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Beyond  Final Fantasy : Square Enix grapples with globalization
Beyond Final Fantasy: Square Enix grapples with globalization Exclusive
June 26, 2012 | By Colin Campbell

Square Enix is an interesting case-study in how global publishing brands are grappling with the profound changes facing the games business.

Clues to its strategy could be seen at the recent E3, where the firm's offerings covered M-Rated slaughter-fests, new IP, downloadable puzzlers, Japanese standards, mobile and social, major AAA IP like Tomb Raider and that next-gen Final Fantasy-branded demo.

As well as straddling genres and business models -- partly through the 2009 acquisition of Eidos -- the firm is working hard to truly globalize its appeal as well as its operations.

Mike Fischer, president and CEO at Square Enix U.S says, "We are starting to invest in social and mobile and online games. My goal is to have a balanced lineup, the balance between family and mature content, the balance between East and West content. We are trying to create games like Quantum Conundrum or Motley Blocks or Qwirkle, that fill in gaps, have very high potential, but are lower-cost games, that allow us to take more creative risks."

In its last financial year the company turned around a 2011 loss with a $76 million worldwide profit, with sales up 2 percent. Most of the win came down to the success of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a risky gambit that paid off, garnering great reviews and selling over 3 million units as well as Final Fantasy XIII-2, the latest iteration in its long-running role-playing series.

At the time of the company's 2011 loss, Yoichi Wada, Square Enix boss said the firm had been too slow to react to the polarization between major hits and the growth of mobile and social and the new pricing models they have wrought.

He outlined the firm's belief in a three-pronged strategy of globalization, focusing on core IP and experimenting with new ways to "network" with consumers via new pricing models and genres.

Square Enix resurrected the Deus Ex brand during fiscal year 2012 but it was, effectively, a new IP. This year it is re-imagining Hitman and Tomb Raider, both of which have been generally well-received so far. The company is also trying out a new IP with Asian urban adventure Sleeping Dogs, a game picked up from Activision that is winning increasing regard in the media.

But while these games will represent the largest share of the company's income when it reports financials next March, the future likely depends on how well Square Enix plays new distribution and pricing models. This is where new consumers are likely to be won.

Fischer, a 20-year games business veteran who has worked for Namco, Sega and Microsoft, says, "When books, movies, and music made the switch to online delivery, they didn't bring new people in. People didn't start reading who weren't reading before, people didn't start watching movies for the first time because they were online. But that's happening with games. There's a certain amount of organic growth as gamers grow older. They're continuing to play as younger people come in and start playing. But you're also getting folks coming in from the side with the online social and mobile games."

He adds, "They may not have been gamers before. Some of those may stay at the very light, casual level. Some of them will level-up, so to speak, and become more serious gamers. "

A good example of this is the firm's E3 focus being not just on big boxed games, but also on Quantum Conundrum, the digitally-distributed first-person puzzler designed by Kim Swift of Portal fame.

It's been created in a year with just a small team at Airtight Games, but recent titles like Fez, Journey and The Walking Dead have hit big on downloads market, so the upside potential is good.

"It costs a lot less to make a high quality game for Xbox Live Arcade or Facebook or iPhone than it does to make a full-on high-def retail game," says Fischer. "That allows me to take more creative risks and bring out games that would be probably too risky for a $60 million investment."

He adds, "There's no better example than Quantum Conundrum. We had it featured out at E3 as a triple-A title, as big as Hitman or Sleeping Dogs. It's garnering as many awards as anyone else's HD retail title.

"This makes me feel really good about where we're headed. These new formats are allowing new creators to come in and actually make games."

He likens the new generation of game developers to those who came up during the home computing boom of the early 1980s. "The ease of access with some of these new platforms is going to bring in a whole new pool of talented people, who up until now couldn't reach the bottom rung of the ladder."

So, despite the misery of falling retail sales, Square Enix is making money, trying new things and feeling positive about the future. "We're doing okay. Remember, we're coming off an unnatural high because Wii was such an success. Guitar Hero and Rock Band were just out of this world. But I think the core businesses remain stable.

"The key for me is to use social, mobile and online to continue to give people a chance to try our games, give Square Enix a more broad-based appeal, and hopefully move those folks up the value chain to more serious games."

[Colin Campbell writes for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @colincampbellx]

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Jorge Ramos
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They could easily start making some money again if they realize that they're still a *GAMING* company first.

As a player, their last few iterations of the Final Fantasy franchise just scream out "stop buying our games! we want to make movies now!" while their movies have all predictably bombed to the point of even making the 2003 Hulk movie look good. The only movie of popular opinion among my circle of friends that did even reasonably well was Advent Children, and even that was because they finally played the fanservice card.

The "new Square" and its direction regarding how they're handling these franchises and properties, is exactly what is killing off everything that was good about the "old Square" - before they merged with Enix. Personally, I haven't liked a single Final Fantasy they've made since the PS2 era started. That's now ten long years of games in a franchise that have been unsatisfactory, much less good or great.

The many, many bad decisions they've made with their properties are assuredly clouding if not overshadowing any good decisions they could make now. It's sad that the most I've got to look forward to, as a player, from the company, is that Steam has apparently taken it upon itself to release a revised, enhanced version of Final Fantasy VII at last for PC, since Squeenix won't do it.

Jorge Ramos
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Uh, no... that's where I will have to disagree with you, Anthony.

FF 1-7 were not perfect or flawless by any means. However, each successive entry during that time tried to outdo the last one. I still have fond memories of FF IV on SNES simply because it was the first RPG that was paced just about perfectly, had memorable boss fights (who can forget the Magus sisters, and the creepy-as-hell dolls boss?), and of the many entries, the only one I managed to complete thoroughly without assistance of a guide book.

FF VII was in many respects the pinnacle, because it played with such a tight focus that many of what I could say are bad points would sound like nitpicking. The materia system - while it took away some of the individuality of characters - was nigh on flawless in execution, and enterprising users with the know-how could effectively create some near-invincible characters and loadouts as a result.

FF X to me, was as much a betrayal of the franchise, as Ultima IX was to the Ultima series. First, you had such an unlikeable cast of characters to the point that it was insulting... Tidus carrying on and on about how it was "his story", when in reality, much of the plot development was on Yuna's trials and what she had to go through in this pilgrimage. Seriously, it's distressing that the only character I could say I honestly liked in the whole game... was dead from the beginning. Secondly, I hated that sphere grid with no hyperbole at all. No character growth tree should be that needlessly complex, ever. Third, the Sphere Grid required an intellect inversely proportional to the respective intellect of the intelligence shown by the characters or the plot. Seriously, the "bad guys" along the way couldn't have been so more outlandishly, cartoonistically evil if they'd just wore t-shirts saying "I'M THE BAD GUY! STAB ME HERE!" with a bullseye painted on their backs. I won't even get into the debacle that was the blitzball minigame, as that made the card-based game in VIII look good by comparison. Further, while FF 4 did have a sense of linearity, in that it was hard not to know where or where not to go, it at least enabled you as a player to explore freely to find out this stuff. FF X felt more on-rails than Starfox on the SNES, and that's saying something.

The worst thing is, I could go on and on, but someone else already seemed to describe the checklist of everything that was wrong with Final Fantasy X; feel free to watch here:
/ it's sad that he sometimes carries on a joke even past the point of where it should be relevant, but it's equally sad that the game justifies it by giving us reasons for the sad joke to carry on.

FF XII just royally betrayed the battle system. And I don't know of anyone who could honestly say they liked XIII, much less XIII-2.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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blah blah blah won't people stop with the typical criticism that applies to some unreal, made up company that exists only in some propaganda fueled alternate reality, notedly from someone who has clearly not played any of the games.

Maybe you didnt like them, because it has happened that FFs have fully reinvented themselves for each installment (from way before the ps2 generation). But there is a great group of people that have.
Personally I think the sphere grid was the best thing to grace J-rpg in the last 15 years. It's deep and directed while allowing to almost endless freedom.
And I feel that ff12's battle system is really visionary and refreshing.

In any case, my advise is that you should read the article before you throw an uninformed comment about it (missing the point entirely). So that you know, this piece is actually about how Square Enix has been winning back an audience and exploring new audiences -OUTSIDE their known franchises-, more as a publisher than a developer.

And kudos for them for refreshing and giving the current market another spin.

So stop beating an imaginary dead horse, please.

Ole Berg Leren
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@Bernardo Del Castillo

You may be interested in this(link below) article on the Sphere Grid System with helpful diagrams and all :) I found it interesting, at least, seeing as I was one of those who thought it was complex. Seeing this, tho, really opened my eyes to what visual presentation can do for a system.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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@Ole Berg Leren

Thats very cool, I do find it quite interesting. However I have never thought the system was complex, I actually find it simple and straight forward, but concept wise its smart.

The thing that I find is that straightened out exposition doesn't display clearly are the cross sections. Level 2 locks for the sphere grid are acquired not too far into the game, and they put that linear structure on it's head. The diagram seems to pick a predefined path for each character, which in practice could be extremely different (at least 2 of those characters I built completely different back in the day)... in the end, you can get to any of the characters from any of the spots in the grid. And as mentioned, the game eventually introduces the option to warp to another space in the grid or another party member's location expanding the options greatly.

What this does is that it enables your characters to be focused but have a gradual flexibility curve (unlike ff12, where in the end most characters would just be everything).

It is very true though, that the presentation is extremely important but those subtleties are what make or break a system. For example, if we look at ff13's similar system, we notice that it is only presentation without those underlying options that were available in FFX, and so it really falls short (making up for it in other areas)...

Very cool analysis though.

Darcy Nelson
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I really loved FFXIII, I thought the battle system was the most fun I'd had in a roleplaying game for years. And since being in combat was like 90% of the game, I really have no complaints.

Also, comparing each Final Fantasy game to others in the series isn't logical and doesn't achieve much. Final Fantasy is not a formula which SquareEnix is trying to tweak with each title in order to create the platonic form of roleplaying game. The games are numbered in succession, but they're not sequels- each entry has radically changed some important aspect of gameplay and I for one think that's great. I mean, some people really honestly hated Final Fantasy 8, but I loved it, and I was glad I got to have that experience- instead of using the same mechanics from the previous title. Love it or hate it, you have to appreciate the desire to innovate and try new things.

Joel Nystrom
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How was DX:HR "effectively a new IP"? I think a huge part of its success comes from its legacy and the fond memories the first game induces. Reviewers certainly know their gaming history, and HR was such a step up from IW it couldn't be viewed as anything other than a success. This leads to high review scores, high review scores leads to sales.