The news of the Final Fantasy XIV development team restructuring and Square-Enix slashing profit forecast by 92% came as a shock-wave to the gaming industry. Surely team restructuring and changes in profit forecast are not new in the gaming industry. But citing the failure of a flag ship franchise title because it bombed beyond expectation did cause some jaw-littering .
Final Fantasy XIV generated high expectation from gamers and industrial practitioners alike. Also with the experience of Final Fantasy XI, there were high hopes for Square-Enix’s next MMO under the Final Fantasy brand. However, low critic scores, gamers complaints, glitches in the game and now sluggish sales (some local shops in my area already put them in bargain bins) all contributed to Square-Enix’s drastic recent actions. Trial free play period has been extended for a second time to keep people in the game, but would that stop disappointed gamers from leaving?
The case of Final Fantasy XIV is just the tip of the iceberg however. My friends and I have been following the games religiously and been excited by the game again and again in the past. However, nowadays, we are losing interest in anything with the Final Fantasy tag on it, and this has been further accelerated by Final Fantasy XIII. The trend can also be seen across forums on the Internet with fans vowing never to buy another Final Fantasy game after XIII came out. So what went wrong?
One of the most obvious things Square-Enix was trying to do in the recent years is to please western gamers who don’t like traditional JRPGs’ turn based system. Much effort was made in the last few titles to change this. Final Fantasy XII’s Active Dimension Battle system put a spin on combat by doing away with the signature Active Time Battle (ATB) gauge and unfolds battle in real time. The result was a mildly engaging system with a messy screen and coloured lines flying all over the screen. Your characters still need time to cast a spell as they do with the old ATB system and they can be interrupted by enemy attack. The battle sequences are a lot more dynamic, but then the tension was not created by the battles or the enemies but by trying to figure out where all the lines are pointing at. In Final Fantasy XIII, the system was further overhauled by reintroducing the ATB gauge, but allowing players to execute actions according to the ‘filled up’ condition of the gauge. This provides much needed pace to the traditional battle system, that helps to silence gamers who think the traditional system is ‘too slow’.
Final Fantasy XIII went on to sell 5.5 million copies around the globe but then was utterly floored by a lot of the franchise followers. The linearity of the game, the lack of choices in character development, the absence of memorable tunes, and the shallow characters and story all made Final Fantasy XIII a commercial success but a fan failure.
In my opinion, Final Fantasy (in recent years) had tried too hard to be something that it is not supposed to be. It is trying to gain new audiences by imitating or camouflaging itself as a western RPG with a JPRG core. What we ended up with are beasts that don’t look like anything. Final Fantasy has always been about its battle system, character development system, engaging story, lovable characters and highly explorable open world. However, in recent iterations, Square-Enix has gradually done away with all these aspects. The games look prettier and more polished in the graphics department, but not in any other areas.
Take character development as an example. Final Fantasy introduced a huge variety of engaging character development systems throughout the years. From the comprehensive Job Class system in Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics, to the Materia System in Final Fantasy VII, Junctioning in Final Fantasy VIII, Gems in Final Fantasy IX and the Sphere Grids in Final Fantasy X. All these systems encouraged players to continue to explore and fight battles, just to get the experience or items to further improve their parties and develop them in a way that they want to. I still remember how much time I spent on fighting battles to grow my material, obtain the items to enhance my GF and the sphere I want to open up the next and better nodes on the Sphere Grids. They also make the game very replayable because you can sway in any directions you want for your parties and have a different experience. However, in Final Fantasy XII, while the License Board provides a big enough space for your characters to develop, if you open them all up you just get a same set of identical characters with different summons. Also the fact that you need to buy certain magic to use it even after you have acquired the license to use it makes the game a lot more tedious and meaningless. The situation was worse in Final Fantasy XIII when they had the Crystarium, that basically decided the strength and weaknesses of all of your characters. Also the requirement of ridiculous amount of Crystarium points to open up less impressive nodes so that you can proceed on a ‘tree’ for a newly opened profession further discourages you to develop your characters into classes that Square-Enix did not approve for the characters. This kind of limitation put a curse on the franchise for followers who are used to more flexible and free systems that they experienced in the past.
Final Fantasy has always been about open world exploration. The fact that players can explore the world in any way they want as the story opens up new areas keeps players engaged in that world. Square-Enix kept that intact for most of the titles until we arrived at Final Fantasy XIII that shuts players inside corridors after corridors. The ‘open world’ (which is actually an open area) does not open up until the second last chapter. Even by then your characters will not be strong enough to explore freely because of the restrictions the game posed on your characters’ development. This took out a huge chunk of enjoyment for a lot of followers who are also free spirit explorers in those games. Final Fantasy XIV as a MMO of course provided open world but then the environments were so boring and interesting that travelling became a chore on these lands. Also the fact that there were quite significant lag at times didn’t really help the game to be an enjoyable experience either. Square-Enix used to be known for beautiful environment in games (as we can see in the previous instalments even XIII) so you just can’t help but wonder what had gone wrong with Final Fantasy XIV.
Playing Final Fantasy is most of the time a single player experience, but with the experience with Final Fantasy XI, Square-Enix has invested heavily on the multiplayer aspects of the franchise. Then came Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles on the GameCube (Final Fantasy V and IX both have limited multiplayer but exploration is still basically a single player experience). Crystal Chronicles took advantage of the four controller ports of the Cube and the connectivity with Gameboy Advance. With four Gameboy Advances and four link cables you can experience the world of Final Fantasy with 3 other friends – sweet concept indeed. However, playing Crystal Chronicles in multiplayer became a luxurious pass time because of the requirement of so many accessories. How often would one have 3 friends with Gameboy Advances and link cables? That said, once you managed to do that the experience is a blast – the stacking of magic circles to create stronger and more varied spells made it a lot of fun to just try out another new spell. Crystal Chronicles is not without its flaws though – the restriction of the chalice in area movement and no save point before a boss (especially the final boss) all made Crystal Chronicles missing its mark as a great game. So people were expecting improvements in those areas with the future iterations, if any. Along came Rings of Fate the DS iteration of the Crystal Chronicles franchise. The gameplay mostly remain the same but online multiplayer was introduced. However, Square-Enix put a tweak on it in a way that American copies of the game won’t be able to communicate with European or Australian copies of the game. This completely threw out the whole ‘online’ concept of the game. It is pure silly to get something ‘online’ while it is not actually online. We understand that Square-Enix needs to protect its regional businesses but making an online game that doesn’t work across regions is just beyond one’s comprehension. After Rings of Fate came Echoes of Time on both DS and Wii. I opted for the Wii version because by that time I was done with the budget graphics on DS. However, ‘surprisingly’, the Wii version was just a direct port of the DS version with the same budget graphics. And to make it worse, the online functions were full of lags. A lot of time your characters didn’t die because you don’t know where to go or what to do but because the game was so lagging that they didn’t register your jump or attack and so they eventually met their demises. With the failure of Echoes of Time just not long ago, I was quite surprised to see the same issues plaguing Final Fantasy XIV.
Playing RPGs is usually about the story. Square-Enix had told a number of great stories in the past with Terra and Locke in VI, Cloud in VII and Yuna in X. The stories of Squall in VIII and Zidane in IX were mediocre and so was the one in XII with Vaan (but Balthier rules!). However, in Final Fantasy XIII Square-Enix couldn’t even tell a decent story with characters that you can care about. The plot twists are predictable and the character motives are shallow. Eventually you just don’t care at all. Surprisingly, for the Crystal Chronicles series, looking pass the cutesy character models and environments, the stories are deep, grown up and engaging (despite Crystal Bearer has a tedious battle system that failed the game completely). Even for spin offs such as the Final Fantasy Tactics series, and Revenant Wings (the RTS spin off from Final Fantasy XII), they told really decent and sometimes deep stories about the characters you are in charge of. So it really came as a surprise with XIII that the story was so depth-depleted, melodramatic and unengaging, especially when Square-Enix defended the linearity of the game by saying that they wanted to tell a great and uninterrupted story and thus the linearity.
So now the big question is where is the franchise going? Square-Enix is no doubt about profit. This can be seen from the remaking and reporting of old games onto different systems (the latest casualty is Final Fantasy IV onto PSP with adds on from the Wii port after stories and some ‘linking story lines’) and making spin offs of your favourite characters in games such as Dissidia and Dirge of Cerberus. Even your favourite yellow bird was not spared from the milking fest with all the Chocobo titled games under the Final Fantasy label (though I must say Chocobo Racing was quite a hilarious game). I am sure all Final Fantasy followers understand that Square-Enix has to make a profit but then the issue here is how much of the quality is being sacrificed and how many of its followers is Square-Enix willing to cast out to establish a bigger market with the Final Fantasy label? The over exploitation of characters, (Come on! We heard and watched enough of Cloud’s insecurity and Sephiroth’s rage!) endless effort of porting old games trying to sell them as new, and the huge departure of gameplay from what followers love the franchise for, all posed serious threats to the continued success of this franchise. One question I usually ask myself when it comes to Final Fantasy nowadays is “Do I need Final Fantasy to play like World of Warcraft or Champions of Noratths? If so why do I need to play Final Fantasy?” Perhaps it’s also time for Square-Enix to ask themselves this question before they continue to churn out more disappointing titles from the franchise.