Raising the Bar -- And the Cost
This edition of Disciples of the Pen features another article by Sephrick who looks at the recent history of the Final Fantasy series from a hardware perspective. Sephrick examines how the games have evolved over time, and how Square Enix continues to push the limits of current-gen with their flagship RPG series. Each new installment raises the bar, but at what cost to the players?
Discuss this in the ZAM Forums!
Evolving the Fantasy: Pay to Play
From the full-motion videos of Final Fantasy VII to the in-game aesthetics of it's successor seven installments later, Square-Enix has made it's mark on the gaming world with compelling stories intertwined with stunning graphics.
But, at what cost come those graphics to fans outside the console realm?
In 1997, Square-Enix released Final Fantasy VII – a mainstay for fans in the flagship series and a game filled with firsts for the developer.
Prior to this seventh installment, previous versions featured 2-D graphics with sprites traveling on flat backgrounds. Advancements in technology allowed designers to develop characters shaped by polygons to travel on pre-rendered scenes(1).
IGN(2) wrote: Accordingly, VII stepped off the 2D grid and into a breathtaking 3D world, with fully rendered battles and MIDI sound traded in for Nobuo Uematsu's deeper compositions. Super-deformed avatars roamed the world and field maps and switched to full-scale sprites for battle screens, but all were rendered in three dimensional polygons. VII's production team swelled into the triple digits with dozens of new faces working on 3D software packages the veteran FF team had never heard of before. [...] The size, the scope, the raw passion fueling the entire project swept everyone up. They were coding history, and they knew it.
In 1998, Square-Enix took on the task of porting the new installment for use on a budding gaming market, personal computers. Comparably, one could find a computer to run the game today for less than $300, however in 1998 the cost of witnessing the historic installment was steep.
In order to run Final Fantasy VII, a computer needed a 166 MHz Pentium CPU, 32 megabytes of RAM, the ability to support DirectX 5.1 sound and video, 260 megabytes of hard disc space and at least Windows 95. A set up near those specs, with only half the required RAM, would have cost around $840 (3).
Square-Enix continued this precedent of requiring mid- to high-end hardware with their next ported installment.
A mere two years after the series' PC debut, VIII required a 266 MHz Intel Pentium II CPU, 64 megabytes of RAM, a video card with 4 megabytes of RAM, 300 megabytes of hard drive space, DirectX 6.1 and at least Windows 95. A capable processor was released in May 1997, first hitting the market for $775(6).
The next few installments would not see a PC release. Rather, Final Fantasy IX ushered in the advent of PlayOnline, which was intended to be a source of information for players with access to a PC. Final Fantasy X would not make use of the PlayOnline system, however, Final Fantasy XI – the series' first online installment – would rely heavily on it.
Developed for, and initially released on, the Playstations 2, Final Fantasy XI was Square-Enix's bid into the massively-multiplayer online role playing game market. Between November 2002 and September 2004, XI was released throughout various regions with requirements set at a Pentium III 800 MHz CPU, Windows 2000 or XP, 128 megabytes of RAM, DirectX 8.1, an Nvidia GeForce with 32 megabytes of RAM or an ATI Radeon 9000 or higher and 9.5 gigabytes of free hard drive space. Some of the aforementioned requirements were released to market as recent as 2002, including the ATI Radeon 9000 which ran for $90 to $100 then(4), but can be scooped up today for less than $40(5). The Pentium III 800 was released in 1999 and at the time was estimated to hit shelves at just under $800(7).
Square-Enix would again dip Final Fantasy out of the PC market for it's experimental release X-2 as well as for XII and XIII.
As the release of Final Fantasy XIV – SE's next online installment – draws near, message boards and fan sites are ablaze with questions regarding the developer's choice in hardware requirements and recommendations. From self-building advice to top-of-the-line pre-built rigs, hopeful gamers face spending anywhere from several hundred dollars to more than $1,500 to get the experience of their choosing as SE prepares to release another game on the graphical cutting edge.
However, with this installment marking another first for SE – the first installment designed to be initially released for the PC market – the company shows that it is committed to staying on top of a rapidly changing hardware market. A sign that, for some gamers, there always is a steep price to pay.