experience is, removing that which is special and makes a game unique and interesting to serve some superficial idea of what a vague, larger audience desires. That vague, larger audience doesn't really care. They don't watch the livestreams of E3 pressers religiously, and they'll barely make a peep when it comes to gaming advocacy across social media.
And you can't cut costs by throwing money into the mainstream well either. Playing it safe doesn't work -- you can't copy the Call of Duty model and hope to be The Next Big Thing. You can't shoehorn in a bunch of gameplay aids and hope to appeal to a less hardcore audience. You can't abandon the things that brought you this far without a clear idea of where you're headed. "Mass appeal" -- what does that even mean in this industry? The Wii delivered mass appeal, but even that was a calculated risk: Nintendo had a clear plan to be the second console in everyone's home and everything moved to support that. But now, a generation on, they find themselves confused and lacking an identity, with the Wii U drowning because Nintendo were unable to pinpoint who the hell they were actually targeting. There were no games for the hardcore gamers, and their "mass appeal" audience thought that the Wii U was an optional add-on for the Wii. As we begin to see more first-party games, as Nintendo remember that it was their own output and quality that made them essential, the Wii U will turn around. It's becoming a more attractive proposition by the day.
Square Enix need to remember that. Capcom need to remember that. Everyone needs to remember that. You can have progression and innovation within beloved brands, you can maintain a policy of looking ahead and evolutionary development while still maintaining an identity. The industry is shifting and publishers need to accept that rather than panicking and jumping at shadows. They need to listen to their fanbases, after all communication and fostering a sense of community in general are becoming more and more important. They need to be realistic and sensible with their budgets, and market games to the core audiences who will take hype in those trailers and presentations and truly run with them. They need to remember how they got here to begin with.
In the case of Square, making a Final Fantasy game that actually resembles a Final Fantasy game would be a good start.